Friday, May 29, 2020

A Lockdown Vision

I wrote this piece of silliness for the library staff bulletin. Who knows if they'll publish it?

Apologies for the continuing absence from blogging and other online activities.

‘Twas the night after Leo’s historic address to the nation. As I drifted to sleep, terms such as “social distancing”, “flatten the curve”, and “self-isolate” echoed in my mind. I found myself hearing the opening narration of The Lord of the Rings movies: “The world has changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air.” Except, instead of being spoken by Cate Blanchett as the Elf-Queen Galadriel, they were spoken by Michael D. Higgins, who was wearing a flowing robe and pointy ears. This disturbed me.

I fell into deep sleep, and within moments, I was standing on level two of the James Joyce Library. A strange unearthly light hung in the air. There was nobody to be seen.

“What’s going on?”, I asked aloud.

Suddenly, from behind me, a deep voice began to speak in Latin. I turned around. A tall dude in a toga and a crown of laurel leaves was speaking to me.

“Sorry, I don’t speak Latin”, I said.

“Hmph!”, said the apparition. “Well, barbarian, know that I am Virgil, author of the immortal Aeneid and Georgics. No doubt you have read them, albeit in translation?”

“Well”, I stammered, “never quite got round to it… started it once… so little time…”

“And yet it says here”, he replied, drawing a scroll from his toga, “that you have seen every one of the Resident Evil movies. You had time for that, it seems.”

“Um, yeah”, I said. “Visually very stylish, actually…”

“Silence, wretch!’, he cried. “Now and again I’m known to give tours. I am now going to give you a tour of this library where you have worked for so many years. Let us see how it has improved you.”

Section by section, we made our way through the shelves. My phantasmal guide quizzed me on my knowledge of every subject. History, linguistics, politics, philosophy, art—one by one, vast tracts of my ignorance opened before me.

“I see you are beyond redemption”, he said, finally. “Surrounded by all these books, for so many years, and yet as ignorant as a babe in arms. I hereby sentence you to eternity attending a never-ending library conference.”

“No, anything but that!”, I cried. “Can’t you give me another chance?”

“Very well”, said the apparition. “This lockdown is going to go on longer than you expect. If, when it finally ends, you haven’t used that time to improve your mind, to attain some vestige of culture, then—abandon all hope!”

I opened my eyes with a cry, and sat up. The beautiful lockdown sunshine streamed through the window. Thank goodness—I was spared!

I made myself breakfast, sat down before the television, and turned on an old episode of The Dukes of Hazzard. Later that evening, I decided, I would track down that copy of the Aeneid I’d bought ten years ago. Well, some time this week….

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Lockdown Thoughts

Ireland has been on lockdown since St. Patrick’s Day, and I’ve been working from home since shortly before that. The library is closed, and we haven’t heard when it will be re-opening. Like hundreds of millions of people around the world, my forays outside the house have been pretty much confined to grocery shopping and short strolls. My internet reception is incredibly patchy, so I haven’t been able to blog. I’m writing this offline now.

I don’t think there’s anything original to say about the Corona virus, the lockdown, the shutting of churches, and so forth. At least, I’m not motivated to go over this very well-trodden ground here.

I’m a very indoorsy person, so being stuck in the house has been no great privation for me. I’ve used the time to work on my grasp of the Irish language. I’ve been watching Irish language television, listening to Irish language radio, writing my Irish language diary, and having many long conversations in Irish with another member of the household. Right now I’m compiling a list of Irish language words and terms I don’t know, and trying to learn them.

When it comes to learning languages, vocabulary is certainly my strongpoint. I still retain a surprising amount of the German and French words I learned in school, especially considering I was a C student at best. (I got a B in both, in my Leaving Cert, but I think those results were over-generous.) And, when it comes to English, I don’t think I’m boasting when I say I rarely encounter a word I don’t know, unless it’s a specialist word. (And I’m delighted when I do encounter one.)

I can remember how I learned many fairly commonplace English words, even when I learned them in childhood. For instance, I can remember I first learnt the word “capitalism” when I asked my father what system America had, if Russia had communism. For some reason, I can remember that this conversation occurred around the release of the Tim Burton Batman film in 1989. So I was twelve. There are many, many other examples.

The magic of words is something that never ceases to enchant me. I can never get over the idea that saying (or reading, or writing) a word, in some sense, summons the thing itself. This is a theme so dear to me, and yet so elusive, that I must resist the temptation to get sucked into it. How to express the all-but-ineffable?

How am I doing in my study of the Irish language? It’s hard to say. The ogre Grammar stands across my path, casting a daunting shadow. I have never had any abstract understanding of grammar—whatever mastery of English grammar I possess it purely intuitive. Grammatical terms bewilder me. I had hoped I could somehow absorb Irish grammar in the same way that I must have absorbed English grammar, intuitively. It doesn’t seem to be working. Eventually I will have to tackle it head-on. I keep putting that battle off.

