Troubled waters and pre-electric men

THE LIVING STREAM: Literature and Revisionism in Ireland by Edna Longley, Bloodaxe £24/£9.95
Click to follow
THE "living stream" in Edna Longley's essays is, by implication, the current of eclecticism and interrogation which runs through much of modern Irish life, north and south; but, as in Yeats's great image from "Easter 1916", it is "troubled" by th e essentialist stone of rigid and fanatic beliefs, obdurately stuck in the midst of the flow. Longley has set herself to nail the self-delusion and self-pity that lies behind political postures masquerading as cultural commentary - with a particular miss ion toexpose the pathos of British fellow-travellers, seeking in old-style Irish nationalism balm for their bruised political credos.

She has earned the right, and no one does it better. Herself from a "mixed" background in the Dublin intelligentsia (Protestant-Catholic, Trinity College, friends of de Valera), she has long lived in Belfast and wields her critical scalpel from a Chair of English at Queen's; she is also a founder of the rewarding Hewitt Summer School on the Antrim coast, and an influential commentator at large on Irish cultural confusions. She relishes calling a spade a spade, whatever foot is using it to dig with (she is prepared, for instance, to remark that flat-earth nationalist historians seem as keen to fight the Reformation as "revisionism"). Her own perspective looks two ways: she is at once sensitised to the northern feeling of being dismissed as a cause of embarrassment to the south, and sharply aware of the im-patience felt by younger southern writers at the pieties of the "pre-electric men" (Colm Tibn's phrase) who deduce consoling agendas from discredited nationalist shibboleths.

These essays cover a broad range of current controversies, and provide - inter alia - a striking analysis of the Republic's literary culture as divided between Bolgerism (urban-demotic, anti-hierarchical) and Banvillism (metafictional self-consciousness,polished to perfection). Chiefly, though, the collection is dominated by Ulster poetry and fiction over the last 50-odd years. Longley dislikes monoliths, and is preoccupied by the refusal of some critics to recognise (let alone appreciate) specific achievements of northern literature. Certain statements have rankled particularly: Seamus Deane's condemnation of Yeats for being infected with the "pathology of literary unionism" is one, and another must be the traditional nationalist statement, parrotedagain recently in the Guardian, that Ulster Protestant culture has produced little of literary merit. Literary commissars of this kind dismiss "liberalism" and "pluralism" as irrelevant buzz-words, but Longley notes that those very qualities have been th e necessary precondition of feminism's late but spectacular growth in the Republic.

This reflects a particular interest, and the interaction between a new kind of national identity and the rejection of old modes of patriarchalism lies behind her brilliant essay about feminism and nationalism, "From Cathleen to Anorexia". It is a major statement, mercilessly eviscerating those who try to ingratiate themselves all round by combining old-style republicanism with right-on feminism. She has some grim fun with Spare Rib's "Irish issue" of 1989, and her own roll-call of patriarchs is telling:"Carson, Moses, Paisley the `Big Man' (compare Dev the `Long Fellow', the Pope, the Boss). And the whole country abounds in Ancient Orders of Hibernian Male-Bonding: lodges, brotherhoods, priesthoods, hierarchies, sodalities, kn ights, Fitzwilliam Tennis Club, Field Day Theatre Company."

In dealing with writers, her own predilection is for those who evade political (and politically correct) labelling, with the subtlety of Louis MacNeice, the scrupulousness of John Hewitt and the elegance of Paul Muldoon. Like W J McCormack in his recent From Burke to Beckett, she sees E P Thompson's celebrated stance against Althusserian theory as an inspiration for critics trying to make sense of Ireland against kneejerk responses. Her own approach is literary-historical rather than theoretical, and rich in laconic insights; but her northern radar-scanner picks up patterns outside the usual frame, such as the connections between left-wing politics and Ulster Protestant writers, the relationship of the latter to post-Independenc e nationalism, or even the aesthetic influence on MacNeice of Anthony Blunt. At the same time, she strips away perceived fudges or implicit assumptions. But Occam's razor may not always do justice to writers trying to strike a difficult balance between i nherited attitudes andpersonal independence, and there is much here that is not intended to make her popular. She would see this as the worthwhile price of eternal vigilance, and it would be hard to read these uncompromising and exhilarating essays with out agreeing.