Irish Papist

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

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Sources of the Self

The title of this blog post is an allusion to a work of philosophy, one which I must have issued hundreds of times in the library. I didn't realize until now that it's by Charles Taylor, a Catholic philosopher. I haven't read the book and I'm almost certainly never going to, so all I'm taking from it is the title.

I know I have been absent for blogging from some time, but I've been doing a lot of thinking in the interim.

Something that strikes me more and more, and that fascinates me more and more, are the different streams that go to make us who we are. I was recently listening to a discussion about existentialism and I realized the extent to which existentialism has influenced us all, me included. (Or perhaps existentialism merely hitched a ride on a change that was happening anyway. I'm never sure if philosophical schools of thought are causes or effects, or both.) The idea that life is a project of self-creation, or at least of self-discovery, is deeply embedded in all our imaginations these days.

I personally believe this tendency has gone too far. Identity may not be a 'given', but surely it loses all meaning if it becomes utterly fluid. As well as being highly implausible, that leads to alienation.

I wrote several paragraphs on this subject, reflecting on various contemporary controversies, but I decided to delete them. I don't want to bash anyone's sense of who they are. Suffice it to say that I neither believe identity can be entirely self-created, nor do I even think this is desirable. It makes the self into an Etch-a-sketch pad, a blackboard or a whiteboard. And what is inspiring about that?

In this post, at the risk of narcissism, I'm going to write about my own sense of self and its sources. Actually, it's not going to be so much my sense of self, as my sense of values and beliefs-- but I think they are linked.

Family is the obvious and first source, and I've been thinking a lot about it recently.

I wrote a blog post entitled The Domesticity of the Dead (alluding to Chesterton's phrase 'the democracy of the dead') in which I mused on this subject a little. I have been to a lot of funerals recently, and it's made me very conscious of the obligation to hold onto the memory, and to honour the memory, of our deceased relatives and friends.

I feel this as an imperative, not as something I can rationalize. After all, if you believe in another life, the dead are with God and don't need us to keep their memories alive. And if you don't believe in another life, then they don't exist and you can't benefit them in any way by cherishing their memory.

But who thinks like that?

Besides, I'm realizing more and more that the relationship of the dead to the living is not all one way. The dead need us and we need them.

Can you imagine what life would be like if you simply popped into existence one day, with no parents or ancestors? It's hard even to contemplate such an impoverished existence. I think that always, in the back of our minds, we are aware of this hinterland to our existence.

I know that I am aware of it. It's funny because I am not really one for genealogies or family history (although I admire those who do such research). I think of it more in terms of 'soft' records than 'hard' records-- stories, memories, atmosphere. I have only a very vague grasp of my family history, but I have a very vivid awareness of it.

It's pretty much all on my father's side, my Dublin side. I used to visit my aunt Kitty's farm in Limerick, every summer, as a child. She was my mother's sister, one of the Farrells. I barely knew them, aside from her. One summer they had a family reunion, and her house was full of strange faces I have already forgotten, aside from one which I half-remember.

Limerick always represented to me a side of Ireland, and of Irishness,that seemed exotic and romantic and spiritually superior to my Dublin life. It still does. When we would drive to her farm, the miles upon miles of empty country roads we would pass through kindled my imagination. Even now, every now and again, I take pleasure in thinking of the hundreds of miles of country roads stretching all around me, outside the sprawl of the city.

But 'Dublin made me', to quote the title of a famous poem. When I think of my family heritage I hear the 'haunting children's rhymes' of Dublin, and I'm always especially struck by the couplet of the non-Dubliner Louis Macneice, who wrote the best poem about Dublin ever:

The glamour of her squalour
The bravado of her talk.

I would defend the Kelly family, in all its branches, from a charge of squalour. (Untidiness, maybe. Squalour, no.) We do, however, have a tendency towards bravado and big ideas. When I remember my childhood, I seem to remember incessant cups of tea and equally incessant debate. It was quite democratic. It never even occurred to me that being a child debarred me from having opinions on everything from metaphysics to poetry. Nor did anybody suggest that it should.

This tendency was not only present in my immediate family, but also in my extended family. It may still be going strong, though I've rather lost touch with them. (In my speech at my wedding reception, I claimed a desire to see my extended family draw closer together again. I still feel this, but circumstances mean that this is not the right moment for me to act on it.)

I know from typing my father's memoirs that this tendency towards grandiosity dates back at least to my grandfather. He is the man who blacked out an entire street because he was attempting to control all the electricity in his house from one console. (This would have been in the fifties.) That is just one of his escapades.

The Kellys tend to be ideological, as well. My paternal background is very 'republican' in the Irish sense, which means nationalistic, left-wing and radical. Obviously, I have discarded some elements of this programme, and I do feel a kind of guilt about this. I am an Irish nationalist, but I'm not a republican, or a socialist.

