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

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.

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Spinning Yarns and Weaving Tales

Spinning Yarns and Weaving Tales

I start with a little criticism before I get into rhapsodies. For a venue to prohibit a band from playing any covers during a performance strikes me as misguided. I commend encouragement of artistic creation, but this rule offends my Romantic sensibility; it could encourage a breakdown of hallowed musical and poetic form.

Experimental music has its place, even at a concert, but there is ample room for creativity within established patterns; nothing is ever entirely original, only the muse brings inspiration. It came as a surprise to scholars who discovered that the Homer poet – whoever that is – relied on stock epithets like ‘rosey-fingered dawn’, to build strict hexameter verse. These folk expressions were recited from memory before the arrival of writing, and joined with the poet’s own invention, to the accompaniment of strings.

We should remain wary of lapsing into cliché, as George Orwell sagely noted: ‘the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts’. But idioms that have been handed down bring colour to our speech and writing: tropes connect us to our ancestors in sound. It is the devotion that we give to the Word that is important, and this protects us from sounding hackneyed. The first syllable in ‘rhapsodise’ refers to stitching in needlework, the second to song; so it involves threading songs together, which is the stuff of epic.

Even the arch-Romantic poet Percy Shelley, who overthrew conventions such as belief in an almighty god, relied on poetic forms inherited from past masters such as Spencer, and Milton especially. Creativity is evident in the integration of new ideas into old structures. Thus, Homer’s genius in the Iliad was to develop a short episode within the ten-year Greek siege of Troy. This gives his tale a compelling energy, and encapsulates the longer struggle, which an expansive account cannot achieve. Each age plays with legends that have been handed down.

Café Blum in Berlin’s Neukölln, is a gorgeous old-worldly venue that was filled to capacity for the Loafing Heroes first concert in Berlin for six years. It’s a sign of their stellar quality that two Berlin members could slip seamlessly into the collective.

An exquisite array of instruments were in evidence: Bartholomew Ryan with voice and guitar, Giulia Gallina with voice, concertina and dulcimer; Judith Retzlik on violin, viola, trumpet and a little piano; and Fenster’s Jonathan Jarzyna on percussion, along with a mysterious electronic instrument.

Having organised a few Irish tours for the band I am accustomed to audiences – especially in pubs – occasionally not being respectful to their ethereal music which lilts, rather than declaims; especially Giulia’s haunting voice – and she doesn’t appreciate shouting over a crowd… But this Berlin crowd was almost meditative in its attention: a sturdy forest of straight backs that I viewed from my latecomer’s vantage.

And yet such respect seemed alien to me. I yearned for a drop of devilment, so an inner Irish gremlin compelled me to breath a few heckles for the amusement of an Irish mate who staged some in return. Out of earshot we mouthed barbed comments between ourselves, honouring the sacred craic: ‘Jaysus would you look at your man!’

At the end of the performance the audience clapped for a good five minutes. This was deep appreciation, if not the rapture of an Irish crowd that has been tamed. The band weren’t going to get away without an encore. But the hard-pressed musicians had only a day to prepare, and it took a little while for them to settle on which of their back catalogue to play.

In the meantime I started raucously shouting for covers I know they play, and would usually intersperse through a set. But my cries went unheeded, for the reason I discovered afterwards.

Yet they had just finished with their old favourite, T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, in which Bartholomew recites the poem to a familiar melody, out of which the band improvise on their assorted instruments. I have heard Judith wind a moistened finger around the top of a wine glass giving a high-pitched hum that somehow worked for the song; here she chose the piano as her weapon. It was a pity not to have Jaime McGill’s usual bass clarinet, and arsenal of peddles, but
Jonathan was making deranged noises on his electronic contraption to compensate. No performance of the song is ever the same – not least because members come and go – but it operates within an established pattern, as an evolving legend.

The poem is a classic statement of the modern condition: ‘I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottom of my trousers rolled.’ But I think the main reason it goes down so well is because it is so rare for poetry to be recited nowadays, and especially where the speaker really inhabits the verse, leaving an audience spellbound.

There is an amusing story to the recording that is now up on Youtube. A few minutes in you can make out the sound of phone ringing, which was Jaime McGill trying to say she was running late. Sometimes out of seemingly ugly imperfection something new and beautiful arises, and it now seems obvious that a phone should start ringing in the middle of Prufrock.

If a band includes a spoken word recital of a poem is that a cover?! The mind boggles. The distinction between song and poetry is artificial, to some extent a legacy of Modernist poets such as T.S. Eliot. Having mastered lyrical verse, he moved away from established forms, favouring enjambments, whereby one line merges with another, and a consistent rhythm is not developed. Eliot did this with a deep knowledge of the poetic tradition, and the Wasteland is still beautiful on the ear: ‘April is the cruellest month … ‘. But poets since the 1950s have strayed into more dangerous waters, where the past is ignored, leaving a boring narcissism instead.

Of course post-modern poetry can work splendidly, as with Allen Ginsberg’s seminal Howl:

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,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,

It also permits some of the worst excesses of self-indulgence at ‘dreaded’ poetry readings. It is hard to avoid an inclination to return to W.B. Yeats, and submit to the hard labour of learning the poetic trade, while occasionally giving vent to a post-modernism that has seeped into our bones.

There was some gnashing of teeth in literary circles when Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Songs are often inextricably bound to musical compositions, and when you just read them song lyrics have nothing like the same force. Interestingly Paul Simon dismissed the connection between his song-writing and poetry in an interview in 1968:

‘I’ve tried poetry, but it has nothing to do with my songs … But the lyrics of pop songs are so banal that if you show a spark of intelligence, they call you a poet. And if you say you’re not a poet, then people think you are putting yourself down. But the people who call you a poet are people who never read poetry. Like poetry was something defined by Bob Dylan. They never read, say, Wallace Stevens. That’s poetry.’

Simon was right that a lot of derivative nonsense has been passed off as poetry in song, and that a great tradition was often sadly ignored, but that should not obscure how the songs Bob Dylan have entered the poetic canon, and even lyrics of his own.

Dylan was the leading light – though not my personal favourite – among a generation that developed poetry out of Rock n’ Roll and the folk revival. The prize seems appropriate to me if I ignore the etymology of the word literature, which means writing formed from letters. A Nobel Prize for poetry rather than literature would be more appropriate, which would include all forms, including the novel.

Dylan was of course also iconoclastic, going electric to the horror of some folkies. Labelled ‘Judas’, he responded: ‘I don’t believe you, you’re a liar.’ He had learnt at the feet of great ballad singers such as Liam Clancy and Woody Guthrie, but wanted to expand into new domains. This is the dangerous breaking of boundaries that re-connect with what has come before so as to avoid incoherence. Now, millions strum and sing the songs of Dylan, who took words and melodies from others in turn. That’s how the Songlines flow.

Ewan McCall who led the folk revival in Britain, and composed the classic Dirty Old Town, which is mistakenly assumed to be about Dublin (it’s about Salford in England), had another unbending rule in the folk club he founded that artists could only sing songs from their native countries. But as a Communist he should surely have realised that identity has an evolving plasticity, and anyway nowadays many bands, such as the Loafing Heroes, have multi-national casts.

Perhaps it’s a rebellious Irish streak – I’m still hoping to meet my orderly inner German – but I am wary or rules dictating what a poet can or cannot sing.
So when is a song, or a recital, a cover? There is no firm dividing line, and it becomes a matter of taste. Nothing is truly original, it is all adaptation out of a familiarity, and serendipity is evident too – like a phone ringing in the middle of a recording.

Irish poets learn your application-writing-skills

Irish poets learn your application-writing-skills

Nothing quite matches the rancour of artistes scrapping for funding. They make a pack of feeding hunting dogs seem positively polite. Of late, teeth are gnashing on the pages of the Irish Times over an anticipated windfall being siphoned into a new quango: Creative Ireland. It’s not so much a call for art for art’s sake, but leave it to the Art’s Council, for f*ck’s sake.

Taoiseach Varadkar left a pretty vocal hostage when he let it be known during the Fine Gael leadership run-off that he wanted to double arts expenditure. But the literary establishment are worried this won’t be passing through their glad hands.

John McAuliff, the paper’s poetry editor, deputy chair of the Arts Council, and professor of creative writing at Manchester University wrote an op-ed dismissing Creative Ireland in symbolist terms as: ‘part-car, part-temple, part-group-hug and part-energy-drink’.

The campaign is being spearheaded by Culture Editor Hugh Linehan who took to the airwaves on RTE’s Arena to bemoan the state of affairs last week.

No doubt the government have some awful schemes up their pin stripes through Creative Ireland. They’ll be fitting out leprechaun suits, sending comely maidens to dance at crossroads, and offering throaty renditions of Danny Boy. Anything for the Yankee dollar.

But the current model of funding doesn’t make Ireland an easy place for artists to operate. A career in the arts is, overwhelmingly, a middle class luxury; and in order to survive most spend an inordinate amount of time filling out funding applications.

Here, the worth of projects often seem to be measured in abstruseness, what McAuliff refers to as the ‘painstaking annual decision-making process’. Not as painful as some of the resulting output one could say.

What most artists would settle for is a reduction in the cost of living across the board, but especially in the capital. This would make the pursuit of money a less overwhelming necessity. Most artists accept they will never be wealthy, but even a low income now is a form of penury, with dramatic rises in rents making life especially difficult. Bringing selected artists, usually already middle class, up to a middle class income does nothing to make society at large more sympathetic to art.

Most artists just want to get on with their work rather than justifying it in lengthy applications processes, and then feel compelled to promote themselves constantly among the select group who decide on funding. That means most who get serious go away.

James Joyce once 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?’ Not under the current regime.

It’s hard to think of a single poet writing in Ireland today that has managed to transcend a readership of fellow-poets, or a visual artist who is really speaking to the public. As ever, most of what is good on the Irish cultural scene is happening far from the filing cabinets.

An Overflow of Violent Bacchanalia

An Overflow of Violent Bacchanalia

Accounts of the storming of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg on October 25th 1917 read more like those of a party being violently gate-crashed than the single most shocking event of the twentieth century: the emergence of the Bolsheviks as leaders of the first Communist regime in history, in the world’s largest country. The old European order would soon lie in tatters, but outrageous indulgence rather than single-minded austerity marked this turning point in history. The ultimate descent of the Revolution into oppressive totalitarianism may be explained by intellectual hubris among its followers, and the violent methods of its leader.

Tsar Nicholas II had abdicated in March 1917, ending a reign marked by ineptitude and intransigence. The Romanov dynasty to which he belonged had ruled Russia since 1613, and in that period conquered a vast multinational empire encompassing almost a sixth of the world’s landmass. Tsardom itself, which claimed a descet, and drew its name, from the Roman Caesars, had apparently passed into the dustbin of history. Historic failure to remodel Russian society along European lines – serfs were only emancipated in 1861 – ill-equipped the Empire for the challenge of modern, ‘total’ warfare. Nicholas, his wife and five children, were shot, bayonetted and clubbed to death by Bolsheviks the following year.

