Ukraine’s Fragile Identity

(Published in Village Magazine, December 2015)

Ukrainians like to say their country is the largest fully European. That scale is enhanced by a transport infrastructure relying on unwieldy, Soviet-era rail and pot-holed roads beyond a few stretches of motorway as I discovered to my discomfort on a recent trip into eastern Ukraine. Moreover, with average salaries less than €200 per month travel is a rare luxury for most in this profoundly unequal society. In a country of great diversity and relative youth, national identity is fragile.

The depredations of the Soviet era when Ukraine was theoretically an autonomous republic but really an integral part of a vast imperium is apparent in the unforgiving architecture of the cities. In the outskirts of Kiev, as elsewhere, tower blocks loom at heights unknown in Western Europe, and inside the capital concrete edifices sully the splendour of a pre-Revolutionary heritage that includes the UNESCO medieval site of Santa Sophia Cathedral.

The deadening weight of the communist aesthetic recalls the advice of Marxist theorist George Lukács: ‘What is crucial is that reality as it seems to be should be thought of as something man cannot change and its unchangability should have the force of a moral imperative.’ In the long shadow of imposing structures and heroic monuments people would accept the inevitability of the triumph of Communism. Alas, since independence in 1991 the trend has been to replace this with the brash sheen of American capitalism as if honouring the victor in the Cold War and its consumerism.

Obviously architecture was the least of the excesses of Communism in Ukraine. The worst excesses of Stalin’s de-kulakization policy led to their great famine known as Holodomor (1929-1932) which killed anywhere between two and seven million Ukrainians and annihilated the social fabric of village life: either you took a job in a collective or went to a city elsewhere in the Soviet Union. Simultaneously, entire nations, including the Tartars who once occupied Crimea, were forcibly relocated to different parts of the empire. This destruction was compounded by the German invasion in World War II, although Ukrainians had an ambiguous, and in some cases collaborative, relationship with the Nazis during over two years of occupation.

Today in Ukraine most cities in the south and east are Russian-speaking. Parentage is often, unsurprisingly, mixed: a group of young professionals I met to in the city of Dniperpetrovsk revealed ancestry Ukrainian, Russian and even Tartar. All spoke Russian as their first language but considered themselves Ukrainian. Even for the most part religion did not separate Ukrainians from Russians as both followed the Greek Orthodox rite. It begged the question: what does it mean to be Ukrainian beyond living within the borders of that state?

A civic nationalism divorced from the kind of destructive ethnic identification that bedevilled the break-up of Yugoslavia would be least divisive. But the current taste for symbols of Ukrainian identity such as the surge in popularity for traditional dress, might indicate otherwise. Pride in cultural inheritance can easily be skewed towards atavistic violence.

I discovered an increasing despondency among my new-found friends at the capacity of Ukraine’s politicians to bring meaningful improvement to the country. Each revolution, including the latest Euromaidan against the staggering corruption of Victor Yanukovych has brought disappointment. The oligarchs remain dominant including billionaire President Petro Poroshenko, the richest man in the country.

According to a recent report from the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group a desultory one in five cases against high-ranking officials ends with the person being convicted and imprisoned. The aspirations of the young and dynamic quivering at the possibility of joining the European mainstream remain frustrated. Inevitably in some quarters there is nostalgia for a more authoritarian era represented today by Vladimir Putin’s Russia. According to my friends in Dniperpetrovsk the divisions in Ukraine are often generational.

Nearby Donetsk is still controlled by Russian-led insurgents. An unsteady ceasefire has held there since September. There have even been attempts to rehabilitate Stalin – the city was previously called Stalino – a process already occurring in Russia. Nostalgia for the Soviet Empire is being incubated.

Russian aggression feeds extreme Ukrainian nationalism. Military build-ups have pernicious effect wherever they are found. In Kiev an array of tanks are parked outside the foreign ministry and the distinctive grey camouflage of the Ukrainian army now seems a fashion accessory, especially for supporters of the Far Right Svoboda (Truth) party.

An encounter I had with one such character in a Kiev hostel was revealing. When I said I was Irish he exclaimed his admiration for the IRA, and was a little put out to hear that I was no supporter of what he perceived to be another underdog fighting an imperial foe. The fighters against the Russian-led rebels in Donetsk were his heroes.

Ukraine offers huge rewards for Russia. It is an agricultural power house, once the bread basket of the Soviet Union, and today is the world’s fifth largest corn producer and largest producer of sunflower oil. Further, although corruption even extends to the awarding of degrees, its educated population especially in technical disciplines are an important asset.

All nations have their myths that bind disparate groups together inside one state. The complication for Ukraine is that its history is deeply entwined with that of Russia’s. Even the name ‘Rus’ originates in the medieval kingdom with its capital Kiev established by Viking colonists that was gradually Slavicised. Ukrainian identity was forged through contact with neighbouring empires: first the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth that once stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and after the partitions of Poland beginning in the eighteenth century, under the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg Empire which served as a hothouse for numerous nationalist identities, including Zionism and Nazism.

As their language crystallized in a form and with a script different to that of Russian, and poets especially Taras Shevchenko illuminated a national character, nineteenth century nationalists turned to the Cossacks as a distinguishing source of identity. Translated as ‘free man’, Cossacks were bands of escaped serfs that resisted the Catholicism of their Polish landlords and established military settlements along the Dniper and elsewhere in the late middle ages. Their indomitable spirit strikes a chord with modern Ukrainians as can be seen in recreations of their settlements in Dniperpetrovsk’s impressive historical museum. The tragedy for the Cossacks was that after throwing off the shackles of the Polish nobility they succumbed to the Russian Empire which has an obvious contemporary resonance.

Passing through the vast interior, as giant corn fields stretch beyond the horizon, one sees the great possibilities for this country. Meeting the wide-eyed interest of people in world affairs, their knowledge generally beyond that of their Western European counterparts, is a source of optimism; encountering small kindnesses from those with few possessions is touching. But the current system is failing people and the longer that endures the further the already pronounced wealth inequalities will grow, and with that the entrenchment of petty tyrannies.

Membership of the European Union is no panacea for Ukraine. Ensuing emigration could lead to a brain drain of crippling proportions, and a free market could be problematic in some sectors. But equally Europe cannot allow a new Iron Curtain to develop. In the end one senses that Ukraine needs to develop an accommodation with its Russian neighbour with whose fate it is bound.

Recovery from the multiple traumas of the Soviet Union will take time, with luck the country is afforded it. Young Ukrainians need reassurance that their country can be reformed. Countering Lukács: reality as it seems to be should be thought of as something man can change.

Europe’s angry Ukrainian frontier

(Published in Village Magazine, September, 2015)

Crossing from Slovakia into Trans-Carpathian Ukraine a distinct culture comes into view. At the interchange of Çop trains from the West halt on account of different rail gauges used on the other side. Stalin ordered this to prevent ease of entry for invading armies, or escape. Crossing the frontier into the former Soviet Union might instil a little trepidation even into a seasoned traveller.

An illuminating mural in the cavernous train station depicts heroic scenes of triumphant Socialism. Trains that retain wooden benches recall another age. I knew I had left a rapidly converging Europe when the conductor smilingly declined payment after I presented too large a denomination.

I was among three other visitors to Ukraine arriving by train from Slovakia, although a border guard told me frequent car trips are made to avail of cheap petrol. The frustration of waiting on a windowless, stationary carriage – akin to a sardine tin – during a heatwave was offset by the friendliness of custom officials who simply checked for contraband medicines. No visa is required for EU visitors but the continued low level warfare in the far away east is deterring visitors despite a favourable Euro to Hryvnia exchange rate.

Borders are often a legacy of ancient battles or coincide with impassable mountain ranges or rivers that deterred conquest and absorption. A change in topography gives rise to socio-economic boundaries; shifts from upland, semi-nomadic pastoralism to settled arable land bringing larger settlements: different political regimes and ethnic compositions usually arise.

But twentieth century Europe brought more artificial borders imposed by distant remote peace treaties or later omnipotent Superpowers, and saw the decline of multi-ethnic empires. Thus Hungary was reduced from one part of a dual empire (the Austro-Hungarian) to a disgruntled rump that ruefully surveys its over two million ethnic brethren in neighbouring countries. The hated Treaty of Trianon after World War I was affirmed by that country’s alignment with Nazi Germany during World War II. Revanchist Hungary remains a potential source of instability.

There is no obvious difference in terrain between Trans-Carpathian Ukraine and eastern Slovakia, and the region contains a sizeable Hungarian minority. Yet as one travels into the surrounding countryside a different agriculture becomes apparent from the ubiquitous cash crop of maize on the Slovak side to traditional hay stacks in Ukraine gathered as of old with scythe and pitch fork. Since the twentieth century political frontiers have acted like natural boundaries accentuating patterns of development.

