BOOK REVIEW / The greatest Irishman who ever lived: The Great Melody: A Thematic Biography and Commented Anthology of Edmund Burke - Conor Cruise O'Brien: Sinclair-Stevenson pounds 22.50

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
SERIOUS READERS of history are in for a treat: a book by the greatest living Irishman on the greatest Irishman who ever lived. Conor Cruise O'Brien has been brooding on Edmund Burke for decades. First he worked on a narrative approach and came to a standstill, he knew not why. Then, in the light of much painful observation of the world and its wickedness, he turned to a thematic treatment, inspired by Yeats's elliptic lines: 'American colonies, Ireland, France and India / Harried, and Burke's great melody against it'. 'It', he decided, was the abuse of power. At once the apparent inconsistencies in Burke's political and moral crusades disapppeared, and O'Brien was able to bring the book into triumphant existence.

It is not the last word on Burke. That will never be written: the man and his mind are inexhaustible. But it is a powerful and penetrating word, a book which forces you to think hard. O'Brien is not afraid to quote Burke extensively: that is why he says his work is also a 'commented anthology'. How the luminous phrases ring out] 'Popularity is current coin or it is nothing.' 'I do not know the method of drawing up an indictment against an whole people.' 'Great men are the guide-posts and land-marks in the state.' 'Magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest wisdom; and a great empire and little minds go ill together.' There is much Burke here, and it has the effect, as it should, of whetting the appetite and turning one back to the full texts. But there is much of O'Brien also. That is appropriate too, for he is not only a formidable thinker in his own right, he is also a divided being who shares many of Burke's ambiguities, reservations and hidden difficulties about liberalism.

The move from the narrative to the thematic treatment was judicious: O'Brien's capacity to develop a subtle yet sinewy argument is his strongest card, as it was Burke's. He starts by a re-examination of Burke's childhood and early education. He shows that his father's conversion to Protestantism was reluctant and suspect, that Burke himself remained throughout his life a crypto-Catholic, at least in a residual emotional sense, even if his intellect enabled him to develop a robust Anglicanism. From this O'Brien is able to point to key silences and lacunae in Burke's handling of Ireland which speak almost as clearly as his words. He demonstrates that the strongest theme running through Burke's life, even if it did not often break the surface of his public actions, was his identification with the oppressed Catholic majority, seeing their treatment as flagrant injustice and the source of bottomless corruption.

This huge and lasting emotion enabled him, in turn, to grasp the strength of the colonists' case in America, to strive against the War of Independence, to take up the cause of the Indians of Bengal, and finally of an entire people, the French, in the merciless grip of a totalitarian revolution. As played by O'Brien, the Great Melody sweeps on relentlessly throughout Burke's career, taking in many sub-themes, notably his campaign against the corruption of the Crown. When Burke is inconsistent, he causes O'Brien, as he readily admits, deep pain; but even in these rare cases he is able to show that the master's concessions are tactical, not strategic. So Burke emerges as a moral giant on a world stage, as his contemporaries, and all the great minds of the 19th century, knew he was.

O'Brien's resurrection of Burke involves knocking down countless academic ninepins. Some are small fry. R W Johnson is demolished for writing, in 1989: 'Not surprisingly, Burke has always been ignored in France.' As O'Brien shows, this was not true at any time, and never less so than today: Burke is studied and revered by a wide spectrum of French intellectuals. But O'Brien's chief target is the cantankerous Lewis Namier and his slavish, second-rate followers. Namier believed he knew more about the 18th-century political system than the men who actually operated and fought it. For this perverse reason he needed to reduce Burke to insignificance, a hired Irish adventurer. Far from fighting the abuse of power, Burke is presented by Namier as an authoritarian. But O'Brien writes: 'The only way in which you can find Edmund Burke guilty of authoritarianism is by choosing to ignore everything he ever said, as a result of arbitrarily deciding that he didn't mean any of it.'

One might ask: what positive evidence is there that Namier ever read much of Burke? For it seems to me that you cannot take in a dozen pages of Burke without realising that the man was transparently sincere, as anyone who heard or read him at the time felt instinctively. Indeed the real case against Burke was quite the opposite to Namier's: far from being a careerist without beliefs, he was an obsessive. He refused to receive Fox on his deathbed not for personal reasons but because he feared it would be seen as an erosion of his principles. He was not merely a living obsessive but a posthumous one.

O'Brien thus has no difficulty in sweeping the Namierite detritus off the floor of English history, at least as far as Burke is concerned. He is able, indeed, to elevate Burke's importance in several key respects: as the reformer most responsible for the relaxation of the penal laws against Catholics, as the statesman who ended the war against America, and as the real architect, for better or for worse, of the Fox-North coalition. O'Brien is not always convincing. He overstates the case against Warren Hastings, just as he accuses Hasting's biographers of overstating the case for him. But even when he is least plausible, I read on with relish. In fact, O'Brien's account of the India battles is so good as to leave one astonished at the sheer richness of our political society in the last quarter of the 18th century: that, at a time of trial in Britain's affairs, two of her greatest talents, Burke and Hastings, should be locked in long and deadly conflict over the way to govern India - by enlightened realpolitik or perilous principle.

O'Brien's study is not merely a reconstruction of a fascinating man and period. It is also a tract for the times. For he presents Burke's writings against the French revolution as 'the first great act of intellectual resistance against the first great experiment in totalitarian innovation'. O'Brien's final section, in which he ties all the threads of the Great Melody together in one triumphant recapitulation, and his epilogue, which serves as a thundering coda to the whole work, is a superb piece of writing. It sets the collapse of communist rule, and the further horrors which may follow it, in an illuminating Burkeian perspective, and provides food for much thought. I cannot remember another time when I finished a book of more than 600 pages wishing it were longer.

Comments