Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Who We Are 4

Who are we at all, at all?  Part 4

I suppose if I were asked the question as to who I am I might reply with my name and/or my occupation.  Then again I might answer in a theological or a religious way, something like, “I am a child of God, as are we all,” or a philosophical way, “I don’t know really, but I have many deep questions which I am asking myself continually.  I have a life project and goals which are getting clearer as time goes on,” or in a psychological way, “I am engaged in getting to know myself through counselling and self-help books and complementary therapies and I believe that I am in the process of actualising my real self,” or then again I might reply along these lines, “I am a complex being made up of a bank of memories and feelings and various accumulations of knowledge and skills learned over the period of years I have lived.”

As a nation or as a people who are we.  I have attempted in the three or four last posts to explore this deep and important question.  In this post I wish to refer to two works, a film and a modern novel.  The film is called The Wind That Shakes the Barley, directed by Ken Loach, which won an award, the prestigious Palme d’Or, at the recent Cannes Film Festival this year, and the book is a wonderful little gem called The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty and is written by Sebastian Barry.

The film is well named - The Wind That Shakes the Barley and this is a name of a traditional Irish music tune.  In fact the title is a line from an Irish song written by the 19th century author Robert Dwyer Joyce.  Another song featured in the film is “Óró sé do bheatha ‘bhaile”, a marching song written by Pádraig Pearse.  The film is shot needless to say in Ireland – in various towns in County Cork, and features practically a 100% Irish cast, save of course for the British military.  The accents are consequently natural.  The costumes are equally authentic and fit the period of the early 20th century well.  The acting also is brilliant and while there are many sad heart-wrenching moments there are also some very funny light moments.  Both the book and the film I have chosen talk about the same period in Ireland’s history – namely our fight for independence in the early twenties of the twentieth century.  They both explore how brother and sister can be separated from brother and sister due to opposing political loyalties.  There is no denying the contention of both works of art, for to my mind both are so, that modern Ireland was born out of revolution and the newborn nation was thus baptised in her own children’s blood.  There is simply no denying that fact.

Driven by a deep sense of duty and a love for his country, Damien (our hero, played by Cillian Murphy while the inimitable Liam Cunningham plays Dan) abandons his burgeoning career as a doctor and joins his brother, Teddy, in a dangerous and violent fight for freedom.  They later end up on opposing sides of the Treaty, and Teddy has to finally command the firing squad for his brother’s execution.
The film is brilliant insofar as it analyses the complex motivations behind those who fought for Ireland’s freedom during the war of independence and the motivations of those on both sides of the Treaty.  The men and women in The Wind That Shakes The Barley are real life, credible three-dimensional characters that are made up of complex emotions and thoughts.  There are no black and white heroes on the screen for the most part, save for the portrayal of the Auxies or Black and Tans.  However, at one stage there is this marvellous scene where our Irish hero is being interviewed (interrogated is too strong a word at this stage) by an English Captain, just back for the trauma of World War I trench warfare.  The captain snaps when our man will not even tell him his name and gives vent to his feelings about his experiences in the trenches.  The angst of the captain is thoroughly believable and adds a lovely human touch to the portrayal of the English forces.  We may not like it, it may not be politically correct, but we are indeed led to be sympathetic to the side of those who failed to accept the Treaty.  Indeed, we are led to appreciate the complexities of the birth of our nation, and indeed the consequent complexities of our identity.

At times it gives us a nice comfortable feeling to state that we are above party politics, that we are not as it were dyed-in-the-wool republicans, that we are a modern State made up of many nationalities.  However, deep down in our collective unconscious as a nation we cannot deny our bloody birth.  It’s all too easy to fly the pacifist’s flag, but it is not too easy to carry it high continually through the thick and thin of life’s ups and downs and certainly through periods of political unrest.  We are all full of prejudices.  Scratch the surface and they will be revealed in all their glory.  However, by being aware of our prejudices, we may not totally get rid of them, but we will at least perhaps take the sharp edges off them, and who knows by sheer dint of self-questioning may one day lay them down as blunt and useless weapons.

