Saturday, 25 August 2012

Joyce, Yeats, and the impact of Literature on Dublin

While in Dublin last week, I discovered the city is currently the UNESCO City of Literature.  Normally I have little time for such accolades; (London)derry in Northern Ireland will imminently become the EU City of Culture, and even as a fan of Northern Irish literature that seems an awful stretch.  Yet walking around the Irish capital, it is clear that Dublin has a remarkable literary heritage for a relatively small European capital.

The range of literary links is exhaustive.  The Chester Beatty Library contains an enormous collection of ancient manuscripts, predominantly from the Middle and Far East.  Trinity College holds the magnificant Book of Kells (pictured).  Jonathan Swift was Dean of the bizarre Gothic structure of St Patrick's Cathedral, while the 19th Century saw the births of Charles Maturin, Sheridan Le Fanu, Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde, to name but a few.

Yet it was the early decades of the twentieth century which produced the two most famous Dublin figures: James Joyce and WB Yeats.  Joyce's Ulysses is widely regarded as the greatest novel of the twentieth century, Yeats won a Nobel Prize, and along the way Ireland followed the United States of America in becoming the second ex-colonial nation, achieving independence in 1922.  Both men were obviously influenced by these monumental events, but the difference between their responses highlights two very different ideas of literature.
To begin with Joyce, it is clear that his name is far more prominent in Dublin today.  Our tourist map of Dublin had a special symbol for 'James Joyce Connection', which is hardly surprising when you consider Joyce hardly wrote anything set outside the city.  Just as Dickens is to London, Joyce is to Dublin, as is most clear each year on the 16th of June when the annual Bloomsday celebrations take place.

This pop-cultural resonance is matched by Joyce's literary significance.  Ulysses is an astounding novel,  aligning the events of a mundane Dublin Thursday with Homer's Odyssey.  The work in some ways perfects the realist tradition, with its details precisely accurate, even to the extent that the horse race which is run in the novel took place on the correct day in history, with the right winner.  Equally though it stretches the stylistic possibilities of the English language to their limits, with different chapters written as a stream-of-consciousness, a newspaper, a play, a catechism and a parody of all English Literature.  I personally would admit to finding it a struggle to read, but in terms of its ambition and its genius, it is almost insurpassable.

Yet, as Edna O'Brien points out (in her role as a talking head in one of many excellent James Joyce Centre video clips), it is highly doubtful that the majority of those who praise Joyce have actually read anything he has written.  When broken down and analysed by literary scholars the works are astounding, but to the casual reader they are monstrous.  

This is not to say Joyce wasn't engaging with contemporary events.  T.S. Eliot (no friend of the casual reader himself) praised Ulysses for 'giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history'. Joyce (and his fellow modernists) reacted to the global trauma of the first world war with brilliant creativity, but Joyce's way of making sense of the world only makes sense to those who can keep up.

Thus Joyce's direct impact on revolutionary Ireland was as distant as Joyce himself.  As I remember pointing out in a tutorial on the subject, Joyce might have claimed that objections to the content of short story collection Dubliners would 'retard the course of civilisation in Ireland by preventing the Irish people from having one good look at themselves in my nicely polished looking-glass', but in practice the vast majority of Irish people were more than capable of looking elsewhere themselves.

If Joyce was writing for the elite, Yeats was far more relevant to the people of Dublin.  Of course, Yeats wrote extensively for close to fifty years, making any generalisations about his work foolish.  Thus I want to focus on one particular, and many would argue minor, element of Yeats' literary life: the foundation of The Abbey Theatre in Dublin.

Yeats, along with several others, founded the theatre in 1904.  The group called themselves the Irish National Theatre Society, a title which you can only fully appreciate when you recall Ireland was not an independent nation at the time, and that the National Theatre in London would not be founded for six decades.  As the brilliant exhibition currently showing at The National Library of Ireland stresses, Yeats was very keen on the theatre being a forum for the idea of 'Irishness' to be discussed, ensuring that tickets were widely available, and that controversial plays were produced.

Perhaps surprisingly, the theatre was most criticised not for being too subversive, but rather for being too conservative.  In 1907 The Playboy of the Western World saw riots on its opening night, ostensibly because of immoral content, but influenced by Nationalist leaders such as Arthur Griffith who felt the play was damaging to the reputation of Ireland.  19 years later Sean O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars would create a similar reaction, after it implicitly critiqued the action of the rebels in the unsuccessful 1916 Easter Rising, including quoting from Padraig Pearse, who had attained the status of a martyr for his role in the rising.  (A revival of the play, which sadly I was unable to see, is now showing at the restored Abbey Theatre).

The reasons why these plays were so incendiary become clearer when you consider the very artistic nature of the Easter Rising itself.  The rebels based themselves at Dublin's Central Post Office - a poor choice in military terms, but outstanding for symbolic impact with its spectacular architecture and prominent location.  Pearse, a poet himself, then read out the Easter Proclamation, which tied itself to Irish history by boasting 'in every generation the Irish people have asserted their right to national freedom and sovereignty', and finished by calling the Irish nation 'by its valour and discipline and by the readiness of its children to sacrifice themselves for the common good, [to] prove itself worthy of the august destiny to which it is called'.

Inevitably the rebellion was crushed, but the British handed the rebels a further propaganda coup by executing all the rebellion's leaders, including the severely wounded James Connelly who was shot while tied to a chair because he could not support his own weight.  Popular support then swung behind the rebels, allowing for the successful War of Independence three years later.  

The success of Irish nationalism is thus closely tied to the idea of noble self-sacrificial Irishmen rebelling against monstrous imperial suppression - Yeats' own play Cathleen ni Houlihan providing one paradigmatic model of this, with an old woman calling on her sons to die to redeem Ireland: 'many a child will be born and there will be no father at the christening'.  

Yet Yeats clearly saw the need for a more nuanced picture than this, and although The Abbey Theatre's muddying of the waters was initially unpopular, both the controversial plays have ultimately been critically validated.  Thus, with art and narrative having such a powerful impact on the success of the revolution, it was certainly appropriate for writers to subject the values of the new Ireland to challenging questions.

Of course, the context of a struggle for independence made these questions particularly pressing in 1920s Dublin.  But their relevance to any country or era is equally unmistakable.  It is the role of politicians and commentators to sculpt the immense panorama of contemporary history into digestible narratives, but such an impossible task inevitably causes reductive analysis.  Sometimes the resulting errors might be economic, and in such cases we need economists to put us right.  But sometimes the problems are more subtle, triggered not by financial value but by cultural values.  In such contexts, we need institutions like the Abbey Theatre to be willing to question the unquestionable.

That is not to say there is no need for the Joycean writer though.  Just as a work of literature allows for more subtlety than a political speech, so does a more complex work of art allow for more possibilities than a populist play.  In such circumstances, it falls to the academic community to make sense of the most abstract literature, and to digest its ideas for the wider community.

To that end, I'm going to try and read Finnegan's Wake.  Wish me luck.

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