Aside from that, however, I seem to be making progress. I can read Irish with ease at this point—aside from poetry (ironically), and the more turgid sort of literary texts. I rarely encounter any difficulty when watching TV or listening to radio, although some of the more fast-talking native speakers are still utterly incomprehensible to me. I can have quite high-flown conversations in Irish.

It seems to me that, to an Irish person, nothing (in the natural order) should be a higher priority than the revival of the Irish language. Indeed, I feel convinced that this is actually a duty of piety. The languages and the cultures of the world are a part of God’s creation, and speak of His glory, every bit as much as the natural world that the Popes have called on us to cherish. Pope Francis has spoken on many occasions on the true model of globalization, which (he says) is that of the dodecahedron rather than the sphere. The Pope does not urge cultural homogenization upon us—rather the opposite.

It’s true that I’ve given up trying to reconcile old-style Irish nationalism with my Catholic faith. Faith always comes first, and the Church’s vision of international development (and especially migration) doesn’t really seem compatible with the sort of ethno-state Irish nationalists aspired towards for so long. But I think I culture was always more important than politics, anyway. The preservation of tradition is the most important thing—not power, or territory, or demographics.

Everything takes me back to the importance of tradition, the need to preserve and revive tradition. Every TV show I watch, every book I read, everything I see and hear every day, points me back towards the importance of tradition—most especially in our own time and place. Even pop culture and consumer culture seems to be panting for the irrigation of tradition.

Is this monomania on my part? Well, perhaps. But I don’t think so. I think the internal contradictions of our society, when we really think about them, show its need (and its displaced longing) for tradition and specialness and distinctiveness.

One thing that constantly baffles and frustrates me is the modern world’s addiction to the line of least resistance, a kind of ingrained fatalism. Cultural trends are accepted as unstoppable.

One example is the decline of poetry. Why is poetry no longer widely read? Why are people who consider themselves literate and well-read not ashamed that they don’t make a serious effort to read poetry? Have we become a different species? Has some mutation in the human brain disabled the faculty to take a serious, continuous, life-long interest in poetry—to take it as seriously as fiction or music or cinema? Why have editors, publishers, TV producers, teachers, and everybody in the arts and culture industries simply acquiesced to this?

Another example is the Irish language itself. Its obituary has been written innumerable times. To seek to revive it is seen as the height of naivety, of self-delusion, and its enthusiasts are seen as tiresome cranks whenever they press its claims as a serious national aspiration, rather than a vague wish.

But why should this be so? What is so inevitable about the Irish speaking English? Irish people jabber incessantly about Irishness and the Irish character and Irish history and all the rest of it. Sporting occasions bring out huge effusions of patriotism. This is good in itself—better than the alternative—but why do we continually neglect the single most important element of our nationality? Nothing can compare to language, in terms of developing a distinctive identity, since language encompasses everything.

Both of the foregoing examples are combined in a story I read recently, about the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh, who died in 1967. He came after Yeats and the other figures of the Irish Revival, and (rather predictably) he rejected their cultural nationalism, their romantic evocations of rural life, and so forth. He wanted to be open to the modern world, to the authentic ordinary life of the twentieth century, etc. etc.. He also took a dim view of Irish language revival, arguing that English was now the language of literature and that schoolchildren should be taught just enough Irish to appreciate the poetry of Irish place-names.

When I read that story, I wondered if Kavanagh would agree with me that, today, this very attitude of cultural laissez-faire has more or less killed poetry itself as a popular art-form, in both English and Irish. People stopped trying to revive Irish because it was just too much effort, like he recommended. But they also stopped reading poetry because it was just too much effort.

Another example. I was reading the memoirs of Keith Waterhouse, the British journalist and writer. He was describing the beginning of his journalistic career, and he referred to an elderly journalist, in passing, as the last of the newspaper columnists who were actually essayists in the style of Chesterton. Reading that made me wonder. Had Waterhouse himself (who became a journalist of considerable prestige) ever tried to revive the medium of the newspaper essay? Or had he simply acquiesced in the decline of the essay-type column, which is surely an example of “dumbing down”? Was his attitude simply: “People don’t want that anymore, and we have to give them what they want”?

And if that’s enough for a writer—simply accepting the constraints of one’s time, shrugging one’s shoulders and going along with dumbing down, homogenization, the death of tradition—what is the value of writing? Or of any culture whatsoever?

It’s not enough for me, at any rate. Writing is a quest for meaning, for wonder, for the sublime. But how is it enough simply to celebrate these things wherever we can find them-- which is an increasingly difficult task in our society of supermarkets, office blocks, tacky advertising, and reality TV? Isn’t it incumbent upon us, as well, to rush to their defence?