Friday, December 07, 2007

The Weight of History, A World without Force, and The Wind That Shakes the Barley

Figure 1. still image from The Wind That Shakes the Barley [Teddy O'Donovan, played by Padriac Delaney, now part of the Free State Irish Army, about to give orders for the execution of his brother, Damien O'Donovan, a leader in the IRA, played by Cillian Murphy]

I have for a while now been putting off viewing Ken Loach's gorgeous and tragic film about the Irish War of Independence (1919-21) and Civil War (1922-23), The Wind That Shakes the Barley [which won the Palm d'Or at Cannes in 2006], likely because in my family "texts" such as these are treated as sacred objects over which no critical discussion is ever allowed. For this reason, I never saw the film Michael Collins, mainly because [and it embarrasses me to admit this] my father raved about the greatness of its subject for so long and I guess you could say I have this deeply-seated antipathy toward hagiographic views of history [whether we are talking about Robert Kennedy or Martin Luther King, Jr. or Jesus]. The subject is sensitive in my family partly because my father's doctoral dissertation was an edition of my mother's father's memoirs, Victory and Woe: The West Limerick Brigade in the War of Independence [University College Dublin Press, 2002]--I should point out here that my father is not Irish, but my mother is, and she and my father met in the late 1950s when my mother was working for the Irish Embassy in D.C. and my father was working as an aide to Robert Kennedy, and hence the continually roiling radical liberalist passions of my family. My grandfather, Maurice [Mossie] Hart, was the commanding officer of the West Limerick Brigade of the Irish Volunteers [later absorbed into the Irish Republican Forces, then into the IRA], in which capacity he participated in the Easter Rising of 1916 that inspired Yeats' poem of the same name. Later, he joined the Anti-Treaty side in the Civil War and was captured and placed in a Free State prison until 1923. He very well might have been executed there, in which case my mother would have never been born and I wouldn't be writing this weblog post, but it's not something I've ever dwelled upon until after seeing Loach's movie, which I viewed last night.

Although I know [and everyone who knows me knows] that I am what is a called an "emotional" person, I was not quite prepared for the feelings that coursed through me while watching The Wind That Shakes the Barley. It was a devastating experience, partly because of its frank treatment of violence, including torture, but more so for the statement it seemed to be making regarding the inevitability of violence and the difficult questions it poses regarding whether or not violence and force are always necessary for securing freedom and liberty [and more pointedly, whether or not it might sometimes be necessary to kill your own brother to achieve "peace"]. When my father was editing my grandfather's memoirs, which he did not get around to doing until the late 1990s, he asked me to read an early draft. My first impression was that my grandfather was a terrible writer. His style was completely unadulterated and plain and declarative, and "minimalist" would be too kind a description. But I kept these thoughts to myself since my grandfather had already attained "saint" status for my father who, to this day, never goes anywhere without wearing his Sinn Fein pin [which is also fairly extraordinary since my father's ancestry is thoroughly Dutch and British and when he married my mother her family refused to attend the wedding because my father was not Irish and not Catholic; he later won them over]. I must confess here that I never actually finished reading the memoir [even to this day] because of one passage in particular. It concerned my grandfather and other "regulars" in his troop sneaking out to a house in the remote countryside to surprise the inhabitants while still asleep. The owner of the house, an Irish farmer, was the brother of an officer of the Irish Constabulary who had been responsible for killing one of my grandfather's comrades. So, for revenge, my grandfather and his men were going to wake this officer's brother up and kill him, which if I recall correctly, they did. I stopped reading and perhaps I don't have all the details right. I didn't, and don't, care. When my father asked me what I thought, at the dinner table with relatives present [because it was Thanksgiving], I said the book demonstrated to me the true nature of all wars, and that at the moment my grandfather was crouching in the tall grass outside that farmhouse, he had ceased to be a freedom fighter and was, instead, a terrorist. I don't remember exactly what happened next but I'm pretty sure it involved shouting and screaming and me being told that I was an idiot, and perhaps I was.

