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Literary Theory

Where To Next?

Enda Duffy

Modernism, Empire, World Literature, by Joe Cleary, Cambridge University Press, 326 pp, £29.99, ISBN: 978-1108492355

Whither Irish literature? Whither Irish literary criticism? In venues such as this one, critics inevitably concentrate on the literature of the present, praising high points, noting trends. Literary historians, instead, re-evaluate the past. Meanwhile, the most intriguing question remains unasked: what will Irish literature be like in fifty years? In one hundred? Modernism, Literature and World Literature by Joe Cleary is an important and necessary book because it magnificently lays the groundwork for answering this question. As criticism, it has a range of ambitions; paramount among them is that it sets the terms for the future of Irish literature. Every Irish literary critic ‑ and every Irish writer ‑ should read it and be challenged by it.

Modernism, Empire, World Literature is an immensely suggestive and thought-provoking work by one of Ireland’s most distinguished critics. In the first place, it reads as a proof-piece: proof that the outstanding tradition of Irish criticism ‑ which at least since Thomas Davis has gone hand in glove with Irish literature ‑ despite the recent deaths of two of its leading figures, Seamus Deane and Denis Donoghue, will continue to expand its horizons. Joe Cleary, first at Maynooth and more recently at Yale, is well-known for ambitious work on topics ranging from Pascale Casanova’s The World Republic of Letters to the definitive academic treatment of the Pogues. Now it is clear that his critical eye extends even further, to match the scale of such noted globalist-comparativists as the Italian Franco Moretti, or Cleary’s own mentor, the late Edward Said.

The book under review here wrestles anew with the questions which have preoccupied them: what, now, might constitute a true “world literature”? What does it mean to be cosmopolitan now, when English is the global lingua franca but cultures jostle and intermingle across continents? The book reconsiders these questions by recasting the notions of (backward) periphery and (sophisticated) centre that had reached their height around 1922, when the cascade of revolutionary writings we now call “modernism” were published. In this book, a series of the great men of modernism in English ‑ James, Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Joyce, F Scott Fitzgerald, Eugene O’Neill—get re-situated, moved about the global chessboard marking centre and periphery, and subtly re-evaluated; the work echoes with the sound of the most formidable pieces of furniture being moved from room to room in the house of modernism. This attention to the grandest works ‑ The Golden Bowl, “The Wasteland”, Ulysses ‑ and the breadth of the geographical horizon, from Europe, North America and the Caribbean to the world beyond, might persuade an Irish reader that Cleary’s concerns are now simply larger than those of Ireland. This would be a mistake, for Irish writing, modernist and since, exists in this study as its open secret. Ireland’s literary fortune is the key to the global restructuring outlined here. We need, Joe Cleary implies, to understand the dilemmas facing global literary production, if we are to explain how Irish writers can manage to exceed Joyce himself, when he spoke of how works of his time could be “national first and it was the intensity of their nationalism that made them international in the end”. Modernism, Empire, World Literature, with cold-eyed brilliance, elaborates a new phase of the dialectic of the local and global.

The stakes for Irish literature at this moment could hardly be higher. Consider, as debates on Irish writing are wont to do these days, the case of Sally Rooney’s Normal People. One review praised Rooney’s novel as the first true work of literature of the twenty-first century: at last, the sensibility of those born into the new millennium finds full expression. The reviewer might have gone further: Normal People also manages, effortlessly and unselfconsciously, the amazing feat, for an Irish fiction, of not having its national setting matter at all. Obviously, it is set in an Irish town, and in Trinity College, settings redolent with their Irish literary prehistories. Yet if the settings had been, say, a town in Minnesota and Stanford, or a village in Alsace and the Sorbonne, the story or the characters need not have been any different. To read Rooney with all of Irish literature in mind is to realise instantly that even those rare Irish writers who have rejected Irish pastoral placedness (the writers of Dublin working- and middle-class life, for example) are still tethered to the specifics of locale, and make the injustices tied to that place the matter of their fictions. Up to now, in other words, Irish writing in English since Maria Edgeworth has always been what Fredric Jameson once controversially claimed all post-colonial fiction must be: a national allegory. In this sense, Rooney’s breathtaking achievement lies in what she omits; suddenly, for her, the novel need not be a national allegory. Joyce in Finnegans Wake called it “Ireland’s little split pea”; it’s no longer her literature’s obsession. Another way to think of this: hers is the fitting fiction not merely of a new “confident” Ireland, but of the Ireland of the IFSC, the Celtic Tiger, the 12.5 per cent multinationals’ tax rate. Subsequent Irish writing, if it is to build on Rooney ‑ and it must ‑ needs to ask: what message will this new writing from an Ireland no longer marked by a tangible uniqueness of history and place offer to the world? Such will be the test of Irish culture’s new role on the global stage in this millennium. It is also the question to which Cleary’s book gives magnificent attention.

