“au contraire”

An interesting addition to the series of articles celebrating Samuel Beckett’s Centenary in the Guardian today. Terry Eagleton – or wikipedia page – argues that Beckett should be read with an eye on the historical context of his life and work, that is “not some timeless spirit but a southern Irish Protestant, part of a besieged minority of cultural aliens caught uneasily within a triumphalistic Catholic Free State.”

This year’s calendar to celebrate Beckett’s 100th anniversary is crammed with literary events celebrating the life of the modern age’s most lovable pessimist, most of them, one imagines, awash with talk of the timeless human condition portrayed in his work.

Nothing could be further from the truth. For one thing, Beckett treated such portentous interpretations of his work with typical Irish debunkery. “No symbol where none intended,” he once reminded the critics. For another, he was not some timeless spirit but a southern Irish Protestant, part of a besieged minority of cultural aliens caught uneasily within a triumphalistic Catholic Free State. As Anglo-Irish Big Houses were burnt by Republicans during the war of independence, many Protestants fled to the Home Counties. The paranoia, chronic insecurity and self-conscious marginality of Beckett’s work make a good deal more sense in this light. So does the stark, stripped quality of his writing, with its Protestant aversion to frippery and excess. If he abandoned Ireland soon enough for Paris, it was partly because one might as well be homeless abroad as at home. As with his friend James Joyce, another Irish literary nomad, internal exile turned quickly into literal emigration. The alienation of the Irish artist could be translated easily enough into European modernist angst.

Beckett was far from ashamed of being Irish. His famous riposte to a French journalist who innocently inquired whether he was English was “au contraire”. His black humour and satirical wit are cultural as well as personal traits. But he could find no foothold within an introverted Gaelic state, and the austere minimalism of his art is, among other things, a critique of bloated nationalist rhetoric. Yet there is also a distinctively Irish quality to Beckett’s deflation of the florid and high-flown, just as there is something recognisably Irish about those starved, stagnant landscapes where, like colonial victims, you do nothing but sit and wait for deliverance.

Eagleton ends with a reminder of the later historical context, and that “starry-eyed utopia” serves a different master than some would prefer us to believe –

Unusually among modernist artists, this supposed purveyor of nihilism was a militant of the left rather than the right. A champion of the ambiguous and indeterminate, his fragmentary, provisional art is supremely anti-totalitarian. It is also an art born in the shadow of Auschwitz, which keeps faith with silence and terror by paring its language, characters and narrative almost to vanishing point. It is the writing of a man who understood that sober, bleak-eyed realism serves the cause of human emancipation more faithfully than starry-eyed utopia.

,

  • Jacko 92

    A lovely piece.
    Closer to the mark, I think, than many.
    His pared down writing, I have always felt, is similar in style to that of Orwell.
    Amongst the wonderful essays in Orwell’s, Why I Write, is his argument for just such a style.
    The piece is lovely, not least, for the allusion to the difficulties for Beckett and others in being southern Irish Protestants at that time and how much this may have informed his art.
    As well as a reminder that we are such bloody idiots (all of us) in this part of the world.

  • Brian Boru

    This is so biased against the South. It resurrects the myth of mass-pogroms against Southern Protestants in spite of a drought of evidence of this. Undoubtedly many left from 1911-26, but the British were firmly in control of the country before 1919 and the vast majority who left did so by choice i.e. to stay in the UK. Many Southern Protestants have served in Irish government whereas only 1 Catholic served in a Northern govt and that an Attorney General in the 20’s. It is important also to note that in so far as these “big house burnings” happened it was largely in the Civil War and by the Anti-Treaty IRA and not the government. In that context, calling us a “triumphalist Catholic state” is completely unfair. I accept we became a Catholic state in the sense of social teaching of the church being enshrined in law (in the 30s), but this could not be said about the 20’s and we were not triumphalistic.

  • George

    Here’s Tom McGurk’s piece on Beckett from the Sunday Business Post, which naturally is in a slightly different vein:

    http://www.sbpost.ie/post/pages/p/wholestory.aspx-qqqt=INSIDE STORY-qqqs=agenda-qqqsectionid=3-qqqc=10.1.0.0-qqqn=1-qqqx=1.asp

    Apparently, his father’s first love was the daughter of William Martin Murphy of Dublin lockout and Irish Independent fame.

  • Jacko 92

    I am going to stick with Beckett on this thread despite the temptation to describe in detail the theocratic state the republic for a long time was.
    And I am not even going to mention Fethard-on-Sea, Noel Browne or the Archbishop of Dublin.

    Let’s just stick with an immense artist of whom we all should be proud.

  • Pete Baker

    Not that different a vein, George –

    Beckett found himself increasingly estranged in post-Civil War Ireland, where any dreams of an ideal republic were quickly dispelled by the deeply conservative class who took control after the revolution.

    Along with political conservatism came an increasingly powerful current of anti-intellectualism. Catholic ethics dominated, film and literary censorship were imposed and the ruling classes, still frightened by the excesses of the Civil War, retreated behind a hastily erected barricade of Gaelic autocracy.

  • Stephen Copeland

    As Anglo-Irish Big Houses were burnt by Republicans during the war of independence, many Protestants fled to the Home Counties.

    I’d say that about 0.1% of southern Protestants had ‘big houses’, and the vast majority of them staying in the country. Becket’s family did not have a ‘big house’, so to even bring this issue into the article smells a bit fishy. Another example of media bias?

    Back on topic, though, I do accept the idea that being slightly different to the mainstream can sharpen your creative abilities. It is perhaps for that reason that such a high proportion of the ‘great Irish writers’ were Protestant, and none of them were from the north!

  • Jacko 92

    Stephen Copeland
    “It is perhaps for that reason that such a high proportion of the ‘great Irish writers’ were Protestant, and none of them were from the north!”

    That’s my suspicion that CS Lewis might have hailed from east Belfast out the window then.
    Ditto the great poet, Michael Longley – it’ll probably turn out he isn’t even Irish never mind from Northern Ireland.

    Like just so much untermenschen, it would seem that Northern Protestants have no redeeming features at all.
    Thank God, at least, for the non-sectarianism of many of the non-Protestants who post on this site.
    What would we do without them!

  • Stephen Copeland

    Jacko 92,

    That’s my suspicion that CS Lewis might have hailed from east Belfast out the window then.
    Ditto the great poet, Michael Longley – it’ll probably turn out he isn’t even Irish never mind from Northern Ireland.

    The inverted commas around my ‘great Irish writers’ thing should have given it away – I was quoting from the poster in my wall. There are 12 writers on it, of which 6 Protestant, and all from the south. For what its worth, Séamus Heaney also isn’t on it. Maybe cos he isn’t dead yet?

    CS Lewis is good, but is he ‘great’?

    As for Longley, frankly, I don’t know him. Tell me what he has done, which prizes he has won, and how world-wide he is known …

  • Jacko 92

    Stephen
    You’ll forgive me for not knowing about the poster on your wall.
    I don’t particularly think CS Lewis is “great” either, but many, many people do. Especially in North America where the religious symbolism has always played well.

    Michael Longley (husband of Edna, incidentally) is a renowned poet who has won many prizes for his work. Some reckon him to be better than Heaney but then, at that level, it comes down to personal taste. Give him a whirl on the internet to find out more.

  • George

    Pete,
    same vein in saying he was uncomfortable in the state created by the post Civil War Republic maybe but missing the implied ingredient of fear playing a role in his decision-making.

    I think it’s a bit of a long stretch to associate Foxrock (the most upmarket address in Dublin) with the concerns of the landed aristocracy and the big house burnings in isolated rural Ireland. They were different worlds.

    If anything, I would say rural southern Protestants would have had an antipathy towards the apathy of many of their well-healed Dublin brethren for who life went on and little changed.

    I don’t know of his family ever considering leaving Dublin for example.

  • Stephen Copeland

    I have done a quick and dirty analysis of the Booker Prize winners and short-listed since 1969, and the results are interesting in terms of Irish religious background.

    There are precisely no northern Prods that I am aware of (but would be delighted to be corrected), whereas there are some northern Catholics;

    1997 Bernard MacLaverty
    1996 Séamus Deane
    1990, 1987, 1976 Brian Moore

    There are lots of southerners, mostly Prods. In 1970 half the shortlist was southern Prod!

    William Trevor, Iris Murdoch, Molly Keane, Jennifer Johnston and Elizabeth Bowen all appear, often several times.

    Other southerners of various religions and none, shortlisted or winning, include Roddy Doyle, John Banville, John McGahern, Julia O Faolain and Pat McCabe.

    No CS Lewis, no Michael Longley.

  • Jacko 92

    Stephen

    No matter the subject, it never takes us long to revert to the default mode of religion/politics does it?
    The point you are making then, I presume, is that the theocratic nature of the south and the outsider position of southern Prods made for a heightened level of creativity and/or artistic expression and output from that quarter.
    Sean O’Casey being another example you could have mentioned.

    I have no quarrel with that.
    Or the reverse case being made for Catholics in Northern Ireland, for that matter.
    This phenomenon regarding the marginalised is not unknown in many other societies around the world, particularly in the fields of both arts and sport.

    If for no other reason than to find out who Michael Longley is, did you run a search on him?

  • Jacko 92

    What is manifest as well, is how clued in we are to each artists religious background.
    That says something about us all.
    In normal circumstamces, we would neither know nor care.

  • Stephen Copeland

    Jacko 92,

    It is not me who is making the point you are referring to. It is the topic of this thread! See Pete Baker’s intro above:

    … that Beckett should be read with an eye on the historical context of his life and work, that is “not some timeless spirit but a southern Irish Protestant, part of a besieged minority of cultural aliens caught uneasily within a triumphalistic Catholic Free State.”

    The point I am making is that there are quite a few other examples of the ‘context’ referred to. I listed only Booker Prize winners, but of course there aare others. My poster includes O’Casey, Shaw, Wilde, Beckett himself, Goldsmith and Swift. It could have included Yeats, Edgeworth, Lefanu, Stoker, and many others.

    The fact that three northern Catholics have been shortlisted for the Booker prize tends towards agreeing with the argument that being a minority sharpens your creativity, and the lack of northern Protestants does not offer any counter-argument.

  • TAFKABO

    It’s an interesting analysis that one finds themselves instinctively agreeing with, except, I can’t help but wonder about the working class protestant community in the north, whom I consider to have been pretty marginalised.
    Where are the great artists from there?

    If it wasn’t for this bloody false consciousness, I’d probably have the Booker by now….

  • Jacko 92

    Yes, except the point I make is how readily we can rhyme off the religious background of all the other writers says more about us than them.

  • Stephen Copeland

    We can rythme off the religion of everyone we know, Jacko 92. That is the nature of the country. It is not necessarily a bad thing, it only becomes one if you use that information to their detriment.

    In some cases the religion of the writer is reflected very strongly in their work, and gives their work added depth. In other cases it is entirely irrelevant. Indeed, in some cases we may be wrong about someones (perceived) religion.

    TAFKABO,

    .. I can’t help but wonder about the working class protestant community …

    What about the UDA’s favourite playwright, Gary Mitchell?

  • Jacko 92

    “We can rythme off the religion of everyone we know … That is the nature of the country.”

    Exactly the point I make – the nature of the country.

    Why should it matter?
    It says something when we are using it here to highlight the marginalised rising above their situation through the arts or whatever – as with the southern Protestant writers.
    The nature of the country, indeed.

  • Stephen Copeland

    Jacko 92,

    … the marginalised rising above their situation …

    ‘Rising above their station’ is hardly the correct phrase for the southern Protestants in question. Their ‘station’ was generally towards the top of the pile, both before and after independence. And their level of ‘marginalisation’ also didn’t change very much. They were amongst the (marginal) privileged before, and after.

    The only one who ‘rose above his station’ was Seán O’Casey, a real working class Dublin Prod. The rest were, are, and probably always will be, comfortable.

    My own class of southern Prods tends to be more like the northern Prods. We have produced relatively little in the way of literature or art, possibly because we never felt ourselves to be particularly different to the rest of the people around us – small farms and small businesses provided no great creative impulse. There are no Patrick Kavanaghs or Blasket Island writers amongst the small Protestant farmers of the south!

  • Mojo

    Ah! The irony of this thread.

  • Jacko 92

    “‘Rising above their station’”

    That is not the phrase I used.
    Protestants, whatever their station in life, were marginalised in the south after independence – there can be argument with that.
    As soon as independence was won it was ceded to the Catholic Church which encouraged and practised discrimination on a massive scale.

    I think “by keeping your head down” was the phrase used by many southern Protestants to describe how they managed.

    If you actually are a southern Prod – which I doubt very much – don’t confuse how things are now or the sentiments expressed in the proclamation, with the reality of how they were until fairly recently.

  • Brian Boru

    “That is not the phrase I used.
    Protestants, whatever their station in life, were marginalised in the south after independence – there can be argument with that.
    As soon as independence was won it was ceded to the Catholic Church which encouraged and practised discrimination on a massive scale.”

    Nonsense.

  • sebbo

    What an unpleasant thread!! There is widespread acceptance that:
    1. Beckett is great, a towering genius who (fill in your own bit here)
    2. Terry Eagleton’s marxist analysis is worthy of attention.
    It seems I am alone in thinking that Beckett is a con artist whose body of work consists of unformed scribblings. He tops my list of bogus geniuses – winning by a short head from your very own playboy, Synge.
    Perhaps Francis Fukuyama’s notion that history has ended hasn’t reached Ireland yet. Otherwise why would anyone take Eagleton’s blathering seriously. I see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone again. Lord preserve us.
    Sebbo

  • Rory

    What I’m getting here (correct me if I’m wrong, guys) is that a writer’s upbringing, religion, culture and class background might just influence his work. Thanks for sharing that with us guys I’m sure we would never have guessed otherwise.

    I also see that some guys have a fondness for some writers and not so much for others. Interesting.

    Anyone tried “Hetty the Hen (Book 2)”? Very formative on my early years. A seminal tome.

  • Jacko 92

    Nice to see Red Rory is feeling better.

    Brian Boru

    Your country was a narrow theocratic state until recently – no argument.
    Now maybe you like the idea of the Catholic Church dictating everything from medical practices to education and family issues: what books were permissable to read and what weren’t: what films could be watched and what couldn’t: what the state broadcaster could air and what it couldn’t.
    [edited Moderator] But most of us don’t.

    Maybe it just embarasses you.
    If so, tough, it happened.

  • Brian Boru

    Jacko I accept those things happened. I mean “nonsense” in the context of claiming there was “discrimination on a massive scale”. I have never denied that until recently the Church’s social teaching was enshrined in law and sometimes even the Constitution. But there was no sectarian oppression of non-Catholics. That is what I am saying.

  • ricardo

    This is the first time I’ve been back on this site in ages, and will be the last for another while. A topic about a great Irish writer, turned into a prods v taigs debate in about 10 posts.

    As Hamm remarks in endgame:

    ‘Ah the old questions, the old answers, there’s nothing like them!’

  • EWI

    Southern Protestants –

    Most Oppressed People Ever?

  • EWI

    Your country was a narrow theocratic state until recently – no argument.
    Now maybe you like the idea of the Catholic Church dictating everything from medical practices to education and family issues: what books were permissable to read and what weren’t: what films could be watched and what couldn’t: what the state broadcaster could air and what it couldn’t.

    Jacko92, let me introduce you to an old acquaintance of mine; Big Ian.

  • EWI

    A topic about a great Irish writer, turned into a prods v taigs debate in about 10 posts.

    What do you expect, given the political slant put on the original post? Sheesh.

  • Pete Baker

    EWI

    “What do you expect, given the political slant put on the original post? Sheesh”

    I realise that the use of a direct quote from the article may be construed as putting a political slant on the post.. but if you, and possibly some other commenters, read either all the extracts provided or, indeed, the original article by Terry Eagleton, then you’ll see that the starting point for the influences on Beckett’s style, as argued by Terry Eagleton, was his experience as a southern Irish Protestant, but that Beckett’s experiences in France before, during and after the Second World War were also major contributing factors.

  • DK

    “I realise that the use of a direct quote from the article may be construed as putting a political slant on the post.. but if you, and possibly some other commenters, read either all the extracts provided or, indeed, the original article by Terry Eagleton, then you’ll see that the starting point for the influences on Beckett’s style, as argued by Terry Eagleton, was his experience as a southern Irish Protestant, but that Beckett’s experiences in France before, during and after the Second World War were also major contributing factors”

    Ah, but the French are Catholics too!!!!

    I’ve never read any Beckett. Is he any good, or is he like Joyce – supposedly good, but impossible for the layperson to read?

  • Stephen Copeland

    DK,

    I’ve never read any Beckett. Is he any good, or is he like Joyce – supposedly good, but impossible for the layperson to read?

    I’m not an expert, but I like what I like. I have only read a little Beckett, but I liked it – ‘Murphy’ still stays in my memory. Joyce is not so hard to read – he got a lot of bad press on account of Finnegan’s Wake, which is virtually impenetrable, but his other works are easy to read. For Ulysses though, I really think you need to know Dublin in order to appreciate it. I don’t know how come its gotten to be so big in e.g. the US.

  • foreign correspondent

    I have only seen two of Beckett´s shorter plays (translated into Irish, and why not!) and they were alright. I did read a fascinating (to me) biography of the man by Anthony Cronin.
    As for Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is not impenetrable, and in fact it´s brilliant. Ulysses is much harder going and I haven´t made much progress in it.
    I wonder what Beckett would think of this thread? Would he despair of the Irish or maybe think it was funny even?

  • TAFKABO

    Ah, but the French are Catholics too!!!!

    The majority of French people may be Catholic, but the state is positively secular.
    Ask almost any French person and they will tell you that the seperation of church and state is an important part of their sense of being French.

  • Rory

    So, let me see if I’ve got this right, Ulster protestants have not produced any worthwhile literature because they have not been sufficiently oppressed. Well at least that’s another grievance to add to the steadily expanding list and can only help with the inspiration.

    Sam Thompson, the playwright and Sam Hannah-Bell, writer and broadcaster seemed to manage alright without feeling hard done by, what’s wrong with these young fella prods these days, I ask myself?

  • Dk

    They’re all into music. Lots of NI prod musicians, starting with Van Morrison, wavering through Ash and the Therapy to the Divine Comedy and a couple of DJs (Fergie and Mark Holmes?). Same in the South where they are all Catholic: U2, Coors, Westlife/Boyzone, etc.

  • Stephen Copeland

    Rory,

    let me see if I’ve got this right, Ulster protestants have not produced any worthwhile literature because they have not been sufficiently oppressed.

    No. You’ve got it wrong.

    Oppression doesn’t come into it (except in loyalist fantasies). It seems to be more related to ‘otherness’, in the Irish context at least. The southern Protestant writers were most definitely not ‘oppressed’, yet seem to have produced a disproportionate amount of world-class literature. Many of them came from what is known as the ‘Anglo-Irish’ section of society, i.e. the rich aand privileged, and maybe this helped their creativity – the fact that they had the time aand the money to indulge their interests while other people (Protestant and Catholic alike) spent their time working hard for a living. Who knows? But if you read the writings of any of the people in question you will not find a single trace of ‘oppression’.

  • Stephen Copeland

    DK,

    … Same in the South where they are all Catholic: U2, Coors, Westlife/Boyzone, etc.

    I can’t speak for the Corrs or the boybands, but U2 are 50% Protestant!

  • Nathan

    “For another, he was not some timeless spirit but a southern Irish Protestant, part of a besieged minority of cultural aliens caught uneasily within a triumphalistic Catholic Free State”

    Beckett was indeed a cultural alien, but that had nothing whatsoever to do with his religious affliations as he was an deviant within the southern protestant community also.

    Indeed, unlike most of the southern protestant community back then, Beckett had a preference for creativity over conformity. As a result, writers like himself were subject to supression for a long time by the Irish ruling class, more thoroughly than any imperial power could ever hope to achieve.

    Anglo-Irish Big Houses were burnt by Republicans during the war of independence, many Protestants fled to the Home Counties. The paranoia, chronic insecurity and self-conscious marginality of Beckett’s work make a good deal more sense in this light”

    Oh dear, it seems Mr Eagleton has pandered to the prevailing One Southern Protestant People myth on this occasion.

    Beckett was a city-dwelling Irish Anglican, so he would have been worlds apart from the aristocratic class in the rural areas, who fell victim to the Republican insurgency in the 1920s.

    Indeed, Cooldrinagh, which was once upon a time the Beckett family’s private residence, is still standing in Foxrock. Thats alot more than can be said for those aristocratic residences in the rural areas, which were burned to the ground in the 1920s.

  • lib2016

    Why do the people who support a party founded and led by clerics in order to tie us into dependence on a foreign country who’s government is struggling to modernise and detach itself from a state church imagine that we should be embarrassed by our connections with a secular republic?

  • Stephen Copeland

    Nathan,

    Thats alot more than can be said for those aristocratic residences in the rural areas, which were burned to the ground in the 1920s.

    You’re peddling your own myth there! A number of big houses were burnt, that I do not doubt, but what proportion? There still seem to be a hell of a lot. I can only talk with certainty about my own corner of the country (my own county plus neighbouring bits of others), and in it all of the big houses are still standing, mostly with their original families still in residence. Those that have changed hands have done so for economic reasons, not political.

  • Nathan

    Stephen,

    A number of big houses were burnt, that I do not doubt, but what proportion?

    I haven’t the faintest idea – other than the fact that it goes into double figures.

    The only casualty I know is Cappoquin House, Co. Waterford, which was burnt down not during the War of Independence, but the civil war which followed.

    It made sense for the IRA to target this particular house because the occupant, Sir John Keane, was nominated for the Free State Senate.

    Generous compo followed, however, and the house was rebuild over a 10 year period. So unlike alot of the ascendancy class, the Keane family stayed put.

    The same cannot be said for other aristocrats, who ran off to the Home Counties, as pointed out by Eagleton.

  • Rory

    Well, Stephen Copeland, if “otherness” is what it takes then we must eagerly await an outpouring of great literature from the Ulster protestant/unionist people, for it can be truly said there are none other like them them under the sun.

    Perhaps when the Assembly executive is up and running a bursary can be established to aid all this budding genius to bring its gems to fruition.
    I can hardly wait to read the results.

  • Jacko 92

    “Well, Stephen Copeland, if “otherness” is what it takes then we must eagerly await an outpouring of great literature from the Ulster protestant/unionist people, for it can be truly said there are none other like them them under the sun.”

    This nasty, snide, little remark, denigrating in one fell swoop an entire people, from someone who would puport to be socialist.
    Who nearly had kittens at the supposed “racial” and religious “denigration” of Muslims by the reprinting of a few cartoons in The Blanket.
    Who probably has never been capable of writing more than a coherent paragraph or two in his entire life.

    Such elitism and raw bigotry lying just below the surface – you should be pitied.

  • Rory

    I fear you have misread my comments, Jacko. You also seem to attribute remarks and opinions to me that do not not belong. Perhaps you confusedly lump together the whole jumble of contributions to a thread with which you disagree. Perfectly understandable, anger does that sometimes.

    What does “#######” mean, please? Is it an attempt to configure a Chinese expression by way of the western keyboard? Please enlighten me, I lack sophistication in these matters.

  • Jacko 92

    Red Rory

    I am anything but angry at you.
    Quite delighted in fact that despite your previous pretensions you couldn’t resist showing yourself up for the vile little sectarian your really are.

  • Pete Baker

    That’s enough playing the man on this thread!

    There was a ball around here somewhere.. let’s see if we can find it again.

  • foreign correspondent

    And the pointless infighting continues. With the levels of aggression and pettiness on display here you´d think you were all literary critics or something 🙂
    More literary criticism and less sh··· talking, please.

  • Des

    From my experience of living in the south, particularly the depressed country areas and my adventures amongst the Irish in London, it is not clever Prods who feel alienated and unwanted, it is clever anybody! Anyone who is partial to the finer stuff of life, in music, art, literature or even food and drink or even the choice of one’s friends will sooner rather than later be deemed an outsider.