“through autobiography, through creative writing, through self-presentation”

On Will Crawley meets.. Roy Foster, repeated last night, the discussion mostly centred on the topic of whether it is possible to write a neutral history of Ireland. There’s more in there and, if you missed it, it’s worth a look – still available online here. And Roy Foster had an interesting line on what he learned in his study of WB Yeats, which resulted in a two volume biography – his previous comments on that subject were noted here. From the programme [Direct link to quote 11min 13 sec in]

“The longer I live and the more I read and, I suppose, the more I write, the more contingency and accident seem to me important and decisive. And it’s a way in which, I think – I’m a biographer as well as a historian – so I think that immersing yourself in individual lives can bring you up with a jolt. Especially if you write about someone like WB Yeats, as I have written about, who determined to put a shape on his life retrospectively which would look like a marvellously, almost inevitably, unfolding pattern – which his astrological, occult and supernatural interests also helped to dictate. But when you re-assemble someone’s life as it happened day to day, and spend nearly twenty years doing it as I did with Yeats, you do become continually brought up against facts of contingency and also the extremely devious way in which a very brilliant person can, through autobiography, through creative writing, through self-presentation, put a shape on their life that, I believe, wasn’t inevitably destined from the beginning. And, as for the individual life, so, in many ways, for the national life or lives.”

That’s probably also applicable to other less brilliant subjects..

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  • Skintown Lad

    Tis true, that. The inherent inconsistencies within each of us indicates how flawed is our desire to stereotype groups. And we have stronger belief in those narratives of history and social comment that we find easiest to understand, often to the exclusion of a truth that is too complicated to express and therefore does not get aired.

  • Itwas SammyMcNally whatdoneit

    I’m a big fan of Mr Foster, but he does at times fail to separate the wood of his own arguements from the trees of his own ideological position.

  • Greenflag

    “The longer I live and the more I read and, I suppose, the more I write, the more contingency and accident seem to me important and decisive.’

    Malcolm Gladwell says more or less the same in his recent book ‘Outliers’

    Shure we all know that if Gerry Adams had been born as say Isaac Rotschild or Lord Caernavon he’d never have ended up behind a bar or bars in Belfast . And we also know that had he been born a prod he’d have joined the UVF or UDA . And vice versa for Glen Barr and McMicheal and others .

    Who ever would’ve thunk it 😉

    While it’s true that nothing is destined in life don’t expect any Calvinist to believe that credo . They know for a cert that we have all been predestined for the pair of wings on a cloud or the skewered piece of roast. This unhappy juxtaposition is decided by the eh ‘grace ‘ of God and of course one’s particular religious denomination .

    Skintown lad ,

    That’s very good -very deep

    Most of Ireland will be hoping for a happier contingency this evening as Fortuna descends to bestow her fortunes or favours on the men in green and or blue in the city of lights .

    A fickle lady she be too . You never know sometimes ;)?

  • jone

    Can I recommend this essay from Colm Toibin which describes Foster as ‘brilliant and courageous’ while also critiquing the ideology which informs his writing.

    Longish, but worth a look.


  • Framer

    “…the more contingency and accident seem to me important and decisive.”

    Don’t know about decisive but they are important and people who wrote a lot of letters seem careful to have their papers preserved so that history will interpret in their favour.

  • DerTer

    Jone, thanks for that connection to Colm Tobin’s piece – wonderful, disturbing, insightful and loaded with knowingness. Interested Sluggerites who haven’t followed your link to it, do so now! As for the TV programme, I enjoyed enormously two heavyweights engaging so fruitfully.

  • [i]“The longer I live and the more I read and, I suppose, the more I write, the more contingency and accident seem to me important and decisive. And it’s a way in which, I think – I’m a biographer as well as a historian – so I think that immersing yourself in individual lives can bring you up with a jolt..”[/i]

    To me, it’s a false dichotomy between contingency and larger structural phenomenon because without either you cannot explain anything. If you want to know why the First World War broke out you need to study the nature and development of Germany since unification, the structural changes in the economy during the recovery of the 1890s and the growth of imperialism. If you want to know how it broke out then you need to study the actors in the July Crisis. I am very much of the opinion that:

    “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.”

    We have to view the world and societies in totality because everything is inter-connected and ever-changing. We cannot reduce decisive historical phenomena to the whims of individuals in a crude form of ‘Great Man’ theory but nor can we view people wholly as passive agents of wider historical laws of motion.

    Foster may be reluctant to admit he has an ideological approach but his inherent political liberalism is nothing but an ideological construct through which he views history. I agree with Tobin that Foster and the revisionists were needed for the sake of Irish history. They were needed to puncture the myths of nationalist history and the teleological approach of those who viewed history through the prism of 1916. However, he is right to point out the political implications of this:

    “They never realised that they were justifying the new state, an Ireland cleansed of its history, which politicians had planned.”

    After all revolutions the revolutionary class, once in power, will deny its revolutionary inheritance and seek to present the status quo as something settled and incontestable. Thus is the political implications of historical writing both for perpetuating and demolishing this viewpoint. I am reminded on this point of a paragraph from Marx and Engel’s Manifesto of the Communist Party:

    “The selfish misconception that induces you to transform into eternal laws of nature and of reason, the social forms springing from your present mode of production and form of property – historical relations that rise and disappear in the progress of production – this misconception you share with every ruling class that has preceded you. What you see clearly in the case of ancient property, what you admit in the case of feudal property, you are of course forbidden to admit in the case of your own bourgeois form of property.”

    So, just as Foster and his generation of revisionist historians were of one particular age with one underlying political agenda, a new generation of historians have a task too; to revise the revisionists. I think Foster would agree if he is intellectually honest. Historians are in constant conversation with the past and with each other. To me the way ahead lies looking neither at the leaders of Irish nationalism nor in the sort of history which speaks of ‘mobs’ or seeks to nuance to the point of absolution the realities of colonialism, but on building up the volume of existing work on the ordinary people of history. I am thinking here of books like Liz Curtis’s the Cause of Ireland.

    I think too that Foster’s work is valuable in stressing the links between Ireland and Britain in a revised way. Whether or not he goes too far in one direction can obviously be contested and that is an argument which should be continue; but it is the fact that he did so and sought to put forward a revised thesis is what is important from my perspective. On that point, therefore, I would like to see more work on putting Ireland in a European perspective, putting the Easter Rising (and especially Connolly’s role in it) in the context of revolutionary unrest during WW1. Putting the Irish struggle against Britain after 1916 in the context of social movements in Russia, Germany, Hungary, Italy and other European countries, and asking what role the ‘national question’ had in altering the nature of its aims. Breaking down the social structure of Irish Republicanism after the Treaty and asking what, if any, links can be made between the Blueshirts and, say, right-wing Catholic Fascists organisations in Spain. To me, that would be an interesting endeavour and if anyone knows of any work along these lines I would really appreciate it.