I was born in Belfast and spent the first eighteen years of my life in Northern Ireland, so my youth was spent in bitterly contested territory where conflicting loyalties raged. One of Northern Ireland’s tribes sees itself as Irish, the other as British; one is predominantly Catholic, the other Protestant; one aligns its political compass to Dublin, the other to London. Growing up was an education in how difference can lead to discrimination and how the sense of injustice that discrimination spawns can easily spill over into violence. The Troubles that ignited in 1969 and burned and smoldered for a quarter of a century, wrecking so many lives, were a potent factor in my decision to move to Scotland. I lived there for the next decade.
Edinburgh was a welcome contrast to life in County Antrim. No one there cared what religion I belonged to. There was no Irish-British tension. Ulster folk were as welcome as Americans, French, Indians, Japanese and all the other nationalities who, like me, were drawn to the city’s ancient university. There was a sense of easy internationalism, a tolerance of diversity, an openness to new ideas. Scotland’s capital – the Athens of the North – seemed secure enough in its own history, culture and traditions for differences to be considered a source of interest and enrichment rather than a threat.
My next move came about for reasons of professional advancement not personal choice. I was offered a lectureship at the University of Wales, so I moved three hundred miles south, settled in Ceredigion, and lived there for nearly twenty years. This period of my life brought new senses of divisiveness – between the indigenous population and incomers; between Welsh-speakers and non Welsh-speakers; between Wales and England. The conflict of loyalties that was evident and the discrimination it fuelled – particularly in the local schools – was an unwelcome reminder of my Northern Irish past.
I’ve recently moved back to Scotland and have no plans to move again. But since I last lived here there have been momentous political changes. Unlike England and Wales, Scotland voted to remain in Europe (as did Northern Ireland). The Brexit process has, accordingly, caused rancor between the Scottish and Westminster governments. Scottish independence – when I lived here first an eccentric minority stance – now looks increasingly probable. Issues of nationality and belonging have come to the surface as people struggle to decide whether they are British, Scottish, or European. Their loyalties and loathings have become more openly vociferous. There’s a sense of contested territory, opposing traditions and identities. Jagged fault lines are sundering society into increasingly adversarial groups. It’s almost enough to make me feel I’m eighteen and back in Belfast again.
This fragment of resumé, a quickly sketched autobiographical tracing of the main steps in the route by which I got to where I am today, is intended as a kind of personal prolegomenon to my musings about my allegiances as an essayist. What tribe or nation, if any, do my essays belong to? Does it make sense to link nationality with literature? Where do my literary loyalties lie? Of what country, tradition, set of values, ethnicity are my essays an expression or endorsement? What now defines my sense of home, of homeland? What nation do I consider mine; where do I belong? I suspect few, if any, of these questions would have arisen, at least not with any real insistence, if I’d been born and raised in some rural part of England – Shropshire, Devon, Cumbria – and remained there all my days. The trajectory my life has followed has taken me to places whose unsettledness has unsettled me; whose mongrel mix has made me suspicious of any claims to pureblood pedigree or allegiance to a single nation, faith, or tribe.
* * *
In one sense it might be thought entirely unproblematic to say that I’m an Irish essayist. This is certainly how I’m often presented and how, not infrequently, I present myself. I was, after all, born on the island of Ireland and spent my youth there. But there are many who would prefer to see Belfast as British, or failing that as Northern Irish; plain “Irish” falls like a discord on their ears. To many of my friends and family, “Irish” carries with it a note of betrayal – as if, by embracing it, I’ve changed sides. In any case, given that I’ve spent longer living in Scotland and Wales than I have in Ireland, does it make sense to shackle the country’s name to mine and to the writing that I do? A friend used to jokingly refer to my first book, Irish Nocturnes, as Welsh Preludes – given where I was living at the time of writing it. Joking apart, is there not as strong an argument for describing my essays as Scottish or Welsh as for insisting on their Irishness? It’s interesting that Scotland’s national newspaper, The Scotsman, has shown far more interest in my writing than The Irish Times. The Scotsman has carried positive reviews of all my books – together with a long feature article/interview (see: http://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/culture/interview-chris-arthur-author-of-the-shoreline-of-knowledge-1-2541177); The Irish Times, by comparison, has acted as if I don’t exist, with none of my books ever mentioned, let alone reviewed, in its pages. Or, looking beyond Ireland, Scotland and Wales, since I write in English and have been hugely influenced by the literature and language of that nation, why not just align myself with the English, or British, essay?
