Affiliated to the future? Culture, the Celt, and Matthew Arnold's utopianism.
for sensible as the Dalys were accounted in their daily affairs, they were not wholly exempt from the prevailing weakness of their countrymen. Mrs. Daly's three first children died at nurse, and it was suggested to the unhappy parents that if the next little stranger were baptized by the name of North-East, the curse would be removed from their household. Mrs. Daly acceded to the proposition, adding to it at the same time the slight precaution of changing her nurses. With what success this ingenious remedy was attended, the flourishing state of Mr. Daly's nursery thenceforward sufficiently testified. (23)
Viewed as a charming weakness, superstition is presented as a kink in the otherwise rational world-view of the emerging Irish Catholic middle class. Terry Eagleton has derided the "bogus pastoral" of The Collegians, with all of its "fustian periods and laboured Latinisms," as a fiction which seeks to prove Irish middle-class respectability against an unspecified and unspecific colonial prejudice (204). Certainly, the class issue is central; the movement from the (often violent) gothicism of Griffin's shorter fiction to the genteel realism of The Collegians mirrors a movement from a dispersed local narrative to a macro-narrative where the fantastic is facetiously absorbed into the bourgeois novel as mere superstition. Sneering at Griffin's "amiable English sentiment" (234), William Butler Yeats would resurrect the pre-modern elements of Irish culture to produce an alternative narrative vividly divergent from the seemingly staid culture of Victorian England; equally, Yeats' aesthetic distanced itself from the anaemic representational compromise which Griffin's novelistic work embodied. "Reality you know is all the rage now," wrote Griffin to his brother Daniel (The Life of Gerald Griffin 157). The fashion for factuality certainly influenced The Collegians in terms of inspiration (the story was based on a well-reported incident in Clare in 1809) and in terms of tone, as in the quotation above. The struggle against this fad for sensible middleclass realism was to become the quickening force behind the Celtic Revival. As a cultural energy, Celticism was a disavowal of factual class mentality. The writers of the revival developed notions of the Celtic into an otherworldly, utopian tradition where no coherent lineage had existed previously.
Standish James O'Grady's arcadian tract Sun and Wind (1928) is an important text in both utopian and Celticist traditions. O'Grady's utopia is effectively Platonic; his vision is tied to the call for an educational revolution. The educational system, as proposed, will train children in physical rigour, and peaceable good behaviour. There is much in Sun and Wind, therefore, that partakes of a positive utopian tradition. O'Grady also harbours, however, some of the prejudices and ethnic caricatures of his time. He commends the utopian strengths and potentialities of the ancient, primitive Israelites, possessed of "that beautiful instinctive natural piety," but places the blame for much that has atrophied since, including the destruction of Greek lyricism and cultural strength, on Semitic influence (11). Throughout, there is a sense that a manly and vigorous Spartan essence, which the Irish could and should inherit, "has been obscured in more modern Europe by the prevalence of Semitic fanaticisms" (38). This prevalence is thus caricatured as the narrowly sectarian religiosity of the Hebraising moment that was in Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy (1869), and was a force which threatened the broader, more reflective and flexible Hellenic strain. In both texts, also, there is a related aversion to philosophical materialism and an instrumental rationality which goes against the good, the cultured, society.
In this article, I wish to connect notions of culture and Celticism, and to argue that such essentialist notions were by-products of a utopian process best illustrated in Arnold's connection of the two. Arnold's utopian thought, like O'Grady's, sought to find its model in a Hellenic antecedent that in turn provided a template for fixing contemporary society, of educating the desires of the nation towards a less industrial, less factional ideal. Arnold is not, admittedly, a figure generally associated with utopianism. In recent years, his reputation has waned as the essentialism of his world view has been questioned; furthermore, those essentialisms have come to be associated with a reactionary tendency. In Irish studies especially, Arnold's writing, particularly his Celticism, has been diagnosed as a key moment in the development of an ostensibly liberal, but always potentially coercive, unionism.
Caveats and cautionary soundings about Arnold's essentialisms are necessary; but there is scope for retrieving the utopian kernel of his thought, and to allow, accordingly, that the utopian element in his Celticism was a major intellectual factor in the Irish literary revival. The leading thinkers of that movement shared in Arnold's view that the Celt was possessed of aesthetic energies which ran counter to an alienating present. Such idealistic Celticism infused Yeats' poetic vision, at least until the modern tide hit Irish shores and rendered reality increasingly resistant to his Platonic, or neo-Platonic, utopia. The Irish literary revival, and its Arnoldian forebear, had in common a belief, by turns elegiac and utopian, in culture as a bulwark against the fractious and factious intrusions into the realm of art of a degenerating social and political reality. For Arnold, as for Yeats, and indeed O'Grady, culture, tradition and poetry were repositories of the utopian impulse.
