Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Kevin Myers' "Watching the Door": Book Review

This reads as if a mad picaresque tale. Myers as first a reporter for RTÉ (Irish state radio and television) and then as a freelance journalist with no real experience, finds himself wandering into savagery as he hastens north as the Troubles explode. A soldier dies next to him; he witnesses an IRA ambush; he sees children shot to death by snipers. The adjectives pile up: the conditions in 1970s Belfast lead to a life led as lies. Insane, vile, ludicrous, preposterous characterize what happens to everyday situations turned into hidden truths, revealed only behind one’s own doors, to one’s own tribe.

The prose takes one through barricades and checkpoints wittily if not to me always accurately. Perhaps as with Myers’ own encounters when he first ventured into the statelet, today’s intrepid tourists may find the “pathological hospitality” credited to Northerners but Ballymurphy, the admittedly dull housing estate in West Belfast, seemed overstated as “mesmerizingly hideous”. Myers, a mordant critic of nationalist pieties, heaps scorn on incoherent IRA Belfast one-time leader Seamus Twomey. Those for whom Twomey claimed to speak and fight, Myers insists, were rarely asked. “The vote for hostilities was unanimous among those people with guns: and those without were not consulted”. (89) 

Myers pinpoints the problem inherent in Irish republicanism as “an almost autonomous state with an internal folklore that embraces and indoctrinates those admitted to its mysteries. Suffering, either inflicted or endured, is a keynote to its ethos”. (14) He contrasts Twomey’s ravings with today’s republicans with a “telegenic veneer of suited respectability”. Twomey’s the “raw product: a man indoctrinated in the ways of death, who had repeatedly and casually caused men to be murdered. These deeds meant nothing to him: his eyes were not cold but angry, as if he lived his life in a permanently homicidal rage. His soul knew no pity, his conscience no sin”. (91) 

The IRA never wants to claim responsibility, as Myers argues it, for the Troubles; republicans blame a white Cortina’s disappearance before a bombing, or they blame the system. And even when blame’s justified, as with Bloody Sunday, why its fourteen sudden deaths garner far more publicity than the fifteen blown up by loyalist terrorists a month earlier at McGurk’s pub mystifies him as a reporter. But, such news ensures his own paycheck, and his pursuit of such horrors creates his own career. 

Not that the British troops, their commanders, the loyalist paramilitaries, the nutting squads escape opprobrium. “Everyone in Northern Ireland lied. Everyone, without exception: republicans, loyalists, soldiers, police—everyone. Lying is easy in such a place. It is the default mode to which everyone turns when there is no consensus about truth. In the absence of an agreed reality, truth is whatever you’re having yourself”. (117-8) Myers names the victims, and makes us watch as they die. He tallies forty people he knew who died in the North, and another eight he did not, but whom he watched die. We like him are forced to remember how statistics cloak murder, and how anguish shatters those left behind.

Myers rails against the warped Fenian perspective for those trapped there by their own stubbornness. “The Northern Irish nationalist ghetto experience” ensured that those “north of the drumlins concocted stereotypes, and then lived their lives surrounded by these people of their own imagination”. (145) As the son of Dubliners who left during WWII for work in Britain, his first name and his own English accent from his Leicester upbringing mark him as close enough to be suspected for his Catholic loyalties, foreign enough to stand out among the unionists. He’s also suspected as an undercover British officer spying on the paramilitaries. He judges himself one of the only men frequenting both the Falls and the Shankill Roads as he crosses sectarian lines to drink among those thugs who—as with the sinister UVF loyalist despot “Rab Brown”-- may plot his own demise from within the pub, if later that very night. 

As the decade and the Troubles grind on, Myers loses his bearings. He struggles to find work, to keep girlfriends (although he beds an impressive number), and to stay sane amidst the “exonerative moral machinery” which grinds down his resistance to republican rhetoric and unionist idiocy. As a “semi-hippy”, his loyalty to the factions supposedly fighting against imperialism turn tested as the Official IRA’s contorted justifications for capitalist gain in the service of a Marxist revolution confound even him. (See my Amazon US review of "The Lost Revolution" by Brian Hanley & Scott Millar; this cites Myers briefly.)

Everyone fighting against the Crown gets paid by it, for housing, rebuilding grants, the dole, and this turns the first war where both enemies benefit from a common benefactor and (sometimes) foe. The years wear him down, as he hears over and over how the IRA allows its members immunity for the most hideous outrages. The cant of its volunteers and the endlessly one-sided recital of their woes disgust him. “For immunity-to-consequence was both a by-product of the Troubles, and its fuel, rather as a nuclear reactor can run on its own waste”. (230) 

Still, Myers for all his acerbic contempt for all involved in taking a guerrilla war into a densely populated city manages to admit the “compulsive generosity” and unbroken gallantry of a resilient and kind resident who endures in the West Belfast ghettoes with admirable good will and innate decency. He fills the narrative with vivid reportage from his perspective, starting with the Shaws Road ambush he tape recorded after he stumbled upon its IRA setup, and continuing into Robert Bankier’s last breath as a British soldier, the final moments of Rose McCartney and Patrick O’Neill at the hands of loyalist killers, and a bomb attack Myers narrowly misses meant for that “deeply manipulative” republican apologist to “revolutionary tourists”, John McGuffin. Myers provides abundant tragedy, danger, and narrow escapes. 

Luckily, he intersperses happier tales. His best, such as Lady Henrietta Guinness meeting the consumers of her family’s stout in West Belfast’s pubs, combine a poignant moment with a satirical relish for the absurd that all too often became the ordinary. He loves relating his two escapades when the man of the house returned and Myers had to hide from the cuckold; his visit to his friend Barney’s brothel, surely the least successful in all of Ulster, represents a comic triumph. My favorite episode, near the end of this often dispiriting narrative, managed to lift my spirits. His hosting of Shannon, an utterly unspeakable American feminist, who befuddles Myers with her contradictions, as a splendid set piece succeeds. 

His memoir confronts his own complicity as a journalist who becomes too intimate with those who he meets, for Myers looks back upon his own compulsion to mix with the natives turned friends, lovers, and neighbors. Malachi O’Doherty’s The Telling Year: Belfast 1972 (see my Amazon or "Blogtrotter" review)  documents a similar experience by a fellow journalist, but a native who finds himself reporting on his own neighbors. As for Myers, he attempts to reduce the tension. He arranges a meeting across enemy lines.  This backfires. He flees to another district after loyalist brutes through whom he tried to broker a truce target him. Everyone talks to him, but Myers learns that half-truths fill their admissions. He is never trusted enough by any side.

Nobody’s innocent, at least those who he estimates provided fifty silent supporters in every community for the one among them who fired back. Certainly, his judgment of the IRA also stands for the recruits and activists whom the republicans fought. Loyalists and “security forces” indulged in their own equally lucrative, cynical, and repellent campaigns. While history often earned the appeal and politics the justification for violence and intimidation, Myers denies their ideological legitimacy. “The Provisional IRA did not consult the living, only the past and future: the present meant nothing to them”. (226) 

Of the catalyst for the deaths which sparked the doomed Peace People, Myers writes that the only sacrifices which mattered to the republicans were when the wrongs were committed by the other side. In this spiral of violence, it reminded me of Orwell’s 1984. As in Oceania, the IRA declared war against one if not always two of its opponents, as allies turned sudden enemies and friends were targeted as foes. This malignant maelstrom before decade’s end spun him out of the province, as he tried to escape the degradation that corroded his professional career and personal life. As I finished, I wondered what he learned, for the back cover tells us he went on to cover civil war in 1980s Lebanon and 1990s Bosnia. (Posted in slightly shorter and edited form to Lunch.com & Amazon US 4-26-11)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

David McMahan's "The Making of Buddhist Modernism": Review

Meditation, compassion, tolerance; spirituality, freedom, rationality: why do these adjectives characterize modern Buddhism? Why not temple worship, ancestral cult, or monastic ritual? How do the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, or Chögyam Trungpa incorporate "strategic occidentalism" into open-minded versions of Buddhism compatible with scientific rationalism, feminism, democracy, ethics, agnosticism, and liberal Christianity? How do Tibetan, Zen, and vipassana "insight" schools of practice adapt for Westernizing markets, whether in Asia, America, or Europe? McMahan mixes theory with examples to explain how both West and East interpret dharma for modern audiences--schooled in abstract thought, raised with consumer capitalism, and participants in globalizing media.

