Saturday, April 19, 2008

A Colder Eye

Our book today is A Colder Eye by Hugh Kenner, a rollicking exhumation, examination, and occasional exquisite extirpation of several modern Irish writers, from Lady Gregory to Yeats to Joyce to Flann O'Brien, and although Kenner was a scholar of gigantic erudition (he taught at Johns Hopkins for years and was a friend of Ezra Pound - indeed, thinking about Pound due to our last entry prompted us to think about Kenner's great book The Pound Era, which in turn drew us to our current subject), A Colder Eye is devilishly fun to read.

About which you probably shouldn't get us started; here at Stevereads, we hold an extremely dim view of the vast majority of writing coming out of academia (Kenner researched and wrote this book while at Hopkins), as being so minuscule and jargon-choked as hardly to constitute English. Scholars in any field should know better than anybody how to make their subjects interesting to the layman, since it's presumably greater enthusiasm for that subject that prompted them to study it in the first place. In scientists and statisticians and the like, some inability to convey their enthusiasms in ringing English might be expected and forgiven. But literature professors specialize in the very tools they should be able to use to share their passions with the non-specialist reading public. And yet, literature professors reliably produce the most impenetrably obscure prose of all, pouncing on trifles and nowhere even hinting that we read books because it's enjoyable to do so, or should be.

No so Kenner in A Colder Eye. Indeed, the worst part of writing about the book is resisting the temptation simply to string together a long list of quotes. We here at Stevereads shan't do that, even though it would be easy and we're pressed for time (Megmo the Eskimo is celebrating some sort of birthday this evening, and we've got to catch the next plane to Jackson Hole if we're going to make it in time to drink all the young people under the table). Instead, we'll skip the main course of Kenner's book and just serve you a couple of delectable side-dishes.

The main course, naturally, being his fantastic, penetrating analysis of the great Irish writers on whom he concentrates. Even in full-length individual studies, you'll scarcely anywhere find dissections of the works and careers of such figures as Samuel Beckett, Sean O'Casey, J. M. Synge and the like (all the giants of the Revival, and several of the wee folk as well) as you will in this book.

But it's a couple of side-dishes we'll spoon down for now, the first being the innumerable little gems of insight into the Irish literary mind and character Kenner sprinkles throughout his book. Reading along, you become more and more eager to encounter one of these, and they never disappoint:

A thing not clear to Yeats at all was the way his sense of poetic tradition, being English, pertained wholly to writing, hence to readers. Introspection, which was what he meant by "lyric," was the mauve flower of a pen-and-paper culture after many centuries of which a Shelley could write, "I arise from dreams of thee" and be talking to no one at all, needed have no one in mind at all, might be no more than conjuring up a mood with the help of first- and second-person pronouns. That is the act of a man accustomed, like most writers, to manipulating language while all alone.

But the mind of Ireland is held by the realities of talk, the most notable reality of which is the presence of others. If you were to say "I rise from dreams of thee" when there was no "thee" and you were not in your night-clothes, the chief thing you'd do is let people know you were daft.

Hee. Anybody who's ever had an Irish grandparent will recognize immediately the brutal truth of this, and maybe even feel a little sorry for poor Shelley.

Equally entertaining is Kenner's unfailing ability to unearth just the exact right amount of trivia to flesh out all the minor characters in his story, such as Oliver Gogarty, who was Joyce's real-life model for Buck Mulligan. Gogarty, Kenner informs us, was known throughout Dublin for his witticisms ("Of a surgeon enmired in a divorce case: 'He made his reputation with his knife and lost it with his fork'" ... "Of Eamon deValera: 'a cross between a corpse and a cormorant'"), and a small piece of his poetry is offered to the reader:

I will live in Ringsend
With a red-headed whore,
And the fan-light gone in
Where it lights the hall door;
And listen each night
for her querulous shout,
As at last she streels in
And the pubs empty out.
To soothe that wild breast
With my old-fangled songs,
Till she feels it redressed
From inordinate wrongs,
Imagined, outrageous,
Preposterous wrongs,
Till peace at last comes
Will be all I will do,
Where the little lamp blooms
Like a rose in the stew;
And up the back-garden
The sound comes to me
Of a lapsing, unsoilable,
Whispering sea.

And just when you think those lines border so closely and so persistently on doggerel that they must surely lack all merit for study, Kenner turns for a moment to study them - and takes you with him, and convinces:

The end of that compares well with any attempt to catch in English the sound of Homer's polyphloisboio thalasses ... Anapestic rhythm and adjectival accumulation - "imagined, outrageous, preposterous wrongs" - tells us that Gogarty's been reading Swinburne; other verses of his bespeak a straw-hatted classicism like Housman's or Hilair Belloc's . At his death The Lancet affirmed that his lyrics would be remembered "as long as there are men to quote them," which is true if you think about it.

Irish literature, being pretty consistently the best literature of the last two centuries, of course deserves continuous study and has continued to receive it, but even so, it's scarcely ever in its long and argumentative history had a colder eye turned upon it than Kenner's in this wonderful book ... and that it's an eye twinkling with perpetual humor just makes it all the more fitting. If you're already familiar with the various great figures Kenner tackles here, you'll find his arguments endlessly interesting. And if you're unfamiliar with the lay of this particular land, you could have no better guide to lead you through the mazes of fact, fiction, and that essential item in between, referred to hilariously by Kenner as "Irish facts."

We're smiling at that one, as we race to catch a plane to attend an Eskimo's birthday party ...


David Halitsky said...

Very much enjoyed your post, as well as the fact that you took the time to reprise Gogarty's poem.

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