Outrageous fortune: capital and culture in modern Ireland

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2008), Reviews, Volume 16


Outrageous fortune: capital and culture in modern Ireland
Joe Cleary
(Field Day Publications, e42) ISBN 9780946755356

Books that are assembled by drawing together a set of essays previously published or delivered as seminar or lecture papers by the author often suffer from a lack of focus or any sense of overall theme. Such books must often be valued for their discrete contributions rather than for the overall impact of a developed argument. This is not the case with Joe Cleary’s impressive new book-length intervention in the burgeoning field of Irish Studies, for his set of essays is held together not only by a Marxian reading of the modern condition from the mid-nineteenth century to the present moment of globalised capitalism and neo-liberal economics but by his conviction that that context demands colonialism and post-colonialism as interpretative concepts. He announces indeed:

‘Irish postcolonial studies presents a considerable challenge to Irish studies as currently constituted. Too often reduced on all sides to a drama between nationalism and its critics, the real novelty of this new field of scholarship may well lie elsewhere. To determine how Irish social and cultural development was mediated by colonial capitalism is the goal of postcolonial studies.’

Cleary’s book accordingly is offered as a heuristic text in which, in relation to a variety of cultural productions (from nineteenth-century novels to 1980s punk rock), exemplary analyses are assayed, each governed to a greater or lesser extent by that overarching theme.
Something of the quality of Cleary’s work is caught in that brief extract quoted above. One notes how a tentative, perhaps rhetorical, ‘may’ (as in ‘may lie elsewhere’) is followed by a bold statement of a critical programme. One is in no doubt, given the contents of his book, that Cleary believes that the real novelty of the new field does ‘lie elsewhere’, in the kind of politically engaged critique he provides (at points in his text he refers to the left or to the leftist position without, it must be said, ever making clear what a socialist agenda for our particular time would contain; in his introduction Cleary speaks of the ‘quandary’ facing the contemporary left). He is a conscientious, eminently responsible scholar, however, and he is well aware that the field he is entering is a contested one, where careful presentation of an argument is demanded, as well as the kind of refreshingly adventurous intellectual forays into new territory at which he excels (one of which stimulates him to compare, for example, the international successes of Irish modernism with the global renown of the Liffey Beat in the 1980s). The argument of his book is conducted with most self-conscious care indeed in its opening chapter, ‘Irish Studies, Colonial Questions: Locating Ireland in the Colonial World’, where the author seems to be more than aware that his approach to literary, filmic and popular culture texts in subsequent chapters depends on the case he is establishing here in defence of an often contested proposition. The result is an essay which, because it takes counter-arguments seriously and not just as straw-men or as exercises in bad faith of one kind or another, is a formidable contribution to the debate that undoubtedly, with its internationalist perspectives, raises the issue of Ireland’s colonial status to a new level. One is struck, too, that although Cleary himself is convinced that Ireland’s colonial status is not only salient to the study of early modernity but also crucial to an understanding of cultural production in modern times (the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, even the twenty-first) he acknowledges points where the argument needs strengthening. In his tentative mode he suggests that since the positivist attack on the concept of a colony (by which, since there is no such thing as a typical colony, the notion itself is drained of utility), ‘Irish studies might do well to devote more attention to the task of generating a serviceable historicized typology of colonies’. Furthermore, he begins the task himself. He considers how such general typologies as have been adumbrated to date, can illumine the Irish Studies field and ‘have at least the potential to take us beyond the ungrounded theoretical abstractions for which postcolonial theory is sometimes rightly criticised’.
Cleary’s sense that a post-colonial reading of Irish social and cultural history is valid and necessary is deepened in the second essay in the book, ‘The National Novel in an Imperial Age’. There Cleary wrestles manfully with that familiar critical problem, the absence of a realist tradition of novel-writing in Ireland to match that so sedulously and convincingly established for England by Ian Watt in his ‘spectacularly successful and influential The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding’. Cleary admits that to answer the many questions raised by this absence would require a very great deal of fundamental research. He writes: ‘Without a substantive socio-cultural history of the Irish literary marketplace as it evolved over the nineteenth century, we can scarcely begin to answer the kinds of questions raised by Watt’s book in relation to the Irish context’. Cleary comments with some asperity: ‘We have many quite accomplished textual histories that study nineteenth century Irish novels and novelists, but not a single socio-cultural history of Irish novel readers or of their literary practices’.
Without such work (and part of the value of Cleary’s book is that it identifies rich topics for in-depth research that will allow Irish Studies to come of age as an academic field) Cleary’s strategy as post-colonial critic is to internationalise the conundrum, seeking as he does to situate it in a wider arena than that of England and Ireland, in which it is so often considered. His conclusion is that from this perspective it can be seen that ‘Peripheral cultures . . . have to wrestle with different constraints, handicaps and dilemmas than metropolitan cultures do, but this can be a spur and stimulus, as well as an obstacle to cultural and intellectual creativity’. This is a well-made point, its force vitiated somewhat for this reader by Cleary’s estimate of nineteenth-century British culture as marked by ‘imperial aloofness and insularity’. His argument at an earlier point in the essay depends on a polarity whereby ‘as Ireland was becoming increasingly anglicised, England was becoming xenophobic and hostile to continental European culture’. All of which prompts one to remember that Matthew Arnold was so confirmed a francophile because he found the dominance of English thought by German so alienating. From Coleridge to Walter Pater, German thought and philosophy were notably influential on British thought in the nineteenth century. And it could further be noted that in Charles Darwin England had produced a thinker who would re-orientate humankind’s sense of reality.
The intellectual heart of this fine book, which raises many issues that cannot be explored in a short review, is contained in three central chapters, those on ‘Capital and Culture in Twentieth-Century Ireland’, on ‘This Thing of Darkness: Conjectures on Irish Naturalism’, and on ‘Modernization and Aesthetic Ideology’. The first of these contentiously compares the presumed creativity of contemporary Ireland with that of the period of high modernism, to the former’s disadvantage, while the third of these essays reflects amid the abundance made available by the Celtic Tiger on the significance of works that deal with the exiguous conditions of de Valera’s Ireland. The central chapter here is a tour de force of theoretical reflection and critical reading of key texts, ranging from George Moore to John McGahern, which seeks to establish a kind of continuity in Irish culture that can be identified under the rubric ‘Naturalism’. Telling and original readings are entered on such works as Kavanagh’s The Great Hunger, on McGahern’s oeuvre and on Edna O’Brien’s early fiction. Sometimes I think the forensic trajectory of the argument in this chapter means that Cleary disregards the formal and thematic complexities of the works he is critically engaging. For example, I think he underestimates the symbolism deployed in Joyce’s Dubliners and the symbolic import of liturgy in various works by McGahern, both of which imply an authorial mode of consciousness that cannot be contained within the materialist limits of naturalistic narration; and I think he misses the theological significance of Maguire’s religious fate in The Great Hunger, which adds a genuinely tragic note to a work that, as Cleary is right to point out, does contain its degree of naturalist condescension towards those trapped in conditions that they cannot, by generic definition, transcend.
Overall this is a stimulating, often adroitly challenging work that deserves a wide readership in the Irish Studies community. Cleary himself acknowledges that his book is ‘self-consciously essayistic in approach and interrogative and exploratory in spirit’. It is these things and none the worse for them. But it is also a work, on topics that can raise critical hackles and generate unseemly heat, conducted with admirable scholarly courtesy and with a refreshing willingness to risk thought-provoking speculation.

Terence Brown is Professor of English at Trinity College, Dublin.


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