Using Donald S. Lopez' definition of a modern form that "stresses equality over hierarchy, the universal over the local, and often exalts the individual above the community," McMahan begins his study (qtd. 8). He shows how "non-negotiable cultural assumptions" based on the superiority of equal opportunity, non-discrimination, women's rights, and democratic access underlie a sympathizer or adherent's reception. Charles Taylor's three discourses of modernity apply: scientific rationalism, liberal Jewish and Christian monotheism, and romantic expressivism combine to differentiate modern processes of accepting Buddhism from traditional cultures rooted in Asian accretions that, since Victorian times, have been critiqued by reforming progressives as interfering with a purer, primitive, or truer dharma-teaching. By demythologizing, detraditionalizing, and psychologizing, the twentieth century continued the efforts of Romantics and rationalists to prove that not only might Buddhism be compatible with post-Enlightenment thought, it might better Christian or scientific models.

By transmutation, modernizing occurs through psychoanalytic concepts filtering Buddhism through Westernized lenses. Chapter Two, "The Spectrum of Tradition and Modernism," takes the case study of the "Shukden affair" to show how tensions brought in-- via psychological definitions-- to the Tibetan controversy have been heightened as the "self-understanding" of those involved has been transformed by this modern version of dharma. The earlier "science of mind" description of Tibetan Buddhism exported early last century from Thomas W. and Caroline Rhys Davids' Pali textual efforts now expands into a Western-influenced analogy of the Tibetans' own "internalizing" of deities. Monotheistic and/or rational readers came to expect a Buddhism less populated by idols. The magic that served so potently to spread the first coming of the dharma into medieval Tibet, McMahan finds, and which sold that homeland's allure to the West through Alexandra David-Neel, now becomes downplayed.

However, not abandoned, for sorcery sidles into the psyche of its Tibetan practitioners, in this Westernized scenario. For those arguing not if but how Shukden should be propitiated, the existence of a demon deity is not a projection but a reality. While McMahan opines regarding the fatal consequences of the "Shukden affair" for three men that "people are seldom murdered over psychological archetypes," (55) I was reminded of Voltaire's aperçu: "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities." McMahan in his text never takes on the verification of Shukden, unsurprisingly, but he does alert readers, as in the Nechung Oracle, to encounters often obscured by mass media. Pico Iyer's recent "The Open Road" discusses this awkward P.R. situation for the Dalai Lama at more length.

Unlike Iyer's narrative, or "How the Swans Came to the Lake" by Rick Fields, to whom McMahan dedicates his book (although Fields and many related historians remain unmentioned in the text itself), this study remains largely theoretical. Not intended for a general audience, it cites Rudolph Bultmann, René Descartes, and-- on the same page-- Freidrichs Schelling & Schiller & Schleiermacher. Many topics are treated in sub-sections rapidly but efficiently; endnotes remain relatively few but the bibliography and index assist researchers. A few minor typographical errors mar the presentation, but it would prove a necessary purchase for libraries and scholars.

Scholarship enters most doggedly into the middle chapters. Taylor's discourses of modernity bring Buddhism into a complicated relationship with rationalism, Christianity, and Romanticism. Countering, since the 1870s, the charges that it represents a decayed tradition, Buddhists have rallied to compete against Western liberalism as well as cohabit with its individualism, freedom of choice, and market-driven goals. This can get complicated, for the preference for one to trust inner experience, so stressed by many exponents today, finds little support in early Buddhist texts warning not to be deluded by one's interior illuminations. Romanticism, as McMahan explores at length, and then psychology, strives to create compatible areas of common ground upon which modern Buddhism can appeal to interiorized realms open to the Western or Westernized seeker disenchanted, in turn, by empirical, capitalist, and destructive modernity.

Chapter Four extends the scientific dialogue with modernizing Buddhism. The Victorian crisis of faith entered Asian cultures, demoralized over their loss of prestige against Christian and colonizing forces. Edward Said's "orientalism" and Homi Bhabha's "hybridity," beloved by critics, here shift into concepts less applicable to East-West relations regarding a Buddhism that in Japan and Tibet had separated itself long and largely from European conquest, McMahan notes. "The discourse of scientific Buddhism" drew from Darwin, European philosophy, and rational inquiry, but it also-- as with Sri Lankan nationalist Anagarika Dharmapala's bitter tirades against monotheistic importers and imperialistic exploiters, could be forged into a rhetorical weapon with which to prove the superiority of a purified, reformed dharma-teaching cleansed of idolatry, superstition, and formulae.

Such spirited discourses also went more than the one way export erroneously assumed by facile inquiry. Paul Carus' "gospel" and Henry Steele Olcott's "catechism" trained teachers and students in Asia; Dharmapala suspected Olcott of insufficient fidelity to the dharma while Carus urged a synthesis of Christianity and Buddhism into a Religion of Science. These trajectories intersected and they also clashed.

Chapter Five elaborates Romanticism within theories of art, spontaneity, and the "wellsprings of nature"; the New Age overlaps and neo-pagan sympathies flow in and out of a section that could have benefited from deeper attention to such cross-currents. All the same, McMahan excels on his inclusion of Western Buddhist theorists Anagarika Govinda and Sangharakshita. These two men reveal their own cultural assumptions when they argue for uses of art that edge closer to European Romanticism than, say, the Tibetan demotion of individual spontaneity or innovation by its "thangka" painters. The Beats and D.T. Suzuki helped impress the pattern of a Buddhism flexible, playful, or austere upon the Western counterculture and intelligentsia; how faithful these descriptions are to the original context, on the other hand, appears rather attenuated and distant from their sources. Limitations of Western models wedged back into Asian frameworks support McMahan's corrective perspective.

Yet, by such inter-cultural exposures, Westerners can better comprehend Buddhist concepts; these interpretations after all will be inevitable in any aesthetic or philosophical dialogue that relies on translation and analogy for persuasion and perpetuation of its once-esoteric precepts. Interdependence in the sixth chapter dominates the discussion. This concept appears ubiquitous for modern audiences, even when in earlier texts, McMahan shows, it occupied a less prominent niche. Historians of religion, he posits, must remember that nothing stands still, A wise reminder to scholars tempted to castigate practices as "inauthentic" or non-canonical. And, for a teaching grounded in impermanence, perhaps a sine qua non? "Tradition-in-change," he asserts, "establishes what Buddhism is empirically" (179).

"Meditation and Modernity" enlivens Chapter Seven's presentation with what today may be the most recognizable attribute of the dharma, if one increasingly separated from Buddhism itself. The privatization and detraditionalization (awkward terms, but those McMahan employs) follow the "subjective turn" along Romantic routes. Despite the persistence of the Eastern "Other" as more "spiritual, subjective, and intuitive," vs. the Western "materialistic, rational, and extraverted" contender, there persists in the Western reception of Buddhism a strong Romantic tension. Fierce individualism alongside "cosmic unity" in New Age movements and neo-pagan communities infiltrates Buddhist modernism.