Arnold's dismayed views on materialism and rationality were expressed with an infusion of classical utopian heritage in "Literature and Science," delivered as a lecture in the United States in 1883, and published in Discourses in America (1885):
Practical people talk with a smile of Plato and his absolute ideas; and it is impossible to deny that Plato's ideas do often seem unpractical and impracticable, and especially when one views them in connection with the life of a great work-a-day world like the United States. (72)
These remarks participate in a very contemporary discourse on education. The particular role of education in the good society is a key concern of Arnold's lecture, as it would be for O'Grady. It is, in the main, a riposte to the scientific determinism and technical education espoused by T. H. Huxley in his 1880 essay "Science and Culture," first delivered as an address for the opening of Sir Josiah Masons Scientific College in Birmingham. By themselves, Arnold argued, mechanistic forms of knowledge could not improve society towards his envisioned ideals of sweetness and light.
In Culture and Society, Raymond Williams argues that Victorian notions of culture were born largely of anxieties about an increasingly abrasive and class-conflicted reality, and that culture, as a cohesive and balming correction, must be re-categorised in the context of general fears about industrialisation. Williams' reading of the dialectical patterns which run in Victorian England's intellectual weave is seminal. Williams writes of a tradition, "basically proceeding from the Romantics and coming down through Arnold and Morris," which has been supplemented by the early humanistic writings of Marx. Williams accuses some Marxist writers of replicating "the old Romantic protest that there was no place in contemporary society for the artist and the intellectual" (271). Those Marxists would invoke the workers' struggle simply because it would re-sensitize society to the plight of the artist. Williams claims that it is the fate of this sort of negative identification that it should disintegrate at points of real social crisis and react into "an indifference to politics, recantation, or sometimes violent assault on the cause that has been abandoned" (271). He illustrates a fairly sturdy law of likelihood, a law "subject to the immense pressures of society. I have no desire to rehearse personalities. I note only the fact that 'culture' was not so far ahead, not so firmly affiliated to the future, as was then thought" (271-272).
Williams is correct in suggesting that Arnold's views were not firmly affiliated with the future; they were, however, anxiously future-oriented. Throughout his oeuvre, poetic and critical, Arnold's writings were frequently and tremulously nostalgic in their anxieties about the present and about the future which the industrial present would produce. Underlying these sincerely-felt anxieties is a Platonic impulse which holds as a standard the cultivated individual contributing to the good society. Arnold's writings consistently held that culture had the power to design the material conditions of reality. This view proposed a cultural priority which, while disavowed by a strictly Marxist interpretation, was in its own way utopian. While his vision was limited by pseudo-scientific ethnocentrisms, it picks up on a utopian tradition which is, in turn, re-invigorated by Irish writers and poets of the late-nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries.
Arnold's utopian vision, writes John Charles Olin,
is different from those we have already seen, but it is an authentic one, I believe. I became aware of it not so long ago when I was reading Arnold's Culture and Anarchy, a work he first published in 1869 (the same year Karl Marx published the first part of Das Kapital) and it is a work of political and social criticism, as its subtitle states. In it Arnold addressed the unsettled and troubled state of England at that time, but his central argument can be abstracted, and it has, I think, a broader significance and a more general meaning than simply its application or relevance to the problems of its own contemporary scene.... The key word in Arnold's books and in his vision is culture. (80)
Olin's alignment of the utopian element in Arnold's thought with culture is suggestive. In a more particular sense, that element could be aligned with Celticism, in which linguistic force and an otherness to the troubled state of England are combined to offer hope for social peace and harmony. The talents of the Celt are not scientific. Possessed of an imaginative disposition which is unruly and too ill-disciplined to study the dull predictability of natural laws, the Celt reacts against the brute despotism of fact. This tendency explains the wild, and always necessarily incomplete, narratives of Irish myth. The Celt had access to a higher, wilder reality, an access which Yeats sought to cultivate in his aesthetic.
