Luke Gibbons writes: When the organisers of “After Orientalism”, a major conference on the work of Edward Said, asked the great Palestinian writer and critic which world intellectual should be invited to give the keynote, the answer was immediately forthcoming: “Seamus Deane.” Those who were at the conference, at Columbia University in October 1996, will never forget the standing ovation given to Deane’s extraordinary critical survey of Said’s reflections on theory and actuality, delivered ex tempore. Such was his style: when he arrived once to speak on George Eliot at a Great Tradition seminar, only to find that it was about TS Eliot, he switched to give an outstanding impromptu talk on the modernist poet, as if that was what he had in mind all along.
Seamus Deane exemplified a new departure in Irish letters: while the Celt in colonial eyes had never been found wanting in literary imagination, criticism was left to others in the metropolitan centre. Deane was the first to put criticism in Ireland on a continuum with its creative energies, investing style itself with his own oxyacetylene intellect. To the extent that the Revival countered modernity with Romantic Ireland, it offered no threat to empire: “by means of it the Celt can stay quaint, and stay put.” There is even a risk, under an Arnoldian dispensation, of culture fostering “oppression’s ultimate resource: the cooperation of the oppressed”.
The answer to this impasse was to put critical enquiry on an equal footing with artistic creation. At the legendary 1975 James Joyce symposium in Paris headed up by Jacques Lacan, Deane pointed to the importance of re-possessing cosmopolitan forms, such as the novel, inherited from colonialism, but also extended this critical engagement to the ordnances of theory. Ideas, even at their most universal, were no less grounded in the societies that produced them than were works of the imagination. In his essay “Land and Soil”, Deane pointed out that for all his travelling, Count Dracula, like an Irish absentee landlord, carried the soil of his estate around with him in a coffin.
Deane’s voice, “like sound implicit in a bell”, was no less present in his essays than his poetry and fiction, but like a bell it also aimed to wake people from their dogmatic slumbers. One of the paradoxes of the Enlightenment in Ireland was that emancipation, following the Penal Laws, concerned an institution liberal and republican thinking had set its face firmly against: the Catholic church. In a series of scholarly publications over many decades, Deane sought to reclaim traditions of Catholic liberalism in figures as diverse as de Tocqueville, Chateaubriand, Renan and Cardinal Newman, in the process challenging stereotypes of Edmund Burke as a counter-enlightenment figure and tracing the enormous influence of Daniel O’Connell’s democratic and anti-slavery positions on European thought. Western appeals to pure reason, unimpeded by style or the moral imagination, did not impress Deane: he liked to quote Flann O’Brien’s remark that “We must keep the wolf from the door – in case he gets out.”
In his review of Celtic Revivals (1985), Conor Cruise O’Brien rebuked Deane for attempting to understand political violence in Ireland, on the grounds that such understanding is “complicity” – a position consistent with the then Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act enforced by O’Brien. This itself was a misunderstanding because for Deane, language operated at a deeper level, understanding being required for disagreement and critique in the first place, not just singing from the same ballad-sheet: “the wrong grammar”, in words Deane cited from Seamus Heaney, “which kept us allied and at bay”.
That Ireland’s language, English, was not a mother tongue but acquired from the oppressor, meant that a critical awareness of the medium was there from the outset: “language could be taken as a fact of nature. Instead, it was recognized to be a creation of culture and therefore vulnerable.” This critical component, in conjunction with theatre as intervention, governed the Field Day project, though, with mordant humour, Deane wondered whether terming a publication series “Critical Conditions” was tempting fate from the outset. Notwithstanding their disagreements over Yeats, Deane concurred with Edward Said that the poet set a formidable precedent in infusing words with the political force of a cultural movement.
Much of the fascination with Swift and Burke derived from the powerful impact of the pamphlet as an intervention in public life, language not just reflecting but actively constituting the worlds of which it is a part. The Field Day pamphlet series, with its colloquy of voices, was a tribute to the pamphlet wars of previous centuries.
The power of words is seen to telling effect in the Jamesian folk story related by Aunt Katie in Reading in the Dark. There, the merging of the two children with almost identical names, Frances and Francis, seems as much a process of language as any supernatural forces. This contesting of male and female binaries runs through Deane’s work: noting in Mary Lavin and Elizabeth Bowen the refusal of an “aggressive domineering relationship to the world which is so typical of the many artist heroes of modern Irish writing”, he endorses an alternative heroic style in which “the object is not the display of self, but the deployment of language for the sake of illuminating a particular situation or problem”.
If it fell to literature in Ireland to register social life in “ways which in other cultures would be fulfilled by political and sociological commentary”, this placed considerable responsibility on the writer (while explaining also the vigilance with which writers were policed by both church and state). The search for form that Deane discerned in experimental writers such as Joyce, Beckett, Bowen, Flann O’Brien and Anna Burns bore witness to narratives “that only become available for representation at the critical moment when the social and political system has begun to break down”, or fails to live up to its revolutionary potential. In a brilliant chapter in Strange Country (1997), he shows that the crisis of realist representation in Flann O’Brien’s writing owed as much to the vicissitudes of proportional representation in the Irish electoral system as the avant-garde aesthetic of Pirandello.
For all his dedication to ideas, one of Deane’s abiding concerns, illuminated in his late powerful essay on Simone Weil (Dublin Review of Books, April 2019), was an insistence that physical suffering, the scars of war, poverty and dispossession, was as existential a plight as humanity’s spiritual homelessness in an unforgiving world. “For the intelligentsia and the worker have this in common; neither has power,” he wrote elsewhere, and empowerment consists precisely of bringing them together. He was moved to discover that Simone Weil’s last notebook entries on, in effect, hunger-striking, before her own untimely death, were derived from her reading of a novel, The Flock of Birds, by the Derry-born writer Kathleen Coyle.
While many wrote about the gift economy, Seamus Deane practised it, his intellectual generosity knowing no bounds, as if ideas only took on life in the commons of the mind. An Enlightenment figure without parallel in the Irish republic of letters, he embodied the belief, perhaps taken from Burke, that truth never comes to light unless leavened by justice – an idea that needed no introduction in the Bogside of his upbringing. Consciousness, as Joyce noted at the end of Portrait, is never far from conscience in the end.
In Reading in the Dark, the boy finds out that the truth comes at a cost, that roses may have to be uprooted to uncover secrets buried underneath. Yet there was still an aesthetics of actuality. The novel opens with a scene in which a shadow is thrown on the stairs between a boy and his mother. Seamus Deane’s friendship, teaching and writing can be seen as a life devoted to dispelling those shadows, though it will be difficult to lift the shadow thrown by his own passing and his impact on peoples’ lives.