In Eastern Europe north of the Balkans, the legacy of Soviet victory in World War II remains largely intact. Apart from the amicable separation of Czech Republic from Slovakia in 1993 the frontiers are unchanged. The recent land grab by Russia of Crimea and incursion of irregular troops into Donetsk may herald a more turbulent phase in European history. Borders rarely shift without an accompanying tide of blood, even more perilous in an era of mutually assured destruction.

The most dramatic legacy of World War II was Poland’s westward shift, forcibly ceding significant territory to the Soviet Union in return for large swathes of eastern Germany. Millions of Poles were removed from their ancestral homes and re-located in the west. Among the territory lost was the historic city of Lviv, (Lvov to Poles) to Ukraine which contained an inter-war population two-thirds Polish. Lviv is now almost entirely Ukrainian although reminders of the Polish period include a statue to their national poet Adam Mickiewicz, who was actually born in Vilnius the capital of Lithuania.

Lvov was annexed by the Austrian Hapsburg Empire (and re-named Lemberg) in 1772, in the first Partition of Poland, becoming capital of Galicia which was the poorest province of the Empire. But this period left a remarkable architectural legacy that prompted UNESCO to designate the historic centre to be a part of “World Heritage”.

Today Lvov is relatively prosperous, drawing a large number of tourists from neighbouring Poland. Predictably the old city is fringed by a swathe of functionalist Soviet-era apartment blocks, but it retains an abundance of old world charm and the hum of cafés that spill onto carless streets. There are nonetheless signs of a country at war with offensive toilet roll featuring a picture of Vladimir Putin available in souvenir shops and stands erected by the Far Right Svoboda Party supporting the war effort.

I spoke to one women of student age who railed against a terrorist, separatist threat to the integrity of the state. She could have been mistaken for someone referring to the existential threat posed by ‘enemies of the people’ in Soviet times. The uncompromising language of extremism is unmistakable.

The demise of the archaic, multinational Hapsburg Empire after World War I might be seen as the death knell for so-called Mitteleuropa. Most successor states that emerged in the Versailles settlement were inspired by a nationalist vision promoting a single culture, and hostile to diversity within the confines of the state. In contrast during the imperial era cities at least were a mosaic of religious and linguistic groups.

The population of ethnically variegated Mitteleuropa was particularly unsuited to the identification of a nation with a single state that reached a violent apotheosis with the Nazi ideology of the master race. Transnational Jewry were the most obvious victims but anti-Semitism was not limited to the Nazis, continuing into the Cold War-era: as late as the 1960s thousands of Jews fled Poland in the wake of various purges.

Jews had flocked to Poland in great numbers at the end of the Middle Ages due to the tolerance shown there compared to the rest of Europe. It became known as paradisus Iudaeorum (paradise for the Jews) and contained two thirds of the continent’s Jewish population. Great centres of learning were establish in cities including Lvov and agrarian settlements known as shtetl that contained many layers of Jewish life dotted the countryside. There Yiddish, a Germanic language written in Hebrew script, found its highest expression.

The writings of Joseph Roth (1894-1939) recalls the extraordinary cultural diversity of the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg Empire. Born a Jew in the city of Brody near Lviv in the province of Galicia, The Radetzky March is a paean to the fallibility of that Empire; his journalistic account of Eastern European Jewry The Wandering Jews remains a valuable insight into the remarkable diversity of the Jewish populace.

Roth despised passing through the numerous frontiers that impeded his passage erected in his lifetime, and that of many others, throughout Europe. He wrote ‘a human life nowadays hangs from a passport as it once used to hang by the fabled thread. The scissors once wielded by the Fates have come into the possession of consulates, embassies and plain clothes men’. The possession of a particular passport at that time was indeed a matter of life or death. A melancholic alcoholic, Roth committed suicide in Paris in 1939 just before the Europe he knew was consumed by the fires of hatred.

The Versailles settlement also created what now seems the curious state of Czechoslovakia, stretching almost a thousand miles from east to west, as a homeland for Czechs, Slovaks and Ukrainians (or Rusyns as they were then known), but also containing large and disgruntled German and Hungarian minorities. In the aftermath of the Munich Agreement of 1938 which dismembered that country, the far eastern province of Ruthenia containing most of that Ukrainian population was annexed by Hungary, but was transferred to Ukraine itself after the arrival of the Red Army in 1945.

The First Czechoslovak Republic was a microcosm of the Hapsburg Empire with republican institutions. Although clearly dominated by its Czech constituent, many of its first leaders such as Thomas Masaryk were socially progressive, and eschewed narrow-minded nationalism. It is perhaps Europe’s tragedy that his vision of a multi-ethnic democratic state did not endure.

The Europe of Joseph Roth and Thomas Masarky was torn asunder by the twin hydras of Nazism and Stalinism. Ironically one of the groups that suffered most was the German populations who were forced out of their ancestral lands across Eastern Europe, many thousands perishing in the process. Europe is the poorer for the homogeneity of many states.

Perhaps the arrival of the idea of a political and cultural Europe might generate a more accommodating reaction to minorities, but unfortunately attitudes in Ukraine suggest the idea of Europe itself can be exclusionary, as if humans feel the need to find an oppositional Other.

This exclusionary idea of Europe is not limited to Ukraine as nearby states also identify enemies within. The Romany people remain a pitiable underclass in most places they live. Latterly migrants fleeing political turmoil in the Middle East have been greeted by barbed wire fences on the Hungarian border. We have yet to reach an epoch when cultural diversity is seen as a boon. It would be tragic if the political idea of a Europe, a response to the conflagrations of the early twentieth century could become the case of further conflict.

(http://www.villagemagazine.ie/index.php/2015/09/europes-angry-ukrainian-frontier/)

Bad Pharma and Farming

(Published in Village Magazine October, 2014)

Review of Missing Microbes: How Killing Bacteria Creates Modern Plagues by Martin Blaser

Oneworld Publications 2014

The overuse of antibiotics in humans and other animals combined with other medical interventions such as Caesarian sections is threatening disastrous consequences according to a new book by Martin Blaser, Professor of Translational Medicine and Director of the Human Microbiome Program at NYU.

These treatments act on bacteria which have colonised every corner of the earth, including our bodies, and have been around for nearly four billion years.

We have 30 trillion human cells of our own, but host more than 100 trillion bacterial and fungal cells. This might lead us to wonder who we really are. Indeed, the evolution of our resident bacteria has probably been just as important as the evolution of our own cells according to Blaser.

The welfare of a person’s microbiome, the collective term for resident bacteria, plays a critical role in their health and the last seventy years has seen a progressive weakening of these crucial organs. Blaser links their impoverishment to the onset of a host of modern plagues including obesity, diabetes, heart-burn and GORD, asthma, a host of allergies, IBS and even autism.

Another problem has been the widespread application of Caesarian sections which deny new born babies vital sources of bacteria available through conventional birth. But according to Blaser the main source of the microbiome’s decline has been the invention and subsequent over-use of antibiotics the force of which Blaser likens to the acquisition of the atomic bomb. Moreover, their over-use in humans and in animal agriculture is giving rise to superbugs such as MRSA that already kill thousands each year.

Moulds were used in Ancient Egypt, China and Central American Indians for centuries to treat infections before Alexander Fleming discovered the anti-bacterial effects of penicillium moulds in 1928. This gave Western medicine access to a life-saving medicine first used on a nurse called Anne Miller in 1942. Antibiotics have saved millions of lives and many surgical procedures would not be possible without them.

However, their use by doctors and dentists has surged in most Western countries to the extent that in most Western countries the average twenty year old has taken almost 20 courses, in many cases unnecessarily. Research in 2012 found antibiotic use in Ireland to be in the mid- to high range in comparison to other EU countries.

The fault does not lie entirely with doctors most of whom are aware of the dangers of over-use. Recent research into their use in Ireland showed that 50% of patients request antibiotics when they visit a doctor with upper respiratory infections (colds and sore throats), an area of over-use identified by Blaser. Embattled general practitioners need more support in terms of patient education to stem this demand.

These infections are mainly caused by viruses which do not respond to antibiotics, but the problem is that a throat may already be colonised by bacteria that is not causing the disease.

Usually the reason doctors reflexively prescribe antiobiotics for sore throats is out fear of rheumatic fever which typically occurs two or three weeks after an untreated strep infection and can be fatal.

According to Blaser: ‘Before antibiotics, about one child in three hundred with a strep infection developed rheumatic fever or, if the strep strains were very ‘hot’, one in thirty. Nowadays doctors prescribe an antibiotic for strep throat not to shorten the duration of the infection, because it doesn’t much, but to ward off rheumatic fever.’

He asserts that: ‘Until doctors can readily distinguish viral from bacterial throat infections, they will always follow the safer course.’ He also acknowledges they are pressed for time and fearful of being sued.

Another problem lies with the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture. Just as in humans, untreatable bacterial infections are emerging in farm animals and these are passing the species barrier into human populations.