By October 1917 a socialist lawyer Alexander Kerensky was leader of a provisional government. Fatally for that regime, however, Russia remained embroiled in a war she could ill-afford. In the meantime the exiled Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin had been smuggled with German assistance into the country aboard a sealed train, intent on fomenting a violent uprising. ‘Russia’, wrote Ilya Ehrenberg, ‘lived as if on a railway platform, waiting for the guard’s whistle’. The American journalist John Reed attests to a rambunctious atmosphere in the then capital of St Petersburg: ‘Gambling clubs functioned hectically from dusk till dawn with champagne flowing and stakes of 20,000 roubles. In the centre of the city at night, prostitutes in jewels and expensive furs walked up and down and crowded the cafés … Hold-ups increased to such an extent that it was dangerous to walk the streets.’

Inside the Winter Palace members of Kerensky’s cabinet – though not Kerensky himself – held out against the Bolsheviks who controlled most of the city. Red Army gunners at the Peter and Paul Fortress managed a barrage of three dozen 6-inch shells, but only two hit their mark. They succeeded, nonetheless, in panicking the defenders and many slipped away. At last the dilettante besiegers discovered the main doors were unlocked and stormed the building. Without significant bloodshed the cabinet were arrested, although some of the women’s militia defending the palace were raped. According to Simon Sebag Montefiore, more people were hurt in the making of Eisentein’s film Ten Days that Shook the World ten years later, than in the ‘battle’ itself. What ensued was a wild party.

According to the leader of the assault Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko: ‘The matter of the wine-cellars became especially critical’. Nicholas’s cellars contained Hungarian Tokay from the age of Catherine the Great and stocks of Chateau d’Yquem 1847, the emperor’s favourite. But:

the Preobrazhensky Regiment… got totally drunk. The Pavlovsky, our revolutionary buttress, also couldn’t resist. We sent guards from other picked units – all got utterly drunk. We post guards from the Regimental Committees – they succumbed as well. We despatched armoured cars to drive away the crowd, but after a while they also began to weave suspiciously. When evening came, a violent bacchanalia overflowed.

What transpired after this farce was, however, no carnival. According to Montefiore Lenin was always ‘eager to start the bloodletting’. Like Padraig Pearse in Ireland, he believed any successful revolution demanded a heavy death toll, favouring the ruthlessness of Robespierre’s Jacobins in 1789 over the more placatory Paris Communards in 1870. As far back as 1908 Lenin wrote that the Paris Commune had failed because its leaders ‘should have exterminated its enemies’, rather than attempt to exert moral influence. In August 1918 he 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.
Lenin’s approach to violence may have been pragmatic in the context of the life and death struggle of the Russian Civil War, but containing the “tougher people” he unleashed would prove highly problematic.

Up to ten million people died in that conflict, the vast majority civilians; far more than the approximately two million Russian deaths in the preceding war. But wartime militarisation left the country as combustible as a pine forest after a heatwave. The October Revolution was the hesitant match that brought the inferno. The White Guard (1925), Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel set during the Civil War in Kiev, recounts:

there were tens of thousands of men who had come back from the war, having been taught how to shoot by those same Russian officers they loathed so much. There were hundreds of thousands of rifles buried under-ground, hidden in hayricks and barns and not handed in, despite the summary justice dealt out by the German field courts-martial, despite flailing ramrods and shrapnel-fire; buried in that same soil were millions of cartridges, a three-inch gun hidden in ever fifth-village, machine guns in every other village, shells stored in every little town, secret warehouses full of army greatcoats and fur caps.

The events in St Petersburg reverberated around the enormous country, generating a dizzying array of factions that never managed to dislodge the Bolsheviks from the two largest Russian cities, despite the intervention of foreign powers.

Karl Marx did not believe that a Russian revolution would produce a Socialist government as the society was too undeveloped. Under Marxist theory Communism should emerge in the more advanced Capitalist societies such as the UK and Germany. After victory in the Civil War the Red Army pushed westwards towards Germany. The triumph, however, of Marshall Pilsudski’s Polish army before Warsaw in 1920 – the so-called ‘Miracle of the Vistula’ – scuppered the prospect of world revolution. Communism would be confined to one country for two decades. Nevertheless, a generation of European intellectuals were seduced by the idealism of the October Revolution.

According to the poet Stephen Spender, who briefly joined the Communist Party of Britain in the 1930s: ‘Socialism was a variety of modernist behaviour which went with red ties and Shaw’s beard.’ It was widely believed that Capitalism was both deeply unfair, and ultimately doomed. Sympathies were also based on an assumption of being on the right side of history. As Karl Marx put it: ‘Communism … is the riddle of history solved and knows itself as this solution.’ In this teleology Communism was the ultimate stage, humankind having passed through Slavery, Feudalism and Capitalism. It was linked to a belief in science and rationality, and opposed to the superstitions and inflexibility of Old Europe.

The appeal for others lay in ameliorating the disastrous economic conditions after the war. The novelist Arthur Koestler’s family never recovered financially from its effects. He joined the German Communist Party in 1931 after surveying the poverty and profiteering that followed the Wall Street Crash of 1929. He later recalled: ‘I was ripe for it because I lived in a disintegrating society thirsting for faith.’ The road to hell was paved with good intentions.

Classically, revolutions devour their children, and Josef Vissarionvich Djugashvilli-Stalin emerged as the angel of death. According to an early biographer Isaac Deutscher, Stalin ‘was the ultimate committee man’, who, ‘led because he followed the prevailing mood and expressed it in a grey patchwork of formulas.’ As to his role in the October Revolution Leon Trotsky – himself an early disciple of Lenin’s ruthless disregard for human life, who would eventually be murdered with an ice pick on Stalin’s orders – wrote: ‘the greater the sweep of events, the smaller was Stalin’s place in it.’

‘Trotsky’s testimony might be dismissed’, according to Deutscher, ‘were it possible to find among the welter of documents’, a few recording Stalin’s direction connection with the first days of the upheaval, but ‘none have been found.’ Afterwards as first Commissar for Nationalities Stalin operated in the background, building alliances and playing one faction off against another, as he awaited a chance to strike for power, which arrived after Lenin’s early death in 1924. The widespread acceptance of Lenin’s violent methodology when placed in the hands of this paranoid, and frankly wicked, personality brought untold suffering to Russia, and beyond.

Communism was a system of government committed to rational methods, but Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s anonymous anti-hero in Notes from the Underground (1864) anticipates how a wilful character, such as Stalin’s, would emerge to mock those principles. He describes a form of government where:

All human actions will then of course be calculated, mathematically, like logarithm tables up to 108,000, and recorded in a calendar; or even better, well-intentioned publications will then appear … in which everything will be so precisely calculated and recorded that there will no longer be deliberate acts or adventures in the world.

This he suggests would create a reaction, in the form of that avenging angel:

I, for example, wouldn’t be at all surprised if, in the midst of all this reasonableness that is to come, suddenly and quite unaccountably some gentleman with an ignoble, or rather a reactionary and mocking physiognomy were to appear and, arms akimbo, say to us all: “Now, gentlemen, what about giving all this reasonableness a good kick with the sole purpose of sending all those logarithms to hell for a while so we can live for a while in accordance with our own stupid will!

He adds, ominously, that, ‘the pity is that he will find people to follow him: people are made like that’.

During the purges Stalin openly revealed an admiration for Tsar Ivan IV (‘the terrible’), though he felt, ‘Ivan killed too few boyars. He should have killed them all, to create a strong state.’ Thus, Montefiore argues: ‘The magnates were not as oblivious to Stalin’s nature as they later claimed’. He found no difficultly enlisting loyal executioners, despite descending into the despotism and profound irrationality of a Red Tsar.

Thus, paradoxically, Communists and their fellow-travellers were bewitched by a dogma of extreme rationality, where the Utopian end justified the most shocking means. Koestler writes: ‘Reason may defend an act of faith – but only after the act has been committed, and the man committed to the act’. Koestler eventually become disillusioned with the cause, and his novel Darkness at Noon (1940) is a probing psychological portrait of an innocent Bolshevik who assents to his execution in a show trial, sacrificing himself for the sake of the historical dialectic. Adherence to Communism took on many of the features of a religion.

Other Communists – usually at a remove from the horrors of Leninism and Stalinism – such as the historian Eric Hobsbawm, were repelled by those who had abandoned their faith. In his autobiography he admits: ‘I was strongly repelled by the idea of being in the company of those ex-Communists who turned into fanatical anti-Communists, because they could free themselves from the service of ‘The God that failed’ only by turning him into Satan’. It was only in 1956 when Khrushchev admitted to the depravity of Stalin’s rule, and after the Hungarian Revolution had been brutally suppressed, that he admits: ‘for more than a year, British Communists lived on the edge of the political equivalent of a collective nervous breakdown.’

Communists reacted to these events like devout Catholics to revelations of a paedophilic clergy. However, like many Catholics, disgusted by particular priests but convinced by a Revealed truth, Hobsbawm remained true to his ‘church’: ‘emotionally, as one converted as a teenager in the Berlin of 1932, I belonged to the generation tied by an umbilical cord to hope of the world revolution, and of its original home, the October Revolution, however sceptical or critical of the USSR.’

The intellectual hubris of the Marxist idea of an end to history perhaps doomed the movement to a violent totalitarianism that brooked no dissent. Under Communism, according to the Polish writer Ryzsard Kapuscinski: ‘the art of formulating questions (for it is an art!) vanished, as did even the need to ask them. Increasingly everything presented itself as being what it was supposed to be’. He concludes ‘A civilisation that does not ask questions … is a civilisation standing in place, paralyzed, immobile’. Communism did not permit competing opinions. This led to intellectual stultification, formulaic art, and eventually declining scientific ingenuity that gave the West the edge in the Cold War.

Many European intellectuals saw the October Revolution as a spark of inspiration anticipating a better world, and in a period when politics was closely connected to military struggle, violent excess was tolerated. In response, abandoning ideology may seem salutary; as Solzhenitsyn put it: ‘Shakespeare’s villains stopped short at ten or so cadavers. Because they had no ideology.’ However, without conviction human progress is stalled, and the only ‘-ism’ that survives is the kind of cynicism of today that sees no alternative to an ascendant Neoliberalism. The noble objective of Communism was to bring homo sapiens to a higher plain of existence. Despite the horrendous hangover that followed the October Revolution, perhaps we should not abandon that hope lightly.

History indicates that any improving idea is unlikely to succeed over the long-term if brutal methods are used to carry it out. Lenin criticised the relative passivity of the Paris Communards, but modern France is more socialist than present-day Russia. Significant shifts in consciousness – such as those brought by the Christian New Testament to Europe – tend to occur at an individual level rather than when imposed from above. In fact, as was the case after the Roman Emperor Constantine’s adoption of Christianity, imposition may often lead to tyranny. An abstract idea, no matter how seemingly benevolent, in the hands of a ruthless politician, such as Stalin, may become a tool of oppression. Today few around the world still believe that the October Revolution was the catalyst for a better world

Shelley, Corbyn and Ireland

Shelley, Corbyn and Ireland

The Irish political establishment looks askance at the apparent rise of Jeremy Corbyn. An historically warm relationship with Sinn Fein, lukewarm opposition to Brexit, and a stubborn commitment to socialism all receive a cool reception in government buildings.