Thinking about the question of national identity, I’m reminded of a remark wrongly attributed to Irish-born Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, victorious commander at the Battle of Waterloo and great British national hero. His response to being called Irish was, supposedly, to retort that “being born in a stable does not make a man a horse.” In fact this infamous disclaimer of Irish nationality was something said about Wellington by someone else; it was never uttered by the Duke himself. But turning the remark from the personal to the literary poses the interesting question of whether an author’s birthplace is enough to decide the citizenship of his or her books.
How useful is it to think of there being different national traditions of essay writing? Are there sufficiently clear differences in substance, style, subject or structure between, say, American, English, French, Chinese and Australian essays to warrant making them sub-categories of the genre? Or are any demarcations between these purported types rooted simply in the language in which they’re composed and/or the geographical location of the essayist’s birth or present whereabouts, not in the nature of the writing itself?
It’s interesting to look at the coverage given to national traditions of essay writing in the main reference volume for the genre, the Encyclopedia of the Essay. Edited by Tracy Chevalier and published in 1997, this thousand-page tome has much to recommend it. It provides a multi-dimensional perspective on the form of writing it explores. But it’s a book that’s also in need of an updated edition given how much has happened in the world of the essay in the last twenty years. There are entries, by a range of contributors, on:
Canadian Essay (English)
Canadian Essay (French)
Spanish American Essay
To what extent are these discernibly different types of writing, as opposed to convenient categorizations by which the huge territory of the essay may be mapped via a series of encyclopedia entries? Suppose that sample essays from all these nationalities were translated into a single language and placed (without their authors’ names being revealed) in front of a reader. Could they be told apart immediately, parsed into their national groupings, simply because each country’s essays possess uniquely identifying literary plumage? Are they as readily distinguishable from one another as robins, woodpeckers and swans? Is it accurate to see them being as separate as different species, or are any differences between them more a case of character trait than bloodline? It’s worth remembering, I think, that species don’t interbreed and that one of the key characteristics of the essay, evident from Montaigne to the present, is an openness to outside influences – something seen most obviously in the inclination of essayists to quote from other sources.
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There’s no entry for “Irish Essay” in the Encyclopedia. Given the Irish essayists who are given individual coverage, this seems a strange omission. There are eleven of them: Edmund Burke, Hubert Butler, Maria Edgeworth, John Eglinton (William Kirkpatrick Magee’s pseudonymn), Oliver Goldsmith, C.S. Lewis, George Bernard Shaw, Richard Steele, Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, and W.B. Yeats. It’s interesting that C.S. Lewis – born in Belfast – is described as “British,” and that Richard Steele – born in Dublin – is described as “English.” It’s a literary irony I particularly enjoy that one of the great figures in the origin of the eighteenth century English periodical essay was an Irishman. The fact that Steele was Irish torpedoes below the waterline of credibility any simplistic ship of national identity in which we might want essays to set sail.
As an aside – essays of course are full of them – Steele is a figure I’ve been meaning to write about since discovering that he spent his last years living in Carmarthen, a town in Wales close to where I used to live. Indeed I must have walked within feet of his body – unknowingly – many times. I only discovered that he’d been interred in St Peter’s Church in Carmarthen when a news story emerged in 2000 about the discovery of his head. This gruesome remnant was found in a Victorian lead casket, inscribed with Steele’s name, during renovation work at the church. Debt had forced him to leave London and seek refuge in Wales, where he owned a small estate inherited from his beloved wife, Prue. Apparently his remains were first uncovered during excavations in the 1870s – about a century and a half after Steele’s death – when the head was boxed and reburied. There is, I think, an essay (or several) waiting to be written in the circumstance of a living essayist walking repeatedly past the head of this eminent dead one. Such an essay – to continue the aside – would surely draw from Frances Larson’s fascinating book, Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Found (2014). It might also bring in Russell Sholto’s Descartes’ Bones (2008), intriguingly subtitled A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason. The postmortem peregrinations of this great philosophical essayist’s skull make for interesting reading. I suspect that soon enough in this piece (perhaps simply entitled “Essayists’ Heads”) F.Gonzalez-Crussi’s elegant pathological essays might also receive a mention.
