Imagining Ireland

(Published in Village Magazine, June 2016)

The spark of any human venture is imagination. The Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1795-1827) in his ‘In Defence of Poetry’ distinguishes this from reason, the ‘enumeration of qualities already known’; whereas ‘imagination is the perception of the values of those qualities, both separately and as a whole … Reason is to imagination as the instrument to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance.’

Too often governments, corporations and individuals lack that ignition. Reason in abundance is evident yes, but imagination is rarely nurtured and sometimes frowned on. We strive to proceed from point A to B failing to recognise the possibilities in the remainder of the alphabet. Ireland stands accused.

Scientific reasoning for all its astounding capacity is founded on imagining a possibility beyond contemporary restraints. Thus Portuguese navigators of the fifteenth century first envisioned a route to India and then produced a vessel, the caravel, allowing them to sail windward. It is said that necessity is the mother of invention but really imagination charts the course.

The Portuguese voyages represented the triumph of the Renaissance mind over the medieval. In his autobiography Laurens van der Post relates a story told to him by C. G. Jung ‘that if one wanted to fix a precise moment at which the Renaissance began, it would be the day when the Italian poet Petrarch decided to defy superstition and climb a mountain in the Alps, just for the sake of reaching its summit.’

A poetic imagination can guide Irish people to the heights of their capabilities, removing what is left of the Catholic-industrial-complex. To do so we must move beyond the wisdom of Ireland’s leading public intellectual Fintan O’Toole. His insights can only take us so far: like Virgil in Dante’s Divine Comedy who guides Dante the pilgrim through Hell and Purgatory as far as the border of Paradise.

The utility of imagination is not restricted to mechanical invention or improvements to organisations but also underpins the empathy that makes us identify with others and extend compassion. Shelley writes that for a man to be ‘greatly good’ he ‘must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and many others; the pains and pleasure of his species must be his own;’

Throughout the twentieth century we saw a failure of what the philosopher Jonathan Glover calls ‘moral imagination’; we still see individuals sheltering in the comfort of command centres from which they unleash death and destruction. From this vantage war became like a computer game that obscures the real horror, and yet bewilderment greets the ferocity and depravity in response.

Through their faculty of imagination Shelley identifies poets as the unacknowledged legislators of the world who forge social sympathies. In agreement the legal scholar Edward J. Erbile writes: ‘Ancient law often took the form of poetry. Laws were expressed in incantatory rhythms. The oldest Greek and Latin words were also the eldest words for law. For example carmen or carminis in Latin means ‘song’ or ‘statute’.’

Shelley also hails the intuitive capacity of the poet who: ‘not only beholds intensely the present as it is, and discovers those laws according to which present thing ought to be ordered, but he beholds the future in the present (not that they can foresee the future).’

Further, he distinguishes between poetry which ‘in the restricted sense expresses those arrangements of language, and especially metrical language, which are created by the imperial faculty whose throne is curtained within the invisible nature of man’; and poetry located in other forms such as the story or novel: ‘The parts of the a composition may be poetical without the composition as a whole being poetical’. He adds that ‘all the great historians were poets’ and that ‘poetry is ever to be found to co-exist with whatever other arts contribute to the happiness and perfection of man’.
Seen in this light poetry is a vital commodity in any culture, foregrounding and guiding other artistic endeavours, channelling empathy, and forging justice. Poetry is not restricted to composition of metrical verse: any writer or artist should aspire to it.

Shelley embodied a revolutionary altruism, visiting Ireland in 1812 where he wrote a pamphlet An Address to the Irish People urging non-violent resistance: ‘In no case employ violence, the way to liberty and happiness is never to transgress the rules of virtue and justice. Liberty and happiness are founded upon virtue and justice. If you destroy the one you destroy the other.’ He would have deplored the Easter Rising and anticipated the loss of liberty that emerged after the independent state’s violent birth pangs.

But Shelley was perhaps too idealistic in assuming that poetry conflates with justice in the objective sense handed down in the Western tradition. Poetry has its dark arts. Audiences were mesmerized by the flow of Hitler’s speeches. Stalin and Radovan Karadzic both composed verse. Another published poet Enoch Powell summoned the vivid metaphor of ‘rivers of blood’ in his opposition to multicultural Britain. Nonetheless the best poetry articulates the highest human ideals.

This is quite urgent considering Nietzsche’s erosion of Enlightenment values and the huge challenges in this the Anthropocene. We must learn how to live in the natural world and avert runaway Climate Change, as well as addressing hideous human inequalities. We demand new poetic legislators.

It is assumed that we in Ireland are of little relevance to the wider world. But that is a failure of imagination. Since the arrival of literacy (alongside Christianity) this small, remote island has nourished visionary poets in a wide variety of fields from artists of the Book of Kells, to Swift’s satire and Joyce’s iconoclasm that have, as Shelley suggested in his Address to the Irish People, been a beacon to the world. Even the Easter Rising for all its flaws was the realisation of the poetry of Pearse, Plunkett and McDonagh.

James Joyce playfully mused: ‘is this country destined some day to resume its ancient position as the Hellas of the north? Is the Celtic spirit, like the Slavic one (which it resembles in many respects), destined in the future to enrich the consciousness of civilization with new discoveries and institutions?’

Joyce’s Irishness was as a state of mind beyond purity of race or linguistic conformity, for ‘no race has less right to make such a boast [of purity] than the one presently inhabiting Ireland.’ Instead: ‘Nationality must find its basic reason for being in something that surpasses, that transcends and that informs changeable entities such as blood or human speech.’

Joyce brought poetic expression of this idea to Ulysses in the personage of the Jewish Leopold Bloom who responds to the question of the Cyclops (modelled on the founder of the GAA Michael Cusack) as to what nation he is from by saying: ‘Ireland … I was born here, Ireland.’

