Absolving Seamus Heaney from any charge of simplification
Broadening perceptions of Heaney via his prose and place in European intellectual thinking
Seamus Heaney: “poetic thinking” leavens the rational with the emotional, and to understand the richness of Heaney’s answers to his own questions it is necessary to see him in the wider context of European thought. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh/The Irish Times
Seamus Heaney as Aesthetic Thinker. A Study of the Prose
Syracuse University Press
Eugene O’Brien’s primary purpose in placing Seamus Heaney as a thinker in the tradition of what he calls European aestheticism is to absolve him of the charge of simplification or “safeness” that was sometimes levelled at him. So by definition this is a complicating enterprise.
The central argument here is that Heaney’s work in every area is more nuanced (to use a fashionable term) than is always recognised. To argue his case, O’Brien is returning to the question that preoccupied him in the opening chapter of his book Seamus Heaney: Searches for Answers in 2003, the chapter called Preoccupying Questions: Heaney’s Prose.
It is often remarked that Heaney was a major writer of prose as well as poetry, but understandably it is the Nobel Prize winner’s poetry that has received most of the critical attention. In his new book, O’Brien is returning more single-mindedly and extensively to the prose. He establishes a wide context of ideas to frame the prose, drawing on a formidable range of theory and theorists.
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Of course he recognises that what Heaney has to say about poetry and the development of the poet is what gives crucial significance to his prose discussions. Hence Heaney’s questions, raised at the start of his first collection of essays Preoccupations in 1980 and repeated in the preface to Finders Keepers in 2002: “How should a poet properly live and write? What is his relationship to be to his own voice, his own place, his literary heritage and his contemporary world?”
Historical perspectiveO’Brien’s contention is that Heaney’s answers to these fundamental questions are by no means simple. There are two deficiencies O’Brien finds in traditional critical approaches to Heaney, both corrected by a recognition of what he calls “poetic thinking”: the first deficiency is the general failure to pay enough attention to the prose; the second is to read both the prose and the poetry as more single-minded than it is.
“Poetic thinking” is a way of thinking that leavens the rational with the emotional, and to understand the richness of Heaney’s answers to his own questions it is necessary to see him in the wider context of European thought. More than once O’Brien calls Heaney “the poet as thinker”. In fact the context of “aesthetic thinking” that he provides for Heaney is in a very grand historical perspective, in a line that can be traced back to the Greeks. Early in the book he suggests that the dualism of Cartesian thought led to a damaging binarism in approaches to ideology, a binarism whose narrowing he suggests has been modified by psychological theory. And the post-Cartesian context extends from Kant and Hegel to Derrida.
In his earlier discussion of the prose in 2003, O’Brien’s primary objective was to show that Heaney’s writing is significant in its attempt “to problematise simplistic concepts of identity, language and culture” by setting up “more fluid and complex structures where borders and limits are transformed and transgressed”.
There are obvious places where such transgression and testing of borders are salutary for the Northern Irish writer and thinker of Heaney’s era. For example the term “deterritorialisation” is borrowed from Gilles Deleuze to describe what O’Brien calls the “opening out” of Heaney’s thinking from the constrictions of the “home place”, a development which is evident from Heaney’s earliest essays, from Mossbawn onwards.
Once again the central figure is Jacques Derrida whose name has figured prominently in the indexes of O’Brien’s two previous books on Heaney, but here he is found in a constellation of theoretical luminaries: Heidegger, Adorno, Agemben and many others. He now reads Heaney through “a widening optic” which sees his work in a complex of connexions with each of these thinkers, without suggesting that there is any overall worldview that connects them with each other.
BinariesOne of the virtues of O’Brien’s deployment of his extensive regiment of thinkers in this context is that he avoids any claim of direct influence by drawing on Deleuze and Guattari’s botanical image of an interconnected rhizome rather than a direct root-connexion.
O’Brien works hard to find such nuancing figures, invoking Heaney’s own “quincunx” of Irish castles used to redress head-to-head ideological conflicts, showing them as all facing each other in one manifestation but not in others. These are elaborate models, but they enable O’Brien to link Heaney with various predecessors (poets as well as theorists) without committing to a single line of connection.
Some of the more poetry-friendly metaphors that O’Brien brings into play are genuinely enlightening, especially the idea of “a field of force”. This too is a nuancing image, working well for the idea of a productivity in poetry which can’t be logically traced, linking with the idea of poetic thinking which operates emotionally rather than logically.
The discussion of translation in the last chapter also benefits from these ideas of creative anti-dogmatism. The history that the book’s title proposes of an aesthetic tradition rather than a rational, logical one works well for many of the binaries that O’Brien shows that Heaney wants to complicate: English-Irish, Protestant-Catholic, unionist-nationalist, loyalist-republican. Outside the political sphere the principal binary is home-other, an opposition that O’Brien returns to after his discussion of it in his other early Heaney book, Seamus Heaney and the Place of Writing in 2002.
Some of these oppositions are precedented in Joyce; the web of thinkers that Heaney relates to is not only composed of theorists. O’Brien ends with two of Heaney’s aesthetic mentors, Dante and Eliot. For the more traditionalist Heaney reader this is maybe more comfortable company. But it is good to be reminded so forcefully of Blake Morrison’s warning in one of the earliest books on Heaney against a “simplified version of his achievement”. O’Brien’s correctives are very salutary in that way.
Bernard O’Donoghue’s most recent book of poems is The Seasons of Cullen Church (Faber & Faber)