Valorising Valentine Brown
- Ascendancy and Tradition in Anglo-Irish Literary History from 1789 to 1939 by W.J. McCormack
Oxford, 423 pp, £27.50, June 1985, ISBN 0 19 812806 1
- Across a Roaring Hill edited by Gerald Dawe and Edna Longley
Blackstaff, 258 pp, £10.95, July 1985, ISBN 0 85640 334 2
- Celtic Revivals: Essays in Modern Irish Literature 1880-1980 by Seamus Deane
Faber, 199 pp, £15.00, July 1985, ISBN 0 571 13500 5
- Escape from the Anthill by Hubert Butler
Lilliput, 342 pp, £12.00, May 1985, ISBN 0 946640 00 9
In a recent Times article, Philip Howard pounced on the deplorable word ‘Valorisation’ which seems to be trying to edge its way into the English language. ‘To enhance the price, value or status of by organised ... action’ is one of the meanings he quotes for it. Here is an example of one such usage: ‘the literary critics’ valorisation of tradition’. This phrase occurs towards the end of W.J. McCormack’s dissection of Anglo-Irishness as a literary and historical concept, Ascendancy and Tradition. ‘Valorise’, indeed, is a verb much favoured in this book, along with others like ‘energise’ and ‘traumatise’. There’s a word that might be applied to this style of writing: unstylish. At one point we catch the author of Ascendancy and Tradition considering the way in which Joyce and Yeats ‘as a binary and mutually dependent cultural production confront the totality of history’. There the two unfortunate literary figures stand, symbiosis thrust upon them. At another moment, the history of Ireland is called ‘bifurcated’, which makes it sound like a pair of trousers. It is very provoking of W.J. McCormack to write in this benighted way. The less he has to say, the more fussy and fustian his manner becomes. On the poem ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’, we get this:
The title employs words, not numerals, but it employs one of several possible verbal formulations. It prevents us from particularising the year as One Thousand, Nine Hundred and Nineteen; it prevents us from slurring it to a loose Nineteen Nineteen. Thus, the element Nineteen is repeated but not emptily so, for we are directed to the middle term, indicating the completed nineteenth century and its nineteen year excess. The post scriptum date, on the other hand, is unpronounceable or at best variously pronounceable.
Close scrutiny, you might say, is one thing; obsessive and fruitless scrutiny another.
McCormack’s main contention seems to be that ‘ascendancy’ and ‘tradition’ alike are figments of the imagination of W.B. Yeats. It’s well-known, of course, that the Protestant Ascendancy of the 18th century (a term not current, in fact, as McCormack reminds us, before 1792) didn’t actually embody all the qualities Yeats attributed to it – courtesy and decency, a high-minded approach to political matters and an aristocratic lineage. As far as the last is concerned – well, there’s the hidden Ireland uncovered by Daniel Corkery in 1928 (his study of 18th-century Munster appeared under that title), inhabited by people who took a very poor view indeed of the new English-speaking aristocracy that had ousted the old Irish-speaking one. ‘Valentine Brown’, as these purists saw it, was the sort of ludicrous name an arriviste landowner might call himself – someone who’d installed himself in a demesne of the great McCarthys, now dead or dispersed. In this world, the speaker of ‘cunning English’ quickly got himself condemned for opportunism, everything English being associated with the kind of baseness Yeats decried. Still, it was quite another Ireland the poet had in mind when he singled out the 18th century, labelling it ‘the one Irish century that escaped from darkness and confusion’. Swift, Berkeley, Burke, Goldsmith and Sheridan: all these stood for clarity of thought, while Dublin gaiety, Belfast liberalism, and the sense of national consequence acquired at Dungannon, all contributed something to the Yeatsian image of a mellow era. That this particular form of Irishness was conceived in opposition to an unsatisfactory present – ‘Man is in love and loves what vanishes’ – and (as Louis MacNeice has it) ‘in defiance of the Gaelic League’ and all it stood for, doesn’t in the least detract from its efficacy.
Vol. 7 No. 17 · 3 October 1985
SIR: It is clear from Patricia Craig’s maudlin and evasive review of Ascendancy and Tradition in Anglo-Irish Literary History (LRB, 5 September) that she is unwilling to discuss the ideas advanced in my book and prefers to deal in matters of style. It seems to her that I favour verbs like ‘energise’, ‘traumatise’ and ‘valorise’, and these are deplorable ruffian neologisms trying, in her view, to edge their way into the English language. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, they have been with us since 1752, 1857 and 1907 respectively. I concede that the literary-critical use of ‘valorise’ is a modification of the commercial term recorded in the dictionary – perhaps it is that vulgar provenance which gives offence to Ms Craig. On the other hand, among the vulgar, semi-literate Bolshevik innovators who imposed ‘energise’ on an unsuspecting language, I must list Henry Fielding, Archbishop Whately and Sir William Hamilton.
What Ms Craig’s review indicates indirectly, of course, is not so much devotion to an out-of-date linguistic purity as a refusal to discuss arguments concerning the transactions between literature and politics. Such transactions cannot, in my view, be discussed in the language of the tea-party, especially in an Irish context where literary culture is intimately involved with a violent (and not wholly Irish) history. Having finally moved on to review other books and in doing so reached the safer waters of narrative and paraphrase, Ms Craig suddenly refers to ‘a more orthodox variety of rancid Catholicism’ (her own phrase, I should add). It will be clear to readers of Ascendancy and Tradition that I am far from being a Catholic. But in deference to the feelings of numerous fellow human beings, I find the phrase highly offensive. Would a less orthodox variety have manifested more or less rancidness? Who would wish to choose style as against content, or content as against style, in discussing this view of things, coming as it does from one claiming to pronounce on Irish history and the English language? In failing to meet Ms Craig’s stylistic requirements, I do not necessarily end up styleless.
Vol. 7 No. 19 · 7 November 1985
SIR: In his book Ascendancy and Tradition in Anglo-Irish Literary History, W.J. McCormack tells us – in a rather curious phrase – that Yeats ‘rewrites the terms upon which he would be interpreted’. (He also tells us that when he refers to Yeats he doesn’t mean the ‘biographical individual’, but ‘the summum of texts bearing his name’.) There’s a certain circularity about this statement which makes it difficult to get to grips with what it actually means (I think it means that Yeats’s view of Irish history was both selective and subjective, but I cannot be sure of this). An element of imperspicuity runs through the book, and it’s as much an effect of Mr McCormack’s use of language as anything else. This is why I chose, in my review of Ascendancy and Tradition (LRB, 5 September), to consider the manner in which the book is written as well as its matter – an approach to which Mr McCormack takes great exception (Letters, 3 October). Clearly, he would like to write the terms upon which he would be reviewed.
He reads some odd opinions into my review. In his letter, he goes on to align himself with a lot of affronted Catholics whom he imagines seething at my miscalling of their religion. In fact, in this case, he’s got hold of the wrong end of the stick he has selected to beat me with. When I use the phrase ‘a more orthodox variety of rancid Catholicism’ (which he quotes), I am saying that Catholicism can take some rancid forms, of which I give two examples taken from one of the other books under consideration: an instance of religion becoming fused with pagan lore, and a ‘more orthodox’ case of anti-Protestant feeling running very high indeed.
McCormack refers dismissively to ‘the language of the tea-party’, which he implies I favour: clearly he prefers the language of the Boston Tea Party – everything overboard, cogency included. Finally, I am puzzled by the word ‘maudlin’ which appears at the opening of his onslaught. I assure him that I was neither tearful nor tipsy when I wrote the review, though if anything could drive me to drink or make me weep, it is Mr McCormack’s fondness for academic jargon.