Often farmers use antibiotics not to treat disease but in order for these animals to grow more quickly. The practice of using sub-therapeutic doses is now banned in the EU but the law is not enforced.

The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine does not collect data on antibiotic usage on Irish farms, and according to research by Ella McSweeney antibiotic sales for large animals in Ireland is increasing.

Antibiotics cause the same weight gain in humans. Blaser connects their over-use to the obesity pandemic with compelling evidence from his laboratory experiments, and this is born out in studies showing obese individuals to have far less of a range of bacterial strains compared to individuals of normal weight. An NHS study the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children showed that children who received antibiotics in the first six months of life were likely to have a higher body mass index.

Controversially Blaser hypothesises a link with autism the incidence of which appears to have risen considerably since the development of antibiotics. Today one in sixty-five children is diagnosed as autistic or on the spectrum, a condition that was only identified in 1943. Many of the microbes in the gut also make chemicals that the developing brain needs to function normally and these are being compromised by over-use of antibiotics. That there should be crucial interactions is perhaps unsurprising considering there are as many neurons in our guts as our brains.

Today most bacterial infections are treated with broad-spectrum antibiotics. According to Blaser: ‘It is not profitable for companies to go to the trouble and enormous expense of developing new antibiotics’. Targeted antibiotics only applicable in a small number of cases make little sense for companies concerned by their bottom line.

Fundamental to the understanding of our relationship with bacteria is the concept of amphibiosis: ‘the condition in which two life-forms create relationships that are either symbiotic or parasitic, depending on the context’.

This is apparent in the case of a bacterial strain called Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) which has been discovered in our stomachs, and which Blaser has spent much of his research career pursuing.

In 1982 two Australian doctors Dr Robert Warren and Dr Barry Marshall won a Nobel prize for showing for the first time that ulcers could be treated with antibiotics that removed H. pylori. Later it was discovered that individuals with H. pylori were also susceptible to stomach cancer. This led to all out war against a strain that was already declining due to increased sanitation.

But H. pylori performs other roles in our bodies. According to Blaser: ‘it appears that H. pylori is having some general effect on immunity, on people’s ability to turn off an allergic response’: this may explain the increasing incidences of potentially fatal food allergies. It also controls the regulation of the hormones ghrelin and leptin which are both produced in the stomach and are involved in the storage and use of energy. Meaning those without it are often more susceptible to obesity.

Having H. pylori in our stomachs increases the risk of stomach cancer but this is only likely to arise in our 70s or 80s, while we may be losing its beneficial effects for most of our lifetimes. That is amphibiosis in action. Adopting lifestyle changes especially refraining from consumption of red and processed meat would make far more sense.

According to recent studies normal individuals have lost 15-40 percent of their microbial diversity. Blaser warns that: ‘unless we are change our ways we are facing an antibiotic winter … a worldwide plague that we cannot stop’. The problem is not only with the potential for super bugs but also ‘a degraded ecosystem’ could make it more difficult for us to stave off infection.

But Blaser shows that there are ways in which we can begin to recover lost ground. Doctors can be far more selective in their use armed with rapid tests enabling them to sample blood, sputum, exhaled air or urine to look for the chemical signature of particular organisms, and pharmaceutical companies could be compelled to develop more targeted antibiotics. Governments, including our own, can be far more rigorous in ensuring that antibiotics are not used as growth-promoters in animal agriculture.

Moreover, a raft of new treatments enhancing our microbiome could be introduced, including the development of targeted prebiotics and probiotics, and the transfer of bacterial strains between individuals.

Unfortunately Blaser does not give significant attention to the extent to which diet can help our resistance to disease and enhance the health of the microbiome, especially through consumption of fermented foods.

Just like the development of nuclear energy, the development of antibiotics presented humans with astonishing power, which alas they have mishandled. There is sufficient time for this technology to be recovered and for it to be used only in circumstances when it works to our benefit. In the meantime our microbiome will suffer and so will we.

(http://www.villagemagazine.ie/index.php/2014/12/biome/)

Between Music and Prose

(Published in Village Magazine, April 2015)

In her recent Michael Littleton lecture for RTE ‘Has Poetry a Future?’ Eavan Boland identifies the ‘vertical’ audience it has enjoyed through history. Many hallowed poets, such as Keats, did not find a public in their own time but their words may echo across the ages unlike other forms of culture which may have a short-lived or ‘horizontal’ appeal. She argued that those who assert poetry’s present irrelevance are hopelessly myopic.

In a recent book of prose essays: Say But The Word: Poetry as Vision and Voice leading Irish poet Micheal O’Siadhail also explores the point of poetry. He writes: ‘The role of poetry is often seen as that of guardian of a language. However I would like to extend this somewhat to include the more dynamic concept of an ecology, which stresses both a mutual responsibility and a continuing process of renewal.’ Poets assert authenticity in the languages of the dynamic societies they inhabit.

O’Siadhail identifies a confluence of the language of heart and mind in poetry that serves as a refuge from daily corruptions where: ‘our core words – ‘motherhood’, for example – are daily exploited and polluted to tempt us to consume.’

Even if poetry is not overtly political it may still perform a vital role in creating a dissonance that subtly subverts power structures. O’Siadhail quotes Vaclav Havel from An Anatomy of Reticence approvingly: ‘even a word is capable of a certain radiation, of leaving a mark on the “hidden consciousness” of a community …. it is vital that we remind ourselves that whether there is a visible political content or not is irrelevant. At a much more fundamental level, any poet who unswervingly pursues an artistic truth, is potentially political.’ Under Communism in Czechoslovakia poets like Havel resisted a totalitarian regime by bending the language of authority. O’Siadhail wonders ‘whether Osip Mandelstam did know what he was talking about when he said that he measured a civilization by the number of its poetry readers’.

But O’Siadhail does identify a danger lest Modernist poets such as Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot have indeed developed a self-absorbed and potentially redundant poetry. He explains: ‘The clear danger of this interiority is an opting out of society and a refusal to take any responsibility for shaping a wider meaning. Apart from the risk of solipsism and plain self-indulgence, there is the risk of turning poetry into a kind of private piety, which ends up marginalising poetry or branding it as some kind of academic pursuit not appropriate to the ordinary reader of books’.

A further question to ponder is whether contemporary poetry should be embraced at the expense of the old: most obviously in the secondary school syllabus. Should teenagers be asked to engage with and perhaps recite older poems if the subject matter seems remote to their experiences, and even if the views of a poet would seem outmoded in the science classroom next door?

Seen through the lens of its ‘vertical’ influence, educators should be hesitant to alter the canon in the interest of inclusiveness, or of according a rapid recognition to poets who have attained popularity in their lifetimes. Engaging with old masters might give students a better sense of the contingency of established ideas.

Unfortunately this gives rise to gender imbalance, but there is little point including unremarkable poetry for the sake of political correctness. Moreover a more nuanced view of gender might allow us to identify a feminine voice in any verse notwithstanding its author. Poetry is more than a personal undertaking but a common inheritance of a language. O’Siadhail quotes Edward Sapir who wrote in 1921: ‘Every language is itself a collective art of expression … An artist utilises the native esthetic resources of his speech. He may be thankful if the given palette of colours is rich, if the springboard is light. But he deserves no special credit for felicities that are the language’s own.’

Boland’s distinction between the vertical and horizontal might also apply over the course of an individual’s lifetime: when he first encounters a poem a student might find little beyond conjunctions of words with a musical ring to them but over the course of a lifetime they may begin to inhabit the ideas expressed. In that sense the old method of teaching poetry as an oral form where lines are learnt by heart to be recalled in future seems worthwhile.

Reflection on the work, a child’s search for meaning, might then be conducted in a more personalised, instinctive, way as opposed to developing an understanding for the sake of an examination demanding the often cynical obligation to deconstruct.

In this collection that spans many years of reflection, O’Siadhail, an intensely gifted poet, addresses the tension between form and content laying bare his artistic process with great clarity. He examines the workings and appeal of the sonnet, the haiku, of Dante’s terza rima and the free form of the Black Mountain Poets and Beats.

Ultimately O’Siadhail does not assert the superiority of any one among them, stating: ‘My own feeling is that both the howls of the Beats and the ‘open field’ of the Black Mountain Poets may have done us all a great service on both sides of the Atlantic. It may have been necessary for a while to move away from the perceived stuffiness of formality, to leave the stanza behind and to give free rein to a line based more on breath and utterance. He concludes that: ‘the use of form is now a matter of choice … It is like a move from an arranged marriage to a life of voluntary commitment.’

As a poet trained in linguistics he offers rare insights into the archaeology of languages and the challenge of translation. He quotes Dante who declared that ‘nothing harmonised by a musical bond can be transmuted from its own speech without losing all its sweetness and harmony’; although adding that: ‘For all the well-known dictums about the failure of all translations, from time to time the magic happens and the meaning and form combine in English to catch the wonder and spirit of a poem’.