Seamus Deane refers in Celtic Revivals to the project of culture, in the sense implied so far, as an "Arnoldian healing measure," which attempts to "reconcile at the level of myth what could not be reconciled at the level of politics" (37). Deane's analysis (quoted from his reading of the literary myths of the Irish Celtic Revival) is insightful and congruent with the reading of Arnold undertaken here. Arnold's work on Celtic literature and on culture generally is informed by an acute sensitivity to the negative consequences of modernity for creativity and social cohesion. On the Study of Celtic Literature and Culture and Anarchy are both driven by an abiding disappointment with the cultural predicament of the new middle classes in England. Differences between the Saxon Englishman and the Celtic Irishman are crystallized in political difficulties--in particular, contemporary debates over land agitation in Ireland. Arnold's solution was to rectify national tempers: to make England and Ireland mutually sympathetic. An amelioration of the brutish pedantry ascribed to the English middle classes was to be matched by a cultivation of the good affections of the Irish. The temper of the Irish, too, was in need of rational reparation; due to their Celtic propensity for indiscipline, their imaginative energies were untrained.
The Irish literary revival too, following from Arnold, sought to harness the unruly aesthetic energies of the Celt. The fictions of the Irish revival, however, were not simply part of a larger nationalist ruse; they were, in the Arnoldian sense, fictions against despotic fact: they re-invented a literature that played Irish imagination against a staid English reason. An Arnoldian equation, then, of imagination and metamorphosis converged in Irish society to forge a cultural energy that was deemed an antidote to the Philistines' strangulation of literary culture in England. The writers of the revival developed this tendency into a tradition where no coherent lineage had existed previously. Arnold worked consistently against the philistinism of the new middle classes and blamed them for the flourishing disloyalty of the anarchic Irish. The colonial aspect of Arnold's drive for the retrieval of culture was thus part of an overall dialectical lapse which, though problematic from a strictly Marxist perspective, was at the same time part of a utopian problematic. The most propitious way to uncover this lapse, and this problematic, would be briefly to trace anxieties about alienation and re-integration through samples of his poetry and criticism. The poems reveal a thematic which illuminates his prose writings on matters relating to Ireland. Arnold's ethnic essentialisms can then be thought through more productively in terms of his grappling with the material, mechanical aspects of a burgeoning Philistine culture and, consequently, his championing of an ostensibly disinterested science of aesthetic relation and sympathy, one part of which was the study of Celtic character and literature.
I. The Utopian Impulse in Arnold's Poetry
Arnold was troubled by the willingness of his close college friend Arthur Hugh Clough to wrangle in his poetry with the atheism and psychological turbulence engendered in Victorian society. For Clough, such confusion was to be confronted fully; this dialectical approach was intended to negotiate the complicated forms and social structures of modernity. Clough's poems were doomed, in Arnold's view, to be always poems of utopian process where the medium becomes a channel for thinking aloud. They were never products, as such; they didn't constitute the kind of poetry finished here and now and polished for the good of poetry in the future. Arnold doubted Clough's artistic integrity; the social ailments of the time, Arnold speculated, were too depressingly evident in his poetry. Though formally and intellectually inventive, such poetry was deemed to be too subjective, and to lack educational worth. For Arnold, the modern subject would have to be repaired so that the subject's poetry could serve a social function. The problem, however, which Clough reflected and Arnold agonised over, was that there was a lack of "completeness," in individual and social senses, in mid-nineteenth-century England. Clough acknowledged this lack of completeness in a manner which was formally revolutionary. Instead of attempting to reintegrate himself at the level of culture, Clough embraced the new society as one that contained within it the ingredients of a righteous struggle.
