Sunday, July 2, 2017

Musings on Romantic Nationalism

There is a dilemma that all writers face. On the one hand, they want to speak to as many people as possible, to be as accessible as possible. (At least, most of them do.) On the other hand, they want to express something very particular, something very personal. Here, as in so many other cases, the particular and universal are so bound up with each other, it's hard to tell them apart. The most heartfelt and personal song often gains the most universal and enduring appeal. On the other hand, the blockbuster movie that was written by a committee, which seeks to tick all the boxes of what the average audience wants, turns out to be a colossal flop because everyone recognizes that it's a cynical cash-in, that no love went into making it.

Put another way-- should the writer be looking outwards, or looking inwards? Should he study the human condition, or whatever aspect of it interests him, striving strenuously all the while to overcome his own bias and preoccupations? Or should he look into his own heart, the one thing he knows best, and hope that he awakens echoes in other hearts?

I've written a lot on this blog about Irishness and my own particular brand of nationalism. Recently, I've felt the urge to write a "definitive" post on this subject, trying to express my own view in the most subjective and personal way possible. I'm aware that, up till now, I've always been "pulling my punches". I've tried to couch my own imaginative impulses in the terms that are generally used when people talk about Irishness and about nationalism. This time, I'm going to let myself go. I'll try to make as much sense as I can, but I'll also try to say what I really think, what I really feel.

First of all, let me say why this subject is important.

I think people have an ineradicable urge towards tribal identity, towards particularism. I think this can manifest itself in very unhealthy ways, but that there's no point denying it, or repressing it, or stigmatizing it. It's going to come out one way or another.

Universalism is unsatisfying. Everybody wants to belong to someone in particular, something in particular, somewhere in particular. The human soul craves limits. These are commonplaces I don't want to dwell upon. (I'm going to make many unsupported claims in this post, to avoid excessive length.)

We can find belonging and identity in many different places, and we inevitably do so. There are as many forms of belonging and identity as there are aspects to the human condition. But we have a special need for a form of belonging, a form of identity, which pervades our entire lives all day long, which is like a roof over our heads, or even the sky over our heads. And I think we find this in our cultural identity. I furthermore think that nationalism is the best form of cultural identity. At least, it's my own favourite.

The nation is the unit that is both big enough and small enough to serve us in this way. It's big enough to act as a backdrop, a horizon, to our lives. Even in a small country like Ireland, it contains pretty much the entire range of human existence-- politics, sport, the arts, transport, wildlife, industry, and so on-- "a world unto itself". It's too big to take in entirely; it exceeds our field of vision. There's always more.

On the other hand, it's small enough to give us a sense of belonging, of an "us". The majority of the world is located outside the nation. It gives us the one thing that even the most spectacular open landscape can't give us, but that a tent or a tree-house or a kitchen can-- that is, cosiness.

it gives us something else, something I think it's easy to overlook; foreignness. Cosmopolitanism doesn't only rob a man of a sense of home. It robs him of a sense of "away from home", of the alien and exotic.

So much regarding the dimension of place. We also have the dimension of time. Human beings need a past that extends before their birth, and a future that extends beyond their death. They need to feel a stake in such a past and such a future-- again, a sense of belonging. And I think belonging to a nation supplies this. (Lots of other forms of association supply it, but belong to a nation supplies it in a special way.)

There are various different models of nationalism available, of course. There's civic nationalism, ethnic nationalism, cultural nationalism, white nationalism, black nationalism, religious nationalism, and many other forms.

The brand of nationalism I embrace is romantic nationalism, which I would definite as mostly ethnic nationalism with some cultural nationalism and civic nationalism sprinkled in.

The romantic part is very important. I'm realizing its importance more and more as I listen to the all the debates about identity whirling around me, especially on the internet.

I grew up in the tradition of Irish nationalism. Irish nationalism contained many different currents within it, but romanticism was a very strong current, pervading almost all the others.

Here is where I'm going to start getting personal. In my view, the essence of romance is that it concentrates upon something that is not tangible, measurable or concrete. In Patrick Pearse's words, it does not exist "in the world of time and space, amidst the bulk of actual things". The lines of Wordsworth might also be called upon:

The light that never was on sea or land
The consecration, and the poet's dream.

There is one word in those lines that I would like to seize upon, and that is the word light. And here I have to get really personal.

A concept that often comes into my mind when I contemplate the things that move me the most is "a light from another world", or perhaps, "a light from an unknown sun". Even typing those words makes my pulses quicken. Almost everything that has ever really transported me in my whole life-- female beauty, the most eloquent flights of poetry, the horror genre, the cinema, proverbs, and so forth-- seems to me to reflect the light from an unknown sun. The sense of the alien, the otherworldly, even the uncanny-- the sense that something is breaking into the natural order that is not native to it-- is essential to this.

