jeudi, juin 28, 2012

Europa's Repressed Id?: "The Celtic Consciousness"

     (Chaidh an lèirmheas-leabhair seo a sgrìobhadh air ais ann an 1983 (airson na h-iris "Cencrastus"). Ghabh mi cothrom a leudachadh beagan an seo. Tha mi 'n dùil gum bi an leabhar tomadach seo a-mach à clò a-nis, ach gun teagamh tha na cinn-chonnspaid a chaidh an togail san lèirmheas cudromach fhathast. Tha fhios nach e ionnsaigh pearsanta air duine sam bith a th'anns an sgrùdadh-leabhair seo, ach oidhirp air cùisean cànanach is cultarach a shoilleireachadh.  - F MacFh., An Giblean 2004)

Tara Brooch AD 700
Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh (1983)
Robert O'Driscoll (ed.), The Celtic Consciousness, Canongate Publishing, 642pp, £32.00, 1983

"For too long we have been taught that the history of Britain began with the coming of the Romans who brought with them a novel series of blessings to tribes of blue-painted savages, as wild as any Captain Cook may have encountered. Roman Britain has been depicted as a country populated, not by Britons, but by Romans, with a few gangs of British slaves for their convenience. These were, we were told, then wiped out or pushed into the mountainous periphery of our island by the coming of the Anglo-Saxons. We now know that all these pictures are false."
- An excerpt from the essay entitled 'Material Culture, Myth and Folk Memory' by Anne Ross (Dept. of Archaeology, Univ. of Southampton, and School of Scottish Studies, Edin.), one of fifty-five contributions to this hefty well-illustrated volume which were originally delivered as papers at a symposium on Celtic Consciousness in Toronto in 1978. 

     The Celtic Consciousness. The title disquieted me for some reason. However, glancing at the list of contributors I relaxed a bit. Here, among many others, were Richard Demarco, Liam De Paor, Owen Dudley Edwards, Hamish Henderson, Thomas Kinsella, Proinsias MacCana, John Maclnnes, Sorley Maclean, John MacQueen, Seán Ó Tuama, Conor Cruise O'Brien. (I think the presence of that last name alone was sufficient to settle me - no Twilight Romantic he!) And if the name of one Salvador Dali happened also to appear, his submission turned out to be brief, and what pleased me even more, in French! In the event, I found most of the writers informative and authoritative, though periodically my initial misgivings re-surfaced until, by the time I finished the book, my unease had become anger.
     The book is ambitious, as the title suggests, attempting to project before us Celtic history from its beginnings to the present, dealing with archaeology, language, myth, folklore, art, literature, music, politics, etc. The editor, Robert O'Driscoll (Artistic Director, Celtic Arts Canada, and Director of the Celtic Studies Programme, Univ. of Toronto), acknowledged a pronounced bias towards Ireland and Scotland in this book, and plans to redress the balance in favour of the P-Celts in a subsequent volume. Clearly a short review cannot do justice to a 'cast' of fifty-five, and a few selected 'clips' must suffice to introduce to us some of the many subplots which combine to bear this epic forward:

The sum of the evidence', writes Jan Filip (Univ. of Prague)...
justifies the view that the region where the historical Celtic culture crystallized was in the north-west of the Alps, and covered the territory from north-eastern France, across southern Germany, into Bohemia. There is hardly a nation in Europe which has not drawn directly or indirectly on the wealth of this Celtic heritage.
     As to language, Heinrich Wagner (Professor at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies) argues that "Insular Celtic . . . provides a striking link between the languages of Western Europe and those of Northern Africa and the Middle East (Berber, Egyptian, Arabic and Hebrew)" while Elmar Temes (Univ. of Hamburg) in a fascinating study of the grammatical structure of the Celtic tongues contrasts for us the 'word' in German which, 'in whatever phonetic context it may appear, does not change at all', with the Celtic word - 
There is hardly a language in the world for which the traditional concept of "word" is so doubtful as for the Celtic languages . . . We may say that the word in Celtic is like a chameleon, which changes its appearance according to its surroundings.
     In his article on Celtic art Liam De Paor (Univ. College Dublin) tells us -
It seems that the weapons of the Republic, with which Rome was to conquer the Mediterranean world, were largely based on Celtic prototypes. It was neither technology nor innate superiority but organisation that gave the Romans the edge. 