Corbyn’s approach to Ireland is conditioned by an anti-colonial, English republican and Chartist outlook, a cast of mind he would have shared with the Romantic poet and revolutionary Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). Indeed, after what most commentators agree was a successful election campaign, Corbyn acknowledged a debt to the poet for his campaign’s resonant slogan: ‘we the many, they the few.’

The lines come from Shelley’s poem the Masque of Anarchy written in the wake of the Peterloo massacre of 1819, which also led to the founding of the Guardian newspaper. In this he calls on Englishmen to ‘Rise like Lions after slumber / In unvanquishable number … Ye are many—they are few.’

Shelley’s links to Ireland extend beyond his second wife Mary’s maternal grandmother’s Ballyshannon origins; or the Irish painter Emilia Curran’s iconic portrait of him from 1819. As a radical expelled from Oxford in 1811 for authoring a pamphlet advocating atheism – the first such public argument in England – he displayed a keen interest in John Bull’s other island.

In the white heat of the Napoleonic wars Ireland’s plight was an important English radical cause, at a time when our population was half that of England’s. Shelley chose to travel to Ireland in 1812, along with his first wife Harriet with whom he had recently eloped.

He was genuinely shocked at the poverty greeting him in Dublin, writing: ‘I had no conception of the depth of human misery until now. The poor of Dublin are assuredly the meanest and most miserable of all.’ This would prove relevant to what he later described as his poetic education in the introduction to the long poem Laon and Cythna: ‘I have seen the theatre of the more visible ravages of tyranny and war … the naked inhabitants sitting famished upon their desolated thresholds.’

The precocious nineteen-year-old addressed the Catholic Committee, containing the dying embers of the United Irishman movement, in what is now Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin. He urged: ‘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.’

The future leader of Catholic Emancipation Daniel O’Connell also attended that meeting, although he does not seem to have been present for Shelley’s speech. Nonetheless, he shared Shelley’s distaste for armed conflict, and this survived as the dominant approach in Irish nationalism until World War I.

Shelley might have traced failings of the Irish Free State after independence to its violent birth pangs, but, like Corbyn, his sympathies would have lain with the historically oppressed Catholic community in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Undoubtedly Shelley would also share Corbyn’s principled opposition to Trident, Britain’s nuclear programme.

Another link between Shelley and Ireland is that he completed his poem Queen Mab while holidaying in Ross Island on Killarney Lake. This strident poem, which he later partly disavowed, became a standard text among English radicals in the nineteenth century, especially keen on its condemnation of commerce: ‘beneath whose poison-breathing shade / No solitary virtue dares to spring.’ Corbyn’s antipathy to big business has long antecedents.

Shelley was an inspiration to a host of Irish writers including Yeats who said that Shelley shaped his life, and O’Casey who described himself as a Shelleyan communist. Another devotee George Bernard Shaw described Shelley as: ‘a republican, a leveller, a radical of the most extreme sort.’

Shelley was an inspiration for another of Shaw’s lifelong causes: vegetarianism, which the former laid out in another pamphlet: ‘A Vindication of Natural Diet’, although the term only came into being in the 1840s. Until then those who renounced meat were referred to as Pythagoreans.

This philosophy is shared with the current Labour leader who has been a vegetarian for almost fifty years. Considering the influence of the Irish livestock-lobby, this may further account for suspicion of the Labour leader in some government circles.

In his recent conference speech Corbyn argued that the political centre in the Britain had shifted to the Left making Labour the natural party of government. This commitment to the redistribution of wealth could be the fruition of Shelley’s idealism a ‘consciousness of good, which neither gold / Nor sordid fame, nor hope of heavenly bliss / Can purchase.’

Corbyn, like Shelley before him, may have appeared naïve in his approach to Irish politics. But he may yet become the first British Prime Minister to feel genuine remorse for the damage wrought by English colonialism in Ireland. And, notwithstanding the instability of the European project, ultimately this may harmonise relations between the peoples of these islands, all of whom have suffered under the yoke of tyrannical government during our shared history.

The Slow Death of Poetry?

The  Slow Death of Poetry?

Oliver Saint John Gogarty tells a story about the twenty-three-year old James Joyce at the time of W.B. Yeats’s fortieth birthday party. Yeats was staying in the Cavendish Hotel on what was then Rutland Square (now Parnell Square). On a whim, the twenty-two year old Joyce called on the revered poet. Gogarty recalls: ‘he solemnly walked in and knocked on Yeats’s door. When Yeats opened the door of the sitting-room he said, ‘What age are you, sir?’ and Yeats said, ‘I’m forty.’– ‘You’re too old for me to help I bid you good bye’.

Apparently Yeats was greatly impressed at the impertinence of his young protégé, and it is axiomatic that each artistic generation rises up against its predecessor. Thus the Modernist Joyce slew the Romantic Yeats.

But in that pursuit of originality there is also recognition of past achievement. Occasionally, however, a tradition may reach a level of decadence such that it falls into abeyance. This would appears to be the fate of the high poetic tradition, in Ireland and elsewhere. It now enjoys a popular audience equivalent to the angling notes in the paper of record. The descent is apparent in the extended exercise in wordplay evident in the output of its leading Irish light, Paul Muldoon.

In Ancient Greece, when the values of Homer’s epics the Iliad and Odyssey held sway, there were at least seven systematic activities including poetry, warfare, farming and rhetoric which required a disciplined apprenticeship in pursuit of ‘excellence’. There was acknowledgement of past achievement that permanently defined any field, but aspirants knew that rupture was necessary to transcend previous heights. According to the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre: ‘the greatest achievement in each area at each stage always exhibits a freedom to violate the present established maxims, so that achievement proceeds by rule-keeping and by rule-breaking.’

In order to scale the dizzying heights of his masterpieces Joyce first had to purge his own Yeatsian tendencies. As Jahan Ramazani in his Poetry and Its Others puts it: ‘Although Joyce wrote lyric poetry, the novelist is sometimes unrecognizable in the Elizabethan song forms, sentimental lyricism, and static retrospection of Chamber Music and Poems Penyeach.’ He cites a rather insipid passage where the iconoclastic brilliance characterising his novels is barely discernible:

The twilight turns from amethyst
To deep and deeper blue,
The lamp fills with a pale green glow
The trees of the avenue.

Like Joyce, the precocious Muldoon spent much of his early career in the shadow of another poet, Seamus Heaney, but unfortunately his “rule breaking” is a slide into irrelevance. This polemical critique of Muldoon, makes no claim to be exhaustive, but is a delayed reaction to the collection One Thousand Things Worth Knowing (2015); his musical collaboration with Shaun Davey ‘One Hundred Years a Nation’ for the Rising commemorations last year; and a characteristically long poem that appeared in the January 2017 edition of the New York Review of Books entitled ‘Superior Aloeswood’.

Muldoon held the position of Oxford Professor of Poetry from 1999 to 2004, and is now a professor at Princeton, as well as being current poetry editor for The New Yorker. He is a brilliant critic, whose radio essay for the BBC on the legacy of W.B. Yeats at 150, to my mind, was by far the most perceptive among those offered by a number of Irish intellectuals including John Banville and Fintan O’Toole. But his poetry must be assessed independently, and without fear or favour.

It is obvious that the works of Muldoon I consider are influenced by the mood and techniques of T.S. Eliot, especially in terms of dispensing with hallowed forms in rhyme and meter, extensive recourse to enjambments (the continuation of a sentence without a pause beyond the end of a line, couplet, or stanza), and obscure allusion to mythology. The influence of his friend Seamus Heaney is also apparent in the flinty, ‘Northern’ texture of language evocative of Viking raiders.

But rather than altering the approach of his predecessors by a return to simpler forms he builds further riddles into his work, so puzzling as to be tiresome. James Joyce famously joked that his Finnegans Wake held so many enigmas and puzzles that it would keep professors busy for centuries. But that book of dreamtime is a unique, and highly-original, literary experiment. For all its complexity, appreciable linguistic novelty is not apparent in Muldoon’s poems: they read like difficult crossword puzzles.

Another Modernist rupture came about through T. S. Eliot’s seminal ‘The Waste Land’ (1922). It is by most measures a difficult poem to make sense of, just like the quest for the Holy Grail on whose symbolism it draws. Yet nestling in the obscurity are moments of arresting emotion that succour the reader, such as the opening sequence:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

Anyone can inhabit these lines, stimulating curiosity for the difficult quest ahead. Here at least, abides by Aristotle’s maxim: ‘To write well, express yourself like the common people, but think like a wise man’, even if the remainder of the poem demands profound textual analysis.

Of course applying Aristotle’s maxim tout court excludes most poetry since the Middle Ages, and I suggest that all of the great poets accommodate, to some degree, the demotic with the esoteric. It is widely held that Eliot’s high Modernism fell over the edge into the terrain of ‘academic poetry’, but there are concessions to a popular audience.

There is little evidence of Muldoon living among “the common people” in the opening poem of his last volume: ‘Cuthbert and the Otters’. Dedicated to Seamus Heaney one expects an outpouring of a universal grief. This, however, like almost every other poem in the collection, is impenetrable to a point of alienation.

The title revives a touching tale about the seventh-century Northumbrian Saint Cuthbert whose recitation of the psalms attracted the attention of the local otters, but unlike Heaney’s ‘St Kevin and the Blackbird’, the tale itself is only alluded to. Rather, we are expected to find out about it for ourselves, and are then treated to obscure references that fail to arouse sympathy. Is he likening Heaney to St Cuthbert? Are we, his readers, the otters? It is hard to know, or care.

Already in the first stanza there are archaic words such as ‘darne’, ‘fain’, ‘limen’, ‘flitch’, that display the erudition of the author. There is no concession to the general reader, and it continues in resolutely inaccessible, but oddly static, language.

There are also a series of non-sequiturs that appear as riddles such as in the second stanza: ‘It’s true they’ve yet to develop the turnip clamp / and the sword with a weighted pommel / but the Danes are already dyeing everything beige.’ Is it really worth the bother of finding out what he means here?

We also find hints at humour: ‘The Benedictines still love a bit of banter / along with the Beatitudes. Blessed is the trundle bed, / it readies us for the tunnel / from Spital Tongues to the staithes.’ And personal recollection: ‘I once sustained concussion, / having been hit by a boom in Greenwich, / and saw three interlocking red triangles on my beer mat.’ This may be free association of a highly-learned man, fond of resurrecting abandoned words, if so it is hard to identify its poetic qualities.

There may be merit in pure imaginative flow such as Percy Shelley likened to the burning coal of inspiration, but he contained his poetry within sympathetic meter and rhyme that allows a reader to float along the lyrical stream of his consciousness.

The only obvious concession to his grief arrives in the line ‘I cannot thole the thought of Seamus Heaney dead’, but use of the archaic ‘thole’ reveals this as a private commemoration limited to Northern poets. This is comparable perhaps to Shelley’s elegy to Keats: ‘I weep for Adonais – he is dead’. Adonis, the Greek god of fertility is hardly a household name, but the dying Adonais attains an immortality in art, while the use of the verb ‘thole’ just reeks of scholarly nostalgia.

