Literary Supplements

Karl Miller

  • Warrenpoint by Denis Donoghue
    Cape, 193 pp, £12.99, March 1991, ISBN 0 224 03084 1
  • Darkness Visible by William Styron
    Cape, 84 pp, £8.99, March 1991, ISBN 0 224 03045 0

Denis Donoghue has written a seductive book. Perhaps it could be said that he has spliced together two books, one of which is more seductive than the other. One of them narrates. The other contemplates. Warrenpoint is a series of passages, not unlike journal entries, some of which deal with his youth in the Northern Irish seaside town of that name, and in particular with his awareness, and acceptance, of his father, while the others consist of the annotations of the professor and man of letters. I don’t mean to do as the Leavises did with Daniel Deronda and propose a Solomonic severance: let’s just say that many readers would be very sorry to lose the memories if it were to come to a cut.

The father did not talk much, or read much, or go to the pictures. This was a Solomon whose wisdom did not propose things, or even say them. It was nevertheless a ruler’s wisdom. He ‘was the rock of ages’. When he was still he seems to have been very, very still, to have been his own statue, and when he moved he moved well. He was an exemplary walker towards undoubted destinations and the achievement of set purposes. A Catholic from the South, he was also a sergeant in the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Denis Donoghue communicates, but does not enlarge on, the possibility that there may have been a dilemma for his parent here. There was never any doubt in one way as to which side his father was on, together with all the other Catholics of the place – that of the South. But there was a duty that went with the job, and he did it. For this son, though not for his brother, their father was the law, and we are brought to feel that Denis Donoghue grew strong, and professorial, in responding to his father’s strength of will. He accepted the regime at the police station, where the family lived in adjoining quarters; and he was later to be scornful of Freud’s notion of a salutary resistance to fathers. It would have been hard for any son to resist the mother of the house, who is all but written out of the account – a state, however, which has an eloquence of its own. The mother, who was subject to ‘attacks’ of a medical nature, ‘was a minor presence in comparison with my father’. Among relatives in the Republic ‘it was taken for granted that whatever my mother did, she did badly.’

This is another dilemma about which little, but perhaps enough, is said. Denis Donoghue is interested in statements, and in sentences, and his own, when he touches on family matters, are in decisive, literal vein. They are delivered de haut, straight from the shoulder of someone who grew up to be six feet seven, and to be ill at ease in that long, ‘wrong’ body. His height seems to hover over the statements he makes on such subjects, and on some others. He, too, is the law, and we are inclined to take his word.

It was his ‘instinct’ to ‘keep his distance’ from Protestants. ‘A Protestant was as alien to me as a Muslim, and Muslims had the merit that I didn’t know any of them.’ There’s a Donoghue dying fall to that, and one imagines his lips moving to this effect up there in the snow-sphere of his six feet seven. ‘A Protestant was someone who wasn’t a Catholic.’ But that wasn’t all that a Protestant was. He was also an oppressor. That there were and are many sorts of Protestant, and that some Protestants have had no known wish to oppress Catholics, has very little potency for the book. Sergeant Donoghue strongly distinguished between family and others, while remaining instinctively on the side of those others who were Catholic. His son was at ease with his faith – ‘the existence of God wasn’t a particular problem for me’ –and he is its defender against the problems and misconceptions of others.

‘Foreigners ask in dismay: How can Catholics and Protestants be killing one another since they’re all supposed to be Christians? Not a telling point; there is often the most acute enmity between people who are similar but not the same.’ He has also been calling them different. As for the telling point, some respect is surely due to the dismay of foreigners on this score, a feeling not remote from the historian Gibbon’s less dismayed suggestion that there is a ‘strange contradiction between the faith and practice of the Christian world’. Donoghue has ‘never understood why people hate Christianity, especially people who express shock at the least trace of anti-semitism’ – which distracts from the thought that anti-semitism has been, among other things, Christian. ‘I could never understand how William Empson, a poet and critic I revere, could hate Christians and especially Catholics, thinking their religion nothing but a sordid cult of blood and sacrifice. Christ’s blood was the form of his own suffering, he didn’t recommend bloodletting for other people.’ Did Empson hate Christians? If so, I wonder how many other Christians there are who believe this but are able to revere him. It has always been a particular problem that Christians have been bloodletters, and Denis Donoghue accepts that there are Irish people of the present century who have given their support to a cult of blood and sacrifice – which has included the blood and sacrifice of those who happened to be passing at the time.

The book is cold about those foreigners who are British. During the Second World War he sat by the wireless with his father listening to the News. ‘I took it for granted that the British, unattractive as they were, spoke the truth, and that when the BBC announcer reported that Royal Air Force bombers had bombed some German city with great success, he was telling the truth. “All our aircraft returned home safely.” ’ Censorship is a constraint which British politicians have shown an unattractive eagerness to impose. But this was a time when the country was in danger, which should count, as it doesn’t here, for something. The book attends to Ireland’s current troubles, but does not press for any solution. Ireland’s prospects – which are thought likely to incorporate a Southern reluctance to join with the North – would appear to be no more agreeable to him than does its record in politics and government since independence. Unattractive Brits should not expect to discover that he backs the men of violence. But he argues against the revisionism which has been seeking to replace the myth of violence and revolution, blood and sacrifice, with a history of Ireland which speaks of class, social forces, economic determinants. His successor in the Chair of Modern English and American Literature at University College Dublin, Seamus Deane, has contributed to this work of revision, which is represented here as an un-Irish activity. Denis Donoghue’s refusal to assist the work adds a dislike of Marx to his dislike of Freud.

