April 7, 2006

Seminar: Irish Studies, 535

Meeting Date: April 7, 2006

Chair: Mary McGlynn

Speaker: Prof. Barbara Suess    
    Asst. Prof. of English, William Paterson University

Title of Talk: “Pearse’s ‘Scientific’ Prose”

Rapporteur: Cóilín Parsons

Attendees: Frank Naughton (Kean University); Alice Naughton; Diane Menagh (Fairfield University, Connecticut); Maria McGarrity (Long Island University); Martin J. Burke (CUNY Graduate Center and Lehman College); Barbara Young (Molloy College); Elizabeth Martin (CUNY Graduate Center); Gertrude Hamilton (Marymount College of Fordham University); Terry Byrne (The College of New Jersey); Ken Monteith (Fordham University); Joseph Lennon (Manhattan College).

“Pearse’s ‘Scientific’ Prose”
A copy of the paper that Prof. Suess gave has been deposited with University Seminars.  The following is a synopsis.

    Pádraic Pearse’s anti-materialist, messianic, and sacrificial nationalism became especially focussed after he probably joined the IRB in 1913.  His romantic rhetoric is well documented, but there remains a question about why so many of the metaphors that were central to his vision drew from materialist science, and it is on that question that Prof. Suess’ paper focussed, tracing the connections between science and political prose.
    Pearse uses both organicist and materialist metaphors in his pamphlets.  His anti-materialist stance, however, is aided by metaphors drawn, ironically, from Marxist materialism, while his organicist discourse rejects such materialism.  His vision of a nation as an organic entity characterises the country as 1) whole, 2) inherently alive, and 3) transcendent.  This emphasis on wholeness was, of course, a reflection of the political situation in Ireland in the early years of the twentieth century, when even what constituted the whole of Ireland was in question.  The quality of being alive was often described with (positive) biological metaphors and (negative) mechanical metaphors, as in Pearse’s discussion of the educational system in “The Murder Machine.” Finally, the question of transcendence is related to Ireland’s spiritual past, which is only temporarily subjugated to a materialist present.  Pearse was not a Marxist, but he relaxed in his attitude at least towards socialism, thanks to his association with Connolly, and much of the rhetoric of his later pamphlets consciously or unconsciously echoes Marx, despite Pearse’s anti-materialism.  Ultimately, much of Pearse’s organicist rhetoric dovetails, paradoxically, with Marxist/materialist discourse.
    Pearse’s writings also have much in common with the discourses of phrenology and physiognomy, especially in their concern for what constitutes an individual, and the play between the part and whole of the individual.  The nation is, of course, also treated in the same way by Pearse, who thought of the nation as an organic unity that is more than the sum of the individuals who comprise it.

Q. I am struck by the resemblance of Pearse’s writing to that of Herbert Spencer, in terms of the evolution of societies over time, and their organic nature.  Is there any reference to Spenser?  He was certainly educated at a time when Spencer’s work would have been popular.
A. I haven’t seen any, but I haven’t done enough research in the biographical materials to tell what Pearse read. This is one section of a larger project that traces the discourse of organicism through Huxley, Tyndall, Darwin, Yeats, Wilde, and others.  Yeats makes an argument that is similar to Pearse’s, but he despises materialism.
Q. Do Connolly, AE, or James Stephens make similar arguments?  Stephens wrote a lot about the relationship of the part to the whole.
A. I haven’t thought about Stephens in that connection; I started this project from teaching Victorian literature classes and noticing the number of scientific metaphors.
Q. Coleridge is writing about fiction specifically, whereas you are concentrating on non-fiction.  Is the generic distinction important?  Would Coleridge have conflated the two?
A. No he wouldn’t!  I agree that the connection back to Coleridge is not the closest, but Coleridge was also a writer of non-fiction.  I have found that in the period that I am writing about the divisions between genres were not as pronounced, and many of the figures I am interested in were writers of fiction and non-fiction.
Q. Regarding the category of materialism; materialism can be a philosophic project, and critiques of it work on many different levels, which can be seen in his earlier writing.  The Roman Catholic church was part of a critique of materialism as well.  You’d need to be able to map out carefully the multiple metaphors of materialism that surface in his work.
A. I agree; it is all quite confused in my mind right now.  I am, of course, not making the argument that he was a Marxist; there are many strands of discourses of anti-materialism.
Q. Stephens’ rhetoric changes dramatically after 1919; the materialism drops out of his language entirely.
A. Most of Pearse’s essays that I am writing about were written between 1913 and 1916, which is when he was in closest contact with Connolly, and he was interested briefly in socialism in some way, which is strange.  There are lots of contradictions; he both fights against and dismisses as irrelevant materialism.
Q. Your work gets to the deeply inchoate nature of the Irish nationalist discourse of the time.  You are also historicising a martyr.
A. Yes, he very complex, yet also an icon, and it is challenging to try and think about the complexities of one who has reached iconic status.
Q. How does G.B. Shaw’s socialism relate to all this, or does it?
A. Shaw is not as complex as these characters; his socialism is very didactic.  Pearse appears to be very clear, but he is more complex underneath the bluster about sacrifice.
Q. Isn’t that what Yeats is saying in ‘Easter 1916?”  That all the complexities have been stilled by the rising?  The phrase “terrible beauty” acknowledges the complexity of the run-up to that one simple moment.