In the introduction to his translation of Beowulf Heaney points to his use of the word thole – ‘endure, suffer, hold out’ – not as an archaism but as a word linking his own Ulster dialect to Old English dialect. Muldoon thus situates himself as Heaney’s successor, but little appears to remain of the kingdom he lays claim to.

What of Muldoon’s contribution of a song-poem to the Rising Commemorations? Here we find the poet speaking more directly to “the common people”, and we find fairly predictable symbols of Irishness beginning with ‘from glen to glen’, the opening lines of Danny Boy, along with the stag and the yellow bittern. There is a predictable reference to Finn MacCool – of the macho warrior cult – as opposed to summoning characters from more subtle and colourful sagas such as ‘The Wooing of Étaín’, or ‘The Second Battle of Moytura’ to represent the origins of the nation. The second half displays the influence of hip-hop and delivers rather populist digs at the ‘establishment’:

when that rent’s in arrears
now Finn MacCool gave way to cool
our very monks lived by the rule
of gombeen financiers

It struck the right notes for a windswept Miriam O’Callaghan on the night, and the musical accompaniment is genuinely rousing, but it could easily have been written to parody a decadence that is explicitly ventilated in one of his latest poem of ‘Superior Aloeswood’, published in the January edition of the New York Review of Books.

This takes a longer form making it all the more painful to endure. The theme here is beneficial rot: when the Aloeswood or Agarwood is digested by bacteria it produces agar, a resin valued for its fragrance in incense and other aromas. We are also subjected to an inventory of cheeses and wines which experience a similar bacterial breakdown; nods to the Biblical Nicodemus who embalmed Jesus (with such spices) in John’s gospel; numerous references to characters from Moby Dick, and more curiously, varieties of oysters.

It seems that these references have something to do with: ‘the Tower of Wrong / being built by Trump’, and ‘Bashar al-Assad training his bombardiers / on his own citizenry (grace a Putin), or perhaps: ‘Why the electorate choose the likes of Ronald Bonzo and George W. Bozo / as Commander-in Chief has already defied exegesis’. This is bewildering because the political rot can hardly be construed as beneficial. Moreover, if the great poet cannot explain how these men came to power then where does that leave the rest of us?

The lines: ‘Though we’d hoped to meet at the Blue Plate Oysterette / you’d been confined to barracks / on account of the side effects, I surmised, of steroids.’, reveal a debased successor to Eliot’s withered, but still lyrical ‘Prufrock’: The muttering retreats / Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels / And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells.’ The patient is no longer etherised upon a table but in remission.

Muldoon bears no personal responsibility for his own self-expression, and for getting on in the world. His ‘success’ nonetheless suggests the poetic tradition, which in epic form provided heroic models against which the Ancient Greeks measured themselves, has devoured itself through conceptual innovation over the past century of seismic technological shifts.

Similarly, Will Self argues that the novel has been consumed by the Digital Leviathan. He poses the question whether, assuming the vast majority of texts will be read in digital form on devices linked to the web: ‘do you also believe that those readers will voluntarily choose to disable that connectivity? If your answer to this is no,’ he says, ‘then the death of the novel is sealed out of your own mouth.’

It will survive he says but only as a state-supported indulgence like Classical music. He further contends that ‘the hallmark of our contemporary culture is an active resistance to difficulty in all its aesthetic manifestations, accompanied by a sense of grievance that conflates it with political elitism’. This leaves even less scope for poetry to attract a popular audience, especially given an inherent predilection for mystery. Conversely, considering Muldoon’s stature, what remains of the tradition survives by recourse to even greater abstraction. This is the “rule breaking” of an already dated post-Modernism.

Since the nineteenth century – linked perhaps to the increased pace of life produced by the railway, the steamship and the telegraph – poetry has been in decline relative to prose. But until recently it has filtered through and resonated with a wider audience. Much of what remains has descended into self-parody.

Paradoxically, however, versifying endures through popular forms such as slam, and song especially. These bring a visceral immediacy, although the scope for depth is diminished, and the great exemplars of the past are increasingly forgotten. This is perhaps a necessary dislocation before a revival.

More hearteningly Ramazani observes: ‘I began writing this book as a consideration of poetry’s dispersal into its others. But as I studied ever more examples of just such melding, I found time and again that poems reassert themselves as poems even in the moments of seeming to fuse with their others.’ The timeless, and primal, patterns of poetic speech reasserts itself notwithstanding the excesses of the current masters.

Poetry needs to grow a new skin for the old ceremony. Until then it will inhabit the space between the angling notes and the Church of Ireland notices, and political decay may continue apace. We need new heroes to measure ourselves against.
(Published in Village Magazine, March, 2017)

‘Immanent in the Landscape’

‘Immanent in the Landscape’

The highest compliment I can pay Mark Williams is that after reading his ‘Ireland’s Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth’, I have an appetite to learn the Irish language. He exposes to the light a literary inheritance that has barely flickered in the Irish national consciousness since independence in 1922. It allows this nation to consider its origins, and observe how mythology involves a dynamic process of re-imagining, inclusive to all traditions.

These include the Rabelaisian intrigue of ‘The Second Battle of Moytura’; ‘The Wooing of Étaín’ which offers a fleeting glimpse of pre-Christian beliefs; ‘The Tragic Deaths of the Children of Lir’ interpreted as a Christian parable; and ‘The Tragic Deaths of the Children of Tuireann’ that foreshadows the disintegration of Gaelic civilisation. These subtle tales are a corrective to the fatalistic machismo of the character of Cú Chulainn from the Irish epic Táin Bó Cualígne, that has tended to adorn the nationalist self-image.

Defining the nature of the Celtic immortals, or gods, has long proved elusive to scholars. J. R. R. Tolkien complained that ‘there is bright colour but no sense’, although the elves of his Lord of the Rings were influenced by ‘Celtic’ mythology. The accuracy of the term ‘Celtic’ is itself doubtful when we consider the word’s Greek origin as ‘barbarian’, and the fragility of the archaeological evidence of a contiguous ‘Celtic’ culture associated with excavations from La Téne in modern-day Switzerland.

Undeterred, modern ‘Celticism’ (a hybrid of ‘Celtic’ folklore and mysticism) incubated fuzzy ideas such as these expressed by the early twentieth-century theosophist Walter Evans-Wentz:

“Of all European lands I venture to say that Ireland is the most mystical, and, in the eyes of true Irishmen, as much the Magic Isle of Gods and Initiates now as it was when the Sacred Fires flashed from its purple, heather covered mountain-tops and mysterious round towers, and the Great Mysteries drew to its hallowed shrines neophytes from the West as from the East, from India and Egypt as well as from Atlantis; and Erin’s mystic seeking sons will watch and wait for the relighting of the Fires and the restoration of the Old Druidic Mysteries.”

Efforts to taxonomize the various myths and develop rituals of worship foundered, at times comically, but the ethereal motifs were a wellspring of inspiration during the fin de siècle Irish Revival. This engendered possibly the finest movement in English-language literature of the twentieth century; the early W.B. Yeats and late James Joyce drew on imagery from these tales.

The corpus remains a powerful creative source, connecting us with enduring symbols that portray Carl Jung’s idea of a collective unconscious. Unfortunately today in Ireland, as elsewhere, the vision of an unconscious mind is rarely nurtured, and the varied manifestations of the Irish immortals hardly figure in ‘serious’ literature. Another revival may be brewing, however, associated with John Moriarty’s ‘philo-mythical approach’.

Williams speculates that the gods of the Irish prior to the arrival of Christianity may have been in considerable flux due to late Iron Age agricultural decline. The evidence for Gaelic paganism is fragmented and mediated by a Christianity that brought literacy; the indigenous culture had not advanced beyond Ogham script. We have no evidence for how pagan deities were worshipped, and they tend to appear as numinous presences ‘immanent in the landscape’. Williams speculates that a taboo may have operated against poetic description of pagan worship. Nor do we encounter a central Mount Olympus or Asgard for their deities. Tara was the seat of the high kings, not the Irish immortals. Their fragmented residences in síd mounds, haunting the countryside, reflect their banishment into the subterranean unconscious after the arrival of Christianity. As a reflection, or shadow, of a politically fragmented human society, their supposed location is unsurprising.

It is important to emphasise that throughout the period the Bible remained the foundation of learning, and few other books were available. Thus we find Ba’al, a biblical Canaanite god, being associated with the feast of Bealtaine at the start of May in ‘Cormac’s Glossary’ (Sanas Cormac) c.900, rather than the native ‘Bel’. Moreover, access to the writings of Isidore of Seville (d. 636) brought poets into contact with the myths of Classical Rome and Greece which influenced the ceaseless re-casting of indigenous tropes.

It might be assumed that the early Church brought a doctrinaire and prescriptive faith, but early medieval scholarship is infused with the language of paradox. It was believed that as fallen beings we cannot approach noesis (eschatological knowledge) directly; a position akin to physicists in the quantum realm contending with Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Thus, rather than viewing Christianity as a monolithic, deadening force, in earlier times at least, it seemed to bring a refined admixture to a disorderly civilisation. Moreover, scholars were also acquainted with Neoplatonism which posited a universal harmony beloved of poets.

As when two ocean plates collide to produce an effluxion in life, a great cultural ferment characterised the encounter between a relatively insulated native civilisation and wider European currents. It is evident that individual genius is expressed within the context of a particular society, and Williams discerns among the literati of the time a sense that they were playing their part in a rather special movement. From the eighth to the eleventh century a formidable vernacular literature arose in Ireland, although most of the poets are unknown. Williams says this must count as ‘an outstanding contribution to the literary inheritance of humanity’, distinguished by ‘moments of ferocious weirdness’. It is also striking that many of the great works emerged at a point when the nation was suffering grievously under Viking attacks. This must have prompted deep questioning of God’s will, and the validity of their institutions. The pre-existing deities offered imaginative tools with which to address these issues when direct criticism could have proved dangerous, and artistically limiting.

Irish filid (poets) held expertise in memorialization of tradition, genealogies and vernacular composition, and were an exalted cast among the áes dána (skilled people). They were not clerics although, unusually for the time, aspects of their educations overlapped. In a highly stratified society they painted themselves as equal to kings. More than simply entertainers, they were also legal authorities in a society spared full-time lawyers. As masters of language – and performance perhaps – they shaped the outlook of their audiences; Percy Shelley’s ‘unacknowledged legislators’ in other words.

These Irish poets learnt their trade, often operating under exacting metrical demands. According to Williams: ‘They were expert in the grammatical analysis … in the highly formalized rules of poetic composition, and in training the memory to encompass the vast body of historical and legendary story, precedent, and genealogy which it was their business to know.’ Pagan gods and lore were their discreet preserve, conferring deep awareness of the native language and landscape, although, as Williams stresses, they were not atavistic pagans.

‘The Second Battle of Moytura’ (Cath Maige Tuired) c. 875 is the centrepiece of the so-called Mythological Cycle, relating how the Tuatha Dé (‘god-peoples’) had been oppressed by their enemies the Formorians (Fomoire). Applying my own Jungian analysis – especially relying on Laurens van der Post’s excellent treatment in Jung and the Story of Our Time (1975) – to the saga may be useful to the reader, and I think suggest Williams’s wide ranging approach offers an invitation for new readings.