It might seem perverse to compare the thoroughly historicist literary critique of Modernism, Empire and World Literature with the love story limned in Normal People. Yet Irish literature and Irish criticism have always been especially close. Here, both works are wholly and admirably of this moment: both accept the responsibility of asking what Irish writers, and critics, can now say that is worth saying to the world. (They are not alone in this, of course: Colm Tóibín’s novels on James and Mann, for example, establish another route with the same object.) Cleary’s book sets before us a series of scenarios, in which writers peripheral to the imperial metropoles of Paris and London took on the mores and expectations of these places and then bested them. They did this by strategically deploying cultural materials from their own cultures that seemed novel, and potentially reinvigorating, to the metropolitan arbiters of cultural value. Most famous of all in this regard is Yeats, who relentlessly advertised the power of the ancient Celtic sagas to the international, London-centric literary scene as a specialised Irish cultural discovery with the power to reinvigorate humdrum modern life. Today, however, when the landscapes of Tara and Newgrange have been repackaged as the tourist trail of “Ireland’s Ancient East” and Connacht, to which Yeats directed Synge as Irish source-code, is “The Wild Atlantic Way”, the matter of Ireland, defined by the Revivalists around an implied link between place and destiny, sheds its former cultural charge. “Ireland”, as a history-imbued place which generates identities, evaporates. Accepting this, Cleary and Rooney both implicitly ask what do we now have to offer, and how do we get our voices heard in the global marketplace of culture? For Cleary, as for Rooney, a remarkable part of his book’s power lies in what he omits from it. For over thirty years, the intellectual powerhouse of Irish literary criticism has been post-colonial critique. First with The Crane Bag, then with Field Day, propelled by the Northern Troubles, Irish post-coloniality fostered a renaissance in Irish literary criticism, and somewhat of another revival in Irish literature. It read Ireland as a nation in the avant-garde of decolonisation from imperial Britain, and saw Irish modernism as the cultural arm of the fight for independence. To it, all Irish literature, first, was national-allegorical. Irish post-colonial critique easily outwitted revisionism, and prevailed in the culture at large, so that by now Ireland is commonly thought of as a post-colonial nation. It also sanctioned a new introspection in Irish criticism, a prideful return to the “matter of Ireland”, yet its vision of literary culture as political was in keeping with international trends. This was cemented in the 1980s when Field Day invited three of the foremost post-colonialist critics ‑ Fredric Jameson, Edward Said and Terry Eagleton ‑ to Ireland to speak on Irish modernism.

If the Irish post-colonial turn has lasted for two generations, Joe Cleary belongs to the second; his PhD dissertation, directed by Said, led to his innovative book comparing Irish and Palestinian writing. He is therefore immersed in and conversant with post-colonial critique. Striking, then, is how it apparently drops away in this study, only coming to the forefront in the final chapter, on the poet Derek Walcott. Fredric Jameson, lodestone of materialist criticism, gets only a passing mention, while the French intellectual axis underpinning cultural studies, from Foucault to Deleuze, not to mention more radical figures such as Antonio Negri, give way to Casanova’s account of the international literary system. The effect: the materialist and post-colonial assumptions are taken as givens; the word “Empire” stands out, after all, in the title. This makes Modernism, Empire and World Literature, a critical clearing, allowing the critic to attend to a focused set of questions. Cleary investigates what is gained and what is lost when great writers cease attending to how they can better represent the truth of conditions in their home countries and turn instead to the tactics of competing in the world marketplace. This clearing might be thought of as Cleary’s recasting of what Seamus Heaney, in Irish poetry, signalled as his wariness of allegorical, potentially revolutionary, readings, when in “Station Island”, he had had none other than Joyce’s ghost tell him:

That subject people stuff is a cod’s game,
infantile, like this peasant pilgrimage.

