Politically correct identities

The Novel and the Nation - Mistaken Identities
March 27, 1998

Mistaken Identities can be read as a failed pre-emptive strike against The Novel and the Nation. In his subtle essays on Northern Irish poetry Peter McDonald argues that "identity politics", a by-product of (not only Irish) nationalism, have become a substitute for attentive reading. The casualty is critical intelligence. McDonald targets forms of theory and practice that pervade Irish literary studies especially, but his point goes further: poems are hard to write about, while cultural identity is very easy to discuss.

In literary studies, as in political analysis, it is always easier not to think than to think. Whole schools of not-thinking about literature have established solid institutional presences by finding new ways to ignore the difficulties and perplexities of literary analysis and evaluation. An active and alert literary criticism is engaged unavoidably in the business of evaluation, however tentative its conclusions, and it cannot afford to make judgements on the basis of ideas and allegiances that are to be validated outside a poem.

Gerry Smyth (in tone as much as content) has little truck with "difficulties and perplexities". He sets out briskly "to provide people new to the field with an accessible account of the foundations of Irish novelistic discourse, as well as an analysis of a selection of significant modern texts". Smyth even claims brownie points for refusing "nuanced close readings" and value judgements: "This text does not represent an exercise in canon formation as the absence of some of Ireland's most successful and celebrated contemporary novelists such as Maeve Binchy and John Banville, as well as some of the more exciting and innovative of the "new" writers such as Anne Enright and C"lm T"ibin hopefully demonstrates." That oddly bracketed couple, Binchy and Banville, might agree that his hopes are justified. Contrariwise, the fiction of Banville, Enright and T"ibin has proved its complexity by dodging National Service and a format, a uniform, that processes 28 novels into sociological Coles Notes. But, of course, canonical impulses - not only felt by self-deceiving aesthetes - lurk in Smyth's phrase "significant modern texts". As McDonald remarks, "a critical culture distrustful of evaluation I may be silently efficient in enforcing its own evaluations and canonical judgements".

The diffusion of Irish literary studies, allied to internal differences, raises intricate questions of framework, audience and reception. Smyth mentions the "encoded English reader" in some 19th-century Irish fiction, yet takes for granted his own bona fides as a mediator of Irish writing whose vocabulary primarily derives from British cultural studies. The case is not met by sections on theories, forms and themes, in which he "synthesises research carried out elsewhere by other scholars". The arbitrariness with which he quotes X or Y, rather than giving his personal sense of a live debate about literature, history and culture, aims at po-mo "flexibility". In practice, it shows first-hand thinking to be a sine qua non. Smyth's inconsistencies will also confuse students.

Whereas Smyth's approach seems external in every sense, McDonald's criticism is informed by an active engagement with Northern Ireland and with poetry: but as phenomena that should be distinguished before they can illuminate one another. Thus he begins by rescuing Seamus Heaney (with the lifebelt of finely detailed analysis) from his admirers: "The extent of Heaney's critical and popular success has been significantly dependent on the acceptability of ideas of Irish identity in critical and journalistic currency, and the Northern Irish Troubles have added a frisson to this by seeming to present a drama of confused and tragically conflicting identities to which an art like Heaney's might minister." Much criticism ignores the fact that Heaney's work "relates to notions of identity in various and variously questioning ways".

Nor does Heaney's poetry stand alone, since it belongs to aesthetic and cultural dialectics. In essays on Paul Muldoon and Michael Longley, and in "Mahon, Paulin and the lost tribe" (identity politics as they affect Ulster Protestants and poets so labelled), McDonald traces the mutual mutability of forms and identities. This means that lack of formal resource may reinscribe conventional beliefs. He concludes, for instance: "Derek Mahon's poetry is constantly in debt to Beckett, and touches on areas of Protestant identity which are much more complex than the politically accessible aspects so common in Paulin's writing." This is not to eschew politics. For McDonald, "In the painful and exacting context of Northern Ireland's violence, there is no such thing as an innocent poem, or one which is 'not involved'; good poems know this, and act accordingly." His last chapter, "Anglo-lrish accommodations", which discusses postwar canons and the canonical test case of Louis MacNeice, mischievously allegorises current politics. It is not wholly a paradox that Heaney, whose Irishness seems outside "English" poetry, should have been more easily accommodated than MacNeice whose "Anglo-Irishness" questions an Auden-centred universe and whose posterity so complicates poetic traditions in these islands. McDonald writes: "In some circles in the 1990s MacNeice is very plainly back in fashion I but he has returned as 'universal' rather than Irish". He also nails the collusion between national literary "identities": "A complacent Englishness is no more subverted by (say) complacent Scottishness than it is by the strident assertion of Irish identity: it is much more likely, in fact, to be reinforced by such preprogrammed systems of declaration." His own brilliant book is the real subversive thing.

The Novel and the Nation attacks "complacent assumptions and complicit discourses" in Northern Irish fiction - mainly those unapproved by academic Marxism. Yet complacency also shadows identity-political correctness. One sentence begins pompously: "In justification of the inclusion here of material dealing with what is officially part of the British and cultural political apparatus I" In fact, this suggests Smyth's lack of feeling for either cross-border or cross-water literary currents (nor was Northern Ireland ever "a separate state", as he thinks). He assumes a homogeneous Irish experience on which the culture of Norman, English and Scottish "settlers" has barely impinged. He generalises wildly about "the traditional image of the aloof, alienated Irish artist", about "post-colonial Ireland", about "Robinsonian (now post-Robinsonian) Ireland". While Smyth cannot avoid religion when speculating on relations between fiction and change in the Republic, he fails to identify its role in North/South dynamics, let alone (as theme and structure) in Northern Irish fiction. He mentions neither Brian Moore nor Maurice Leitch, and cites, with the usual absence of social or intellectual context, a critic who rebukes fiction that "privileges sectarian psychology as the key to the conflict". Sectarianism is politics before it is psychology. As for his view that the novel has replaced poetry or theatre - what about music, film, painting or sport? - as "perhaps the pre-eminent Irish cultural form": even if such a pop-chart model were appropriate, it would depend on quality not quantity - on nuanced close reading, in fact.

In such a contradictory, ragbag work there are bound to be a few better moments. Smyth writes freshly about Roddy Doyle and Glenn Patterson, and some of his particularities improve on his generalisations. But this book gives further currency to identity politics, to the idea of the nation as all-engrossing, to simplistic received wisdom prepackaged for cultural studies courses. England may or may not have "colonised" Ireland in the sense that The Novel and the Nation understands. But it is undoubtedly modularising us.

Edna Longley is professor of English, Queen's University, Belfast.

The Novel and the Nation: Studies in the New Irish Fiction

Author - Gerry Smyth
ISBN - 0 7453 1220 9 and 1215 2
Publisher - Pluto Press
Price - £35.00 and £11.99
Pages - 208

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