It consists of a series of fantastical episodes of enduring interest. We meet a Tuatha Dé exhausted by impossible labours and tributes after the half-Formorian Bres becomes high king. He had replaced Nuada who had lost his arm and authority in battle. We learn that the court physician Diancecht fashions him a prosthetic silver limb in its place. In the meantime, Diancecht’s son Miach begins to heal Nuada’s real severed arm, but the father prefers his own methods and surgically kills his son by removing his brain. Miach is buried by his sister Airmed and from his grave sprout three hundred and sixty-five healing herbs, which she orders in her cloak. Diancecht has other ideas, however, scattering the herbs, each of whose value would remain obscure.
In the account of Diancecht’s preference for an artificial arm over Miach’s more effective Complimentary approach, the poet may be suggesting that the best healing comes from within the body itself, while the scattering of the healing herbs could represent ignorance of the cures available in Nature. It is also appears that a professional body will seek to preserve its secrets, in which case this remains a powerful metaphor that could be applied to the modern pharmaceutical industry. A man with a silver arm presages the contemporary spectre of transhumance, where human beings propose to upload their bodies into computers, in fulfilment of René Descartes’s Dualistic idea of a homunculus controlling a mechanical body.

The ‘Second Battle’ parades scenes of Rabelaisian excess, especially involving one character, the Dagda, who undertakes a mission inside the territory of the Formorians. There he meets a distortion of hospitality, whereby he is compelled to consume vast quantities of porridge to a point where is belly is the size of a cauldron. Afterwards he must loosen his bowels before sexual congress with a Formorian princess. In Williams own ‘less genteel’ translation: ‘The girl jumped on him and whacked him across the arse, and her curly bush was revealed. At that point the Dagda gained a mistress, and they had sex’. Smutty Irish humour has long antecedents.

The Formorians seem to represent the nefarious shadow of the Tuatha Dé, and the audience themselves. The Formorians are an external force that corrupt and indebt the native inhabitants, a narrative familiar to contemporary Ireland. However, the half-Formorian Bres is eventually succeeded by Lug who is also of mixed parentage. Yet he combines all the highest attributes of the áes dána. Lug and Bres differ in that the former’s father is Tuatha Dé and his mother Formorian, while the latter’s ancestry is the reverse. This might appear simply as an expression of approval for patriarchal bias, but we may divine an enriching symbolic meaning by seeing a favourable balance in Lug’s mixed ancestry being struck between the thrusting, will to power of male energy on his Formorian mother’s side with the earthier characteristics of the Tuatha Dé, that equate with female love, on his father’s. He achieves wholeness when, paradoxically, the female characteristics arrive through a dominant male parentage wherein the thrusting Formorian energies are contained (Mf:Fm = Fm). Bres differs in that the ‘male’ Formorian outlook remains ascendant as it arrives from a dominant male father repressing his ‘caring’ Tuatha Dé female energies (Mm:Ff = Mf).

There is another fascinating scene after the Formorians are vanquished when Lug captures the errant Bres, who pleads for his life by proposing that the Tuatha Dé should plant crops four times a year. Lug recognises this as impossible, or unsustainable, and only spares his foe when he reveals how the men of Ireland could operate a plough. According to Williams: ‘the Formorians in the saga are characterized by a monstrously exploitative and unnatural relationship to the organic world, in a strange anticipation of contemporary agri-business’. This may be so, but Lug’s character also has a Formorian dimension, that, crucially, is contained positively by his (Fm) parentage. Similarly, in this episode, when Bres’s knowledge is refined from the approach of ploughing the earth four times a year, we find he confers a crucial skill. The relationship between the Tuatha Dé and the Formorians may also have been a commentary on the benefit of accommodating the skills of Norse raiders who brought technological advances in agriculture and sailing, alongside carnage.

There are lessons here for a contemporary audience insofar as we need both a thrusting, male, Formorian, energy, to bring a task to fruition but crucially it is the caring, ‘female’ Tuatha Dé approach that should guide our endeavours. We might extend this further by allusion to the nefarious consequences of the contemporary separation of religion from science. As Laurens van der Post in his excellent study of Carl Jung 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.’ It is the dominance of the Formorian mind that brought us the Atomic bomb. We could also draw an analogy with the unfavourable balance between the roles struck between the two hemispheres of the brain at present, persuasively argued in Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. The Formorian represents left-sided, ‘male’, singular focus, the Tuatha Dé holistic, female, right-sided awareness.

‘The Wooing of Etain’ (Tochmarc Étaín) c.800-1000 is a colourful tale of romantic intrigues and magic spells, featuring perhaps the greatest femme fatale in Irish literature. Based on recurring shape-shifting, we find hints of belief in metempsychosis – the transmigration of souls – preceding Christianity. Only fully translated in 1930, the tale was beloved of Revivalists such as Yeats, who found there imagery to stir any poetic imagination. Here the Tuatha Dé are reduced from the giants of the ‘Second Battle’ to ethereal síde, ‘faeries’, living in síd mounds, familiar in folklore today.

When Midir of the Tuatha Dé demands that Aengus his foster son gives him the most beautiful woman in Ireland in compensation for the infliction of an accidental injury trouble begins. She is Étaín whom Aengus earns by performing a series of tasks for her father, the high king of Ireland. Midir, however, already has a wife in Fúamnach who does not take kindly to the new arrival, turning her into a giant bluebottle through a magic spell. Even in this altered state Midir finds fulfilment in her company, and the divine Calliphora vomitoria performs various miracles along the way. Furious, Fúamnach summons great winds to drive Midir’s buzzing consort away. Eventually, exhausted, she falls into the drink of a woman who swallows her and becomes pregnant, reproducing Étaín 1,002 years after her original birth. The beauty is then married off to another high king of Ireland Eochu. Unfortunately his brother Ailill upon setting eyes on Étaín falls hopelessly in love, and starts to waste away. Ailill confesses his feelings to her whereupon his health begins to return. In order to cure him fully the obliging Étaín agrees to an amorous exchange, but insists, for the sake of propriety, this should not take place under the king’s roof. In the meantime, the apparently immortal Midir puts Ailill to sleep and assumes his form, explaining to Étaín their ancient love when they meet. She agrees to give it another go, but only if Eochu agrees to sell her. Naturally he refuses, only for Midir to win her from him in a game of chess after bluffing for the first few rounds. Still Eochu refuses to give up his wife, defending Tara with all his men. Undeterred, Midir miraculously appears inside Tara where the lovers embrace and transmogrify into swans that escape together. In response Eochu orders his men to dig up every síd mound in the country. At this stage Midir plays a trick on him by returning a replica of Étaín, who it transpires is actually Eochu’s daughter, Étaín having been pregnant with her.

Eochu’s fate is in an interesting inversion of the Oedipus myth, and echoes Jung’s understanding of the collective unconscious whereby ignorance and unawareness carry the greatest offence. As van der Post puts it: ‘in Greek myth, legend and art, the villain is always the ignorance where it serves as representative of inner unawareness.’ In this tale the folly lies in denying the expression of love, especially when the Tuatha Dé are involved. Nevertheless Étaín is a moral exemplar bound by social conventions whereby she refuses to dishonour Eochu’s home by fornicating with Ailill whose recovery reflects the benefit of voicing innermost feelings. Also, Étaín only agrees to return to Midir if Eochu consents. Having lost Étaín in chess he welches on the bet and is punished by unconsciously committing the taboo of incest. The enduring image is of two swans, who in nature mate for life, escaping through the skylight. The idea of beauty inhabiting the generally disparaged bluebottle attests to a joyful relationship with Nature. As the Eesha-Upanishad says: ‘Of a certainty the man who can see all creatures in himself, himself in all creatures, knows no sorrow.’

From 900 there is a shift in the name of the Túatha Dé, crystallizing as Túatha Dé Danann ‘the Peoples of the Goddess Danu’ in about 1200 which Williams suggests may have been ‘a deliberate attempt at inducing mental estrangement’. In the later medieval we find pseudo-histories such as ‘The Book of Invasions’ (Lebor Gabála Érenn) c.1150 which tells the story of Ireland and its various waves of settlers and invaders from the time of Noah’s Flood to the era of the Gaels or ‘Milesians’, meaning the ethnic Irish themselves. Here the Tuatha Dé are stripped of godlike qualities and instead imagined as a race of pagan necromancers preceding the Gaels. Historicising the Tuatha Dé also winnowed the creative possibilities available to poets, and Irish language literature thereafter fails to scale the earlier heights.

The Tuatha Dé become darker presences usually associated with human failings.
Suspicion extends to their bewitching music. In one episode of the ‘The Colloquy of the Elders’ (Accalam na Senórach) c.1220 the character of St. Patrick expresses these reservations: ‘‘Good it was,’ said Patrick, ‘were it not indeed for the magical melody of the síd in it.’ Yet their creative presence is still acknowledged in traditional Irish music: the word for session is derived from síde.

‘The Tragic Death of the Children of Lir’ (Oidheadh Chloinne Lir) c.1450 is a tale familiar to most Irish people. The story involves a wicked step-mother Aoife whose magic transforms Lir’s two sets of twins from his first wife into swans. Forced to endure what is portrayed as an unhappy fate their resolve is strengthened by one of them, Fionnghuala, who seems to have an inner knowledge of Christian revelation. Eventually they meet a saintly monk called Mochaomhóg who baptises them whereupon the spell is broken, and they become withered old human beings who die and ascend to heaven. It is worthwhile comparing this tale to the earlier ‘Wooing of Étaín’ where the shape-shifting into swans is an affirmative form of escape into a wild nature. According to van der Post:

“the bird always and everywhere from Stone-Age man to Stravinsky has been the image of the inspiration, the unthinkable thought which enters our selves like a bird unsolicited out of the blue, it was for Jung … one of the signs of confirmation from nature that sustain the spirit in its search for enlightenment and emancipation from the floating world of appearances.”

In ‘The Tragic Death of the Children of Lir’ a censorious cage is placed over the bird of imaginative possibilities, which fitted neatly the domineering Catholicism of independent Ireland. The worth of life as a swan is rejected, a lifeless human form is preferred as long as salvation is available from the one true Apostolic Church.

‘The Tragic Deaths of Children of Tuireann’ (Oidheadh Chloinne Tuireann) c.1500 returns to the subject-matter of the ‘Second Battle of Moytura’, but at this point internal rivalry bedevils the Tuatha Dé, leading to the murder of Cian, the father of Lug, by the sons of Tuireann. The sons attempt to bury Cian’s mangled remains six times but each time the earth rejects his body, illustrating Jung’s idea of a collective unconscious where nature itself rises up against a nefarious deed. This idea is also found in Émile Zola’s novel Thérèse Raquin where a murdered husband haunts the landscape of those responsible for the deed, his wife and her lover who are driven to commit suicide together.

Lug intuits that the sons are responsible for the deed and succeeds in gaining a commitment for them to pay éric, the legal compensation for homicide. Unsurprisingly the sons meet a sorry fate in their quests to satisfy this, but perhaps more interesting is the depiction of the Tuatha Dé as an enfeebled race incapable of contending with the Formorians. The illusion to the fractious politics of that period is obvious, and as Gaelic Irish culture crumbled after the Tudor conquest and subsequent plantations the vibrancy of the gods diminished, until their resuscitation, ironically, via descendants of their conquerors.

