Literary Voodoo in Czarist Russia

Literary Voodoo in Czarist Russia

Walking along the aptly-named River Dodder next to where I live I am given to speculation. I notice how, often, a dog’s physiognomy is similar to that of his owner. In making a choice of puppy, or breed, a putative owner seems to be unconsciously guided by an attraction to a dog, embodying characteristics of his own, or perhaps idealised ones. This makes the hound on the leash appear as an extension of the human holding him. The owner also drills his pet into conformity with how he wishes him to behave. Yet it seems that, over time, any dog imparts qualities of his own onto his owner too, thereby confounding the relationship. Ownership is thus reciprocal, involving self-love, an expression of ego, and mutual nurturing, potentially expanding a capacity for love on both sides. The bond is mutually-reinforcing: as the owner cares for him, so the dog protects and gives affection. It is a fascinating intimacy between species that have co-evolved since before the advent of agriculture. Our best, and worst, qualities are often revealed in human-canine relations.

Stories behave like dogs in some respects. They’ve been ‘man’s best friend’ since time immemorial, and been internalised as a collective unconscious beyond any individual’s life. Telling a tale is an expression of ego on the part of its creator, but stories also take on a life of their own. A wild nature attending any creation may refuse to obey the ostensible author’s command. Thus, Leo Tolstoy, as he wrote the eponymous novel, complained to his editor about the unpredictable conduct of Anna Karenina, who seemed unprepared to accept an allotted role, just as she rejects social conventions in the novel.

Once engendered, a great fable is unpredictable and beyond the control of its apparent creator, whose name is often forgotten in the retelling. Now Leopold Bloom’s life exceeds that of his creator James Joyce who may soon be forgotten on Bloomsday. In general literature nurtures, and expands a capacity for compassion, but fictions may also be destructive, especially where an ‘imagined community’ is concerned – as in nationalism – or in excessive veneration of religious tropes that breed fundamentalisms. The re-framing of narratives is essential in conflict resolution.

A cultural awakening often occurs before a precipitous decline into barbarity. The visionary artist intuits forthcoming ruptures, and is animated by a frenzied energy drawn from the zeitgeist. Nonetheless, no matter how compelling, his voice may only be heard in the wilderness of the avantgarde, or by posterity. A more intriguing spectre is that the artist engenders the scenes he depicts, and that stories are not mere prophecies, but work – in voodoo style – on the world he inhabits. This ‘magical’ view of literature, where the poet plays the role of a divine, might seem implausible, but it is apparent how life often imitates art, and that the sensibilities of groups of people are moulded by the stories they listen to. It is not only great artists that possesses these alchemical abilities, we all do to some extent, but any greatness is defined by the capacity of a work to take on a life, or afterlife, of its own. In this respect, it is worthwhile considering the Russian Revolution as a product of competing narratives, and characters, that emerged in the formidable Russian literature prior to the events.

The duel in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (1862) between the young nihilist Yevgeny Basarov and the older Romantic Pavel Kirsanov anticipates the competing sides in the Russian civil war over fifty years later. Each character displays heroic qualities, Kirsanov in his dedication to poetry, Basarov in his application to science, and the tragedy is no reconciliation is found between these essential disciplines.

Towards the end of the novel both characters play for the affections of the former servant Fenichka, who has already had a child with Nikolai, Pavel’s brother. Pavel witnesses Basarov making an unsolicited advance on her and, in his passion, demands satisfaction with pistols at dawn. Basarov emerges unscathed from the ensuing encounter, but Pavel receives a wound to the leg and departs into a depressing German exile, along with his old-fashioned ideas, just as White Russian emigres would depart in their droves after the Russian Civil War. Fenichka’s character may be interpreted as representing a pragmatic subaltern class, who dismisses the vainglorious Pavel. Similarly Czardom would react irrationally to progressive ideas and thereby fail to accommodate, or defeat, political movements appealing to reason and science that arose in Russia before the October Revolution.

Arguably, like the progressive ideas that animated many Russian Communist during the Civil War, there is to be no happy ending for Basarov either after the duel. Already, ‘irrational’ and ‘poetic’ feelings of love had grown up inside him, contrary to his intellectual will, for the aristocratic widow Anna Sergevna Odintsova, whose rejection leaves him a state of depression. Basarov’s rational self prefers the idea of casual, and animalistic encounters but he cannot help falling for the worldly Anna, despite his equation of love with a non-sensical poetic sentimentality. Anna might be identified with an establishment that will never be reconciled to a type such as Basarov, who, despite his erudition, is stigmatised by a humble background. Civil war looms, just as Aeneas’s rejection of Dido also amounted to a rejection of peace between Rome and Carthage, and foreshadowed an enduring conflict between East and West.

Basarov’s final demise is also tragic. He returns to his loving, but traditional parents and sets out to bring scientific rationality to freed serfs through his medical practice. But in the course of tending to the sick he too contracts an illness, from which he dies. Reason, it appears, cannot be implanted in the dark, irrational soil of Russia. The possibility of a peaceful resolution to Russia’s contradictions is glimpsed, however, in each of the successful love affairs of son and father, Arkady and Nikolai Kirsanov, the latter of whom bridges a class divide with his marriage to Fenichka. Both appear as a middle course between the competing extremes of Basarov and Pavel Kirsanov, but are less vivid, heroic and intelligent characters. It is hard to identify any real hope in Turgenev’s exile account of the looming conflicts in his homeland.

Likewise, the tactics proposed by Shigalyov in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel Devils (1872) seem to have been played out many years later in the Soviet Union under Lenin, and especially Stalin. Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky explains the plans of the revolutionary vanguard thus: ‘He has a system for spying. Every member of the society spies on every other one and is obliged to inform. Everyone belongs to all the others and the others belong to each one. They’re all slaves and equal in their slavery’. This impossibility of anyone evading an intelligence gathering apparatus recalls Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, George Orwell’s 1984, and even anticipates a dystopian Internet future, leading to: ‘Complete obedience, total loss of individuality.’ Dostoyevsky intuited how a secret police would dominate in ‘totalitarian’ regimes in Eastern Europe, ensuring the Revolution would not be an ongoing process of social and intellectual transformation.

Once in thirty years Shigalyov permits, however, an upheaval and ‘everyone starts devouring one another, up to a certain point, just to avoid boredom.’ This reflects the timeline of Nikita Khrushchev’s overthrow of the Stalinist system in 1956, culminating in Leonid Breshnev’s takeover in 1964, and the more extensive implosion of the Communist system under Yeltsin (1991-1999), preceding the present era of stability under Vladimir Putin, who was once a KGB agent.

The salvation for mankind that Dostoyevsky proposed through the writings of the Starets Zosima in his later novel The Brothers Karamazov (1880) has not been fully realised in Devils, although we do meet a monk called the Elder Tikhon whose philosophy foreshadows the Starets Zosima’s. He says to the character of Stavrogin after hearing him confess to unspeakable crimes: ‘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.’ Dostoyevsky envisioned religious faith as a moral force removed from the judgment from on high we may associate with many Christian denominations. Sin is seen as a collective error, rather than being attributed to any failing of an individual.

But in Devils the dominant voice of opposition to nihilistic tendencies eventually comes from the debauched poet and father of the revolutionary Pyotr, the liberal Stepan Verkhovensky who had been been tasked with teaching Stavrogin in his youth, with baleful results. In his last public speech at a fete which becomes the occasion for the descent of the town into anarchic violence, he pronounces with Byronic ardour:

I declare that Shakespeare and Raphael are more important than the emancipation of the serfs, more important than nationalism, more important than socialism, more important than the younger generation, more important than chemistry, almost more important than humanity, because they are the fruit, the genuine fruit humanity, and perhaps the most important fruit there is!