Clough had a radical reputation at Oxford, and his continued political non-conformism was a source of tension that would result in his estrangement from Arnold. Clough was--in England--almost uniquely unreactionary to the revolutions of 1848. He reported to Tom Arnold that the rumoured atrocities of 1848 were exaggerated and defended the violence on the grounds that it had less horror and more meaning than most battles. Clough's poetry declined after the coup d'etat at the end of 1851; this decline in itself is indicative of the social and political engagement that informed the work up to that point. For Clough, the individual could only know himself in terms set out by the social structure he confronted; and in a social structure fraught with contradictions, there was to be something deliberately incomplete about the individual's approach to an uncertain political world. In his letters, however, Arnold was chastising:
You certainly do not seem to me to earnestly strive towards assured knowledge, activity, happiness. You are too content to fluctuate, to be ever learning, never coming to the knowledge of the truth. This is why, with you, I feel it necessary to stiffen myself, and hold fast my rudder. (Selected Letters 92)
Arnold rejected the dialogue of the mind with itself, and in doing so he made explicit his distaste for the modernity which had manifested itself in the two-minded poetry of Clough. Unlike his contemporary, Arnold reacted anxiously to the events in France. In "To a Republican Friend," he expresses a solidarity which, rather than taking him closer to an understanding of Clough's outlook, actually condescends to his commitment:
God knows it, I am with you. If to prize Those virtues, prized and practised by too few, But Prized, but loved, but eminent in you, Man's fundamental life; if to despise The barren optimistic sophistries Of comfortable moles, whom what they do Teaches the limit of the just and true (And for such doing they require not eyes): If sadness at the long heart-wasting show Wherein earth's great ones are disquieted; If thoughts, not idle, while before me flow The armies of the homeless and unfed-- If these are yours, if this is what you are, Then I am yours, and what you feel, I share. (The Poems 102)
The "barren optimistic sophistries" to which Arnold refers are elucidated in a letter to Clough of 1 March 1848, where he asks: "Don't you think the eternal relations between labour and capital the Times twaddles so of have small existence for a whole society that has resolved no longer to live by bread alone?" (Letters of Matthew Arnold to Arthur Hugh Clough 68). Arnold's condescension towards any serious talk of societal conflicts bespeaks a thinly veiled antagonism to a perceived abstractedness in Clough's politics. Arnold prefers to postulate God's law as the root of transcendent affections, set against the sophistries imported from anarchic France.
Arnold's moral certainty is complicated, however, by some of his own poetry, which yields a good deal more insight into his anxiety, and indeed his utopian psychology, than his criticism, for his criticism aims to efface that anxiety in the interests of didactic poise and cultural rectitude. The French Revolution and the tangibility of something akin to democracy brought with it a political optimism which was superficially excluded from, but surely informative of, the grand visions and felicitous mixings of noumenal and phenomenal in the poetry of the immediately pre-industrial epoch of Romanticism. In Romantic poetry, however, there were also problems. In its heightened subjectivity, there inhered a tendency to introspection which troubled the social operation of poetry, or at least made the social operation of poetry less salutary than it might otherwise have been. Arnold held that what a poet needed in terms of materials was provided by his age; unfortunately, the social and cultural materials of Romanticism were absent by the middle of the nineteenth century. Contemporary poets could not, he supposed, produce literary masterpieces because "for the creation of master works of literature two powers must concur, the power of the man, and the power of the moment, and the man is not enough without the moment" ("The Function of Criticism at the Present Time" 5-6). In prose, therefore, Arnold seeks to reclaim the cultural applicability and value of poetry. The effort is submerged in the poems themselves, but where he could no longer produce an "ideal" of art congruent with Victorian culture as he perceived it, he retreated to his famously pseudo-detached, or "disinterested," socio-literary criticism.
Arnold's work, then, is intelligible as a distillation of contemporary woes. The shift from medium to social practice depends upon the medium itself, and here again Arnold's move from poetry to didactic prose is symptomatic of a utopian impulse which propels the aesthetic into the realm of social applicability. Reading the poetry, then, and comprehending the poet's own critical reaction against some of it indicates a political unconscious, at times manifested as a romantic anxiety about the fragmentation of older forms of consciousness, at other times as an attempt generically to restructure the artistic correlatives of social life.
"Parting" is the second of Arnold's "Marguerite" poems, and its crepuscular romanticism exemplifies the type of anxiety which can be read in the political modes outlined above. As against the Romantic coalescences of subject and object, here the emphasis is on the "void air" between poet and lover, and between the poet and his subjective and objective selves:
Far, far from each other Our spirits have grown; And, what heart knows another? Ah! who knows his own (The Poems 120)
This trope might be considered politically, as a reflection of fears over domestic and imperial strife. The problem is cognition, of self, of exterior, of loved one, of Others in general. Romanticism achieves its simplest expression as unity of self with the romanticised object. In much of Arnold's poetry, there is ruined love, apartness, or a lack of that coalescence which "happier men" had dreamed of, released as they were through faith, "From isolation without end" (122). When the object of such longing proves recalcitrant, those who worked from the premise of a relatively unproblematic relationship of subject and object stand accused of a lack of knowledge: happier men, perhaps, did not know their loneliness.
