Saturday, December 30, 2006

Eric Basso, deux livres

Eric Basso is a poet, novelist, playwright, and critic, born in Baltimore in 1947. His output is prodigious, though I had not read him until I received these two well-made books. Decompositions: Essays on Art & Literature, 1973-1989 (Leaping Dog Press / Asylum Arts Press, 2006, ISBN 1-878580-58-2) is exactly what its subtitle says it is, a collection of critical essays. Although “critical” is perhaps not the right word, because these are more along the lines of explorations of the subjects Basso chooses to discuss, his responses to them, rather than the sort of critical writing one would find in a review, for example. His prose is clean and readable, while exceedingly erudite.

Although he does not restrict himself, his main interests clearly lie with the French – Romantics, Symbolists, and moderns. Occasionally, I feared I would find myself lost. I am of course familiar with the likes of Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Paul Valéry, et al. But I must reluctantly admit that Villiers was merely a name to me, and de Nerval little more (de Nerval of the famous pet lobster). As for Jarry, I am again shamefully deficient: although I did once see a staging of an Irish-language version of Ubu Roi, I remember only a tiny bit of it. But not to worry, for Basso actually makes all this stuff accessible in the context of his essays. The pieces on de Nerval and the (English) Elizabethan playwright Cyril Tourneur I found particularly enlightening – the collection is certainly capable of broadening one’s scope. With the above, I would add that the piece on the painter Géricault (whose study of severed limbs graces Decompositions’ cover) is exceptional.

Basso occasionally verges into the philosophical, as in his discussion of Mallarmé’s courting of “Void”: “Thus we have the conscious mind, always at one remove from its core of being, able to conceive an idea of—but unable to know—itself, by such ignorance, reducing all notions of personal identity (which implies consistency) to a nebulous comedy of ever-changing masks.” But it is not always this...rarefied, and of course it was Mallarmé who became obsessed with nullity before his descendant Basso. And, while he sometimes appears to be in love with needless, antiquated diacritical marks (“rôle” for “role,” “reënter” for “reenter,” etc.) and a florid font style, he is able to convey the “abstract” concept relatively clearly and efficiently.

But for me personally, the best essays in Decompositions were the ones that took up writers I was more familiar with myself – Kafka, Céline – and I found Basso to be about as on the mark as anyone can be in his reading of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, certainly an arduous task for even the most knowledgeable Joycean. He makes a couple of possibly overlooked points here. One being that (referencing Harry Levin) the Wake is relatively poor in visual imagery, with the emphasis instead on its bizarre wordplay. Therefore, rather than the massive dream that some have proposed FW to be, Basso suggests something along the lines of “hypnagogic trance”: “Certainly, true dreams seem more coherent, if only to suspend our disbelief, to keep us sleeping in ignorance of a veiled chaos.” The implication is that the Wake is the “veiled chaos” revealed. Later in the essay he writes, “The elucid language of Finnegans Wake is the architectonic transmutation of culture, myth and romance on the grand scale, like the sacred books of the past...”

However, Basso is quite interested in dreams, and thus Revagations: A Book of Dreams, Volume I, 1966-1974 (Leaping Dog Press / Asylum Arts Press, 2006, 386 pp., ISBN 1-878580-57-4). It is hard to “review” a book of this nature. You are either interested in it, or you’re not. For some, the material of the subconscious will be worthy in and of itself; for others, the dreams of a stranger with whom one has no personal connection will seem boring. I myself am in the former camp, for the most part. Oddly, Basso’s dreams even reminded me of my own in places. His introduction draws heavily from the French – no surprise there, knowing his preoccupations now – with much discussion of Valéry’s, Victor Hugo’s, and de Nerval’s work, as well as that of the English Romantics like Shelley.

And here is a brief, interesting taste of Basso’s own nocturnal travels: “An old-neighborhood girl, whom I am to marry, is vacillating between me and two unknowns. She looks nothing like I remember her, much younger and far more attractive.... We walk down a cobblestone alley, near the back of St. Bernadine’s. The atmosphere gradually becomes more European. A pub, below street-level, at the end of the alley. I’m still wearing my baseball umpire’s cap and sunglasses. As we approach, Dan tells me to remove the sunglasses, that it is illegal to go incognito into a public gathering.... The pub is dark, crowded. Thick wooden tables heavily marked with graffiti, a cloud of smoke through which we see barmaids coming and going.... I hail one of the barmaids with a sweeping gesture: ‘Coke for everybody!’....”