Cited by McMahan, Ernest Troeltsch in the 1930s called such a belief "the secret religion of the educated classes" (qtd. 189). More context to align such Buddhism with "spiritualities of life" might have been welcome here, as these tendencies strongly color how Buddhism is marketed and perceived among many less familiar with the scholarly precision exerted by McMahan and historians of religion. Trungpa's impact, for example, upon the institutional regimen and academic acceptance of Western Buddhism by one who left Tibet to study at Oxford before entering the Aquarian Age appears barely considered as a test of modernization upon one of the West's most prominent figures of its formation. Still, professors and advanced readers may be able to widen the relevance of McMahan's arguments in future forays across this rapidly evolving field that Fields, Lopez, Stephen Batchelor, Martin Baumann, James William Coleman, and Charles Prebish among others have begun to survey.

Emile Durkheim's construction of one's "private, optional religion" earns a glance, alongside Troeltsch's "religious romanticism." These concepts guided how esoteric teachings widened into mass-marketed signifiers of modernity, freedom, and revolt against convention. McMahan nods to a telling insight worthy of much elaboration: Jewish and Christian converts to Buddhism, he suggests, might especially promote the liberating aspects of meditation within Western methods of its transmission. Another such remark deserving of development, here made in passing, comes when McMahan cites Thomas Tweed's acknowledgment of the pre-1960s reliance upon textual inculcation rather than personal instruction for those eager to learn dharma.

The countercultural move from books to gurus, reading to chanting, exotic travelogues to meditation centers has a parallel shift into another venue previously not entered by dharma transmitters. A few within the post-1960s scientific establishment wish to chart the efficacy of a spiritual discipline that might finally be verified by laboratory experiments. This dialogue with science, McMahan hesitates, may raise more questions. "Is the evocative image of robed meditators in lotus position hooked up to their individual biofeedback machines one of seamless confluence between science and meditation, the rehumanization of science, or contrariwise, the mechanization of meditation and the acquiescing of Buddhism to the very scientific materialism it has hoped to transform?" (210)

The eighth chapter moves into literary predecessors of Buddhist modernism that helped popularize among an educated readership the concepts of mindfulness and the "affirmation of ordinary life." Earlier, McMahan glanced at the "epiphany" and alludes to its social-political contexts intriguingly; later, he extends the modernist "pre-understanding for the way Buddhist mindfulness is understood today" (225). In passing, I call attention to Paul Foster's 1989 "Beckett & Zen" as one such compatible study. This may remain an elusive project to pinpoint, but the reception of Joyce, Woolf, or Proust among the types of students with a liberal arts education who then may be most open to Buddhist equivalents for the states attained by such authors does show a novel, no pun intended, application of the concepts previously defined.

In conclusion, McMahan displays the dharma's current phenomena. Postmodern inevitably follows modern Buddhism. Another work worthy of comparison to this final section goes unmentioned by McMahan; "The Monk and the Philosopher" (1996) by Jean-François Revel and Matthieu Ricard, discusses the clash and coupling of many Tibetan and Western political, artistic, and philosophical contexts that might have deserved consideration by McMahan. Future trends he includes: a backlash returning to tradition; "free-form spirituality" divorced from Buddhism, as has been attempted increasingly with Zen; privatization and commodification; social engagement; ethics; ecology; feminism; and New Age appropriation.

Case studies pass rapidly, but "The Mystical Arts of Tibet" tour by monks shows, in its program analyzed, how "global folk Buddhism" can be "translated into the language of Buddhist modernism" precisely and provocatively. (257) Among the cosmopolitan elite, the dharma uses global English as it adapts to the local vernacular. The impact of commodified, popular, and packaged Buddhism within consumer-driven, mass-market culture, conveyed by media and commerce earns passing comment. This fascinating topic may well generate in-depth follow-up.

Again, it may be a sign of the book's success that I wanted to find out far more about these quickly reviewed topics. I sense the compression exerted by a publisher upon the length of this work tilted the work more to satisfy the historian of religion than the general reader who might welcome a longer tour of the popular culture contexts. Yet, this book is more about the making than the merchandising of what has become marketed and manifested as modern Buddhism. Among its passing attractions further research will emerge, into the impermanent, ever-changing parade of the dharma's production, importation, and reception across the world.

Note: (Coleman, Foster, Iyer, and Revel & Ricard have been reviewed by me on Blogtrotter and Amazon US summer 2009.) Book photo: Article from "The Diplomat" of Franklin & Marshall College, where McMahan teaches: "My, How Buddhism Has Changed."

This is a copy of my review in "The Journal of Buddhist Ethics"17 (2010): 41-49. Cross-posted today to my regular blog, "Blogtrotter."

Friday, September 17, 2010

Patricia Monaghan's "The Red-Haired Girl from the Bog": Book Review

Believe me, I approached this book with plenty of misgivings, given the title and the promotional hints. I do not know how much is savvy marketing--the more academic side of Monaghan's here put forth, as opposed to her being the author of "Wild Women," or the one subtitled "myth, marigolds, and mulches". Her eponymous web domain seems to have faded (when I wrote this in 2005, but now it's back) but looking for information about her as I was reading this, she is noted as a leading popularizer of the Goddess and the reconstructed rituals that rejoin (as in the root of "re-ligion") people to nature. This insistence likewise permeates this 2004 investigation into "the landscape of Celtic myth & spirit."

It's carefully written. I usually "heard" her voice on the page, and as she notes in an aside, I assume that much of what she shares was freshly conveyed in a daily notebook on her travels and through her studies, and then expanded and mulled over much further before coming to print here. I admire Monaghan's determination to excavate using etymology. With a solid grounding in Irish as well as a rare combination of scientific training, her ecologically aware, if persistently soft-focused, depictions of the intermingling of the spiritual, the ecclesiastical, the historical, and the anecdotal make for quite an ambitious product belying the quick title-and-cover glance that casual prospects might give to this if in a New Age bookstore's "Celtic & Druidry" section. More power to her and her readers--they'll pick up more learning and not only lore than they may have bargained for. But you have to put up with, or become enchanted by, visions of she and her pals declaiming Yeats to the wind.

She eschews footnotes but acknowledges any idea or source not her own, and an annotated booklist and source locator appends the book. (Errata: Lughnasa appears also as Lehynasa on p. 273; Kevin Danaher's book was not printed by Cork's Mercier Press in 1922 but 1972--otherwise I found no glaring errors or typos, impressively.) Honestly, New Age is not the first shelf I turn to when seeking books of Irish interest, but you need to be as eclectic and alert as is Monaghan when searching for elusive traces backwards into the "symbiosis" that she posits exists between Christianity and paganism in Ireland, over more than 1500 years.

Other reviews have been more impressionistic, but let me give you a quick view of what in Irish is called "dindsenchas," as Frank MacEowen in his blurb calls "place-bonding stories," that tie toponymy to theology, ecology, and psychology in Monaghan's circuit sun-wise around the island. Beginning in the West, at Gort in Co Clare, she ties her Burren travels to the Hag, or "cailleach." Then she goes to Connemara for the "red-haired girl" and fairies--who are not Disneyfied delightful sprites. Up to Sligo, Mayo, Roscommon on the trail of Medb (Maeve) and the Morrigan, amidst Cruachan, Knocknarea, and holy wells. Then northerly for Emain Macha and Newgrange, with her own theories about a feminized Sun and the Irish ritual landscape thoughtfully told.

A chapter inevitably a bit apart relates her own struggle with the North, and her self-awareness of being seen as the Other. It's clumsier and more self-consciously told, but more direct and reality-based. She confronts her own resentments of those she perceives as eying her differently. It's a bold departure from the rest of the book, and she does not shy away from reality. She cannot offer any new insights, and she probably knows this, but her encounter with her darker side balances her cheerful nature throughout the rest of her travelogue.