If the Encyclopedia of the Essay was being updated today and “Irish Essay” was one of its additions, who else might go in alongside the eleven Irish essayists already there? (Many of them, incidentally, as well as having their own individual entries, are given brief mention in Douglas Hesse’s entry for “British Essay” – the concluding section of which, intriguingly, almost as an afterthought, talks about “the British and Irish essay.”) Robert Lynd (1879-1949) is perhaps the most obvious omission from the Encyclopedia of the Essay’s first edition. He was a prolific essayist and an influential figure on the early twentieth century literary scene. It’s unfortunate he was overlooked. One hopes at least that his omission was due to simple oversight rather than being part of the partisan trend in Irish letters noted by John Wilson Foster in a recent issue of the Dublin Review of Books. According to Foster, Irish essayists have been marginalized and neglected because they’ve been perceived as “failing to contribute to cultural nationalism.” Thinking of philosophical essayists, Steele’s contemporary Bishop George Berkeley (1685-1753) would surely deserve an entry, if only because of the impact of his Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision (1709). A case might be argued for Flann O’Brien (one of the pen names of Brian O’Nolan), in terms of the essayistic leanings of some of his journalistic output. John Stewart Collis (born in Dublin) has written books described by Robert Macfarlane as being “structured as a mosaic of tiny essaylets, riffs, visions, meditations and comic pieces,” so he should surely go in. Does novelist Joyce Cary’s posthumously published Selected Essays (1976) constitute a case for seeing him as an essayist too? Seamus Heaney’s prose is sometimes neglected because of his poetic stature, but the essays in Preoccupations (1980) – to name just one source of his essay writing – would surely warrant his inclusion. And Heaney isn’t the only Ulster poet to have written essays – Leontia Flynn, John Hewitt and Tom Paulin are three of several who might be considered under this heading. Others who might be mentioned in the “Irish essay” entry for an updated/revisioned Encyclopedia of the Essay include George Buchanan, Thomas Davis, Stephen Gwynn, Thomas Kettle, Robert Lloyd Praeger and Filson Young. And of course Yorkshire-born Tim Robinson’s work would demand extensive consideration. I like the fact that an Englishman – albeit long domiciled in Ireland – is at the forefront of essay writing in Ireland today. That constitutes a complementary torpedo to Steele’s (though fired in the opposite direction) in terms of sinking overly neat notions of Irish/English essay traditions. Whatever nationality it stems from, or is claimed for, Robinson’s writing deserves all the plaudits it has received.
* * *
Even from this kind of rapid preliminary sketch of possibilities, it’s clear that such a putative encyclopedia entry veers as much toward “essays written in Ireland,” or “essays written by Irish men and woman” as it does toward “Irish Essay.” This last title is suggestive of a literary type, but I’m not convinced that any such type exists as a truly distinctive form of literature. As for “the Irish essay” I become yet more suspicious when the definite article is added. Could such a thing be identified any more successfully than “the American essay” or “the French essay”? The title of his fine anthology notwithstanding, David Pollard’s The Chinese Essay (2000) is notable more for the sheer variety of writing it contains than for any unifying national characteristics. I strongly suspect that the same thing would be the case with The Russian Essay, The Nigerian Essay, The Swedish Essay – or whatever other nation one cared to nominate. In this kind of context, “the” suggests something singular, uniform, predictable, even normative – all of which are far from being characteristics of the essay. Remember Adorno’s perceptive observation, that “the law of the innermost form of the essay is heresy.” The (intelligently) heretical bent of this kind of writing inevitably challenges all of the conformities that national outlooks would impose on it.
