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Chris Arthur, Irish Nocturnes.

The Davies Group

It used to be said that the novel is dead, that it was no longer able to keep abreast either of readers' interests or the constantly-accelerating images of the age. But a generation of novelists that includes Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo, J.M. Coetzee, and John Banville (to take four names more or less at random) has long since given the obituarists their answer. Instead of dying, the novel has increased and multiplied, and in doing so has become the form that perhaps most democratically represents the plenitude of viewpoints and constituencies that appear on the highly-colored, elaborately-contoured map of contemporary culture. Short fiction has gone through a similar cycle of imminent demise and resurrection. Its future was thought to be in doubt when its long-standing mass-market publication outlets began to die off. These days, however, the form is enjoying a silver age, at least, as is amply evident in the work of--four more names at random--Alice Munro, Alistair MacLeod, Bobble Ann Mason, Tobias Wolff.

Welcome, if unsurprising, as the strength and growth of these familiar forms are, they perhaps overshadow what may be the most unexpected and revealing recent development in imaginative prose, the increasing prominence of non-fiction and in particular the renovation of the essay. Even if the shadow is cast not so much by the novel and short story as such but rather by the culture of fetish and fame to which they are frequently obliged to subscribe, it does seem that the attainments of nonfiction are somehow not perceived to be on the same level, or are less worthy of note, as those of the more prominent forms. The fact that it was the modes of observation and contemplation inaugurated by the essay that created the conceptual and perceptual matrix from which novel and story could evolve is conveniently overlooked. But then this is not a time when thinking historically receives very much encouragement. A more likely reason for non-fiction's poor-relation status is that it's difficult to market.

Any attempt to account for the renewal of commitment to the essay must be speculative, obviously. But it would be nice to think that its marketing difficulty may be one of non-fiction's attractions for its practitioners. In a way, the thought chimes with Jacob Epstein's observation that the essay is "the freest form in all of literature." Obedient to little more than an author's willingness to stop and stare, it's obviously not easy to package and promote. Yet, the characteristics of the form that account for its awkwardness and its niche perceptions are the very elements that the reader finds rewarding--its refreshing air of dissent, its informal tone, its intimate point of view, its unpredictable structure, its overall one-of-a-kind demeanor. "The essay proceeds ...," Theodor Adorno noted, with something like amazement, "methodically unmethodically," and by virtue of doing so alters, or at least reorchestrates, the tempi and rhythms of cultural exchange. Here is an attempt at a literature of citizenship, assuming that one of the cornerstones of citizenship is free speech.

There is also, however, the matter of what end speaking freely serves. One difference between the contemporary essay and its traditional avatar is that the form now typically appears with the word "personal" attached. Essays didn't used to be described as personal. There was no need. The addition, or modification, shifts the form's ambit from the realm of spectatorship and recollection that it had occupied from the inaugural work of Addison and Steele to that of being much more "first person confession," as Phillip Lopate has said pretty much all his work is. This shift may seem to be a merely mechanical change in subject matter. Once upon a time, the essay looked out at its subject mater. Now it looks in on it. But a change in matter also brings about a change in manner. The differences in optic and perspective that distinguish the personal essay reveal an embattled sense of mediating between self and world. Now both zones of experience form a much more active partnership--at least they exemplify the tensions, provisionality, and commitments of partnership. Each area mediates the value of the other, each argues for the other's responsive presence, both negotiate for recuperation and for common ground (not for nothing has the ecological imagination been in the forefront of rehabilitating non-fictional writing).