I think her musings here about rapacious and/or romantic Viking ancestors accounting for her blue eyes went a bit overboard, and I don't doubt that Monaghan might agree and/or battle me into giving in to her determination to include her reveries--she's that kind of fair-minded investigator--but at least she does not back down from the strength or the fancy of her convictions. This is the model she admires and seeks to project into the Irish past as well as to gain sustenance from the faint but stubbornly grooved and cyclical tracks of its past power for our present. I did wonder at times why [feeling as I read a bit left out; compare neo-paganism, itself about 70% female practitioners] so few men compared to so many women sought to resurrect and rekindle its meanings and symbols, but the feminine-dominated powers, as she argues, gain the prominence even in the old tales and placenames more than males. (As in Ireland-Eriu, the latter meaning "fertile field," a rare point she does not explicitly define here for herself).

Monaghan tends to follow her instinct wherever it leads. She does not avoid the scholarly, but never lets it crush her soul. She has found a much more gentle and inspirational (in the root sense) sacralized landscape than I have encountered in Ireland. She has the advantage that many Irish Americans do not of direct connections and still-connected cousins due to more recent immigration in her family. This allows her more of a base from which to leap out across what she views ahead of her, intellectually, spiritually, and physically, This is a bold attempt to confront what always stoked my own thoughts: how far beneath today's Irish psyche and habits and mentality do you have to scratch before the pagan emerges?

Helped by her ability to navigate pop culture, dictionaries, her own widespread support network of family and friends, and her inbred wanderlust from her being raised in Alaska, she brings her pagan and her Christian sides together most evidently in the visit to the unprepossessing exterior of the re-lit pagan fire for Brigit in Kildare. This joins the two realms in which she and so many Irish, according to her study, wander. Then, down to the sacralized cow, Tara, and the central Uisneach hill for fire ceremonies and Bealtaine. The scholarship dragged a bit more than elsewhere, but coupled with a moving meditation on the death of her friend Barbara, this makes for an honest encounter again with mortality. She points out that it's not the inevitability of death we fear, but its timing.

Finally, she rounds out the tour in Kerry. She did not connect Mis with Austin Clarke's 1970 poem "The Healing of Mis," or cite Emmet Larkin's 1970s model of the devotional revolution of the later 19c that transformed Ireland into the 20c stereotype of a priest-ridden backwater by extirpating many remnants of its folk beliefs, but her thoughts on the pagan sexuality nearly extinguished by a post-Famine Church make for convincing speculation. Danu's "paps" and how its worshipers erected atop her nipples as stone cairns above a gentle-breasted hilled landscape make for a perspective that, as she asserts, only a woman as herself noticed after so many male-dominated studies never had--or at least demurred from recording! In the wrap-up chapter, she and a friend go in search of first-hand folkloric recovery of their own sacred place, Garravogue near the Cavan border. They circle back and extend the circle into a spiral, fittingly, as they revolve around Ireland's own places made holy.

Now, Monaghan has commonsense, more than some who have written about her book credit her with in my judgment as this Connacht-blooded Irish comments to/of another, her family from a point about equidistant from my two family origins only a few miles. By the way, her comments about the inevitable assurance from the locals of "only a mile more" and "sure you can't miss it" ring true for any stranger in search of rural landmarks, ruins, or simply the right road. She remarks on the county-town-parish-townland (she calls the last "farm") narrowing that Irish engage each other with when first nosing about the other's bonafides correctly, as I am of her now. This type of sensible observation, I hazard, makes her more observant and less beguiled by what she ponders in the more ethereal and filtered views she frames--and to be fair she mentions the rain and mud too when they often appear. I learned a lot from her, found that she often stayed one step ahead of me on her associations with the literary and historical and mythic resonances from what she traversed to keep me nimble, and that she wrote sensitively (if a bit too purple-prosed in parts, although these were helpfully often italicized) about her own heartfelt recoveries with the tangible traces of ideas and events long thought intangible.

Skeptics, rationalists, and unbelievers would hate this book, but I prefer, as she does, to think that few actually deny all hope of some presence outlasting our own. This book, challenging in many parts and not all that wince-making in others (these sections are relatively few to her credit), will teach any seeker a lot about facts as well as fable. Monaghan digs into the former to find the latter, and vice-versa.

P.S. A book only published in Ireland, the similarly unfortunately titled "Emerald Spirit," (Cork: Mercier Press, 2003) by another American, David P Stang, makes a wonderful counterpart. John Moriarty's mythopoeic and densely argued work may be too recondite for many, but also may please readers of Monaghan; Clare seanachie Eddie Lenihan's penetrating look into faerie lore and fact, "Meeting with the Other Side," (reviewed by me as are some of Moriarty's books) also is highly recommended if you want more about the play and peril between our realm and that elusive presence still said to swirl about the Irish countryside. Mapped well recently also by Cary Meehan in her "Traveller's Guide to Sacred Ireland" (also reviewed by me).

Slightly revised from my 2005 Amazon US review, as Patricia-Monaghan.com is up again. In earlier form also published by The Blanket as
"A book better than its title"  in 2005. Posted to Lunch.com 9-17-10. See my 2007 article that cites Monaghan and other Irish-language learners who come from America to learn Gaeilge in its "native habitat": "Making the Case for Irish through English: Eco-critical Politics of Language by Learners." It's more lively than that title implies.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Joshua Cohen's "Witz"

This cultural satire, or theological parable, or existential lament, invents an exhaustive excursion through the obsessions generated by the death of all but one of the Affiliated. The words derived from "Jew" never appear. Their absence haunts this ambitious novel, subtitled "The Story of the Last Jew on Earth."

Their erasure may recall Georges Perec's fiction without the most common letter, "e," translated as A Void; Perec was orphaned during the Holocaust in France. For Joshua Cohen’s own version of a "lipogram," a work with a missing symbol, Benjamin Israelien’s void after another, now total, global decimation of the Chosen People erodes him from the inside out. His inauthenticity as a Jewish survivor provokes the animosity of the rest of the world.

In a manner less than clearly explained by Cohen, nearly everybody else chooses to become "Affiliated." They take on the characteristics of the dead. For, in a sudden, inexplicable event, the Jewish people (somewhat inflated in numbers to the formerly lucky "eighteen" number of millions) perish on Christmas Eve, 1999. A few remain, the firstborn, but only until the following Passover. Then they perish. Ben alone remains to become what turns out more the scapegoat than the Messianic harbinger with tidings of comfort and joy. Cohen stretches his somber saga over eight hundred pages.

The novel's span challenges neat summation. Briefly, his family and his birth-- full grown, bearded, hirsute—takes up the first couple of hundred pages with fine print and extended riffs. Cohen relishes food, babble, trivia. The demise of the Jews quickly gives way to their kitsch revival, "in a language nobody speaks but everybody’s studying."

Cohen hurries over whatever sense would be in this catastrophe, oddly. He grants us a few powerful scenes of media coverage of this sudden death. Logic diminishes; a reader must put up with whatever Cohen dishes out to a put-upon Ben and the sketchily drawn cabal that unsuccessfully manages his marketing.

This set-up does allow for send-ups of motivational speakers, a surreal array of ministering Marys who never get the full attention I anticipated, and a suggestive interlude among the Hopi who await their own universal calendar-flip. Cohen likes lots of words. "Lunkfast, linner, and dunch" step forward. I favored a night "lunesilvered," "groves nymphabandoned," "thanatopsical tourists," and holiday giftwrap in "Fluseason Green.”

He makes us pay attention to the page. Via Joycean delight or Pynchonesque wit, we do gain enjoyment, however parsed out. The reader feels grateful for small rewards. It takes patience to stay afloat amid so many verbal depth charges. Submerged into this book, you gasp for air. The force of Cohen’s atmosphere presses down on you.

Cohen tends, as in a Cormac McCarthy-like passage about apocalyptic chaos, or one about Cities of Refuge as living hecatombs in the desert, to rush past potentially promising situations. The novel pulls Ben across the desert, with "the sadness inspired by trash that will outlive you, that must." At Los Seigeles (Vegas), he enters a hotel, its interiors "brushed like the hair of virgins, marble veined like the legs of old, and glass as fragile as their bones." Death outlives lust in this sober if earthy telling.