The aesthetic tiredness registers a regrettable lack of sympathy; for Arnold, therefore, art seeks to re-establish a cultural norm to which all might be sympathetically compatible. Durkheimian alienation in that newer industrial situation meant the cultural norm to which relation was sought was increasingly elusive. In "To Marguerite--Continued," the water metaphors applied in "Parting" are extended to encapsulate the malaise of modern individuation:
Yes! in the sea of life enisled, With echoing straits between us thrown, Dotting the shoreless watery wild, We mortals live alone. (The Poems 124)
If anomie has rent individual from individual, and society from itself, Arnold clings to the prescriptive idea of a different past, when we were "Parts of a single continent" (The Poems 125). The aim is to recover the good core of the self, which has been externally corrupted. His quandary is making poetry connect, to make it valid and valuable, and, ultimately, to combine interior meditation with "cultivatory" mediation. The interior and exterior would have to reciprocate properly, in Arnold's scheme, in order that literature might retain its social value as a cohesive and valid norm to which all classes, creeds, and ethnicities would be answerable.
Arnold's work is thus carried over into an ethnic and philological dimension, controversially in On the Study of Celtic Literature, where sour Anglo-Irish relations, as a subsection of a wider fragmentation of hierarchical order, are aestheticised into the tenuous dialectic of imaginative reason, of creative energy mixed with intellectual training, figured elsewhere as a marriage of Celtic dreaming with Anglo-Saxon discipline. This longed for union is prefigured in the utopian charge of the poetry. Arnold's "The Scholar Gipsy" (1853) embodies the union of imagination and reason, of Celt and Saxon, by personifying that union in a pastoral, elegiac utopia:
O born in days when wits were fresh and clear, And life ran gaily as the sparkling Thames; Before this strange disease of modern life With its sick hurry, its divided aims, Its heads o'ertaxed, its palsied hearts, was rife-- Fly hence, our contact, fear! Still fly, plunge deeper in the bowering wood! Averse, as Dido did with gesture stern From her false friend's approach in Hades turn, Wave us away, and keep thy solitude! Still nursing the unconquerable hope, Still clutching the inviolable shade, With a free, onward impulse brushing through By night, the silvered branches of the glade-- Far on the forest-skirts, where none pursue, On some mild pastoral slope Emerge, and resting on the moonlit pales Freshen thy flowers as in former years With dew, or listen with enchanted ears, From the dark dingles, to the nightingales! (The Poems 342-343)
The nursing of the unconquerable hope is here thought of as a form of sequestration; the itinerant intellectual flits and skirts elusively through utopian scenes, always idyllic in their otherness, from a harried world racked by division. The image of the "mild pastoral slope" in particular partakes of a golden-age utopianism. However, Arnold seems at once to celebrate this image at the same time that he disavows its accessibility in the present. The scenes through which the Gypsy plays are now unreal. Even the use of adjectives such as "pastoral" evinces a literary self-consciousness--a dissociation of sensibility, to use T. S. Eliot's phrase (64)--symptomatic of the very malaise which the poem itself diagnoses. Arnold the poet sees this malaise in himself; thus he projects his utopian energies into a less self-conscious, pre-modern agent; even so, the Scholar Gipsy can only embody imagination and reason if the present can be brought to imitate times past; hence the retrospective melancholy and doubt which imbues the poem.
II. The Utopian Impulse in Arnold's Prose
The social malaise besetting poetry is one issue; the exhaustion of older possibilities is also explained by Arnold in terms of formal limitation, and the remedial move toward a new era of poetic creativity was to take the form of a grafting of critical skin, of intellectual equipment, onto the bones of genius. Criticism would not only provide formalist regimes; it would also provide a moral justification, a use-value, for poetry, tenuously voided of didacticism or rhetoric. Arnold's defence of poetry is thus double edged, in that poetry's power is seen to lie in its autonomy while its validity resides in its factuality, or at least in its ability to humanise facts, formally and morally, into truths.
The anxieties which can be described as late Romantic find a social vent in the extended tract that is Culture and Anarchy, where cultural ailments are read in class terms. "The whole scope of the essay" was to "recommend culture as the great help out of our difficulties" (5). Culture is here famously rendered as a "getting to know" process; getting to know, that is, "the best which has been thought and said in the world" (5). The process of having and getting to know oneself and one's culture--and most importantly, perhaps, one's proper place in that culture--was recommended in the form of education. Cultivation (education in culture) was, then, to be the task of a strong academy, the absence of which had hitherto allowed free inward play of thought without formal or extraneous constraints. Culture replaces that free inward play with a utopian paradigm including "a knowledge of the universal order which seems to be intended and aimed at in the world, and which it is a man's happiness to go along with or his misery to go counter to,--to learn, in short, the will of God" (46).