As a linguist he draws from a rich array of sounds and meanings and is unhesitant about using them in his verse. He writes: ‘It is by no means necessary for a poet to be aware of the dynamic layers of language rules and developments, no more than a musician need be a mathematician or a sculptor a geologist. Yet is fascinates.’

He also explores the inspiration for his work: ‘I never know what it is that chooses the form. Sometimes it is the donné, the line that comes from nowhere as a surprise and offers a rhythm and pattern.’ The sonnet feels appropriate when he is ‘multiply overwhelmed’ in the words of his long-time intellectual interlocutor and one of the editors of this volume theologian David F. Ford.

O’Siadhail does not identify an explicitly religious dimension to his work, although his affection for the poetry of George Herbert is revealing and he quotes Patrick Kavanagh approvingly to the effect that: ‘poetry has to do with the reality of the spirit of faith and hope and sometimes even charity. It is a point of view. A poet is a theologian.’

Another subject that O’Siadhail explores is the relationship between poetry and music. Regarding the latter he remarks slightly dismissively: ‘I remember how surprised I was, when I took lessons in classical harmony, at how mathematical and arithmetic it seemed.’ He situates poetry ‘in the middle of a spectrum, which stretches between music and prose. The pulse and delight of rhythm, the varied pitch of a sentence and the sheer bodily sound of ‘voluptuous words’ have many of the physical qualities of music’.

But poetry also encompasses ‘the dimension of the concept and metaphor which music evades. The endless intrigues, the delights, the insistences and inadequacies of language, the vagaries of words.’

Unfortunately O’Siadhail does not discuss the merit or otherwise of balladeers who have for long used language in song to convey emotions and ideas. Certainly it is through the lyrics of songs that most people encounter poetry today. Admittedly the extensive horizontal audience of a crooner like Hozier seems likely to fade away but others such as Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan may enjoy that cherished vertical audience. A question to pursue might be whether music enhances the linguistic content of poetry and vi-se-versa?

In this respect it is revealing that the same word in Old English was used for song and poem: leoð; another word they used was giedd, which means ‘riddle, poem, tale, song’.

Finally, O’Siadhail engages with poets he admires or have exerted an influence on him. In one particularly stimulating essay he compares the respective oeuvres of W.B. Yeats and Rilke.

He regards Yeats as ‘the absolute master of the sonorous line that drums into our memory. No poet, in any language that I know, can compare with him for this reverberating tone that he had right from very early on’. But he says that the poems of Rilke ‘are for me even more memorable that those of Yeats. The pitch of intensity is achieved not along the battlements of argument but rather by the firm, suggestive yet gentle tone of a friend who insists we never lost sight of ultimate meaning’.

O’Siadhail is appalled by the politics of Yeats who dabbled in fascism and eugenics. He says: ‘for all the outstanding gifts of the great master of sound, he remains at heart an escape artist, a lover of might-have-beens, of imagined grandeurs, of vast theories and myths.’ But this seems an overly harsh commentary on Yeats whose politics shifted considerably over the course of his lifetime. We need not excuse his flirtation with fascism but it should be viewed in the context of an inter-war era when competing ideologies held sway and without the hindsight of the genocides that followed. A poet with such a vast body of work as Yeats and who brought such jarring honesty to his work might be forgiven for some excesses.

He also explores the poetry George Herbert, Samuel Beckett, Denise Levertov, Kavanagh and Mary O’Donnell who he magnanimously declares to be the outstanding poet of her generation.

In O’Siadhail’s view poetry will continue to be a vital aspect of our culture and poets will always be confronted by the ‘terrible inadequacy of words – always falling short of desire. The ungraspable joy, the un-communicable sorrow. And even here there is another paradox. The drift and shortcomings of language. This causes us to fail again and again and also urges us to begin afresh, poem after poem, generation after generation.’ Or to quote Samuel Beckett: ‘fail again fail better’.

(http://www.villagemagazine.ie/index.php/2015/05/between-music-and-prose/)

 

A Czech in Ireland (longer version)

(Unpublished, 2016)

The Irish Free State avoided most of the depredations of World War II. There were casualties from a few bombing raid and Belfast suffered grievously but the Emergency is mostly remembered for insufficient white bread and Eamon de Valera’s visit to the German embassy with a letter of condolence on the death of Adolf Hitler.

Moreover, in an era before mass aviation refugees found it difficult to travel to Ireland and the authorities issued few visas either before or after the war. There were notable exceptions such as the Viennese couple Edward and Lisl Strunz who ran The Unicorn Restaurant for many years.

Another refugee from the period was Denis Scrivener (née Zdenek Skrivenek) who first escaped to London from his native Czechoslovakia in 1939 on the eve of the World War II. He returned home in 1945 but felt compelled to leave permanently in 1949, this time moving to Ireland accompanied by an Irish wife Nan Keating and their young daughter Maria. After overcoming significant adversity in his adopted country he became a successful businessman, setting up Farmhand that employed up to fifty people.

Scrivener’s story is recorded in a self-published book from 1991: The Skrivaneks and the Scriveners (A Czech in Ireland). Written with clarity and honesty, it offers a touching insight into the human toll of seismic political events: first the German invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939 only months after Neville Chamberlain’s notorious Munich Agreement with Hitler that promised ‘peace in our time’, and handed the country over to the Nazis without a bullet being fired; then a Communist dictatorship that followed World War II and lasted until 1989.

Denis’s father was a furrier and during the inter war years ran a successful shop in the centre of Prague. He led a privileged existence with summer trips to the French Riviera and displayed an abiding interest in the opposite sex to the understandable irritation of Denis’s mother. She had lost her first husband in the First World War although she had a child, Lilly, by him, six years older than Denis the only child from the second marriage. From his account it seems Denis enjoyed a rather idyllic childhood animated by winter sports and cultural visits to surrounding countries.

Denis’s parents met in his mother’s native Vienna but settled in his father’s homeland: the new state of Czechoslovakia, born after World War I, which prospered under the liberal guidance of Thomas Masaryk who was president from 1919 until his death in 1935.

Denis escaped to London in 1939 before the German invasion but his remaining family harboured a secret that would prove fatal to some of them. Although officially Roman Catholic Denis’s mother was Jewish by ancestry. In liberal inter-war Czechoslovakia that did not appear to be of any consequence. Denis recalls that: ‘One of the pleasant aspect of living in Czechoslovakia at the time was that you never really knew what religion the other person had, child or adult, and more importantly didn’t care.’

That changed abruptly when the Germans invaded. If the Nazis discovered that Denis’s father was married to a Jew he too would have been considered one under their race laws. Denis asserts that: ‘if my father’s character had been less strong than it was then his infatuation with another woman could have caused a premature and tragic end to my mother’s life. Not an exaggeration to say this, merely a reflection on the realities of the time.’

His father did not succumb to that temptation despite his wife discovering at least one of his infidelities and being in Denis’s estimation ‘a rather difficult wife to live with’: albeit her husband’s conduct might have explained any irascibility.

Alas Denis’s sister Lilly was not so fortunate. She and her two children Inuska and Tomicek were sent to Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1941. Here, remarkably, she re-married and the family survived for two years in no small part down to the influence of Mr Skrivenek who from outside procured extra rations for his step-daughter’s family. But alas Lily, her two children and husband Kuba were all transported to Auschwitz and murdered in 1943, a fate that befell most of Denis’s Jewish relations.

During the occupation Denis’s parents were also incarcerated by the Nazi authorities, and even subjected to solitary confinement, for a period of ten months. Miraculously his mother’s Jewish background was not exposed. This came about because they were denounced to the Gestapo for currency fraud by Denis’s mother’s own sister, who had moved to New York before the war. She informed on them because some of her property had not been sent to her. It reveals his mother’s attachment to her family that she could overlook this treachery to the extent that for a time in the late 1960s they would even live together in Dublin.

In 1939 Denis had escaped on one of the last trains out of the country. At the British border controls in the Netherlands what helped him through without a visa was a good knowledge of English learnt at the English Grammar School in Prague. But for that he might have suffered the fate of the failed applicants who he observed being beaten up by the Dutch police and bundled on a train back into the jaws of Nazi Germany.

Denis worked various jobs on arrival in wartime Britain. He found employment in a munitions factory in what he considered the dowdy town of Warrington where willingness to work long hours for extra pay brought friction with the union that felt this showed his fellow workers in a bad light. But he mainly lived in London where he became a waiter in The Dorchester serving, among others, Winston Churchill and the exiled King Peter of Yugoslavia. It was then that he met and fell in love with a Tipperary nurse Nan Keating. They married in 1943 in London.