I may have been there too one time.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Susanna Roxman, Imagining Seals

Susanna Roxman, a Scottish-Swedish poet, recently sent her book Imagining Seals (Dionysia Press, ISBN 1-903171-19-9). I guess in a nutshell I would say that it’s written in a straightforward, lyric style, with a partiality to Classical mythology (some of the poems deal with themes like Eurydice and Orpheus, Circe, etc.). But Roxman has an interesting voice and brings a certain originality to her work on the whole. For example, in “A Roman Officer in Winter Quarters,” a poem with historical subject matter, she gets psychological, using expressions such as “It’s like lying awake in darkness between two dreams about rage” and “An overwhelming winter moon / floods me with sleep-inducing water.” But for me, the more interesting pieces were the ones that presumably come from the author’s real life experience, say snapshots of Edinburgh on a rainy evening, cigarette butts, and empty beer bottles slowly filling with water (“Rain in Edinburgh”). Or “The Haunted Hut,” rendered in rather stark terms:

It looks like a TV set,
the deserted Lappic hut,
screen facing west

but walls covered with torn turf...

The couple of dream poems (one identified as such, one not) also stood out to me, but I have been known to appreciate subconscious materials at times. I have also written about seals myself, now that I think about it, so I should say something about the title poem, “Imagining Seals” (which can be read at the link). It might be true that “something otherworldly and weird / clings like wetsuits to these creatures” (I liked the ironic “wetsuit” description), and it is certainly true that seals have very expressive faces, which quite obviously reveal some kind of thought or emotion, making you wonder at the whole idea of sea mammals – it’s astounding sometimes, really, when you see them sticking their heads up out of the water by the shore, looking at you. What I didn’t like about the poem was the cliché of “Seals live effortlessly by lunar logic, / are psychic, understand cycles...” and are “serene and healing” and all that. Maybe they are, maybe they do, but this New-Agey sort of thing is played, big-time. At least the poem sort of saves itself with the oblique ending, “Mostly, though, your mind is not on seals.”

This varied collection is certainly worth a look, in any case. Apparently the publisher does not have a website yet. £6.50, Dionysia Press, 127 Milton Road West, 7 Duddingston House Courtyard, Edinburgh EH15 1JG, Scotland.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

A United Ireland, Pt. 2

Further to my previous post on the possibilities of a united Ireland, I recently read this Irish Times article about Ireland’s fast-growing census figures. If the predictions that the island will reach 8 million people in twenty years’ time (up from the present 5.5 million) is anywhere near correct, it makes planning for housing on an all-Ireland basis utterly necessary. There is apparently talk of creating a new metropolitan area out of Dundalk and Newry (which, for those who don’t know, are towns that are presently on opposite sides of the Border). Some kind of a united Ireland will really become a necessity as the population of the island of Ireland continues to grow. Economic and structural necessity means planning for housing (for one thing) on an all-Ireland basis.

The British government already recognizes the necessity of working closely with the Irish government on the North of Ireland. They have already stated outright that if the various political parties can’t agree to govern under the recent St Andrews Agreement (2006) for the implementation of the Belfast Agreement (a.k.a. Good Friday Agreement, 1998), that the two governments will forge ahead and implement the Agreement themselves. (This intent is specified in section 12 of St Andrews.) It is also quite possible that the two governments, without being hampered by wrangling with the parties, would be quite content to go even farther than the parties themselves can currently agree to amongst themselves. So in regard to the two governments’ position, a kernel of joint authority already exists, whether or not anyone wants to call it that. The principle of giving the Irish government a role in the governance of the North has long since been ceded by the British, and it certainly doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. Strand Two of the Agreement is all about North-South relationships. And whatever they call it in the short term, things will likely continue to move in the direction of closer North-South integration. A united Ireland might not come about in one dramatic fell swoop, as republicans had originally hoped, but in my opinion a united Ireland seems inevitable.

Deep down the British government might, one suspects, even prefer a united Ireland. Near the beginning of the Irish peace process they issued the Downing Street Declaration (15 December 1993), another joint statement with the Irish government. Section 4 of this Declaration reads, in part:

“The Prime Minister, on behalf of the British Government, reaffirms that they will uphold the democratic wish of the greater number of the people of Northern Ireland on the issue of whether they prefer to support the Union or a sovereign united Ireland. On this basis, he reiterates, on the behalf of the British Government, that they have no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland. Their primary interest is to see peace, stability and reconciliation established by agreement among all the people who inhabit the island, and they will work together with the Irish Government to achieve such an agreement, which will embrace the totality of relationships. The role of the British Government will be to encourage, facilitate and enable the achievement of such agreement over a period through a process of dialogue and co-operation based on full respect for the rights and identities of both traditions in Ireland. They accept that such agreement may, as of right, take the form of agreed structures for the island as a whole, including a united Ireland achieved by peaceful means on the following basis. The British Government agree that it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a united Ireland, if that is their wish. They reaffirm as a binding obligation that they will, for their part, introduce the necessary legislation to give effect to this, or equally to any measure of agreement on future relationships in Ireland which the people living in Ireland may themselves freely so determine without external impediment. They believe that the people of Britain would wish, in friendship to all sides, to enable the people of Ireland to reach agreement on how they may live together in harmony and in partnership, with respect for their diverse traditions, and with full recognition of the special links and the unique relationship which exist between the peoples of Britain and Ireland.”

