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The Literature of Ireland: Culture and Criticism (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 47, Number 4, Summer 2010
pp. 656-659 | 10.1353/jjq.2010.0013

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This volume raises in an acute and interesting way—perhaps without really intending to—the issue of a national literature. What is it? How is it defined? Is it just a matter of a number of writers who are born in the same country over an extended or a restricted time span (Bloom’s “the same people living in the same place”—U 12.1422-23), or is there something more meaningful involved, some unifying force and shared historical circumstances that make of these writers more than just the total of their individual contributions?

The current dominance of postcolonial theory in Irish literary studies is due in part to its explanatory force in the face of the heterogeneous collection of texts that constitutes Irish literature.1 Postcolonialism provides a unified field theory that accounts for all these diverse phenomena. Even writers who do not fall under such a banner can be recruited to it negatively, as giving voice to the ideology of the opposite side, of the oppressor. While one may have reservations as to some of postcolonialism’s emphases, it has certainly put Irish studies generally on a new and more secure footing.

The Literature of Ireland is an interesting example of what can happen when a critic decides to dispense with that or any other explanatory paradigm—while still wanting to address the full range of twentieth-century Irish literature. It is a collection of twenty previously published essays by Terence Brown, and one previously delivered lecture, on some sixteen Irish writers. The essays succeed one another, each one intelligent, well argued, and well written. But one feels the absence of any connecting thread or link that would make of these pieces—or these writers—something more than the sum of their parts. As a counterbalance to the postcolonialist emphasis, Brown does stress the British dimension of some the writers he discusses, but this amounts to rather less than a critical program or position.

In a fascinating introduction, Brown, Fellow Emeritus and former Professor of Anglo Irish Literature at Trinity College Dublin,2 goes far to explain the theoretical agnosticism that characterizes his position. It could be said to follow on a crisis of religious faith, whereby Brown lost belief in the evangelical Protestantism of his Northern Irish upbringing.3 This event was accompanied by a complex crisis of political faith: having broken with the unionism that had also characterized his background, he became equally disillusioned with left-wing politics over the British Labour government’s craven surrender to the forces of right-wing extremism in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. (This is a position those of us around at the time will understand.) Because of these and other experiences, Brown is suspicious of postcolonialism (much of the introduction is spent rebutting an apparent attempt to identify him with it, and the first essay engages with it systematically) without substituting any other explanatory paradigm in its place.

The absence of a central guiding thread is not merely a matter of theory; there is no writerly spirit presiding over the work either. Emphatically, James Joyce does not fulfill such a role here: just one essay is devoted to his work, though he does loom large in two others. Brown’s Joyce essay does at least demonstrate that he is not averse to using history in his texts, while refusing to draw any political or theoretical lessons from it. Thus, “Joyce’s Magic Lantern” (an essay that first appeared in this journal4) uses the episode of the alleged apparitions of Our Lady at Knock, County Mayo, in 1879,5 to throw a prospective light, as it were, on Mr. Kernan’s aversion, in “Grace,” to the “magic-lantern business” involved in the Gardiner Street retreat on which he is about to embark (D 171).

The two other essays not directly on Joyce do explore important facets of the writer’s work and influence. “Music: The Cultural Issue” devotes much discussion to Thomas Moore’s Irish Melodies in “The Dead” and contrasts this with the eruption in that story of “The Lass of Aughrim.”6 Brown sees the relation between the two as the opposition (or “apposition”) between “the music...

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