Matthew Sweeney’s last collection is bright with painters: Lowry, Van Gogh, Goya, for the most part painters of possibility, or Paula Modersohn-Becker, who moved with Rilke and Rodin and whom Rilke once described as ‘half held in thrall, yet already seizing control’.
James Joyce never wanted to believe that his daughter could not be cured of her mental illness, saying ‘whatever spark or gift I possess has been transmitted to Lucia and has kindled a fire in her brain’. The problem was, however, that the fire could not be extinguished.
The challenge in our secular age for a poet engaging with the spiritual and religious is how to sound the authentic note. To this end James Harpur fetches images from the religious art and symbolism of the past, renewing and refreshing them in his language of ‘pure clear words’.
It has been euphemistically categorised as ‘enhanced interrogation’, but Jean Améry, who suffered it at the hands of the Gestapo, called it ‘methodical violence, the equivalent of rape’, adding that ‘whoever has succumbed to torture can no longer feel at home in the world’.
Ireland has of course been long associated, for both good and ill, with the potato. Its most delicious accompaniment, butter, has a long history too, much of it associated with Munster and with the sophisticated system which led to a thriving industry in Cork in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Economic history, Paul Bairoch wrote, teaches us that no rule or law in economics is valid for every period of history or every economic structure. So why are European models, based on the myth of the rational homo economicus, still so prevalent in African development economics?
In the 1930s American academics carried out a range of studies in European countries whose citizens had a tradition of emigration to the US. The measurement of skulls and other tests, it was felt, could determine which peoples were ‘eugenically fit’ and which were rather a bad lot.
Tyrannies, ancient and modern, depend on myths, myths which cement the leader in power and demolish any arguments against his rule (and it’s almost always a him); they promote and naturalise an identity as fixed as the North Star, bringing all minds into orbit round an idea.
It is well-known that Joyce drew on Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs when writing the sadomasochistic scenes in Ulysses. Masoch’s name today may be chiefly linked to ‘SM’ porn, but there is more to Venus in Furs than that, and indeed more to Masoch than one book.