The Hopi appear to offer Ben a chance to compare his dystopic revelations with their end-time predictions, but Cohen shoves Ben past this opportunity. He compulsively returns to pun-filled, bitterly comic, and harshly grating recitals of Jewish urban angst. It's back to Joysey, and New York City, "the land of the locusteaters, drinking the blood of their neighbors for overpriced brunch."

Ben stops at where he would have gone to school, “yet another inheritance deferred.” There, "chalk remains from the happy clap of appreciative erasers smeared into the spirals of shoes out on permanent recess." Cohen can write, certainly. But does he write.

He spirits off Ben, sort of, to Palestein along with a red heifer, in a section too casually told, and also, sort of, to Polandland. There arises Whateverwitz, the camp where the few left non-newly Affiliated meet their doom. "In order to Polish them off," the few resisters are “punctually leisured to death." These passages evoke Kafka, and call on him from the graveyard. They can captivate or chill the reader, but the narrator hastens us as if an impatient tour guide past their detailed, but distanced, intrigues before we can let their emotions sink in.

It's no wonder Kafka and his Castle edge into the setting at this re-created Whateverwitz, in an inverted "Messianic victory of the bornagain." Why the rest of humanity would wish to convert never gets answered. (Who supervised their conversions after the demise of the firstborn, with all those but Ben born-Jewish dead, I wondered?) People simply change, in a dream logic that pulls along enigmatic, infantile, behemoth Ben against this current of subversion.

I felt that Cohen insisted on a chiasmus -- an inversion of Jew and non-Jew, persecution and acceptance -- that left him no other choice than this for his story. God hovers off stage, as a truly alienated Doktor Froid tells Ben. "We're the first people, also the last; the two qualities negate each other," which leaves the now-unearthly, earth-entrenched Affiliated "fascinated by the end of it all." As for their purported Creator, this One "doesn’t live where he works, doesn’t bring the office home with him, no mixing business with pleasure." Transcendence refuses to descend for Ben’s Messianic disguise.

This pace barely bothers with plot. Cohen's concern’s not with character. Instead, Cohen determines to force us to accept his world based on ideas, language, and monologues more than dialogues. Perhaps as with Torah or Talmud, this text documents an anthology of human foibles and restrictions and pleas rather than a seamless literary narrative, despite (or in spite of) its very craft.

Cohen seems to want to spite us as he does his protagonist and his caricatured antagonists — with whom the author often barely bothers to account for their sinister actions beyond a perfunctory directorial nod. This attitude distanced me from Ben. I could identify about as much with Ben as with Pantagruel and Gargantua.

A Rabelaisian bout of cunnilingus with a stand-in for his dead mother (it's a long story, take my word for it, and the only extended sexual encounter in a book that sorely ached for the saving grace of the erotic) leaves Ben with the loss of his tongue. With such material dished out in such heaps, the difficulty of empathizing with Ben or his handlers or walk-ons flitting about wearied me.

Hours stretch to days, for a reader facing prose that nears a Hebraic Finnegans Wake. Cohen's omniscient narrator reflects how "we live because we stay inside -- that only with roof and walls are our lives saved; on the lawn and behind its fence, the car parked, the gutters blooming, there we erect our truest Temple." A bookish insularity permeates these pages; the world outside, so distorted, warps into a grim spectacle.

The firstborn before they will succumb to another plague wonder: "what is a question? How to answer. Will you be at all. Or will you opt out. Don't you want to be. When you're all grown up to dead. Their seder to be interrupted -- libelous, the matzah weeps blood. The seat at the head of the table is empty and will be forever. You'll get used to it." Passages like this may elicit emotion, but they nestle within adamantine blocks of prose. Chunked chapters may crush the patience of all but the few readers nimble enough to catch the Yiddish, the Hebrew, the Judaica tossed here into a tall, deep scrap pile.

Cohen may despair over his own affiliation. Ben stands at the waves of the Pacific: "... at least, that's what we’re constantly telling ourselves: you want out, you got out; forget, forsake, change your name and your address, your nose and your friends and those pants, see what I care, go and intermarry the winds..." Cohen's creation's shrouded by Ben's conception as doomed by "life passedover, the unlivable liveddown, the divine decree of unlovable fame as proclaimed by prevailing silence."

In its messianic themes, breadth of Jewish references, and dense erudition, Witz recalls Arthur A. Cohen's In the Days of Simon Stern (1972). In its headlong final rush into the evocation of the Holocaust by its last survivor, Joseph Cohen, it echoes passages from George Steiner's The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H.(1980). This stand-alone coda of thirty pages as one death sentence after a life lived in pain and struggle is titled "Punchlines." Breathed into one long recital -- after eight hundred pages of Ben’s tale, which lurched about as its protagonist did in an unstable, wobbly gait -- the novel's last gasp finds its stand-up routine that knocks them dead, a negative correlation, its center of gravity.

In "Punchlines," jokes don't get a rise out of you, but settle into an ironically respectful Jewish tone. ". . . Corfu’s deportation that goaded load took a month the Hungarian moon over Reich and raum and when the Egyptians finally arrived at Auschwitz everybody was already Tod dead to the Zugang the chaingang the gained slain world the love of my Birkenau Mutter whom last I saw would've whispered in my father’s ear slicedoff severed and served to a dog or a God what a waste of a perfectly good train she was funny. . ." Here, the tale casts its dark magic, however attenuated and horrible to behold.

In its demands, Witz nears Tolstoy's epics in length and Kafka's fables in tone. Combine these with Ben's character of gargantuan appetites, albeit one who eludes the sympathy of the patient, if baffled, reader. The result may be less successful than some of Cohen's storied predecessors, yet it may surprise you. A few readers may undertake Cohen's rigorous wake. It resurrects linguistic excavations and intellectual fixations as a narrative "Exodust" that burrows into a tome nine years in the making. (A shorter version of this posted 6-21-10 to Amazon US and my other blog' "Blogtrotter." The longer version as above 6-25-10 to PopMatters.)

Friday, May 14, 2010

Jillian Venter's "Gothic Charm School": Book Review

"Nice costume! Halloween is over, freak!" How should a black-clad denizen respond? "The Lady of the Manners" explains Goths to the rest of us-- and "mundanes" to Goths. Once you wear black, should you ever talk back? Can Goths age gracefully, under umbrellas and sunscreen? How do you get makeup stains off the sink? What one-liners have Goths heard far too many times from the likes of gawkers like you?

Expanding her Gothic-Charm-School.com "gothy advice column," Venters in this spirited primer encourages: "Good manners for Goths, why you shouldn't dress like the Crow, or how, if you're going to wear whiteface, you should make sure you apply it on your damn ears and neck." (5) She emphasizes how "Goth is a subculture and (for some) a way of life, not an emotional template." (19)

This underlies her whole approach. She denies any "secret Goth cabal." She patiently relates the historical background, pop cultural contexts, snarkiness and cattiness, gossip, accoutrements, sartorial fripperies, sounds, and sights that Goths gravitate towards. She explores her subculture wittily.