But watching Loach's movie reconfirmed for me, in a way, my initial sentiments about the Irish War of Independence and Civil War that followed: in the end, violence corrupts everyone it touches, or as Damien tells his lover Sinead in the movie, after having to shoot a young Irish man in the heart because he was a "traitor" to the Irish cause [even though it's clear he is an "innocent" who simply yielded to force from the other side because, in the end, he didn't have a choice], "I can't feel anything." Yes, we can blame the British for everything bad that happens in the film [and in Irish history], going all the way back to the Middle Ages, but in the end, the Irish turn against each other and destroy everything good and beautiful in each other. But yet another reason I think this movie affected me so much also has to do, again, with my grandfather, and more largely my mother's family and all those who lived in West Limerick during those times [and even today] and with what it must mean [feels to me, has to mean] to live in a place [or time] that bears within itself the burden of a terrible history, or the burden of history, period. History weighs heavily in such places, never lets people forget, and deforms everything it touches [while also, conversely, providing a kind of sustenance of shared memory]. Being white and privileged and American, I do not know what the weight of history feels like. I have no history and no history bears down on me, and that, in a perverse sense, makes me more free than my grandfather could have ever been.

Just this past Monday, my students and I completed our M.A. seminar on "Writing, Race, and the English Nation," with a "cross-temporal" reading of Toni Morrison's novel Paradise. Here is a brief, and for this post, an apropos description of the novel, from Anna Mulrine [U.S. News and World Report 19 Jan. 1998]:
. . . . Morrison wanted to call it War. It begins with a six-shot staccato sentence: "They kill the white girl first." Explains Morrison, "I wanted to open with somebody's finger on the trigger, to close when it was pulled, and to have the whole novel exist in that moment of the decision to kill or not." Knopf feared the title War might turn off Morrison fans. "I'm still not convinced they were right," she says.

Seeking Eden. The new book finishes a trilogy begun with her 1987 masterpiece, Beloved, the tale of a runaway slave who would rather kill her children than see them captured. It was followed by 1992's Jazz, which imitates the musical form's lean dissonance. Paradise completes the trilogy's arc of inquiry into the dangers of excessive love--for children, mates, or God. It also addresses a question that has always intrigued Morrison: "Why paradise necessitates exclusion."

The book is set in all-black Ruby, Okla., founded by settlers who had been turned away by a town of lighter-skinned blacks. It is a community, they hope, insulated from "Out There where every cluster of whitemen looked like a posse." But by 1968, the outside is seeping in, with graffiti of black-power fists and murmurings of illicit abortions. Soon, town residents pinpoint scapegoats for all their ills: five magic-practicing women living in a former convent. These women are not "color coded," as Morrison puts it, and the reader has no way of knowing their race. It is a bold literary device: In struggling to figure out which of the women is white, the reader is forced to ask why that detail even matters.
One of the questions we asked ourselves as a class, after an entire semester spent reading texts [such as Bede's Historia and the Old English Andreas and Gerald of Wales's History and Topography of Ireland and The Book of Margery Kempe] that demonstrate the destructive ways in which groups of persons--aligned along religious, political, "racial," ethnic, national, cultural, gender, sexual, and other lines--attempt to describe and control other groups, how we might be able to somehow envision a "community" that could be constructed on the basis of a "shared history" that could be seen as valuable and worth holding in memory and that would be sustaining and affirmative and not ultimately oppressive and destructive and self-deforming. I know, of course, that there are all sorts of ways in which historically imposed and also self-chosen communities can help individuals to survive under adverse conditions and even thrive in times that are not adverse, but can these communities ever really endure without some notion of exclusion or means of force, and is it always requisite that they must last forever, or their instantiating conditions never be forgotten? One of my students suggested that, perhaps, the best communities would be those that would always be open to and receptive of change, but then they wouldn't always be the "same," but they could determine creative ways to remember or memorialize the past in ways that would not, in my student's words, "institutionalize" that past in tyrannical ways and that would also admit the parts of that history that might not be entirely positive [and this is why, actually, I love Loach's film, because it shows, I really believe, a complex picture of the development of the Irish Republican Army that is both positive and negative and how could the two attributes ever be disentangled, in any history?]. I have my doubts, of course, about the value of community and I will never believe that any community, however formed, will ever be more valuable or "sacred" than the individuals who might run afoul of that group or be mis-recognized by it. So, even though those who fought in the early days of the IRA, like my grandfather, felt that they had to make sacrifices for a larger "cause"--something bigger and better than any of them in their singularity, or so they believed--their cause could not justify the taking of even one life and therefore was doomed from the start. But how, then, are individuals, who belong to groups of oppressed people who are themselves constantly under threat of disenfranchisement and murder, supposed to make their claims heard, when they live in a maelstrom and din of violence? And more importantly, how are they to live?