‘It is easy to denounce the Christian Brothers’ to whom he listened to at school ‘for teaching a dangerous version of Irish history, and to point to the renewed violence in Northern Ireland since 1968 as the inevitable fulfilment of that pedagogy.’ The entry ends: ‘Unfortunately, Ireland without its story is merely a member of the EC, the begging bowl our symbol.’ This may disconcert some members of the EC, and some Irish-history revisionists. It is as if there were only the one story: but he has just been explaining that there is more than one, slow though the revisionist version may be to win adherents. The book ends with a news item reporting that Charlotte Street in Warrenpoint, along with his father’s police station, had been blown up by the IRA.

Yeats is among the authors of the story he wants to preserve, the Yeats among others who wondered whether a play of his had caused certain Irishmen to be shot. Denis Donoghue concedes that stories and images may cause people to act and to die. He remarks that ‘it would be fatuous to think that poetry is by definition without power of incitement.’ On the next page he retracts, or balances, the suggestion: ‘Above every poem or novel there should be a motto: “This road does not go through to action.” ’ It may be that all the claims about action and imagination which he makes at this stage, and which terminate in this motto, a motto employed, for a different purpose, in Frank Kermode’s Romantic Image – it may be that they are all true. But it may also be that he is at home with contradiction, growing up as he did in the shadow of that riven rock, the Catholic Protestant policeman. Some of his contradictions might be deemed mistakes by Protestants. Others might have seemed to deserve acceptance among the ‘felicities’ of life – this being a word he likes to use and whose meaning he likes to stretch. Not that such acceptance was always easy: ‘For me, growing up involved reluctant assent to vacillation, coming to realise that there are occasions in life on which certitude is obnoxious.’ Meanwhile there were enough certitudes of another kind to be going on with, to take for granted.

Many of the entries which refer to adult experience refer to his reading, to words and sentences, and to his adult view of such features of his education as the practice of learning and memorising verse, a practice which may have served to promote a distinction between words and meaning, words and action, and which seems to have helped to shape his performance as a critic. The critic took to writing essays which were assemblies of words and thoughts and mottos – other people’s and his own. The boy in question ‘did not even try to write a poem or a story’. And yet the Warrenpoint assembly could be seen as a poem or a story, spliced, if you like, with a discursive supplement. Of his engagements with words – of the Irish Catholic Donoghue lexicon – he writes: ‘Some words I can’t use because, when I was a boy, they meant alien things. If you are a member of a choir, you are a chorister, but in Warrenpoint and, I suppose, in other places, too, a chorister was a member of a choir in a Protestant church. The Catholic version was choirboy.’ Protestants talk about choirboys too. But we take his word for it that there was a difference for him, and we see that he is intent on a story of separation.

Soon after this he gets onto a sentence or semi-sentence which was interpreted for him in the classroom.

It did not occur to me, in school, that sentences might not be the only form of statement or necessarily the best one. Not that I thought that they issued directly from nature or the hand of God, but I didn’t question their being the entirely adequate expression of a perception. Nor did I think that there might be any other possibilities of the mind beyond that of perceiving. I knew that sometimes a part of the sentence could be left out; the omitted bit ‘was understood’, as Brother Cotter said. When Keats writes, in the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, ‘Already with thee!’ we understood that he meant: I am now with thee. That was acceptable, because he had been talking of flying to the nightingale on the viewless wings of Poesy ...

I have puzzled in the past over this exclamation mark in the Ode. The manuscript does not force you to read it as an aposiopesis, as the point at which a sentence breaks off; or indeed to read the three words that precede it as an exclamation. I think that the meaning is that where the bird is, perhaps (for all the poet knows) the Queen Moon is, and her starry court. Keats, however, remains on the ground: ‘I cannot see what flowers are at my feet.’ Haply he does complete a sentence at this turn in the Ode, whether or not the sentence has issued from nature or the hand of God, and it makes the poem less of an escape, and Keats less of an escape artist, if we think so.

Denis Donoghue says that he can’t follow parts of some of the books he annotates, books such as Totality and Infinity by Emmanuel Levinas, but that he is sometimes able to respond to particular sentences in the parts that defeat him. The admission is unusual, and endearing. I am unable, as it happens, to follow some of his annotations – to persuade myself, for instance, that I know what he means by the singularity of existence and the plurality of the inner life. But here, too, there are sentences which elicit a response. This is a book which never loses the accepting reader for very long.

