Terry Eagleton’s new book, not merely a series of studies in Irish culture but one of the most noteworthy contributions to it of recent times, realigns Irish writing within contemporary debates about cultural politics, adhering to the particularity of the Irish situation without becoming mired in its bitter complexities.
There is no master narrative as such, although recurrent themes play a governing role in the eight essays. One of these is beautifully articulated in the chapter entitled ‘Homage to Francis Hutcheson’ and reappears in various forms elsewhere, in discussions of the Protestant Ascendancy and hegemony, of Edmund Burke and the Arnoldian appropriation of his peculiar version of cultural aesthetics and nationalism, of Gothic fiction and the intricate connections between the shapes of exile and of intimacy, of Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff and the Great Famine. In brief, the theme is the search for a foundation for moral and political principles that would secure a civil society. In Ireland, because the conditions for such a society were not available, the search was more fraught and finally futile. In Britain, what was philosophically impossible to ground was often socially and politically possible to secure just as if it had been grounded. Hutchesonian benevolence and Burkean prejudice were both attempts to provide an affective basis for a political and social system that needed to disguise its coercive nature in order to achieve consensuality. Eagleton’s excavation of Hutcheson’s thought is conducted with such clarity that its subtlety and incisiveness seem effortless. But what is most impressive is the power with which the analysis in this chapter radiates through others. This is one of the book’s greatest pleasures – its way of insinuating and extending its arguments and leaving them suggestively present without marshalling them into dogmatic phalanxes around any particular group of texts.
Eagleton might have mentioned, however, that in his Irish writings of the 1790s, Burke not only castigated the Protestant Ascendancy but wondered on several occasions at its endless reversion to the land settlements on which its power was based. For Burke this was profoundly unwise. All societies, in his view, must find a way to disguise their violent origins. Irish Protestant society in the 18th century (and later) was so obsessively concerned with the defence of that settlement and the rebellion of 1641 against it, that it regarded any local protest – say, against rents – or any improvement in the status of Catholics, as potentially seditious and as threatening the durability of the initial expropriation. Much murderous judicial violence was defended in the name of preserving the social order, but it merely kept alive the recognition that that order, like the law itself, was an exercise in violence. It was this paranoia that left Ireland susceptible, in Burke’s view, to French revolutionary infection and made the removal of the Ascendancy a political priority.
Eagleton’s fourth chapter, ‘Changing the Question’, which is a powerful analysis of the dialogue of the deaf between England and Ireland after the Union, might have been further enriched by an acknowledgment that the Burkean version of cultural hegemony could not operate because neither the beneficiaries nor the victims of the originary violence could find a way to forget it. On the contrary, the mixture of coercion and kindness, modernisation and immiseration which constituted British policy after the Union had the effect of enhancing the realisation that the whole system depended for its maintenance on force of the soft-cop, hard-cop variety, working in alternate and ill-timed bursts. The friction generated by this policy was reproduced both in unionism and in nationalism, each of which spoke of ‘liberty’ (unionist) or ‘freedom’ (nationalist) in entire good faith while also, with entire conviction, looking for the gun or the legislation that would enforce it on the other.
The Catholics were, of course, in much the worse position because they were characterised as ‘other’ in a cultural sense while being persuaded that they should be the ‘same’ in a political sense. Neither they nor the British seemed to be aware that this distinction is devastating to both positions. Each needs to define itself culturally against its opponent and to pretend that, nevertheless, a common political citizenship is available to both. As Eagleton points out, ‘for the British, identity is essentially a cultural affair’; those not of that cultural complexion cannot be wholly included within it. An imperial culture that depends so much on its own particularity has an intractable problem when it tries to universalise its rule. In this respect, the French were better equipped for proclaiming the identity between being French and being a citizen of the world.
The powerful discrepancy within the British system, productive of both its power and its failure, was more manifest in Ireland than elsewhere, partly because Ireland was at once a colony and a part of the United Kingdom. It was, in other words, the only place in which cultural otherness was combined with constitutional sameness. This did not heal or solve the discrepancy: it inflamed it, especially since the discrepancy was already built into the Irish system in sectarian form. Whatever Britain did, it was going to find itself politically betraying those who were culturally at one with it (unionists) or culturally demonising those with whom it needed to make a political accommodation (nationalists). The situation never allows for the disappearance of violence, only for its recurrent reappearance, wearing the mask of the law or of lawlessness. Since both are founded in violence, and neither can effectively disguise that, where is the ground for opposing one or the other? Eagleton is quite right in saying that ‘the philosophical ambitiousness and intellectual fertility’ of Hutcheson and the Ulster Enlightenment of the 18th century is what is now needed both south and north of the border. He might have added that it was the Union that effectively extinguished it.
