Irish Papist

Irish Papist
Statute of the Blessed Virgin in Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Church, UCD Belfield

Monday, July 25, 2016

The White Picket Fence and its Discontents

A couple of days ago I watched Donnie Darko, a film I'd meant to see for some time. It held my interest, and it was visually appealing, but I felt a little disappointed. I wasn't really sure what the film was about, in terms of its ultimate theme.


Most of all, I felt frustrated that it was (amongst other things) yet another swipe at small town America-- the therapist who keeps anxiously asking Donnie (the troubled boy at the centre of the movie) about his relationship with God; the teacher who complains, at a parent-teacher meeting, about an unsuitable story being taught in English class; the motivational speaker (played by Patrick Swayze) who sees all human behaviour as occupying a place on a graph between Love and Fear; the troupe of tweeny schoolchildren who have rehearsed their rather trashy dance into the ground, egged on by their parents and teachers; the hot young English teacher (Drew Barrymore) whose unconventional teaching methods are frowned upon by school management; and so on.

Of course, small town America has been satirised in an endless amount of movies; practically the entire output of David Lynch, for a start, but also movies such as Edward Scissorhands, American Beauty, Footloose, Gremlins, Field of Dreams, Cedar Rapids, and any number of others. And, of course, literature has been even more condemnatory. 

Cedar Rapids is a film you may not have heard of, although it was a mainstream release. I mention it because I walked out of the cinema during this particular movie, irritated at its clumsy and tiresome lampooning of small town American values.

I'm using the term 'small town America' loosely. The term 'middle America'  could also be used, along with Main Street, 'Flyover country', Peoria, and so on.

First of all, we should ask why this is a distinctively American subject. You don't really get films satirising narrow-minded, pious, clannish towns or suburbs in the UK or in present-day Ireland. This is surely because we don't have communities on this side of the Atlantic. We have social atomisation instead.

It has often occured to me that claustrophobia is an easier subject to treat artistically than agoraphobia. It is easy to write a story which satirizes a clannish, curtain-twitching, insular small town. But how do you write a story to satirize a sprawling conurbation that has no character of its own, where- instead of everybody knowing everybody-- nobody knows anybody? Or a commuter suburb with no sense of community other than a sprinkling of community groups, which tend to be peopled by the same few characters?

This is the same reason it's easy to attack the Catholic Church; it's a highly visible target. It has a doctrine, a discipline, a hierarchy, ceremonial, and so forth. There's something to hit.

Personally, I'm always more in favour of something that is there, rather than something which is not there-- whether that is because it's pure absence, or whether it's a mere aspiration. Very often I have noticed that the things which are satirised, and subsequently demolished, are not replaced by anything at all.

A highly visible target
Take Catholic, nationalist Ireland for example. This way of life, historically recent though it may have been, has been pelted unmercifully by liberals, socialists, multiculturalists and every other brand of radical for almost a century now. It has, in fact, been abolished. But what has replaced it? Nothing. Ireland is now like every other country in the West. Whatever differences remain are rooted in our Catholic, nationalist past.

Now, such a vacuum might be something you celebrate. I saw an interview with the late David Bowie, which was broadcast in the days after his death. He was rhapsodising about the fact that society, since the time of his own emergence as a celebrity, had become more fragmented and pluralistic. To be fair, he seemed to be thinking of pop culture primarily, and it does seem to be the case that pop culture injected a certain homogenization into society in the fifties, sixties and seventies, and perhaps it is no bad thing for this particular homogenization to break down. But I think he meant it in a wider sense, and his whole aesthetic seems to have been in favour of 'deconstruction'-- of genre, gender and every other sort of convention.

The argument could be made that 'small town America' is a facade, anyway-- and this very often seems to be the theme of these satires.  And yet, the critics of the white picket fences seem to want it both ways. They attack Middle America for being suffocating, philistine, banal etc.-- but they nearly always paint its inhabitants as being hypocrites, as well. Why is the charge of hypocrisy necessary? Why can't these film-makers and authors confine themselves to an attack on this environment for what it is?