The Romantic inspiration for the Revival of Irish mythology at the end of the nineteenth century is significant. Yeats, especially, was influenced by Romantics and pre-Raphaelite poets of a previous era, foremost perhaps Shelley who saw poetry as the font of wisdom and extensively mined Classical mythology for metaphor and inspiration. In his essay The Philosophy of Shelley’s Poetry (1900) Yeats refers to the ‘ministering spirits’ for the former’s poem Intellectual Beauty: ‘who correspond to the Devas of the East, and the Elemental Spirits of medieval Europe, and the Sidhe [sic] of ancient Ireland’. In quoting that poem he reveals the significance of the síde to his own Art:

These are ‘gleams of a remoter world which visit us in sleep,’ spiritual essences whose shadows are the delights of the senses, sounds ‘folded in cells of crystal silence,’ ‘visions swift, and sweet, and quaint,’ which lie waiting their moment ‘each in its thin sheath, like a chrysalis,’ ‘odours’ among ‘ever-blooming Eden trees,’ ‘liquors’ that can give ‘happy sleep,’ or can make tears ‘all wonder and delight’; ‘the golden genii who spoke to the poets of Greece in dreams’; ‘the phantoms’ which become the forms of the arts when ‘the mind, arising bright from the embrace of beauty,’ ‘casts on them the gathered rays which are reality’; ‘the guardians’ who move in ‘the atmosphere of human thought,’ as ‘birds within the wind, or the fish within the wave,’

Yeats, however, felt: ‘Shelley’s ignorance of their more traditional forms, give some of his poetry an air of rootless poetry’. Perhaps he believed he could offer greater authenticity in his verse through his childhood contact with fairy-lore in his mother’s country Sligo, alongside his continued investigations.

Yeats identified himself with Ireland (as opposed to England where he spent much of his early life) as he found there vibrant and novel mystical sources for his poetry, containing symbols he considered universal. His Ireland was a Romantic illusion coinciding with a doomed attraction to Maud Gonne whose intense nationalism bewitched him. Building on the work of Standish O’Grady and others, he and his friends, the journalist and visionary George Russell and the folklorist Augusta Lady Gregory, developed a pantheon of Irish gods mirroring Classical, and, importantly, Hindu models. In Yeats’s view: ‘Tradition is always the same. The earliest poet of India and the Irish peasant in his hovel nod to each other across the ages, and are in perfect agreement.’

As with the early period of Christianity, the nourishment of other traditions, Neoplatonic and Oriental, brought texture and colour to the Irish gods. It is also telling that the leading Revivalists came from Protestant backgrounds which emphasises the malleability of immortals ‘immanent in the landscape’. The Tuatha Dé are equal opportunities enchanters that make no distinction based on race or creed, although all should be beware of the amádan na bruidhne, a supernatural being whose very touch brings disablement and death. The fool in Ireland is not always wise.

Importantly at this time, Yeats and his coterie formed the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn which served a role akin to the schooling of the medieval filid. According to Williams: ‘Progress up through the grades of the Golden Dawn was via a series of initiations and examinations, each of which required the initiate to master aspects of occult symbolism and philosophy – a system of considerable intellectual complexity.’ It seems that Yeats who never attended university was alluding to the benefits of this formation when he urged: ‘Irish poets learn your trade’, in his valedictory ‘Under Ben Bulben’.
Largely owing to their identification with heretical Protestantism and deviant theosophy, the Tuatha Dé largely retreat from view after Irish independence in 1922, except to vent a repressed sexuality in the work of Liam O’Flaherty and Austin Clarke. It is revealing, however, that the determinedly cosmopolitan James Joyce proposed that James Stephens, a prominent scholar of Irish myth, should complete Finnegans Wake should he expired before doing so. Sadly, most schoolchildren are unacquainted with the riches of the early sagas which helps explain the continuing decline in the fortunes of the Irish language.

It is instructive that the retreat of mythology from late twentieth century Irish literature coincides with a loss of vividness and magical elements. Thus, in John McGahern’s novel Among Women, perhaps the most famous Irish novel of the second half of the twentieth century, we find a realist portrayal of rural life that is bereft of fantastical imagery. This reflects a wider cultural shift as van der Post bemoaned: ‘The free exercise of fantasy which is the imagination unsevered from its instinctive roots at play, has gone from literature and art’.

Williams suggests that a mythology: ‘furnishes a culture with total worldview, interpreting and mirroring back everything that that culture finds significant’. It is a medium that remains vitally generative in the creative process allowing artists to imagine divine possibilities. Unfortunately its possibilities have been tethered by a dunderhead scientism that conflates all belief in the supernatural. Scientism now operates in the same way as a dogmatic Christianity when it ceased to express ideas in the language of paradox. The location of the Tuatha Dé and other Irish immortals is in the unconscious minds; which is as real as any other observed phenomenon, especially through the work of Jung, who analysed 67,000 dreams, we can approach an understanding of a common and elusive inheritance.

It is also worthwhile recalling the views of the leading art critic of nineteenth century Britain John Ruskin who asserted a belief in ‘spiritual powers … genii, fairies, or spirits’. He claimed that: ‘No true happiness exists, nor is any good work done … but in the sense or imagination of such presences.’ This may have been meant in the sense that we should preserve our ‘childish’ sense of wonder into adult life. Jung also identified supernatural belief with wholeness involving reconciliation to a ‘female’ side our nature.

Mythology can be a constituent of Richard Kearney’s idea of ‘Anatheism’: ‘the possibility of a third way beyond the extremes of dogmatic theism and militant atheism: the polar opposites of certainty that have maimed so many minds and souls in our history.’

John Moriarty is the latest writer to light the torch of the Tuatha Dé in his ‘philo-mythical’ writings dousing his work with characters borrowed from Old Irish literature. His prose is gloriously poetical although it is difficult to keep abreast with the sheer erudition. It is advisable to begin by listening to recordings of Moriarity as he explores the contours of his crooked world, observing all ontologies and mythologies that lie in the undergrowth. Unsurprisingly, the 2012 documentary about his life Dreamtime, Revisited was subjected to attack, with Donald Clarke in The Irish Times describing it as ‘priceless parody of Celtic windbaggery’, although the reviewer acknowledged that he had never read any of Moriarty’s formidable writings and evinced no appetite to do so.

Mark Williams’s book is a tour de force of scholarship by any measure. Naturally there are lacunae in a treatment that spans over a thousand years, including an acknowledged omission to integrate the gods of the Táin Bó Cualígne into his narrative. It may also have benefitted from further concentration on the social structures of early Christian Ireland and the agricultural modes of production, and relations with Nature, that underpinned these. The Tuatha Dé exist in an Irish dreamtime that we dismiss at our peril. Their presence remains etched into the landscape as an undiscriminating font of creativity that may help us unlock our most vivid ideas.

The Evil That Men Do

The Evil That Men Do

Published in the Dublin Review of Books: (http://www.drb.ie/essays/the-evil-that-men-do)

The unconscious of a whole continent and age has made of itself poetry in the nightmare of a single prophetic dreamer
Herman Hesse

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov casts a shadow over European literature. Sigmund Freud described it as ‘The most magnificent novel ever written’; while Friedrich Nietzsche acknowledged his Russian contemporary as: ‘the only psychologist from whom I have anything to learn’. In its intimate understanding of human depravity it anticipates a destructive phase of history, yet proffering a healing idealism with enduring appeal.

The novel anticipates the birth of the unconscious in psychology, and poses questions that seemed to drive Nietzsche mad. The best and the worst in the human character are laid bare: ‘A father has been killed and they pretend to be shocked … They’re just putting on a show in front of one another. Hypocrites. Everyone wants his father dead. Let dog eat dog.’ The sexually rampant and mendacious figure of that father, Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, merits comparison with President Donald Trump against whom we now hurl opprobrium, rather than profitably acknowledging shades of our own characters in the roundly-despised leader of the so-called ‘free world’.

As an ‘unacknowledged legislator’, to use Percy Shelley’s term, Dostoyevsky moulded values that entered the common stream of human ideas that merit revisiting. The Brothers Karamazov, his last and most realised work, articulates spiritual and intellectual principles, in a confused Post-Modern age that has lost sight of significance since the decline of organised religions and Utopian ideologies.

Yet, perhaps Dostoyevsky’s greatest achievement here is to avoid being overbearing or didactic. A moral code by which to live one’s life is faithfully rendered, but deviant characters are not drawn in black and white. We inhabit their outlooks and arguments, as the writer seems to, but have available to us the vision of a reformed and universal Christianity, redolent of St Francis of Assisi.

A potential reader should not be intimidated by the book’s length, just shy of a thousand pages – or long, frenzied paragraphs – as untangling its subterfuges becomes compulsive. Completed in 1880, it still brims with lessons for a disorientated humanity, not least in the wake of Brexit and Trump: warnings on the psychological consequence of admitting to the death of God; meditations on a universal responsibility for sin; reflections on the corruption of organised religion; and suggestions of an overarching harmony. The author subjects belief systems, including his own, to almost mocking interrogation. There is no refuge in this trial of modern man, personified by Dimitri, the eldest of the Karamazov brothers.

Dostoyevsky identifies a broad moral continuum in a single person between a capacity for the highest and basest deeds and actions, reflecting Carl Jung’s idea that there is a murderer in us all. If any character represents the views of Dostoyevsky himself it is perhaps the chief prosecutor Ippolit Krillovitch, who, uncannily, like the author, dies within a few months of the novel’s central events. These are the apparent patricide, and aftermath, of the debauched sensualist Fyodor Karamazov who competes with his son Dimitri for the affections of his paramour Grushenka. His sons exhibit facets of an enduring character, representing to Freud the id, ego and superego. In the ensuing trial Krillovitch draws attention to the inadequacies of each brother. So searing are his insights that Dimitri is inclined to thank his own prosecutor for telling: ‘me a lot about myself that I didn’t know’.

Krillovitch describes those of the Karmazov ilk as having: ‘natures with such a broad sweep… capable of encompassing all manner of opposites, of contemplating both extremes at one and the same time – that which is above us, the extremity of the loftiest ideals, and that which is below us, the extremity of the most iniquitous degradation.’ He says ‘others have their Hamlets; so far, we Russians have only our Karamazovs’, but that archetype extends beyond Russia, into the multiplicity of our selves.

First there is Alyosha, the youngest, who at the start of the tale we find considering a monastic life, but following the advice of his mentor, the mystic Elder Zosima, he returns to the disorder of the world. The narrator writes of Alyosha: ‘it seems that he lived his whole life with an absolute faith in people, though no one ever thought of him as simple or naïve. There was something in him that said, and made you believe, (and this was so throughout his life), that he did not wish to sit in judgment over others and would never take it upon himself to censure anyone.’ To Freud he represented the superego, the ethical part of a personality, setting the moral boundaries in which the ego operates.

