IRISH AND ENGLISH
Ethnic generalizations are sometimes misleading, though not necessarily impertinent. The distinction between Anglo-Saxon and Celt is a particularly revealing one, and, in its extreme manifestations ... between Protestant Englishmen and Catholic Irishmen, it furnishes us with an objective understanding of the relative merits and predilections of these two, in many ways, antithetical peoples.
If there is one word that sums up
Of course, there are several disadvantages and detrimental
consequences from belonging to a people who generally put being above doing in
their scale of values. On the lowest
level such a preference often leads to drunkenness and laziness, an unwillingness
or inability to come properly to terms with the practical demands of life, and
no Englishman needs to be reminded that a significant proportion of Irishmen
are either regularly drunk and unemployed or irregularly drunk and
under-employed, as the case may be! Nor
would he need to be reminded that his ancestors were able to dominate
Yet this is just the negative side of Irish experience, as largely appertaining to the masses. For on the positive side came the intellectual, cultural, and religious achievements of men of genius such as Burke, Boyle, Swift, Goldsmith, Moore, Maturin, Wilde, Shaw, Joyce, Synge, Yeats, O'Faollain, O'Casey, and Beckett. Naturally the English, with their much larger populations, have produced more writers than the Irish, and some of them have been very good ones, too. But, with few exceptions, they haven't produced as many outstanding writers as the Irish - certainly not in the twentieth century, which, if anything, marked a turning-point in these two peoples' fortunes, and not just with regard to creative writing. Fundamentally the twentieth century was the first post-dualistic century in history, and since the Irish are nothing if not extreme, it is inevitable that the twentieth century should have been more to their liking than it has been, on the whole, to the rather more middle-of-the-road English. If England dominated Irish political life during the centuries when dualism (particularly in its liberal manifestation) ruled supreme, then it should come as no surprise to us when we find that, with the emergence of a post-dualistic age, the Irish have dominated and continue to dominate English cultural affairs. I need only city Joyce in respect of the novel, Yeats in respect of poetry, Starkie in respect of biography, O'Faollain in respect of the short story, and, in the semi-literary context of theatre, Shaw in respect of the play ... to confirm this Irish domination of literature. And although I have racked my brains over literally dozens of English authors, from the best, like Aldous Huxley, to the worst, like D.H. Lawrence, it would be impossible for me to ascribe pre-eminence in any one field to an Englishman. For modern English writing is not only comparatively second-rate; it is also deeply pessimistic, reflecting the disenchantment, anxiety, and regret that many Englishmen feel for the passing of dualistic civilization and its replacement by an increasingly volatile world which is difficult if not impossible to reconcile with the English temperament.
It isn't by mere chance that Joyce's greatest novel, Ulysses, concludes with a wholehearted affirmation of contemporary life, its very last word being 'Yes' with a capital Y, whereas Joyce's contemporary and in many ways English counterpart, Huxley, allows Point Counter Point - as indeed most of his novels, including Island, the last one - to end on a note of defeat and despair, reflecting the end of a civilization beset by the twin enemies of barbarism and decadence. This pessimistic syndrome in the face of post-dualistic evolution cuts right across contemporary English literature, from Waugh and Muggeridge to Orwell and Amis, signifying, as it does, what may be called the mainstream trend of the age. Not so where the Irish are concerned, and not so either - at least nowhere near to the same extent - with British writers of Irish extraction, like Lawrence Durrell, Anthony Burgess, Cecil Day-Lewis, and John Middleton Murray, who seem to reflect an in-between psychological realm of pessimism tempered by optimism, rather than to stand at either Irish or English extremes.
It is tempting to see in this Irish literary revival a golden age of Celtic literature which would correspond to the golden age of ancient Greece in the fifth century B.C., and, indeed, to equate the 1916 Uprising with the Greek victory over the Persians in 479 B.C., so that the Irish are perceived as being, in some sense, the modern equivalent of the ancient Greeks. But this would be an over-facile and quite erroneous analogue, scarcely one based on real historical logic! That Joyce may have conceived of such an analogue at the time he was writing Ulysses ... is a possibility we shall not ignore. But there is no reason for us to endorse it on the grounds of historical recurrence. If there is a kind of cyclical recurrence in history, and one with reversible applicability, depending on whether the context be pre- or post-dualistic, then there would be a strong case in favour of our equating the victory of the Americans over the British in the War of Independence with that of the ancient Greeks over the Persians in 479 B.C., and of seeing in America the modern equivalent of ancient Greece.
Thus, in the trend towards dualism of the ancient world, the Greeks won their independence from a predominantly pre-dualistic people, only to lose it, eventually, to the Romans, who were early dualists. Reversing this cycle through the trend away from dualism of the modern world, we find the Americans, as antithetical equivalents to the ancient Greeks, winning their freedom from the late-dualistic British, who can be regarded as antithetically equivalent to the Romans, and, in all probability, destined to lose it in the future to an early post-dualistic people, like the Russians or, more probably, the Chinese, who would then be the modern equivalent of the ancient Persians. As history tends to reverse itself on the post-dualistic level, we might well be justified in equating the modern Irish with the ancient Egyptians or, at any rate, with a development which is tending towards an antithesis to the world's first great religious civilization and which, if it continues, may well constitute the basis for the world's last great religious civilization in due course - a civilization not peculiar to the Irish alone, but partly stemming from Ireland, or Irishmen, and spreading throughout the world.
