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Ah, Wisha! The Irish Novel

ISSUE:  Spring 1941

Forty years ago, verse in Ireland clustered about a nucleus; so did the drama. Anybody of Irish origin who could write gravitated like the atom towards this nucleus, and the result was a well defined little school of poetry. Today Irish verse and drama are at the ebb. A number of novels, equal in bulk to that verse and drama, have appeared ever since George Moore started that tradition going, but they have not coalesced into a school. To give but one example, a man like James Hanley, had he been a poet in the 1900’s, would have become identified with Anglo-Irish literature.

The reason for this dissipation is that there has never been any literary doctrine for Irish prose, as there was for Irish verse. Compare Yeats. He inherited, and used to effect, the gospel of the Symbolists and the Pre-Raphaelites. He followed Pater, Mallarme, Symons, “Axel,” Morris, Burne-Jones, Rossetti, and all that school. He had no love for that range of social or psychological interests out of which Shaw made his plays and Joyce was about to make his novels, and of which, in his day, Bastien-Lepage and Carolus-Duran were the popular exponents in painting. He developed a clean hatred for naturalism and science and the general mechanistic theory of life. Yeats sought a dream-world of symbol for all his earlier work; he sought remoteness; the heroic and generalized appealed to him; he made his soul on Blake and esoteric literature, not scorning even such shoddy stuff as spiritualism and all its trappings and rappings; he even worked inside a pseudo-personality, or poetic shell, cold to others, cosy and iridescent within. Later, when increasing gravity brought him down from this stratosphere, he was fortunate to find in Synge another exemplar whose poetic realism combined faery and fact in an ideal fashion. One may doubt Yeats’s spiritual “teachers,” but that he had bodily teachers there is no doubt, and his biographer will have no difficulty in reconstructing his general doctrine from its always centripetal, if often inconsonant, parts. In a word, he had a line to follow—a line of many strands.

Irish prose has no such line. Had it started earlier it might have had. Had it been intellectual—had intelligence been an Irish quality, as it is not, the Irish mind being too undisciplined and imaginative—M might have set a habit in books like “The Candle of Vision.” But Yeats’s prose, which is almost impossible to read, and which is always breaking off just where the mind is about to grasp his muffled point, shows that the only effect of a suggestive or allusive prose style on the Irish mind is to cloud with further emotion a mind already lost in the dimness of its own conch. Nature, even in matters of the mind, has a care for its own self-preservation, and the Irish mind fled from danger. No young Irish prose writer, observing Yeats floundering through the Celtic mist, could do anything else but turn towards some more extrovert models. But where, bearing in mind that they were not and never could be extroverts or objective intellectuals, were they to find these models? Where could they get some exemplars midway between the intelligence and the imagination?

The prose writer, as novelist or biographer, uses the same material as all naturalistic and realistic novelists do: he uses what Flaubert and Balzac used. There is, in the National Gallery in Dublin, an excellent little portrait by Bastien-Lepage—it might be any old red-nosed, whiskered boule-vardier. It might almost have been a sketch by Manet. It probably made Yeats stand aghast. It is unashamed naturalistic reproduction. It delights me. For every novelist has to reproduce, if not as an end, at least as a method. Old men with red noses are our materials. The novelist cannot work with the symbolic language of the Rosy Cross, characterless characters like Michael Robartes or Ossian, shadowy scenery of the mind: he uses direct and precise language, real people, muddy fields, streets with trams; the hiss of Emily Bovary’s corset-laces is music to his ears. But while the Irish novelist, in common with every novelist, thus works in the Flaubertian studio, it is in his nature—which makes him both rich and poor—to hanker after that renounced symbolism and those regretted worlds of the mind. O’Fla-herty will give you the old man with the red nose, but you can see him tearing himself to bits in the effort to burn up and melt down the poor old man in order that you may perceive behind him some Michael with a flaming sword and the gates of hell or heaven glinting in its fire.

