Exposure of the anorexic

The Living Stream
March 24, 1995

In literary studies, it has long been something of a commonplace to maintain that writing and politics are closely meshed, and this orthodoxy has tended to become a complacent assumption that texts, when pressed hard enough, will yield the kind of political lessons required. In the case of Irish literature, such pre-determined political meanings are hardly in short supply, and much contemporary criticism concerns itself with finding them; however, the political elements of such criticism often resemble very closely the orthodoxies of an Irish nationalism from the museum, enshrining old grudges and prejudices in the name of an ideological purity and a venerated narrative of oppression and struggle.

If historical research creates problems for the narrative, then it is dismissed as "revisionist" (one eminent historian has asked "whether the received version of Irish history may not, after all, constitute a beneficent legacy - its wrongness notwithstanding?"); literary critics, especially those with an eye to the transatlantic market in Ireland and "theory", are happy to join in the resistance to "revisionism". Edna Longley's new collection of essays focuses the matter, by insisting that "the argument does not turn on whether to link literature and history, literature and politics, but on how". In literary criticism, as much as in history, wrongness matters and, Longley contends, is very far from beneficent in its effects on Ireland.

Longley has always been one of the most acute close-readers of texts bearing on, or being borne in upon by, the context of Northern Ireland: her collection of essays, Poetry in the Wars (1986) is an essential work on modern poetry and its engagements with the public sphere of politics and violence. In her new collection of essays, The Living Stream, Longley continues to discuss Irish poetry in vividly detailed and illuminating ways while facing squarely the various consequences of her literary researches and critical practice in the world of Irish politics and culture. The book's subtitle, Literature and Revisionism in Ireland, announces an agenda which is bound to be controversial; for Longley, a revisionist literary criticism and cultural politics are pressing needs, and her book provides a series of bracingly intelligent examples of how far-reaching and liberating such revisionism might be.

Longley is well aware that the forces ranged against any revisionism are formidable, and that they go beyond Ireland itself. In terms of contemporary criticism, Longley's insistence on the facts of literary history, combined with her brilliance in the close reading of literary texts, set her on the margins of the theoretical modes which are common in academe. But, as Longley remarks, "the harmless radical chic of California reads differently in Northern Ireland", and her awareness of the degree to which literary theory appropriates a crude version of Ireland while Ireland, in return, plays up to a crude version of literary theory, makes The Living Stream a book with few illusions about the fashions of the academy. Although her perspectives on Ireland are unitary, Longley's politics are neither nationalist nor unionist, but anti-essentialist: her opposition to terms like "Irish" as currently used sees "political Irishness" as "more a prison than a liberation", and her identification of a "totalitarian tinge" in the term in contemporary cultural and political discussion means that the scheme of "Irish, Irisher, Irishest" is abandoned in her revisionist approaches.

In terms of literary history, Longley lays bare contours which - though visible - are generally ignored. W. B. Yeats and Louis MacNeice figure in many of Longley's essays - poets who have failed to fit the nationalist bill, but whose work, Longley shows, is central to the necessary complication of current concerns. In discussing Yeats, Longley displays her command of his 19th-century bearings, and the complexity of the Anglo-Irish contexts in which he worked. Much material in The Living Stream examines the meaning of a term like "Anglo-Irish" (often used for purposes of casual dismissal by critics) in learned, subtle, and revealing ways: Longley's attention to the intricacies of the relations between Anglo-Ireland, Northern Irish Protestants, and the emergent state in the Republic makes the significance of Yeats, and his multiple cultural codes, all the more pressing. MacNeice, too, is of great importance in Longley's analysis, as a poet who "has influenced redefinitions of Irish poetry and Irish identity": in a marvellous essay on MacNeice's artistic legacy, Longley also shows how such a redefinition can be effected, exposing the unsatisfactoriness of a situation where "the term 'identity' has been coarsened to signify two ideological package-deals immemorially on offer."

At the heart of The Living Stream is a conviction, and a convincing demonstration, that the ideologies of both nationalism and unionism are moribund, and are being used to deadening effect in contemporary politics. In her treatment of these "neurotic pathologies" Longley is unfailingly illuminating, showing how good literature "remains the primary place where language changes, where anorexic categories are exposed". Thus, Longley's literary-critical expertise relates directly to the political implications of her writing. Of course, some pathologies are still alarmingly lively: Longley's treatment of the fad of post-colonial criticism produces deadpan humour, as when Edward Said's willingness to group Ireland amongst the islands of the Caribbean is made to exemplify the phenomenon of "float about" so common in the many contemporary "intellectual holiday romances in a post-colonial never-never land". The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing is also dealt with at length, and Longley's criticism of the project's antique republicanism in post-modern clothes is both penetrating and persuasive, explaining very effectively why the huge project might have overlooked women, and was forced to create a new fourth volume for "The Mad Women in the Annex".

Her views on feminism, as represented here and in her essay "From Cathleen to Anorexia", the volume's most explicitly political piece, are both positive and (in the context of Irish politics) combative: for Longley, the feminisation of Irish culture is both overdue and - more contentiously - incompatible with the male agendas of Irish nationalism, which "project the self-image of Catholic nationalism as innocent victim, equally oppressed at all historical periods".

The Living Stream is a dense, closely-argued volume, and constitutes a first-rate guide to the labyrinth of contemporary Irish culture and politics. The book's other virtue, that it contains some of the best literary criticism likely to come from Ireland this decade, is not incidental to its political concerns, and should not therefore be separated from them. Longley exposes Northern Ireland as a complex place, and the Republic of Ireland as an equally complex, but importantly different society.

In asking hard questions about Ireland, Longley makes stock responses difficult - not least standard English cliches about inexplicable conflict and "tragedy". The case against Irish nationalism, as it evolves through the book, is a powerful one, and derives from the responsible, humane values of Longley's literary criticism in a wholly convincing way. The fondness of bad critics for bad politics in Ireland, of second-rate "theory" for withered but still lethal republicanism, like "the English Left's anachronistic and self-righteous pieties on the Irish question", are all the clearer for Longley's meticulous and sprightly revisionism.

The specific dimensions of the conflict in Northern Ireland - religious, political, and historical - are misread by ideologies in Ireland itself, then doubly misread abroad. In providing the radical revision of the kinds of slack thinking, slack history, and slack writing which have perpetuated conflict in Ireland, Longley's collection of essays is an important event, one which all those wishing to understand the meaning of current problems will find indispensable. There are others, of course, who are convinced that they know such meanings already, and are understandably resistant to revisionism; but not the least achievement of the book is to make such readers look more than ever extraordinary throwbacks, speaking from a minority with "the hysteria of someone losing a political argument".

Peter McDonald is a lecturer in English, University of Bristol.

The Living Stream: Literature and Revisionism in Ireland

Author - Edna Longley
ISBN - 1 85224 216 7 and 1 85224 217 5
Publisher - Bloodaxe Books
Price - £25.00 and £9.95
Pages - 0

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