Assuming we can take this at their word, it essentially means that the British position regarding the North of Ireland is now officially neutral, and that they will even help institute a united Ireland, as long as it is through consent. They specifically state that they have “no selfish strategic or economic interest” in holding on to the North, which pretty obviously shows that they see it in a different category to the rest of the U.K. They don’t, for example, go around making joint statements with the Irish about not having a “selfish strategic or economic interest” in England, Scotland, Wales, or Cornwall. And they also make a conspicuous distinction between “the people of Britain” and “the people of Ireland.” A British government source at the time interpreted the Downing Street Declaration as meaning, “We step back. We’re here for historical reasons but if the people of the island as a whole want to go in a different direction then we’ll accommodate that” (quoted in Brendan O’Brien, The Long War, Dublin: The O’Brien Press, 1995, pp. 299-300).

Current trends in the U.K. could soon impact the Irish situation as well. The Scottish independence movement is once again picking up pace, and a recent poll clearly suggests that the British themselves would prefer an independent Scotland, and for the U.K. to break up. If Scotland were to become independent, it is hard to see how a union between the North of Ireland and England, for example, could remain much of a viable prospect. The logic for the union would, in that case, be blown to smithereens much more effectively than any hypothetical IRA bomb. (Here is the Scottish Nationalist Party’s website, which includes links regarding its vision for Scottish independence.)

Perhaps I am going against the orthodox republican movement’s views on this, but I don’t think a unitary 32-county Irish state is immediately required. I think the way it will probably work is that, in the short term and for a while yet, the Six-County North will continue to exist as a regional entity, but that a growing all-Ireland economy, cooperation in the health, housing, and education systems, etc. will create closer integration by default. And reflecting this, the British and Irish governments will continue to work ever closer as regards the North, to the point where a united Ireland becomes virtually a de facto reality, with the Six Counties set off as a region of joint cooperation, where the euro and the pound eventually co-exist, and as do Irish and British nationalities, with bilateral connections to both the Republic of Ireland and the U.K. The embryonic structures are already there – the North-South Ministerial Council and the North-South Bodies set up under Strand Two of the Good Friday Agreement.

What I am suggesting might happen, though it’s hard to predict the future, is a moving closer of North and South as a result of material and economic realities (this aside from the political and identitarian issues of the peace process). The connection to Britain would most likely not immediately cease, or perhaps ever completely cease, just that in the short term the connection to the South would continue to increase. What’s wrong with retaining the Northern Assembly, for example, even as these ties to the South grow?

Irish unity could even coexist with “British unity” until such time as it would be necessary to, or there appears to be a critical mass in favor of, holding a Border poll (if the U.K. doesn’t break up on its own first). The section of the Belfast Agreement on “Constitutional Issues” expressly provides a mechanism for a referendum on a united Ireland “if at any time it appears likely to [the Secretary of State] that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland.” Such referenda can be repeated at seven-year intervals, per Schedule 1, Paragraphs 2-3.

Of course, such a referendum, if it were to happen, would not be called until the unionist community might come to the conclusion that the economic and material realities on the ground (which make closer North-South ties necessary) don’t in any way detract from their British nationality. Indeed, the benefits of these ties are an all-island economy which brings greater prosperity to everyone (or, at least as much as in any other capitalistic society). Economic or material reality ultimately overtakes political ideology. It is not a matter of coercing unionists into an arrangement that they are uncomfortable with, simply that both British and Irish nationality should be allowed to coexist in the North, if the two communities cannot agree on a shared national ethos. Nobody wants to deny unionists their aspiration to remain part of the U.K., but equally then the aspiration of nationalists and republicans in the North to be an official part of the country of Ireland must also be granted as of right. Why should one be valid but not the other? The answer is a coexistence of national arrangements, unless a common one can be agreed. Why should a double-standard be vaunted?