Evidently there are no established models in prose for this kind of thing. Moore attempted something vaguely like it in one novel, and in one only, “The Lake”—and it is the Moore novel most favored by Irish writers. For the rest, Moore was either the by-child of a crude naturalism, or else he escaped with Heloise and Aphrodite. Joyce did something glorious in “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” and if he had only been a little less subjective and preoccupied he might have given Irish prose a model as Gogol gave one to Russia with “The Cloak.” And we have a great admiration for James Stephens, especially for “The Charwoman’s Daughter.” But neither faces the problem squarely enough. They leave out too much for the conscience of our times. And the later history of both writers is dismaying. A model which does not repeat itself is hardly a fructifying example.

When I think of the books that have, from time to time, excited a few of us, they are all anti-naturalistic books: Kafka’s; all the Russians, but, alone satisfyingly and permanently, Chekov; one or two books by Catholic Frenchmen, such as Duhamel and Mauriac; a play like Obey’s “Noah”; a Giraudoux or two. Of English writers, Hardy stands on a pedestal. For myself, I was pleased by the sane fancy of the early Coppard and I have an almost uncritical admiration for Graham Greene. As for the solid English writers, like Galsworthy, we acknowledge them and admire them, though with a detached lobe of the mind, reserved for people who are splendid in a world that is not our world. Jane Austen, for example, we regard with an adoration which must exceed that of any Englishman—she is somebody whose perfect perfection of its own kind we might as soon try to reach as reach the moon. But I think we would sacrifice every single one of these if we were left only with Chekov. From the beginning it is in the Russians that Irish writers have found their nearest counterparts, and of all the Russians most so in Chekov. That is, I feel, because he repeats, in the manner of a prose-writer, the Synge recipe of poetry and realism, mood and consideration, laughter and opinion, brutality (which we must always have) and tenderness (which is essential to us), and all sunk in a thick atmosphere. If Irish prose fiction ever does develop a distinctive quality, it will be as much by virtue of this influence of the Russians as Yeats developed his distinctive quality under the influence of the Symbolists and Pre-Raphaelites.

You cannot, however, develop a literary doctrine on a dislike (such as this dislike of naturalism), and anyway, literary doctrines are not cerebrated. Yeats gravitated towards the Pre-Raphaelites because he was the son of his father, and to the Symbolists because he was reared in Sligo—under the tomb of Queen Maeve. (It actually is not the tomb of Queen Maeve.) Local conditions in Ireland, and the times, and a number of other things counteract this aversion to the naturalistic method and theory. And, incidentally, re-impress Chekov.

The material of local life is rebellious to art: but that makes small matter—novelists are always quarreling with their models, and their models are always disliking them. The things Chekov said about his Russia, or that Flaubert thought about Rouen, are just what any Irish writer might say and think of Aran or Dublin. All or most writers have hated their country as much as they simultaneously loved it. The difficulty of the Irish novelist is one of an adjustment of sympathy: he cannot make up his mind as to what to love and what to hate. The norm eludes him. If a stranger could sit for an hour in any group of Irish people discussing either politics or religion he would soon observe this in a basic disagreement as to the premises. In sum, I think, this disagreement concerns a conflict between what one may roughly call faith and morals. All our writers are torn between the two.

We see our people living an easy-going life, happy enough, highly casual, often complacent—their complacency about this war has been shocking—and they are good-humored, happy-go-lucky, warm-hearted to a fault, and charitable beyond judgment, vicious only in vendetta, and savage only in hate. All that, to a novelist, is excellent. Of morals as sin, they are made almost sickly conscious by the Church. But this is morals as obedience, orthodoxy, discipline. Of morals in action they have only a very vague conception. And this is emphasized by a self-preserving technique of evasion, as exasperating in practice as it is delightful in theory, All morality, outside the confessional, is covered by an umbrella of charity, striped by evasion, and wide as the sky.

