Running out of Soil

Terry Eagleton

  • From the Shadow of Dracula: A Life of Bram Stoker by Paul Murray
    Cape, 356 pp, £18.99, July 2004, ISBN 0 224 04462 1

Ireland has less of a tradition of literary realism than England, though for an English critic to say so may require a degree of diplomacy. It may sound like saying that Ireland is deficient in realism in the same way that a nation might be deficient in hospitality or human rights. This is because realism is one of those terms which can be both normative and descriptive, like ‘nature’ or ‘culture’. It can mean, neutrally, the kind of art which aims for verisimilitude, or it can mean one which succeeds in penetrating to the truth of how things are. Realism can refer to the representational mode of an art form, or to its cognitive effect. Paul Murray quotes me in this book as claiming that the Irish literary tradition is one of ‘largely non-realistic works’, whereas what I actually wrote was ‘non-realist’. ‘Realistic’ is a value term, whereas ‘realist’ is not, or not necessarily.

One has to be careful, then, not to imply that Irish literature is non-realist in the sense of being sunk in regressive fantasy, not least because history has given the Irish good reason to suspect the English of cultural supremacism. Realism is often presented as a ‘mature’ art form, one which has evolved out of crude stereotypes and gross improbabilities; and it is not hard to map this literary graph onto the march of imperial progress. On this view, the Irish never quite made it from myth to realism, just as they never quite climbed out of savagery into civility. While England had Middlemarch, they had Melmoth the Wanderer.

In general, Ireland’s freedom from English realism was a gain rather than a loss, as was its eventual freedom from British rule. When James Joyce wrote to a friend that ‘it is my revolt against the English conventions, literary and otherwise, that is the main source of my talent,’ he spoke for many more Irish writers than himself.

Yet to be free of a convention is not to ignore it. Wilde was hardly ignorant of how to flatter a duchess or please a West End audience, but it was never easy to decide whether this was deference or parody, or whether imitation might not be the sincerest form of mockery. Like many colonial writers, Wilde was perverse in far more than a sexual sense. This colonial mimic man deploys the conventions of English stage comedy so flawlessly that it is hard not to feel that he is sending them up, rather as Gulliver’s Travels is a spoof of English travel writing, and Ulysses is a monstrous parody of English naturalistic fiction. Nobody needs conventions more than those who are out to subvert them.

It was not that the Irish did not know about English realism but, rather, that they could not understand what all the fuss was about. What was so marvellous about a scrupulous description of a steam engine when you could write about talking horses, ageing portraits or sinking your teeth into young women’s necks? Faced with a dreary surfeit of reality in everyday life, along with a Celtic heritage of extravagant fantasy and exuberant wordplay, the Irish could see no particular virtue in photographic accuracy. Joyce could learn nothing from Thackeray or George Eliot. The point of literature was to transfigure reality, not to reflect it – which is why, from the heretical medieval philosopher John Scottus Eriugena to Bishop Berkeley and W.B. Yeats, there is such a robust Irish faith in the imagination’s power to summon new worlds into existence. Philosophically, this suspicion of realism went hand in hand with a rejection of rationalism and materialism. If there is such an entity as the Irish mind, it is of a strongly idealist bent. Realism was in any case never far enough from atheism for a deeply religious nation. Indeed, the term ‘naturalism’ has a relevance to both creeds.

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