Dr Heather Laird Research Seminar – Easter 1916 Rising Centenary Commemorations – John McGahern

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John McGahern, staring at something to his left whilst wearing a turtleneck. Circa 1975.

John McGahern is one of the only writers who I have read completely. The novels, the stories, the non-fiction. As much of the criticism as is readily available. I’ve never read the play actually now that I come to think of it. Oh well. It did get panned. There are a few other writers who I’ve come close to completing. Chekov. Mann. I tried with Melville. Shakespeare. Friel. Calvino. Camus. Lost interest in each, there always being time to return. It’s not as if being a completist is the aim. We’re not collecting baseball cards here. Christ America you’re insidious.

It does help of course if you’re well read. You need the straws to go with the sparks. It can be a distraction however. You must have read someone before you can write about them. Or speak about them. Or misquote them. I always felt it was the deepest cut imaginable when Sartre accused Camus of not having read the books he quoted. It’s said they fell out over Marx.. I think it was more over that nuclear option of an insult. There was no return from such depths. Or maybe there was. But he died.

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The Easter 1916 Centenary Commemorations have been front and centre in the national consciousness of late. I’d hyperlink to a webpage on them but there’s surely no need. They were all very civilised. Touching. Dignified. No men in balaclavas and sunglasses. Kept tacitly out of frame. Unprovocized. You can use it if you want, first one’s free.

Let’s smash cut away from the Easter Centenary for a moment. Don’t worry this will all be wrapped in a bow at blog’s end. Let’s hope.

Last November I attended a seminar presentation here at the School of English, UCC, given by Dr Heather Laird, entitled Writing Working-Class Mothers. The role of the working-class mother figure within Irish literature was expertly detailed, the significance and shading of various representations outlined using examples that spanned two hundred years of Irish writing. Dublin based texts dominate our ideation of the term “working class”. Dr Laird sought to expand this view to include  both regional urban settings as well as the rural. Incisive and insightful, I look forward to reading her upcoming work on the subject. The greatest take-away for me from that day however, was the depth and breadth of Dr Laird’s reading. I stopped making notes of each title and character around the twenty mark. There were many more. The in-depth knowledge required achieved through extensive reading before the first critical word may be uttered, which I referred to in my opening paragraph, was evident that day. Dr Laird’s example is one I will seek to follow in my own studies.

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An actor playing a 1916 volunteer appraises his life choices.

Leafing through old back issues of the now dormant journal Cork Review, edited by Thomas McCarthy, I came across a piece by John McGahern entitled “Easter”. It is an early excerpt from the novel which would become That They May Face The Rising Sun, although its working title was then “That He May Face The Rising Sun”, an interesting insight in and of itself. “Easter” corresponds to a passage which appears late in the published novel, pages 251-259 of the Faber paperback edition. It describes an Easter Sunday visit from Jamesie, the mercurial Irish-everyman of the novel, to the house of his neighbours, Joe and Kate

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“Eireann’s nobel emblem boys…”

Ruttledge. Joe Ruttledge stands as counterpoint to Jamesie’s character in both, more reserved and thoughtful, a cipher for McGahern himself. A commemorative march is taking place from the local IRA monument to the graveyard at Shruhaun. Jamesie recounts a childhood memory of witnessing the killing by the Black and Tans of a number of local volunteers, for which the monument was erected. He tells of how he and his father rescued the lone survivor from a bog, and how when the man went on to become a local politician he never acknowledged his saviours. Jamesie has a jaundiced view of the commemoration, seeing it as myopic of the true nature of the past, ‘They carried placards with slogans and photos of Pearse, McDermott, and Sands on green, white and gold backgrounds. The effect was somehow sinister and cheap’ (258). Sinister and cheap. I like that one.

The reprisal killing of a local Protestant man William Taylor is also detailed. The excerpt and novel are identical, word for word, bare one detail: the name changes. Here it is:

Then they came for poor Sinclair, the Protestant, nine fields away. The Sinclairs were quiet and hardworking and they kept to themselves like all the Protestants. They knew as much about the ambush as we knew. ‘Sinclair’s wife met them when they came to the back door. She thought they were calling about a mare they had advertised in the Observer that week and pointed them to the byre where Taylor was milking. They shot him like a dog beneath the cows and said he confessed before he was shot. Oh, we are a beautiful people Kate. (256)

 

The Cork Review excerpt has the name as Taylor throughout. It’s a mistake. As much the copy editor’s fault as McGahern’s. It’s interesting for me because it immediately links the passage to one which appears in Amongst Women, another of McGahern’s novels which was published twenty one years previously. The killing of “the spy” William Taylor, is mentioned as one of the memories which the lead character Moran and his friend McQuaid share every year when they meet.

