Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Luck o' the Irish

Thomas Cahill has basically a condensed, one-page, version of his book from years ago--How the Irish Saved Civilization--in the NYTimes. The article is astounding in the assumptions it makes. Let's take a few of these:

Upon their entrance into Western history in the fifth century, they were the most barbaric of barbarians, practitioners of human sacrifice, cattle rustlers, traders in human beings (the children they captured along the Atlantic edge of Europe), insane warriors who entered battle stark naked. And yet it was the Irish who were around to pick up the pieces when the Roman Empire collapsed in the West under the increasing assaults of Germanic tribes.

The first assumption is the false dichotomy between "barbarian" and "civilized." "Barbarian" is basically a dustbin category for those "not like us." I hardly think that by contrast the practices of Greeks and Romans particularly marks them out for "civilized." They were quite savage as well. Think, for example, on the arena: let's watch gladiators hack each other to death for fun! Popcorn anyone? There were plenty of "traders in human beings" in the ancient world to go around from all places. Stories of human sacrifice show up in all ancient literatures as well: Hebraic, Greek, Roman, etc. Whether they occurred when written may be a different matter, but they likely reflect earlier traditions. The Irish are not particularly unique on any of these scores. They are just like the "most civilized of the civilized." We could say the Greeks were SO BARBARIC: they exercised stark naked (Gymnasion means the "naked place"). Moreover, the Irish, like the archaic Greeks, have a bardic tradition reaching back millennia. So, "barbarian" is not a particularly illuminating category. It is simply a rhetorical category, something to call someone else, a pejorative slur. What is interesting is that Cahill (his name should give away his ancestry) is calling his own ancestors "barbarian" rather than the "other." But it is a past "other." His NYTimes story reads like a national conversion narrative. Conversion narratives always like to highlight that bad and nasty before coming to the new religion and emphasizing the good and beautiful afterwards, ignoring or selectively forgetting the good before and the bad after. Another thing, along with the whole "conversion narrative" aspect is this dramatic "fall" of the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire in the Western portion had been on a fairly steady decline for centuries. In fact the Germanic invaders had great respect for those whom they invaded and were not the "barbaric" stereotypes. The entire area was already unstable. It was more of a symbolic defeat than any material change.

So if this is not really a "barbarian" versus "civilization" question, because, on closer analysis, the difference is one of fighting words, of posturing, rather than of any substance, the surprise of the Irish saving "Civilization" with a big "C" lies elsewhere. What is probably most surprising is not their practice--the most savage of peoples can come up with great literature (Iliad, anyone?)--but their location: they were isolated, remote from the literature that they would eventually be copying down.

There are some additional interesting observations and assumptions when Cahill speaks of Irish scribal activity--something that is a fascinating topic, especially in their beautiful illuminated manuscripts and bits of marginalia:
The scribes also contributed jokes, poems and commentary to the works they replicated, saving for us a world of fresh insights. One scribe, tortured by the difficult Greek he was copying, wrote: “There’s an end to that — and seven curses with it!” Another complained of a previous scribe’s sloppiness: “It is easy to spot Gabrial’s work here.” A third, at the bottom of a tear-stained page, tells us how upset he was by the death of Hector on the Plain of Troy. In these comments, sharp and sweet by turns, we come in contact with the sources of Irish literary humor and hear uncanny echoes of Swift, Wilde, Shaw, Joyce, Beckett.

One scribe leaves us a charming poem about his cat, who hunts mice through the night while the scribe hunts words. Another, presumably a female scribe, describes a young man in four brief lines:

He’s a heart,

He’s an acorn from an oak tree,

He’s young.

Kiss him!

A third scribe (for they were not all monks and nuns) wonders who will sleep tonight with “blond Aideen.” (It’s quite certain someone will.)

The quotations above are English translations from the Irish, the first vernacular language of Europe to be written down. In this way, the Irish initiated what would eventually become the great torrent of European national literatures.

We have many reasons to be grateful to St. Patrick and his fierce and playful Irishmen and Irishwomen. So on this St. Patrick’s Day, remember them as they would wish to be remembered. Read a book.

Why does it have to be a female scribe? Why can't it be a male scribe who wants to kiss another man, in a moment of homerotic passion or longing? So, it is either a female scribe longing for a man or a male scribe longing for a man. How do we know that the "third scribe" is not a monk or nun? Surely we are not so naive as to think all who take orders follow them--as Boccaccio reminds us of the "truth" about friars.


John Hobbins said...

Hi Jared,

Not much left of Cahill's piece in the wake of your analysis.

Still, you leave us with more questions than answers. I touch on one of them here:

Jared Calaway said...

Thanks John. I read your post. I hope my response is interests you.

If I have left you with more questions than answers, then I have succeeded--always leave them wanting more! ;)

John Hobbins said...

Thanks, Jered.

You must make an excellent teacher. You have a light touch, but you are not boring at all.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

Great post. My field of interest is mainly in Judaic and Hebraic studies, but I certainly know of exactly what you speak. It's a shame that popular seems to equal shallow, not to mention crude, inaccurate, and in this case, unfair.