But their honeymoon was a hurried weekend in Southend-on-Sea as Denis had by then volunteered for the Free Czech Army. He joined a tank regiment and was soon acting as an instructor. He paints a bleak picture of army life that recalls episodes from the great anti-war Czech novel The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek. He admits that life ‘for many months was difficult to endure’, as he encountered bullying officers and dreadful food. Denis’s regiment arrived in France two weeks after the D-Day landings in 1944.

As the Americans and British armies swept through Western Europe Denis’s regiment stayed put containing German forces in Dunkirk. They sustained considerable casualties from artillery bombardment but Denis emerge unscathed. Through his eyes we see the misery and filth of war and how simply surviving from one day to the next becomes an overriding objective. At least with a keen eye for a profit margin, that would serve him well in later years, he enhanced his paltry allowance by selling his cigarette rations at a substantial mark-up to the liberated French.

Germany surrendered unconditionally on May 8th 1945 and at last he returned to Czechoslovakia in the wake of American forces in 1945 who halted in Pilsen to allow Soviet forces liberate Prague. Now within 100km of his native city Denis resolved to make his way there before he had leave to do so.

Travelling by motorbike terrible thoughts ran through his mind. He had had no contact with his family for six years and the Jewish Holocaust was being revealed. At his parents pre-war apartment he found no sign of their names on the residents’ list outside. His heart sank but at last he found out from a neighbour that their plush pre-war residence had been commandeered by the invaders. They had moved to an inferior flat, but it seemed they were alive.

When his mother opened the door to him she promptly fainted, but soon recovered and was delighted to hear of his marriage. His father, typically, asked whether his wife had good legs. Only later did Dennis learn of his sister’s fate, her family’s, and many others. He managed to re-join his regiment without repercussions and soon returned to Prague to resume his pre-war employment in his father’s firm.

Nan Keating arrived in Prague after some months on a British aeroplane. The couple found a stylish apartment on Wencelas Square in the heart of Prague’s Old Town and the joviality of the inter-war years seemed to be returning. For some time the young couple were able to soak up Prague’s alluring night life. Soon a first child, Maria, was born and Nan, who had already acquired some Czech in London, was learning about Czech cuisine under the critical gaze of her not always helpful mother-in-law. But that pleasant interlude would not last long as Nazi tyranny was quickly followed by Communist dictatorship.

The Communist party was well supported in pre-war Czechoslovakia and had been to the fore in opposition to the Nazis. In 1947 elections the party won over 30% of the vote and led a coalition government. But the country was effectively left to the Soviet Union by the Western Powers as it had been to the Nazis in the Munich Agreement of 1938.

This became apparent when often unruly Russian soldiers began to flood the city. Denis recalls how they became: ‘more evident around Prague and their chief leisure occupation became the stealing of motorbikes, robbing people of watches and molesting our women who didn’t have to be young or pretty to attract their unwelcome attraction.’

His anxiety grew as the Communists gradually asserted total power expelling other parties from the government. His tipping point was the apparent suicide in 1948 of the one non-Communist member of the government, foreign minister Jan Masaryk, the son of the Tomas Masaryk. A police investigation in the 1990s concluded that he was thrown from his balcony in the foreign ministry.

Denis resolved to emigrate to his wife’s country which he had never visited, though he did consider returning to London which Nan would have preferred. He regarded Ireland as: ‘a more romantic kind of choice with something of an adventure attached’. Unfortunately adventurous and romantic choices do not necessarily make for an easy life.

Their mind was made up when a visa arrived from the Irish Department of Justice and they were on their way to Ireland just after Eamon de Valera left office after sixteen years in power. The thrusting, cosmopolitan Czech was in for a testing period when he arrived in the economically-stagnant and inward-looking Ireland of the 1950s.

The first port of call was the family farm in Powerstown, County Tipperary which at the time had no electricity or running water. Denis arrived first with his daughter, the three year old Maria, who stubbornly refused to speak English despite being brought up bi-lingually. Nan soon followed.

The problem for Dennis was that for all his business acumen he arrived without a regular trade or profession and the furrier business wasn’t booming in post-war Ireland. He hatched a number of schemes from importing biros to manufacturing toys but for much of the 1950s he was forced into long hours of unrewarding and often menial labour.

Along the way he was treated abysmally by a number of employers as he struggled to support a growing family that would soon include a son John and another daughter Cathy. He endured a particularly unpleasant episode under the employment of one Cork businessman who forced him into hard labour with the promise that he would be given a motor car sales franchise in Dublin. He bitterly recalls that this was ‘my first Irish experience of being let down in a major way, to be followed, over the years, by many others.’ He reckons that ‘there was no question that as a foreigner I was severely discriminated against. But at least Denis exacted a measure of revenge against that businessman in the courts.

Through hard work and persistence Denis slowly made his way by becoming a skilled salesman of tractors in the era of the Massey Ferguson. He says that: ‘working in my father’s business taught me quite a bit about how to create the desire in a prospective customer, how to present my product in a way that would meet his expectations and how to close the sale.’

Dennis’s methods included keeping a file on all prospective clients that would allow him to ask about the wellbeing of a son in America or how the farm’s side line in potatoes was doing. Within a few years these skills brought rewards and he eventually launched his own company which he called Farmhand, an enterprise that survives today.

He concludes: ‘Ireland had been kind to me but dreadfully slow in allowing me to establish myself. Not only that it also gave me a number of hefty “kicks in the teeth” in that tedious and long process.’ But he retained an affection for the country and even after he had handed over Farmhand to his son John and spent a few years in the UK and Canada he decided to return to live out his final years in his adopted country.

It is revealing that Denis should recall one particular episode from this childhood. An older boy, unknown to him or his friends, noticed the commotion and asked Denis if he would like to be shown how to perform a figure of eight. Denis was delighted at the prospect and handed over the bike. The boy performed the stunt and promptly cycled off on his new bike. Denis’s life was punctuated by loss, material and otherwise, and he encountered a few con-men along the way but he would work hard to restore his fortunes.

His account shows what life was like for an ordinary person living through terrible times and finding a sanctuary of sorts in a remote country where he struggled to make his way. On an epic journey he encountered all sides of the human character and confronted sustained adversity making him a remarkably resourceful individual but perhaps the constant striving left him a troubled man too. The drive that brought him such success left little time for family life and it might come as no surprise that Nan and he separated after he became successful.

His survival instincts are an inspiration to anyone who finds themselves in a new country. It is also a tale for our time as we see millions of refugees passing through Europe once again. His example suggests that those wishing to enter Europe will also offer a dynamism and hard work ethic to their host societies.

A Czech in Ireland

(Published in the Irish Times 5/4/16)

Seventy years ago in 1946 the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia emerged as the largest political party in free elections forming a coalition government with the support of smaller parties. By that time Denis Scrivener (nee Zdenek Skrivenek) had returned to Prague with his new Irish wife Nan Keating. But the Communist Party soon became a tool of the Soviet Union and a dictatorship followed for over forty years.

Denis had survived war-time exile in Britain where he met Nan and joined up with the Free Czech Army, crossing the channel just after D-Day in 1944 and seeing action around Dunkirk. His remarkable story and subsequent life in Ireland is recounted in a self-published book from 1991: The Skrivaneks and the Scriveners (A Czech in Ireland).

The half-Jewish Denis had already endured the murder of his sister and her two children in the Holocaust along with numerous other family members. Now demobilised he observed unruly Russian soldiers flooding into Prague. He recalls how their chief leisure occupation: ‘became the stealing of motorbikes, robbing people of watches and molesting our women who didn’t have to be young or pretty to attract their unwelcome attraction.’

Denis had returned to work in his father’s successful furrier business and he and Nan were living on Wenceslas Square in the heart of the city. By that stage Nan had learnt Czech and together they enjoyed a lightness that settled briefly over Prague before the unhappy tide of history washed through once more.

A daughter, Maria, was born but Denis’s anxiety was growing over what was happening as the Communists asserted total power by expelling other parties from the coalition.

He made up his mind after the apparent suicide in 1948 of the one non-Communist member of the government, foreign minister Jan Masaryk, son of Tomas Masaryk the founding father of Czechoslovakia. A police investigation in the 1990s concluded that he was thrown from his balcony in the ministry.

Denis resolved to live in his wife’s country which he had never visited, though Nan would have preferred a return to London. He regarded Ireland as: ‘a more romantic kind of choice with something of an adventure attached’. Their minds were made up when an Irish visa arrived from the Department of Justice.

The first port of call was the family farm in Powerstown, County Tipperary which at the time had no electricity or running water. Dennis arrived first with his daughter Maria who initially refused to speak English despite being brought up bi-lingually. Nan followed soon.

In time Denis would become a successful entrepreneur but along the way he was treated abysmally by a number of employers as he struggled to support a growing family that would soon include a son John and another daughter Cathy.

He endured a particularly unpleasant experience with one Cork businessman who tricked him into hard labour with the promise of a Dublin franchise. He recalls that this was ‘my first Irish experience of being let down in a major way, to be followed, over the years, by many others.’ He reckons that ‘there was no question that as a foreigner I was severely discriminated against.’