However, I would very much like to believe that I retain the most important parts of this ideological heritage. I'd like to believe that I have a vision of Ireland that would accord with what my forebears would have held. How could they know that Irish republicanism would take the politically correct, anti-Catholic turn that it took? (To be honest, there are definitely strains of anti-clericalism in my family background, but it's anti-clericalism rather than anti-Catholicism.)

There are more intangible elements of my family background that I believe have influenced me, but are almost impossible to describe. "High mindedness" might be the best description-- high mindedness that runs the whole gamut through pretension, idealism, impracticality, intellectualism, piety, cultural snobbery and a thousand other manifestations. On the whole, I'm very grateful.

Since I've already dealt with family background, I can't take the most important 'source of my self' first; that is, my Catholic faith.

I only began to practice my faith some time around 2010. (This consisted of going to Mass; it would be some time before I leaped the hurdle of a first adult confession and subsequent Communion.) I can never tell exactly when; it may have been 2009. I still have emails written to various apologists in that year, trying to iron out my difficulties. Those difficulties were all intellectual and had nothing at all to do with the 'spirit of Catholicism'.  Culturally and socially, I was already a Catholic. (Aesthetically, I've never become a Catholic, and I don't think I ever will. Aesthetically speaking, I'm probably a Methodist.)

The 'soul' of Catholicism, I think, has never been better expressed than in this brief passage from a letter that Chesterton wrote to a female friend, in which he describes an interaction between his sick wife and a priest paying a house call to her. He wrote that the exchange illustrated certain aspects of the Catholic faith:

Its fearlessness of the facts of life and the Fact of Death, its ease and healthy conscience, its contempt for fads and false laws, its buoyancy that comes from balance; its naturalness with the natural body as with the supernatural soul; its freedom from sniffling and snuffling embarrassment; its presence of the Priest; its utter absence of the Parson.

"Its freedom from sniffling and snuffling embarrassment" might be the key here. Somebody once wrote that William Blake was never silly because he was never afraid of being silly. Something similar applies to the Catholic faith, in my view. It never seems silly, from any angle, in any mood, in any stage of life. And this despite all its ritual, robes, intricate theology and miracles. Even in the face of communist persecution and Nazi concentration camps-- to take only two examples of stark reality-- the Catholic faith 'held up', in the sense of rising to the occasion. It did not seem absurdly out of place or out of its depth. (I wasn't there, of course, but I can read.) The facts of life and the Fact of Death, indeed.

The Catholic faith, in my view, speaks both to the heights and depths of human existence. It is not simply a faith that seems true to me when I am feeling 'spiritual'. When I feel like a miserable human being, when my prayer life is at a low ebb (going through the motions, in truth), when the last thing I want to read is the Bible and I can barely sit through Mass, my Catholic faith is as real to me as ever. In a way, I sometimes wonder if I am not closer to Jesus at such moments, since my spiritual pride shrivels up, and I become more child-like and humble in my attitude to God.

Even though I very strenuously try to distinguish between patriotism and faith, I have to admit that my Catholic faith was very much shaped by growing up in Ireland, going to a Catholic school, and coming from a Catholic family (although a Catholic family where the spectrum of belief and practice is extremely broad).

I grew up in nineteen-eighties Ireland, just before the country began to secularize in earnest (partly aided by some spectacular own goals on the part of the Irish Church). Increasingly, I remember this moment of Irish Catholicism as an ideal, even though it certainly wasn't. Theological liberalism was rampant, but i was a child (and a teenager) and I didn't realise this. I only saw the good side, one that I have tried to do justice to in my writing that era-- a warm, calm, open-minded, generous kind of Catholicism. I want to emphasize that this sort of Catholicism is not, in my view, actually open to us in Ireland today, because we are on stormier waters.  But it had its virtues. Culture wars and hot potatoes were not the order of the day. I understand what led W.B. Yeats to write, in 'A Prayer for my Daughter":

An intellectual hatred is the worst
So let her think opinions are accursed.

I don't think opinions are accursed, but I am all too aware of the dangers of intellectual warfare-- spiritual pride, an addiction to anger, an emotional reliance on the conflict (and on the existence of an enemy), and triumphalism in being right.

How can we remain orthodox while avoiding Pharisaism? That seems to me like an essential question.

The next 'source of my self' is the writings of G.K. Chesterton. I quote him constantly, not only in this blog but in ordinary life. It seems to me that, although there were certainly better writers, no other creative writer has ever been so right. He was not only right in the substance of what he said. He was right in his emphasis, in his tone, in his preoccupations. When he exaggerates (which is all the time), he exaggerates for a good reason-- to correct something we are prone to undervalue, for instance. He is, in my view, the only writer to whom I could apply Matthew Arnold's famous words:

He saw life steadily, and saw it whole.