 

From year to year they used  the same handrails to go down into the past: lifting the cartwheel at the crossroads, the drilling sessions by the river, the first ambush, marching at night between safe houses, the different characters in the houses, the food, the girls… The interrogation of William Taylor the spy and his execution by the light of a paraffin lantern among his own cattle in the byre. (14)

The killing of a British Colonel dominates the reminisces of Moran and McQuaid and is detailed in length, whereas the above passage is the only mention of William Taylor. McGahern would exonerate Taylor twenty years later, using the bitter remembrance of Jamesie to indict the character Moran.  That his remembrance of that murder is set beside the banal details of ‘the food, the girls…’ shades the character further towards psychopathy.

Insights gained from close reading. Are they significant, or does it prevent us from seeing the wood from the trees? Either way piecing the above details together was thrilling for me. I find such things thrilling yes, I lead a very sheltered life.  I hope that Dr Laird, herself a keen appreciator of McGahern’s work, will see the above analysis as both an original insight, and as a testament to her teaching, and the example of her critical approach.

Perhaps I should’ve chosen McGahern as the subject of my thesis? Too late now! I’ll always have a deep love of his work which perhaps a thesis would taint.

God’s mercy on “the spy” William Taylor.

 

Dean

 

I first met Dean Browne last summer at an event held by the School of English, UCC.

I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with a miserably, weary split-up and my feeling that everything was dead.  

We were both there to receive the Patricia Coughlan Essay Award for Essays on Irish Culture. Well,  Dean got the award, I got the consolation prize of the certificate. We both awkwardly stood in for photos by the grand piano in the Aula Maxima clutching our printed A4 sheets of praise, mine identical yet somewhat the lesser.  You might guess. I’m still mordantly bitter.

I wondered at who this reticent, still, prematurely bearded vanquisher, many years my junior, could be? We exchanged a few pleasantries; my smiling words of congratulations sluiced through gritted teeth.  It spooked me somewhat that I felt no reciprocal warmth in our brief conversation.  The photographer wanted to take some extra shots of us  at one point, but Dean had had enough and wandered off. I feigned a similar attitude though as an eternal egoist I craved the camera’s shutter. I was happy with my prize, touched by my family’s heartfelt support in the pews, and rationalised my second place away as just another white lie I’d have to add to my CV. Dean Browne, pah! Even Professor Coughlan must be allowed a misstep in critical judgement every now and then surely?  If I were ever a wrestler, I’d certainly play the heel.

Owing to the fact both Dean and myself were on scholarships, awarded again by the School of English (thank you, thank you, thank you) our paths crossed again on a number of occasions whilst we fulfilled our supervision hours during the first semester in-house examinations. UCC is quite a small place. It leads to regular bumpings-into, and brief exchanges of small-talk. We maintained a passing acquaintance, welcome on my part for no other reason than to quell my inquisitiveness as to the critical character of the guy who beat me. How welcome my small talk was to Dean I’m still none the wiser. I began finding old library dockets with Dean Browne’s name on them constantly bookmarking books of poetry I was reading. Montague. Ashbery. Heaney. Auden. Muldoon. I wondered at whether I had seen such dockets last year without remarking on the name, it then being unfamiliar to me. He was reading what I was reading. Or rather, I was reading what Dean had already read. In the lee of the library one evening both happening to be smoking at the same time he suggested we go for a pint. “Why not?”

It was immediately apparent that my pique at coming second in that prize, exaggerated here yet still real, was to be rightfully added to the list of post-facto causes for mortification. One of those things you feel in a moment of recollection and quickly press to the back of your mind. Quiet, reticent, particular in speech, Dean had a vast knowledge of poetry, contemporary, Modernist, Romantic, Classical. As the pints of porter were sunk in their turn, it bested me to spar my part of the conversation, offer equivalent insights to those which seemed for him to come so easily.

Hmm, maybe Professor Coughlan got it right? Oh self hate.

I realised that in the time I’d been studying English in UCC, I had believed myself superior, certainly equal, to anyone I encountered studying in the School. Necessary self belief, or hubris? There you are. After numerous nights of pints and poet-talk, as well as what you might term correspondence (if such a term exists any longer), I have come to new perspectives; been criticised and given criticism; been introduced to new poets I never knew of, not least of all Dean himself; in effect, I’ve come to see the value of that second place. I’ve come to know Dean as both a good friend and a valued academic peer.

He knows more than I do. We’re very happy together. I’m hoping for a summer wedding.

Here’s one of his poems, first published in Southward magazine, and what I think of it.

