Signs, sense and sentiment

Images, Icons and the Irish Nationalist Imagination 1870-1925
April 27, 2001

The Enlightenment had trouble with images. Relying on sensuous representations was for infants, papists and primitives, not for those who had risen to the dignity of rational beings. For the austerely iconoclastic Kant, moral truths are beyond our creaturely reach and would only be degraded by being fleshed out in images. The truths of the understanding are necessarily abstract and universal, and thus beyond incarnation. Reason can figure the totality of things, but it is no longer a totality that can be materialised in an image, as Hegel believed that the totality of Greek society was materialised in the symmetry of its art.

Modern life has grown so complex that it can only be totalised in discourse, which is to say in the head of one G. W. F. Hegel. It can no longer find its appropriate sensuous icon - one reason why Hegel considers that art must roll over for philosophy. The Romantics clung to the belief that there was some privileged icon, known as the symbol, which could yield knowledge of the whole in a single, non-discursive revelation. But they were also haunted by the notion of sublimity. Grown-up believers are those who grasp that God's hiddenness is an essential part of him, not just a regrettable obscurity.

But if the Enlightenment's faith in the unfigurable marks a spiritual advance over the idol worshippers, it also signals a grave political crisis. For men and women do not easily fall in love with abstractions, and love, as Burke recognised, lies at the root of all social order.

If Kant and Hegel sprang from a Protestant background, Burke, though a Protestant too, had an Irish-Catholic feel for the theatre of the senses. The need for authority to render itself lovable is his abiding theme. Modernity, then, is faced with a dilemma. Only by coming to feel affection for the law will we obey it, which means that we need tangible images. If power does not infiltrate our hearts and guts in this way, it is likely to prove alarmingly fragile. In the end, the only authority that will convince us is the one we can palpably feel; yet this demands sensuous mediation, which in turn places a limit on the universality of reason. Reason, to preserve its august authority, must give the slip to all fleshly representation, and so can be brought to bear upon our sensibilities only with difficulty.

There is a familiar way out of this dilemma: culture. For Schiller, culture is what mediates between the rebarbative abstractions of reason and the particularity of everyday life. As an idea, culture is born at the same moment as political nationalism and the conjuncture is not fortuitous. Nationalism is the most pervasively cultural of all political currents; and, like culture, it promises to bring universal abstractions such as justice and autonomy to bear on the concrete particularity of the Volk . Sometimes, as with the United Irishmen of the late 18th century, it leans towards the rational and universal, while at other times, as with the Young Irelanders of the mid-19th century, it favours the local and intuitive. In both cases, however, it is a thoroughly iconic form of politics, deploying image and emblem, symbol and signifier.

Indeed, nationalism has been described as largely the invention of literary types, and was never more so than in Ireland. A British army officer observed, after his men had quelled the Dublin uprising of 1916, that they had done the Irish a favour by ridding them of some third-rate poets. Images, Icons and the Irish Nationalist Imagination wisely leaps over the well-trodden terrain of 1916, but offers a range of essays by different hands on what one might term the visual politics of Ireland. The editor, Lawrence W. McBride, contributes an informative piece on the portrayal of Parnell, while Gary Owens provides an excellent essay on the iconography of the so-called Manchester martyrs of 1867 (though he seems to think that 19th-century Salford was part of Manchester).

Gerard Moran has a typically scholarly, perceptive essay on the imagery of the Irish land war, and there are other illuminating pieces on the politics of photography (Spurgeon Thompson), representations of women (Joel Hollander) and the nationalist icons of post-colonial Ireland (Sighle Bhreathnach-Lynch). Eileen Reilly supplies an impressively well-researched chapter on the fascinating topic of Irish book-cover art, while Ben Novick writes convincingly on "artrocity" propaganda.

In a thoughtful concluding essay, Sean Farrell Moran remarks on the non-rational nature of political nationalism. In one sense, of course, the doctrine of national self-determination is no more non-rational than a belief in the sanctity of private property. Indeed, it is a logical extension of the doctrine of democracy itself. In another sense, nationalism is a politics of feeling in the way that, say, Fabianism is not, and so lends itself far more naturally to the rhetoric of the senses. It is sentiment converted to a political force - the single most powerful, successful radical force of modern history.

Irish historians these days are professional demythologisers, properly nervous of sentimental narratives and beguiling images. Yet, as Moran knows and Hegel did not, history is not the product of rational notions, and a historiography that is impervious to popular feeling has little to commend it. In its admirable efforts to disentangle Irish history from myth and legend, much so-called revisionist Irish history writing has displayed this insensitivity. There is no point replacing the Celtic twilight with a supercilious deriding of what ordinary people have found precious. And a respect for the historical facts is not incompatible with passion or partisanship, as the work of William Lecky or E. P. Thompson ought to illustrate.

Nor are feelings necessarily irrational. To feel alarm when there is danger is quite as rational as engineering, and the capacity to determine your own life has been, for many a philosopher, the very basis of rationality. Nationalism is one expression of the desire to do this on a collective basis, and thus, far from being irrational, has an intimate alliance with the very notion of reason in its Kantian sense. But in pursuing this eminently rational goal, it has often deployed some dangerously irrational myths; and a proper judgement upon it must take both aspects into account.

Terry Eagleton is professor of cultural theory, University of Manchester.

Images, Icons and the Irish Nationalist Imagination 1870-1925

Editor - Lawrence W. McBride
ISBN - 1 85182 493 6
Publisher - Four Courts Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 188

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