He also recounts how, when the Celts were asked by a general of Alexander the Great what they feared most, they answered that they feared nothing - except that the sky might fall on them. 
     Now surely too we have a poignant glimpse of the Celtic Consciousness in De Paor's observation that -
The most dedicated and superb craftsmanship in the Tara Brooch is in the ornamentation of the reverse, which would have lain against the wool of the wearer's cloak; the richest metalwork and settings of the Ardagh Chalice are on the underside of the foot: there is a conspicuous absence in this art of bourgeois calculation.
     As suggested already, one of the positive attributes of the book is the eschewal by most writers of any hint of celtomania. Kevin Danaher (Univ. College Dublin) asks  
'if we are not straining the bounds of scientific credibility by claiming that the (modern) Irish are a Celtic people'.  
Owen Dudley Edwards observes that -
The word "Celtic" is in many ways very misleading for Scotland'.  
And Richard Demarco, as he discusses the work of Joseph Beuys, Tadeusz Kantor, Dennis Leon and Paul Neagu, concedes that -
none of these artists are strictly Celtic...
 However, other writers define the term 'Celtic' in a hazier way, e.g. Larkin Kerwin - 'A Note on the Celtic Contribution to Science' - for whom Irish or Scots birth is qualification enough, and William lrwin Thompson in his 'The Mythic Past and the Present Moment - 
Although I am an American and am centuries removed from the Celtic homelands, I was raised in an affirmation of the Celtic Consciousness.
     Again, we can (thankfully) contrast the sybilline doom-saying of Maire Cruise O'Brien concerning the future viability of the Irish language -
"I am anxious to emphasise the gloomy viewpoint . . . because the view from this point coincides in large measure with the truth . . death throes ... last flowering..."
with the more inspirational agnosticism of John Maclnnes, as he tests the pulse of that language's Scottish sister -
"It would be wrong to imagine ... that we can predict the future with confident pessimism ... Whatever the future may hold, it seems appropriate, reviewing the culture of Gaelic Scotland over fifteen hundred years, to assert Nec tamen consumebatur."
     Certain strands of the book made me weary, like interpretations of the ancient Celts which make them just too neatly relevant to our decade - for example they are hailed as a feminist antidote to the macho Classical Renaissance-
"Celtic art represents 'psyche', the intuitive female principle, as opposed to what Renaissance art has come to represent in the twentieth century, 'techne', the mere mechanical application of outworn rules of proportion, a harsh linear male principle." (Richard Demarco: 'Celtic Vision in Contemporary Art'.) 
     This 'female principle' undergoes apotheosis in Demarco's rhetoric (becoming 'Earth Spirit' etc), but others who use such incantatory phraseology are apparently (and alarmingly) in earnest -  
"The quality of (Celtic) life was enriched by communion with the Goddess, a feminine spirit who dwelt in the rivers, lochs, and hilltops ... we can renew those links with our primeval mother, and treat her as the Earth Goddess she is..." (Marianna Lines, Findhorn)
      And - 
"The return of animism in communities like Findhorn is thus a fascinating experiment in the best Celtic tradition." (William Irwin Thompson, Founding Director of the Lindisfarne Assoc.)
     This brings me to my main argument with the book. A mysticism seeps up through it, undermining the less fanciful writers and leaving them like boulders in a bog. The source of this subterranean spring is, I fear, the book's Editor with his espousal of W.B. Yeats and George Russell (AE) as the 'mediums' of Celtic Consciousness. They were the 'spiritual leaders of the Celtic Renaissance' , he informs us 
In exploring the ideals of the Revival I shall illustrate my arguments now from one writer, now from the other' (p 402). 