This is to be seen in Donnie Darko. (Spoiler alert.) Patrick Swayze plays a local motivational teacher who is something of an idol in the town, and who appeals especially to the teacher mentioned earlier, the one who complains about unsuitable reading material in Drew Barrymore's English class. This character paints life as a battle between 'love', and 'fear', and in one particular scene Donne Darko complains about that this duality is too simplistic.

Now, I'm not a fan of self-help gurus or motivational speakers. But I recognized what the film was satirising with this character-- not only self-help gurus and pop psychologists, but any received moral or ethical system whatsoever.

It is later discovered that Patrick Swaye's character is a child pornographer. The teacher who idolizes him refuses to accept his guilt and launches a campaign for his exoneration. It seemed terribly cheap to me.

The same double-edged satire is displayed in Cedar Rapids. The 'pillar of the community' (or rather, the industry) in this case is a senior insurance salesman who has won a particular prestigious award three years in a row-- and who is a fervent Christian. Later on, the film's protagonist learns that this supposedly model Christian was a sexual deviant who won his awards through bribery.

Not that the film shows any tenderness towards non-hypocritical Christianity. It is set during an insurance conference, and everybody at the conference seems to be a professing Christian-- I can't remember whether they actually say prayers at the conference, or whether it's only the protagonists' own company who say prayers at their meeting, but there are certainly prayers involved. Well, maybe they are all hypocrites-- but even if they weren't, the film seems to be comparing them unfavourably to the hedonistic, anarchic, and sexually promiscuous characters that the proganist falls in with, and who guide him on the road to 'liberation'.

Although I have spent some time in America, my knowledge of it is confined to a very small area, and I mostly mingled with American Catholics, who have their own culture. So I can't comment on whether the world satirised in movies like Cedar Rapids and Donnie Darko really exists-- and, if it exists, whether it's all a fraud or not. (Having said that, I certainly did witness some aspects of it-- such as whole families going to Mass together, inspirational Christian literature in supermarkets, and the stars and stripes on every second porch).

All I know is that the satires themselves portray a world that (to me) seems very desirable-- just as my admiration for Catholic, nationalist Ireland came mostly through depictions of it that were supposed to be unflattering.

I like the idea of families sitting together around the dinner table, and saying grace beforehand. I like the idea of parents seeking to protect childhood innocence. I like the idea of prayers before board meetings (if such a thing ever exists). I like 'sir' and 'ma'am'. I like cheerleaders and school songs and honour codes. I like Bibles in hotel rooms. I like the idea of a special respect being shown to community leaders, such a police sherrifs and headmasters and church leaders. All of this seems to me more admirable than the kind of bohemianism and moral ambiguity that is usually posited as its antidote.

Norman Rockwell
 Most of all, it seems admirable to me because it's something as opposed to nothing.

This post isn't really about small town America or white picket fences. It's an argument in favour of institutions, traditions and environments which actually exist, as opposed to the forces which seek to dissolve and 'deconstruct' them. Obviously, some institutions (street gangs, red light districts, and so forth) are unquestionably evil. But where an institution, a way of life or a tradition is under attack, not for being evil per se, but for being 'claustrophobic', 'insular', 'narrow-minded', 'elitist', 'stultifying', etc. etc. I suggest that we should all ride to its defence. Because the alternative is always either an ethereal ideal which is impossible to bring about, or nothing at all. They create a desert, and they call it pluralism.

Monday, July 18, 2016

The Poetry of Discomfort

I've been listening to Irish folk ballads recently. I've found myself thinking of one ballad I particularly like, The Louse House of Kilkenny, a comical song about a night spent in a flea-infested boarding house:

Then she brought me upstairs and she put out the light
And in less than five minutes I had to show fight
And in less than five more when the story was best
The fleas came around me and brought me a curse
Radley fal the diddle ay,,,

'Twas all around me body they formed a march
'Twas all around me body they played the Death march
For the bloody oul major gave me such a pick
That he nearly made away with half of me hip
Radley fal the diddle ay...