What especially do I love about him? Most of all, his emphasis on wonder and upon the joy of life, where nearly all other writers and intellectuals (even the optimists) focus on the miseries of life. I also love his democratic spirit. I'm never sure, with other writers, whether they are talking to me or to somebody else-- somebody more educated, more sensitive, more mature, more compassionate or idealistic or disillusioned. When I read Chesterton, I know he is talking to me, because he is talking to everyone. What he wrote about Samuel Johnson applies to himself, minus the bawling and banging: "Johnson was a demagogue, he shouted against a shouting crowd. The very fact that he wrangled with other people is proof that other people were allowed to wrangle with him. His very brutality was based on the idea of an equal scrimmage, like that of football. It is strictly true that he bawled and banged the table because he was a modest man." The story of Chesterton canvassing one householder while his fellow canvasser had covered the rest of the street is entirely believable.

It is the man in the street who really enjoys Chesterton. So many of his fellow imaginative writers seem determined to enjoy him for everything except what he most patently was. I have read all kinds of 'appreciations' of him by novelists and critics which leave me baffled, wondering if they are talking about the same author. They seem determined to abstract his message from his writings-- because a message is vulgar-- and to enjoy whatever remains as 'pure literature'. But Chesterton was all about his message. You can disagree with it, but you can't abstract it.

Perhaps one of the things I admire most about Chesterton is his ability to say the obvious thing and to see the obvious thing. With many other writers, I really wonder what they are talking about. With Chesterton, my reaction is more often: "How come I never noticed that?". One example is the observation, in his book on Chaucer, that the pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales, that motley band, are all going to Canterbury together. That is indeed a fact of tremendous significance when we compare the world of Chaucer to our own world. It's a fact that you could glean without ever reading The Canterbury Tales. But it took Chesterton to point it out, and to point out its significance.

The best book I read last year was a book on William Shakespeare called Shakespeare the Thinker, by A.N Nuttall. Nuttal says in that book that it takes a kind of courage to ask the simplest questions. I agree.

Chesterton has pervaded my worldview so profoundly that it's impossible to overstate his effect on me. It's not simply that he confirmed and bolstered my pre-existing views of the world (though he certainly did that, in many many instances). He also set me on the right path where I had gone wrong.

Here, for instance: "It would be really interesting to know exactly why an intelligent person-- by which I mean a person with any sort of intelligence--can and does dislike sight-seeing. Why does the idea of a char-a-banc full of tourists going to see the birth-place of Nelson or the death-scene of Simon de Montfort strike a strange chill to the soul?,..If there is one thing more dwarfish and pitiful than irreverence for the past, it is irreverence for the present, for the passionate and many-coloured procession of life, which includes the char-a-banc among its many chariots and triumphal cars. I know nothing so vulgar as that contempt for vulgarity which sneers at the clerks on a Bank Holiday or the Cockneys on Margate sands."

I was indeed, before I discovered Chesterton-- and indeed, for a long time afterwards-- inclined towards a 'dwarfish and pitiful' irreverence for the present. Most imaginative writers would encourage me in this, from Wordsworth to Nietzsche to Philip Larkin to W.B. Yeats. It took Chesterton to make me feel rightfully ashamed of myself. Indeed, this contempt for sight-seeing was already at odds with many other things I felt, such as a hearty defence of everyday life and popular entertainments and Christmas.
The final 'source of the self' that I'm going to mention (although I could continue this article until my fingers fell off) is Star Trek: The Next Generation. I would watch this with all three of my brothers, after school and before dinner, on Sky channel. It is one of the very few things we all did together. I fondly remember the running commentary and jokes we would keep up. One of my brothers is still quite a fan, while the other two lost interest long ago.

It's only Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Voyager I'm talking about here. I don't have the slightest interest in the original series; I made an effort to watch it some years ago and it bored me beyond endurance. Deep Space Nine, although I enjoyed it at the time, has lost all appeal for me now (and my brothers all watched that one together, too, which proves this isn't all just nostalgia). DS9, with its rather baroque tone, now seems to me like an affront to the whole spirit of Star Trek.

It's the optimism and humanism of Star Trek that appeals to me the most. It may be a sign of distinction or sensitivity to view the human race with disdain, but I am unable to cultivate this feeling (though, I will ruefully admit, I sometimes feel a misplaced disdain towards individuals). I like the scene where Jean-Luc Picard has this piece of dialogue: "I know Hamlet. And what he said with irony, I say with conviction: "What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! in apprehension how like a god!"