Marsh-gas begins to sting my nostrils. These two gentlemen, I hardly need to remind anyone, were writers of English. Crucial questions immediately pose themselves - questions with which the book deals either inadequately or not at all. Can that which is not dead be revived? Can the burgeoning of English and the decay of Irish be described as a 'Celtic Renaissance'? Just what is the connection between consciousness and language?  Indeed, when is a Celt not a Celt? Are not the contemporary speakers of the Celtic tongues, with their consciousness of decisive military defeat, of prolonged cultural decline, of unchronicled or deliberately distorted histories, of depressed peripheral economies, of impending linguistic extinction, are not they and their poets, rather than anglophone romantics, the authentic voices of Celtic Consciousness? The editor seemingly thinks not. Compared with innumerable pages devoted to Yeats, 'AE' and Synge, the analysis of current Celtic-language literature is minimal. As conceded, the Breton-Welsh-Cornish axis is not dealt with. Of the Scots only Sorley Maclean (and Hugh MacDiarmid) get more than a mention. But what of Seán O Ríordáin and Máirtín Ó Direáin? Is Máirtín Ó Cadhain's 'Cré na Cille'  (1949) worth only a couple of sentences? In another publication - 'The Pleasures of Gaelic Poetry' (Ed. Seán Mac Réamoinn, Allen Lane Penguin Books Ltd 1982) - Seán Ó Tuama states that Ó Ríordáin's second book (Brosna) was  -
One of the most distinguished collections of verse ever published in Ireland', and that 'He and Ó Direáin amongst our poets, and Máirtín Ó Cadhain amongst our fiction-writers, have re-vitalized the Irish language, fitted it out for the contemporary mind'
I now realize what bothered me about the present volume's title - its presumption. Thus we are presented with a so-called 'Celtic Renaissance', often interpreted with the astounding chauvinism of the English-speaker - 
"(Synge) argued fiercely against the Gaelic League's intention of restoring Irish as the vernacular of Ireland. This he saw as a retrogressive step likely to halt the intellectual development of Ireland ... I think Synge was right in this matter and Hyde (founder of Gaelic League) wrong" (Lorna Reynolds, Prof. Emeritus Univ. Coll. Galway, co-editor, with Robert O'Driscoll, of five volumes in the Yeats Studies Series
     So, carefully sparing ourselves the angst of actual Celtic-speakers, we can now indulge our hypocritical (?) Celtic nostalgia to its romantic full -
"The Celt, in the stories collected or created by the writers of the Revival, is not concerned with probability or necessity, but only with the expression of emotion. He perceives the correspondence between sensuous form and super-sensuous meaning and recognizes instinctively the spirit that gives a voice to the dumb things that surround him. Not distinguishing clearly between the natural and the supernatural, and believing that all nature is full of invisible spirits that can be perceived by those willing to look beyond the cobweb veil of the sense, the Celt sees everything as enchanted" (O'Driscoll, pp 409, 410)
     Or this from Demarco -
"To our sophisticated modern world, the Celts represent the nebulous in-between states of human experience, twilight as the mid-way point between dark and day, material and spiritual; mist as the poetic creation of water and air; the shore line as the demarcation between solid and liquid matter; dreaming as the state between sleep and waking" (p 250). 
     Thus miasmic swamp-mist-icism finally engulfs us and, lost forever to the world of mortals, we head off in giddy pursuit of the elusive ignis fatuus. 
Another question. By what perverse logic can we fete 'Celtic Consciousness' as of crucial relevance for our age, while simultaneously we disdain the channel and supreme bequest of that consciousness (i.e. Celtic Language) as inimical to our intellect? Can we ingest the consciousness and refuse the language, as we consume a nut-kernel and throw away the shell? Things are not so simple. We unhusk this nut only to instantaneously encapsulate it with a new shell - our own (English) language - the language which has moulded the shape of our consciousness - and which now moulds (and flavours) whatever Celtic pâté we might cram into it. In making the nut conducive to the English-speaker's palate, its form and texture (not to mention its nutritional value) are fundamentally altered. To change the figure, music scored for a specific instrument may be rendered on another; the melody endures, but the experience, the impact, the 'quality' is very different. Think of Bach transposed from organ to guitar. The music undergoes re-interpretation - reincarnation. Think of ceòl mòr transposed to port à beul. Or ceòl beag to fiddle. And where words are concerned the distance travelled is vastly greater than in instrumental music. One of Jorge Luis Borges excellent short stories, "Pierre Menard, Autor del Quijote" (from "Ficciones) descibes the perfect translation of Don Quijote de la Mancha. This "perfect" translation necessarily retains every rhythm, sound and semantic nuance of the original. It is in fact indistinguishable from the original!    