Now I'm going to me study, these lines to pen down
And if any poor traveller should e'er come to town
And if any poor traveller should be nighted like me
Beware of Buck St John and his black cavalry
Radley fal the diddle ay....

The Dubliners
I've spent a lot of time wondering why this song, and others like it, appeal to me so much. What is so poetic about discomfort? Why is a night in a flea-infested bed worth immortalizing in song? Why do we find a song like this strangely jolly?

Discomfort is certainly a recurring theme in Irish ballads. One of the most famous Irish ballads is 'The Rocky Road to Dublin', and this is one long catalogue of mishaps, hardships and indignities.
Of course, there are plenty of songs lamenting 'the hard life' in world music; for instance, in the genres of the blues or of negro spirituals. But these are straightforward laments, for the most part. The sort of songs I'm talking about there-- and they're not just Irish ballads, as I'll demonstrate soon-- are not melancholy in tone. They are more upbeat, even rumbustious.

One famous song about Irish construction workers in England, 'MacAlpine Fusiliers', (which was written by Brendan Behan's brother Dominic) seems more obviously caught between celebration and complaint, at least in the preamble:

It was in the year of 39 when the sky was full of lead.
When Hitler was heading for Poland and Paddy for Hollyhead.
Come all you pincher laddies and you long distant men.
Don't ever work for McAlpine for Whimpy or John Lang.
For you'll stand behind a mixer till your skin is turned to tan.
And they'll say good on you Paddy with your boat fare in your hand
The craic was good in Cricklewood and we wouldn't leave the Crown
With bottles flying and Biddies crying, sure Paddy was on the town.
Oh mother dear, I'm over here, and I'm never coming back
What keeps me here is a rake of beer, the women, and the craic...

The tune itself is obviously very jaunty.

Percy French

The 1902 comic song 'Are You Right There, Michael, Are You Right?', written by the prolific Percy French, satirises the West Clare Railway System. The railway was not amused, and tried to sue the songwriter. But the tone of the lyrics are unmistakeably affectionate (despite the fact that the song was written after French missed a concert due to a late train):

At Lahinch the sea shines like a jewel
With joy you are ready to shout
When the stoker cries out: There's no fuel
And the fire's tee-totally out
But hand up that bit of a log there
I'll soon have ye out of the fix
There's a fine clamp of turf in the bog there
And the rest go a-gatherin' sticks...

(I can remember, when I was younger, quite often hearing the title invoked in conversation-- I haven't heard that in a long time.)

I mentioned more modern songs. I don't think it's only Irish folk songs which strike this particular note. Take the theme tune of the British TV show (which I've never seen), Auf Wiedersehen Pet:

Working on the site from morning to night
That's living alright!
Then a drink with the boys in a bar full of noise
That's living alright!
Working all day for a pittance of pay
And blow it all on Saturday night
And you kiss the dames but you don't ask their names,
That's living alright!

I could quote other examples (such as another classic TV theme song, 'Rawhide'), but I think that's enough. It seems clear that human beings seem to find something in discomfort and hardship-- at least, in their imaginative representation-- which is not entirely unpleasing to contemplate-- something romantic, poetic, even strangely glamorous.

Rollin', rollin', rollin'!

Of course, this romance only seems to appear under certain conditions. The discomfort and hardship can't be overwhelming-- it's should be intermittent, at most. There needs to be compensating pleasures of some kind-- either in the present, or the near future. And the discomfort should be experienced as a bond, or even a badge of pride.

(Having mentioned 'Rawhide', it occurs to me-- surely this particular sort of poetry is a great part of the romance of the cowboy, and the cowgirl?)

I've argued that this is not something uniquely Irish, I do think it's something distinctively Irish. I think about this a lot.