I believe that it will be thought a seductive book, a felicitous book, even by those who are unsettled by its ethnic and religious insistences and acceptances. There may be those for whom it is a jumble of memories and of the contingencies of the present, but I don’t feel that way about it myself. The past is evoked in a manner which belies his sentences about an inability to write a poem or a story: but it also seems to me that the conjunction of the young Donoghue with the savant is among the attractions of the book. The alternation between what is going on now and what he now thinks was going on then might suggest some degree of attachment to a principle of randomness: at the same time, the two kinds of material could be thought to do something to explain one other. I’d hesitate to try to explain the explanation, but there are hints of a common interest in separation and acceptance, which can occasionally look like two faces of a single certitude – the certitude of someone who was to become the skilled reader of a sceptical and unstable modern literature. There he was and here he is, and what enters his mind in the present can sometimes resemble a version of what he was, out and about in his awkward body in the Warrenpoint of the Forties.

I went to University College Dublin once, after he had left for his Henry James Chair at New York University, and found the college echoing with the praises of the flown savant, with his sayings and with stories of his tenure. Two sorts of ex cathedra were apparent. He had made his mark, in the way that people hope for from professors. But few people would expect a memoir of this sweetness from a professor of English.

The American novelist William Styron has written a short book which describes how he came to grief at around the age of sixty, falling into a depression which nearly cost him his life. He felt, in romantic-confessional style, that he had to write it, and it is good to have it. I hope that it is not a disorder of the liberal conscience to suppose that the voices of those who have been through spells or seasons of mental trouble can now, with or without the sponsorship of romance, be heard with respect if they choose to write down what happened to them. Styron’s account has several interesting features. His father had suffered from the same illness, and he lost his mother when he was 13. Throughout his life he had been dependent on alcohol, to which he here pays startling tribute: ‘I did use it – often in conjunction with music – as a means to let my mind conceive visions that the unaltered, sober brain has no access to. Alcohol was an invaluable senior partner of my intellect, besides being a friend whose ministrations I sought daily – sought also, I now see, as a means to calm the anxiety and incipient dread that I had hidden away for so long somewhere in the dungeons of my spirit.’ Then quite suddenly he took a dislike to drink, and this threw him into a downward spiral, which was to be violently assisted by a psychiatrist’s overprescription of the drug Halcion. Worries about his work – worries to which it is courageous of him to refer – made things worse, or were there at the start of his depression: part of the trouble could be termed writer’s block writ hideously large. Last, but perhaps not least, he was brought round by being removed from his domestic surroundings, and from that lavish psychiatrist of his, and being placed in the seclusion of a hospital. Electro-convulsive therapy may have been mooted, but was avoided.

Darkness Visible has many vivid moments (one of which is Milton’s). Two depressive onsets in particular lodge in the mind. On one occasion he is being awarded a prize in Paris. The ceremony is over, and he is counted on for lunch with the prize-giver’s queenly widow and members of the Académie Française, at which point he tells this woman that he has to have lunch with his publisher. ‘Alors!’ exclaims the queen as she turns her back on the author of Lie Down in Darkness: ‘Au revoir!’ This yields the black humour of certain depressive illnesses, whose lightnings have a tendency to strike at literary parties. On another occasion he was seized with dread in a place where he had always felt at home: ‘One bright day on a walk through the woods with my dog I heard a flock of Canada geese honking high above trees ablaze with foliage: ordinarily a sight and sound that would have exhilarated me, the flight of birds caused me to stop, riveted with fear ...’

There are passages in the book which might have been written in the 19th century – some of them, give or take a word or two, by Poe: ‘It may be more accurate to say that despair, owing to some evil trick played upon the sick brain by the inhabiting psyche, comes to resemble the diabolical discomfort of being imprisoned in a fiercely overheated room. And because no breeze stirs this cauldron, because there is no escape from this smothering confinement, it is entirely natural that the victim begins to think ceaselessly of oblivion.’ Styron writes of the ‘dungeons’ of his ‘spirit’, of a ‘long-beshrouded metaphysical truth’ –language that belongs to the Gothic strain of certain of his fictions. To make remarks about the sometimes laboured and allusive style of the book feels like complaining in some pursed way of the ‘more’s’ and the ‘lessnesses’ in the desolation-commemorating passage: ‘I had suffered more and more from a general feeling of worthlessness as the malady had progressed. My dank joylessness was therefore all the more ironic because ...’ But to do so can hardly be beside the point; the book runs the risk of such objections, in the course of producing a style for the malady it recalls. This is a highly literary text, which is charged with references to other people’s literary texts. The very name of his treacherous drug, Halcion, takes effect as an ironic allusion to the literary past. His novels, with their stress on suicide and gloom, could be said to find their after-word in the memoir, and the memoir abounds with references to other writers who suffered as he did – suicides and possible suicides, some of them his friends. Poe’s pit and pendulum, Wordsworth’s despondencies and madness, those enemies of promise, have shown up in Maine and Connecticut, as the lineaments of a present pain. Who would want to say that Styron is wearing a literary hat or a romantic mask, and who says they don’t have dungeons in America any more?