Another concept that comes into my mind is the concept of a gateway, a portal. When, for example, a teenage boy is entranced by the beauty of a girl, the very sight of that face seems like a portal to another world. The air around is electrified, the world is transformed, the lines of Yeats seem to be made true:

The earth and the sky and the water, remade, like a casket of gold 
For my dreams of your image that blossoms a rose in the deeps of my heart.

Looking at that face, he feels that he could look at it forever, and that it betokens a soul of unspeakable beauty in which he would like to be lost. And this, to me, is also essential to romance; the sense of a portal beckoning, a call towards something endless and inexhaustible, towards something infinite or effectively infinite.

Drawing used to be my thing, rather than writing. It's a long time ago now, but in primary school I was the class artist. I remember being fascinated by the use of light in drawing. Light is the thing you don't draw. The glint in a person's eye is just a spot where you don't lay your pencil at all-- but that's the focus of a portrait, and the representation of a soul. The same thing applies to the glint of sunlight on the ripples of a lake, or the glow of candle-light on a still-life.

By analogy, the organizing principle of romantic nationalism is something intangible, otherworldly, spiritual. The further up you go in the scale of intangibility-- folklore, language, literature, mythology, the arts-- the closer you come to it. But the principle itself can't be grasped, can't be described-- maybe it's even quasi-fictional.

Folklore, legend, mythology and the arts are very important to romantic nationalism. In Ireland, particularly, this is the case. The figure of the CĂș Culainn, a warrior from the national epic, is especially important. A bronze statue of him is in permanent display in the window of the General Post Office, which was the headquarters of the 1916 Rising. The Garden of Remembrance, a small green space in Dublin City Centre which serves as a memorial for everyone who died in the struggle for independence, has a huge sculpture of the Children of Lir, mythological figures who were changed into swans by a witch. (I'm not sure why that would symbolize the national struggle, to be honest.)

As I write this, I realize I know very little about Irish mythology and folklore. I've always meant to learn it, and I've intermittently dipped into it over the years, but I'm still a strange to most of it. I haven't read The Cattle Raid of Cooley, the most famous Irish myth cycle.

But the very fact that mythology was so central to Irish nationalism, to Irish identity, certainly shaped my own outlook on these matters. Mythology is set partly in the real world and partly in a never-never land; in fact, the real world itself becomes mingled with a never-never land. In Irish folklore, fairy forts (which were actually ancient passage tombs) are portals to the otherworld. In the order of time, Halloween is a time at which the otherworld is unusually close, and Halloween has always been very important to my own sense of Irishness-- even before I knew Halloween had an Irish origin. 

Put simply, the importance of mythology and folklore to Irish nationalism gave me the sense-- though I would never have been able to articulate it-- that this sense of Irishness, this Irish idyll or romance or sublime, was something which was partly based in reality, but partly based in the imagination. I've often quoted a wonderful line from Clive Barker's novel Imajica on this blog-- a line that the protagonist comes across as an inscription in a book of fairy tales: "That which is imagined need never be lost."

I do think this is one of the benefits of romantic nationalism-- it is sustainable, because it is somewhat invulnerable. An idyll can be realized, or pictured, in an infinite number of ways. An idyll can['t be "disproved", either.

But....I have already tired myself out. I don't have the energy to provide the catalogue of motifs of Irishness which I'd hoped to provide. Maybe another time. 


  1. It was probably the poem SONG OF FIONNUALA that influenced the choice of the memorial design...
    Was that Moore or Yeats?
    He somehow merged the legend of the swans with Ireland's captivity

    1. It was Moore! Yes, the Wikipedia page says something similar.

  2. There's a lot to mull over here - thank you. My first thought is to agree that the nation is certainly something spiritual and intangible. Just as it is mingles the real and the never-never-land, it is a fascinating mingling of the hunger both for 'home' and 'elsewhere'. And as the mythology not only draws on the real world but writes itself back into reality: hence the quest for the unfindable 'deep England'; or 'la France profonde' (both homes that lie elsewhere; an elsewhere that is home). And, as with 'Merrie England' and the Ireland of De Valera, it makes itself felt in time as well.

    Of course, its intangibility leaves it vulnerable to being tarnished: to being raised up as an idol to be worshipped, as in previous centuries, and to being trampled and derided, as in our present age, or to attempts to pin down an absolute definition to particular characteristics (ethnic origin, or language, or particular border). Yet this doesn't mean the nation doesn't exist. It can't just be legisated into existence; neither can it be legislated out of existence.

  3. I agree fervently with everything in your comment, and think that you have put it better than I've ever been able to manage when you write: "My first thought is to agree that the nation is certainly something spiritual and intangible. Just as it is mingles the real and the never-never-land, it is a fascinating mingling of the hunger both for 'home' and 'elsewhere'."

    Home and elsewhere! Yes. Just like that Chesterton quotation I am constantly quoting, the one about the need for "an idea of wonder and an idea of welcome". I think that theme is so important and applicable to so many situations.