One noteworthy outcome of these developments is that it connects the personal essay with the literature of witness. Freely speaking of the personal becomes a significant option for a writer when there is a sense that the personal realm is having difficulty finding a safe cultural space for itself. (Is the re-emergence of the essay in any way a result of, or subliminal response to, anxieties and aggravations in the social sphere regarding privacy?) Clearly care and discrimination are essential in making this connection. The writings of Annie Dillard and Alicia Partnoy's The Little School, testimony of her incarceration and torture in her native Argentina, are not on the same plane. Phillip Lopate is no Primo Levi. Any suggestion to the contrary trivializes all concerned. At the same time, the literature of witness chronicles more than the obscenities of history and embraces more than the current vogue for memoirs of disease- and trauma-survivors, significant and valuable as some of these may be. The annotated history of self-fashioning, which the personal essay implicitly inscribes, and all the misgivings about family heritage, cultural formation, and civic experience that come with it, bears witness to the acculturation of the individual and to the matrix of powers that shape identity, thereby providing quite different kinds of testimony regarding the personal than those allegedly available in the narcissism of which identity politics has frequently been accused. Its lyric realism comes across as a perfectly reasonable desire for vision and voice. Its distinctive openness calls out for new departures. It's a house for the deviant, the alienated, the radical ("the essay's inmost formal law is heresy"--Adorno again). Or, as Chris Arthur has it, the essay is very like an eel. At a time when identity too is possessed of an evolutionary spiral whose feverish leaps and bounds parallel those of, for instance, the economy, medicine, and cybertopia, to produce a fin de siecle quite contrary to the entropic ennui of a century ago, an expressive form was bound to emerge that charted the unpredictable flow or sought higher ground or simply felt impelled to talk back. That form appears to be the essay.

And undoubtedly one of the most fascinating aspects of Chris Arthur's Irish Nocturnes is its portrait of an individual attempting to cultivate new discursive territories while interrogating old ones. This suite of eighteen essays takes its title from the nocturnes of the eighteenth-century Irish composer, John Field. And while neither author or reader is inclined to carry the musical analogy very far, the essays do seem to be written in related keys, their themes tend to be echoes and modulations of each other, and there is an unsurprising recurrence of motifs. Among these motifs are history in the perspective of time, place in the light of space, tradition in the context of personal development, :memory seen through the lens of transience, the uneasy interconnections between nature and human nature, and home contemplated at a cultural and geographical distance. Among the subjects covered are the author's experience as a game warden, his heritage as a member of Northern Ireland's Protestant majority, linen, "Meditations on the Pelvis of an Unknown Animal," the siege of Derry, exile, and "Kingfishers."

While Arthur is arguably at his best when patiently, even devotedly, detailing the physical attributes of the landscape here assembled--"this little chromatic missile" that is the kingfisher, the mimicry of his father's "drop-foot" walk--he does not allow the interest of his subjects to be merely intrinsic. Indeed, it is misleading to describe Irish Nocturnes in terms of its subjects alone. Much more significant than the natural properties of the material to which the author devotes his attention are the kinds of inner, personal responses to which contemplation of his subject matter gives rise (significant in the sense of challenging, troubling, engaging, amazing). Chris Arthur not only holds in awe the world's physical makeup, but finds even more awe-inspiring the propensity of its makeup to generate symbols, by lending itself to, or being appropriated by thought, memory, language, and various other related, but less-easily named, instruments of need and desire. Because of this propensity, the essays' material remains "rooted in the same parts of Ireland as I am," and also becomes the signifier of a much broader dispensation than any to which Northern Ireland has traditionally been willing to subscribe. What Arthur perceives to be the symbol-making imperative at once preserves his original cultural and physical landscape and transforms it, protects the native ground and seeks alternative sources of value in it. A good deal of the writing is preoccupied with articulating the forensic virtues of excavating, winnowing, dissecting, preserving.

One way of describing what these essays amount to is to think of them as a quest for a spiritual ecology, a view inevitably reinforced by their references to Eastern religion. These, though clearly learned and not in the least faddish, do unfortunately add a diluting New Age-ish tincture to the proceedings. Indeed, there is a register in the overall tone of Irish Nocturnes that makes it tempting to think that the essays have a tendency toward something like the Higher New Ageism. Their general affirmation that "there is a more subjective, less direct and logical mode, a silent gliding deep into the heart of things, hunting for that pulse of the elemental which they carry within them" bears out the tendency. But ardent, earnest, and uplifting as such an affirmation is, there remains an understandable difficulty in finding an idiom that will adequately convey not only "my ongoing attempt to map the perplexing contours of the Self" but take a long, hard look at what's referred to as "the fundaments of existence."