What I have called faith covers a multitude of sins. In this respect the Irish motto of life might be described as “Ah, wisha!” So—”Ah, wisha, what harm if he did go off with a few pounds or so. He’s a decent poor lad at bottom”; “Ah, wisha, even if he does take a sup too much now and again— we all have our weaknesses”; “Ah, wisha, why did they put the poor divil in jail? Sure, he didn’t know what he was doing!” There is an excellent story by Frank O’Connor, in “Bones of Contention,” which gives a perfect illustration of this. A local boy made good by embezzling the club funds. The priest, a moral man, condemned him at once. The parish came in wave after wave of deputation to plead for the “poor boy.” But the moralist stood his ground, and the boy was duly charged, tried, and punished. The people thereafter turned against their priest. The charm of this story lies in the complete, maddening, hopeless failure of the people to see the moral point of view. This failure reaches its climax of absurdity when they ask the priest “at least” to give “the poor boy” a character—that is, they asked him to tell the judge that the boy was really “a decent poor lad at bottom,” and that “we all have our weaknesses,” and “he didn’t know what he was doing,” and so on and so on.

Now this charity-child of faith in our people is of itself a precious treasure, a human gift, a divine dispensation of laughter and pity; and every Irish writer is torn between his admiration for it—a quality he shares, of course, in common with his people—and his sane, human, rational idealism which cannot stand seeing life and reason being driven mad by something halfway between angelic soft-heartedness and lunatic soft-headedness. He cannot see, in the wholly un-vulgar sense of the words, how any race can ever get anywhere (not even into the all-charitable bosom of God the Father) if it sublimates morality out of existence. If we protest to the people for being so lax, they say, “Ah, wisha, we’re doing our best and God is good.” If we protest to the priests for being too strict, they say, “God is good, but we can’t let the rein slacken.” The end has been, astonishingly, that the rigidity of the clergy, on the one hand, and the evasive humor and charity of the people, on the other (for they resent all such discipline), flings the writer not into the arms of the people but into a puritanism of despair far beyond the asceticism of the priests. Every Irish writer is a puritan at heart; the real priests are the writers, just as the only Catholics are the Protestants; though if the writers were priests they would certainly, in pity for the people, become libertines and let the people gaily go to hell. No writer can love the priests, since it is the final prerogative of the priest to forgive, after he has scolded; and, to put it crudely, the writer, and any other sane man with him, is about fed up with all this forgiveness business. So, the novelist, to his horror, finds himself (as George Moore did before him) aligned with the Protestant tradition against his own folk. His alternative is either that or laugh himself sick.

There we come back to naturalism and Chekov. The situation is very like the situation of Chekov. No figure is so common in Russian literature as the benevolent but strict landowner whose serfs are incorrigible. Change landowner for priest and serf for farmer and you have the same antagonism. There the peasant came to the noble, and asked for corn, or roubles, or wood, or manure; and the master gave it, with plenty of orders and lots of advice, and the serf took it with loud thanks and firm resolutions, and then he went off, and gambled away the roubles, or the corn, or drank them, or lost them, or in some other way dodged the problem—and, in due course, came back for more and for forgiveness. Like Chekov the Irish novelist has to pass judgment on all this folly.

For people who say that Chekov never passed judgment simply do not know their Chekov. All they can know of him is one sentence which has passed into a cliche. He was a violent reformer. “I hate violence and falsehood in all their aspects. My Holy of Holies is the human body, health, mind, talent, inspiration, love, and the most absolute freedom—freedom from violence and falsehood in whatever form they may be manifested.” This was not said by a man who did not pass judgment. In “The Cherry Orchard,” “How beautiful life will be in three or four hundred years” was not said by a complacent man: the price of such optimism as to the future is depression as to the present. The man who went to examine conditions in the penal settlement of Sakhalin, and raged at people (e.g., Souvorin) for saying that Sakhalin was of no interest to anyone—he was not a man to fail to pass judgment. But in fact, the sub-audible judgment of his irony is in every story, and it is strident in some: “The Grasshopper,” “The Duel,” “The Wife,” “The Chorus Girl”; I could quote endless examples. “You once told me,” he wrote to Plescheyev, angrily, “that my stories lack the protesting element, that there are no sympathies and antipathies in them. In this story [“A Tedious Story”] do I not from beginning to end protest against falsehood? No? Well, then, I cannot bite, or I am a flea.” One has only to read his letters, for his praise of Germany, his rage against Russian smugness, his gospel of “normality,” to know that he too had to find for himself a literary doctrine to cover this identical problem—which in some shape or form faces all writers—of the adjustment of a novelist’s ideas to the ideas of his people. Or, let us not call it a literary doctrine any longer, but a doctrine of life, since for such writers as Chekov there is no wall between living and writing.