That ‘Ireland of the imagination’ awoke during the Celtic Twilight or Irish Renaissance. Alas after independence its animating spirit W.B. Yeat retreated to his Tower of aristocratic seclusion.

But before then Joyce anticipated that: ‘The economic and intellectual conditions of his homeland do not permit the individual to develop.’ And was sure that: ‘No self-respecting person wants to stay in Ireland.’
Eireann’s sons and daughters continued to depart in droves after independence. Leaving in Joyce’s words: ‘The old, the corrupt, the children, and the poor to stay at home where the double yoke etches another groove upon their docile necks. Standing around the death-bed where the poor bloodless and almost lifeless body lies are agitating patriots, proscribing governments, and priests administering their last rites.’

The “double yoke” for Joyce was the Empire and Catholicism. He saw liberation from the Church as a prerequisite for a sustained awakening: ‘I confess that I do not see what good it does to fulminate against English tyranny while the tyranny of Rome still holds the dwelling place of the soul.’

The full extent of this necessary purgation is incomplete. At primary and even secondary level most state-funded educational institutions are still controlled by the Church. The Archbishop of Dublin recently slid into Easter Rising commemorations draping unctuous imprimatur on that sordid affair in spite of its obvious contradiction of Jesus’s pacifism.

The present Pope Francis may display more compassion than some of his predecessors but the continued institutional fusion of state with spiritual power remains suspect. This was appreciated by Dante in the fourteenth century who bemoaned the apocryphal ‘gift of Constantine’ which purportedly created the Papal States after the end of the Western Roman Empire: ‘Ah Constantine, what wickedness was born – / and not from your conversion – but from the dower / that you bestowed upon the first rich father!’

Moreover, as John Moriarty points out it in his Dreamtime: ‘In our behaviour now, we are aids virus to the earth. We are doing to the earth what the aids virus does to the human body: we are breaking down its immune system. Assumptions and axioms of our classical Christian inheritance enable us to do this. Our classical inheritance is therefore suspect.’ A stateless Christianity, rejecting the papacy with clear water between itself and state institutions, that identifies human beings as living among a wider natural constellation needs poets such as John Moriarty to sing into being.

Since independence most poets have shrunk from Ireland’s shores, preferring to allow the Irish muses of Ériu, Bamba and Fodla to breathe creative fire in exile. But the well spring of the Irish Renaissance is running dry.
Only in music which at times rivals, but really compliments the animating effect of poetry, has great expression been preserved. But even here, with notable exceptions, the originality of the lyric has declined: the absence of poetry is felt. Just as words without music do not create the greatest poetry, similarly music without words fall short of the highest artistic expression. Recall that Beethoven’s glorious ninth symphony, widely regarded as the greatest composition in history culminates in a choral rendition of Schiller’s Ode to Joy.

We have seen a grubby culture grow up in Ireland, leaving its mark on a landscape of one-off incongruous bungalows and groves of clear-felled Sitka spruce; in lurid sports apparel that serves as fashion and the sordid drunkenness that haunts every city and town. Worse: gangland murders fuelled by middle class recreational drug habits and nonsensical laws; approaching the highest rate of obesity in Europe; and a cruel and self-centred agricultural industry. All this alongside a bewildering level of homelessness.

The wounds of the “double yoke” run deep, and are compounded by a collision with the zombie-culture of our smart-phone post-modernity. Ever extreme in virtue as in vice: the Irish are the biggest phone-internet users in the world.

We seem to be lurching from the Celtic Twilight towards Flann O’Brien’s Celtic Toilet. And each of us bears responsibility in the sense understood by Dostoyevsky in his novel Devils. In this Stavrogin reveals his appalling crime to the elder Tikhon, who responds by asking the forgiveness of Stavrogin: ‘Having sinned, each man has sinned against all men, and each man is responsible in some way for the sins of others. There is no isolated sin. I’m a great sinner, perhaps greater than you.’

But in the 1980s a path to liberation was laid by the brilliant journalism of Fintan O’Toole. As Tom Hennigan wrote recently in the Dublin Review: ‘For many of us whose first ever vote was cast for Mary Robinson, O’Toole was a formative influence. In a society politically dominated by two populist conservative parties and an arrogant, authoritarian Catholic church, he appeared not just as a pathfinder towards a more liberal, liberalistic society but also a scourge of those forces that fought against its emergence, most thrillingly dissecting the real state of Irish republicanism by detailing the corruption clustered around Fianna Fail.’

But Hennigan offers a damning assessment of O’Toole’s capacity to understand Ireland’s economy. O’Toole failed to anticipate that the close union with Europe he advocated led us precisely to the likelihood of some form of economic maladjustment. His book Ship of Fools: ‘skips past the crucial fact that shaped the Irish crisis, not the country’s supposed land hunger, or the moral vacuum left by the disintegration of the Catholic church, but rather its membership of the euro.’

He also failed utterly to anticipate the recovery that took place predicting
‘a vicious downward spiral of depression and debt’; that ‘reduces the EU to the status of a banker’s bailiff’.

Hennigan exposes O’Toole’s limitations: ‘In this binary framing of choices, usually between good and bad, O’Toole and those like him who draw clear moral lines downplay the difficulty of navigating a path out of crisis for a supranational organisation built on top of multiple democracies, all to one extent or another wedded for better or worse to a model of turbo-charged global capitalism whose unruly energy is rapidly transforming our global society in ways that are contradictory and fiendishly difficult to predict.’
The point of this excursion is certainly not to depart from O’Toole’s aspiration for Ireland to become a fair society modelled on Scandinavia, or to discourage his esteem for European fellowship, but to identify the limitation of his vision in terms of guiding the Irish people to their highest capacities.

