Monday, May 31, 2010

Murakami, Joyce, and a stab at the soul of Ireland

Anna and Frances have been keeping me pretty busy. Between playing Hedbandz (a kiddie varient of the parlor game from Inglourious Basterds) and Monopoly, they've gotten a hold of my free time. Irish monopoly is different since the prices are in Euro and the street names are all things like "Wexford Avenue." Also, they have Dublin and Shannon airports instead of the railroads. I'm pretty glad for the company though, and as I'm sure I've mentioned a million times, they're absolutely adorable.
So I finally decided to see what all the international hubbub was about and read something by Japanese literary rock star Haruki Murakami. I gotta say, the fuss is completely deserved. This guy is a capital-n Novelist. If Shusaku Endo is the Japanese Dickens then Murakami is the Japanese Vonnegut. That said, reading a €2 used copy of Sputnik Sweetheart alone in a series of rainy cafes in Dingle made me feel lonely. To quote Klosterman (referring to the music of Billy Joel) "the kind of lonely where someone hugs you and somehow you feel worse." For some reason, reading a Japanese novel set largely in Greece got my intellectual wheels turning about Ireland.
The chief caveat about their country that I have heard from intellectual Irish people is the fear of insularity, a word that literally means "made into an island." This is hardly a new problem. Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man has Stephen Dedalus describe Ireland as "an old sow that eats her farrow." More recently, Bob Geldof wrote about the "Celtic kulturkampf" mentality that dominated his youth.

This was the culture of cowardice. A cultural inferiority in fact. A fear that what we truly had beyond the basic bollocks, “Yer 40 shades of Green,” are any cunt who could scrape a line from an authentically out-of-tune fiddle wouldn’t add up. They were, of course hopelessly, horribly wrong. But just in case, Ireland was to be kept in its touristic cultural aspic. ‘The sea o the sea, grá gheal ma chroi, Thank God we’re surrounded by water.’ We would bang our bodhráns, blow our penny whistles, and authentically jam our fingers in our ears while we sang, faces screwed in ersatz sincerity, the tuneless maunderings of despair that had, by now, become our national psyche.--Geldof, 2004

The younger generation seems to fear the return of the old provincialism: the weathering of hard times by bending one's neck to the blows and withdrawing one's mind to remembrance of a mythic past. For Joyce and Geldof, this past was that enshrined in the epics and cycles of ancient Ireland. Most today need look no further back than the "Celtic Tiger" years of the late 80's and 90's when Ireland had 0% unemployment and seemed to be moving nowhere but up. When times were hard, and they always were, the Irish in the past could always blame the British. That option is no longer open to them, as Britain is floundering in this economic cesspool as badly as Ireland, but the old defeatism is still there. A fellow I met in An Droichead Beag Saturday night said that the Irish have never really stopped thinking of themselves as an oppressed people. He says the difference between Irish and, say, British or Americans is tangible. These latter two people will fight for what they feel they deserve, the Irish will simply allow themselves to be trodden on. And where do these people turn? Inward, inward, ever inward. Isolate and insulate, perpetuate pain and drown your sorrows in alcohol and Christianity, the two great Irish narcotics. Thank god we're surrounded by water. The result is that people develop a skin thick as a Wellington boot. They are impervious to harm, but also to comfort, to a broadening of the horizons.
Murakami writes about the alienation of modern life, giving a voice to what The Daily Telegraph has ignomiously dubbed "the Eleanor Rigby generation". The characters of Sputnik Sweetheart isolate themselves from emotional intimacy by withdrawing into their passions and treating everyone around them as strangers. Their tragedy is that they live a diminished life, with that spark of themselves that feels passion and growth trapped on the other side of the mirror. Can a nation withdraw into this self-imposed exile of loneliness? To be sure, most of the Irish people I've met don't overtly display this mindset--I certainly don't see it in the O'Connors--but the fear is always there. Just the other day, I heard some cheeky American teabagger on a Galway radio program trying to get the Irish to adopt the American scourge of Beck/Palin style populism. Thankfully, the host and most of the callers seemed to dismiss him as a blowhard, since that sort of populism has historically taken much uglier forms in Ireland than anything currently happening in America.
Will the Irish national psyche ever outrun the curse of it's geography? Does the new generation have the strength to finally break the shell of the Eleanor Rigby nation? There certainly seems to be an unmatched (even in America) tradition of self-loathing, but this critical eye does the Irish people no service when it simply causes the best and brightest to expatriate in disgust. In the modern world, isolation is death. As nations and as individuals, we must always strive to practice humanity to the best of our abilities together. Albert Schweitzer was right; the future of the world depends on it.

1 comment:

  1. And you didn't want to take Modern British / Irish Lit with me... That class was wasted on a bunch of lackluster Freshmen, none of which said anything in 3 months as interesting as what you've just condensed into a blog.

    Glad to see you're having fun!