The claim that mankind can live without bread but not without beauty rings hollow, however, when expressed by a person who lives in a debauched aristocratic style. In the end it is through a return to a simple Christian faith that the exhausted Stepan retreats from his hauteur. Rejecting a nihilistic liberalism, he renounces worldly possessions and takes to the road as a supplicant. But by then he is a wasted figure, isolated from his community, his poetic talents long squandered.

It is left to his amoral son Pyotr to explain that the murders, scandals and outrages were committed to promote the: ‘systematic undermining of every foundation, the systematic destruction of society an all its principles’, which would: ‘demoralize everyone and make hodge-podge of everything’. Then, ‘when society was on the point of collapse – sick, depressed, cynical, and sceptical, but still with a desire for some kind of guiding principle and for self preservation’, his faction would, ‘suddenly gain control of it’. Thus Dostoyevsky through Pyotr foretells the methodology of the Bolshevik Revolution, and ultimate suppression of democracy in Russia. As in Turgenev, no reconciliation is envisioned in an impending civil war. Devils such as Pyotr and Stavrogin are beyond salvation it would appear. It is symptomatic that the character of Shatov, who has previously associated with the revolutionaries, but returns to a simple faith in God and humanity, is violently executed by his erstwhile associates.

It would be ludicrous to blame the excesses of the Russian Revolution on the writings of Dostoyevsky and Turgenev, but such active imaginations may be the authors of fate, and not simply prophetic. At least Dostoyevsky’s last novel The Brothers Karamazov offers a more optimistic vision for Russia, which perhaps still awaits. One wonders if a more rounded vision could have emerged if the author had written his proposed sequel. Alas, the premature death of the novelist at the age of fifty-nine, just a few months after completing it, ensures we will never know.

The novel was the dominant art form of the nineteenth century, but in reality few among a largely illiterate population, at least in Russia, would have actually read the texts we now see as dominating the period. Nonetheless, I retain a faith in the metaphysical capacities of great artists, such as Turgenev and Dostoyevsky, to shape the world around them; for their art to cross boundaries of time and space. At its height, poetry – especially that devoted to fictions – is a medium of revelation, which works without fear or favour. Northrop Frye understands that: ‘The poet is a magician who releases his magic, and thereby recreates the universe of power instead of trying to exploit it.’ This coheres with Percy Shelley’s assertion that the poets are the ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’.

This imposes a great burden of responsibility on the artist. But a genuinely creative person can never be held to account for the world she creates, and any effort to compel her to envision Utopian conditions is futile, as she is the agent of an unbiddable unconscious. This is the magic in art – and you just never can tell how the puppy is going to turn out.

(This article was published in the April/May edition of The London Magazine

Boys Do Cry – A Gonzaga Education

Boys Do Cry – A Gonzaga Education

Revelations of sex abuse in all-male private schools in past decades have been powerfully conveyed across the Irish media. That barbarism should not, however, deflect from other enduring problems. I believe grave damage is still being done to the development of boys in ostensibly civilised institutions. Moreover, unequal educational provision widens inequality, and underpins a pervasive competitive individualism. I draw on painful memories of my own educational experience in Gonzaga College SJ to provide a personal critique of private and all-male education.

In his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce’s boyhood character disparages children from non-private schools as “Mickey Muck and Paddy Stink”. We have an enduring educational snobbery, and many a privately-schooled chap still dons the proverbial old school tie.

By the 1920s, one of the leading Dublin Catholic secondary schools for boys of its time, O’Connell School on Richmond Street, recommended its pupils in the following terms: “Your ‘Richmond Street’ boy makes a good official. In the first place he possess the necessary academic qualifications to place him high on the examination lists. He has, in addition, certain qualities which make him a good colleague. This is an essential point. However clever an official he may be, he has to pull with the team …”. The abiding ambition of most all-male private schools remains not only to produce good examination results, but also to develop a cast of mind disposed to “pull with the team”, rather than swim against the tide. Jesuit institution have led the way in this regard.

Since independence a disproportionate number of high office holders in this state have been educated in Jesuit schools, Clongowes Wood SJ in Kildare, Belvedere College SJ in Dublin, and after its foundation in 1950, my own alma mater Gonzaga College SJ, also in Dublin. All three of these are all-male and private, while the first is also a boarding school.

The appointment of John Marcus O’Sullivan as Minister for Education in 1926 marked a tipping point such that non-combative Clongownians in the Cabinet outnumbered veterans of the 1916 Rising. Simon Coveney and Richard Bruton continue a long line of Clongownians, though the former was expelled, seemingly for under-age drinking.

This elite education is now more likely to produce managerial material in a thrusting private sector than diligent civil servants. But in these academic hothouses, creativity is still conflated with rebelliousness. After school, positions of influence, and wealth generation, are preserved by ‘old boy’ networks. Pressure is felt in middle class families to reproduce this status in their sons and, to a lesser extent, daughters.

A dominant Catholicism permitted horrific abuse against an older generation in Ireland. Nonetheless, professional lawyers applying Thomistic principles built a State founded on principles of universal justice. For good, and ill, Bunreacht na hEireann – our Constitution – is promulgated “in the name of the Holy Trinity”. The 1960s was the advent of an era of unprecedented judicial activism. By then most of our judges were drawn from all male, Catholic, especially Jesuit, schools. They “discovered” “Unenumerated Rights”, based on a Catholic Natural Law interpretation of the Constitution, an expansive approach the Court has since grown wary of.

Moreover, Fine Gael’s “Towards a Just Society” document, conceived by Belvedere-educated Declan Costello in the 1960s, aligned closely with Catholic social teaching after Vatican II, contemplating a society built on socialist principles, including state ownership of banks.

There are still Jesuits, such as the visionary Father Peter McVerry, who maintain a missionary vocation for social justice. But arguments for a fair distribution of wealth did not figure prominently during my own ‘Jesuit’ education, where charitable activities tended to be characterised by noblesse oblige, and an assumption that it was valuable to witness how ‘the other half’ lived. Class divisions were, if anything, upheld by an awareness of a pronounced economic fault line.

The 1990s was a peculiar era to be a teenager as Irish society embraced the conformities and staid hypocrisies, of 1950s America, which the beat poet Allen Ginsberg decried in his “Howl” (1954). He asked: “What sphinx of cement and aluminium bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?”. In both, a hypocritical conformity was maintained. We abided: “with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls”. Binge drinking – and later bad hashish – were our preferred responses to a creeping sense of purposelessness.

We stared agog at the fall of the Berlin Wall, and encountered foggy notions of an End of History. A pervasive popular culture, beholden to Mammon, including the exotic promise of sex in the sun played out on Australian soap operas, leached away instincts towards radical politics.

The Leaving Certificate-obsessed and rugby-besotted Gonzaga I encountered demanded a dull conformity that did not give room for progressive post-Catholic ideas to flourish. Free-ranging speculation of a sort associated with the intellectual, or poet, was widely scorned. We passed from strangling religiosity to Neoliberal vacancy without coming up for breath. This has hobbled some of our best minds.

Well before revelations of serious sexual misconduct, a Catholic ancien regime was already creaking, their pronouncements at odds with an upwardly-mobile generation of businessmen, who really ruled the roost. The emerging financial and technological sectors also boosted the professional classes, many of whose earnings spiralled.

Gonzaga College SJ is still among the leading all-male secondary schools in the country, claiming a thoroughbred stable of academics, lawyers, and politicians such as Anthony Clare, Michael McDowell, and Peter Sutherland, the so-called “father of globalisation”. A sense of meritocracy was based on an entrance exam and Leaving Certificate results that often bred a preening elitism, without consideration of the worth of either.

In my time, shades of Eton and Oxford co-habited with bog-Irish institutionalism, dissolving individuality into a corporate body toughened on rugby, and kept in check by cruel humour. Endowed with superficial polish, for many, meritocracy provided a fast train to plutocracy.