Language problems take a number of forms in Irish Nocturnes. Revealingly, when detailing personal material or accounting for what's close to his heart and a token of his formative experiences, the language is sinewy, economical, vivid, and focused. The trouble is that in the attempt--and the etymology of "essay" echoes throughout all the author's hard work--to decode and recode the rich mnemonic suggestiveness of experience, its symbolic "cargo" (to borrow a favorite trope), recourse has to be made to phrases whose effect is the opposite of that produced by the language of the local and the intimate. It really does seem a shame that so much depends on such banalities and generalizations as "the dazzling fabric of life," "the incredible symphony of existence," "the impersonal deluge of the years which, sooner or later, will engulf us all," "the ocean of being," and their large extended family of cognates. And it's a shame, too, that the rhetorical question is virtually the sole structural device used to broaden and deepen the "symbolic" scope of a given subject, and that its use is so repetitive as to become formulaic. Also, at times, the language strives too earnestly for effect ("The heavy haiku of horror headlines") and there are moments of such unimpeachable terminological accuracy that the lonely mind of the autodidact peeps through.

Needless to say, just because Chris Arthur is from Northern Ireland does not mean that he is obliged to reproduce the tone of the popular and successful Northern essayist, Robert Lynd (1879-1949). Eloquent man of the Left though Lynd could be, his essays are squarely in the form's English mainstream, and relish in if not a clubman's then at least a clubbable voice the quirks and quiddities of the quotidien (titles include, "Railway Stations I Have Loved" and "In and Out of Bed"). Mention of a tone such as Lynd's is not only a way of regretting that the touch in Irish Nocturnes isn't lighter, a little more pianistic, it's also a way of approaching the nature of the personal in Chris Arthur's work. One reason Lynd's essays are traditional is that in them the personal functions as a yardstick. In taking the measure of his subject he also takes control of it. Nothing human is alien to Robert Lynd and essayists of his stamp. But then they possess such a confident delimitation of the human. "I" functions metonymically for a socially-sanctioned "we."

For Chris Arthur, the personal is a much more troubling mode. It resonates to the nocturne's moody music, experiencing in it darkness, frailty, impermanence. It recognizes itself as a consciousness overburdened with memory, conditioning, questions. The personal is constituted by a crisis of authenticity. The personal comes to know its own nature when it has looked upon those infinite spaces that Pascal said terrified him. And from which home, family, tribe, and inherited language give shelter. It is the author's tireless desire to negotiate between past and present, local and universal, transient and eternal, natural and human, in the hopeless hope of finding some reconciliation between them, something symbolic that will authenticate his desire for the existential sublime that fortifies the personal in these essays with testamentary force. Moving outward from the local to the universal, or beginning with the universal as a means of approaching the local, Irish Nocturnes has a habit of invoking a "we." But it's clear that, effectively, the pronoun conjures up no more than a rhetorical convenience. The recurrence throughout the essays of "splinters" and "shards" is much more telling, though the note of apparent regret accompanying them strikes me as misplaced. Splinters and shards can be used as building materials.

And it's because Irish Nocturnes ultimately amounts to a statement of commitment to a new start that it is a valuable and worthwhile work. Even the uneasy coexistence of opposing idioms in it is a backhanded confirmation of beginning again. T.S. Eliot's lines seem not entirely out of place:
   We shall not cease from exploration
   And the end of all our exploring
   Will be to arrive where we started
   And know the place for the first time.


The unease suggests the difficulty of beginning, as well as the existence of a certain pressure to begin, not to mention some anxiety regarding where setting forth may lead. One thing is certain. Nobody from the Protestant community in Northern Ireland has spoken before as this book speaks. The speech may not be quite as free in itself as it could be. But it is more than welcome. And of the value of attempting to speak freely there can, once again, be no doubt.

George O'Brien received the Irish Book Awards Silver Medal for The Village of Longing (1988). His latest publication is Playing the Field: Irish Writers on Sports (New Island, 2000).
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Author:O'Brien, George
Publication:Prairie Schooner
Article Type:Critical Essay
Date:Jun 22, 2002
Words:2468
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