At last Denis became a salesman of tractors in the era of the Massey Ferguson. He says that: ‘working in my father’s business taught me quite a bit about how to create the desire in a prospective customer, how to present my product in a way that would meet his expectations and how to close the sale.’

Denis’s methods included keeping a file on all prospective clients that would allow him to ask about the wellbeing of a son in America or how the farm’s side line in potatoes was doing. In 1962 he launched his own company Farmhand, an enterprise that survives today. He concludes: ‘Ireland had been kind to me but dreadfully slow in allowing me to establish myself. Not only that it also gave me a number of hefty “kicks in the teeth” in that tedious and long process.’

Denis’s survival instincts are an inspiration to anyone who finds themselves in a new country, as I do now in Prague on a romantic journey in the opposite direction. It is also a tale for our time as we see millions of refugees passing through Europe once again. His example illustrates how migrants often bring a hard work ethic and dynamism to their host societies.

(http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/an-irishman-s-diary-about-denis-scrivener-an-enterprising-czech-in-ireland-1.2597944)

Confronting Putin

(Version published in Village Magazine, March, 2016)

As we know well in Ireland filthy lucre is one of man’s greatest temptations. In the venal world of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot (1869), virtually all of the characters apart from the Prince and Nastassya Filippovna succumb to greed. Ganya is willing to do almost anything in his passion for money – even marry someone he despises and of whom his family disapproves. General Ivolgin desires money to support his addiction to alcohol and to allow him to spend time with his mistress. Lebedev is willing to put his hands into a fireplace to retrieve a package with 100,000 roubles inside that Nastassya Filippovna discards.

No one pays attention to Myshkin, the Idiot, until his inheritance is revealed; afterwards, he is surrounded by claimants who desire his money. In the society of The Idiot, money not only creates one’s fortune it also obtains one a bride. ‘Bids’ for Nastassya Filippovna range from 75,000 roubles to 100,000 to over a million. Money, then, is a clear symbol of the perversion of human values in the novel.

Russia fell into a similar stupor at the end of the Cold War when excessive wealth corrupted Russian politics with Boris Yeltsin cast in the role of the Idiot, his powers declining in a haze of vodka as the plot unfolds. It was in this den of iniquities that Vladimir Putin rose to power, the former KGB officer emerging from obscurity to become prime minister and then being elected President in 2000 when Yeltsin finally lost his reason.

More sinisterly, it has been alleged that, presumably under the direction of Putin, the Russian secret services, the FSB, bombed apartment blocks in Moscow in 1999 killing almost three hundred people and pinning the blame on Chechnyan separatists. In any event, Putin was able to use the war in Chechnya to good propagandistic effect and secure the public attention to carry him to power.

Such calumny might have appeared in another of Dostoevsky’s extraordinary novels Devils (1872). Towards the end one of the conspirators Lyamshin is put on trial and asked ‘Why so many murders, scandals and outrages committed?’ He responds that it was to promote: ‘the systematic undermining of every foundation, the systematic destruction of society and all its principles; to demoralize everyone and make hodge-podge of everything, and then, when society was on the point of collapse – sick, depressed, cynical and sceptical, but still with a perpetual desire for some kind of guiding principle and for self-preservation – suddenly to gain control of it.’

Confronting a ruthless interlocutor such as Russian President Vladimir Putin is the greatest foreign policy challenge that Europe has faced since the end of the Cold War. The approach needs to be conditioned by awareness that he was an operative ‘with a lowered sense of danger’, according to the analysis of his former KGB employers. Last year he remarked: ‘fifty years ago, the streets of Leningrad taught me that if a fight is inevitable, you have to hit first.’

But in order to act out his violent fantasies, a perceived affront is required. Pretexts for violence must be avoided. In particular Putin must be given no excuse for further intervention in Ukraine which is treated as a domestic concern, indissoluble from Russia: Putin views the former territory of the Soviet Union as Russia’s inheritance and crucial to her security. The Union thus must manage the difficult task helping where possible the Ukrainian people to overcome the endemic corruption there without giving the impression they are seeking to expand into its territory.

Last September Putin shocked the world by weighing into the Syrian conflict with air strikes against rebel-held targets. Controversially the primary targets did not seem to be ISIL. An article in Time magazine (9/15) by Timothy Snyder argued that the motivation for Russia’s intervention in Syria was to turn Europe into a ‘refugee factory’, compelled to accommodate many more beleaguered victims than have already arrived. This is based on the credible assessment that the he views the stability of the European Union as a threat to Russia.

More likely Putin wishes to bolster a client authoritarian regime in the Middle East and play to a growing anti-Islamic gallery in Europe. He appeals to the populations of former Communist states of Eastern Europe where a largely hostile response to the refugee crisis (as witnessed by the election victory of the anti-refugee Law and Justice Party in Poland) has been in stark contrast to the popular outpouring of generosity witnessed in many Western European countries.

Putin now engages in doublespeak of an order that his carefully crafted public utterances should not be trusted. In dealing with Syria he argues that its sovereignty including territorial integrity should be respected yet he flagrantly ignored that principle when annexing the Crimea from Ukraine and fomenting rebellion in Donetsk, a conflict that has now created 2 million refugees. But however repugnant that conduct his continued hold over power in Russia looks assured.

This is despite the Russian economy enduring a collapse in the price of oil and European sanctions: it is running an unsustainable budget deficit of almost 5%. Soon a key threshold will be reached where over 50% of an average income is spent food. But a popular narrative of withstanding adversity for the sake of the greatness of mother Russia allows him to persevere with a policy of economic autarky. Sanctions could actually have the effect of bolstering his power, as occurred in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Pre-emptive support for the Euromaidan revolution in Ukraine by the European Union may have contributed to Russian intervention. Putin withstood Moscow street protests against his rule in 2011 and the overthrow of Victor Yanukovych’s government in Ukraine was viewed as a potential inspiration to his domestic opponents. But European leaders were too gung-ho in their offer of European Union membership and actually inflamed the situation giving the Putin the pretext to intervene in Crimea and Donbass.

In the face of the danger posed by Putin we must hope that Europe retains its cohesion. Among the important global objectives the Europe Union should pursue is repairing the damage to international law caused by the illegal US –led invasion of Iraq. This represented a new departure in international relations and the current anarchy has given Putin an opportunity to intervene in other states.

We should also refrain from imposing lazy historical analysis in our assessment of Putin. He is not ‘the new Hitler’ against whom ‘appeasement’ is misguided. The challenge Putin’s Russia poses to Europe and global peace and development is unique. Moreover, viewing Ukraine as a zero sum game between Europe and Russia is mistaken. The development of Ukraine will be a slow process and does not have to be contrary to Russian interests. The connections between Russia and Ukraine are deep and should be acknowledged.

Rather than projecting European power eastwards, the Union needs to focus on ensuring that the increasing cleavage caused by migration and austerity between European states of the periphery and the core are not accentuated. Keeping the European house in order is the best way to confront Putin. We hope that the Brexit palaver does not have a disruptive effect on the rest of the Union.

More worrying perhaps are relations between Turkey and Russia between whom a proxy war is developing in Syria. It remains to be seen whether the shooting down of a Russian aircraft over Turkish aerospace in November was the first shot fired in a more generalised conflict. Presumably Turkey’s membership of NATO will deter Putin but the hotheads in Ankara could be emboldened.

There seems to be a complacency on both the right and left in Europe regarding the endurance of peace in perpetuity. The idea of Mutually Assured Destruction is supposed to make wars between nuclear states an impossibility but that is no more than an assumption. The European Community was born as a peace process after 30 years of horrific wars, and has contained the destructive force of nationalism. The Union may have significant faults but needs to hold fast in the face of external threats. We must hope that the prospect of Brexit will not lead the Union to unravel and give Putin the freedom to act as chooses.

(http://www.villagemagazine.ie/index.php/2016/04/put-in-perspective/)

Informing Beauty

(Published in The London Magazine, February-March 2016)

Once in a while you read a book that sets off an electric charge inside you. Usually it coheres with your unconscious ideas, a feeling quite distinct from reading a thriller whose pages you devour with unfocused gusto. This you ingest in measured spoonfuls, allowing its content to echo in your pallet. Fittingly perhaps, I spent much of that encounter with Kathleen Raine’s Defending Ancient Springs bedding down in an unelectrified apartment in Lisbon’s Bairro Alfama.

Prior to reading Raine I had been cultivating a friendship with W.B. Yeats, drawing solace from his struggles with spurned affection and aging. I was driven to sing the words of this supremely lyrical poet. But his taste for the occult sat a little uncomfortably with me considering its capacity for delusional evil.

Nonetheless my affection for Yeats had groomed me to receive the clarity of Raine’s aesthetic principles in the book. I did not agree with it all but it has a timeless quality that makes it a selfishly-guarded treasure for those who own a copy.