During dinner, earlier this week, with my friend and colleague Michael Moore, we were talking about his book manuscript [under contract at Penn. State Press], A Sacred Kingdom: Bishops and Frankish Royal Power, the revisions of which he is currently knee-deep in. He indicated to me that he felt he was laboring over a kind of sublimely ridiculous project because he was trying to do something no one does any more: write a "big" history, one that makes a claim for certain moments being hugely decisive in the way history turns out [and hopefully Michael will chime in here if he's reading and correct any errors in my memory of our conversation]. Michael further indicated to me that he wants, also, to make an argument [also widely unpopular and currently discreditable, in his view] that "force" is not the most decisive factor in "how things turn out," and the world might be a very different place today if we understood that better. And I don't know if he's right, or wrong, or how it matters.

This being "the season," as they say, for goodness and for memorializing a sacred history that supposedly calls individuals to their better selves, I can't see anything but the bad in it, or in any so-called "sacred" history. History should never be sacred. But it cannot, or should not be, completely forgotten, perhaps partly for the sake of those individuals whose lives were destroyed because that was considered the necessary cost of a history that some believe has to turn out a certain way. For those individuals, on both side of the executioner's rifle or hangman's noose or bomb, the burden of history is always too great.


Jeffrey Cohen said...

A powerful post Eileen. I thought about it all night, especially because I am currently in New England among my own family, thinking about history and tradition and connection and hurt. The confrontation with your dad over his desires and his love of a certain past versus what you believe ... Well, that certainly resonates. In my own work I've been similarly obsessed with giving to history the dynamism it deserves -- that's been the major impetus bhind the Weight of the Past project, to reflect upon the vitality of history, along with its violence.

Anonymous said...

I’ll claim my membership in Eileen’s MA seminar community ; )

More thoughts about Paradise: While the violence that is the means of enforcing community/national/ethnic boundaries is horrifying (especially when we discover it in our own, fairly recent heredity – that had to be tough to unearth, and I doubt you were an idiot), it’s the sentiment that motivates it that seems most damaging.

I don’t just mean the notion that communities must have fortress walls, but that the inclination toward preservation is (almost?) always married to the idea that *our* identity is something static – that it was at some point established, defined, and then lacquered shut.

It is an attitude that denies us the full opportunity to participate knowingly in our own ongoing histories because we’re too enamored/obsessed with a past thing *simply because it is past.* It conflates the historical with the historic. It is essentialist, and it tends to 1) putty over the evils of the past, 2) downplay the good that is now, and 3) ignore the potential for something new.

Yes, I realize how much everything I’m saying resonates with clichéd images of the sputtering grad student. I’ll take it.

What works is when participation in a community does not pro/inhibit participation in other communities. But maybe the idea of community loses meaning at that point.

For those who have never had a chance to take a course with Eileen, by the way, she’s fantastic.

Full disclosure: The time I spent writing this was totally a distraction from a hopefully-not-mediocre paper I’m *trying* to finish for said seminar.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

A related question, coming after that weekend in New England: how does one move beyond recognition and rejection? In the aftermath of violence, at what point (if any) is it possible for a community to reform, to forgive even its members with blood on their hands or with loves that are alien, unshared? What possible, positive future can there be? What comes next?

Matthew Gabriele said...

After recognition and rejection: a monumental act of will. Forgiveness.

Eileen Joy said...

Ashby: your comments are not the sputterings of an MA student but are thoughtful, smart, and provocative. And you are too kind to say I am "fantastic"; I, rather, like to think of myself as "better than okay" [haha].

As to Matthew's reply to JJC's tough questions, I can only agree. faced with certain historical "impasses" forged by violence and innumerable supposedly irreparable "hurts," forgiveness is the only answer: first, of one's own actions, then of everyone else's.

Anonymous said...

@JJC: I am with Matthew, but his true and beautifully simple answer is also exquisitely complex and difficult in practice. It's the product of a lifetime of something. I want to say meditation or spiritual discipline or something, but those suggestions seem too trite and loaded with bad connotation for me.

It must be some essential, binding characteristic of the community, true forgiveness. The desire for reconciliation and continued community must exceed the need for revenge.

I feel like a preacher now.

Unitive before Punitive!

Karl Steel said...

Another great post EJ.

It conflates the historical with the historic.

Well put.

On forgiveness, I wish I had my Derrida here, but you know his suspicion and worry about forgiveness in an essay in Acts of Religion. I wonder about the effectiveness of forgiveness as a cure because, in part, it requires forgetting; can we forgive and mark the event as forgiven, in other words, still preserve it as meaningful, even as a warning? or would that preservation prevent its ever being forgiven?

I'm inclined, then, to ask for a more material solution and to let the affective stance and memory take care of themselves.