‘Heathcliff and the Great Hunger’ is the title of Eagleton’s first chapter, but it is not sufficiently indicative of the book as a whole. It inserts Brontë’s novel obliquely into current debates about the Irish Famine, most of the interpretations of which centre on the revisionist, sanitising version as against the nationalist, genocidal one. The Famine is a central event in modern Irish history because it encapsulates the issue of the relation of Ireland to the British state and, more particularly, to the lethal connection between an archaic and a modern culture within a colonial system. There has been much discussion in recent years about the relationship between tradition and modernity in Irish writing and, by inflection, between Ireland’s curious status as, simultaneously, a Third World and a First World culture. It is obvious that different chronologies can inhabit the same temporality, just as some places on the globe inhabit a different century from the one we ourselves live in. Eagleton’s account of these anomalies is sophisticated and complex.
Certain literary works, or even a whole literary ‘tradition’ may find ways of representing such conflicting chronologies. In a sense, this is true of Wuthering Heights and of Heathcliff in particular. For both the house and the character belong definitively to the world of the realist novel, with its temporal, commercial, broadly cultural rhythms; yet they also belong to that other world, variously described as the legendary, the mythical, the timeless. If a whole culture, like the Irish, is understood as combining these dimensions or chronologies, then it is possible to read it as hesitating between canonical realist forms in its fiction and other forms subversive of or merely different from them. Eagleton’s reading of the so-called Anglo-Irish novel, from Edgeworth to Elizabeth Bowen, is based on this analysis, although the analysis itself comes in for a good deal of interrogation on the way. It is part of his understanding that material realities (e.g. land) are so differently understood in the British and the Irish situations that there is unavoidable misunderstanding when the same words are applied to these different conceptions.
By extension, the same is true of narrative. Irish and British narratives, while interconnected in many ways, especially in relation to fiction and history writing, are also disconnected. This is part of the explanation for what Irish fiction has achieved in its more experimental modes (Joyce, Beckett, Flann O’Brien). In addition, since Ireland had for so long offered descriptions of itself as a traditional community, and since these had been reinforced by different groups pursuing their own agendas, its Modernism in literature was bound to sit rather oddly with its traditionalist pieties, no matter how standard these were as forms of romantic nostalgia. What is most interesting is the manner in which these cultural chronologies are combined in the work of Yeats and Joyce, George Moore and John Synge, and even, in a curious manipulation, Wilde and Shaw. Yet, although this reading is brilliantly executed by Eagleton, an alternative view is possible.
Almost all critiques of colonial literatures are predicated on the notion that they suffer from a lack; it may be a lack of opportunity, or of a middle class, of material wealth, of a fundamental rationality. The possibilities are legion and 19th-century Ireland – especially after the Famine – offered everybody, from the racist cartoonists of Punch to the most fervent nationalist, opportunities to identify that lack and lament or gloat over it. Even when the idea of lack was supplanted by the idea that there was something the colonial culture had that its imperial master had not – imagination, warmth of feeling etc – the same discursive formation remained in place. I don’t know of any writing on Ireland, literary, historical or economic, that does not belong within such a formation.
It is curious that Eagleton, in explaining why the ‘realist novel thrived less robustly in Ireland’, remains uncharacteristically ensconced within this discourse of lack. He might have mentioned the Cork-based Frank O’Connor-Sean O’Faolain explanation, too; it overlaps with his own but has the added merit of explaining the absence of contact between the literate classes and the life of the ‘people’. This theory wanted to say that the Irish were distinguished not in the novel but in the short story, precisely because their social and political experience was one of fragmentation, for which the short story was the answerable form and the oral tradition the native source. But it, too, laments the lack of what might have been in Ireland had not the British intervention and all its accompanying mutilations occurred.
Equally, it is neither honest nor sensible to suggest that colonialism only helped to fulfil a destiny that was already inscribed, merely awaiting the shock of arousal by an energetic, expanding and modernising power. This explanation sanitises atrocity; the other helplessly bewails native vulnerability. Any construction of Irish tradition dependent on either of these positions will always assume a British norm from which the Irish, successfully or unsuccessfully, deviate. This is the bad form of hegemony – accepting colonialism as a boon or as an irretrievable disaster and behaving accordingly. It should be possible to refuse both and to accept that notions of continuity or discontinuity, difference or exceptionalism, can be entertained without slipping under them some ‘universalising’ norm that inevitably turns out to be culture-specific despite its pretensions.