Friday, February 15, 2013

Nationalism Once Again

I usually take two buses to work and two buses home every working day, and have done so since 2001. In the last year or so I've made a habit, intermittently, of taking one bus from UCD to the city centre and then walking the rest of the way home.

Today, for the first time ever (as far as I can remember), I decided to walk all the way. Waiting at bus-stops can get pretty irksome; and besides, I felt an appetite for the exercise, the air, and the time alone with my thoughts.

A bookshop that I always pass by on my bus journey to and from UCD is Hampton Books in Donnybrook. Passing by bookshops without getting to go inside is a terrible deprivation, so today I was pleased to see that it was open, despite it being well into the evening.

I'd been in before, but only once before. It is certainly a very handsome, well-kept, and cosy bookshop-- so small it has no aisles, only shelves against the wall. The selection of books is not great but it hardly would be, being the size of a living room. I didn't see any religion shelf. There was one "Positive Living" shelf, which made me cringe a little.

But there was a poetry shelf, which to me, is the single most important feature of a decent bookshop.

I browsed through the poetry books with especial interesting this evening. I am going to a dinner party tomorrow, and I've made a habit of reciting a poem whenever I meet up with this particular group. (I am always very jealous of the honour of poetry, and careful of giving it a place at the table-- metaphorically and literally, I suppose.) I'm not sure what poem to recite tomorrow night so I was looking for ideas.

I picked up a volume entitled The Nation's Favourite Poems. But I found myself less interested in the contents than it the train of thought, and in the emotional reaction, that the title itself evoked.

I think I could say that the reason I am a nationalist-- the reason that I believe in the concept of the nation-- is because of a title like The Nation's Favourite Poems. Just repeat it to yourself. The Nation's Favourite Poems. Twirl it around in the palette of your mind. The Nation's Favourite Poems.

I seem to have been debating nationalism all my life. Probably we all have. A series of posts on this blog that continues to generate above-average traffic is my friendly exchange of thoughts on this subject with fellow Catholic blogger, Young Ireland. They can be found here, here, here, here, and here.

The objections to nationalism are manifold and powerful. Nationalism is divisive and exclusive, and can breed racism and bigotry. Nationalism can feed explosive tensions and fanaticism. For Marxists, and those of a Marxian disposition, nationalism papers over class consciousness and is simply a mechanism wherewith the boss class exploits the workers. For Christians, who have no earthly city, nationalism is a this-worldly distraction from our pilgimage to the Heavenly Jerusalem. For aesthetes, nationalism replaces poetry with propaganda, and art with identity politics.

All of them good arguments, even the Marxist one. And yet, and yet...

And yet there is still The Nation's Favourite Poems, nagging me.

When I come across a title like The Nation's Favourite Poems, I don't think of wars or ethnic cleansing or demonstrations or zealotry. I think of a woman sitting in an armchair reading a book of poems, by an open fire. But there is something else in the room with her-- not something she is actively thinking of, or even aware of, but there. It is the whole idea of the nation as a landscape against which she lives her life.

"The nation" is a funny term. In one way is a grand, even a grandiose term. Terms like "The birth of a nation", "the march of a nation", "the nation's finest", all give us a sense of vast expanses and lofty heights. We see pedestals and fluted columns and brass plaques and eagles plunging through the sky and crowded city squares. The very word "nation" seems to suggest a broad canvas of space and time.

And yet, at the same time, "the nation" and "national" are curiously intimate terms. They speak of home and familiarity and belonging. They speak of the sounds and sights that pierce your heart when returning from some faraway land. They speak of things that you have actually seen with your own eyes, not once but many times-- the Molly Malone statue in Dublin, a game of hurling, a packet of Tayto crisps. They speak of in-jokes and shared memories and the idiosyncracies of accent and phraseology. They speak of home, of us, of the difference between here and out there.

I contend there is no idea, no institution that combines grandeur and intimacy as does the idea of the nation. And that is why I am a nationalist-- that is, somebody who believes in the idea of the nation and in preserving the institution of the nation.

I am a nationalist because of The Nation's Favourite Poems, National Irish Bank, National Lampoon, Irish Nationwide, the national grid and The Carlow Nationalist.

I am a nationalist because I think human beings need a human scale to live on. I think that it is alienating in the extreme to feel oneself a mere drop in the vast ocean of humanity. And yet that is the inevitable outcome of cosmopolitanism, internationalism and globalization.

I am a nationalist because I think nationalism, paradoxically, makes the world seem a bigger and more exciting place. The contrast between your own country and the wide, weird, wonderful world outside-- where they eat dogs and rub noses and sleep in the middle of the day-- only heightens our sense of the world's infinite possibilites and unimaginable vastness. As Chesterton said, "the largest wilderness looks larger seen through a window."

I am a nationalist because The World's Favourite Poems stirs my imagination far less than The Nation's Favourite Poems.

I am a nationalist because I couldn't help it, even if I wanted to.

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