Balzac once said that he wished, in the “Comedie Hu-maine,” to make society wear upon its brow the reasons of its being; it is his way of saying that he wished to write a criticism of life. Every novelist wishes to do this, and for that reason he must be more concerned with morals, i.e., with men’s actions, than with faith, i.e., with men’s declarations. It is natural. Faith and all declarations are universal, and in the end, even the most materialistic declarations are mystical, since they answer a mystery with an assertion incapable of proof. Morality is individual and human, and the test of these generalizations. If both are felt there is a conflict. If either is not felt there is no conflict; then there is comedy, or the Aristophanic ringmaster making the dogs look silly even while they are being clever. That is why Shaw is a success. He observed that his society wore upon its brow neither the furrows of worry nor the suavity of its reason. He did the only thing possible. There is no room, in that society, for anything else but laughter—or autobiographies of self-nudation.

The Irish novelist, in a society that may be crazy but is conscious, is thus driven back to objectivity, reproduction, almost to photography. He must depict the fact, or his comment, his Chekovian judgment, will be unjust. For all comment on life is on life as it is felt, seen, heard, smelled by those who live it. Only when he meets that evasion of which I spoke earlier is he defeated. He is there in the same position as his English brother: up the gum-tree, laughing like hell. Intensely as he may dislike naturalism, he has to use it. I suddenly remember, here, Yeats’s rooms, with all those drawings by Blake and Rossetti, so lovely, so mysterious, so ethereal, so remote; and I think of this crude world of common life, and I envy from the bottom of my heart that exquisite world of the senses in which the imagination of the poet fed and contemplated itself hourly. For, as Chekov says, once a man sees the rope he must pull it, and no fastidiousness must prevent him from mucking his hands.

Yet this dislike of naturalism must mean something, since it is wholly instinctive, a cry or whisper from the heart for some kind of food it desires but cannot define. Perhaps that is precisely what this dislike of ours for naturalism and all its offshoots does mean: that the solution of all conflict is indefinable; we are against all those positivist solutions which began with Zola and still go on repeating their formulas in proletarian novels and brutalist novels, and all those novels about the dried egg on the heroine’s spoon, and the fly crawling up the Hamlet-hero’s windowpane. The conflict must appear to us indefinable because the antagonists are invisible, imponderable, and insatiable. It is a pertinent question whether such a concept lends itself at all to the novel form, whether the Irish mind can control its own lusts. Yet, the greatest Irish novel, “Ulysses,” has just that virtue of exciting the mind by its record of a young man’s search for something inexpressible by the very naturalistic tools it employs, so that in the end all the characters are dilated into symbols, and the climax is a gesture of no meaning and of every meaning, when, in a nightmare, Stephen Daedalus raises his ash-plant and smashes a chandelier to bits, That must be why we love Hardy and Chekov. We like Hardy because he was, as Duhamel once said in conversation, tm miserable. Were his characters more sophisticated they too would have wanted to go to Moscow. Eustacia Vye might have been one of the three sisters. Jude suffers from Russian longings. Hardy is on the Celtic fringe. Keats knew what he wanted; you might meet him in any village pub. Moore, who was a first-class critic, said well that he was a boy with his nose pressed to the sweetshop window. We love his passion but his certainty chills us. But Chekov was more civilized than Hardy, and being uncivilized, we want to be civilized. He was a doctor, Hardy was an architect, and we like the human calling. And being a doctor he knew, with Novalis, that when a man’s body is sick it is his soul that is sick, and vice versa. We see that his people are not so much frustrated as they are romantically averse to satisfaction. There is nothing to stop the sisters from going to Moscow except the fact that they do not sufficiently will it, and they do not will it because they really do not want it. They want the moon. They are happily miserable. We, too, want the moon, and we, too, are content with our insatiable desires. Like Hardy and like Chekov we live in conflicts to which there is no solution, as there is no explanation to the mystery of life whose colored balls we so love to juggle in a similar melancholy delight.


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