(This, by the way, is in no way a denial of original sin. The fallen nature of humankind seems so obvious to me that it takes a special kind of audacity to try to dispute it. But the tragic flaw in the human soul doesn't make us despicable, or in any way take away from our dignity-- a dignity that seems obvious to me even without the revelation that we are made in God's image.)

Star Trek, to me, depicts a world where 'liberalism' and 'conservatism' are in admirable harmony. Every one of the characters is a pronounced individual, a free agent, and the Enterprise is a model of 'diversity'. And yet, the crew are also a model of community which is unsurpassed in popular culture, or in any other form of culture. They work together, socialise together, live together and develop together. Similarly, the futuristic atmosphere of the show doesn't prevent the crew (and other characters) from remaining 'backward-looking' in the sense of cherishing their national and racial heritages. (I hope I can get away with using the adjective 'racial', since I am referring to Klingons and Betazoids!)

In recent weeks and months, I have been thinking a lot about my 'liberalism', and truly regretting the false choice between conservatism and liberalism with which contemporary society often presents us. If a passionate opposition to abortion and euthanasia debars me from liberalism, then I agree that I am not a liberal. If a passionate belief that the meaning of human sexuality lies in the complementary of man and woman debars me from being a liberal, then I am not a liberal. If an admiration for patriotism and tradition debar me from being a liberal, then I am not a liberal. If liberalism requires an agreement that every limit on human freedom is an evil, necessary or otherwise, then I am not a liberal.

Despite all that, I believe that I am a liberal. Liberalism, as I would define it, is a reverence for the uniqueness and autonomy of every individual, every culture and sub-culture, and every sphere of society. To be liberal is to cherish free speech, freedom of association, freedom of conscience, and freedom of expression (something rather separate from free speech). I don't think any of these things can or should be unlimited, even in an ideal world. On the other hand, I don't think they should be left to benign neglect or to a spirit of 'live and let live'. I think we should take a benevolent interest in the plurality of views and ways of life that make up society. Indeed, I think that we already do this, as a result of living in an 'open society'. I think that we take in a kind of 'anti-totalitarianism' with our mother's milk, which it takes a certain amount of effort to 'unlearn' (unfortunately, some people do).

Every time we say that somebody has a right to their opinions-- a statement that rolls so easily off our tongues-- we show this. After all, there is no obvious reason why anybody should have a 'right' to their opinions. When you think about it, it's an extraordinary claim. 

Every time we draw a line between politics and education, or politics and sport, or politics and art, we show how instinctively liberal we are. The claim amongst some Marxists and feminists that 'everything is political' runs counter to this instinct, and even the people who make such a claim rarely behave as though it is true. They are thus better than their own philosophy.

What is this 'outside place', this lobby or foyer, from which we can calmly survey different truth claims, different worldviews? In a more literal and physical sense, I've always been fascinated by such places. I am fascinated by indoor shopping centres (or 'malls', as they are deliciously termed in America). When I still had disposable income, I used to regularly buy a smothie in Dublin's Stephen's Green shopping centre and carry it to the second floor, to drink it while leaning against one of the balconies that overlook the centre. I savoured the sound of the voices hanging in the air and the strange sensation of being 'inside' and 'outside' at once. This is what the 'virtual space' of pluralism seems like to me. It's extraordinary that it exists at all.

The liberal, pluralistic environment that we all live in is not natural-- it's highly artificial and achieved. I think we are in constant danger of undervaluing it.

(Are there limits to pluralism? Undoubtedly. Would I be in favour of imposing more limits than most people who consider themselves pluralists? Yes. For instance, I think there is a great deal to be said for the censorship of works of art, and I consider the 'Hays Code' of movie self-censorship to have been very admirable. But I don't see that this negates the basic idea of pluralism as being inherently good.)
I've often written that I see the nation as an extended family; this is my idea of nationalism. Similarly, my idea of liberalism is to see society as an extended group of friends. I don't think there's anything revolutionary about this; in fact, I think it's what most people do already.

I could list so many other sources of my worldview, but I'm at risk of exhausting the reader. Nor do I think the sources of my worldview, or my worldview itself, as particularly important. But I'm fascinated by such things. What does a person believe and cherish? And how did they come by such beliefs, such values?


  1. Enjoy reading your blog. Liam

  2. Replies
    1. Really? I thought it sucked! Thanks Tomas.

  3. No I liked many passages (and it got me reading very easily). I thought it was good even that you mentioned there are values in liberalism! Since there really are such values - somewhere - while too often one might tend to see "liberal" only as a kind of stupid word. Language was perhaps never meant to let words just degenerate like that?

    1. Exactly. I'm on a mission to save liberalism from liberals.