At the heart of a narrative that contains essays on her preferred Romantic poets and on themes such as beauty, myth and symbol is the conviction that ‘a revival of the learning of the works of Plato and the neo-Platonists, has been the inspiration not only of the Florentine renaissance and all that followed (in England as elsewhere) but of every subsequent renaissance.’ The suggestion that this is an essential source for great poetry may sound far-fetched but the neo-Platonist influence on the pantheon of Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Blake and Yeats is well attested to.

Neo-Platonist believe in an essential order to the universe that our true selves recognise. Plotinus d. c. 270CE wrote that: ‘we ourselves possess beauty when we are true to our own being; our ugliness is going over to another order’. He adds that: ‘the soul itself acts immediately, affirming the Beautiful where it finds something accordant with the ideal from within itself … But let the soul fall in with the ugly and at once it shrinks within itself, denies the thing, turns away from it, not accordant, resenting it.’

According to Raine this explains a sense of homecoming when we encounter cities ‘where in architecture, sculpture and painting, the needs of the spirit are met.’ She attributes the growing alienation in the Britain of her day to environments, such as ‘the wastes of suburbia’ where that aesthetic sensibility is ignored.

Leaving aside the metaphysics of the soul, it strikes me that there is some common ground between neo-Platonic philosophy and those who assert objective truth in science. A shared conviction that mathematical configuration is a form of truth might ford what can seem an unbridgeable disconnect between science and the arts. From that I draw a measure of reassurance in a zeitgeist of disorder and acute over-specialisation.

According to Raine: ‘Music is considered by the Platonic philosophers to be the highest of the arts because the nearest to the harmonious innate order of number, reflected in all the arts and in nature itself.’ But Nobel Laureate Rabindarath Tagore disagreed concluding that ‘it is nonsense that music is a universal language’; he despaired at the capacity of even his own compatriots really to understand his songs; and felt the West could not be expected to without serious study of Indian music. He regarded pictorial art as a superior medium for cross-cultural exchange.

But though Indian music diverges from the Pythagorean intervals that underpin Western music it is still capable of evoking emotion in the uninitiated. Laurens van der Post writes movingly in his biography Yet Being Someone Other about his first encounter with Indian music: ‘It was sensitive and aquiver with an undertone of something akin to pain. Even the most resolved melodies sounded as if they might have come not from man-made strings but from the living nerves and tissues of the music itself.’ Musical forms of European origin may express a universally comprehensible language but other cultures also seem to have discovered propitious symmetries. Inter-cultural appreciation hinges perhaps on the openness of the individual to an encounter.

Raine devotes one chapter to the role of mythology but errs I believe when she claims: ‘The myths of all races are ageless, since their symbolic language is based upon the permanent and unchanging elements of the world we inhabit.’ National myths can be destructive forces and breed murderous politics. Laurens van der Post writes: ‘Of all the mythology that I had come to know by  then, German mythology seemed to me the darkest, the most undifferentiated, archaic, turgid and dangerous … German mythology was the only one I know where the forces of darkness defeated the gods themselves.’

“Ageless” myths were appropriated by Nazi ideologues and Yeat’s sympathy for Fascism or at least fellow-travelling was linked to his attachment to archaic notions about nobility and race. Raine fails to acknowledge the danger of the dead weight of history or point to the possibility of mythical renewal, such as Germany’s absorption into Europe perhaps.

But I heartily agree with Raine’s contention that psychologists are parvenus to formative symbolisms that poets have long recognised. Moreover poetic synthesis ‘brings together, creating always wholes and harmonies’, often yielding greater insight than philosophical analysis. Yet, paradoxically: ‘With the greatest poetry the mystery only increases with our knowledge.’

In poetry she writes: ‘Lyric form is itself the supreme embodiment of archetypal order, the nearest to music and number; it is beauty itself informing words in themselves ordinary’. Raine does not view these configuration of words as a plodding exercise of measured syllables and rhyming sequences but akin to a universal grammar. She asserts that the essence of poetry informed by a higher sensibility. Following Blake, she sees a poet as the equivalent of a prophet or medium ‘and it cannot, as Plato wrote in the Ion, be achieved by the poet writing from his mundane consciousness but only in that divine madness in which he is possessed by the ‘other’ mind.’

She condemns how: ‘[a]t the present time much that is called poetry is little more than the autobiography of the artist; it is the critical fashion to discount the imagination and to make ‘sincere’ feeling or ‘realistic’ description the test of merit.’ Poetry is thus cast in a sacred light, beyond the mundane exigencies of the quotidian, offering a guide, a light, to the concerns of the time – whether dark Satanic mills or diabolic Trident missiles – and demanding form that channels higher knowledge.

The prizing of sincerity above other considerations that Raine decries is expressed by the main character François, an academic critic, in Michel Houellebecq’s last novel Submission. He says: ‘an author is above all a human being, present in his books, and whether he writes very well or very badly hardly matters – as long as he gets the books written and is, indeed, present in them.’ In Houellebecq’s dystopian vision of a future France what counts, critically, is this biographic authenticity. Absent is concern for the imaginative possibilities of a divinely inspired order that animates great poetry.

But is this vision or inspiration accessible to all who engage with and embody the neo-Platonist philosophy? Not according to Raine: ‘It remains true that genius is not democratic, and the distinction between (for example) the self-expression of patients under analysis and the art of genius is by no means a matter of craftsmanship, but much of the quality and kind of imagination.’

But I believe societies should inculcate the creative application required for genius to flourish such as Yeats glimpsed in the Holy City of Byzantium. If we all can identify that which is beautiful, as we know it in ourselves, then we are capable with sufficient application of reproducing it in a particular domain whether as craftsman, poet or musician. Hard labour in a chosen domain will bring its own rewards and it is for posterity to judge where genius lies.

Theodore Zeldin recently wrote in The Secret Pleasures of Life that: ‘there is a very ancient tradition that everybody who wishes to live fully needs to be a practising artist.’ He observes that: ‘In China the very act of writing, using a brush, made one aware that every brushstroke could be a thing of beauty. Literacy and artistry were one.’ Not all of us are prophets but we might agree with Soren Kierkegaard’s assessment that ‘the possibility of the highest is in everyone, one must follow it.’

Raine also discusses the lofty style that distinguishes poetry from everyday speech. She notes how Carl Jung, who generally disliked high-flown speech, found that when what he called ‘mana, daemons, gods or the unconscious speaks in words its utterances are in a high style, hieratic, often archaic, grandiose, removed as it is possible to be from the speech of that common man the everyday self’. This she identifies this with the primal poetic impulse: ‘The singing of the ballad was by no means in common speech. It was extremely slow, dignified and highly mannered’. She concludes that: ‘It is a mark of imaginative inspiration and content to write in a high and mannered style, removed from common speech; as it of the absence of imaginative participation to write either in a conversational tone or to write in a deliberately vulgar idiom.’ She believes that: ‘What was written for the sake of easy comprehension is precisely that part of poetry which becomes incomprehensible within a few years.’ We need only consider how quickly popular songs become dated.

I believe this insight may be useful to any poet: to honour their inner voice and not play to a gallery that will quickly grow tired of a performance. This is the vertical audience that the poet Eavan Boland identified in a recent lecture in contrast to the horizontal audience of popular acclaim. Poets should contain their revelation within an order that is a part of that mystery: ‘Irish poets learn your trade / Sing whatever is well made’ as Yeats put it.

In a powerful passage Raine despairs at what was occurring in the scholarship of her era influenced in particular by T. S. Eliot:

‘What we did not know thirty years ago was how extreme would be the isolation of those who hold to tradition. It then seemed that there were at least some values which were agreed upon between the profane positivist world and the world of the ‘ancient spring’. Now we know that this is not so, perhaps was never so. At all events, we can no longer deceive ourselves. It seems that there now no longer exists any common terms or common values; beyond a certain point of divergence communication becomes impossible. Relative ignorance may still recognise and aspire towards knowledge, absolute ignorance is perfectly complacent. Tradition, which recognises a difference between knowledge and ignorance, cannot come to terms with a world in which there are no longer any standards by which truth and falsehood may be measured.’

The question is whether this process has accelerated, whether contemporary criticism is stricken by a post-modern doubt that conforms to the dystopian vision adumbrated by Houellebeq: in which authenticity is raised to a value above others, and the prophetic vision cherished by the great poets is accorded no importance. At least one contemporary scholar Edward Clarke shows commitment to the ideal of eternal beauty in his recent book The Vagabond Spirit of Poetry.

Poetry will continue to flow, for some it is a need and a vocation, but without spiritual insight will it flounder, becoming a form of therapy for the unwell or the wild-eyed expression of political discontent? For it to retain its timeless wisdom I concur with Raine that it requires renewed commitment to form: “beauty itself informing words in themselves ordinary”, and continued engagement with underlying metaphysical structures.

