Give a dogma a bad name

An Irishman’s Diary about Nazism, the Jesuits, and Flann O’Brien

‘Jesuits featured prominently at this week’s Flann O’Brien conference in Rome. Not because the Supreme Pontiff made the short journey to Roma Tre University. He didn’t unfortunately – although if he had, he might have been intrigued.’

‘Jesuits featured prominently at this week’s Flann O’Brien conference in Rome. Not because the Supreme Pontiff made the short journey to Roma Tre University. He didn’t unfortunately – although if he had, he might have been intrigued.’

Sat, Jun 22, 2013, 01:00

Even before they got around to committing any of their bigger crimes in 1930s Germany, the Nazis made a schoolboy error with their name. It’s how they came to be called Nazis, in fact. Which was an insult from the start, not something adopted by choice.

The problem was that “Nazi” is a short German version of Ignatius. And Ignatius is, or used to be, popular in Bavaria, the Catholic part of the country. But not only is Bavaria Catholic, it was also the part at which, by tradition, other Germans sneered.

To cut a long-established prejudice short, Bavarians were considered hicks and tended to be named “Nazi”. So the name “Nazi” came to imply you were uncouth or stupid, like “Paddy” in Britain. When a new political movement took the title Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, therefore, it was a gift to critics.

For one thing, Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei wasn’t very catchy. But its first word also contained a ready-made abbreviation. With a single stroke, the pompous name was reduced to schoolboy-size, and with an inference that party members were all bumpkins.

I owe this insight to a book already mentioned here recently, The Etymologicon – A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language. It’s by a man named Mark Forsythe, who I’m guessing has relatives in Kerry.

This would be one explanation for his claim, on the subject of nations needing a butt for jokes, that “Americans have the Polacks, the English have the Irish, and the Irish have people from Cork”. That’s either an innocent mistake, or a knowing dig – I can’t decide which.

Anyway, as Forsythe points out, “Nazi” is also an indirect insult to a certain religious movement. Because the reason there were so many Ignatiuses in Bavaria was Ignatius Loyola: founder of the Society of Jesus, as that congregation preferred to call itself before it too suffered subversive abbreviation.

The noun “Jesuit” is not usually an insult now. But the adjective “Jesuitical” remains so, applied to people or arguments considered too clever by half. Thus the order is nominally represented at both ends of the spectrum of implied mental capacity.

Jesuits also featured prominently at this week’s Flann O’Brien conference in Rome. Not because the Supreme Pontiff made the short journey to Roma Tre University. He didn’t unfortunately – although if he had, he might have been intrigued.

Unlike James Joyce, Brian O’Nolan was not Jesuit-educated. But he developed something of an obsession with the order. In part, this reflected his difficult relationship with Joyce, who in O’Nolan’s last novel The Dalkey Archive, is condemned to purgatory on earth, working as a Jesuit houseboy.

There is no such Joycean excuse in The Hard Life. And yet the Jesuits are a sub-plot in that book too, via the clergyman friend of Mr Collopy, who (Collopy, that is) wants to introduce women’s toilets in early 20th-century Dublin and travels to Rome to enlist Vatican support, only to suffer a spectacular end in the Eternal City.

(On a genuinely tragic note, by the way, several O’Brien scholars attending the conference noticed a well-known American actor walking around Rome earlier in the week, amid the unseasonable heat-wave. It was of course James Gandolfini, who died here on Wednesday.)

In its own way, The Hard Life could be said to have given the Jesuits a bad name. Not Ignatius, this time, although also German. O’Nolan was a student of that language, in fact. But in labelling Mr Collopy’s reverend friend with an irreverent name – Fr Kurt Fahrt – he had more devious motivation.

His theory was that it might get the book banned in Ireland. A ban that could then be overturned, creating the optimum balance between publicity and sales. It didn’t quite work out, although the book sold well anyway.

Half a century later, meanwhile, the name lives on in a way O’Nolan can’t have foreseen. As the writer attracts ever-more critical attention, the International Flann O’Brien Society has established two biennial awards for scholarship – one for a book-length work, the other for an essay. Both are named after the fictional priest.

There is no money involved, only prestige. So it was that at a (gala) dinner in Rome last night, the inaugural “Small Fahrt” was awarded to an Englishman, Jon Day. But the major honour stayed in Ireland. For their book Flann O’Brien: Centenary Essays, Neil Murphy and Keith Hopper were joint recipients of the “Big Fahrt”, and all the glory that goes with it.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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