As for the political connections to Britain and the South of Ireland, there’s no real reason to say that, for example, at some point in the near future some MPs from Northern Ireland can’t go to Westminster if they want, while others go to the Dáil instead. Or even at times to both. Why should it be unworkable? The Irish Seanad already allocates a number of seats to representatives from the North. And Sinn Féin representatives presently abstain from sitting in Westminster, yet the U.K. parliament functions just fine without them. So all of this would simply be an officialization and expansion of practices that already exist. Allowing Northern representatives to sit in the Dáil is an issue that has indeed been raised. It hasn’t been enacted yet, but again I think it’s a matter of time. Given that the Good Friday Agreement already recognizes rights of those born in the North to Irish citizenship, there is an onus on the Irish government to give representation to all of its citizens in the legislature. I am not a member of Sinn Féin or any political party myself, but SF has put forward a compelling plan for Northern representation in the Oireachtas. (For that matter, SF’s complete practical plan for Irish unity is well worth a read – and other facets of their proposals for reuniting the country can be found here.)

Of course there are objections to any move toward a more united Ireland. There is the economic argument: the North is heavily subsidized by the British government and many of its jobs are in the public service sector. Well, while an immediate British withdrawal would be great from a strict republican point of view, what I am suggesting in the shorter period is not some sudden withdrawal, or full-scale annexation of the North by the South, which could lead to chaos. What is envisioned in the shorter term is the British government continuing to have its connections to the Six Counties in parallel to all-Ireland structures. The Northern economy would continue to be supported by the U.K., but would have extra input from the Republic of Ireland. The North is part of the island of Ireland, and the rest of the island is a natural market, at least as natural as Britain and probably more so. The South is more than capable of filling the gap over time, while the British market would exist as usual. The EU is a common market anyway. And the Irish economy has been relatively booming for the last decade and a half. For that matter there will probably even be U.S. investment involved.

Another objection is: unionists will react to any political moves towards a united Ireland, and violence will ensue. Well, first of all, if people condemn the IRA for its (now ceased) campaign of violence, then to threaten unionist violence is as equally wrong on a moral level. Hopefully over time unionists will understand that the connection with Britain need not be ended, and that an Irish national connection, for those who want it, need not be a threat to their British national connection and identity. Both can coexist. It should not be a question of coercion one way or the other. But there must be equality of national aspirations, or the conflict will probably go on endlessly. I am talking about freedom of choice – the freedom of nationality, to play a full part in the nation of one’s choice, be it Ireland or the U.K. or both, from within the Six Counties. Not simply a recognition or toleration of “cultural identity” under one country’s rule but not the other. For too long unionists have had the idea that their interests can only be served by dominating the other side. I am making the humble suggestion that it will be better for everyone if both communities’ national interests are fulfilled side by side, and no one dominates over anyone else. Until such a time as a common national ethos can be agreed, people in the North should have full rights to be part of either country, from within the North. Or again even both, depending on one’s choice. And then perhaps when everyone is on an equal footing in this respect there will even be some common commitment to the Six County/Northern Ireland entity.

But the immediate issue is the attempt to get the Assembly and Executive up and running again, which was the purpose of the St Andrews talks. That is, to get people to engage with each other through the mechanisms of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, and to fully implement this Agreement, which after all was voted for by large majorities in concurrent referendums on both sides of the Border. These referendums were the only significant time since the landmark 1918 all-Ireland election (which, incidentally was won in a landslide by Sinn Féin – they won 73 seats out of 105) that the people of Ireland have voted as a whole, and thus take on an importance that cannot be easily denied.

It appears that Ian Paisley and the DUP have now actually agreed in principle to share power with Sinn Féin. Time will tell if this comes to happen, but to even entertain such a notion would at one time have been considered ludicrous. So progress is indeed being made. One sticking point is policing, but my personal impression is that SF wants the Assembly and Executive to work, and so will attempt to deal with policing as best as possible. However, at the time of this writing, there is still a lot of work to be done to make the PSNI even somewhat acceptable to republicans. SF has set out an approach to the issue. But it is a difficult task, especially from the point of view of one who has in the past, say, been a target of RUC violence, or whose relative has been killed by a plastic bullet, or whose community has been on the receiving end of state oppression, etc. With this kind of history, even reaching the level where the PSNI are only hated as much as the regular police force in any regular country is difficult.

The police in the North have always been perceived – and with good reason! – as a sectarian enforcer of British/unionist policy. A lot of work remains to be done to set the PSNI on the right path, and as long as only the British government has sovereignty over the North, there will be some who refuse to recognize what they see as a British-only police force. Indeed, there is criticism of Sinn Féin’s approach to all of this from within the republican community (much of which can be read at The Blanket website). Time will tell what happens with this, and if SF is in a position to endorse policing, which is the real-politick condition for agreement on revivifying the Assembly and Executive. The time-frame seems to be January 2007, to decide whether there is sufficient agreement to continue with these. I have mostly been talking about “big picture” issues here, because the more immediate debates are fast-moving and hard to predict. Whatever the outcome of all this, I am convinced that the two parts of Ireland will continue to move closer together, making a united Ireland in one form or another an eventual reality.