A light rein on the strange land

Strange Country
July 18, 1997

This book makes available the text of the Clarendon lectures that Seamus Deane gave in May 1995. A wider audience will benefit immensely from his wit and insight into the many conundrums of Irish literature and history.

Deane structures his study into a series of oppositions: "phantasmal France, unreal Ireland", "national character and the character of nations", "control of types, types of control," and, most strikingly of all, an analysis of the central tension of much of modern Irish literature as being between "boredom and apocalypse."

Deane calls this last a "national paradigm", and over a few pages of densely sustained argument, he throws new light on writers one might think have already been as fully illuminated as possible: Yeats and Joyce, Beckett and Flann O'Brien. He defines his terms more specifically as "Joycean boredom and Yeatsean apocalypse." (Deane can be wonderfully dry at times. In an aside, he notes that: "In Yeats's work - plays and essays, as well as poems -we may feel at times that a little boredom might be something of a relief.") A common practice of Irish writers, he argues, is "the dramatisation of Irish history as an apocalyptic experience out of which a rebirth will emerge". History is repeatedly rewritten as myth, as mere story which has the simultaneous effect of producing both great literature and a bitterly contested and confused sense of history and identity. Ireland still does not really know what it is. It is a "strange country", strange to outside observers, but strangest of all to itself.

Deane's reading of Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France as a piece of prototypical travel writing, focusing on a strange new France, "the foreign country par excellence", sends one scurrying back to the original text to read it again, with the curiosity and combative energy that only really fine criticism can inspire.

Another familiar text successfully defamiliarised is Dracula, here given a new and irresistibly intriguing twist as the story of an absentee landlord.

Deane is scathing about the clumsiness of those historians who insist on imposing a neat veneer of simplicity over the complex contingencies of Irish history, or who reduce many centuries of different forces to a single, unitary theme. He has no time for dogmatists of any persuasion, daringly commenting that British rule in Ireland was "not as melodramatically vicious as nationalists say". Such comments only add to his authority as an objective critic of literature and history - or, since this is Ireland, maybe we should consider them a single phenomenon, literature-and-history, since there are few places where each field has impinged upon the other more than in the Strange Country.

Deane is at his best on the very subject of the title, Ireland's perennial strangeness. Sometimes his observations can seem a little obvious, even tautologous, as when he writes that Ireland "remains strange in its failure to be normal". Then he can be suddenly intriguing, telling us that "normality is an economic condition, strangeness a cultural one". If one can see what he means by this, and agree with it, then it is obvious that, since Ireland's culture has always been far stronger than her economy, she has always been a "strange country". This is a risky argument, coming perilously close at times to figuring Ireland unthinkingly as the age-old stereotype, an isolated island of terrible material poverty but great spiritual wealth, where colourful and vibrant Yeatsian peasant girls and beggarmen go singing and dancing and poeticising over the lonely lanes of Connacht, despite the rags they wear. All very romantic, and too suspiciously so to be true. At the same time, no one can deny that Deane's point is essentially correct: Ireland, especially perhaps colonial Ireland, has enjoyed fantastic cultural riches, hand in hand with economic backwardness and agricultural calamity.

We would nowadays say the culture flourished despite poverty; Yeats, provocatively, would say, because of it. Deane remains impartial, content to acknowledge the two great facts about modern Ireland and explore them with endless sensitivity and tact.

Christopher Hart is a PhD student,Birkbeck College, London.

Strange Country: Modernity and Nationhood in Irish Writing Since 1790

Author - Seamus Deane
ISBN - 0 19 8183372
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £25.00
Pages - 269

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