What looked like Heaney’s diffidence might be reread, today, as prophecy: to put the post-colonial note foremost might be to lock Ireland in an underdog crouch. By now, the older politics of imperial overlords and “third world” nations is not radical enough, in an era of money-flows, tax havens, supply chains, “flexible workers” and transiting migrants. Cleary focuses on how highbrow writers negotiated the global flows of culture which accompanied the emergence of this post-“post-colonial” world order. He goes beyond the older critique, with its romantic valorisation of “struggle”, to sketch the literary prehistory we need to know as we envisage a contemporary globalist realism.

This book is an account of how Casanova’s “world republic of letters”, centred first in Paris, then London, has been approached, dazzled and vanquished by a cavalcade of modernist writers from the periphery. First, two nineteenth century thinkers ‑ de Tocqueville on the US and Matthew Arnold on “the Celts” ‑ are presented as the assured metropolitans who condescended to write about a peripheral people with tolerant eyes, while Yeats and Pound are the figures from these peripheries who answered back to the centres of empire. The following chapters also juxtapose works seldom read together. Henry James’s The Golden Bowl is paired with Eliot’s The Waste Land; in beautiful readings, the critic elucidates how James educates his American readers in taking the reins of culture from an enervated European, and how The Waste Land specifically indicts Europe’s broken-down condition before it atomises global capital’s malaise. As Cleary’s thesis develops, its focus becomes international rivalry, as he tracks the ambiguous deployment of what he terms “mimetic rivalr”’ by American and Irish modernists who imitate metropolitan forms as they exceed them. Soon, this attention broadens out to what he terms “all sorts of rivalries” and especially to the peripheral writers’ ambition to fashion epic works as assured as imperial epics. Rivalry is the key trope of his definitive reading of the “Scylla and Charybdis” episode of Ulysses, the dazzling high point of his book. Joyce’s backhanded compliment to Shakespeare in the episode indeed marks the most open avowal ever by an Irish writer to best the literature of the British. Cleary is best, nevertheless, in showing how this rivalry proliferates: Stephen parries with Shakespeare, but Joyce makes clear that he would parry too with Irish literary criticism (in the figure of Eglinton), the Irish cultural apparatus (Best), the Irish bourgeoisie (Mulligan), self-satisfied Irish writers (Moore, AE) and their British boosters (Haines). He concludes, in a typically well-turned phrase, that “there is no little Calibanesque venom” in the episode. This bravura chapter is an anatomy of how peripherality makes for empowering ressentiment.

Next Cleary considers how Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey Into Night each tried, but did not quite succeed, in breaching the European metropoles with late-modernist epics. He raises the intriguing question of whether it matters that both writers were Irish-American ‑ a thought-line well worth pursuing. The final chapter, although it documents what he sees as another, quite bitter, failure, that of Walcott’s Omeros, an epic written in Boston about the Caribbean, to overcome its author’s disabling self-consciousness about his subaltern position in the US, is also an astounding performance. Despite these stories of metropolitan capitals captured but not quite won, however, and of epics unrealised, the critical tale charted here, as history has proven, is a hopeful one. Paris, London, even New York, are surely, by now, not quite the hegemonic centres of cultural power and arbiters of cultural value in the present planetary republic of letters that they were.

Or are they? Casanova’s fear, that Paris would be eclipsed by London, was well-placed; English is now the global language. Or is it American? London’s pole position was soon relinquished to New York. The unlikely hero of this study is TS Eliot, who arrived from the US only to take over as arch-tastemaker of English literature for the world. Yet the ultimate beneficiary was probably Walcott’s editor in New York, and, especially after World War II, the prestige of New York as new gatekeeping centre. Still, this book’s somewhat pessimistic ending ‑ on how the Nobel-winning Caribbean epic is riven by shame at being co-opted by the US ‑ should assuredly be taken as a challenge.

