R.W. Johnson

  • Passion and Cunning, and Other Essays by Conor Cruise O’Brien
    Weidenfeld, 293 pp, £18.00, March 1988, ISBN 0 297 79280 6
  • God Land: Reflections on Religion and Nationalism by Conor Cruise O’Brien
    Harvard, 97 pp, £9.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 674 35510 5

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?

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