One of the many delights in Passion and Cunning is the description of the author’s attendance at a National Party election rally in Springs (Transvaal) where P.W. Botha makes his appeal to English-speaking South Africans via a programme featuring 1. ‘She’ll be coming round the mountain when she comes’. 2. ‘My Bonnie lies over the ocean’. 3. ‘Daizy, Daizy [sic], give me your anser [sic] do’. Such Afrikaner wooing of English-speakers, reflects O’Brien, has fortuitously coincided with the need to rephrase apartheid. Once it was Bantu Administration. Then it was separate development. Then it was community development, then co-operation and development. Perhaps, muses O’Brien, Afrikaner Nationalists simply had need of ‘the richer rhetorical resources of Anglo-Saxon hypocrisy’.
Let us pause at that phrase, which is, in several different ways, vintage O’Brien. The whole passage is witty, beautifully observed, and in the Orwellian tradition – corruption of the soul is preceded by corruption of the language. But the fastening on hypocrisy says something of the author too. Long ago, in a book of essays (Writers and Politics, 1965) quite as good as this splendid new volume, O’Brien wrote of how intellectuals vented their lack of power in satire, their sole real weapon in the only form of struggle allowed to them, the exposure of hypocrisy. As if this did not sound autobiographical enough, O’Brien went on to note that Irishmen were particularly prone to this temptation, for the gap between ruling-class pretence and brutal reality had been wider for longer in Ireland than anywhere else, and this had affected even those who (like himself) were sufficiently privileged to be spared the worst of that reality. ‘For some Irishmen, including some who were not themselves directly oppressed, the masks of power and the paradoxes of oppression were lessons in drama and in wit. Easily, too easily, irony became a way of life and the witty Irishman was born.’
Conor Cruise O’Brien has been that sort of witty Irishman for many decades now and the present book of essays displays once again his wonderful range of talents: a beautiful command of the language, gentle wit and coruscating satire, shrewd political judgment and a raking critical power. O’Brien is, moreover, a critic against all-comers, his spiky guns pointing in all directions: woe betide anyone incautious enough to presume that O’Brien is on their ‘side’. The Irish Establishment made that mistake when they made him their delegate to the UN. The UN then made the same mistake by sending him to the Congo, a mission which produced a raking O’Brien critique of the UN. Nkrumah then made Dr O’Brien Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ghana, but this too ended in a great public resignation. As a minister in the Irish government, O’Brien was a similarly provoking presence. The Left had by then come to assume that the thorn in the flesh of the Nato culture was one of their own, but when E.P. Thompson attempted to presume O’Brien onto his side in the matter of CND there was a predictable and pyrotechnic response, with great carnage in the Thompson ranks. O’Brien is not a man to accept that presumptive arm around his shoulder: friendship is all well and fine, but the assumption of solidarity is intolerable: O’Brien believes in all manner of good causes, but his own independence is finally what he cares about most. His opponents, noting that such an attitude bespeaks a certain good opinion of oneself, hope to catch him in a posture of arrogance or self-importance, but O’Brien is far too fly for that. So he appears to one and all as a sort of pirate battleship, mounting heavy guns but belonging to no Navy and dangerously liable to sink anything he comes across. He attracted the nickname ‘The Cruiser’, not only because others have never been quite sure what to do with the Cruise bit of his name, but because of a definite marauding quality all his own. This aspect of his writing can seem so strong that for many he is simply and only a critic. But it is doubtful if O’Brien sees it that way, so the question remains: leaving aside all the things O’Brien is so gloriously against, what does he stand for?