It is apparent that O’Toole’s lifelong noble ambition to rid Ireland of populist Republicanism has failed: Fianna Fail methodologies have been co-opted by Fine Gael, while Sinn Fein waits in the wings alongside a raft of parish-pump Independents. His own flirtation with seeking political office as a tribune of the people in the middle of the bailout came to nought. He realised that his ideological children were too skittish, unengaged and ultimately materialistic to press his claim.

It is revealing that O’Toole’s strident left-wing voice is used to sell a paper such as the Irish Times which nurtures a consumer society through the contagion of a Saturday magazine that has spilled into the rest of the paper. Increasingly scant space is devoted to writing unconnected to selling one thing or another be it property, food, sport or increasingly the arts.
Rather than entering politics as a latter-day Arthur Griffith, a more noble gesture might be for O’Toole to depart from the Irish Times. As a critic with an international profile he could surely ignite another publication consistent with his values. Then we might start to see a media diversity lacking since the Irish Renaissance.

The marriage equality referendum might be considered the triumph of his Liberal Ireland but sustained political engagement did not materialise: the youth vote that brought that landslide did not come out to vote for ‘boring’ parties in the ensuing election, and does not display the self-sacrifice required to enter politics and engage in the slow work of reform. Mirroring O’Toole, many of them have given up on politics altogether.

It is also apparent that there is a serious gap in O’Toole’s coverage of the environment: he has never had a raised ecological awareness. Of course no columnist can cover every issue but occupying such an influential position as an almost weekly op-ed contributor it is surely incumbent on him to pay more attention to the most pressing concern for a wider humanity.

But this enquiry is concerned, above all, with the connection between poetry and the exercise of the imagination, and the idea that it beholds “the future in the present.” Fintan O’Toole writes extensively on literature for the Irish Times and other publications including the New York Review of Books, and it is to an example of this coverage that we turn.

O’Toole offered exegesis on the work of Ireland’s formative poet W.B. Yeats in a BBC Radio 3 series last year celebrating Yeats at 150. His essay was called ‘Not Liking Yeats’, although the title is misleading as he argues that not liking Yeats is a prerequisite to loving him.

As expected O’Toole’s command of the cannon is exemplary and his delivery faultless. He helpfully identifies the tension in Yeats between a benign poetic vision and his often chauvinistic views. But distilling O’Toole’s criticism to its essence we are left with him honouring the poet as ‘magical, strange and transcendent’; ‘with vestiges of the marvellous’. Without elucidation these encomiums are however superfluous.

O’Toole has Dante’s Paradise in sight but we do not taste oblivion from the waters of Lethe, or the river of Eunoe where the memories of good deeds in life are strengthened. These we find in Yeats’s Sailing to Byzantium as ‘the artifice of eternity’ and as the golden bird who sings to ‘lords and ladies of Byzantium’ of ‘what is past or passing or to come’.

Dante’s Divine Comedy is as Robert Durling puts it: ‘a system of metaphors for the process by which a living man, on earth, comes to understand the nature of the cosmos and the state of souls after death’. Yeats developed a similar symbolic system and unless we absorb this we only skim the surface of his vision.

O’Toole reveals no understanding of the Neoplatonism that has informed all the great poets from Dante, Shakespeare, Militon through Shelley and down to Yeats. Ira Zinman suggests this is a two way process: ‘Spiritual truths are often not readily apparent in scriptures or verse. Uncovering the deeper meaning requires a heightened awareness, which is itself a sign of spiritual growth.’

The ‘timeless’, ‘transcendent’ and the ‘remarkable’ that O’Toole attests to in Yeats’s poetry are glimpse at the shoreline of a Paradise to which his own insights have not, so far, ascended. For the moment O’Toole does not envision “the future in the present”.

Kathleen Raine might appear dogmatic in her assessment 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,’ but the historical accuracy of that statement in a European context is difficult to counter. In Defending Ancient Sacred Springs she refers specifically to the overwhelming Neoplatonic influence on the Irish Renaissance especially Yeats. Irish poets, consciously or otherwise, drinks from these waters.
Neoplatonism offers an initiation to what Shelley calls the “imperial” faculty of poetry, and all its imaginative possibilities. Of course non-European cultures have found their own eternal forms climbing the same mountain on different tracks; just as Indian music has a different system of scales but offers a coherent and logical aesthetic.

Poetry has a wide variety of devices. According to Theodore Zeldin the Japanese poet Sogi (1421-1502) ‘has a place in humanity’s common memory because he was unrivalled in creating sensitive links between different collaborators … he held poetry parties that revealed how, in a country plagued by violent political conflict, art could create bonds between strangers. The philosophy of the artistic way, gei-do-ron, was the art of socialising with strangers allowing individuals to grasp at higher truths.’ We may also draw inspiration from this less individualistic approach.

Ireland also has a distinctive, crooked genius that has informed the imaginations of poets. Perhaps it really is the faeries that have been held down by Church dogma and middling intellect which nourish “the Irish soul” that Joyce refers to. Revealingly some of the brightest Irish musicians casually concede inspiration to an Otherworld.

We can call the imaginative impulse for poetry what we please, a muse to the Greeks, faeries for the Irish, but clearly in its finest form it encourages empathy, justice and beauty.

The poet-philosopher John Moriarty was one such visionary. He imagined ‘another Patrick, A Patrick in our time for our time. A Patrick who not only seeks to bring a richer Christianity to Ireland, he seeks also to bring what is best in its Celtic and pre-Celtic inheritance to Ireland.’

That surely female Patricia would be a poet capable of imagining a Hellas of the North like Beatrice guiding Dante through Paradise, with the potential to make Ireland a beacon for an increasingly intolerant world. She would undoubtedly practice yoga and be attuned to the vitality of scientific reason, and its limitations. Certainly this lady will carefully distinguish the good faeries from those slippery ones in the Irish character, and accept the poet Wallace Stevens’s insight that ‘God and the imagination are one’.