By using Casanova’s account of the power of the Western cultural capitals, Cleary underlines their enormous conservative cultural power and the gravity of the task of writers from the margins to overcome that power. To Casanova’s account, he adds two features. First, he insists on its evident economic underpinnings. While Britain and France ruled their empires, their capitals maintained cultural hegemony; when the US superseded both, New York was bound to take the cultural reins. Second, given the economic realities underlying cultural power, he underlines the challenge posed to Casanova’s account by the case of Ireland. His critical move is to constantly place Ireland alongside the US as the peripheral nation that disrupted the cultural ascendancy of Paris-London. This might appear to retread US-centric Cold War readings, but Cleary does so mischievously. The reason: it is clear why New York took over from London: the American empire, and American money, took over the world. However, that materialist account ‑ that culture follows the money and its power ‑ does not apply to Ireland. Ireland, then, remains the prod to any easy materialist assumptions ‑ and the example to writers from other peripheral regions who dream of creating new forms of culture radical enough to speak back to global power.

This book’s final chapter on Omeros develops from the Irish strand of the work. With the case of Ireland and then of Saint Lucia, the author implicitly invites us to ask how can a poor and peripheral nation generate works that speak to the whole world and are allowed to be heard by the empire gatekeepers. Reading this moving account it struck me to wonder if Cleary first intended to write this chapter on Seamus Heaney and if Walcott is a kind of critical alibi? Heaney’s career paralleled that of Walcott; it too led to Boston and the Nobel; he too wrote a tentative epic mingling autobiography and history. By turning at last to a writer born beyond “the West” but still of it, Cleary demands that we face up to how we might think of a new global neoliberal planetariness, while at the same time he builds upon the Irish post-colonial studies notion that Irish subaltern writing can serve as an avatar and model for the long-marginalised peoples of the world.

Where does this leave contemporary Irish literary culture? It stresses that Irish culture must now look outward, and no longer obsess simply about Ireland itself. What interests Cleary always is less what judgement Walcott, for example, passes on Caribbean history than on how he might successfully understand and honour his role on the global stage. Irish writing, the implication is, can now too, confidently, write not just about the matter of Ireland, even as a microcosm of any number of settings elsewhere, but rather should assume the responsibility of writing in fully global terms; it needs to enter the new phase of spearheading the production of a truly global literature from below.

In Normal People, the charmed young Trinity students wander Europe on Eurail passes. At one point, Jamie declares that they should avoid Venice, as “It’s full of Asians taking pictures of everything.” He is roundly criticised by the others for his racism. In a short account of the recent history of the Nobel Prize in this book, the critic notes that not until 2000 was it won by a Chinese-born writer. Joyce, back in 1923, wrote to his British financial backer Harriet Weaver to report that in Shanghai “Chinese ladies (not American as I had supposed) meet twice a week to discuss my mistresspiece.” As early as 1922, the Chinese novelist Mao Dun had written about Ulysses in a Chinese journal; as he had seen parts published in The Little Review in the US, he implies that the book represents new American literature.

To bring up China at this point in a discussion of world literature might seem to merely pander to the latest Western fears. Yet China is now the signal test-case of how the West deals with cultures different, from, more ancient and perhaps more distinguished than its own. As critics and as writers, we are called by Joe Cleary to take up this challenge of global difference. If Irish writers and critics are to participate in building a new, open world literature, one that never fawns before gatekeepers of any imperial centres of power, then it has an as yet undreamed of future ahead of it. It will have a range of prejudices, even shames, to contend with, yes, but also multiple global understandings and contact points to imagine and explore. Joe Cleary showed the way forward in his earlier work on Irish and Palestinian culture; he develops this much further, and throws down an even greater challenge, in this superb book.


Enda Duffy is an academic from Roscommon. He is professor of English at the University of California Santa Barbara, where he has recently been Arnhold Department Chair. He is the author of The Subaltern Ulysses and The Speed Handbook: Velocity, Pleasure, Modernism , co-editor of Joyce, Benjamin and Magical Urbanism, a new book from Edinburgh on Katherine Mansfield’s Bliss and Other Stories, and of many essays on Joyce, modernist culture and materialist critique. Two projects are in process: Wild Irish: The Emigrant People’s History of Irish Literature, and a book on human and global energy in modern culture. 



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