The place to start is undoubtedly O’Brien’s attitude to religion and, more specifically, to Catholicism. He is, he tells us, the only professed agnostic ever to be elected to the Irish Dail. But he makes that statement in a slim volume of lectures, God Land: Reflections on Religion and Nationalism, which betrays not only a thorough knowledge of the highways and byways of Christian theology but a positive fascination with it. Over and over again he returns to the fact that the religious impulse will out, regaling us with stories of the good Communists of the Lake Baikal region who worship the lake’s otters on the understanding that they are the metamorphosed heroes of the 1871 Paris Commune: sacrifices to the otters are supposed to help with the fulfilment of the Plan. Better still, there is the Ethiopian dictator, Mengistu Haile Meriam, who enjoys the dual status of leading Marxist-Leninist and, as the Amharic anointed, the Servant of Mary. Moreover, as O’Brien points out,
he is also the Lion of Judah. To prove it he has a full grown lion chained outside his office door. When I talked with Mengistu a few years ago, we could hear the lion coughing just outside the office; not roaring, just coughing, a dry melancholy cough that goes well with the tone and tenor of Colonel Mengistu’s conversation ... The lion’s message is strictly for Ethiopians, to let them know where the sovereignty is: something they need to know.
The treatment is often so delightful that it seems churlish to object but as one moves from one essay to the next one does find that somehow references to God, the Pope and Catholicism seep into almost everything. O’Brien rejects the cultural nationalism of Catholic Ireland but the fact is that he is also immersed in it. He once defined Irishness as merely the condition of being involved in the Irish situation, and usually of being mauled by it. What comes across all too clearly in these essays is how heavily and irretrievably he himself has been mauled by Catholicism. He always writes about the Church as if its views on any subject are a natural starting-point for any discussion, as if he would like to believe its claims and is disappointed when he finds he can’t. O’Brien refuses to accept the thesis that Catholicism is intrinsic to Irish identity – but he writes as if it were true in his own case.
One of the most interesting essays in Passion and Cunning is a long and fascinating account of Nicaragua – seen (of course) through the prism of the Pope’s visit there in March 1983. O’Brien insists, convincingly enough, that Sandinismo, with its great stress on the martyrs of the revolution – indeed, its virtual cult of the revolutionary dead – has strongly Catholic roots. But the main point of the essay is simply that John Paul II entirely deserved the historic come-uppance he received in Managua. The Pope, characteristically enough, went out of his way to declare his special affection for Cardinal Obando, who has been tougher in his opposition to the Sandinistas than he ever was towards Somoza; to denounce those priests who have taken office in the Sandinista Government; and to refuse to pray for those revolutionary dead, even when their mothers invaded the stage on which the Pope was saying mass, demanding prayers for their dead sons. The visit ended with unparalleled scenes – a furious Pope shouting Silencio! at a crowd which jeered back with comments such as ‘He’s not a Pope of the poor!’ and ‘Look at his dress!’ It was typical of the challenge to Papal authority engendered by the visit that all that gold and silver braid, paraded so endlessly before the hungry poor of the Third World, should at last have excited comment. An odd inversion of the old story, if one thinks about it: this king pretends to humility but goes forth in grandeur. So the revolutionary cry is not that the King has no clothes but that indeed he has clothes – wondrous, priceless clothes, and that he is indeed a sort of king, not a humble man at all.
O’Brien sides unhesitatingly with the revolutionary Catholics of Latin America: ‘put not your trust in pontiffs,’ he counsels. Sandino, he notes, ‘refused to call himself a Christian because all the most eminent Nicaraguan “Christians” of his day – like the Bishop of Granada who blessed the US Marines – were in the service of the enemy.’ Today, however, Sandinistas insist that their leader would be a Christian Revolutionary – a judgment in which O’Brien concurs. And the wonderful thing about these Christian Revolutionaries is that their Reformation has no need to break with Rome. It keeps all ‘the Roman symbols – and the Roman sacraments, which is more important’, but just ignores Rome’s authority. This cheers O’Brien greatly, just as, elsewhere, he signals his delight that Catholics across the world are happily practising contraception and treating the Pope’s homilies on the matter with the contempt they deserve. In another essay O’Brien provides a careful but devastating dissection of the character of the present Pope, whose determined ability to hear without listening and whose stonily reactionary attitudes merit, in O’Brien’s eyes, Orwell’s equation of the Roman Church with Stalinism. O’Brien concludes that ‘as I studied the writings of John Paul II, I found my faith revive: my faith, that is, in the 18th-century Enlightenment; in Voltaire and Diderot, as liberators of the human mind from an oppressive and obfuscating dogmatism.’