(http://www.pressreader.com/uk/the-london-magazine/20160201/281676843945517/textview)

The Mystic

by Eva Gore-Booth

Nay, though green fields are fair
And the fiords are blue,
I need a clearer air,
I need a region new,
Out beyond the Northern Lights,
Where the white Polar Day
To herself in silence sings,
Without thought of words or wings
The secret of a hundred nights.

I shall find there I know
The lost city of my birth,
Innocent white wastes of snow,
A new heaven and a new earth.
Neither lamb, nor calf nor kid,
In those lovely meadows play,
All things calm and silent are
Underneath the polar star;
Where all my dreams are hid.

I am sick of wind and tide –
Tired of this rocking boat,

Creaking ever as we glide
Into the white remote;
Out there no sound is heard
Save the iceberg’s crash and grind,
No human voice e’er shudddered through
The realms of white, the realms of blue,
Nor cry of a seabird.

Lying at ease in the dark ship
I watched the last pale night depart,
I dreamt I saw blue shadows slip
O’er the white snowfields of my heart;
And the world has grown so wide
There was room for all mankind-
The icebergs round about the Pole
Crashed in the silence of my soul,
And hemmed in every side.

In that crowded world of white
There are many joys unknown,
Without colour there is light,
Loneliness of the alone,
Heedless stars, that blaze and shine,
O’er the world’s untrodden edge;
You come with me you who dare
Leave the cart and the plough-share
For the white horizon line.

Over many seas we sail,
Passing many peopled shores,
Like the Greek in the old tale
Homeward sailing from the wars.
Gentle voices bid us rest
From green isle or barren sedge,
‘In our world all things are new,
We have passed away from you,
You must seek another guest.’

Voices of enchanted time
Call us to leave our ships,
Hyacinths of honeyed rhyme
Float from Aphrodite’s lips;
We for Circe born unkind,
All the songs the sirens sing
Seem but idly to oppress
Hearts in love with loneliness,
Sails that flutter in the wind.

O’er the wide cold wastes serene
Rise the walls of wandering white,
Circles of strange gods unseen
In the electric arc unite.
Arctic faces flash and glide,
Glimmers many a flaming wing,
Where the aether strains to hold
The hard heart of the Manifold
All the greater gods abide.

Extract from Dreamtime (Dublin, 2009) by John Moriarty p.170

Poverty at the heart of the ‘oldest profession’.

(Published in the Law Society Gazette April, 2016)

The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill 2015 had a second reading before the Oireachtas on January 28th this year. Alongside more stringent measures against trafficking and underage participation in prostitution and pornography the Bill proposes that the purchase of a sexual service should be a crime with a maximum penalty of one year in prison. I argue that this measure is not appropriate in the present context of income inequality and poverty. Instead I propose a more compassionate approach towards the sex worker in particular.

It may come as a surprise that in Ireland prostitution is not illegal although most activities around it are. The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act of 1993 prohibits soliciting or importuning another person in a street or public place for the sole purpose of prostitution. This applies equally to prostitute and client. It also prohibits living off the earnings of another person, and keeping a brothel or other premises for the purpose of prostitution. Furthermore the Criminal Law (Human Trafficking) Act 2008 criminalises the trafficking of persons for sexual exploitation.

It seems very likely that the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill 2015 will enjoy overwhelming support in the Oireachtas considering the endorsement of the two former government parties Fine Gael and Labour as well as the support that Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail gave to a private member’s bill the Criminal Justice (Sexual Services) (Amendment) Bill introduced by Thomas Pringle in 2013 which purported to create a similar offence. Interesting, two members of the United Left Alliance Clare Daley and Mick Wallace opposed that bill on grounds of efficacy and with the argument that it unfairly infringed an individual’s right to make a living and increased stigmatisation.

Both bills are based on the so-called Swedish model whose parliament passed a Kvinnofrid (Violence Against Women Act) in 1999 that for the first time criminalised the purchase, but not the sale of sexual services, treating the sex worker as the victim of an inherently violent act. This legislative course has been followed in a number of other jurisdictions including Norway and recently Northern Ireland.

Support for the measure, unusually, might align traditional conservatives and many feminists. Both would agree with Plato’s conviction that: ‘The excess of liberty in states or individuals seems to pass into an excess of slavery’. Freedom to sell sexual services is seen as a form of bondage damaging to the sex worker, or prostitute, and the wider society.

The terminology itself causes difficulties as it has been argued that the term sex worker legitimates this form of employment. However it is employed in international literature on the subject and is preferred for that reason. The term prostitution is retained however in relation to the profession itself.

Advocates of alternative approaches might refer to the ideas on liberty espoused by John Stuart Mill who wrote that: ‘Mankind are great gainers by suffering each to live as seems good to themselves, than compelling each to live as seems good to the rest’. It is thus argued that the right of an individual who has reached maturity before the law to sell freely a sexual services should not be impeded by the criminalisation of his clients.

In Ireland it is estimated that around one thousand individuals (overwhelmingly women) are available or made available for sexual services each day. Most services are advertised online. Gone are the days when an entire street in Dublin was identified with prostitution. Monto or Montgomery Street now called Foley Street, was immortalised in the Nightown-Circe chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses and in the ribald folk song Take her up to Monto. In the 1920s most of the brothels there were shut down.

Since introducing the legislation the number of sex workers in Sweden has declined significantly, but opponents, particularly sex worker advocacy groups, say that the law has increased the stigmatisation of a sex worker, with occasionally grave repercussions.

There is also a strong suspicion that draconian laws drive the trade underground as sex workers ensure their clients avoid prosecution. One sex worker and campaigner Laura Lee has even taken a legal challenge to Northern Ireland’s legislation to the European Court of Human Rights. She claims it has created problems as clients now refuse to use an online screening process thereby putting sex workers in danger. Apart from the threat of increased violence against sex workers this could have implications for the spread of STDs.

However other countries have experienced serious problems after liberalisation. A 2012 paper in the journal World Development found: ‘Countries with legalised prostitution have a statistically significant larger reported incidence of human trafficking inflows.’ Since full legislation in 2000 (including pimping and brothel keeping) in the Netherlands, prices for sex have fallen and sex workers ‘emotional well-being is now lower than in 2001 on all measured aspects, and the use of sedatives has increased,’ according to a 2007 evaluation by a Dutch justice ministry.

Michelle Goldberg who wrote an incisive article for The Guardian (August 8th, 2014) on the subject makes the good point that: ‘Deciding which model works better is as much an ideological as an empirical question, ultimately depending on whether one believe that prostitution can ever be simply a job like any other.’

But even if we accept that prostitution is inherently violent and exploitative what if the effect of the legislation will be to drive a reduced level of trade further underground? Similarly, we may regard drug use as a social ill but has criminalisation not allowed criminal networks to thrive off illegality?

Moreover we should be aware of the damaging effects of criminalisation in terms of recidivism. Imprisoning more people is surely a course to be avoided where possible. There is no provision in the legislation for educating, rather than shaming, individuals as to the exploitative relationship involved or curing what may be compulsive behaviour.

It might be more appropriate to view prostitution as a response to poverty and inequality. Certainly history bears this out. In Naples 1944 the British Intelligence Officer Norman Lewis discovers an intelligence report indicating that 42,000 out of a ‘nubile’ female population of 150,000 had turned to prostitution due to the extreme poverty experienced in the city after the Allied invasion. All this in a traditional Catholic society.

There are now huge disparities of wealth and poverty in Europe especially with the presence of migrant populations many of whom do not have employment visas. Individuals may not be forced into prostitution but their circumstances may leave them little option. Further criminalisation could make some of them less safe.

Moreover, it is apparent that prostitution is increasingly migrating into the ever expanding transnational pornographic industry estimated to be worth approximately $100 billion. In the absence of a more generalised shift in attitudes towards exploitation, is a potential user of a sex worker not likely to migrate into this sphere where there may be even greater scope for slavery including underage participation?

As an alternative, an approach that falls short of legalisation but which included some form of official registration would reduce the level of trafficking and underage participation. If an individual choses to transact with an unregistered sex worker then he might be prosecuted for purchase. Prohibitions against brothel-keeping, pimping and other exploitative relationships would remain. Police resources could be devoted to tackling the worst excesses of the trade and protecting sex workers.

The state might also assist sex workers who wish to end their participation with specialist programmes that could include counselling services.

On its face legislation which criminalises the purchaser of a sexual service may seem an attractive policy but it may have dangerous side effects for those who feel compelled, or sometimes choose, to work in the trade. Besides outright slavery, it is poverty and inequality that drives participation alongside a failure to address through education the exploitative relations that permeate our societies. This legislation will do nothing to alter these factors and potential users are likely to gravitate to the internet for satisfaction.

(https://www.lawsociety.ie/Documents/Gazette/Gazette%202016/April-16-Gazette.pdf)