Tuesday, March 27, 2012

On An Irish Island by Robert Kanigel

The Blasket story matters not alone for the sake of the island itself, or the people who once lived there, or the literature it produced, but for how it reflects back at us our lives today. Almost from the moment Tomas O’Crohan’s book The Islandman first appeared, it’s been like that – life on the Blasket seen in stark contrast to modern lives that, in the right light or the wrong mood, can seem to fevered, insubstantial, or inauthentic. The Blaskets speak to us not only of what they once were , but how we, the rest of us, are today. “It was a simple culture,” Thomson wrote of the island, “but free from the rapacity and vulgarity that is destroying our own.” True or not, the assertion, like others over the years from critics and scholars, makes the Blaskets into a kind of half-silvered mirror that, even as we look back through it to the past, shows us ourselves and something of how we live today.

No one anytime soon is returning to live on the Blaskets; the hundreds of islanders who over the years left it behind for America and Canada might scratch their heads, incredulous, at the thought. But this truth doesn’t deny anther truth, that the island has something for us yet to learn. George Thomson once lamented that he’s “failed in the work I had set out to do –that is, bring the people of the Gaeltacht into modern civilization while retaining their own culture.” But there is another work to do – to conform modern civilization with the story, the example, the contrast, of places like the Blasket: As counterweight to a “progress” that sometimes seems too headlong, or not progress at all; as repository of those old ways of pre-modern life worth reclaiming today, or at least revisiting; as testimony that life’s satisfactions lie amid people, individually or together, undistracted by the ceaseless swell of clatter and activity, goods, gadgets, and pixels that constitutes our lives today.

“We were poor people who knew nothing of the prosperity or the vanity of the world,” said Peig Sayers. She and the other islanders lived hard lives, buffeted by the extremes of nature, isolated and narrow. Still, most of the time, it was enough. Whereas today – doesn’t it seem? – nothing is ever enough.

Or, seen another way, it’s too much, leaving us to yearn for just a little less of everything. Today, right beside Facebook Nation and the rest of the twenty-first-century world, coexists a twenty-first century counterculture in sometimes uneasy union with it: Slow food, locally grown. An intimate urbanism built around compact, walking-scaled city neighborhoods. Vacations offering respite from the hammer and thrum of modern life – camping, long-distance bicycle touring, folk-dancing camps, trekking in Nepal, hiking along the Appalachian Trail. Each offers at least a hesitant, momentary step into a slower, less technologically-tangled life; one of less choice, less convenience, closer to nature, maybe some taste of real community. A little, in short, like Blasket in its prime. The Blaskets ‘may be a broken-down culture,” wrote Thomas Barrington in 1937. “It may be a culture run to seed. But seeds are scattered over a field prepared for them will produce a new crop.”

Are we required to judge as distorted or naïve all that the superbly educated men and women experienced on those windy heights above the sea? Must we dismiss it on the simple if undeniable grounds that their place on the island was temporary and artificial, their immersion incomplete, their insight skewed?

Today they would all be termed “privileged”. Each was spared the island’s grimmest truths, was buffered from the village’s social pressures, could come and go as he or she pleased. What George and Marie-Louise and Marstrander lived was not what the islanders lived. Australian scholar Irene Lucchitti says Synge’s sympathetic picture of the Blaskets “recognizes neither the realities of poverty nor the ordinary complications of Island life.” Synge and others may have hauled nets, collected turf on the hills behind the village, rowed until their muscles burned. But, unlike the islanders, they weren’t consigned forever to labor and hardship. Their prospects ranged beyond the sea-ruffled edge of the island. They were on vacation, or they were on leave, or they were doing research, or they were working on their Irish. Usually it was summer, and the sun shone; come winter, they were back in the city. With not matter what clarity Synge, Thomson, and the others could see the harshness of island life, they nonetheless enjoyed the mental leisure, the freedom from exigency, to see it warmed by softer light…

Or so, voicing this objection, speaks Maturity, the grown-up part of us that insists on being hardheadedly realistic. But of course that was not the part of them the Blaskets claimed. Because for them the Blaskets were their youths, their Land of the Young.