She advises how Goths should act among themselves, online, at jobs, and in public. "You chose to dress that way, which means you don't get to complain about the attention your appearance garners." (186) Politeness rules, which appears to be a tricky point among an assemblage so devoted to gatekeeping, backstabbing, and mopes. A sub-heading is telling: "Why no one has an 'original' Goth look, so get over yourselves already." (199)

Her later chapters address her cohort, with plenty of detail on couture, cosmetics, and wardrobe-- not costume. Aware of how rumors about doom, depression, death, and decadence dog her trenchcoated, booted peers, she also reminds "Snarklings" that the way Goths respond to both taunts and inquiries represents for "norms" the way that those leaning towards the dark side will be perceived. "The Goths who express themselves through their wardrobe aren't doing it to draw attention to themselves; they're applying their preferred aesthetic and bringing the world around them closer to what they want it to be." (45)

Speaking from decades of experience, she relates to worried parents, co-workers, friends, and possibly romantic partners (I wondered if Goths ever date exogamously?) how to behave around crushed velvet and heavily mascaraed companions. She admits her own predilection to dress everyday as if the evil twin of Mary Poppins. But she warns neophytes: "Think long and hard whether you have the physique to wear the costume; it is a sad, harsh fact that nothing becomes an object of ridicule faster than a heavier-set person dressed up as a character previously portrayed by Brandon Lee." (98)

Taking on a persona that one must dress the part for takes courage. Yet this also leads one into conformity. Venters directs her Goth audience towards lightening up. She twists what people inside and outside her charmed circle expect. "Not only does the Lady of the Manners now derive quite a bit of amusement from her over-the-top moments of gothness, but she tries to hone and refine the more clichéd aspects of herself in order to make them the more perfect examples of those clichés." (113)

This reminded me of Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex keening, so early in the punk movement that paralleled my own coming of age, "I Am a Cliché." Commodification with Hot Topic (and Emily's Strange, strangely unmentioned) signals "mainstream acceptance" rather than prolonged denigration. Venters navigates deftly between the two perils of giving in to what the subculture pressures a "Goth cabal" (or should it be "cabbalist"?) initiate to imitate-- and the stronger current that pulls one outside into making a living. She spends considerable time on socializing, rumor-peddling, and gossip, as these, reinforced by clubbing and costume balls, strengthen the subcultural bonds Goths, as with any such group (say, sports fans) thrive among.

Paul Hodkinson's Goth: Identity, Style, and Subculture (2002) studies this phenomenon as a participant-observer sociological thesis; Nancy Kilpatrick's The Goth Bible: A Compendium for the Darkly Inclined (2004) intersperses comments from Goth respondents with her own topical entries. As with Gavin Baddeley's Goth Chic: A Connoisseur's Guide to Dark Culture (2006), defining Goth reveals its widespread (post-)Romantic aesthetic within past and present Western society. Whereas many Goth surveys tend towards the encyclopedic, Venters as "Lady of the Manners" adopts a personal, chatty persona.

This makes her "Essential Guide for Goths and Those Who Love Them" a welcome, brisk introduction. As with some of her predecessors, however, there's minimal attention to sexuality (as opposed to flirting) or music (as opposed to brief discographies) given their role in the scene. Music's treated only in her penultimate chapter.

For me as a preternaturally pale, (post-)punk veteran, "Goth-friendly" by her classification but admittedly on the outside looking in, I wished she'd covered music much more. But she carefully expounds on club etiquette and proper conduct. I note how often decent behavior goes unmentioned in any coverage of this subculture (or any such, for that matter). Many Goth overviews downplay its sounds and dampen its erotic sensations. Perhaps these elude explication. The visual appears more readily transmitted. Venter's enchanted by signifiers: the dress, the looks, the ambiance-- as signs by which Goths identify each other, congregate for safety and camaraderie, and reinforce their own codes and defense mechanisms.

That defense must be established seems a circular action. Goths have set themselves apart, so they may bristle and snarl back when outsiders edge too close, touch their finery, taunt their stance. Venters steps into this standoff. She reminds her fellow creatures of the night how etiquette confers dignity. The more stereotypes are diminished, the greater the hopes for Goth's acceptance and sustainability.

What of Goth's future? She speculates on a Steampunk-Goth evolution. I share her hopes that "Eldergoths" may age gracefully into "subcultural migration" and cross-fertilization. Concluding, she predicts that her fellow revelers need not "grow out of" this embrace of the macabre, the haunted, the morbid underside of what's relentlessly peddled to all of us as a sunny, cheerful, bright-- and forced-- demeanor. Morbid but not moribund-- now there's a forecast any blanched, parasoled Goth might smile up at. (Posted Amazon US 5-15-10.)

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Thomas Pynchon's "Against the Day": Book Review

It's set a hundred years ago but not much has changed. "This big parade of modern inventions, all spirited march tunes, public going ooh and aah, but someplace lurking just out of sight is always some lawyer or accountant, beating that 2/4 like clockwork and runnin the show." (33)

Investigating Anarchists in Chicago, Lew's "down in the deadfalls where the desperate malcontents convened, fingerless slaughterhouse veterans, irregulars in the army of sorrow, prophesiers who had seen America as it might be in visions America's wardens could not tolerate." (51) This novel fills with unease, unrest, and privation.

Modern chemistry replaces alchemy as capitalism "really gets going," true, as Merle says. But, Webb suggests: "Maybe 'capitalism' decided it didn't need the old magic anymore." He goes on: "Why bother? Had their own magic, doin just fine, thanks, instead of turning lead into gold, they could take poor people's sweat and turn it into greenbacks, and save that lead for enforcement purposes." (79) This tale pits the haves vs. the have-nots, relentlessly; both appear trapped by their ideology.

After their Arctic expedition by balloon, each of the Chums of Chance gaze "at the enigmatic miniature he had purchased, representing a faraway disposition of rocks he would probably never get to see, and try to glimpse, even at this degree of indirectness, some expression of truth beyond the secular." (126) The yearning for a higher meaning permeates this panoramic, unsettling, recondite, and arcane narrative.

It's as if a brane slithered next to our world for a slightly alternate history, a counternarrative full of what science fiction and adventure tales might have imagined for early 20c readers of pulps, westerns, and Oriental mystery. "Let us imagine a lateral world, set only infinitesimally to the side of the one we think we know, in which just this has come to pass." (230). The era described, at the end of the Victorian reign, sounds not much different than what transpired, in its "grim realities." Aging and Death are resisted, within "this all-enveloping pantomime" enacted by twin professors Renfrew and Werfner, England and Hanover, temporal flow of Time against sinister Power half-glimpsed.

This malevolent tension between those who favor the spirit and those who triumph by the sword permeates this plot. As with Asia, where "two distinct versions" endure: "one an object of political struggle among the Powers of the Earth-- the other a timeless faith by whose terms all such earthly struggle is illusion. Those whose enduring object is power in this world are only too happy to use without remorse the others, whose aim of course is to transcend all question of power. Each regards the other as a pack of deluded fools." (249)

Into this standoff, time-traveling agents enter. Mr. Ace: "Glossy black eyes, presented as weapons in a duel. The gently damaged, irrevocably educated eyes we associate with the visiting dead. When he smiled, or attempted to, it was not reassuring." (415) The trespassers back from the future do not bring solace.

Neither can science, even theories of higher mathematics where more than one character seeks answers. "Vectorism, in which Kit had once thought he had glimpsed transcendence, a co-existing world of imaginaries, the 'spirit realm' that Yale legend Lee De Forest once imagined he was journeying through, had not shown Kit, after all, a way to escape the world governed by real numbers." (675)

Meaning may beckon earthier pilgrims too. Shambhala in Central Asia possibly exists; the quest for a terrestrial paradise consumes the next chapters that particularly engrossed me. The Pure Land sought by Buddhists, the rebirth by penance, the advent of The Compassionate, Tibetan tales of wisdom all flicker as if in a comforting mirage, or fevered vision. But transcendence passes and again, war and murder stalk the Balkans and Venetian shores closer to the heart of a Europe to be torn by hatred and profited from by Capital.

Yashmeen leaves an Austrian passage as "she gazed backward at iron convergences and receding signal-lamps. Outward and visible metaphor, she thought, for the complete ensemble of 'free choices' that define the course of a human life. A new switching point every few seconds, sometimes seen, sometimes traveled over invisibly and irrevocably. From on board the train one can stand and look back, and watch it all flowing away, shining, as if always meant to be." (811) A very Buddhist concept, amid the chaos to be unleashed by spies and soldiers around her and her companions.