Culture becomes a substitute for religion, in opposition to science (or "faith in machinery," our besetting danger) and dogma, but especially to anarchy. Ideas of sweetness and light, as they are laid out here, constitute Arnold's happy proffering of a solution to the difficulties previously approached by Edmund Burke, but Arnold's recognition of the power of secularism lends his work a different tone, one of less assurance as to his own spiritual legitimacy. Raymond Williams points out that whereas for Burke the State was an actuality congruent with his social and religious beliefs, Arnold's state was merely an idea, a proposed engine of culture and perfection where Burke's order had dissipated and the phenomenon of mechanical production had determined against cultural autonomy. The idea of culture as an alternative to anarchy invites the designation of a literary tradition of conservatism which stretches back past Arnold and Carlyle towards Burke himself. The connection between Burke and Arnold is particularly telling, as the latter inherited the colour of his ideas on the various situations in Ireland, England, and France from the former. Both Burke and Arnold sought to infuse politics with a cultural awareness, or a sense of cultural continuity imbued with national character and "organic" arrangements of affection. Both men felt these things to be under threat of contagion from France, and Arnold acknowledged Burke's influence on his own analyses of the years 1789 and 1848. Burke, it might be supposed, saturates politics with an aesthetic sensibility, bringing politics away from the unedifying materialisms and positivisms that were in the ascendant.
The French masses had been moved by ideas, but they were not moved by the Idea. They look to the instrumental validation of the philosophes, and not to the transcendental teleology of Culture. The English masses, deprived of both, are particularly dangerous; a revolution along French lines, therefore, would not suit them. The French tradition of republicanism could not be transplanted to Britain; for Arnold, the English tradition of republicanism offered more in the way of potential for cultural and constitutional cohesiveness:
1789 asked of a thing, Is it rational? 1642 asked of a thing, Is it legal? or, when it went furthest, Is it according to conscience? This is the English fashion, a fashion to be treated, within its own sphere, with the highest respect, for its success, within its own sphere, has been prodigious. ("The Function of Criticism" 10)
The English "fashion" is an interesting notion here insofar as it corresponds to a dynamic, identified by Deane, regarding the intellectual absorption and eventual rejection of French revolutionary doctrine in England. Arnold fits Deane's description of a tendency, emanating from Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), to ascribe peaceability to the English revolution of 1688 and wanton bloodshed to 1789, "and to derive from that a detailed account of the essentially stable and traditional features of the English system" (The French Revolution and Enlightenment in England 2). An analysis of this type could be extended to Arnold, whose attitudes to 1789, and indeed to 1848 (as expressed in some of the letters to Clough), reproduce Burkean notions of national character, moral essence, and order in ways which, like Burke again, impact on Irish and other colonial affairs.
Arnold could not fully accept that the contemporary crisis was of a social type evinced by the deprivation of the new poor in the industrial towns. The perceived threat of anarchy could be assuaged by repairing the national disposition, by wresting the political demeanour of England from the grasp of the Philistines, and, finally, by overhauling the spirit of the nation in ways which would make it attractive to internal and external--including Irish--dissenters. To effect such a change demanded what Arnold saw as a lucid, disinterested project of criticism. The state had once been the location of political affections, but was, by Arnold's time, a sphere of combat between an abusive aristocracy (the Barbarians) and a prehensile middle class (the Philistines), a middle class which sought to roll back the influence of the former to allow for the unhindered activity of new productive forces. All of this combat went on at the expense of the dispossessed Populace, or working class, which lamentably tended towards anarchy. Arnold prefers to see the three classes as merely autonomous agents pulling in various ways against the well-being of the nation and culture. He neglects, however, the interconnectedness of their fates and the inevitability of the effect such a totality has upon the category of culture. Arnold is thus attempting to infuse culture into those related classes, in effect into an entire emergent mode of production. His concepts of culture as arbiter, as autonomous sphere of sweetness and light for dispensation to all of the three classes of society, as State-sponsored healer of corrupted selves, and ultimately as super-institutional critic of institutions, are themselves elements in a utopian attempt to locate cultural and literary value away from a reality of social flux and factional fanaticisms.