(http://villagemagazine.ie/index.php/2016/06/imagine-2/)

Confronting the great men of history

(Published in Village Magazine, June 2016)

That there was something altogether more disturbing about Hitler’s Germany than Stalin’s Russia is often assumed. Perhaps it comes from the idea of Germany, the most intellectually and industrially-advanced country of its time, being led by an individual whose core belief was the annihilation of a substantial ethno-religious minority. By comparison the aspirational ends of Stalinism are, superficially at least, universal and even Utopian.
The case of Germany suggests that intellectual progress does not dovetail with moral development. But at least the defeat of Nazism has consigned Far Right ideology in Germany and the rest of Europe to the political periphery since World War II. The Cold War ended when Mikhail Gorbachev unilaterally stopped projecting Soviet power and the populations of its empire rose up to gain independence. But the descent into anarchy of some of these territories has engendered a conviction, prevalent in Russia, that aspects of the ruthless means employed by Stalin are always required for stability and prosperity. The conduct of the West, both in its approach to Russia and a wider flouting of international law, has doused oil on the flames.
This is not to suggest that anything approximating the scale of state-sponsored terror is being unleased in Russia today but there is nonetheless evidence of an attitude to human rights that departs from values ascendant in most of the rest of Europe.
A case can be made for Stalinism being more terrifying than Hitler’s Nazism, precisely because the former emerged as victor in the apocalyptic struggle between the two monsters. It was a victory of a system that embraced industrial development and rationality, over one that advocated a primitive way of life for a chosen people fusing cultish spirituality with juvenile biology.
There were of course unforgivable excesses on the Allied side too, in particular the fire-bombing of Dresden and the unnecessary use of the Atomic bomb against Japan which was on the brink of surrender as laid out by Gar Alperowitz in his book The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb (1995). The political elites of America and Britain have not confronted their wicked pasts – America still refuses to apologise for Hiroshima and Nagasaki – and their foreign policies in recent decades are connected to an historical amnesia that foreshadowed the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 which Noam Chomsky recently described as ‘the crime of the century’. Instructively George W. Bush installed a bust of Winston Churchill inside his White House office as he embarked on his ‘crusade’ against terror, reaching into history for vindication. Churchill himself had ordered the use of poison gas against Iraqis in the 1920s.
Of course the schemes of Hitler and his Nazi party were more diabolically hair-brained than his opponents. Leading Nazis sought Lebensraum in order to restore the Germanic people to the soil in what was a rejection of urban modernity. In Hitler’s Mein Kampf George Orwell found: ‘a horrible brainless Empire in which, essentially, nothing ever happens except the training of young men for war and the endless breeding of fresh cannon-fodder.’
Hitler’s primary lieutenant and SS leader Heinrich Himmler’s notions were particularly eccentric believing that Aryans were not evolved from monkeys or apes like other races, but had come down to earth from the heavens, where they had been preserved in ice from the beginning of time. He established a meteorology division which was given the task of proving this cosmic ice theory. It would be funny if he wasn’t a mass murderer.
The Nazis came very close to winning the war. Britain could easily have been brought to heel if Churchill had not stood firm against a vacillating Tory party. Hitler’s decision not to complete his victory – after the defeat of the British Expeditionary Force in France in May 1940 – before turning his attention to the Eastern Front was a flabbergasting blunder, as was declaring war on the isolationist United States after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour in December 1941.
If Hitler had been victorious the plight of all of Europeans would have been insufferable for a time at least. In all likelihood the Holocaust would surely have been completed and many more enslaved. But perhaps before that contradictions would emerged among the Nazis especially as Hitler had allowed competing agencies including the SS, the army and the Party to develop. Blind loyalty to the Fuehrer might have dissipated as the spoils were devoured.
The triumph of a profoundly irrational ideology could have brought chaos in the absence of wartime exigencies especially if a policy of compulsory re-ruralisation was rolled out. Hitler certainly harnessed Germany’s industrial might, especially through Alfred Speer planning agency, but only when defeat loomed. With victory theories about ‘cosmic ice’ might have become ascendant and the Nazis empire could have been beset by slave revolts. The dormant humanity of the German people might have awoken. A more dynamic society and economy such as the United States’ would surely have surpassed the Nazi Empire and there was no sign that Germany was close to developing Atomic technology which required the employment of over a million men at enormous expense in the United States.
We know that Stalin and his no less unsavoury predecessor Lenin d.1924 (not to mention Trotsky who was equally ruthless) also liquidated vast numbers to advance their cause, more than the Nazis even. One estimate is that in the seventy years after 1917, the Soviet regime killed 61, 911, 000 people.
State terror was evident from the start. In August 1918 Lenin issued the following order:

1.) Hang (and I mean hang so that the people can see) not less than 100 known kulaks, rich men, bloodsuckers.
2.) Publish their names.
3.) Take all their grain away from them.
4.) Identify hostages as we described in our telegram yesterday.
Do this so that for hundreds of miles around the people can see, tremble, know and cry: they are killing and will go on killing the bloodsucking kulaks. Cable that you have received this and carried out [your instructions]. Yours, Lenin
P.S. Find tougher people.
This was not simply a reaction to the life and death struggle of the Russian Civil War, but policy. As far back as 1908 he wrote that the Paris Commune had failed because of the ‘excessive generosity’ of the proletariat who ‘should have exterminated its enemies’ instead of trying to exert moral influence on them.
Yet if we compare France and Russia only the former absorbed socialist ideas into its shared set of national values. Over the long term an ideology is accepted not by physical force (as George W. Bush should have realised in Iraq) but by persuasion. As soon as the constraints of the Communist regime in Russia were lifted the society became ultra-capitalist. In the end the ideas of the Communards endured much longer in France than the Bolshevik’s in Russia.
A revolution may not succeed but it is often how participants (or victors) conduct themselves that defines the acceptance of noble ideas. In the case of Germany after World War II the occupiers were able to draw on a long history of liberal democracy that the Nazis did not succeed in wiping out and had learnt from the mistakes of Versailles after World War I.
The Communist ideology as implemented by Lenin and Stalin was based on perfection of man by the revolutionary triumph of the proletariat. Lives, millions if necessary, could be sacrificed for the sake of final victory.
In his book The Economics of the Transition Period (1920), Nikolai Bukharin used the phrase: ‘the manufacturing of Communist man out of the human material of the capitalist age.’ In his copy Lenin underlined that phrase and wrote ‘exactly’ in the margin. There was no choice in the matter no respect for individuality, just blind adherence to the ideal with the great leader, soon to be Stalin, at the helm.
For many intelligent young Europeans of the period their Communist conviction was akin to religious devotion. Eric Hobsbawm in his Autobiography wrote: ‘For young revolutionaries of my generation mass demonstrations were the equivalent of papal masses for devout Catholics.’ This devotion allowed Stalin to build his power.
Individual Communists were even willingly to sacrifice their own lives for the cause, not least Bukharin who agreed to the necessity of his own death in a show trial, a psychological drama brilliantly conveyed in Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon.
It was the conviction of Communists, no less than of Nazis, that allowed many of them to carry out some of the worst crimes of the twentieth century. As the dissident writer Aleksander Solzhenitsyn puts it: ‘Shakespeare’s villains stopped short at ten or so cadavers. Because they had no ideology.’
There also emerged a cult of the leader that is captured vividly by Solzhenitsyn once again. He describes how at a Party conference in one Moscow province a tribute to Stalin was called for. The audience stood up and began to applaud but nobody wanted to be seen as the first to stop. After eleven minutes the director of a paper factory had had enough and sat down allowing the remainder of the audience to desist. Not long afterwards he was arrested and given a ten year prison sentence.
Stalin hardened a society in a way vividly described by Nadezha Mandelstam who was herself in perpetual fear of arrest: ‘For our generation, kindness was an old-fashioned quality, and its exponents were as extinct as the mammoth. Everything we have seen in our time – the dispossession of the kulaks, class warfare, the constant ‘unmasking’ of people the search for an ulterior motive behind every action – all this has taught you to be everything you like except kind.’ Empathy became a failing as a base and sullen survival instinct took hold.
This survival instinct is also evident in Mikhail Bulgakov’s dark satire on Stalinism The Master and Margarita. The poet Ivan Nikolayevich and his friend Berlioz encounter the devil Woland in a Moscow park where the latter predicts that Berlioz will lose his head in a matter of minutes. True to his word Berlioz is decapitated after slipping under a tram. The encounter drives Ivan mad as he attempts to track down and bring Woland to justice. Eventually he winds up in a mental institution.
But at last he comes to terms with Berlioz’s loss: ‘I wonder why I go so excited about Berlioz falling under a tram? The poet reasoned, ‘After all he’s dead and we all die some time. It’s not as if I were a relation or a really close friend either, when you think about it I didn’t even know the man very well.’ Only by hardening himself to Berlioz’s plight can Ivan avoid insanity, the same could probably be said for many Russians who under Stalin had become as tough as Lenin had wished.
The revolutionary murderousness of the early Communist period gave way to slow-drip cruelty during the post-War years especially after the death of Stalin in 1953 and Nikita Khrushchev’s denouncement some years later. But victory in the Second World ensured that Stalinism spread beyond the Soviet Union into Eastern and Central Europe, and the recent indifference of much of the population there to the plight of refugees might be attributed in part to the absence of kindness that Mandelstam observed.
Under Vladimir Putin in Russia today the reputation of Stalin is enjoying a measured rehabilitation. The grandson of Stalin’s cook and former KGB operative opines that ruthless methods were crucial to Soviet victory and argues that Stalin never attempted to kill entire ethnic groups. The latter claim is quite groundless not least considering the Holodmor or terror-famine that may have killed as many as the Holocaust was carried out to suppress Ukrainian nationalism.
The narrative is not monolithic. Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev has been outspoken in his criticism of Stalin, but Putin’s line has become official policy reflected in school history textbooks where scant attention is devoted to the one and a half million Chechens forcibly removed to Central Asia by Stalin in 1941. In 2007 the Putin government directed an initiative to restructure the national curriculum, teaching schoolchildren that Stalin’s actions were ‘entirely rational’.
In 2009 a Moscow subway station was refurbished with large inscriptions reading ‘Stalin reared us on loyalty to the people. He inspired us to labour and heroism’, a direction quotation from the pre-1977 Soviet anthem. Meanwhile this year a statue was unveiled in Yalta, formerly in Ukrainian Crimea, of Stalin alongside Roosevelt and Churchill.
Putin has said that ‘we can criticize the commanders and Stalin all we like, but can we say with certainty that a different approach would have enabled us to win the war?’ The sacrifices of present-day Russia are situated within a deeper historical narrative. Democracy, a free press and human rights are subservient to the reassertion of order and Russia’s territorial claims and ‘sphere of influence’.
According to Reporters Without Borders between 2012 and 2014 Russia was placed 148th on a list which ranks countries’ performances in the areas of media pluralism and independence, respect for journalists’ safety and freedom, and media-related legislation, among other criteria. Putin is now de facto dictator of Russia and a free press will not be allowed to interfere with that. Defenders of Putin point to the chaos in Russia under Yeltsin but how will Russia ever become a democratic and tolerant society if this Hobbesian narrative is endlessly trotted out?
Thankfully Putin’s Russia is not resurrecting a murderous ideology, and it is also important to point out that Putin’s reassertion of Russia’s Great Power status has been to some extent a reaction to the eastward expansion of NATO. But failure to respect the sovereignty of Ukraine’s borders, directly in Crimea and indirectly in Donbass, is inexcusable as has been the steadfast support for Bashar Al-Assad in Syria.
We confront an international order where international law is increasingly an instrument of foreign policy rather than a set of collective human values. The US President, a constitutional lawyer, sends drones on weekly missions to commit extra-judicial murder. Guantanamo Bay remains an affront to US values.
All of the victors of the Second World War exhibit a self-righteousness that permits excesses. The invasion of Iraq was the twenty-first equivalent of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But in Russia the stain of Stalinism runs deeper as people endured far more than simply the Propaganda model identified by Chomsky as ‘manufacturing consent’, but had their very humanity ‘manufactured’ as Lenin underlined and Stalin carried out.
All countries must expose the limitations of their ‘great men’, even Gandhi needs to be subjected to greater scrutiny in India. Where a country has had a particularly unfortunate experience with one, as Russia certainly has, this process is all the more necessary and salutary. One need only look at the achievements of Germany in this regard which has emerged as an unsteady ‘conscience of Europe’.
Unfortunately, it would appear that Putin’s regime in Russia is doing little to encourage this process, in fact the opposite appears to be occurring with abuses of human rights domestically and reckless foreign adventures justified by Stalinist pragmatism.
The development of atomic weapons during the Second World War made warfare between Great Powers unthinkable but not impossible. That should be remembered. Since Mutually Assured Destruction became possible it became vital to establish shared values for humanity that will foster kindness among people and nations. Instead of esteeming toughness like Lenin we should prize sensitivity. The world needs more political leaders like Gorbachev whose show of weakness revealed an optimistic belief in human nature.