Synge, twenty-seven when he first visited Aran, was older at the time of his visit to the Blaskets, thirty-four. George was twenty. Marstrander was twenty-three. Sjoestedt was twenty-four. Brian Kelly was twenty-eight, as was Robin Flower. “To him,” his bilious friend Edward Meyerstein wrote of Flower on a trip to the island, “this place is a dream of his youth.” And it was something like that for most of them.

“Dream” suggests unreality, fantasy, nothing to be taken quite seriously, what the crimped adult in us is quick to smack down as ephemeral or silly. But –like Utopia, with its paradoxical intimations of impossible and ideal; or for that matter, the Irish Tir na nOg, Land of the Young, itself –“Dream” also suggests something rare and good, on a higher, if elusive plane, a vision of a happier time or a better world. And it’s this we see again and again among the Blasket visitors – their idyllic days on the island transmuted into a personal vision, into sensibilities that reached across their lives and into old age.

Around the time of George Thomson’s eightieth birthday, he was visited by Irish scholar Sean O Luing, a native of West Kerry, who’d been intrigued by Thomson ever since reading Fiche Blian ag Fas. It was a memorable day for O Luing in Birmingham, he and George talking of the prospects for the Irish language in Ireland, of links between Greek and Irish. “As he was speaking,” O Luining wrote, Thomason “got up and paced the room, a light came into his eyes, his voice which at first had been weak, grew stronger, the years fell away, and I found myself listening to a man who spoke with the animation and fire of youth.”

For Thomson, the Blaskets seemed to have defined a [personal state of grace, a time when he was tied to his fellows in a way he perhaps never was again.

By the old wooden stove where our hats were hung,
Our words were told, our songs were sung,
Where we longed for nothing and were quite satisfied
Talkin’ and a-jokin’ about the world outside.

These are lyrics from a song, “Bob Dylan’s Dream” He wrote it when he was just twenty-one. Even then, it seems, he cherished the memory of yet an earlier, magical time, full of easy fellowship:

I wish, I wish, I wish in vain
That we could sit simply in that room again.
Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat,
I’d give it all gladly if our lives could be live that.

For Dylan in his dream, at least from the other side of the confounding gates of memory, younger was simpler, and simpler was happy. When we yearn for simplicity, for lives less saddled with stuff, for time less crowded and closed down, it’s usually our youthful selves we want back- for the earlier years when as young officers, assistant professors, or junior engineers, we sat “simply in that room again, in pub, bar, or coffee shop, with friends. For times when, typically, we had less, yet more.

It is not entirely mysterious, really, what this something-lost was. We only have to turn to the visitors themselves to see what captured their imaginations; persistent themes run through their writings. They tell of the peculiar dignity and grace of the island people, of their abiding hospitality. They tell of their bravery and strength and capacity to endure. They tell of how, with reading, writing, and pre-packaged distraction such a small part of their lives, vitality shot through their everyday human interaction. They tell of the islanders as creators of joyful music, exuberant dance, and artful language, not mere consumers of them. They tell of time taken to enjoy moments of extraordinary natural beauty. They tell of men and women measured not by the narrow yardstick of performance, doing one thing capably, but of an adaptability that left room for doing much well, living life well.

Hard to stack up against food prices, mils-per-gallon, music downloads, life expectancy, stock options; they don’t compute. What, then, should we do with these “losing” graces. As we think of the Blaskets, how they touched the visitors, and what we might draw from them today, how are we to retrieve them, ensure they don’t slip irredeemably from sight? How are we to treat virtues to amorphous, soft, and tentative to count, too sweet and admirable for any place but our dreams?

Robert Kanigel just retired as Professor of Science Writing at MIT and is the author of six previous books:
Faux Real
High Season
Vintage Reading
The One Best Way
The Man who Knew Infinity
Apprentice to Genius.

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