Friday, March 2, 2018

The Journey Westward

Well, Ireland is still on red alert, and most of the country is thick with snow. Ballymun is ankle-deep, and calf-deep in some places. The government advised everyone to stay indoors from four p.m. yesterday. The go-ahead was given to go outside this morning. There were about eight people at Mass.

Given how the blizzard has dominated discussion in both mainstream and social media, I'm surprised nobody has quoted the most famous passage in all of Irish literature, the final paragraph from James Joyce's story The Dead:

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

I've never been much of a fan of James Joyce, thinking his reputation greatly inflated, and his influence on both literature and society to have been (on the whole) regrettable. But that is certainly a magnificent flight of lyricism.

The story from which it is taken is a fine story, too. I'm not really a fan of short stories, nor have I ever met anyone who is. When people argue that "The Dead" is the greatest short story ever written, i'm not inclined to argue.

Its protagonist is a man of culture, Gabriel Conroy, who is rather cosmopolitan in his tastes and who looks askance at the Celtic Revival, considering it insular and philistine. This is his exchange with an enthusiast for "Irish Ireland", Miss Ivors:

“Well, you know, every year I go for a cycling tour with some fellows and so——”

“But where?” asked Miss Ivors.

“Well, we usually go to France or Belgium or perhaps Germany,” said Gabriel awkwardly.

“And why do you go to France and Belgium,” said Miss Ivors, “instead of visiting your own land?”

“Well,” said Gabriel, “it’s partly to keep in touch with the languages and partly for a change.”

“And haven’t you your own language to keep in touch with—Irish?” asked Miss Ivors.

“Well,” said Gabriel, “if it comes to that, you know, Irish is not my language.”

Their neighbours had turned to listen to the cross-examination. Gabriel glanced right and left nervously and tried to keep his good humour under the ordeal which was making a blush invade his forehead.

“And haven’t you your own land to visit,” continued Miss Ivors, “that you know nothing of, your own people, and your own country?”

“O, to tell you the truth,” retorted Gabriel suddenly, “I’m sick of my own country, sick of it!”

In the final scenes, Gabriel learns of a boy who his wife knew in her youth, who was in love with her and who died, in the west of Ireland. The world of culture and social accomplishment in which he moves is portrayed as superficial and fleeting in comparison with "that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead". It would seem that Miss Ivors has the best of the argument after all, even though Joyce himself was a cosmopolitan who fled Ireland to escape its insularity.

The journey westward which is mentioned in the last paragraph has always seemed to me to be symbolic of the Gaelic Revival, which idealized the west of Ireland, especially Connemara and the various islands off the western coast. This is where many intellectuals of the Gaelic Revival discovered an indigenous way of life which had been relatively untouched by modern civilization. The hope of the Gaelic Revival was that the west would become the ideal for the whole country. And I think it was a good ideal, one which had some success, even if it was ultimately thrown aside.

In any case, this blog post is not so much about Irish nationalism, as about the very idea of "the journey westward".

In the many debates I've had with my contemporaries, and especially with Traditionalist Catholics, I find myself caught between two extremes. On the one hand, I can never reconcile myself to the philosophy (typical amongst libertarians and left-wing nationalists) that we should aspire towards some very specific social reform, and that everything aside from that falls into the sphere of individual liberty and private life. For instance, libertarians want to defend the freedoms of the individual from the government, but they don't seem very interested in what kind of society will come about once that is achieved. This is not necessarily true of all libertarians, but it tends to be true of them.

Left-wing nationalists wish Ireland to be entirely free of British occupation, and aside from that embrace all the typical progressive philosophies of the left. They may have some sentimental regard for the Irish language or for traditional Irish culture, but anything as positive as a programme for an "Irish Ireland" would be too paternalistic for them-- if not downright racist and "insular".

So on my left-hand, I have the "minimalists", as I might call them. They have political goals but they don't generally have a vision for Irish society, other than rights, rights, and more rights.

On my right-hand side, I have my Traditionalist (or rather, integralist) Catholic friends-- the "maximalists". They have such a vision for Irish society that I really wonder if they take it seriously themselves, if they hold out any prospect of it coming about. A Catholic monarch; the abolition of the capitalist system; shops closed on Sunday; the State used to inculcate Catholic morality and piety; and goodness knows what else.

I don't want to be disrespectful. I sympathize with many of their aims. But the common feature of all their social ambitions seems to be the gaining of power-- and not just any old power, but power greater than that enjoyed by any democratic government. It would take an Irish Charlemagne to begin to implement their programme-- and begin is the operative word here.

Musing today on that phrase, "the journey westward", it occurred to me that what I really want in a social and cultural programme is that it can be applied right now, but that it always leaves more to do.

It has to be applicable right now, or we encounter the pitfall of the Catholic integralist, who needs to have his modern-day Charlemagne before he can do anything at all.

But it also has to always leave more to do, or we encounter the pitfall of the left-wing nationalist or the libertarian-- once political independence is achieved, once the State has been rolled back to its desired limits, what is left to do, or to dream about?

And this isn't just a problem for the future. It's a problem for the present. I think human beings need a horizon that stretches into the indefinite distance for any activity they really put their heart and soul into. The story of John Stuart Mill's mental breakdown, when he realised that he would have nothing left to strive for if all his desired reforms were achieved, is very relevant here.

I believe that the aspirations of most of the Irish people from the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century-- that is, for an achievement of a Gaelic, Catholic Ireland-- fulfilled both these criteria. They could both be pursued straight away-- saying the rosary or speaking in Gaelic was, not only a step in the right direction, but an achievement in itself. On the other hand, there was no end to what could have been achieved, or pursued, or dreamed about.

I believe collective goals of this sort are necessary, to preserve the spiritual and cultural health of any people. We need "the journey westward".


  1. A lot of people who seem to dislike Joyce still have great admiration for DUBLINERS, Virginia Woolf seems to have been one. Strange that no one in the Conservatives Forum has mentioned the 80s production of THE DEAD whenever Irish movies are mentioned. THE MOTHER was my favourite though. I love how he portrayed the different classes of the Dublin of his time. I suppose it's been dramatised in some way? I'm not au fait with the movie or play world.

    1. I think I did mention The Dead in that thread, at one point, but only in passing. Maybe I included it as an option on a poll.

      I'm not aware of any dramatisation of Dubliners. Apart from "The Dead" I don't think there's anything particularly great about it. "Araby" appealed to me as well, but that's about it.