http://villagemagazine.ie/index.php/2016/06/stalinout/

‘Irish poets learn your trade’

Poets are banished from Plato’s Republic where the philosopher-king is the sole guardian of Truth. Their lyrical distortion is identified as a revolutionary threat to the singular established idea. This was recognised by James Joyce who wrote: ‘Poetry, even when apparently most fantastic, is always a revolt against artifice, a revolt, in a sense, against actuality’;

Joseph Stalin was also unnervingly conscious of the capacity of poets to undermine Communist ideology, describing them as ‘engineers of the soul’. He treated some such as Mikhail Bulgakov as a cat would a trapped mouse to be disposed of when he felt bored. Others including Anna Akhmatova were harassed and not allowed to work but as a determined witness she wrote: ‘Terror fingers all things in the dark, / Leads moonlight to the axe. / There’s an ominous knock behind the wall: / A ghost a thief or a rat.’ Eventually she was compelled by the imprisonment of her son to produce patriotic verse but was freed from constraints after the death of Stalin in 1953.

Another Soviet poet Osip Mandelstam argued that a civilization should be measured by the number who read poetry. He died in a Gulag in 1940.

Poetry eschews convention and draws vitality from rebellion. Yet paradoxically adherence to form seems essential for the mystery to be effectively conveyed. Where an ideology becomes ascendant whether Nazism, Communism or Catholicism in Ireland poets are censored and persecuted. But in this Neoliberal age, the poet is often corrupted by market conditions and imagination is not given free rein in a zeitgeist of high rationality where authenticity and irony are prized above form and transcendence.

Poetry is located beyond poems and is the source of literature, it also vital to the evolution of language. Walter Benjamin provides a broad definition of language, arguing that: ‘all communication of mental meanings is language, communication in words being only a particular case of human language and of the justice, poetry or whatever underlying it or founded on it.’

Poetry is found in film and, notably, music. Indeed the Austrian composer Hanns Eisler observed: ‘One must beware of overestimating orchestral music and considering it the only high art. Music without words gained its great importance and its full extent only under capitalism’. 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’.

It appears that poetry and music evolved together and it is only in the early modern period that we see a significant rupture. This is often to the detriment of classical varieties of both which are increasingly marginalised and inaccessible to a general audience.

We find in W.B. Yeats a strict adherence to a form that give his words a musical ring. Although it is believed he was actually tone deaf, he used a metronome to measure metre and usually adhered strictly to rhyming sequences. His method, allied with intense sensitivity, brought great popularity, and he revolted against an empire to sing his nation into existence. In his parting poem Under Ben Bulben he urges: ‘Irish poets learn your trade / Sing whatever is well made.’

Contrary to the stereotype, the poet is no dilettante, far from it, as Yeats asserts in Adam’s Curse: ‘A line will take us hours maybe; / Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, / Our stitching and unstitching has been naught’: it is the trick of great poetry to sound as if it has rolled off the tongue, but the apparent simplicity is the product of hard labour. We might recall Pascal’s apology for not have time to write a shorter letter.

The initial inspiration, or donné, for a poem gives way to the slow labour of moulding coherence, like a potter shaping clay on a wheel into a recognisable object. Slightly melodramatically Yeats says: ‘Better go down on the marrow bones / And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones / Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather; / For to articulate sweet sounds together / Is to work harder than all these.’ And the reward is only to ‘be thought an idler by the noisy set.’ That is not say that poetry simplifies, quite the contrary, as the poet and critic Kathleen Raine asserts: ‘With the greatest poetry the mystery only increases with our knowledge.’

Unfortunately in Ireland, as elsewhere, poetry is today largely removed from a popular audience. Seamus Heaney received widespread acclaim and a Nobel Prize in 1995 but his verse while rich in metaphor and word play does not flow like the greatest poetry: hardly a line of his has entered popular speech.

There is also a suspicion that as Oxford Professor of Poetry (1989-94) he was not at heart a rebel, and grew comfortable with his accolades. Recall that Yeats thrived on the tension of being an outsider: a Protestant, (usually) liberal in a conservative Catholic Ireland; an Irishman pining for Sligo in London; a Fenian when the Irish Parliamentary Party dominated Irish politics.

A rousing anger is rarely heard in Heaney; though the collection North (1975) is an exception, written at the height of the Troubles. In Ocean’s Love to Ireland he writes: ‘Speaking broad Devonshire / Raleigh has backed the maid to a tree / As Ireland is backed to England / And drives inland.’