The book The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty  explores essentially the same period of history, though it does bring our character Eneas all the way up to 1970 and the beginning of the so-called Troubles in Northern Ireland.  McNulty writes with absolute grace and his words flow naturally and weave a veritable spell on the reader.  One gets the sense of the power and magic of words.  As we read we get entranced and enthralled by his uniquely personal and haunting style.  The author allows us into the mind or growing consciousness of our man Eneas from the time he was a little toddler right up to his death at 70 in 1970.  Eneas is a sympathetic if all too self-effacing character.  We fall in love with him immediately for his sheer honesty and congruence (to use a term from psychotherapy which refers to the authenticity of the self).  All through the book he tells us how little he actually knows of the ways of the world and of the motivations of others.  Our man Eneas can never, then, be accused of being sarcastic or ever cynical.  He simply has not a bad bone in his body and can never, therefore, doubt the motivations of another.  

At times I must say I found Eneas a bit too good to be true, almost a bit too naïve, almost stupid or thick at times.  I got annoyed at him for not being angry, and for not putting up a fight against his tormentors.  I got annoyed because he was far too fatalistic for my liking – this is how life is and we are all victims and we can do absolutely nothing about it.  Maybe I will rephrase this and say that I got annoyed for him rather than at him.  Eneas is one of the world’s lovable characters, deep-thinking, profound, questioning and he certainly belongs to the existentialist school of philosophers.

The book follows Eneas’s life from childhood right up to his death at seventy.  He spends a year in the Merchant Navy and then another year in The Royal Irish Constabulary.  He is given early retirement from this after seeing a colleague murdered at close quarters by the insurrectionists.  Needless to say he becomes literally a nobody, a “persona non grata” around Sligo because he has taken the famous “King’s shilling” and has sold out on his country.  Eneas is totally unaware that he has done any such thing, as he has not a political thought or sympathy in his head.  He is merely drifting through life, just looking for the next few shillings to survive.  He becomes friends with Johnno during his adolescent years, but this Johnno becomes a freedom fighter who later goes over to the anti-Treaty side.  Not alone is Eneas ostracized by his community and his friend but he is put on the hit list or death list.  Why? Well, they think he managed to identify the murderers of his colleague in the R.I.C.  Johnno will haunt Eneas’s life for more than 50 years.

This is a complex and wonderful novel, but its power lies in its lyrical writing, in its plumbing the depths of the human psyche, in its touchingly human sympathy, in its humanity and humaneness and in its at times poetic, if not mystical, flourishes.  It is a book in search of meaning, reminding one of Camus’s famous little book The Outsider from time to time.    

I will finish with a quotation from The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty to illustrate both the power of the language and the depth of its psychology:  Just let the magic of these words on the futility of war seep into your consciousness.  Eneas is commenting on the aftermath of a battle during World War II when he fought in the English Army:

The moon rises over Eneas’s France.  He is forty, no, he is forty-two or three, he can’t say anymore.  Time is a dark puzzle, certainly. No sense saying he knows where he is because he does not.  Even the name of the beach eludes him and when he heard the name first it had a Scottish sound to it but he has forgotten it now.  Even if he could remember the name what help would it be? .... The fields of France, they have been killed for the saving of the fields of France.  That’s the why and the what of it… Assured in his heartof the truth of that, Eneas turns about and, setting his back against the sea, walks again up into the selfsame France.  In the caves of his ears all the oceans of the earth bellowing with storms and crying sailors.  Though he can see through his eyes well enough, yet he walks like a blind man through the remnants of confusion, and goes on into some lonesome woods by the mercy of Shank’s pony, walking straight forward, like a small child in a meadowland or indeed a forest, straight, with some purpose unknown, and never looking back.”

Whoever we are, let us at least ask the big questions!  Identity either as a person, and certainly as a nation is no easy thing.  Above all let us decry the sheer futility of war! Above: four actors on the set of The Wind That Shakes the Barley, see http://www.timeout.com/film/news/523.html