O’Brien, that is, while remaining a cultural Catholic, accepts the essence of the Protestant critique of the Church; sympathises with insurgents against Rome; denounces the Pope; and happily announces that the best sort of Catholics can now simply ignore Papal authority. I must say that I think this is both having it all ways and rather unnecessary. The Catholic Church is virtually defined by obedience to its indispensable, indeed infallible, Papal core, and Papal authority has ridden out many revolts before now. The Pope’s extraordinary claims to moral authority may have received some challenge in Managua but that hardly constitutes three falls and a submission. What beats me is that O’Brien should ever have expected the Pope to behave differently: the man gets a weekly briefing from the CIA’s Rome chief-of-station, after all, and Cardinal Montini (later Paul VI) even handed over to the CIA files on the Italian episcopate and parish priests to help them discredit clerics thought to be soft on Communism.
Frankly, as someone born and brought up a Catholic, I can’t really sympathise with these elaborate attempts to treat the Church as if it were morally serious. In my teens, it was gradually borne in upon me that the Church in which I had been an altar boy, had first been responsible for pinning the yellow star on Jews, had made torture a matter of Church policy, had blessed massacres, had supported Pétain and Franco, and so on, and so on. I, too, came to accept the essence of the Protestant and humanist critique of the Church. And so, after several anguishing years, I left it. Maybe it’s not my business to say, but I can heartily recommend thoroughgoing apostasy. One thing it does do for you is that when you read that Sandino repeatedly denied that he was a Christian, you tend to believe that this meant that he was not a Christian. If, like O’Brien, you somehow turn this into meaning that Sandino would today be a revolutionary Christian, actually something very Orwellian is happening: war is peace, peace is war, we have always been at war with East Asia and Sandino is, maybe even was, a Christian. Well, that’s a relief. Thank the Lord for Newspeak. So why not thank the Pope for Lordspeak?
It’s a bit the same when we come to Ireland, about which O’Brien writes with deep knowledge and passion. At the end of the day he seems to have swallowed the whole of the Ulster Protestant case. He is resolutely against a united Ireland, even against the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and champions the cause of internment without trial on both sides of the border. I happily bow to his vastly superior knowledge of Ireland, but I can’t agree with him.
If I were Irish, I don’t think I could accept that the best to be hoped for was internment without trial throughout the land and the maintenance of the status quo, with the steady killing it brings. As an Englishman, I find these things unacceptable merely for what they do to England, let alone Ireland. If even the best of the Irish, among whom O’Brien can undoubtedly be placed, want to go round locking one another up without trial, it just makes me feel all the more that we Englishmen would be better-off out of it all. English lives are being wasted in Ireland to no purpose and our involvement there corrupts England, just as it always has. Personally, I don’t want to live in countries which go in for death squads or internment without trial. So I’m in favour of the unification of Ireland, for the sake of the English.
The third theme of this book is South Africa (which, though O’Brien does not remark upon it, provides a pretty good example of what happens when you go in for internment without trial over a long period). In particular, he is exercised about the fact that his recent visit there had to be cut short in the face of vehement protests against him by Black and radical students. I can well understand how upsetting this must have been, particularly since O’Brien’s adopted son, Patrick, is black, and O’Brien has a quite faultless record on all questions of race and apartheid. But the fact is that, though he writes a pretty good general summary of the situation in South Africa, he is a little out of his depth there. In particular, he doesn’t seem to realise quite why his tour was such a remarkable disaster.