Alyosha is possessed of magnetism, empathy and intuition. Other characters find a reflection of their failings in his benign nature, including the alluring Grushenka who exerts a fatal attraction over both Dimitri and his father. She sets out to seduce the youngest brother, but is instead so disarmed by his purity that she begins a redemptive journey of her own. She performs a Jocasta role in the archetypal oedipal tale: Dimitri, the son, mistakenly perceiving he is frustrated by his own father, Fyodor, in realising a sexual fantasy, plots to kill him.

The nature of Dimitri’s frenzied attempts to win over Grushenka also reflect the damage that has been inflicted on him by the early loss of his mother who abandons him, and the household, after tiring of Fyodor’s affairs. That his father should be a competitor compounds his anger and brings him to the brink of patricidal intent. He also maintains that he has been cheated of his inheritance, with which he hopes to restore his honour having stolen money from his spurned fiancé Katerina Ivanova to satisfy his sensual appetites. These resentments, set against the influence on him of Friedrich Schiller espousal of universal love, generate one of the most conflicted characters in modern literature.

Alyosha occupies the place of deepest compassion on the Karamazov scale. The prosecutor Krillovitch, ever-vigilant to human failings, warns of the pitfall of taking refuge in mysticism and failing to honour the rational, egotistical and male side of his nature:

he has come, it seems to me, to represent that timid despair with which so many people in our impoverished society, frightened of its cynicism and corruption and mistakenly attributing all evil to the European enlightenment, rush towards “the soil of their birth”, into the maternal embrace, as it were, of their native land, like children frightened of ghosts, their only desire being to slumber peacefully in the shrivelled bosom of their exhausted mother, or even perhaps to spend their whole life sleeping there, merely to escape the sight of the fearsome visions.

At least, Alyosha, encouraged by his mentor Zosima rejects the sanctuary of the monastery, as this is unnecessary for one of his benevolent nature. Contrary to displaying “timid despair” Alyosha actually exhibits bravery by confronting the imperfections of the external world. This is especially evident in his compassion for the child Ilyusha after he bites him on the hand.

Krillovitch also warns Alyosha against a ‘Dreary mysticism’, here represented by the outlook of another monk, the severe and ascetic Father Ferapont, who foments superstition, and stands in judgement over others.

Observing the rise of fundamentalism in the United States, the Middle East and elsewhere, we see the heirs of Ferapont turn religion into a reactionary force. Unfortunately this is how it most commonly appears in the world, explaining why so many of us wash our hands of it altogether. This widespread detachment may, however, have profoundly damaging psychological consequences: Carl Jung found he seldom succeeded in helping patients overcome mental disorders unless they recovered a capacity for religious experience.

Like many of his previous anti-heroes, including Stavrogin and Roskalnikov, the second-eldest brother Ivan is a quintessentially thrusting modern man representing Freud’s idea of the ego. This typology also bears resemblance to Turgenev’s character Bazarov from Fathers and Sons who suffers a similar hubristic demise. Like Nietzsche, Ivan descends into madness after proclaiming the death of God. He is not however a simplistic personification of a degraded European civilisation. Ivan’s analysis of human nature remains acutely troubling: ‘We often talk of man’s “bestial” cruelty, but this is terribly unjust and insulting to beasts: a wild animal can never be as cruel as man, as artistic, as refined in his cruelty.’

Surveying all too common and inexplicable atrocities, especially carried out against children, he rejects the idea of divine harmony: ‘It’s not worth one little tear from one single little tortured child, beating its breast with its little fists in its foul-smelling lock-up, and praying with its unexpiated tears to its “Dear Father God”. He tells Alyosha: ‘It’s not God that I don’t accept – understand that – it’s His creation’. Ivan cannot comprehend how any God could permit such depravity, pointing to atrocities committed by the Turks in Bulgaria, and also to stories of torture perpetrated against children in ‘Christian’ Russia. In response to the tirade Alyosha responds that: ‘He can forgive everyone for everything, because He Himself shed His innocent blood for everyone and everything.’ For Alyosha this act of love is oceanic in its reach and can steer us from the moral void, into which Ivan eventually descends. If we believe Alyosha, no crime is so great that redemption is not possible.

As a brief aside it is useful to explore Jung’s conception of evil in the world which Ivan and Alyosha’s debate considers. Jung’s approach diverges from the Catholic doctrine of Privatio Boni which identifies evil simply with the absence of good, and not an independent and eternal phenomenon. In contrast, ‘Evil’ Jung says ‘does not decrease by being hushed up as a non-reality or as mere negligence of man. It was there before him, when he could not possibly have had a hand in it.’ Jung argued that: ‘The future of mankind very much depends upon the recognition of the shadow’. Dostoyevsky also confronts evil in an attempt to control it.

Later Ivan is visited by a supernatural visitor, a devil, who claims to have ‘turned my hand to vaudeville and that sort of thing’; a creative invitation taken up decades later by Mikhail Bulgakov in his novel The Master and Margarita. This devil imagines an earth recycled a billion times: ‘endlessly perhaps, and always the exact same, down to the last detail.’ Intriguingly, this cosmology corresponds with ideas current in physics. Neil Turok writes: ‘If the universe can pass through a singularity once then it can do so again and again. We have developed the picture into a cyclic universe scenario, consisting of an infinite sequence of big bangs each followed by expansion and collapse’.
A form of what Nietszche referred to as ‘eternal recurrence’ is similar to Carl Jung’s description of the hell of the mad, which is not only that time has: ‘ceased to exist for them but some memory of what it and its seasons once meant to them remains to remind them of the fact that it is no longer there’. The devil reminds Ivan of time’s lapse.

Dazzled by his intellectual brilliance, Ivan’s spiral into madness is a form of hubris representing a failure to nurture the divine in his nature. Ivan’s devil taunts him: ‘Although I’m a hallucination, nevertheless, as in a nightmare, I say things which are original, things that have never occurred to you before, which means I am not merely repeating your thoughts and yet at the same time I’m simply your nightmare and nothing else.’ His elevated rationality is assailed by the unknowable mysteries of the unconscious that intrude on his calculations.
At the start of the novel Ivan, who is described as a poet, treats us to one of the great characters of modern fiction: the Grand Inquisitor that Laurens van der Post calls ‘the visionary anticipation of Stalin and his kind’. The tale is set in post-Reformation Spain where the eponymous, aged despot is visited by a resurrected Christ. This fearsome creation, however, dismisses the putative saviour admitting that the Catholic Church has embraced the devil: ‘we have accepted from him what You had rejected with indignation, that last gift that he offered You, showing You all the kingdoms of the earth: we accepted Rome and the sword of Caesar from him, and we proclaimed ourselves the only kings on earth, the only true kings’. The Grand Inquisitor is convinced that he is serving the interest of the common people who will despair if freedom of conscience is permitted. Instead he promises to continue serving him: ‘we shall withhold the secret and, to keep them happy, we shall opiate them with promises of eternal reward in heaven.’ Marx himself could not have performed a more thorough hatchet job on the Catholic Church, though, ironically, Grand Inquisitors prospered in Communist Russia.

Through Ivan, Dostoyevsky is voicing his deep animosity to Catholicism, the Jesuit order in particular, and the conflation of religious with temporal power generally; a charge of devilry in this enterprise previously levelled by Prince Myshkin in The Idiot. Ivan, however, throws the baby out with the bathwater, failing to grasp the benefits of the compassion his brother Alyosha discovers through his mentor Zosima. This philosophy does not require miracles to bind awestruck followers. Symbolically, after his death Zosima’s body is left unburied for some days and begins to give off an ‘odour of putrefaction’, rather than the miraculous fragrance that some of his superficial followers seek as confirmation of his holiness. This reflects a passage from the Gospel of St Mathew when during his trial in the desert Jesus responds to the demand of the devil that he should perform a miracle by saying: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’. The importance of Zosima lies in ideas of compassion that he embodies, in opposition to the diabolic scheming of the Grand Inquisitor.
The extended writings of the Elder Zosima that appear in the book are a moral touchstone for the characters: deviation from his precepts resulting in torments such as Ivan’s. This section was inspired by Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk, and at its core is the idea that we share a collective guilt for the sins of one another and should refrain from judgmental responses. This is a concept developed in another novel of Dostoyevsky’s, The Devils, where the fictional elder Tikhon (confusing he bears the same name as the historical figure) responds to the confession of Stavrogin to a heinous crime against a child by bursting into tears and asserting his own culpability. In The Brothers Karamazov the approach is laid out in full. The essence is that we have a common responsibility for the world we live in.

Some critics have argued that Tikhon’s philosophy did not coincide with Dostoyevsky’s admittedly complex views, but the presence of this teaching in The Devils and full elucidation in The Brothers Karamazov suggests the author subscribed to this code. Dostoyevsky went to the length of transcribing by hand the mystic’s autobiography when he encountered it in a monastery, and presents almost a facsimile in the novel. It seems inconceivable that he would give it such faithful treatment if he did not consider this a profound insight. Dante Alighieri in his Divine Comedy displayed a similar moral candour, which also allowed for sympathetic treatment of ‘sinful’ characters such as Odysseus that he meets in hell. It is perhaps the tragedy of Post-Modernism that most contemporary writers have abandoned a firm moral foundation. In its place we have the narcissism of autobiography and the cult of authenticity. As Laurens van der Post put it: ‘characters no longer bubble up, fountain like, in the art of fiction but have been replaced by men and women who have been “researched” as novelists proudly assert, and so are not individual conceptions any more but statistical abstracts of humanity that live only as a form of dead accountancy.’

In Discourses and teachings of Starets Zosima it is proclaimed:
There is but one salvation available to you. Take yourself in hand, and be answerable for all the sins of all men. My friend this is actually true: you need only make yourself sincerely answerable for everything and everyone, and you will see immediately that it really is so, and that it is you who are actually guilty of the sins committed by each and every man. Whereas, if you blame one another for your own sloth and weakness, you will end up becoming imbued with satanic pride and will turn against God.’

This is a radical Christianity that overthrows an assumption of moral authority, and where sin is approached as collective error. Instead of passing judgement we embrace the failings of each other as our own. It corresponds with the Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti’s more recent assertion that ‘nobody is responsible except you, because you are the world and the world is you’, although evil should not simply be dismissed as a projection but confronted as an active force in ourselves and the world.

Zosima’s doctrine of compassion is relevant nonetheless to the despair felt by many at the failings of political and religious leaders. We might usefully explore the origin of the bile directed at US President Donald Trump whose lies and raging sexuality deserves comparison with Fyodor Karamazov. Before inveighing against his excesses, it is useful to acknowledge that he is an extension of the world that we are all responsible for. For example, we castigate his denial of the reality of climate change but that denial is implicit in how many of us lead our lives. Scapegoating Trump and his acolytes is hypocritical unless we alter our own behaviour. Moreover, it was our collective fascination with his abusive rhetoric that gave him the exposure necessary for a political revolution. Besides, can any of us who listen to Trump say we have never had a racist, sexist or thuggish thought? Or, that we have always been entirely honest and not asserted ourselves aggressively? ‘Let he who has not sinned cast the first stone’.