The words have a frisson often missing from his oeuvre; perhaps he recoiled from a capacity to foment violence contenting himself with often obscure metaphor and personal recollection. But by generally removing himself from the cut and thrust of politics did he also hold back from challenging Ireland’s conservatism to the extent that Yeats had?

Led by T.S. Eliot, the second half of the twentieth witnessed the retreat of poetry from a popular audience. A morass of formless post-modern experimentation has followed that usually alienates the listener. But poetry reasserted itself in a different form with the advent of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s and 1960s as rhythm and blues and jazz combined with the folk revival. Accompanied by the essential instrument of the guitar, words were flowing again and a generation was almost stirred into global revolt.

Simultaneously in the Soviet Union, Russian chanson, simple songs also usually accompanied by guitar, emanating from the criminal underworld and the gulags challenged the authority of the state. Elsewhere, Bob Marley became a prophet to many in the Third World.

Unfortunately the music of the 1960s was corrupted by its commercial success and descended into narcissism, drug addiction and obscene materialism. There was also a racist dimension to its decline. In an interview last year Bob Dylan talked about starting off:

I was still an aspiring rock n roller. The descendent, if you will, of the first generation of guys who played rock ‘n’ roll – who were thrown down. Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis. They played this type of music that was black and white. Extremely incendiary. Your clothes could catch fire. When I first heard Chuck Berry, I didn’t consider that he was black. I thought he was a hillbilly. Little did I know, he was a great poet, too. And there must have been some elitist power that had to get rid of these guys, to strike down rock ‘n’ roll for what it was and what it represented – not least of all being a black-and-white thing.

He concluded that a bifurcation was orchestrated whereby ‘the black element was turned into soul music, and the white element was turned into English pop.’ Audiences were manipulated by big labels who asserted control over disk jockeys, and some black stars were persecuted. Chuck Berry at the height of his fame in 1962 was arrested on spurious charges, specifically ‘for transporting a minor across state lines for immoral purposes in violation of the Mann Act.’ This came shortly after he had established a racially integrated night club in St Louis.

The exuberant poetic rebellion of rock ‘n’ roll was contained within music, that most ancient and ideal of artistic forms. 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.’

Also, instructively, a number of more traditional poets shot to prominence in the 1960s including Alan Ginsburg. It was as if a generation was listening but they soon closed their ears.

But hope remains, and since the 1960s countless individuals have been stirred to strum a few chords and, often clumsily, express themselves, questioning perceived ideas and trawling their experiences as poetry does. Importantly, the accessibility of lyrics does not require strict adherence to a form that we associate with classical poetry as music has its own timeless patterns. A sweet melody hooks the listener as in, for example, Van Morrison’s word-in-song “Rave on, John Donne”, where the romantic vision of the poet or ‘Holy fool’ is set up in opposition to industrial civilisation.

Each generation must recast an art form, breathing fresh life into it and questioning the assumptions of their elders; new technology also spurs adventure, but sometimes ruptures can carry a movement down blind alleys. Since the 1970s the integration of music with the lyric has been on a downward spiral. Popularity is now overwhelmingly dictated by a resourceful industry that in recent times overcame the loss of revenue from direct sales of CDs and records by ratcheting up the prices of concerts and using television shows to generate publicity. It has reached a nadir in the diabolic X-factor shaping of Simon Callow.

Moreover, since the 1980s electronic music has re-invented itself – Terminator-like – assuming monstrous guises that have overwhelmed the human interaction with instruments. In the past an individual would spend the proverbial 10,000 hours learning her instrument, now all too often today the melodies are sampled. Just as the hard labour of developing rhyme and metre imposed a discipline on poets that makes their work accessible, the challenge of using one’s fingers to point to the right intervals inculcates a deep appreciation of music. The passage towards great art is usually the slowest.

Now the beat is all important at the expense of the melody and emotion. The word is sometimes an afterthought and the facility of the laptop allows experimentation ad nauseum producing bewildering arrangements that fail to evoke emotion.

In Emotion and Meaning in Music the musicologist Leonard B. Meyer argues that the arousal of emotion through music is the product of surprise after repetition: ‘the customary or expected progression of sounds can be considered as a norm, which from a stylistic point of view it is; and alteration in the expected progression can be considered as a deviation. Hence deviations can be regarded as emotional or affective stimuli.’ Measured dissonance is key to the exercise, but excessive deviation nullifies the effect.

Of course subtlety is not entirely absent in modern electronic music but generally the subservience of the melody to the beat leads to a loss of emotional arousal, seen in the robotic dancing of individuals in clubs around the world. Is it any wonder that a generation turns to drugs for the ecstatic?

The absence of emotion in music finds a parallel in the fetishisation of authenticity which in literature has found its apotheosis in the dreary autobiographical tomes of Karl Ove Knausgaard who subjects readers to the minutiae of his every experience as a microscope does a petri-dish. This might be situated in the tradition of Marcel Proust but the latter sought transcendence in the quotidian. Knausgaard simply grinds the reader further into the putrid details of his life as a dog-trainer compels a puppy to smell his shit.

In Michel Houellebecq’s last novel Submission the prizing of authenticity above other qualities is expressed by the main character François, an academic critic. 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 recent music, we find that in Amy Winehouse her great talent squandered in autobiographical recitation linking to her tragic self-immolation.

We fail to devote sufficient attention to the imaginative possibilities of the unconscious mind. Yeats’ poetry emerged through interaction with a fairy realm which he believed in profoundly. As Micheal Mac Liommar points out: ‘Yeats’ belief in ‘that nonsense’ was the most fundamental thing in his nature: it was at least as passionate and unshakable as the faith of any devout Christian, Buddhist, Jew or Mohammedan; if a little more restless in its search for some permanent shape’. Indeed his decision to self-identify as Irish, when he could easily have seen himself as English was grounded in a ‘conviction that Ireland had preserved … among less admirable things … a gift of vision.’