It all started early in his tour with a question about what he thought about the academic boycott. Now the fact is that the academic boycott is not wholly observed. Hundreds of academics – some of them well to the left of O’Brien – visit South Africa all the time, and have no trouble at all because they are sensitive to the fact that there might be trouble. O’Brien, however, boldly told his questioners that in his view the boycott was ‘a Mickey Mouse affair’. This was a red rag to a bull. South African radicals are used to that tone of contemptuous dismissal: they hear it from their government all the time. From then on the figure of Mickey Mouse featured quite largely in the growing student protests against O’Brien. His local hosts, who could and should have guided him away from these avoidable pitfalls, were, by all accounts, invisible once the trouble began. What really seems to have undone O’Brien is that the radicals wanted some unmistakable sign from him that he was on their side, while he could not refrain from bridling at any such presumption. With that, the fat was in the fire. All very unreasonable, perhaps, but South Africa is in a state of pre-revolutionary ferment: it’s not reasonable and it’s not an ideal stage for insouciant displays of personal independence.
This, at least, is what I have picked up about the visit from various South African friends. There is, oddly, no mention of the crucial ‘Mickey Mouse’ reference in O’Brien’s account. He argues that the South African Government is actively in favour of the academic boycott and, indeed, that a police spy acted as an agent provocateur in the disruption of his visit. The police spy part of the story is probable enough: the South African Government would have been delighted to see a contretemps between its local radicals and an overseas liberal, and well aware what a propaganda coup was being dropped in its lap. But the notion that Pretoria could ever be favourably disposed to an academic boycott is utterly fantastical. It is not that Pretoria cares all that much about whether academics as such do or don’t visit the Republic – the sports boycott is a hundred times more important. But the Government lives in constant fear of trade sanctions and economic boycotts, and also wants to reassure itself and its voters that South Africa’s enemies have not wholly succeeded in isolating her: for all these reasons Pretoria is passionately opposed in principle to boycotts of any kind. It would, of course, be more convenient to O’Brien’s argument if Pretoria was in favour of the academic boycott, for then he could be, if not on the side of the angels, at least on the opposite side to the devil. Unfortunately, it is just not true and O’Brien knows too much about South Africa not to know that it is not true.
This (otherwise small) point illustrates, I think, one of the dangers of his position. The way he secures his independence is through contrarianism: he is an Irish Catholic who denounces the Pope and accepts the Protestant case; an Irish patriot who wants to keep Ireland divided; a liberal who demands the extension of internment without trial; a UN head of mission who denounces the UN; a man who writes the definitive demolition of Encounter as cultural Cold War – journalism – and then ends up writing for Encounter himself; who resigns from the Observer to escape the clutches of Tiny Rowlands – only to find a home with Rupert Murdoch’s Times. The list could go on and on. And contrarianism does have its problems. It means, over time, that the dangers of inconsistency and self-contradiction loom large. Heaven knows, honestly admitted inconsistency is no crime, but it would be nice if O’Brien could explain some of his volte-faces.
More important, though, the continual assertion of intellectual independence against all-comers (which is what contrarianism means) is necessarily a highly ego-centred exercise. In effect, you are always saying, ‘I am right against the conventional view, whatever it is,’ and the most important word in that sentence is, or becomes, the ‘I’. The danger is that one’s treatment of subjects can become a little self-serving. There is a tinge of this in many of O’Brien’s essays. Thus there is a wonderfully funny demolition of Norman Podhoretz – occasioned by Podhoretz’s criticism of O’Brien’s book on Camus. An essay on the press has a long, rambling attack on an editorial from the Observer – without ever mentioning that O’Brien was editor-in-chief of that paper. Or again, O’Brien finds Julius Nyerere delightful company, so he decides that if Ujemaa villages were a bit of a joke, they were a harmless joke. Unfortunately, that too was very far from true.
But these are, in a way, weasel words to use of someone who writes with such consistent wit and intelligence: I would place him as an essayist second only to Gore Vidal among those now writing. And perhaps he has given us the key to his own evolution in the title essay on Yeats: ‘The politics of the left – any left, even a popular ‘National Movement’ – impose by their emphasis on collective effort and on sacrifice, a constraint on the artist ... Right-wing politics, with their emphasis on the freedoms of the elite, impose less constraint, require less pretence, allow style to become more personal and direct.’ Bad politics tend to make for good style, concludes O’Brien. And if you have to choose one or the other? It is a tribute of a sort to his contrariness – his passion and cunning, if you like – that even when one has read these essays one still can’t be quite sure which way he’d jump.