Monthly Archives: November 2015

Easter 1916, Sean O’Casey’s ‘Juno and the Paycock’ and re-invention

Historian Roy Foster recently gave a lecture in Trinity College entitled: “”An Inheritance From Our Forefathers”? Historians and the Memory of the Irish Revolution.” In his speech, Foster proposed a radically different reading on the events surrounding 1916. For most people, 1916 marks the ostensible beginning of the modern Irish independence movement moving beyond the cultural sphere, events which follow neatly through to the War of Independence, the civil war, the declaration of the Republic and the establishment of partition as a political framework. In this decade of commemoration, already a cliché, a more unified, or retrospectively conscious perspective may be welcome in buckling existing narratives. They’ll help to assuage to tedium of an apparently endless sequence of vapid panel discussions on radio that rarely seem to move beyond a Leaving Certificate level of historical analysis, window-dressing Republicanism to keep Sinn Féin out of government, or worst of all, newspaper supplements.

Rather than seeing the Rising as the beginning, Foster proposes viewing it as an end-point or termination of pre-revolutionary trends, a marker of a generational crisis. For Foster, the real revolution was the series of land acts of the late-nineteenth century which incentivised English landlords to sell their land to Irish farmers, who in many cases, turned out to be more draconian in extracting rents from  their tenants than their English counterparts. This massive transfer of capital and establishment of a native land-owning class could explain why Ireland was capable of ‘settling’ so (relatively) quickly after its revolution and consequent political convulsions, why its quite radical rising became conservatised with such rapidity. Those who were most involved the rising and inculcated its participants were members of a radical, educated middle class and Foster frames them as somewhat immature angsty young people, rebelling against their parents and fashioning their own values in opposition to forces that they regarded as oppressive.

This notion of Easter 1916 as an exercise in re-invention or the formulation of a novel identity interests me as I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on a trilogy of novels, in which identity and the re-invention thereof forms a substantial part of its subject matter, namely Roddy Doyle’s The Last Round-up Trilogy, in the three novels,  A Star Called Henry, Oh, Play That Thing and The Dead Republic, we see the protagonist, Henry Smart conceptualise himself as a mythic figure from out the Celtic mists, a working class hero, linchpin of the IRA, self-conscious exile, self-made man, immigrant hero, inveterate capitalist and finally, a family man, of a sort. I should add, that while he’s doing all this gallivanting, he’s abandoned his wife, daughter and son.

One also thinks of Johnny’s line in Sean O’Casey’s play Juno and the Paycock, probably the only point in the play when he isn’t complaining about noise, (a potential gesture towards his fairly obvious PTSD, a result of his role in fighting for Ireland during the War of Independence) when it is made known that the Boyle family is to inherit a small fortune. Johnny’s immediate contribution is: “We’ll be able to get out o’ this place now, an’ go somewhere we’re not known,” perhaps indicating how closely related re-invention and revolt was in the mind of the revolutionary generation.

This is all covered more thoroughly in Foster’s recent study, Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland 1890-1923. At least, I imagine it is. I haven’t actually read it.

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Not Exactly What I Wanted to Say about Don DeLillo but Almost

Illocutions

DeLillo has always been the most treacherous member of that Golden Generation of male American writers born in the 1930s. (Heartiest sympathies go out to Messrs Gass and Gaddis for being born a decade too soon.) Harold Bloom once made a presciently Wikipedia-friendly knighting of four of these gentlemen – DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon and Philip Roth – as the greatest American novelists of his lifetime, and however one feels about old Bloomosaurus rex his methodology does have some taxonomic advantage.

All four novelists are, in their own ways, self-conscious stylists. They all were lucky enough to come of age at a time when the living, omnipresent memento mori of nuclear annihilation – ah, halcyon days! – must have been to writer’s block as the scythe is to the corn. Providence smiled on them enough to show a middle way through the Red Sea of postmodernism, whose more interesting affectations they carried…

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Anthony Burgess’ ‘A Clockwork Orange’ and book-burning

There are a number of perverse pleasures that one can indulge in when reading Anthony Burgess’ dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange. One can appreciate Burgess’ fun  conceptualisation of what Britain might look like as a communist state (woefully inefficient, apparently), one can enjoy how one gradually begins to understand Nadsat, the language that Burgess wrote the novel in, attempting to guess the way in which the youths of the future may speak, a fusion between  cockney rhyming slang and Soviet-inflected cockney rhyming slang (Burgess may have been slightly off on this point) or one could revel in Burgess’ anticipation of the polarised response to the text. Burgess makes the reaction of fusty types with destructive attitudes towards books complicit in the novel’s satire, as if expecting that A Clockwork Orange would one day number among the ‘bad boys’ of the Western canon, the books which have been banned. If you were expecting me to describe the depiction of ultraviolence as ‘a pleasure,’ look elsewhere, no MRA I.

Early in the novel, we have Alex and his droogs running into an older chelloveck, with a couple of books that seem strictly factual in nature, entitled Elementary Crystallography, The Rhombohedral System and The Miracle of the Snowflake. Alex tears them up: “This crystal book I had was very tough-bound and hard to razrez to bits, but being real starry and made in days when things were made to last like, but I managed to rip the pages up and chuck them in handfuls of like snowflakes, though big, all over this creeching old veck, and then the others did the same with theirs.”

It’s doubtful that all of Alex’s friends identify as anti-intellectual; Alex is a devotee of nineteenth century romanticism, especially the orchestral music of Ludwig van Beethoven. This is a the core of Burgess’ characterisation of Alex, and the signalling of a very important point, a big ol’ NB, about how Alex doesn’t lack humanity or education, which might make him capable of murdering, raping, etc. It is instead, a choice on his part, to do these things and to enjoy them. The others, Pete, Georgie and Dim don’t seem to identify as much of anything at all, Pete later looks back on his youthful hi-jinks with a kind of bemusement, laughing at Alex as the embodiment of those long departed days, while Dim has joined the police force, suggesting that all he ever wanted to do was beat people up. Fortunately for him he’s found a job wherein such behaviour is legalised and implicitly approved of.

Later in the night, the group break into the home of a writer writing a book, the theme of which seems to be how awful the mechanisation of the human being is, called, A Clockwork Orange. The manuscript is torn to pieces while the boys rape the writer’s wife. I found it disquieting to see these two things described in the same scene, almost as if there’s some comparison to be made between the two, when one is clearly more grotesque than the other. Nevertheless linked they are, as if Burgess is suggesting that those who condemn books, suggest that some should be banned or destroyed are of Alex’s company.