     Anyone who reads a poem in an original language followed by an English translation (Sorley Maclean's 'Coilltean Ratharsair', for example - both versions being happily present in this book) must frequently, if not always, be struck either by the comparative poverty of the English (as in the case cited), or by a 'virtuoso' translation's liberty-taking with the original. This is not to argue the futility of translating, but that more is lost in transit than is often realized, particularly by a complacent reader of English, who finds it all too easy to exist on translations. The host language, to avoid its own violation, distorts as it devours. Otherwise, like the boa constrictor which swallows the water buffalo, it takes on an unrecognizably alien shape. Compare, for example, post-Conquest Anglo-Saxon which, having failed to successfully digest Norman-French Consciousness, undergoes the inevitable fate of metamorphosis in the hybrid register of Chaucer. 
     In reference to French and a variant of Anglo-Saxon, it is interesting, amusing even, to read what the French of Léon de Wailly, 1843, makes of a couple of lines from Burns's My Luve is Like a Red, Red, Rose, namely "And I will luve thee still, my Dear, Till a’ the seas gang dry". De Wailly accomplishes the no-mean feat of making his French sound as capiteux as a pile of broken bricks -  
"Et je continuerai de t’aimer, ma chère, Jusqu’à ce que les mers soient à sec."   
     Rather more poetic, but correspondingly less literal, is the Gaelic rendition of Roderick MacDonald - 
"'S gu sìorraidh chaoidh cha trèig mi thu, Fhads a bhios muir air tràigh". 
     My proposition is simply this  - change consciousness, change language; change language, change consciousness. The British classes verbally signal their differing wave-lengths. One current of "Black" consciousness in the USA has sought linguistic equivalence. George Steiner argues (Language and Silence) that Nazi consciousness practically ruined the German language, particularly for poetry. Classical Renaissance thinking brought with it resurrected classical speech, and consequently invaded the vernacular tongues with Graeco-latinisms (largely bypassing peripheralised Gaelic, of course). 
     Up until the 16th Century, the term "Scot" in its various forms referred to someone of Gaelic-speech, whether from Ireland or Scotland. In fact in earlier times Ireland was known as "Scotia". Cf the 10th Century Sanas Cormaic -
Ba mór cumachta Gaedel for Bretnaib, ocus niba luga do-threbtais Gaedil for muir anair quam in Scotia" (The power of the Gael over the British was great, and the Gael lived no less to the east of the sea quam in Scotia (than in Ireland)" The Irish Language by Máirtín Ó Murchú, Gnéithe dar nDúchas 10, Dept of Foreign Affairs & Bord na Gaeilge, Dublin 1985)
     When the Scottish State eventually switched from Gaelic to Inglis it moved from Celtic to Teutonic consciousness. By the 16th Century Inglis is now "our awin langage" and is called "Scottis" to distinguish it from Sudroun (Southern English, or English English). Cf a few lines of Gawin Douglas (c 1475-1522) from the Prologue to his translation of The Aeneid -
"As that I culd, to make it braid and plain.
Kepand nae sudroun, but our awin langage,
and speakis as I learit when I was page...
Nor yet sae clean all sudroun I refuse,
but sum word I pronunce as nichtbour does;
Like as in Latin been Greek termes sum,
So me behuvit whilom, or than be dum,
Sum bastard Latin, French, or Inglis oiss, (oiss=use)
Whar scant were Scottis I had nae uther choiss"
     So in his apologia here, Douglas (Gaelic "Dubh Ghlas", "Black Water") explains that rather than "be dum" if he lacks a word in "Scottis" (ie the Scottish variant of northern Anglo-Saxon) he has felt himself justified in his use (oiss) of some form of Latin, French or (Southern) English. This literary virtuoso with the Gaelic name must have rubbed shoulders almost daily with Gaelic-speakers. He almost certainly (as the gifted linguist he was, not to mention in his office as Bishop of Dunkeld) would have been able, at the very least, to "get by" in Gaelic himself. Yet now when his "awin langage" of Inglis/Scottis fails him he has "nae uther choiss" than recourse to one of the three languages he mentions. Gaelic (speech of the "Scots" for millenia before him) is not on his mental map! (Of course the Edinburgh Government soon became determined to extirpate Gaelic from all maps, - cf the Statutes of Iona, 1609).