It's interesting that, for a long time-- or so it seems to me-- the Irish imagination valorized poverty, manual labour, and deprivation over affluence, the professions, and comfort. Construction workers, exiles and small farmers seemed to have been privileged figures in song, story and folklore (and I mean contemporary folklore, not historical folklore). I really did grow up thinking that membership of the middle class was something to be ashamed of. And the middle class were mythical figures, anyway-- everybody (I assumed) was working class, including teachers and priests and shopkeepers and anyone I was likely to come into contact with. Everybody was poor, or came from poverty. Everybody was lucky just to have a job and a home and food. The Irish were poor, eternal underdogs-- and proud of it!

I've wondered in retrospect if this was something I just imagined. After all, social snobbery is a persistent theme in Irish literature. Was it just my innocence that conjured this sense of social solidarity?

Possibly, but I don't think so. The sense is just too vivid for that. It's composed of a hundred small examples which would be too tedious and obscure to recount, but which I distinctly remember.

Even the centenary celebrations of 1916 Rebellion brought this home to me. I read biographies of some of the leaders, and many of them, for all their talents, struggled to find a job-- any job. This seemed the norm to me as I was growing up, that just getting a job and having a job was an achievement. Then, when I was in my early twenties, I was amazed to see many of my contemporaries give up good jobs to travel. They were confident they would find other jobs, better jobs. The world had changed, and they were moving with it.

But I have a certain nostalgia for the poverty-stricken eighties, and indeed the many poverty-stricken decades before it (although my father insists that the sixties were an era of prosperity in Ireland). As Friedrich Nietzsche wrote: "He who possesseth little is so much the less possessed. Blessed be moderate poverty!' (This only really works, though, if the poverty is general, and is not crushing.)

But it wasn't just the absence of money that seems to mark this period, in my memory. It was the presence of limits-- limits in terms of career options, lifestyle choices, foods, television and radio channels, and so forth. (Of course, I know this is only relative to the present.) It's a delicate balance-- too many limits can be a tragic brake on human potential. But too few limits can, paradoxically, limit the opportunity for solidarity, shared experience, shared memory, folklore, and so forth. I truly dread the advent of globalism, where there is such a profusion of choice that (I fear) the whole experience of being 'in the same boat' as one's compatriots and contemporaries may be lost, or drastically diminished.

The poet Patrick Kavanagh wrote a line which is both an example of this (since the poem from which it comes was on the Irish school curriculum for many years), and a wonderful expression of it: "Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder." I might have that put on my gravestone....

Patrick Kavanagh
G.K. Chesterton said something similar: "All my life I have loved frames and limits; and I will maintain that the largest wilderness looks larger seen through a window."

Now I have made my inevitable mention of G.K. Chesterton, I must quote this passage from his book on Charles Dickens, in which he ponders the aspect of 'cosiness' in Dickens's books, especially his Christmas books:

The second element to be found in all such festivity and all such romance is the element which is represented as well as it could be represented by the mere fact that Christmas occurs in the winter. It is the element not merely of contrast, but actually of antagonism. It preserves everything that was best in the merely primitive or pagan view of such ceremonies or such banquets. If we are carousing, at least we are warriors carousing. We hang above us, as it were, the shields and battle-axes with which we must do battle with the giants of the snow and hail. All comfort must be based on discomfort. Man chooses when he wishes to be most joyful the very moment when the whole material universe is most sad. It is this contradiction and mystical defiance which gives a quality of manliness and reality to the old winter feasts which is not characteristic of the sunny felicities of the Earthly Paradise.

"All comfort must be based on discomfort". This seems true. The problem with comfort is that it keeps on disappearing. We are comfortable, and we forget we are comfortable. Not only the comfort disappears; the whole physical world disappears. Discomfort reminds us of both. It brings us back to the body-- perhaps it is not too much to say that it points us towards the Incarnation, a concept we can never really take in and of which we are always losing sight.

One final thought, since I can hardly top that one; have you ever noticed the extent to which organized religion, on the physical side, is almost a pursuit of physical discomfort? We always emphasise the humility involved in kneeling before God-- but it seems relevant that it is not only humbling, but also uncomfortable!