Thus the pre-dualistic development from Egypt and Persia to Greece (a kind of transitional civilization) and on, with early dualism, to Rome, would seem to have its post-dualistic parallel with Britain, as late dualism, leading via America (another transitional civilization) to Russia and/or China, and on, finally, to Ireland, the future equivalent, now in embryo, of ancient Egypt, which will round off the cyclical recurrence of evolutionary civilizations and lead, in due turn, to a post-Human Millennium, with the transformation of universal man into the Superman. Ireland, then, will have the responsibility of determining the shape of the last great civilization, which will be cosmopolitan, just as Egypt determined the shape of the first, purely national one, and in such speculation I believe we are some way along the road to understanding the contemporary Irish domination of literature in twentieth-century Britain.
As an extreme people for whom quality prevails over quantity, the Irish are already laying the foundations of the next civilization, a civilization that will follow on behind the American one of transition between dualism and transcendentalism. With the ancient world we are always conscious of a lacuna between the Egyptians and the Greeks, the Persians not having fashioned a civilization to compare with either their predecessors or successors, and consequently not being known as a highly civilized people to contemporary minds. In the modern world a similar lacuna may be projected as existing between the American civilization of today and the Irish or Gaelic civilization of tomorrow, since the Marxist-Leninist materialism of both the former Soviet Russia and, more especially, contemporary China falls short of genuine civilization, and corresponds to a neo-barbarism analogous, one can only surmise, to the relatively barbarous society of ancient Persia. The twenty-first century may well constitute a new Dark Age for the passing civilizations, both British and American, but at least, if the logic of scientific history is to be trusted, we can express hope about the rebirth of civilization on higher terms in the not-too-distant future.
Not so long ago, in an earlier volume of essays, my application
of a modified cyclical recurrence to various nations in the overall progression
of history led me to refute not only Spengler, with his assessment of Nazi
Germany as a 'New Rome', and Britain, traditionally, as the 'New Greece' (or
modern equivalent of ancient Greece), but also Malcolm Muggeridge and Simone
Weil, the former upholding the theory of Britain as equivalent to ancient
Greece and America to ancient Rome, while the latter maintained faith in France
as the modern equivalent - particularly during the Napoleonic period - to
ancient Rome, and Britain, by contrast, as equivalent to ancient Greece. I disagreed with each of them and, I think,
wisely, as things turned out. But I
wasn't entirely justified in aligning
Yet the Irish will, I believe, adopt a completely new religion
in the future, one stemming from Christianity but independent of humanistic
influence, and will expand it abroad, just as Irish monks brought Catholicism
to Britain and various Continental countries during the Dark Ages. This new religion, though reminiscent of
Buddhism, will be more than just a copy or derivative of oriental religion,
since far less influenced by natural criteria and correspondingly more sympathetic
to artificial and technological ingredients, pointing the way towards the
Superman. It won't make the mistake of
imagining that man can attain to God, for it will know that man is but a stage
on the road to something higher (the Superman), who is but a stage to something
higher again (the Superbeing), and so on, until the attainment of the Omega
Absolute at the climax of evolution. If
such a transcendental religion is destined to catch on anywhere, it can only be
in a country with a long tradition of religious devotion, a country in which
quality takes precedence over quantity and, consequently, being over
doing. I believe
An Irish priest is always somehow more credible, more authentically theocratic, than an English one, and it would be scant exaggeration to say that an Irish priest is worth an English bishop, or even several English bishops. Conversely, the Irish politician is usually inferior to his English counterpart and not taken quite so seriously either by his own people or by the British. This is, however, relative to the antithetical predilections of the two peoples, and isn't likely to change very much in the future - whatever their respective fates may happen to be. The Irish will continue to value their religious representatives above their political ones, while the English will take politicians more seriously than priests. How it is that the Irish and English do differ so radically in this way must, in some degree, remain an enigma, although there is evidently something in the blood of the Celt that corresponds to a spiritual predilection, whereas the typical Anglo-Saxon feels more at home in the realm of tangible reality. Doubtless the respective histories of the two peoples have contributed to this distinction, as, one suspects, have the geological and geographical differences between their respective islands or ancestral backgrounds, not least of all in respect of climate. Yet whatever the main reasons, the moderation of the Englishman and the extremism of the Irishman remain fundamental characteristics of a centuries-old ethnic divide.
In a transcendentalist age, however, it is inevitable that the Irish will dominate English cultural and intellectual affairs, as they did in the twentieth century. The new men will take over from where their predecessors left off, bringing works of quality to a people who would otherwise be condemned, in materialistic stagnation, to mere quantity alone.