For ten years I spent most of my waking hours in a gilded cage: surveying the copper beech on the front lawn we were prohibited from setting foot on; running a gauntlet between the cynicism of peers and the naked ambition of certain teachers who saw students as examination numbers, or fodder for the rugby trenches. Fortunately I found interstices, where kindness and humour were weighed in the balance.

When I began the secondary cycle I dared opt out of playing rugby, and despite obtaining the necessary parental permission – I believe – I was selected for humiliation by the coach, who was also a teacher. As an awkward twelve-year-old I recall being ordered to stand with my back to the door for some minor infraction in one class. He warned menacingly that if anyone entered the room I would be stabbed in the kidneys by the knob. This version of Russian Roulette did not last long – the door never opened – but it had the desired effect.

In Gonzaga the real nastiness was expressed not in physical bullying but in contempt and exclusion – the not-so-subtle suggestion your face did not fit. This method honed a capacity for cutting speech advantageous in subsequent managerial careers. I acquired a forked tongue myself too, and am sadly aware that at times I threw my weight around.

Still, I recall tears welling inexplicably when it got too much. The memory of a “scrap” one lunchtime lingers. Tears flowed as a delighted crowd bellowed “AG-AGR-AGRO-AGRO”. My opponent repeatedly came at me with fists, which failed to land. I responded by putting him down with headlocks. At the end of ‘the fight’ he boasted he had won, because I had cried.

I hold an abiding image of stern-faced boys seated in rows down the classroom. Creative self-expression was left to a small group of self-identifying eccentrics who seemed unaffected by the constraints, but paid a price. They never had a hope with the local convent girls, put on occasional display as fragrant reward if you kept your head down, and kept shovelling at the Leaving Certificate pile.

Some years after leaving school, one of that rare breed was the random victim of what appears to have been a gangland initiation in windy Chicago. In my memory now he retains a mystic glow, insulating him from the petty egos in his midst: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, / dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix”.

Another offbeat character from my class died of cancer last year. I still remember him standing up to a suburban bully intent on giving me a beating. But in school he would eventually face exclusion once the bitching started. I probably played my part.

I lived with a sense of being devoid of intelligence for many years. As a contrarian teenager I viewed homework with suspicion, but would work hard if I found a subject compelling. This brought inconsistency: I fell behind in mathematical subjects, whose contents read like manuals of machines I had no use for. The contest we were involved in required a loser, and that’s how exam results often portrayed me.

In later years, my worst experiences came in English class, where a teacher shredded my self-confidence as a writer. This in a subject that should have transcended the educational trough I felt I was feeding from. His poignant remark at the end sixth year was that he never liked me for accurately mimicking him.

We were embedded in the white noise of a Catholicism that had lost its lustre; chained to catechism that nobody bothered uttering. We bowed before creaking totems of authority, choking any wonder in a divine creation our youthful minds might have conjured. There were a few Jesuits still teaching in my time, but they had none of the vindictive clarity inspiring James Joyce’s Portrait. Instead we found inchoate conviction in some, and angry pedantry elsewhere; no manifest evil, but misplaced servitude.

For a period in the early part of my schooling, a cabal of rugby coach-teachers instituted a system of chastisement known as the “Levels” (proceeding unimaginatively from one to three), requiring us to copy out meaningless texts for designated offences. It was nostalgia for the biff on their part: offending boys were compelled to queue up after school to await the sanction, and its accompanying venom. It worked as well at rehabilitation as most forms of punishment.

The power of dominant teachers was inversely proportionate to the authority of those more sensitive, whose lives we made a misery. Our shrill arrogance is still probably ringing in their ears. Alas, the unquestioned authority of the disciplinarians demanded this sacrificial contrast.

Human warmth was rare in those insipid corridors, least of all in toilets emitting such noxious odours that some pupils avoided defecating over all their years in school. I took to smoking in the bike sheds as a palliative to the recurring blues of each morning’s bell summoning us to classrooms loaded with the tedium of the syllabus. The Leaving Certificate was a results business, and Gonzaga was primed for that purpose.

In a throwback to another age, Gonzaga maintained instruction in Classical languages. I revolted instinctively against Latin as the language of oppressive scholasticism, but at least I was exposed to the pagan marvels of ancient epic, when Classical Studies was introduced to those who bridled at conjugations. The muses whispered through the cracks of a frigid structure, their contemplation assisted in later years by a female teacher who brought quietly subversive, feminist ideas.

Another teacher I encountered with genuine charm taught biology. There at last wide-ranging speculation was permitted, of a type usually denied to us in religion classes. I became an atheist when the simplicity of genetic inheritance was explained, cohering with a growing contempt for an institution that drew legitimacy from blind faith.

Of course it could have been a lot worse, more violent anyway. For me at least, the first ever lay headmaster who arrived in my fourth year felt like a breath of fresh air, conveying a decency usually sorely lacking. An occasionally mincing authority figure, he probably made being gay seem less of a mortal sin. However, he might have contributed to the entrenched elitism of our “little Eton”.

School life grew more tolerable as the years passed: livelong summer afternoons playing pick-up games of football on the back pitches come to mind, and activities with neighbouring girl schools diluted the overpowering maleness. I rose to officer class, performing in plays, once even captaining a rugby team.

Thankfully, I was excluded from the full-blown hypocrisy of being made a prefect. This prohibition came about after a friend and I recited a salacious poem at an inter-school debate: “expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull”.

In rugby, a sense of duty, not fun, was instilled, and certain coaches seemed to look favourably on a capacity for violence. In one senior second’s game I recall a member of our team kick an opponent full-force in the head. This required an ambulance to be called to the pitch. The next week the offender was elevated to the senior team.

I had been subjected to a similar attack in an earlier age group, when an opponent from another school stamped on my head, missing my left eye by half an inch. The next week I made my debut for the As, seemingly for sucking it up. Nevertheless I came to enjoy the game, on my own terms, mainly for the comraderie it brought.

I enjoyed the company of brilliant people growing up. Wits and raconteurs who would leave you breathless with laughter, but for anyone to emerge from that experience as an artist, or even entrepreneur, probably required purgation, and maybe a trip to a psychedelic Underworld. Sadly, great talent has been lost to artless corporate jobs. We were not encouraged to look askance at that grey world of conformity. It took me many years to escape that fate, and confront my background.

*************

Children require space for new ideas to germinate, especially as the social and economic fabric of post-Second World War societies unravel under the weight of grotesque inequalities, climate chaos and the epistemological confusion wrought by the new medium of the Internet.

In Ireland, as elsewhere, all-male private schools have long incubated an upper stratum, who accumulate wealth and set cultural norms. But a simmering violence and sense of entitlement damages many students, ossifies class divisions and muzzles creativity.

I shudder to think of societies of hundreds of young boys co-existing for years without an admixture of femininity. Most of us hardly set eyes on girls of our own age, who were not family members, for months on end. Studious boys, especially, didn’t tend to hang out with other kids in their neighbourhoods. Many of us have, I think, found it difficult to develop meaningful friendships with that dangerous creature referred to as the “opposite sex”.

All-male educational institutions, including Gonzaga College SJ should be abolished altogether. Men may come together positively of course, even through rugby, but to segregate boys and girls from one another entirely throughout their formative years creates unhealthy gender divisions. Statistics show boys perform better academically in mixed environments, and measures need to be taken to address the growing preponderance of girls in higher education.

Moreover, when all-male environments coincide with wealth and privilege this taps into energies that are the source of much of the corruption in the world. This seems brutally apparent when the aggrieved male ‘winner’ brings a sense of entitlement into his sexual relations.

The damage to many boys is also apparent from the number of young men who commit suicide in a society where all-male education is the norm. Survival in that social milieu often demands emotional suppression: the tears that welled inside me were the accumulation of years spent in a setting where showing your feelings was a sign of weakness.

Embracing best practice would see all abilities being taught in a single classroom until the age of sixteen. This is what the Finns have done, while topping European league tables in reading and science for fifteen-year-olds. The great benefit of this approach is that weaker students “scaffold” their learning on those who excel. This could play a vital role in generating wider equality.

It seems an odd situation where the state pays the salaries of teachers alongside fees averaging €6,000 per annum for a private day school in Dublin. This is an added burden on anxious middle class parents who fret about their children being disadvantaged by attending a state school.

A Gonzaga education did not involve the infliction of torture on me – or any contemporaries I know of – unlike other institutions have done. But it is at the apex of an educational system that encourages a competitiveness that is the foundation of our growing inequalities, and where an often clandestine violence smoulders.

Gonzaga carried the pretence of a Liberal education with its copper beech and Classicisms, but it merely equipped some of us for financial success. It did little to encourage the pursuit of social justice the Jesuit order claims as their vocation. Moreover, originality was – in my team at least – conflated with rebelliousness. Above all, it strove for its pupils to achieve high Leaving Certificate grades, and pull with the team.

Gonzaga was the worst, precisely because it was the best where savagery was expressed in taunts rather than blows: the apotheosis of all-male private schooling justifying the rest.

Unionists are seen as Irish ‘White Trash’

Unionists are seen as Irish ‘White Trash’

By 1900, when Joyce and Yeats were strutting the streets of Dublin, Belfast had a higher population. Moreover, Ireland is the only country in the world with a lower population now than in the early 1840s. The extensive livestock agriculture that dominated after the Great Famine depends on low labour inputs for profitability, and the Industrial Revolution never took off. Apart, that is, from in the north-east corner where Belfast was the industrial powerhouse in which the Titanic was built.

Today, like many other former industrial regions across an archipelago commonly referred to as ‘the British Isles’, Belfast and its hinterland has fallen into seemingly irreversible decline. A succession of industries have departed, notably the Harland and Wolff plant, while efforts in the 1980s to resuscitate a flagging economy, such as the arrival of the DeLorean motor factory, failed spectacularly. Of course the Troubles played a significant role in turning the Northern Irish economy into a basket case dependent on subsidies from HM’s government, but this stagnation has more to do with Belfast being a part of the first wave of the Industrial Revolution, like other post-Industrial cities across the North of England. The peace dividend in Northern Ireland was negligible, and even after s spectacular economic crash the Irish Republic is considerably richer.

Working class Protestant and Unionist communities also lack a tradition of prizing academic education, while historically even poor Catholic family, across Ireland, would have been accustomed to having a bright son study for the priesthood or enter the civil service. Leaving school at a young age to enter into an industrial job was linked to religious affiliation in Northern Ireland, where Catholics were often discriminated against. ‘Low church’ Protestantism tended to encourage education to a point where a person could read the bible in their vernacular. Catholicism on the other hand invited scholarship in a number of languages, as well as surveying a philosophical tradition dating back to Aristotle. This brought Irish Catholics into the mainstream of European culture.

The dominance of the Catholic Church over education in the Republic permitted terrible abuses, but religious orders played an important role in educating a population much of which was living in poverty, at least until the 1960s. Alongside the introduction of free secondary education under Donnacha O’Malley in 1966, this provided the intellectual capital for the emergence of the Celtic Tiger.

Until the late 1990s, Ireland was a highly conservative society by European standards, with divorce permitted only after a referendum in 1996, but since then the liberal intelligentsia have become the dominant force politically. The Marriage Equality Referendum revealed the increasing dominance of liberal ideas in mainstream media and politics. The victory of the unapologetically gay and half-Indian Leo Varadkar in the Fine Gael leadership election this year, and his subsequent popularity, appeared to reveal the Irish as a cosmopolitan outward-looking people; although continued absence of access to abortion in the Republic puts the state at odds with most other countries.

Having secured peace through the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the gun seemed to have been finally taken out of all-Ireland politics, and since then Southern Irish liberals have tended to ignore the North. Most Dublin people I know have absolutely no interest in visiting there either, even though it’s only a couple of hours away. But Brexit and the prior collapse of the Northern Executive has re-acquainted liberal Ireland with the Northern Question, just as Westminster is now haunted once again by its own existential Irish Question.

It is hardly surprising that the DUP, which now represents the main body of working class Unionists, aligned itself with the Brexiteers in the UK. Lest we forget, Brexit was to some extent the revolt of the English working class who were doing poorly under the Common Market. Cities such as Sunderland (61%) and Hull (67%), structurally, and in religious makeup, similar to Belfast, voted by large majorities to leave the Union.

There were many reasons for Brexit, and also for the success of Trump, not least the cognitive unwinding that seems to have come about in the first wave of the Internet Revolution. The sounds chambers of social media seem to have amplified grievances and opinions. Liberal and Conservative have each become more shrill in their condemnation of one another, epitomised by Hilary Clinton’s condemnation of ‘the basket of deplorables’ who supported Trump.

This may have helped Trump’s side characterise themselves as defenders of a put-upon common man in states such as Pennsylvania. Liberal condemnation of the ‘white’ working class is common across Europe, as any defence of cultural relativism excusing their conduct does not usually apply. Simon Kuper observed in the Financial Times (17/2/16) when visiting white working class areas in Manchester and Lyon that he: ‘hadn’t realised just how much the white working classes are mocked.’ They can be referred to as ‘chavs’ in Britain, ‘white trash’ in the US and, sometimes ‘beaufs’ (‘oiks’) in France: ‘“Poverty porn” TV shows make fun of supposedly lazy, half-witted, track-suited scroungers.’ As a result: ‘Many poor whites complain that the “elite” care about ethnic minorities and gay people but not about them.’ This old-fashioned social snobbery is often evident in ‘respectable’ journalism, and its ventilation does not breach the same taboo as racism.

In the Irish media and politics the DUP are often portrayed as equivalent to a white trash on the economic scrapheap, with their noxious homophobia and ludicrous low church Protestantism. The high priest of Irish liberalism Fintan O’Toole often subjects them to ridicule, which falls short of outright abuse. Thus he wrote in June:

Dante and Beatrice. Quasimodo and Esmeralda. Cyrano and Roxane. Don Quixote and Esmeralda. These unrequited loves have great poignancy. But they’ve nothing on the tenderest, most poignant tale of unrequited love in our times, the tragically one-sided crush the DUP has on Britain.

He takes an unseemly glee at their political naivete:

It is one thing to be infatuated with someone who just ignores you. The unfulfilled love retains its bittersweet purity, its dreamy half-life of pure possibility. But the true tragedy occurs when your love is apparently consummated at last and you find that the loved one really despises you. The DUP has long dreamed of being wrapped fully in the warm embrace of the Tory world with which it strives so hard to identify. And now, miraculously, its moment has come. But the loved one is thinking of England, sneaking glances at her watch and praying “Oh god! When will this be over?”

The commonalities between the English working class ‘chav’ and the DUP ‘trash’ become more apparent:

does it [the DUP] notice that, even as the Tory party clasps it to its bosom, the lack of enthusiasm would be scarcely less evident if the Tories were wearing rubber gloves and surgical masks? They are not swooning with love, they are fainting with revulsion. The DUP may think it is coming home; most Tories think the mad woman has come out of the attic of an old hyper-Protestant British identity and is sitting in the parlour demanding tea and scones with lots of jam and a bucket of clotted cream. She has to be humoured for now, but only until there is some way to get rid of her.

O’Toole has also been a trenchant critic of the inequalities that beset ‘liberal’ Ireland, but an article he wrote in June for the New York Times puts a rather different spin on modern Ireland. He wonders whether Irish people should be allowed a moment of schadenfreude as we ask whether the Brexit-voting English are fit for self-government, and refers to Theresa May government’s reliance in Westminster on a small party from Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party, that trades on a ‘backward expression’ of British and Protestant identity.

He contrasts this with Dublin where a new prime minister Leo Varadkar is 38, half-Indian and gay, as well as being ‘leader of what is traditionally the most conservative of the Irish political parties, Fine Gael, long a bastion of Catholic moral values.’ Irish people he says ‘like him or dislike him to the extent that they like or dislike his party and the minority government it leads. The rest is just personal detail, interesting but of minor significance.’ Surprisingly, there is no mention of Varadkar’s conduct as Minister for Social Protection when he launched a campaign against ‘welfare cheats’, which seemed a calculated appeal to his own thrusting constituency.

Moreover, I am not convinced the Catholic Right has been completely extinguished from Irish politics. Overall, I find the tone unsettling: the division between the backward DUP, and the suave cosmopolitan Irish, epitomised by Mr Varadkar. O’Toole also reminds his American readers that Varadkar is a doctor now faced ‘with a neighbor going through a nervous breakdown’, which, ‘will need his best bedside manner.’ The intellectual gap is emphasised, but O’Toole must surely recognise that the shrill superiority of the liberal emboldens the reactionary.

One senses that this is a journalist playing to his gallery, and, frankly, seeking clicks online. An intellectual such O’Toole can do better. Indeed, one of the reasons why the DUP scuppered Theresa May’s first attempt to agree on terms with her European counterparts may have the crowing from the Irish media, not just of politicians.

On RTE’s Liveline, where our old friend Damien O’Reilly was sitting in for Joe Duffy, a pro-Remain Unionist guest, Will Taylor, told the aspiring shock-jock that ‘the example you give is almost inflammatory’. O’Toole himself, in reaction to the final agreement, triumphantly wrote: ‘To adapt Henry Ford, Britain can have any Brexit it likes, so long as it is green.’

I would like to see a United Ireland come about in my lifetime because I think the presence of a border represents a failure to reconcile diverging ideas. I believe the industrious Unionist people have a lot to offer the Republic; Protestant rationality has bred technical acumen that seems to have missing since the inception of the Irish state. I also suggest that stolid working class Unionist values would not have permitted the level of mendaciousness which has been tolerated of politicians in this Republic. The great tragedy of Irish history in my view is the failure of the United Irishmen of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter to remain a political force.

And let us not delude ourselves as O’Toole seems to be in some of his gushing articles in the foreign press, the Liberal, or really Neoliberal, Ireland of Varadkar is a country increasingly short on compassion for the poor. Health and education provision are steadfastly two tier, and if you don’t work in the corporate sector there is little chance of you even being able to afford to rent a house in Dublin’s city centre. The streets of Dublin are still filled with human casualties that hark back to a time when the city had comparably poverty to Calcutta, and the area beyond the Pale never recovered from the Crash. Varadkar’s only ideological commitment is to people who get up early in the morning, like himself.

While rejecting their xenophobia and homophobia, I suggest Irish politics could benefit from integrating working class values and technical skills. It might even be able to stop looking at Brexit as an earth-shattering calamity, but an expression of British exceptionalism that was never going to be accommodated in an ever-closer European Union.

I even dream of a time in Ireland when social discontents are no longer channelled through parties that draw their identities from approaches to the national question, from Fine Gael through to the DUP. If anyone wants to see a United Ireland they should be receptive to the Unionist identity, and failure to accommodate this is also a failure of imagination.

The Technological Savage

The Technological Savage

(Published in the Dublin Review of Books, December 2017)

In 1983 the world came within a whisker of nuclear Armageddon when Soviet satellite photos mistakenly revealed NATO missiles in the sky. Only the impulsive refusal of Russian officer Stanislav Petrov to believe his eyes prevented mutually assured destruction being set in train. Now a US President threatens to ‘totally destroy’ another nuclear-armed country – with twenty-five million inhabitants – using the same technology. Evisceration by mistake or design, it hardly matters to the millions of people and other life forms caught in the conflagration. It just takes one fat finger to push the button, or for that matter to pull the trigger on conventional weapons widely available to citizens of the dominant superpower.

Armed with such weapons, it is hard to rebut Carl Jung’s charge that modern man is a ‘technological savage’. He believed this stemmed from denial of a primitive or primordial self, previously expressed in religious rituals and popular rites. Instead the intellectual zeitgeist is an ideal of infinite progress that permits rapid digestion of the planet, with scientists often oblivious to the consequences of their innovations. Homo sapiens has long displayed destructive tendencies, and, armed with our latest tools, we wreak unprecedented environmental havoc, while mistakenly assuming that technological advances improve our collective decision-making. How we chart a course for humanity requires different lenses, as Yuval Noah Hariri points out in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind Hariri: ‘by definition it [science] has no pretensions to knowing what should be in future. Only religions and ideologies seek to answer such questions.’ Science must be reconciled to these objectives.

Nuclear proliferation after World War II raised the stakes such that Nuclear Powers have not waged war with one another since Japan was bombed into submission in 1945. Instead, we saw proxy conflicts from Greece to Afghanistan throughout the Cold War, and further peripheral engagements since the fall of the Soviet Empire, but none between members of the nuclear ‘club’, or their allies. No wonder the leader of a ‘rogue’ state should wish to join the top table, having witnessed the grizzly fate of other ruling regimes previously stigmatised. But if we are to take the hectoring ‘leader of the free world’ at his word, even nuclear capability may no longer confer immunity.

Nevertheless, Hariri proposes that ‘the Nobel Peace Prize to end all peace prizes should have gone to Robert Oppenheimer and his fellow architects of the Atomic Bomb’. He admits the assessment may be naïve and, since the success of Trump and other ‘morons’, that seems increasingly so. One psychotic leader – and democracy is no guarantee against this coming about as the Nazis electoral success underlines – or just a technological glitch, could unleash a dread spectre. There is also the possibility of a nuclear power station malfunctioning, as we saw in Chernobyl; or being subjected to a natural disaster, such as a the tidal wave that washed over Fukushima; or even a reactor being attacked by terrorists. Nuclear fission is intrinsically dangerous, and its by-products almost eternally toxic.

The end of the Cold War represented our best chance of decommissioning these horrendous weapons, but this was not given serious consideration, as the United States of States took on the role of Global Policeman, with Britain acting as its obsequious sidekick. The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 spelt the demise of a lingering hope for multilateralism.

Now the majority of politicians in Britain, including in the Labour Party, consider nuclear capability a totem of national sovereignty, and funnel billions into the Trident programme. The once mighty Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament barely flickers; its logo a vaguely nostalgic reminder of student idealism. The recent award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons seems more of an expression of the aspirations of the Committee than a reflection of that NGOs ability to enter popular consciousness.

Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein or the modern Prometheus (1818) is a great parable for our time, in which a bionic monster torments his master for failing to acknowledge his responsibility. It spawned a new genre in science fiction, which grapples with technological advances in a way novels usually no longer attempt. ‘At the time’, according to Amitav Ghosh, ‘there does not seem to have been any sense that Frankenstein belonged outside the literary mainstream, only later would it come to be regarded as the first great work of science fiction’.

The book’s disarming implication is of profound monstrosity lurking, not in an impressionable invention, but in humanity itself. The invention is neither beneficial nor harmful, but a reflection of the human world in which it co-exists. Victor Frankenstein’s creature is born with a pure heart, and it is only when his friendly overtures towards humans are rudely rebuffed that his diabolical tendencies are unleashed. Towards the end of the book he reveals: ‘When I first sought it, it was the love of virtue, the feelings of happiness and affection with which my whole being overflowed, that wished to be participated. But now, that virtue has become to me a shadow, and that happiness and affection are turned into bitter and loathing despair’.

Abandoned by his creator and without a friend in the world the monster casts a long shadow, killing members of Victor’s family. Crestfallen, Victor eventually consents to build a mate in exchange for an end to this reign of terror. But at the last moment he destroys her, shuddering to think that ‘future ages might curse me as their pest, whose selfishness had not hesitated to buy its own peace at the price perhaps of the existence of the whole human race.’ In revenge the monster kills Victor’s own wife on their wedding night. United in grief, Victor meets his doom in a the polar wastes as he vainly pursues that shadow.
Finally, over Victor’s corpse the monster announces:

I shall die, and what I now feel be no longer felt. Soon these burning miseries will be extinct. I shall ascend my funeral pile triumphantly and exult in the agony of the torturing flames. The light of that conflagration will fade away; my ashes will be swept into the sea by the winds. My spirit will sleep in peace, or if it thinks, it will not surely think thus. Farewell.

Through Victor’s belated self-sacrifice the genii is put inside the bottle, and humanity might endure. If only it was so easy.

A host of Hollywood potboilers have followed the same theme of the destructive capacity of scientific innovation. One such was the Terminator series which posited a nuclear calamity brought on by rebellious robots, who acquire the most diabolical human traits. A succession travel back in time to eradicate John Connor, the future human leader of the human resistance, along with his doughty mother, Sarah Connor.

In Terminator II (1991) the leading engineer of cyborg technology Miles Bennett Dyson takes responsibility for his work and abets the destruction of the technology, dying, like Victor Frankenstein, in the process. A further parallel with the novel is that at the end of the film the benign robot, played by Arnold Schwarzneigger, demands his own destruction in a pool of molten metal, exultantly fading away in the “light of that conflagration”.

In both cases catharsis arrives only when the inventor acknowledges responsibility. In the real world such foresight is scarcely possible, and once a technological frontier is crossed only rarely is a reversal possible: scientific advances often serve simply to amplify our destructive capacity, even if the original motivation is speculative.

Thus, although the unprecedented breakthroughs in physics during the early part of the twentieth century were motivated by a genuinely enquiring spirit, these developments permitted less scrupulous scientists to develop a nuclear bomb, and allowed even less scrupulous politicians to deploy it. Gar Alperovitz’s The Decision to use the Atomic Bomb (1995) presents compelling evidence that President Harry Truman and his Secretary of State Harry S. Bryant ordered bombs to be dropped on Horoshima and Nagasaki not to defeat Japan, but as a warning to the Soviet Union; and that General Marshall’s proposal to drop it on a non-civilian target was ignored. Geologists date the beginning of the Anthropocene from this point, and it is worthwhile considering human history in terms of ‘the before and after’ this terrifying exhibition of this technology.

History reveals that once one power acquires a new weapon whether it is the horse, the canon or the machine gun, the rest will follow or face annihilation. Rarely, if ever, is a military technology put aside. Moreover, even if an innovation is designed for the benefit of humanity it may well have devastating side-effects, as we are discovering with innovations such as the Haber-Bosch process that manufactures artificial fertilizer from natural gas.

This appeared to solve the age-old problem of field crops depleting nitrogen from the soil, and farmers having to keep fields periodically fallow. In combination with mechanization and improved breeding it brought the so-called Green Revolution that permitted exponential population growth over the course of the twentieth century. But besides seemingly solving the problem of global food scarcity we created another in feeding over half of all cereal crops to other animals, and developing an insatiable desire for meat. This has reduced much of the world to a patchwork of fields that rely on chemical inputs for life, and billow Greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Similarly, the Internet is an invention with extraordinary capacities for expanding awareness and knowledge, but social media has facilitated surreptitious methods of influencing voter behaviour. The current US President is a master of the short written form of the tweet, and his allies have also used Facebook to devastating effect. Unknowingly, the earnest scientific minds that developed the Internet have created an propagandistic monster, which threatens nuclear Armageddon.

Yet it is still commonly assumed that advances in scientific education elevate human consciousness. Expressing the optimism of the Enlightenment in The Descent of Man Charles Charles Darwin proposes that the history of man’s moral development has been a continual extension of the objects of his “social instincts” and “sympathies”:

Originally each man had regard only for himself and those of a very narrow circle about him; later he came to regard more and more “not only, the welfare, but the happiness of all his fellow men”; then “his sympathies” became more tender and widely diffused, extending to men of all races, to the imbecile, maimed and other useless members of society, and finally to the lower animals.

Of course there is some substance to Darwin’s claim. Over the course of the last century the chance of someone dying in violent circumstances has diminished significantly. The archaeological evidence from prehistory suggests far more of us were killed in violent circumstances than is the case in most societies today. Life for the foraging homo sapiens was generally nasty and brutish, though rather less short than one might expect. The restricted diets of early agricultural civilisation, which also brought most communicable diseases from animal husbandry, lowered life expectancy considerably. But as for our relationship with so-called lower animals, that is another story: one of unremitting devastation.

Most creation myths hark back to a Fall before which our species lived in balance with Nature. Some contemporary versions imagine us living like bonobos, playing erotic games from dawn and dusk, as we swung through trees in search of sweet fruits. But well before the Industrial Revolution, or even the first Agricultural Revolution that produced civilisation just about twelve thousand years ago, homo sapiens had embarked on our wild career of ecocide.

An ability to utilise fire gave all hominoid species, including homo Neanderthalensis, a Promethean capacity to alter the landscape unlike any animal up to that point, but homo sapiens also exhibited an unprecedented tendency to wipe out large fauna, once we preserved a bridgehead out of Africa.

We began by eradicating bigger-brained relatives such as homo Neanderthalensis and homo Denisovan – although we acquired a few of their genes along the way – before hunting large fauna such as the Woolly Mammoth to extinction. Worse followed when we announced our arrival in the Americas and Australia by wiping out most large – many of them apparently docile – fauna within a short period of our arrival. As Hariri puts it: ‘the historical record makes homo sapiens look like an ecological killer’.

According to Hariri what distinguished homo sapiens from other hominoids is a capacity to invent fictions that are vital for togetherness. Such mythologies survive in modern societies, not just in religious worship, but also in legal fictions such as the separate legal personality of companies and the imagined communities of nation-states. A conceit also underlies trust in the money economy where the actual amount in coins and notes in circulation is less than ten per cent of the notional amount that keeps commerce afloat.

Moreover, we maintain the myth that we are, for the most part, doing ‘good’ in the world. But we cannot get away from the shocking casualties that our success as a species has brought to others. We are now living through the Sixth Extinction, but it is hardly considered newsworthy.

There are now over seven billion humans in world which have a combined weight 300 million tonnes, while other animals domesticated by humans weigh up to 700 million tonnes. All other surviving large wild animals (including marine life and birds) weigh a mere 100 million tonnes. That is a ratio of ten to one between the human world and wild animals.

Also, the conditions in which most domesticated animals now live and die is one of unrelenting torture. In Hariri’s plausible view: ‘over the last two centuries tens of billions of them have been subjected to a regime of industrial exploitation whose cruelty has no precedent in the annals of planet Earth.’ We may not be killing and maiming one another to the same extent, but technology allows us to distance ourselves from unspeakable exploitation of domesticated animals, while eradicating the habitats of most wild animals. Eventually as Hariri indicates, this ‘orgy of reckless consumption’, may destroy the foundations of human prosperity too. That is what many Climate Scientists are predicting at least. Is it too late to turn the ship around?

There is no easy way out of the pickle that humanity finds itself in. No bride of Frankenstein’s monster can be sacrificed on the funeral pyre. We cannot return to subsistence in restored forests, as these would never support our present numbers. Traditional methods of farming are not going to feed us either. The scientific revolution and the discovery by Europeans of new continents has got us into the mess we are in, and science has to dig out a way for us. Synthetic meats and clean energy are viable alternative, but we need to alter the terms of the relationship between science and other fields.

According to the philosopher Mary Midgely: ‘the very word ‘science’ which had originally meant knowledge or understanding in general, gradually became narrowed during the nineteenth century to mean only physical science’ She argues that if we are to deal with major questions we will have to combine ‘several different methods belonging to different disciplines.’ She charges the Pythagoreans with rejecting an Earth Mother in favour of disembodied mathematical forms in the physical world. Pythagoreans identified intuitive female qualities as evil, and good ones as rationally masculine, a tendency exhibited by scientists ever since, so she argues.

The prevailing narrow focus tends towards abstractions that ignores a wider assessment of consequences. The success of a polymath such as Aristotle is today unthinkable. Specialisation has reached a point where according to Richard Feynman: ‘There are too few people who have such a deep understanding of two department of our knowledge that they do not make fools of themselves in one or the other’. Similarly, Einstein wrote that ‘specialisation in every sphere of intellectual work … is producing an ever-widening gulf between the intellectual worker and the non-specialist worker’, adding that ‘since the mathematicians have invaded the theory of relativity, I do not understand it myself any more’!

Scientists who go into great depth on a particular subject may lose sight of the implications of their innovations, just as Victor Frankenstein chose to ignore what he had done. We also face the huge problem of funding being directed by short-term commercial gain, and the influence of lobbyists on government investment. As Hariri puts it: ‘many scientists do, in fact, act out of pure intellectual curiosity. However, only rarely do scientists dictate the scientific agenda.’ The education system as it is currently ordered ill-equips them for this role.

Any scientific education should be linked to an appreciation of the arts which lay bare the human condition and imagine a multiplicity of realities. Therein lies the key to charting the future. Thus Aristotle writes that ‘it is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen’. A broader education should also encourage artists to become more scientifically literate, perhaps giving rise to new creative forms. In return scientists will be afforded the creative vision of art to plot a route for humanity out of the impending crises we face. The artist and the scientist may work as one.

More controversially, it is still possible to envisage a place for religion in the modern world as we seek to temper an innate savagery that has harnessed technology. As Laurens van der Post puts it: ‘For me the passion of spirit we call “religion”, and the love of truth that impels the scientist, come from one indivisible source, and their separation in the time of my life was a singularly artificial and catastrophic amputation.’ The progress that Darwin observed in human empathy originates in large part from religious sensibility, seen in its widest terms. A dogmatic atheism is alien to our nature.

But religious devotion has erred terribly in venerating ourselves as God’s chosen species over the rest of Nature. Monotheist religions in particular must accept a broader responsibility, as the current Pope Francis has done, at least in part. We demand a Reformation in the human spirit to save us from intellectual savagery. The portents are monstrous. Either we come to terms with technological barbarity, or we face annihilation.

(http://www.drb.ie/essays/the-technological-savage?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=The%20Dublin%20Review%20of%20Books%20December%202017&utm_content=The%20Dublin%20Review%20of%20Books%20December%202017+CID_1da11dd7cbee533f603179e993015412&utm_source=Email%20marketing%20software&utm_term=The%20Technological%20Savage)

Sport offers mythology for our time.

Sport offers mythology for our time.

Across the world, every week, millions of men and women descend on stadia in homage to sporting spectacles. Countless others, of all ages, slouch before TV sets, and even squint into smartphones to satisfy a compulsive appetite, which I know too well. In Ireland we have a particular grá for team sports, as participants but mostly as viewers, or even as virtual participants, with the advent of video games.

The rewards for sportsmen, in particular, are stupendous, but the inequalities increasingly stark. For all the heroes receiving the adulation of the assembled masses, there are countless others left on an unforgiving scrapheap, sometimes even injured for life by the ruthless demands of their professions.

The popularity of sport as entertainment stretches far back into history, of Europe in particular. The gathering of crowds for sporting occasions was a feature of societies during Classical Antiquity, where spectacles were linked to religious worship. Dedicated to Zeus, the Panhellenic Olympics of Ancient Greece ran from 776BC until 393AD, attracting participants from all the Greek cities, affirming a collective identity in the process. Today the divine survives as sporting metaphor.

Later, Ancient Romans were fanatically devoted to circus, involving gladiatorial duels to the death, to which the impressive ruins of the Colosseum attest. It was the poet Juvenela (d.c. AD100) who witheringly identified bread and circus as the means by which the political temper of his countrymen was becalmed.

On a less impressive scale, sport continued as an important feature of life in medieval Europe, where knights tested their valour in vainglorious jousts, often for the edification of damsels. Moreover, an obsession with hunting, steeped in ritual rather than necessity, was also evident among those at the apex of the feudal pyramid. Pursuit of animals was not motivated by their utility as food, still referred to, revealingly, as ‘game’: its consumption conferred a status beyond gastronomic pleasure. The hunt habituated men to the sight of bloodshed, and the thrill of the kill.

Pre-modern sports bore a close resemblance to warfare, and the conditioning of a participant overlapped significantly with a warrior’s training. Tests of physical prowess such as wrestling – advantageous on the battlefield – have long been popular, but also skills such as archery, or javelin, drawn directly from warfare or hunting. An audience could experience the thrill of battle without risking dismemberment; lurid passions sublimated in the gruesome spectacle. Whether this appreciation whetted or becalmed a thirst for blood is debatable.

George Orwell assumed the worst claiming: ‘sport is an unfailing cause of ill-will’. But to deny the pleasure that an audience derives seems curmudgeonly, and sport is often a source of community in otherwise lonely circumstances, that need not depend on antipathy towards the opponent. Such animosities as do arise may express underlying tensions; as when Hooliganism in Britain came to prominence after Thatcherism ripped apart the social fabric of that society.

The nineteenth century incubated most of the world’s sport in Britain, where the Industrial Revolution began in earnest. There, mass attendance of sporting events by a new working class originates. Stadiums that could accommodate tens of thousands sprang up in fast-growing cities to satisfy a new-found appetite for weekend leisure activities. During the nineteenth century in Britain we find the codification of sports such as Football, Cricket, Rugby (Union and League), tennis, and field hockey all of which now have a global reach. We also see games such as golf, and motor racing emerging in more rarefied circles. Interesting, it is mainly in the Anglosphere that alternative sports emerged to confront the British invasion; in the United States, basketball, American football, baseball and ice hockey; while in Ireland the GAA developed its own distinctive codes. This demonstrates the importance of sport as a source of identity in an English-speaking world where other culture markers, such as gastronomic appreciation, were less marked. In James Joyce’s Ulysses the character of the Cyclops is generally identified with the founder of the GAA, Michael Cusack, who spouts the xenophobic bile Orwell would expect. It is striking that most non-English-speaking countries have had far less compunction about absorbing originally British sports into their culture.

The popular sports in our time depart from Classical and medieval precedent – notwithstanding the revival of the Olympics in 1896 – in the skills demanded of the participants. Although most contemporary sports still require serious athleticism, their skill set would be of no particular use to a soldier, especially one engaged in modern, technological warfare; perhaps a gamer might be more useful. Nonetheless, modern sport remains tinged with martial fervour, accessing, and perhaps controlling, that primal instinct to compete and, for men especially, to discuss the competition. Orwell opines that: ‘At the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare’, but in the 1940s when he wrote most men, unlike today, had military training and were simply reverting to type when they took to the field.

Confrontations are not as anarchic in most sports as they once were. Even in the 1970s a high profile rugby match could easily descend into an all-out brawl involving every player on the pitch, as with the British and Irish Lions notorious ‘99’ call against South Africa. Most sporting authorities now clamp down heavily on violence that is not permitted within the rules of the game, and the television camera makes it difficult for serial offenders to escape detection.

The demonic ‘Judge’ Holden in Cormac McCarthy’s blood-stained novel Blood Meridan (1985) describes war as ‘the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence’. He proposes that:

Men are born for games. Nothing else. Every child knows that play is nobler than work. He knows too that the worth or merit of a game is not inherent in the game itself but rather in the value of that which is put at hazard. Games of chance require a wager to have meaning at all. Games of sport involve the skill and strength of the opponents and the humiliation of defeat and the pride of victory are in themselves sufficient stake because they inhere in the worth of the principals and define them.

Indeed, the higher the stakes, the more gripping a sporting fixture becomes, and the worth of the participant may be defined by his success or failure at crucial moments. But ‘the Judge’ is correct only to a point. Sport is never a zero sum game as a crowd will also honour a team or individual who loses with good grace, and sport is not simply about victory; ‘greatness’ is also measured by how a loser conducts himself in defeat. Moreover, cheats that betray the Corinthian spirit of fair play and endeavour to win at any cost are generally loathed. Users of banned substances in particular are treated as latter-day devils.

As we enter a phase of history when a capacity to kill another human being is, thankfully, rarely called on, sporting traditions have developed a scale of excellence individual to themselves, albeit atavistic tendencies still lurk in their appreciation. It is striking that Carl Jung regarded games as being of the utmost importance to the wellbeing of societies. He said that ‘civilisations at their most complete moments … always brought out in man his instinct to play and made it more inventive’. Sport, he proffered, connects us to our ‘instinctive selves’.

Ancient epics, the Greek Iliad, Odyssey and Roman Aeneid all feature games as an essential ‘heroic’ expression. In the Iliad after the funeral of his comrade Patroclus, Achilles offers prizes to competitors in a number of events. The first is the chariot race in which Diomedes emerges as the victor. Afterwards Achilles reveals his sympathies for Eumelus whose chariot fell apart due to the intervention of the goddess Athena, saying: ‘The best driver of the lot has come in last. Let us give him a prize for it is only fair. Make it the second, for of course Diomedes came in first.’ But this only leads to disputes among other participants, who then have to be mollified by Achilles. Throughout the games we see resentments boiling over into disputes requiring mediation. This might lead to the conclusion that our “instinctive selves” should, insofar as possible, be kept in check. But by avoiding sport altogether do we risk such instincts emerging in fields where resentments can less easily be contained?

Sporting success can raise the morale of a whole society, such as Ireland’s after the 1990 World Cup in Italy. The connection that people many feel with a team or individual should, therefore, not be dismissed lightly. Even in defeat, fans can summon a spirit of togetherness that is not necessarily oppositional. It is not clear that defeat diminishes morale to the extent that victory raises it. As JFK said: Victory has a thousand fathers, defeat is an orphan.

The popularity of sports is often attributed to the decline of religious worship, but the religious side to sport has not faded entirely – the homage is to an ideal of bravery, self-sacrifice and togetherness, virtues often associated with spiritual traditions.

Moreover, with lives increasingly sedentary and indoor, sport returns us to the idea of a challenge that is based on an athletic skill that is both a natural gift, and the product of training. The audience is also mesmerised by the mental dimensions to any game, pitting their wits against the likelihood of an outcome, and plotting how a team or individual might triumph or fail. It can also be the subject of discussion between strangers leading to camaraderie, rather than conflict.

Sport has become a stronghold for mythology at a time when the fantastical, and even the religious, operate on the margins of a generally rational culture. Commentators are given free rein to extemporise, and journalists rhapsodise, about the divine characteristics of participants. We bow before sporting gods, satisfying a generally latent desire for non-rational explanation, and even attribute occurrences to supernatural interference; deus ex machina. Commentators, unencumbered by the usual constraints imposed on ‘serious’ reporting, vent superstitions and casually avert to magical qualities. ‘Legends’ gleam from the gilded pens of lead writers.

This enhances the appeal of ‘titanic’ battles, but sadly we are, increasingly, lured by the theatre from examination of the vexed political questions of our time. Juvenal’s concern finds a clear contemporary echo: ‘The People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.’

The former manager of Liverpool Football Club Bill Shankly (1913-81) may have been speaking somewhat tongue in cheek when he said: ‘Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that’, but he identified a prevailing obsession that had become the stuff of transcendence. It was fitting, then, that when the current manager of Manchester United F.C. Jose Mourinho (b.1963-) arrived in British football to manage Chelsea F.C. he chose to present himself as the ‘Special One’. For a time the confidence trick worked and he carried all before him, helped in small part by the unprecedented patronage of a Russian billionaire.

Sporting occasions now offer an outlet for Dionysian exuberance in lives increasingly constrained by social conventions. In what other arena of life can a grown man scream and shout with unrestrained fervour? Or dance half-naked arm-in-arm with fellow fans? Attendance imports a communal sense of belonging, evident in the crowd at an enormous stadium, and among transnational fans of football ‘clubs’. Support for a national team also affirms a sense of belonging to what Benedict Anderson described as the ‘imagined community’ of the nation.

The medium is, no doubt, the message. The collapse of distance achieved by televisual communication allows individuals, often living thousands of mile apart from their heroes to connect with one another. This process is accelerated in the era of the Internet where streaming bypasses the traditional providers. Furthermore, debates rage in the comments sections below articles and video clips.

Sporting spectacles fill an imaginative void as mythological themes are played out in real time. The truly great teams, it is said, are those that learn from defeat, just as the heroes of epic returns from the trial of Hades the wiser. We also encounter the tragedy of the flawed hero whose indiscretions are captured by the ravenous paparazzi, and often taken as a wider symbol of the failings of youth, or of the insidious foreigner.

Yes we can have too much of a good thing, and our attention to sports has now reached pathological intensity. Slick marketing has moved an instinctive pleasure into a compulsive and easily-satisfied desire; sports footage operates in a way similar to how pornography substitutes for what is real. In particular, the multi-billion euro football industry uses every opportunity to lure child and adult alike into purchasing television channels, and merchandise that is gaudily flaunted. More troubling is the expansion of online gambling that distorts further the relationship with the spectacle.

Young men are now paid unconscionable fortunes to play games, many would happily participate in for much less, or nothing at all. Televised sport used to inspire kids to imitate their heroes, now with gaming technology they don’t have to leave their couches, and assume their form on the screen; just as the obesity pandemic gathers pace.

The appeal of sport extends beyond the plebeian masses who seek bread and circus. Rupert Murdoch recognised long ago that sport would act as a ‘battering ram’ for his pay TV, an example most newspapers have followed. Sports coverage underpins the Neoliberal zeitgeist by providing an alternative, apolitical, space with elements of tragedy and farce; villains and saviours; loyalty and betrayal.

Latent passions are evoked through metaphors such as the ‘trench warfare’ of a tight contest or the ‘phoney war’ of a friendly fixture; ‘citadels’ are ‘stormed’, and where ‘no quarter is given’; along with specifically supernatural ideas such as ‘demons’ being ‘exorcised’. Stress is laid on the grandeur and importance of the events unfolding, and too much of our lives – mine included – are absorbed by these duels.

With the degree of psychic energy devoted to the affairs of the circus, it is hardly surprising that political involvement is increasingly the province of the paid-up professional, and that the percentage of the electorate voting has declined precipitously. Now politics, including elections, is explained by analogy with sport: as when the leader of the Irish Green Party was told he was playing senior hurling now by a member of Fianna Fail, after his party entered government. This widespread obsession is barely questioned by a media that feed on the fervour, or by politicians who feel compelled to display their colours, and appear as ordinary guys. Nevertheless, sportsmen can use their profile to alter prejudices, and even lead protests such as recently in the NFL, where players demonstrated their ill-will towards President Trump by kneeling during the US anthem. Moreover, at least today sports are no longer seen as preparation for war.