There are several Oxford essay anthologies that select their contents by country. From The Oxford Book of American Essays in 1914 to the more recent (both 1997) The Oxford Book of Australian Essays and The Oxford Book of Latin American Essays. It’s easy enough to see the appeal of organizing an anthology along national lines. Not only does it provide a manageable territory but it identifies the whereabouts of likely readers. Imre Salusinszky, editor of the Australian volume, opens his Introduction by saying that “Although the Australian essay might not have attained the seriousness of its British, or the urbanity of its American, counterpart, for sheer democratic variety you cannot beat it.” How well-founded are these comparisons? One of the representatives chosen by Salusinszky to illustrate the “sheer democratic variety” of Australian essay writing is Pierre Ryckmans. Born in Belgium in 1935, Ryckmans only moved to Australia in 1971. I can understand any country wishing to claim this brilliant essayist’s work as its own – writing of such caliber adds kudos to a nation’s literary profile. But in what sense are Ryckmans’ essays really “Australian”? His The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays (2011) – published under his nom de plume, Simon Leys – are mostly about China (Rykmans/Leys is a distinguished sinologist), English literature, the university and the sea. Whatever their national affiliation, these essays are as serious and as urbane as anything in the British or American repertoires that Salusinszky points to.
Ilan Stavans, editor of the Latin American anthology, likewise emphasizes variety – talking about “the wide orbit of themes” touched on by his assembled essayists. He identifies the philosophers Ortega y Gasset and Miguel de Unamuno as bringing the essay to the fore in the Iberian peninsula in the nineteenth century and that prior to this late beginning essayistic writing in the region was not much practiced. But he also makes the intriguing suggestion that a much earlier beginning might be seen in the letters Christopher Columbus wrote to his royal patrons (and in what he recorded in his diary):
In chronicling what he witnessed, Columbus…intertwined fiction and reality; thus he could be considered either the first magical realist novelist in the region or its first enchanting essayist.
It puts an interesting spin on literary history to think of a pre-Montaigne origin of essay writing in South America. But as with the Australian anthology, what is most striking about the Latin American one is not any particular national or ethnic flavor to the writing but its fluency, vigor, and sheer variety. In other words, the gathered pieces owe their first loyalty to the form, not to the nation.
* * *
Yet clearly an essayist’s provenance is not unimportant; it’s likely to influence their choice of topic, their range of reference, perhaps even the style in which they write. The particularities of place can, at least to some extent, be correlated to the particularities of prose written by the people who inhabit them. Though I’m wary of placing too much store on what “Irish” conveys when I say that I’m an Irish essayist – I’d prefer the emphasis to be placed on “essayist – it would be disingenuous to try to give the impression that what I write contains no national markers.
My relationship to Ireland – and to the wider world beyond it – is something I’ve touched on in all of my books. I’m still not sure if I’ve got the measure of it, but some comments I made in Irish Nocturnes (1999) still hold good today. I suggested there that, on the one hand:
These nocturnes [i.e. essays] are rooted in the same parts of Ireland as I am. They took shape where I was born and grew up. Inevitably, they derive much of their tone and colour from the places, people and events that constitute my background. To the extent that writing has a voice, they speak with the same accent whose inflection and intonation mark every word I utter.
But on the other hand:
Though the Irish dimension does indeed provide a linking thread, under-running all the different themes with the same familial bloodline, the nocturnes [= essays] are the outcome of many intermarriages, brief encounters, unexpected alliances, which often take them far away from their ancestral roots. Kinship does not rule out distance, difference, or diversity, as I hope the pages that follow will illustrate. The ground covered in them, if it does not sound too grandiose, belongs to the human tribe, rather than to some little County Antrim clan, even if the universal issues are addressed in an Ulster accent; even if the points of departure are minutely local.