     The Scottish State's move from Inglis/Scottis to Sudroun/English marks another, though less fundamental shift of consciousness. The latest stage of our linguistic 'evolution' - Americanization - proceeds apace (my own Canadian mental substratum having given me a "head"-start). It would be neat, if simplistic, to argue that in terms of Scottish consciousness Lallans is devolution while Gaelic is independence. An interesting comparison would be the 20th Century Jewish debate over the relative merits of a (Germanic) Yiddish and a revived Hebrew.The reality in Scotland is dauntingly complex. There are no monoglot Gaels, Gaelic-speaking adults (in 1983) having all been educated through English (reminding us that, under our Scottish system, 'education' has long meant 'deracination'). Gaels make up only around 1% of the Scottish population. Gaels, like everyone else, are overwhelmingly influenced by the mass media, and that Media, on the whole, uses but one medium - English. This gives rise (understandably) to a kind of schizoid di-glossia among Gaelic-speakers - Gaelic for the home; English for officialdom. 
     Your language speaks you. Like those intertwined beard-pullers from the Book of Kells, language and consciousness have each other by the throat. In this contentious symbiosis now one partner prevails, now the other. Most often it is consciousness which yields to the strangle-hold of language, but on the rare occasion the brute's grip is broken and it is forced to cry 'Uncle', or indeed any other combination of syllables which the newly emancipated consciousness gleefully dictates. One such inspiring moment came with James Joyce. More than one writer (O'Driscoll, De Paor, Neil Bartlett) compares Finnegans Wake to theBook of Kells in its love of multi-faceted intricacy ('barely controlling an explosive anarchy' - De Paor). The Wake, with its chameleon-type words, is presented as the fruit of the marriage of Celtic Genius to the English language. But, I ask, if it is successful as Celtic Consciousness, is it successful as English? If English must endure such tribulations to adequately express Celtic Consciousness is not its unsuitability for the task proven, rather than the contrary? And, as far as this 'Celtic' hypothesis is valid, would Joyce not have found a more sympathetic medium in Irish? The crucial fact is, though, that Joyce's love-affair was not with Irish, but with English; indeed it has been argued that it was his passion for English which spurred him to write at all -
"Ba scríbhneoir é James Joyce toisc gur thug sé gean a chroí go fíochmhar don Bhéarla. D'fhéadfá a rá nach raibh aon ábhar eile aige seachas an cumann rúnda idir a shamhlaíocht féin agus an Bhéarla" 
("James Joyce was a writer because of an intense/fierce commitment to the English language. It could be said that he had no other subject-matter than the mystical communion between his own imagination and English.) - Alan Titley (Scríobh 5. Ed. Seán Ó Mórdha, 1981)
     The practical results of this commitment of Joyce are a more malleable English and an expanded consciousness for the English-speaker. My central argument therefore is this - authentic commitment to Celtic Consciousness ought to involve a 'fierce' commitment to Celtic Language, because the stretching of that Language means the expansion of that Consciousness. Commitment to Celtic Consciousness therefore means not just being au fait with translations from the Celtic (the ultimate in 'Gaelic without Groans'), nor even actively translating Celtic literature into English (which, as has just been pointed out, is inevitably far more concerned with the consciousness of the English-speaker than of the Celtic-speaker). Commitment to Celtic Consciousness means writing in Celtic for the Celt; the translation of English and world classics into Celtic; the determination to stretch Celtic like a drum-skin round the outermost rim of the cosmos and then hammer a tune on it; a resolve that the Celtic tongues will have a future as well as a past. And that last is surely one of the great creative challenges of our day. 
     Liam De Paor describes how the Celts lavished delicate craftsmanship on their armaments, by that very act expressing a disdain of death. Here we have an appropriate symbol for Celtic language - a finely wrought shield, inlayed with jewels, summation of millenia of craftsmanship, confronting now, as ever, death. Let us make no mistake; when the shield falls, the warrior follows. Without the protection of Celtic Language, Celtic Consciousness will be nought but a bonehaunting wraith, mute to all but the self-deluding romantic and the self-proclaiming psychic, its diaphanous form manifest only on photographs of whose authenticity we can never be sure. And should we unearth and reconstruct its bones it would be but a pseudo-resurrection - a nerveless marionette articulated by an alien mind.
     Finally, for another (gentle) glimpse of Celtic Consciousness consider the following (translated) note, discovered in the margin of a manuscript laboured over by an early Irish monk (quoted in the article 'Celtic Calligraphy' by Liam Miller and Pat Musick)-
"Let me not be blamed for the script, for the ink is bad and the vellum defective, and the day is dark."
Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh