“What is proper to a culture is to not be identical to itself..”

In today’s Irish Times, Paul Gillespie delves into the background of the “through-otherness” referenced in Martin McGuinness’s speech on Tuesday. He cites the poet WR Rodgers as Heaney’s earlier source of the phrase before identifying a remark by the late Jacques Derrida on culture to frame the challenge faced by any “airtight, impermeable, homogenous, self-identical identity” – “What is proper to a culture is to not be identical to itself..” [subs req] Whether the consociational assembly will help or hinder any move in that direction is left as an open question..From the Irish Times [subs req]

Heaney draws the phrase from a poem by WR Rodgers called Armagh that begins: “There is a through-otherness about Armagh/ Of tower and steeple,/ Up on the hill are the arguing graves of the kings/ And below are the people.”

Rodgers’s father was of indigenous Irish stock and his mother of Scottish planter ancestry. He was working as a BBC producer in London when the poem was published in 1951, but had previously been a Presbyterian minister in Loughgall. He made the shift after John Hewitt lent him some contemporary poetry.

Heaney recalls that when a former parishioner asked why he had abandoned the ministry in which he had been so talented, Rodgers is supposed to have replied: “Ah well, too many books spoil the cloth”.

In his lecture at the University of Aberdeen in 2001, entitled Through-Other Places, Through-Other Times: The Irish Poet and Britain , Heaney suggests that in Rodgers’s life, “there is something analogous to the triple heritage of Irish, Scottish and English traditions that compound and complicate the cultural and political life of contemporary Ulster”. But for Rodgers, it “wasn’t a question of the otherness of any part of his inheritance, more a recognition of the through-otherness of all of them”.

And on Derrida

In his study of Seamus Heaney’s work, Eugene O’Brien examines the intellectual background to his thinking about identity. Otherness has been central to the thought of French philosophers Emmanuel Lévinas and Jacques Derrida in the 20th century, and these influence Heaney’s criticism and poetry.

Derrida famously remarked in his 1992 essay on Europe that: ” What is proper to a culture is to not be identical to itself . . . There is no culture or cultural identity without this difference with itself .” He goes on to say that “a culture never has a single origin. Monogenealogy would always be a mystification in the history of culture.”

In a later work he distinguishes between “an airtight, impermeable, homogenous, self-identical identity”, as against a “porous and heterogeneous identity that differs with itself”.

From McGuinness to Derrida is a long journey; but it is fair to ask Sinn Féin and the DUP whether they can make the transition from their politically rooted monogenealogy to a through-otherness in which their respective heterogeneities would be more mutually recognised.

It’s also worthwhile pointing out that there is another through-otherness to be acknowlegded.. and it’s one that John Hewitt, and others, clearly identified.

“Firstly, I am an Ulsterman steeped in the traditions of this place. Secondly, I am Irish, of this Ireland. Thirdly, I am British, and finally, in a more diffuse way, I am European. It may make it easier for you to understand if you remove one of those elements but if you do you are no longer describing who I am.”