Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Keeping Things Interesting (III)

In the last post in this series, I said that the desire to pass on a cultural and social legacy can be as powerful, even as painful, as the desire to procreate. The more I think about it, the more similar they seem.

I wrote in a previous post about family folklore and the increasing importance I place on it. Family folklore-- indeed, family in general-- is one of those things that seem so much bigger on the inside than it does from the outside, and the contrast is often shocking and poignant.

In that previous post, I mentioned a memory of attending a carnival in Dublin city centre with my brother and mother. It was a very simple carnival with only a few childish amusement rides. I remember, too, that my mother had bought us a picture book of a superhero teddy bear called Superted. I think that memory has a certain wistfulness because the evening was falling, the carnival was closing, and the place was almost empty.

This memory, and many like it, always ambush me with a sudden and urgent sense of protectiveness. The contrast between the world outside and the world inside-- one's own consciousness, one's family life, one's own cameradaries and loves-- is quite staggering. 

Realising that nobody-- not one of the millions and millions of people out there-- knows or cares about these private experiences, is quite a jolt.

When writing about the carnival, and my memory of the carnival, I compared such recollections to the sight of somebody you love seen from far away, especially seen unexpectedly, perhaps in a crowded street. They are so very small, like a tiny figure in a landscape painting. The world around them doesn't know or care about them. This makes them seem ache-inducingly precious and fragile.

This is the emotion we all feel, I suppose, when we see an image of our planet taken from space.

We feel it when we are abroad and encounter someone or something that belongs to our home country. Admittedly, I haven't had this experience very often, since my travels have been so limited, but I feel something like this when I watch shows about the recent history of Ireland (like the show Reeling in the Years). I become very aware of how specific our shared experience is, in terms of the wider world.

Having said all this, I find it very difficult to take an interest in my family history in any kind of disciplined way. I've listened to quite long conversations about my family tree but none of it ever sticks with me. What really interests me is not the history, but the folklore; the anecdotes, the flashes of personality, the sayings, and so forth. I think this is pretty consistent, since I have next to no interest in academic history but plenty of interest in popular history.

Of course, we are not only the inheritors of a family tradition, but other traditions as well. There are ethnic traditions, religious traditions, musical traditions, intellectual traditions, political traditions, and so forth.

It may be objected that many of these are not inherited in the manner of family or nationality. Actually, I'm not too sure about that. How often do causes seem to choose us, rather than the other way round?

I've mentioned my horror club in this blog several times before. I remember at one meeting we drank a toast to Christopher Lee, a little after his death. It seemed entirely right and proper, even a duty. It pleased me mightily. It felt like a family piety.

I've always been fascinated by the way an ideology or an artistic sensibility enters into a person, so that they become penetrated by everything belonging to it-- its whole way of looking at the world. We can legitimately talk about the 'instincts' of a libertarian, or the psychology of a fan of a particular composer or sports team. In some strange way, a 'collective mind' can operate like an individual mind-- so that it contains not only a set of propositions, but a whole system of undertones and associations and aversions.

Isn't it true? When somebody becomes a feminist, a Marxist, or-- indeed-- a Catholic, don't they quickly (even immediately) internalise a whole mentality, and not just a checklist of beliefs?

The mindset of Catholics, for instance, is incarnational, sacramental, and ecclesial in a way that Protestants, non-denominational Christians and non-religious people often find hard to comprehend. The oldest cradle Catholic and the newest convert tend to breathe the same air in this regard. They really do seem to have become vessels of a tradition.

And it's that very phenomenon-- becoming the vessel of a tradition-- that I'm trying to capture here.

In a way, I think that's what being a member of a family, a nation or some other group is-- becoming the vessel of a tradition. 

Let me return to the 'procreative' aspect of this-- the anxiety that we feel (or at least, that I feel-- but I can't believe I'm unique in it) not only to inherit a tradition but to strengthen it and pass it on. I feel this urge in a very strong degree, sometimes so strongly that it's overwhelming.

I have mentioned in recent posts my sense of duty towards the Irish language. This flared up very strongly this year, to the extent that I read book after book in Irish, and wrote my diary in Irish; reached a crescendo some months ago; and then was abandoned, when I decided that worldly things didn't matter and only otherwordly things mattered. However, I have found this attitude impossible to maintain, and I returned to practicing my Irish, though less intensely.

My Irish language practice now consists of reading back issues of the magazine An Sagart (The Priest) on my afternoon break in work. (It's hard to find reading material to suit any particular taste in Irish; I think this may be one of the language's biggest obstacles.)

I was reading a back issue of An Sagart a few weeks ago, one from the seventies or eighties, when I felt a surge of belonging and yearning for something very particular-- that is, a particular strain of Irish Catholicism at that time. The nostalgia was almost unbearable. Mainstream Irish Catholicism had (I think) a very particular flavour at this time; it was secure in itself, rather liberal on political and social matters, cultured, somewhat sentimental, nationalistic in a relaxed kind of way, optimistic, naive. The desire to recapture and perpetuate this tradition was overwhelming-- but I knew it would pass, and that it was impossible anyway.

The same thing often happens when I listen to Irish folk ballads being sung. My father has a repertoire of hundreds of these. He will often recite a few lines of a particular ballad and then say, casually, "I haven't thought about that song in forty years."

At such moments, and at other moments when Irish folk ballads are thrust into my attention, I feel an overwhelming cocktail of emotions; shame, that I have neglected them; panic, that they will cease to live; yearning to master them myself; and a sense of the sublime, when I find myself contemplating a tradition that unites the living, the dead and the yet unborn.

But we have to be selective. I know I am never going to acquite a repertoire of Irish folk ballads.

The reader may feel that I have rather wandered from the subject of 'keeping things interesting'; or perhaps not, since the link seems clear enough to me. In seeking to keep such traditions alive, I think, we are probably trying to keep our cultural gene pool diverse.

In the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln famously hoped that "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." Surely even the most anti-democratic spirit is stirred by those words? "Shall not perish from the earth"...that thought, applied to almost any subject, seems to me guaranteed to make hearts burn.

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