Contrast with Cyprian's filtered thoughts, from "this bottom dead center of the European Question, this bad daydream toward which all had been converging, murderous as a locomotive running without lights or signals, unsettling as points thrown at the last minute, awakened from because of some noise out in the larger world, some doorbell or discontented animal, that might remain forever unidentified." (845)

Later, out in Mexico during its revolutionary melee, Frank hears a 'brujo' muse about the destruction wrought by progress. He wonders: "who at some point hadn't come to hate the railroad? It penetrated, it broke apart cities and wild herds and watersheds, it created economic panics and armies of jobless men and women, and generations of hard, bleak city-dwellers with no principles who ruled with unchecked power, it took away everything indiscriminately, to be sold, to be slaughtered, to be led beyond the reach of love." (930)

Every few pages, no matter the convoluted plot or the erudite references, passages such as this leap out of the prose. This makes this book such a powerful read, a novel of ideas, yes, but one where-- and I differ a bit from conventional criticism of the book here-- you do care about the impact of lofty schemes upon little people. The characters do flit and pass and I wish I had a scorecard to keep track. The aims of this famously difficult author (thanks for those Wiki-linked annotations) may be ambitious as before, but there is an outrage at inhumanity which makes this much more than a parody of styles, a catalogue of registers. The Albanians watch the intruders from the West: "what were they doing out here this late in history?" (948) We, like them, wonder. Caught up as they all are in a geopolitical, intellectual, puzzling game, we have no clue either.

The Tree of Diana, in film-crazed Hollywood, will then blossom, silver amalgamated with quicksilver under a lens, nitric acid added to animate it. For this element too is alive: "Has its own forks in the road, choices to make just like the rest of us." (1060) Convergences and coincidences in a book begun and ended with the Chums of Chance fill this narrative. Even the natural world shares the patterns grooved deep.

It's a human book, for all its superhuman scale. Yashmeen's love for Cyprian, his for a higher calling, the familial ties that try to resist the juggernauts of death machines driven by Capital: touches of intimacy soften the epic, relentless, global scale of this ambitious novel. As with an epic, the individual struggles to stand out in a starring role. The cast threatens here to exceed thousands.

Pynchon attempts to straddle three decades of planetary chaos while focusing on a dozen or so people caught up in the whirlwind. The pace lags, as when the crew of the "Inconvenience" floats over the Great War and the refugees in its aftermath as if far too detached from the human suffering. I failed to feel as if I was in Mexico during the Revolution, or lost in the Balkans or studio-birthed L.A. except for momentary passages. The little men and women do get crushed, after all, on the other hand, and this plays into the difficulty readers may have in reconciling their humanist expectations for the novel to the pitiless, yet fitfully compassionate movements of this grand scheme. This telescopes and then draws back, over and over.

Years pass in a paragraph as the Soviets rise and the Tsar falls yet another paragraph is given over to a debate about potato salad among Iowan transplants to L.A. That paragraph, however, took place a mile from my house. So, I attest in the local geography back then applicable, the author got all his left turns right and knows to his dubious credit as we natives may that rats do nest up in palm trees.

In the end, as we know from the Colorado mines and Haymarket and the L.A. Times bombing all attributed to Anarchist terror rather than plutocratic suppression, the "commonwealth of the oppressed" succumbed. Scarsdale Vibe imagines above Denver where the strikers are to be mown down or driven off what may not be so much prescient ten decades ago as predictable: "Where alien muckers and jackers went creeping after their miserable communistic dreams, the good lowland townsfolk will come up by the netful into these hills, clean, industrious, Christian, while we, gazing out over their little vacation bungalows, will dwell in top-dollar palazzos befitting our station, which their mortgage monies will be paying to build for us." (1001)

Was it worth the dozens of hours? Yes, uneven as it was, it would not let go of my imagination. I'll take its ups and downs over smoother paths worn down by more timorous novelists and predictable thinkers anytime.

(Posted to Amazon US 4-28-10; P.S. On the current Tea Party resistance to Big Government and not Big Business, see Tamerlane's "A Thin & Weak Brew"-- and my comment re: this novel and anarchism.)

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Kevin Kiely's "Francis Stuart": Book Review

Kevin Kiely. Francis Stuart: Artist and Outcast. (Dublin: The Liffey Press, 2007) €22.95; paper. vii. 365 pp.
Review for Etudes Irlandaises 35-1(2010):195-6 published in shorter form.

A quarter-century of a friendship between a student and an elderly author frames this authorized biography of Stuart. His marriage to Maud Gonne’s daughter Iseult, contentious relationship with Yeats, and imprisonment for anti-Treaty gunrunning earned this troubled young poet attention even before his stint in WWII Berlin. His broadcasts from the Nazi capital gained him infamy, his alleged collaboration and purported antisemitism continued to rile critics a half-century later, and he remained to the end of his long life, as Kiely’s subtitle situates Stuart, opposed to conformity.

All the while, he wrote, over twenty-five works. Most of his novels– often written in haste, for money, and under stress-- remain out-of-print, often deservedly; on the few in print, notably his autobiographical fiction Black List, Section H (1971), his vexed reputation rests. As an outsider committed to relegation to the margins as his portal into truth, aesthetically and personally, his stubborn refusal can annoy. Much of Kiely’s thorough account finds his patient biographer struggling to explain Stuart’s mind-set. As prickly as his prose-style can be in its hesitant, awkward, and determined expression of moral confusion, spiritual longing, and social malaise, Stuart’s ambiguous frankness permeates his best writings.

Kiely unravels what earlier studies, a short 1974 monograph by Jerry Natterstad and a basic 1990 life by Geoffrey Elborn, could not have revealed. With access to previously closed Department of Foreign Affairs files on Stuart copied from originals (destroyed in Berlin) by the Irish Legation who tracked him, and with intimate knowledge from long conversations over the decades, Kiely depicts a respectful, never fawning or ingratiating, portrait of enigmatic Stuart. Although lacking lengthy analysis of his fiction and other writings, it replaces Anne McCartney’s erratic 2000 thesis for a spare survey of Stuart’s literary production over nearly eight decades. Perhaps after Kiely’s arrangement of first-hand reporting building upon previous criticism and archival records, in-depth investigation into Stuart’s fiction may progress more confidently.

After introducing Kiely’s relationship with Stuart, the book moves chronologically. Thirty-three chapters divide up a life beginning in 1902, when his father, a struggling emigrant from Antrim to Australia, committed suicide. Stuart’s mother took him back to Co Meath; he was raised in British boarding schools. He dropped out of Rugby, and early on displayed an inability to settle down. Before he was eighteen, he courted Iseult Gonne, who already at twenty-five had fended off two of Yeats’s marriage proposals and had been a lover of Ezra Pound.

