- On the Eve of the Millennium: The Future of Democracy through an Age of Unreason by Conor Cruise O’Brien
Free Press, 168 pp, £7.99, February 1996, ISBN 0 02 874094 7
Few things are harder to write than a sincere treatment in the style of ‘more sorrow than anger’. The sincerity is bound to get in the way of both the sorrow and the anger, and vice versa. One will be suspected, perhaps, of masking (beneath the regret) a covert relish. The fulsome style of the obituarist may creep in, causing one to be sanctimonious about the virtues in order to appear generous about the backslidings. Hypocrisy waits at every intersection. But it remains the fact that Conor Cruise O’Brien has been one of the great stylists of our time, whether writing about France, Britain, Ireland or Africa. It further remains a fact that his has been a voice attuned to the discourse of reason, and that when he has been ‘mobbish’ (his own preferred term for a bit of polemical exaggeration; no harm in it; no malice; the fellow needed a bit of a start anyway) then even this mobbishness has been generous, and a pleasure to read. O’Brien has been an internationalist, a wit, a polymath and a provocateur. I can still remember the excitement with which I discovered a copy of Writers and Politics, in a provincial library in Devonshire thirty years ago. Nobody who tries to write about either of those subjects, or about ‘the bloody crossroads’ where they have so often met, can disown a debt to the Cruiser. I hope that this is enough by way of sorrow and sincerity, though I could certainly have amplified it. Because the plain fact is that his latest book is a disgrace. Even if it doesn’t make one angry, it is a cause for disgust and depression. It fouls his reputation both for writing and for reasoning.
Ostensibly, what we have here is an extended rumination on the next horizon of our species: the oncoming hieroglyphic of the year 2000. O’Brien fears that there will be an increase in mania and fanaticism as this appointment draws nigh, and though he eschews the pun, he also fears that this increase will be secular. It’s not that he ignores the religious dimension: more that he correctly fears the overflow of the superstitious into the quotidian. This is a good subject for a man of his range (even if one is slightly fed up in advance at the prospect of how much one may have to read, and even perhaps to write, about the onset of the millennium). But O’Brien has made the mistake of confusing the condition of the cosmos with the state of his own liver.
He begins with – what else? – Yeats’s ‘Second Coming’. Then he recapitulates the writing of Jules Michelet, who recalled the panic and terror of the year 1000 in his History of France. O’Brien has written well in the past about both Yeats and Michelet. But in this instance he is content to lard his tired prose with a few rough beasts and mere anarchies, much as any hack might do. And he ignores the large body of more recent work by medievalists, which argues that Michelet was simply repeating some 16th-century fabrications about the last millennium.[*] This serves as a weak introduction to his attack on the present Pope. Of course it is true, as O’Brien says, that John Paul II is an authoritarian and an obscurantist. (It could almost be said that these qualities come with the territory.) It is likewise the case that the Vatican and the Muslim extremists made common cause at the world population conference in Cairo. Yet there is no linear progression, of the sort he suggests, between these findings and a sort of reverse-ecumenical counter-enlightenment brought on by the millennium. And there is no reason at all to suppose, as O’Brien preposterously argues, that while ‘John Paul II is not about to embrace Islam’ nevertheless ‘he is not averse to giving the impression that he may be about to do so.’ Remind me. When did he start giving this impression? By overstressing the importance of the year 2000 in his explication (the Pope ‘hopes, as he has told us,’ O’Brien notes significantly, ‘to be presiding over the destinies of the Catholic Church when that great turning point is reached’) he goggles at the date just as one of Michelet’s peasants might have done. A safer prediction might be that the Pope will not make it to the turn of the century, and nor will his National Security Adviser, Mother Teresa, and that nothing in any case can save their Church from the crisis of allegiance being undergone by its faithful. An instance of this – the divorce referendum in O’Brien’s native Ireland – occurred too recently to be considered by him.
At first I thought that this was just a shaky start. But in the second chapter (this book originated as a series of lectures) came a point of decline which rapidly disclosed itself as inaugurating something irreversible. Discussing Europe on the eve of 1914, O’Brien correctly says that Lenin did not foresee the coming of the European war:
When the chain of events that led to the war was set in motion by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo, Lenin was sceptical: ‘I cannot believe that Franz Joseph and our Nikolashka will give us that pleasure.’
Pleasure: Russia’s revolutionary destinies were now in the hands of a man who thought of the coming First World War as a pleasure.
Say what you will about O’Brien, his work has been infused with irony and paradox. That he should so heavily and sarcastically miss the point of a black joke is a sorry thing. And note the leaden, ordinary prose. (‘Chain of events’ is a cliché, and you can’t easily have a chain of any sort ‘set in motion’.)
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[*] See especially Century’s End: An Orientation Manual towards the Year 2000 by Hillel Schwartz (Doubleday, 320 pp., $15.95, 11 January 1996, 0 385 47981 6).