Ten years later, along similar lines, I suggested in my fourth collection (Irish Elegies) that:
Although there’s a definite Irish tinge to all my writing, it would be fatuous to expect it to be the kind of clear unbroken color you might find on a flag. As an Ulsterman of uncertain loyalties, flags with all their divisive simplicities are not things I readily give my assent to.
And in Reading Life – a new collection due out this year – I acknowledge that because “I was born in Belfast and grew up in Northern Ireland, at a particularly turbulent time in that small country’s history,” many of my essays will “bear distinctive Ulster markings – sometimes scars.” But, on the other hand, the fact that I left Ireland after my schooldays and that, in any case, “my reading had already taken me to distant destinations,” means that my essays also “swim far beyond any Irish waters.” Yes, among the books considered in Reading Life there are those by Irish writers (Flann O’Brien, Seamus Heaney), but it is not a collection of essays about Irish literature. English, French, Italian and German writing is also considered – and in any case the “reading” implied in the title is often meant not in the literal sense of reading books, but in the broader, metaphorical sense of reading the objects and events around us. (Another aside, but a briefer, parenthetical one: The fact that I frequently avoid the term “essay” in the early pages of my books but instead use “nocturne,” or press “haiku” or “elegy” into different use, stems from an awareness of how much negative baggage – particularly on my side of the Atlantic – the term “essay” still carries. It would be nice to think that there will come a time when such dissimulation will be rendered redundant and the essay will be given the same automatic recognition that poetry or novels enjoy as legitimate forms of imaginative writing.)
* * *
I’m always delighted when people read my essays – whether in Ireland or elsewhere – and one of the pleasures of publication is the feedback offered by readers from all around the world. I’ve also been pleased by the critical reception my books have received. But sometimes I’m left bemused by what reviewers think I’m doing. For instance, writing in Nordic Irish Studies – a journal published by the University of Aarhus – Irene Gilsenan Nordin observes:
While there are strong reminders of Heaney, especially with regard to the linking of moods with landscapes, Arthur stakes out his own personal space and reclaims the landscape for the Protestant sensibility, describing a terrain that is at times as immanent with a sense of the numinous and sacred as any Heaney landscape.
I certainly never set out to “reclaim the landscape for the Protestant sensibility.” Apart from anything else, by the time this review appeared I inclined more to Buddhism than the precepts of my native Presbyterianism. Nor, when I think about it, am I even sure what “the Protestant sensibility” would be. If I’ve succeeded in suggesting a sense of the numinous that’s on a par with what Heaney invests in his sense of place, I’m well satisfied, but I’d be uneasy to be cast in the role of spokesperson for Ulster’s Protestants. That said, I’m pleased if my writing challenges mistaken points of view. An unsigned piece in the Contemporary Review suggests that “not the least valuable effect of reading Arthur’s essays” is that “the reader will be given sympathy for a group that has so often been stereotyped in the modern media.” I know the tribe I was born into tends to emerge from media (mis)representations as dour, bigoted, humorless, intransigent and unimaginative. But challenging stereotype is one thing, acting as a religious or ethnic exemplar is quite something else.
In a review of Irish Nocturnes that appeared in the New Hibernia Review James Silas Rogers writes:
The author – an Ulster-born, Buddhist-influenced, Scottish-educated, former Irish game-warden-turned-essayist now living in Wales – must, on the strength of this collection alone, now be counted among the most innovative advocates of creative nonfiction in contemporary Irish writing, and certainly the one most committed to creating a distinctly Irish habitation for the essay.
It’s nice to have some of the main influences on my writing identified, and to be cast as an innovative advocate of creative nonfiction – even if I have strong reservations about foisting this unhappy title on the essay. But whilst I’d be keen to see more interest in reading and writing essays fostered in Ireland, I’m not at all sure I know what it would mean to create “a distinctly Irish habitation for the essay.” I’m committed to writing essays as well as I’m able; I’m not committed to – indeed would be suspicious of – any effort to make that writing follow national contours.