During the 1920s Yeats drew inspiration from the automatic writing that his wife George undertook as a medium. The investigation of the unconscious was also central to the Surrealist movement. In its 1924 manifesto, Andre Breton referred to: ‘psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express – verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner – the actual functioning of thought.’ Breton believed that a surrealist should be ‘Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern’.

Reversing Stalin’s dictum, Breton attributes many of the great scientific breakthroughs to the harnessing of the poetic imagination, arguing: ‘the conquests of science rest far more on a surrealistic than on a logical thinking.’ Today much art, including poetry, are over-thought and self-referential. But ‘True art’ wrote Yeats ‘is expressive and symbolic, and makes every form, every sound, a signature of some unanalysable imaginative essence.’

Contemporary art often lapses into an irony which pervades contemporary ‘hipster’ culture where meaning is conveyed by using language that expresses the opposite. Raine contends that: ‘Above all, the voice of true imagination is never ironic; that is the mark of a divided mind, whereas the imagination is above all at one with itself, the principle of unification and harmony.’ Ironic art is art that does not believe in itself and runs contrary to the poetic surrender to the imagination. Irony can only poke fun and subvert form.

Irony is the dominant note in a recent short film Our Kind by Alan Phelan that is currently exhibited in the Hugh Lane Gallery. The film is a counter-factual rendering of the life of Roger Casement which finds him in Norway in 1941 having survived the 1916 Rising. Instructions are required to understand its ‘meaning’. The artist writes:

‘there are few historically correct elements in the story presented. Instead we are given a very different scenario which in itself reflects the flaws common in the genre of historical drama for film, with its need to find drama in history, resulting in stories that speak more of the present than the past. Much of the scholarship surrounding Casement is similarly muddled, caught between interpretative approaches, political prejudices and at times an inverted homophobia that cannot come to terms with Casement’s personal and public lives. Several of these angles are woven into the story, often mis-represented and incomplete.’

It is a film made to look like a pastiche; a deadpan dismissal of the genre of historical fiction without value in itself. He continues ‘Our Kind cannot be viewed at face value. The meaning lies between the lies’. Or rather the meaning is in the accompanying notes. The film has no ‘vision’ or value in and of itself.

Critical ignorance is also conveyed in one review written by Aidan Wall in Totally Dublin who says that ‘The surreality of this fictionalised situation is heightened by the ever-shifting cinematography which refuses to settle into one coherent style’. The film actually runs contrary to the surrealist project which surrenders to an imagination which is never ironic. But by now the term surreal is debased coinage.

That is not to say that Ireland has lost its ‘vision’ entirely. Irish music often maintains a vibrancy and Dylan Tighe’s recent album Wabi Sabi Soul reveals a poet with a rebellious spirit. The singing is at time jarring and declamatory but a powerful lyrical effect is produced by the sweetness of the accompanying melodies that include contributions from the bass clarinet of Sean Mac Erlaine. Tighe raves on with references to mental health and a medical establishment which pathologies behaviour that might actually prompt artistic output. There is also a judicious sampling of Pope John Paul II’s speech in the Phoenix Park in 1979.

Tighe could easily write commercial songs that would not confront his listeners but he chooses to confront Ireland with its patriarchal legacy, countering that ‘women are healers’. In “Cult Leader” – the song featuring the Pope – he vows to ‘start my own religion’ with love as ‘the only weapon to fight the death of time’. It will be interesting to discover what direction this mercurial talent will take next.

Today poetry operates within the confines of a Neoliberal system which demands, no matter the occupation, that we constantly sell ourselves. Of course artists have always struggled to earn a living – it has become a cliché – but rarely has there been an era which has placed greater emphasises on self-promotion through a litany of online platforms and identities.

Writing in The Atlantic, William Deresiewicz argues that: ‘we have entered, unmistakably, a new transition, and it is marked by the final triumph of the market and its values, the removal of the last vestiges of protection and mediation. In the arts, as throughout the middle class, the professional is giving way to the entrepreneur, or, more precisely, the “entrepreneur”: the “self-employed” (that sneaky oxymoron), the entrepreneurial self.’ This, he argues, has come about because ‘The internet enables you to promote, sell, and deliver directly to the user, and to do so in ways that allow you to compete with corporations and institutions, which previously had a virtual monopoly on marketing and distribution.’

He asserts that: ‘What we see in the new paradigm – in both the artist’s external relationships and her internal creative capacity – is what we see throughout the culture: the displacement of depth by breadth.’ Thus it is more important for an artist to be able effectively to fill out a grant application than actually produced a compelling piece of work.

Deresiewicz concludes that in an environment where the customer is always right: ‘It’s hard to believe that the new arrangement will not favour work that’s safer: more familiar, formulaic, user-friendly, eager to please – more like entertainment, less like art.’

But actually what we define as ‘art’ might become increasingly confined to the elite environment of initiates with access to the notes accompanying the product. These ‘artists’ make their way by securing grants from public funds whose paymasters are persuaded by the strength of the proposal. Abstruseness seems to be prized based on an assumption that if it is inaccessible then it is worthwhile. As ‘difficulty’ becomes a criterion for success, the appeal of accessibility – that Yeats argued required the hardest labour – is ignored as it would be dismissed as a ‘lower’ art form.

Society at large is left to stew in X-factor detritus and dance mechanically in ecstatic parody. In these circumstances it might be argued that commercial failure is a poetic form of success. But there are undoubtedly audiences out there for true poetry. It is crucial that its dissonance and disjunction endures. Otherwise the creative possibilities of the imagination retreat and a crucial form of rebellion against the Neoliberal project is not advanced.

(published in Village Magazine, May, 2016)