Reading Life, by Chris Arthur, Negative Capability Press, 214 pp, ISBN 978-0998677712
Hummingbirds Between the Pages, by Chris Arthur, Ohio State University Press, 264 pp, ISBN 978-0814254844
Over the last several decades, Chris Arthur has built up a considerable reputation as an Irish essayist. The more than thirty essays in these two new collections are the latest additions to a substantial body of work. He is unusual in focusing his creative effort almost entirely on the literary essay. Most essayists practice at least one other genre; George Orwell is a novelist-essayist, TS Eliot a poet-essayist, and so on. Despite Montaigne’s example, few later writers have been only essayists. Mostly writers acquire a reputation in another, more prestigious, genre before gaining a public for their essays, which often originate as reviews of other poets or novelists. Chris Arthur, though, after publishing a few poems, staked his claim to an audience solely on the essay
But an Irish essayist? Arthur, born in 1955, grew up in Lisburn, near Belfast, in a Protestant family. His father thought of himself as British rather than Irish. The young Arthur’s interest in Seamus Heaney and Flann O’Brien was viewed with silent disapproval as verging on disloyalty. And of course his teenage years coincided with the early years of the “Troubles”. Like many young Ulster Protestants, he left for the “mainland” of the UK to go to university, with the unstated possibility of not returning. After taking a degree at Edinburgh University in philosophy and religion (including Asian religions), he moved to Wales to teach at Lampeter for two decades, before returning to Scotland, where he still resides. Yet he lays claim to Irish affiliation in the titles of several essay collections, including Irish Elegies, and a trilogy called Irish Nocturnes, Irish Willow, and Irish Haiku. The majority of his essays refer to Ireland in some way, mostly the North, including the Donegal of childhood holidays. Arthur often revisits his youthful homeland from the “near distance” of Scotland and Wales, But the fact of his long-term residence in Britain makes his assertion of Irish (rather than British) identity a conscious choice worked out through his essays.
Perhaps absence has helped him to construct an Irish identity outside what he calls the “duopoly” of Protestant and Catholic. Religious/ethnic identities are present in the essays, but mainly as an obstacle, a limitation of selfhood ‑ Arthur uses the word “tribe” in a negative sense. His claim to a homeland is not based on existing social and cultural groupings but on personal experience, to a large extent remembered experience, especially of the landscape. Arthur’s Ireland is a personal homeland, an imagined homeland: his imagination has created it from memories and other sources. He works out his own sense of Ireland and his own sense of self through a personal field of reference developed over a long period, using a variety of sources: pre-Christian and non-Christian religions, youthful memories, adventures in nature, family history, images, books, and everyday objects which he endows with symbolic significance.
The objects Arthur’s essays explore in detail gradually acquire an aura which makes them resemble talismans. Occasionally they are associated with established religions, as in the figurine presented in “The Walking Buddha Beckons”. But the story of how and where he acquired it and why he treasured it is not linked to any Buddhist doctrines. Instead, walking “outside any named philosophy”, it leads to meditations about individual destinies: “I hope it’s not idolatrous, but I’ve come to see this little statuette as a kind of icon of the complex patterns made as we each tread out our lives upon this earth.” This characteristically Arthurian sentence deploys religious language in a heterodox way; the ironic aside hints that idols (scorned or banished by many monotheist traditions) can be positively construed as icons in a personal vision. (This contrasts with the commercial use of the “icon” to give “visual identity” to a brand through symbols like the jaguar, for example.)
Many other kinds of objects are made “iconic” in Arthur’s essays. In “Watchwords” he describes rediscovering the pocket watch given to his father in 1939. This object, kept and used by his father through the war and afterwards until his death, is linked to his habitual warnings to his son to “Watch yourself.” The watch and the watchword are then woven into a meditation on this man’s life, and on the course of all lives through time. Other objects which provide themes for Arthur’s essays (family photographs, an old postcard) could also be considered “relics”, not of saints, but of ordinary acquaintances, friends, relatives and even one’s own past self. But for Arthur these relics are not for veneration so much as inquiry and speculation. What might have been the circumstances of the photos or postcards, the feelings, the relationships of the people depicted?
The idea of “reading” is another way of describing this kind of inquiry, and it provides the title for the Reading Life collection. Here the essay themes alternate between books and other objects, but the approach is basically the same. The featured books form an eclectic gathering: some are by well-known authors like Montaigne, Heaney and Flann O’Brien, but others are more obscure, like the novella Agostino by Alberto Moravia, and the hawk-watching book by JA Baker, The Peregrine, a work whose intensity of quest make it gripping even for those who are not bird watchers. The “readings” in the other essays are equally eclectic, ranging from a whale’s tooth, to “my daughter’s feet”, to “three old walking sticks”.
Why would such a highly personal quasi-religious quest for meaning, identity and home be of interest to others? The autobiography of any individual is potentially interesting, but Arthur’s essays and essay collections are not structured as autobiography. The order is not chronological, though the main outlines of his life can be pieced together from various essays. Nor is the religious element overt, though the influence of Buddhism can be detected in places. In fact, it may be wrong to use the word religion at all, and simply to acknowledge that this endeavour to find patterns of significance in life fills part of the place that organised religion used to occupy, providing a sense of identity and a sense of belonging, not to a tribe, but to a world. Instead of accepting a given identity from a religion or a society, Arthur shows how imagination and inquiry can create one’s own unique place in the world.
But this is an ongoing task. Established religions can provide comfort with ritual, repetition and familiarity, but a sense of wonder can go missing. Arthur writes that “my experience of writing essays is rooted in wonder”. One might expect to hear wonder attributed to poetry rather than the essay, but Arthur’s essays show that it can be linked to prose inquiry as well. The sense of wonder is uncommon in academic writing, where the stance is impersonal and the tone is “knowledgeable”. Arthur’s academic training is in religion and philosophy (not in literature, already in the 1970s coming under the sway of “theory”), but his essays do not fall under the disciplinary aegis of either subject. Instead, wonder leads to free inquiry and free inquiry leads to wonder. A very specific incident or object can provoke very general reflections; this approach lies outside any academic discipline or any other literary genre.
The importance of Arthur’s achievement may be missed because of the relatively low status accorded to the essay in the academic and literary worlds. There are a few signs of change in academia (a conference on the essay sponsored by the University of Dundee in June 2018) and publishing (for example Notting Hill Editions, which “offers a home for the essay” as well as an annual prize). But there are few other prizes awarded to practitioners of the genre, and none comparable to the Man Booker and other fiction prizes. Can a writer who is “only an essayist” get the recognition he or she deserves for an oeuvre that could only have been created in the essay form?
Graham Good is professor emeritus of English at the University of British Columbia and author of The Observing Self: Rediscovering the Essay (London: Routledge, 1988, reprinted 2014).