Kiely glosses over, oddly given his subject’s iconoclasm, Stuart’s sudden conversion before eighteen to Catholicism; his father was of Ulster Presbyterian stock and his mother from a British Loyalist military family. Sexually inexperienced, spiritually yearning, Stuart sought Iseult’s glamour even as he recoiled from Yeats’s grasp. Before nineteen, Stuart fathered a daughter, Kay; he was off at Maud’s Glenmalure cottage "trying to write and awaiting a permit for his motorcycle when he received the news by telegram" of her birth. (50)

His fecklessness repeated with his hesitant role in the Civil War; he supported De Valera while rejecting his Catholic-Gaelic vision. Jailed for fifteen months, he emerged from the Curragh with his poetry already published. Thanks to the patronage of Yeats, who had just won the Nobel Prize, Stuart emerged into a limelight he fled. Overwhelmed by Maud, Yeats, and Iseult with new son Ian, Stuart retreated to Wicklow’s Laragh Castle, bought by Maud for the family. He travelled to Paris, meeting briefly Joyce, but Stuart preferred the Dublin company of Liam O’Flaherty, Beckett, Con Leventhal, and Arland Ussher. His novels began to be published, garnering mixed reviews as they appeared in rapid succession. "As a writer, he eventually became dubious about ‘art’ and fine writing; and used language with expert suspicion as if it were borrowed, flawed and brittle. His mature writing style is reluctant and dissenting." (27)

His publisher, Victor Gollancz, characterized Stuart as more a "poet-philosopher" than a novelist. Pigeon Irish and The Coloured Dome (both 1932) revealed his mystical, utopian, restless spirit bent on apocalypse, purgation, and renewal. Try the Sky merged his initial Fitzgerald-Hemingway influences into the first Irish fiction about the Nazis, based on a Vienna visit. Glory deepened his fascination with dictators and fascists. This attraction influenced The Angel of Pity (1935) as nihilism contended against esotericism. His later 1930s novels about adultery, fraud, and horse racing reflected his fancies, but he needed a cause.

Kiely asserts that the "core events of Stuart’s life" began only after the death of Yeats. Iseult suggested her unhappy husband travel to Berlin on an academic exchange program in April 1939. His biographer reiterates how Maud and Iseult "can be accurately portrayed as typical of a minority of Irish people who were also pro-German because they were anti-British." (119) Kiely carefully cites Stuart’s distaste for Hitler. Kiely sets a context for Stuart’s opinion formed then that fifty years later would spark outrage: "if there was a Jewish idea, which was surely a contradiction, it was a hidden, unheroic, and critical one, a worm that could get into a lot of fine-looking fruit." (qtd. 121) Kiely relates this aspersion to Stuart’s distrust of romantic Iseult’s proud abstraction, as opposed to the subversive Jewish reliance upon the sensually concrete.

Stuart’s German years have been documented extensively, but Kiely adds details from copies of wartime files kept by the Irish government. (He makes a minor error with the "Republic of Ireland" [124] opposing at the outbreak of WWII the British seizure of ports; the de facto Republic was not declared officially until 1948.) The complications of Iseult’s affair with a doomed German spy while Stuart took a mistress, and while he commenced radio talks transmitted to Ireland, challenge elucidation. Kiely accepts that those charging Stuart with Nazi support can be justified, but Kiely rejects an equation with "sympathizer" for Stuart. "The issue of collaborator and traitor is another matter." (137) Such diplomacy permeates this biography.

A hanger-on among Irish and British disaffected expatriates, Stuart distanced himself from propagandist Lord Haw-Haw. Stuart imagined escaping Berlin for Moscow with a young student, Gertrude Meissner. Renaming her Madeleine, they commenced a relationship that would endure until her death in 1986. Interrogated by the Gestapo, an apolitical intellectual revolutionary disenchanted with collectivism or capitalism, Stuart sought dissension. The Irish Legation refused to help him as Germany’s defeat neared. The couple roamed as refugees until they were interned for eight months after the war in French-occupied Austria.

Seán MacBride, now seeking political power, disdained his sister’s unfaithful husband. Unable to divorce, fearing that her former lover Ezra Pound’s insanity brought on by his arrest as another fascist abetter would repeat with Stuart, and not knowing the full extent of Madeleine’s relationship, Iseult waited with Kay and Ian for Stuart’s peacetime repatriation. He, trying to create fact out of his fiction, insisted that his ménage à trois be imported into Laragh Castle.
Resisting deportation from Paris, Stuart welcomed Irish exile. "He had an instinct that his poetic destiny involved social ostracism." (qtd. 176) This self-appraisal from Black List energized his postwar novels. The Pillar of Cloud, Redemption, and The Flowering Cross, written in Freiburg, Austria, present the artist as outcast. As the titles promise, religious symbolism mixes with bohemian misfits grappling with evil in a war-ravaged Europe unable to understand their aesthetic communism and moral defiance.

Returning from Paris to Laragh, Stuart found Iseult finally resigned to her husband’s infidelity. After Iseult’s death in 1954, Madeleine and "Grim" settled in London. On the night-shift as a museum guard, Stuart labored in near-poverty while continuing, as always, to publish novels. In 1958, the married couple moved to Co Meath. Victors and Vanquished, with its Berlin Jewish family facing the Holocaust, previewed what in1961-62 became Black List, with Stuart assuming the role of "H." "Whether H is an outcast or traitor, as for Stuart, it is up to each reader to decide for themselves."(149) This stance sums up Kiely’s steady reaction to Stuart’s elusive convictions.

Stuart’s masterwork lacks sustained analysis here for its halting style. Its eerily transparent prose evokes an evasive teller’s attempt, in autobiographical fiction, to testify to his past. Kiely, although underplaying this unsettling impact of Black List, provides as he intends the details of its production, and Stuart’s decade-long effort to find a publisher.

The return of the Troubles, with one who had fought in them the first time, revived protest, first for Stuart’s well-titled play Who Fears to Speak (1970), and then his experimental novels Memorial and A Hole in the Head. Kiely finds that these two "dare go as close to deranged prose as composition will bear." (269) The 1970s found Stuart returning to Dublin and attention. (A small addition: Stuart translated then from French an account by Christian de la Mazière of his service with the Waffen SS, Le Rêveur Casqué, issued in Britain as Ashes of Honour; Kiely omits that an American printing appeared in 1974 as The Captive Dreamer.)

The new assembly Aósdana invited Stuart, and eager for the pension, he accepted despite his often-stated disdain for artists who glean honors. While he parodied it in his innovative The High Consistory, this and Faillandia, also preoccupied with alternative visions of an satirized Ireland, kept Stuart’s 1980s novels appealing to a small readership. A Compendium of Lovers presented another farrago of cosmic speculation, theological musings, and autobiographical fancy. Determined to defy expectations, fêted by Haughey while protesting Reagan, Stuart’s last decades would draw him back into public debate.

Kiely avers that Stuart lacked "a definitively prescriptive morality." (285) At 85, marrying Finola Graham, an artist born in 1945, Stuart upended expectations. He searched within "apparent failure" a reason to endure. Intrigued by Edward Schillebeeckx’s presentation of a human Jesus left behind on the Cross, Stuart in the puzzling polemic The Abandoned Snail Shell attempted to explain his understanding of the Risen Christ as one who in defeat found triumph.

The death of Kay was followed by a Channel 4 documentary about the Holocaust. His interviewer implied that Stuart’s residence in Berlin was antisemitic. This airing resurrected fury. In late 1996, Máire Mhac an tSaoi, wife of Conor Cruise O’Brien, rallied for Stuart’s resignation from Aósdana. The motion fizzled when few of his peers supported Stuart’s expulsion; Mhac an tSaoi herself left the guild. Many in the liberal media supported Stuart’s critics, others defended him. "A suitably penitent Stuart," after over a year of media frenzy, publicly repudiated any "imputed tendencies to anti-Semitism," Kiely remarks, "in his person or his writings." (312)

Stuart later won a libel suit against Kevin Myers of The Irish Times, but this affair took its toll on a very old man. Cared for by Ian, he went to Laragh, His son intervened as his father ripped up Iseult’s diary. Harboring guilt, Stuart appears never to have resolved his relationship with her. His final work, the novella King David Dances, explores the impact of Heidegger, typically combined with its protagonist’s search for his lost cat.

Back with Finola on the coast of Co Clare, Stuart looked out over Galway Bay. He fantasized sailing off to Aran with a cat and a crate of sherry. Nearly 98, after coming down with a Christmas flu, he died in 2002 in an Ennis hospital; "just on his last breath he opened his eyes so wide, as if at last he had seen something revelatory." (326-27) Kiely reports that The Irish Times reported his place of death as his flat at Fanore, another case of printed invention ending this author’s long tussle with unequivocal fact.