Polypheme

He remembers the telescope most on winter nights –
a cheapish starter model this, but it let him go
to Mare Imbrium and back in minutes;
then he’s that nine-year-old who wheels it to the window,
dusts it down, and finds this keyhole in the hemisphere.
Sometimes the lens reflects his own myopic squints,
trained on whatever might chance to constellate
especially for his look – the soft blur
of the Pleaides, or Cassiopeia
he liked to picture rocking on a blue verandah;
or that god who, deaf to his charades, hints
nothing of himself and declines to comment
and is nobody’s business for the moment
unless he means to say Sorry, you’re too late. 

Words. Many, sundry, endless. Must be chosen however. Reduced. Polypheme can be read in two ways then. The universe of language which a bare etymological reading of the word denotes, as if it is a creation of the Critical Theorists, is immediately reduced by meaning: the Classical allusion, the one-eyed man, and all those who have made reference to such through time up to this point, this poem.   The cracking open language for the purposes of the inspection of constituent parts is countered at once, in one word: how I, or you, receive it, its communication. The Cyclops imagery is continued in the motif of the telescope: the search of for something outside of the self. The “I” is narrated in measured lines until the reveal of the cosmic joke, the nihilist turn as the hot tap runs cold at the poems finish. The awkward use of “this” contrasts to the sweetness of phrase of, “keyhole in the hemisphere”, “constellate”, as well as the pairing of “soft blur” with the startling construction of the “blue verandah” of stars. There is a sureness in the choice of words which leave us in no doubt as to the intent of each echo and contrast.  The distance between poet and subject, and the traversing of that liminal space through narration of remembrance is the key here: the astronomer who feels the final rebuff yet is accepting of his place in the universe, its limitation not seen as a cause for despair but universal, is not the poet: in the telling, the remove, something is lost. I prefer when poets play both Citizen and Narrator. I’m slow to make such a criticism here, maybe the mapping of the remove is the point.

Nice one…

 

Works Cited

Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. New York: Viking, 1997. Print.

 

Hemingway, Berryman

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John Berryman, 1914-1972

I recently read a piece by John Berryman on Ernest Hemingway’s short story ‘A Clean Well-Lighted Place’ which appears in the poet’s collected criticism, The Freedom of the Poet. It led me to re-read the story. It’s beautiful. I’d admit it moved me to tears, but then we mustn’t show emotion in this line of work. Berryman reads the story of the neat old drunk drinking on his own in a café, as two waiters look on waiting to shut up for the night, ruminating on the concept of ‘nada’, ‘nothing’, ‘nothingness’ and how dignity is our only resource in facing such terms, as ‘something very beautiful’, with masterful deftness of perception, matching the story’s beauty with his own.

“Last week he tried to commit suicide,” one waiter said.

“Why?”

“He was in despair.”

“What about?”

“Nothing.”

Berryman points out the subtle way in which Hemingway creates such intensity of feeling through a story where not much, if anything, occurs. On re-reading the story, I agree. As I’ve said elsewhere, I find much of Hemingway unreadable now. Berryman has shown me that it need not be so. The story of the old man full of dignity coping with despair, written by an old man full of dignity coping with despair, analysed by an old man full of dignity coping with despair, was enough to move this old man full of DDT coping with his hair. I shouldn’t joke of course. I trust you’ll forgive me. Reading both Berryman and Hemingway brings it front and centre: this is life and death, how what I write must strive for the same effect.

“I am of those who like to stay late at the café,” the older waiter said.

“With all those who do not want to go to bed. With all those who need a light for the night.”

Is it crass to say I know who those people are? That I am one? That you may be? The final line is a Hemingway classic. My classmate Emilio Bonome Ares mentioned Hemingway’s “Iceberg Theory” in his Textualities 2016 conference paper. I myself have criticized it in a previous post. My point of contention with both Iceberg Theory, and Hemingway, is that the more interesting story often takes place after the full stop of the final line; that the stories themselves often do not support the gnomic construction of their resolutions. Such may be the case elsewhere, but not here. To quote briefly Berryman’s other great treatment of Hemingway, “Dream Song 235”,

‘God to him no worse luck send.’

‘Many must have it.’

Many must have it.

Work Cited:

Berryman, John. The Dream Songs. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969. Print.

Berryman, John. The Freedom of the Poet. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1976. Print.

Bill Lawson – ‘Douglass, Memories, and Disappointment’

This is one of two mandatory research blogs which I have to do as part of my MA here at UCC. Of course the fact they’re making me do it ensures that I don’t want to do it. This life of privilege I lead can be so unfair sometimes. Trying to muster the enthusiasm required to write something I don’t particularly want to, makes me realize what a terrible a news journalist I’d be. Or script editor. Or technical writer. Or any type of productive writer that doesn’t involve some level of navel gazing. I’m being harsh on myself course. Self deprecation, Social Anxiety etc. Being serious for a second, to any prospective employers reading this I’m just as capable of shilling as the next guy. Just give me a shot coach!

