Ah, it could be worse - we could be Greece
German novelist Heinrich Böll identified the profoundly fatalistic mentality of the Irish, writes FINTAN O'TOOLE
I WAS listening last week to RTÉ’s economics correspondent, Seán Whelan, analysing his own very interesting interview with one of our rulers, Joerg Asmussen, the German member of the executive board of the European Central Bank.
Whelan explained that the strategy of the powers-that-be in Ireland is not to tell the ECB that bank debts are crippling the economy. It is, rather, to suggest, in relation to easing the burden of the promissory notes, that “things are grand but if we had this as well they would be even grander”.
After I’d stopped weeping at this perfect expression of an old, wheedling peasant mentality (“Ah sure, I’m right as rain but I’d be on the pig’s back altogether if I had a sup of gruel now and then and a few bits of straw to stick in the hole in the wall to keep out the wind”), I tried to remember where I’d read a brilliant anatomy of this mentality. Appropriately enough, it was in a book that Herr Asmussen, as an educated German, may well have read. It is the Irish Journal of the German novelist Heinrich Böll, published (in the English translation) in 1957.
Böll, who spent a great deal of his time on Achill Island, saw something germane to Irish culture but visible only to an outsider: the profoundly fatalistic mentality of those who shrug off every misfortune with the consolation that they could be worse. “Things are grand but they would be even grander” if we weren’t shackled to debts contracted by private banks is a truly terrible pitch for debt relief – it makes us sound like we’re lying by the pool in perfect sunshine wishing that the vintage champagne we’re sipping were just a degree colder. But it makes complete sense as a variation on an old Irish theme: ah, sure, things could be worse.
“When something happens to you in Germany,” Böll noted, “when you miss a train, break a leg, go bankrupt, we say: It couldn’t have been any worse; whatever happens is always the worst. With the Irish it is almost the opposite: if you break a leg, miss a train, go bankrupt, they say: It could be worse; instead of a leg you might have broken your neck . . .”
“What happens is never the worst; on the contrary, what’s worst never happens: if your revered and beloved grandmother dies, your revered and beloved grandfather might have died too; if the farm burns down but the chickens were saved, the chickens might have been burned up too, and if they do burn up, well, what’s worse is that you might have died yourself and that didn’t happen.”
Böll was not engaging in colourful Paddywhackery. He realised that a culture in which people routinely answer the question “How’s things?” with “Ah sure, they could be worse” is one that has learned to defend itself against real and persistent pain: “‘It could be worse’ is one of the most common turns of speech, possibly because only too often things are pretty bad and what’s worse offers the consolation of being relative.”
Even more incisively, he suggested that this habit of mind is not mere passivity. On the contrary, it takes great creativity to sustain it: “With us [Germans] when something happens our sense of humour and imagination desert us; in Ireland, that is just when they come into play. To persuade someone who has broken his leg, is lying in pain or hobbling around in a plaster cast, that it might have been worse is not only comforting, it is an occupation requiring poetic talents.”
Böll was writing about the Ireland of half a century ago, but how much, in its mass psychology and deep culture, has the country really changed since? Were we not, in the boom years, still in the grip of a 19th-century land hunger? Do we not now revert to exactly the same defence mechanism we used in the 1950s: mass emigration? Don’t we still say “ah, could be worse” when asked how we are?
In fact, all that’s happened is that the same mentality has been shifted up a gear. “The consolation of being relative” is now our national strategy. We are devoting a great deal of our collective “poetic talents” and imagination to the construction of this consolatory defence mechanism. We’ve gone from “things could be worse” to “things are only a little less grand than they would be if we weren’t stuck with the gambling debts of Seanie and Fingers”.
The consolation of being relative explains a good deal of the Irish reluctance to protest: sure it could be worse, we could be Greece. It also explains the way the consequences of atrocious decisions have been normalised; sure, imagine how much worse it might have been if we didn’t write a blank cheque for Anglo – as if those consequences could in fact have been worse than what we’re living with.
How bad do they have to get before we realise that, if you keep thinking that things could be worse, they will be?