A literary odyssey

  • 8 August 2007
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Richard Kearney's latest work, Navigations, is a fascinating examination of the Irish literary and artistic landscape that reveals something of the psyche of modern Ireland.
History records that in ancient and medieval Ireland it was common for those who aspired to become scholars to undertake a sea journey in order to reach a higher level of understanding. The student would open the sails of their primitive wooden craft and allow the four winds to carry them away, out into the unknown. Only when they had finished a complete circle of the island and borne witness to everything from the most tranquil waters to the deadliest storms would they consider themselves ready to return to land to reckon with the great, immortal questions of existence. Such a sea journey was known as a navigation.

Reflecting on his thirty year career as one of this country's leading philosophers, poets, political thinkers and cultural commentators, Richard Kearney now believes that his own mind has, in a figurative sense, lately completed a voyage similar to that embarked upon by the early celtic scholars. It is in their honour, and in the spirit of their rigourous thought, that Kearney has christened this immense collection of his Irish essays Navigations.

Navigations contains a lifetime's worth of deeply considered writings on the direction of contemporary Irish culture, the new Ireland created by the peace process and the historical development of a uniquely Irish intellectual character. Entire chapters are devoted to Yeats, Joyce, Beckett and Irish drama. Elsewhere there are discussions of Irish cinema, visual art and a set of dialogues with some of the architects of modern Ireland. In fact, Navigations is so comprehensive a collection that it is impossible to think of an important subject, figure or debate that Kearney has forgotten.

The essays in Navigations cover much apparently unconnected ground. Looking back on them as a whole, Kearney has come to appreciate a context common to all of his topics. This is the choice between revivalism and modernism that the Irish people were first presented with at the turn of the last century. In Kearney's view, every development that has occurred since then is, in some way, an attempt either to return to, or to escape from, the traditions of the past. Kearney calls these different forms of development narratives and he explains that 'every cultural narrative - be it a poem, play, painting, film, novel or political discourse is a reinterpretation of history, an attempt to recall the story of the past as it relates to the present.' Navigations is therefore a survey of the dominant narratives that have shaped Irish life in the past 100 years.

Politics is Kearney's first narrative. In 'Towards a Postnationalist Archipelago', a major essay from the year 2000, he observes how the ratification of the Belfast Agreement put an end to the old notions of 'exclusive' British and Irish national identities. Kearney now envisions a situation in which nations can no longer see themselves as 'pristine' territories and must inevitably 'embrace a process of hybridization.' He follows this with essays on the mythic origins of the cult of martyrdom, the changing position of the Church in society and the influence of the many Irish cultural journals, such as The Bell. Finally, Kearney gives us an ingenious and wonderfully erudite portrait of the qualities peculiar to the native intellect in 'The Irish Mind Debate', which takes into consideration such historical personages as St Columbanus, John Scotus Eriugena, Bishop Berkeley, Oliver Goldsmith, Jonathan Swift, Edmund Burke and Oscar Wilde.

This essay is fine preparation for the second section: literary narratives. Here poetry is represented by essays on W.B. Yeats and Seamus Heaney, while Francis Stuart is one of several literary experimentalists assessed in 'A Crisis of Fiction'. The main attractions however are a trio of outstanding essays on James Joyce, including a revelatory one on Joyce's concept of epiphanies as it appears in Ulysses, and two others on Samuel Beckett. Beckett criticism is currently one of the most crowded arenas imaginable but Kearney's contributions, drawing on all of Beckett's works from More Pricks Than Kicks, Watt and The Trilogy to How It Is, The Lost Ones and Texts For Nothing, are of the very highest standard of scholarship. Drama is Kearney's subject in section three, which focuses on the plays of Brian Friel and Tom Murphy. Here Kearney is once again not content to probe the minutia of his subject's work but displays a fearless determination to ask only the big questions, such as how and why these texts were written and what they have suceeded in telling us about ourselves.

Neither is Kearney one to impose restrictions on his interests. Just as the narrative can take any form so the philosopher can have any guise. In the fourth section he temporarily turns his attention away from history, literature and drama to the visual arts. This chapter contains a powerful essay on the significance of the New York Famine Memorial, and looks at the witty games being played with our sensibilities when we look at Robert Ballagh's brilliantly original paintings. Taking a central place in this section is 'An Art of Otherness'. This is a fascinating study of how artist Louis le Brocquy has used white paint to create a sense of spiritual dislocation in his work, from the starkly poetic and allegorical depictions of strange, skeletal, primordial figures and traveller families that he concentrated on in the 40s, 50s and 60s through to his famous series of ancestral heads. Anne Madden, le Brocquy's wife and fellow painter, also discusses her distinctive artwork with Kearney at a later point in the book.

Kearney rounds off this collection in style with a set of interviews and dialogues, including the entertaining transcript of a discussion group featuring rough contemporaries Bono, Paul Durcan, Neil Jordan and Robert Ballagh once more, who together share their personal experiences of what it is to have an Irish identity. Navigations is a collection that Richard Kearney has every reason to be proud of. The wealth of ideas it contains is vast indeed. In Navigations Kearney does what only the finest philosophers before him have achieved. He has, with great eloquence, clarity and passion, shed light on our human search for meaning.