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Richard Kearney. Transitions: Narratives in Modern Irish Culture. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1988. 318 pp. $39.50 cloth; pb. $20.00.

The ten-year tenure of The Crane Bag, edited by Richard Kearney and Mark Patrick Hederman, did more than any single journal to bring Ireland into contemporary critical thinking; and when the editors completed their decade of publication, they devoted themselves to continuing that program in their own publications. Kearney has one of the most active intelligences in contemporary Irish letters and a productivity to match. Transitions follows immediately upon a spate of books, with the collection in The Irish Mind (1984) as an important forerunner ("a companion piece," as he suggests) of Transitions. It is not literary criticism alone that graces the pages of this work, which offers itself as "a philosophical analysis of culture," with art and film, politics and critical thought investigated in order to "interrogate specific texts, images, and symbols that tell the story of modern Irish culture as it makes and remakes history." The four major sections of essays are titled: "Literary Narratives," "Dramatic Narratives," "Visual Narratives," and "Ideological Narratives," with chapters on such diverse figures as Yeats, Joyce, Beckett, Heaney, Friel, Tom Murphy, and Le Brocquy. The framing thesis is stated in a succinct Preface, fleshed out somewhat in the Introduction, "The Transitional Paradigm," and elegantly elaborated in the succeeding three hundred pages: that the "reed strength of Irish culture lies not in its uniformity, but in its plurality." Transitions is an exploration of "the critical relationship between the past and the present, between the heritage of cultural memory and the shock of the new," with a foray into the "postmodern—from which to reassess the rival claims of tradition and modernity."

There is nothing parochial about Kearney's perspective as he avoids interpreting "Irish culture exclusively in terms of Ireland, literary works exclusively in terms of literature," and so on, employing "the critical methods of contemporary European thought—hermeneutics, existentialism, structuralism, psychoanalysis, dialectics or deconstruction" (Freud, Heidegger, Saussure, Sartre, Ricouer, Derrida, Lévi-Strauss, Marcuse). Nonetheless, the theoretical framework is predicated on "a transitional tension between revivalist and modernist perspectives" for which Yeats and Joyce serve as exemplars. Joyce's rejection of nationalism and Irish traditionalism, his exilic role and choice of an "experimental aesthetic," mark the point of departure, with Beckett's concentration on "the modernist problematics of language" as the second stage. The chapter on Joyce, therefore, carries a major burden of establishing a determining foundation and proves to be far [End Page 331] too brief and limited, at best when it focuses on the concept that by "conjoining the aesthetic principle of imagination and the reality principle of history, Joyce dismantles the linearity of the search-structure so indispensable to the traditional novel," and weakest when it accepts the facile assumption that Joyce was as fully committed to the "revolution of the word" as was Eugene Jolas. Particularly disabling are the numerous misquotations from the Joyce texts (no documentation ever provided, no clue as to editions used), so that the "priest of eternal imagination" gets transcribed as "eternal priest of the imagination." Transitions is too valuable for such errors.

Bernard Benstock
University of Miami


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