The subject of this mandatory blog (It can be fun to be passive aggressive sometimes) is a talk which Professor Bill Lawson gave at the School of English, UCC, on the 7th of October last, titled ‘Douglass, Memories and Disappointment’.

In trying to write about this talk I’m immediately brought back to the very first piece of writing I carried out as an infant in National School. Mrs. Cunnigham’s Junior Infants class, Autumn 1992. I’m sure there’s some line or other from Gatsby that would work well here, I’m going to beat on ceaselessly with my anecdote however. The exercise involved Mrs. Cunningham (stern, but fair) asking the class of just turned five year-olds to tell her what we did over the preceding weekend. At which point, following our adorable innocent replies; ‘went shopping with mammy’ (most likely me), ‘fed calves with granddad’ (there was a lot of farmers in the class), ‘played with my teddy bear before taking a nap’ (I’m being florid), Mrs. Cunnigham would summarize our remembrances into a unified narrative on the blackboard. Which we then wrote down in our copy books, a collective remembrance of a weekend which never actually wholly took place. This current research blog on Prof. Lawson’s talk, is basically the same. Or completely different, whatever you’re having yourself. It happened over a month ago, I didn’t take notes. Is what Professor Lawson meant actually what he said? Is the exact same meaning of what he said to be found in this paper I found which deals with exactly the same subject matter? Or does the particular audience to which he gave the talk impact on the inflection or nuance of his meaning on that particular day? Is the meaning in the text or the intention of the speaker/writer? I’ve asked more questions than I intend to answer here. But that’s just the kind of wrenboy (rǽn bɔ̀y) I am.

To cut a long ramble short… What I remember of Bill Lawson’s talk on ‘Douglass, Memories and Disappointment’. (If Mrs. Cunnigham could only see me now… she could do quite easily by the way, we’re from the same place (you get what I’m trying to say).)

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The main thrust of Prof. Lawson’s talk focused on the concept of ‘social disappointment’. ‘Social disappointment’ for me, would be a good description of my daily interactions with other human beings, specifically, interactions involving the women of Cork in various nightclubs I’ve been known to frequent (thankfully all in the past now (I love you, Elaine)).

The term for Lawson, means something quite different; ‘the experience of disappointment that comes from the failure of the government to satisfy the expectations of the majority of Blacks.’ My emphasis on the word ‘expectation’ here parallels Prof. Lawson’s. Disappointment doesn’t come from ‘hope’, it comes from ‘expectation’. I can’t speak to the veracity of this statement in regards my own romantic endeavors, me always being more of a hope than expectation guy, however it does ring true in the context of American race relations. Prof. Lawson went on to outline the social disappointment experienced by Frederick Douglass following the emancipation of the slaves, and more generally, the social disappointment which “Black Americans” have experienced throughout the centuries following emancipation; segregation, institutionalized racism, and issues relating to the justice system and law enforcement, making specific contemporary reference to the shootings in Ferguson. There is an implicit criticism of the strand of black political engagement which resorts to ‘Hope’ (see image above). As the paper on which Prof. Lawson based the talk was first published in the mid-nineties ((Existence in Black, 1996), it could be read as prophetic. For me, it speaks to the generalizing dual reading of “Black American” political and social engagement;  that of a strident rights based approach exemplified by Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson, and the more dialogic conciliatory  approach, for our current purposes, exemplified by President Obama. I’m conscious here that I’m making broad generalizations myself, using the ‘collective identities’ which Frantz Fanon criticizes for instance, and have characterized President Obama as one with the Uncle Tom’s of black history. What can I say… my simplification parallels that of Prof. Lawson’s initial ‘Hope’ and ‘Expectation’ binary.

The hard-hearted individual never sees people as people, but rather as mere objects or impersonal cogs in an ever-turning wheel. In the vast wheel of industry, he sees men as hands.

-Martin Luther King Jnr.

This quote for me hints at the Kantian genesis of King’s philosophy; men as ends in and of themselves, not merely as means to an end, be it economic, or societal. Who would disagree with such propositions? But, then there have been quite a few critics of Kant down through the years…

As I’ve said, the term ‘social disappointment’ seems perfectly fine to me as a term for the generalization which Prof. Lawson makes, and simultaneously shies away from. What remains with me from Prof. Lawson’s talk is his final words. He picked out Dr. Lee Jenkins of UCC, who was in attendance, citing her as an example of someone who’s ‘read all the literature, read all the criticism, read everything on the subject’, as someone who, along with himself, knows better than anyone who might attempt to question or criticize his thesis. I’m paraphrasing, as as I’ve mentioned above I’m drawing from my recollection. I recall quite vividly however being taken aback by this particular type of argument, and can only wonder what Dr. Jenkins felt at being put in such a position.

Anyway, there’s a couple hundred words, my UCC overlords. I guess that wasn’t so bad…