Just as culture had its own use-values at home, where economic realities and class conflict had dissolved traditional sureties and the ontological possibilities which sustained the optimism of previous times, it was also to consolidate for Arnold the presence of British rule in Ireland. Domestic and colonial political interests should be seen as integral to Arnold's constructions of culture: both speak to questions of the relation of culture to order, at home and abroad; they also suggest the negative relationship of the aesthetic to the social. Both order and whatever sense of ontological unity had existed previously came under threat at the apogee of Victorian industrialism, and the aesthetic project was Arnold's attempt at re-integration. Arnold persistently tried to tally interior possibilities with external disjunctions, Imagination with Reason, and, as a political and colonial extension from this effort, he tried to reconcile the Celt with the Anglo-Saxon.
Edward Said identifies Arnold as a thinker who sees society as an "entity capable of being guided, controlled, even taken over" (10). Said notes that, during the nineteenth century, culture acquired an "affirmatively nationalist cast" (174). However, he goes on to say that, because of this, Arnold could "make an active identification between culture and the state" (174). Unlike Burke, Arnold could not make that identification too readily; as such, much of Arnold's writing on state and culture was anxiously prescriptive rather than self-assured in the way which Said presents it. This passage from Arnold's letters is intriguing in its conciliatory tone:
Who can wonder at these Irish, who have cause to hate us and who do not own their allegiance to us, making war on a society that has shown itself irresolute and feeble? (Selected Letters 92)
The pressures which came to bear on the English governing classes meant that they had to modify their authority in ways which, without undermining that authority, would attempt to inveigle class and colonial agitators to acquiesce in replenished hegemonies of benevolence. Such was Arnold's scheme for Ireland, the colony to which he most frequently applied his cultural and aesthetic theories with the aim of establishing an objective critical basis for bilateral sympathy.
Such sentiments were conveyed in one explicitly political essay titled "The Incompatibles," written in apprehension of passage of the Land Act, which moved towards a granting of the three F's (fair rent, fixity of tenure, and free sale) for Irish tenants. Arnold harangued his more avowedly liberal friends, who saw Gladstone's concessions as a means of removing Irish discontent. The Land Act, for Arnold, was a deception, in that it did not hit at the core of Irish disaffection. The aim should have been, he proposed, "to bring Ireland to acquiesce cordially in the English connexion" (Irish Essays, and Others 35). The problem was to be solved by an amelioration of English pedantry checked by an awareness that the Irish temper might be managed should their better natures be cultivated. Arnold points out that there are specific faults in the Irish, but the onus, he insists, is on the English. England must become a more attractive civilisation; it should attach Ireland to itself by means less situational than mere coercion. In the final analysis, however, Ireland must be attached and the value systems of culture and colonialism intersect to this end. The failure in amiability is a key notion in Arnold's approach to the Irish question; it informs his attempt to produce an extra-political solution to the colonial problems which resulted from the infection of a previously salubrious and benevolent Englishness with the characterless Philistinism of "a civilisation with many virtues! but without lucidity of mind, and without largeness of temper" (Preface, Irish Essays xiv). England's great period, which began after the "sensuous tumult" of the Renascence, was ending. If, as Arnold claims, "Each people has its own periods of national life, with their own characters," then the period in which he was writing was one in which the English, as a people, were in decline; their culture, their amiability, their equanimity had been broken by the pervasive presence of a commercial logic (xiv). This logic, writes Richard Bourke, explains how politics came to be imbued with aestheticism; how aesthetic values were galvanized into national categories of character and benevolence (259). The retreat to nationality was an anxious ploy to disguise the fissures within and between societies. Practicable policies of amiability were the outward shows of national goodness and bilateral reconcilability.
For Arnold, a measured appeasement of the Catholic church in Ireland aids the sympathetic reconciliation of the national characters of Celtic, Catholic, Ireland with Teutonic, Protestant, England. All of this reconciliation occurs at the expense of ambitious individuals and corporations, the envoys of cold, commercial, logic. The project was not simply one of political appeasement, however; there were ethnological and philological "facts" which, if brought before the public, would surely consolidate the essential aesthetic base of Anglo-Irish union. Hence Arnold's Oxford lectures on the study of Celtic literature.