Given the competing mix of tribal loyalties I’ve experienced in the places where I’ve lived, and the way in which strident nationalisms so often go hand-in-hand with discrimination, intolerance and bigotry, I’m wary of giving my allegiance to any grouping of the sort that clusters smugly beneath some flag which is then waved with provocative fervor in the faces of others. In a world in which the boundaries of nation, family, class, religion, culture have been rendered increasingly permeable to distant and diverse influences, retreating to some supposedly impermeable national enclave and insisting on its singular superiority seems at best an impoverished response. Certainly when it comes to literature, should we not simply give our loyalty to the best there is, rather than caring where it comes from? If we don’t do that it would be perilously easy to drift into the insularity and parochialism of those varieties of chauvinistic nationalism that insist the school curriculum should be governed by the language and the literature of just one country. As Salman Rushdie puts it – in Imaginary Homelands (1991) – “we are inescapably international writers at a time when the novel has never been a more international form.” Is it any different for the essay? Rushdie continues:
a writer like Borges speaks of the influence of Robert Louis Stevenson on his work; Heinrich Böll acknowledges the influence of Irish literature; cross pollination is everywhere.
Such cross pollination has surely always been an important feature of the essay – consider Montaigne’s range of reference; consider how he stresses the importance (in Of the Education of Children) of learning about other countries so that we can “rub and polish our brains by contact with those of others.”
I hope my essays will be judged not on the basis of my ethnic identity, but on their quality as pieces of imaginative writing. My loyalties as an author, such as they are, lie more with a genre than with any country. I may no longer feel at home in the world in terms of a place that I can call my own, a nation to which I could give unqualified allegiance, but I do feel at home in the territory of the essay. Citizenship of that territory is not determined by the accident of birth, or by religion, language, or ethnicity, but by a simple test of disposition. This is well summed up by one of the key modern authorities on the form, Graham Good:
Anyone who can look attentively, think freely, and write clearly can be an essayist; no other qualifications are needed.
It doesn’t matter if you’re Irish, British, American, Chinese, French, Kenyan or Peruvian; it doesn’t matter if you’re Catholic or Protestant, Hindu, Jew, or atheist; it doesn’t matter if you write in English, Cantonese, Arabic or Polish; your age, gender, color, sexuality is irrelevant – the essay’s criteria of belonging are the same for everyone. The fact that an essayist’s lookings, thinkings and writings will, inevitably, carry the fingerprints of their individuality and provenance adds interest and variety, but this is an entirely secondary and far from defining matter.
I know this allegiance to a genre rather than a homeland may sound unpatriotic. But consider the diagnosis of a nation given by one of our best medical essayists, Lewis Thomas. In The Lives of a Cell (1974) he warns that “For total greed, rapacity, heartlessness, and irresponsibility there is nothing to match a nation.” Would we really wish to pledge our fealty to such an entity? Nations, Thomas continues, “survive by detestation” and “live for the death of others.” Are such stances deserving of our loyalty? However these questions are answered, essays stem from and are addressed to individuals not nations. “At the heart of the essay,” as Graham Good puts it, “is the voice of the individual.” If that individual voice speaks only after looking attentively, thinking freely and writing clearly, what it says will, hopefully, act as a humane counterweight to the bullying rhetoric that nations too often favor. A final thought: since it is ideas, not merely territory, that underlie a sense of national identity, are attentive looking, free thinking, and clear writing not precisely the kind of qualities that are closely aligned with the core ideas – the ideals – of democracy? Perhaps, in the end, essay writing is more politically, less nationally, attuned than many might imagine.
Chris Arthur is a Royal Literary Fund Fellow. His essay collections are: Irish Nocturnes, Irish Willow, Irish Haiku, Irish Elegies, Words of the Grey Wind, and On the Shoreline of Knowledge. Reading Life will be published later this year. Hummingbirds Between the Pages will appear in 2018 in Ohio State University Press’s “21st Century Essays” series edited by David Lazar and Patrick Madden. More information about Chris and his writing can be found here: www.chrisarthur.org.
Other installments in this series include:
Toni Nealie on migration and cultural echoes
Aurvi Sharma on the Body Patchwork, the Text as the Body / the Body as the Text in Meatless Days & the Kamasutra