Those characteristics are dormant in most of us but hatred of Trump is conditioned by a struggle to contain our shadow which amounts to the repression of these tendencies in ourselves. To admit to such infamy is challenging, but only by understanding this can we truly confront Trump. Similarly, Jung claimed that the Russia problem in the external world would never be resolved without more disaster unless we first dealt with the ‘Russia in ourselves’. Dismissing as Hillary Clinton did Trump’s supporters as a: ‘basket of deplorables’ was probably the gravest error of her campaign. That term is associated with ‘basket cases’ and ‘white trash’, suggesting that his supporters were garbage that ought to be destroyed.

Trump preyed on this but also a rampant rationality that makes expertise remote, specialised and inaccessible. Trump’s jocular policy shifts and tendency to speak the language of the uneducated classes was the shadow of a growing dissonance in the West that is the shadow of a high pitched rationality inaccessible to most ears, which creates divisions in society and engenders a Post-Truth dismissal of expertise.

That is not to say we should not confront the evil of Trump’s vindictiveness and obtuse denial. In fact we have a moral obligation to do so, but it is important to voice opposition in such a way that does not speak down to his supporters, and acknowledges that there is a serious problem with the way we communicate ideas. A challenge for any politician opposed to Trump is to summon the oceanic compassion and skilled communication required for global leadership.
Zosima’s vision of harmony extends beyond the human species:

If you love every kind of thing, then everywhere God’s mystery will reveal itself to you. Once this has been revealed to you, you will begin to understand it even more deeply with each passing day. And finally you will be able to love the whole world with an all-encompassing universal love.

We are urged to ‘Love animals’, and not set ourselves above them as is emerged in Western thought. An apparently Oriental view on the relationship between humans and other species is a striking aspect of his teachings, an idea increasingly relevant to curbing the appalling treatment of animals by human beings in the world.

It is perhaps Russia’s situation on a geopolitical fault-line between Europe and Asia that explains its extraordinary cultural achievements – especially in the nineteenth century – straddling the continents, and drawing lessons from both. A more obviously Buddhist approach was later adopted by Dostoyevsky’s contemporary Tolstoy – including embarking on a fruitful correspondence with a young Mahatma Gandhi – he opined that: ‘as long as there are slaughterhouses there will be battlefields’.

Zosima concludes his tract with an answer to the question: ‘What is hell? I argue thus: it is the suffering caused by not being able to love anymore.’ Here he avoids simplistic recourse to supernatural explanation, instead preferring a profound psychological insight into the origin of human unhappiness.

The eldest brother Dimitri represents in Freud’s schema the id of uncoordinated instinctual passions. He is also an idealist in the mould of his youngest brother Alyosha, but vulnerable to the sensual indulgences of his father. These competing forces battle for his soul with his benign nature ultimately prevailing:

I am a Karamzov … I fall into the abyss, I go head first and even take pleasure in the extent of my own degradation, even find beauty in it. And from those depths of degradation, I begin to sing a hymn. I may be damned, I may be base and despicable, but I kiss the hem of the robe that envelops my God; I may be serving the devil at that same moment, but I’m still your son, O Lord, and I love you and feel that joy without which the world could not exist.

Although in one episode he beats his father, and also later metes out terrible violence to his father’s servant Grigory, who acted in loco parentis when as a child he was abandoned and allowed to roam barefoot like a wild animal by his real father. He draws back, however, from the ultimate violence of patricide. In his own words he is saved by a guardian angel. In contrast to Ivan’s nihilism, belief in a divine harmony allows him to resist a violent passion at the critical moment.

Dimitri’s salvation arrives through a willingness to accept the consequences of a sin that we learn he did not commit. After being found guilty of the crime he says: ‘I accept my punishment, not because I killed him, but because I wanted to kill him and, perhaps, really would have killed him.’ He takes possession of an act for which he has no direct responsibility as the philosophy of Tikhon ordains we should.

There is, it seems, a fourth son that completes the Karamazov circle of virtue and vice: Pavel Fyodorovich Smerdyakov, although whether he is indeed Fyodor’s son is never confirmed. He is the child of the mentally-ill, so-called Stinking Lizavetta, who had been raped by the arch-sensualist Fyodor Karamazov. The pitiful half-wit dies in childbirth and the infant’s upbringing is left to Grigory, and his childless wife Marfa. They obligingly take care of the surly, epileptic boy who eventually goes to Moscow to study cookery, returning as Fyodor’s scheming chef, and trusted confidante. Smerdyakov offends against the natural order: torturing dogs by putting pins in scraps of food, and denigrates poetry: ‘it’s a lot of rubbish. Just think about: who in the world speaks in rhyme?’ Ultimately he murders his own likely father when the opportunity presents itself after Dimitri baulks at the prospect. Then he leaves the crime scene so it appears, beyond reasonable doubt, that Dimitry is responsible.
Smerdyakov had developed a close relationship with Ivan who is simultaneously repelled and drawn to his illegitimate brother. It is to Ivan that Smerdyakov nonchalantly confesses the murder. In a sense, he is an elemental force that arises to avenge the misdeeds of the father, but on another level he represents a corrupted youth familiar to readers of The Devils that has abandoned a moral code. Explaining the murder, he quotes Ivan’s own ideas back at him: ‘“everything is permitted” … if there is no eternal God, then there is no virtue, and, what’s more, absolutely no need for it. You really meant it. That’s what I reckoned.’ Ivan’s ideas may have been more refined, but his student Smerdyakov draws his own lessons just as the followers of Marx drew their’s. Ivan denies responsibility but his descent into madness is symptomatic of a failure to take responsibility for the deed, unlike his redeemed brother Dimitry.

Here we encounter Dostoyevsky’s prophetic capacity. If another great novelist of his era Tolstoy offered great insights into the heart of the Russia of his day, Dostoyevsky had his eyes on a turbulent future. Legions of Smerdyakovs drawn from an impoverished and downtrodden proletariat would carry out the appalling atrocities of Stalin’s rule of the Soviet Union.

The Marxism that rejected the idea of God did not develop a moral code to replace that founded on metaphysical ideas. Instead society was viewed in dialectical and oppositional terms, with human rights subservient to advancing the historical process. The Communist leader Nikolai Bukharin acknowledged in 1914: ‘there is nothing more ridiculous …than to make Marx’s theory an “ethical” theory. Marx’s theory knows no other natural law than of cause and effect, and can admit no other such law.’

All too many have been killed in the name of God throughout history, and still today, but the denial of individual human rights opens an appalling vista where “everything is permitted”. The measured humanism that Ivan displays can easily mutate into contempt for any human life that stands in the way of a mechanistic ideal. By denying an over-arching truth, beauty and justice man may be trampled into the mud. As for Smerdyakov, in the end he hangs himself, reflecting Zosima’s view that hell “is the suffering caused by not being able to love anymore.” No redemption arrives for this ill-starred character.

Readers may find Dostoyevsky relative avoidance of strong female characters unappealing. This may be seen throughout his writings, wherein they typically act as foils to male protagonists as temptresses or saints. Some of Dostoyevsky’s women, like Darya in Devils and Sonya in Crime and Punishment, set an example of compassion which the male characters learn from, but again it is proffered in a supporting role. On the other hand, Tolstoy did present strong, wilful female protagonists in Anna Karenina (both Kitty and Anna) and War and Peace (Princess Mary and Natasha). Dostoyevsky was less inclined to do so, for whatever reason.

One can read great works of philosophy and history in an attempt to understand human nature, but the power of literature such as The Karamazov Brothers is that it invents a recognisable world in which human passions play. Dostoyevsky’s idea of collective responsibility for human error is as important now in the era of Trump as ever, and his message of compassion for all life on Earth is a challenge to the dominant ideologies of the West that have permitted us to lay waste to the world. He was clearly a visionary, not without limitations, who intuited the terrible cruelties that would soon reign ascendant in his country and beyond. The work will be a source of pleasure and wisdom for angry, but hopeful, young men, and hopefully women too, for generations to come.

Can Justice be Poetic?

The Irish nation is rightly proud of its poetic inheritance. At first glance this sacred tradition has nothing to do with the law, but I argue that by engagement with our great poets we may arrive at a deeper understanding of the broader idea of justice.

The lawyers and politicians who hand down our laws have studied poetry in school of course, some perhaps in university. They may even have excelled in that study, but presumably their interest should cease when they become responsible adults.

The Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) makes the remarkable claim in his A Defence of Poetry (1812) that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. He says that his kind engendered the social sympathies that are the inspiration for laws.

And poets actually seem to have literally sung some of the first laws into being. 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’.’

For the Ancients justice and poetry intermingled, the use of meter and rhyme helping people recall civic duties as a Catholic does his faith in reciting the Creed.

But apart from a mnemonic role is there a broader connection? Shelley contends that poetry is the highest form of imaginative expression which precedes philosophical enquiry. Nor does he restrict poetry to verse but points to the poetic imagination in other art forms. The great historians are poetic in their appreciation of human nature he says.

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.’ Through his deep sensitivity the poet is therefore powerfully empathic; perhaps our lawmakers should also focus on these faculties.

As a true Romantic Shelley perhaps overstates the benign nature of poets. After all Hitler mesmerised audiences with mellifluous speeches and the Tory and Unionist politician Enoch Powell, a published poet, warned against multiculturalism using the colourful metaphor of ‘rivers of blood’.

Nonetheless poets are often visionaries. Shelley refers to a powerful intuition: ‘he 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).’

That ability to “behold the future in the present” is apparent in Ireland’s greatest poet W.B. Yeats the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1923. Writing in the aftermath of World War I he memorably predicted in The Second Coming how events would enfold in Europe culminating in the atrocities of World War II just twenty years later: ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.’ Here he’ll always be remembered for his immortal phrase: ‘A terrible beauty is born’.

Neither Shelley nor Yeats always embodied the lofty qualities that Shelley alludes to. Yeats’s fascist fellow-travelling and aristocratic hauteur is now rather embarrassing to his devotees, but interestingly as a Senator in the 1920s ‘that smiling public man’ was a trenchant critic of an increasingly Catholic State.

During a debate on the introduction of a law prohibiting divorce in the Seanad he presciently argued that: ‘If it ever comes that North and South unite, the North will not give up any liberty which she already possesses under her constitution. You will then have to grant to another people what you refuse to grant to those within your borders. If you show that this country, Southern Ireland, is going to be governed by Catholic ideas and by Catholic ideas alone, you will never get the North. You will create an impassable barrier between South and North … You will put a wedge into the midst of the nation.’

Yeats argued that the absence of divorce eroded the integrity of the institution of marriage itself: ‘This is a demand for happiness, which increases with education, and men and women who are held together against their will and reason soon cease to recognise any duty to one another.’

I suggest that perhaps the finest example of poetic imagination in Irish law was the discovery by Kenny J. of “Unenumerated Rights” under the Irish constitution in Ryan v Attorney General (1965).The right to bodily integrity was soon followed by the ‘discovery’ of other unexpressed rights by other judges. Kenny was, like the first poet-lawyers singing a new species of law into existence.

Unenumerated Rights have been vital to the development of Human Rights law in Ireland but unfortunately the idealism of the 1960s has given way to a more mechanistic and less imaginative approach to justice.

Poets may not live up to their own ideals but there seems no group better equipped at understanding the human condition and distilling moral principles from that essence.
(Unpublished, 2016)