Although a good deal of On the Study of Celtic Literature (1867) deals with Wales and the Welsh, already well amalgamated into political Britishness at that time, the introduction to the book betrays the central political inspiration for Arnold's foray into ethno-philological study: "Behold England's difficulty in governing Ireland!" (7). The aim of the work is to represent, sympathetically, the Celt for the English readers, so that English readers might realise their own fault, their own negative role in the Celt's alienation. Arnold's first extended essay on matters relating to Ireland, then, aimed to be a functional criticism that would establish (pseudo-) scientifically a basis for Anglo-Irish sympathy. Again, Arnold moves through the ethnological and philological facts underpinning Ireland's need to stay with England. He appeals to a science of origins, a science that shows us "which way our natural affinities and repulsions lie" (26). He proposes that there is, in the Indo-European family, a degree of sympathetic recognition which inheres in the flexibility of the Indo-European genius, from India and Greece to the northwestern corner of Europe; this genius, moreover, can be defined more clearly when set against its Semitic obverse:
the modern spirit tends more and more to establish a sense of native diversity between our European bent and the Semitic bent, and to eliminate, even in our religion, certain elements as purely and excessively Semitic, and therefore, in right, not combinable with our European nature, not assimilable by it. (26)
Anglo-Irish sympathy, for its more local part, can be validated by this science of origins; Arnold's Celticism, his sympathetic appreciation of the irregular tendencies in the Celtic race, is the outcome. From these premises, he proceeds to display his sensitivity to the charm of Irish literature. In particular, he praises the work of Eugene O'Curry, the laudable devotee of the Celtic cause, whose rigorous research lent so much to the important matter of science with which Arnold had engaged.
"We have seen," says Arnold, "how philology carries us towards ideas of affinity of race which are new to us" (71). The Celt contributes to the cultural dialectic of Imaginative Reason insofar as he spiritually nourishes the disciplined, rational Saxon. This mingling of Celtic and Saxon essences improves the Saxon and consolidates the colonial standing of the Irish Celt. Culture is the teleology of this tenuous evasion of both coercion and separation. The mark of Anglo-Saxon or Germanic genius is "steadiness with honesty," which, unless cross-cultivated with Celtic "beauty and amorousness," threatens to produce plainness, ugliness, and ignobility: "in a word, das Gemeine, die Gemeinheit, that curse of Germany against which Goethe was all his life fighting" (78-79). Beauty and amorousness, coupled with the Celt's sentimental, yet sensuous readiness "to react against the despotism of fact" (82), militate against a sense of measure and render the Celt ineffectual, hobbled by his "feminine" idiosyncrasies, and blinded to the practical by his giddy predilection for bright colours. It is, however, this love of colour, this sensuousness, this wildness which culture requires if it is to heal social and political rifts. Only with such infusions can culture become a space of mutual recognition, reconciliation, and re-integration.
Arnold's critical reputation has never really been fully disembarrassed of his Celticism excesses; however, these excesses can be better understood as an ethnic caricature of a social ideal. Conceived thus, culture can be rethought as a unificatory, rather than reactionary, aesthetic project, one culled from an inherently romantic idea of the subject as a unified being, reconcilable to utopian social designs. Art, literature, and culture, then, are domains of reconciliation to shared normatives. Modernity had ushered in the division of labour, the alienation of oneself from oneself, and of oneself from Others. The pursuit of singular compulsions and activities militated against a more capacious understanding; for this reason, and in this context, Arnold attributed--as O'Grady would do--aspects of modernity to Hebraic and Semitic "fanaticism," a fanaticism which, for both authors, held to a narrowly religious and sectionalist view of human motivation. It was, for both authors, the pan-European, or "Hellenic," which represented the utopian cultural ideal. Within that ideal, the Celtic strain provided the sensual, imaginative element.
Arnold has often been represented as the aggressive agent of a colonial discourse propped up by pseudo-science. He could be such an agent; however, he was not as certain or as aggressive as he has been represented. His poetry reveals a utopian nostalgia for a surer past and an anxiety about an uncertain future. His criticism and, by extension, his study of Celtic literature are therefore reacting away from the immense pressures of society and retreating towards essences and ideas of culture and nationality which had no bases in fact, essences which, in retrospect, were probably all the more attractive to Arnold precisely because they were, ultimately, literary phenomena. In their speculative impracticality, they offered fraught alternatives. He feared that he could not humanize facts into truths, nor as society stood could he make factual what he believed those ultimate truths to be. In Victorian industrial society, Durkheimian anomie alienated the subject from his objective situation; unprecedented industrialisation separated the fragmented present from the "organic" past; crass materialism obscured the salutary identification of the Celtic dreamer with the practical Saxon. Arnold's approbation of Celtic and classical aesthetic energies, therefore, expresses his own utopian problematic: a retroactive conception of the complete individual to be contrasted with the anemics and anomics of modernity.
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|Author:||Griffin, Michael J.|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2007|
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