Sunday, September 02, 2007

Lady Augusta Gregory--Cuchulain of Muirthemne (1902)-Part 1

This book was not exactly on my list, but there was a question regarding Cuchulain as a literary character, so I thought I ought to read up on him. As this book appeared on cursory examination to be the most well-known version of the legend by the general literati, and had the enthusiastic endorsements of Yeats, Mark Twain, and Theodore Roosevelt, among others, I chose it. I expected it to be similar to the Ossian poems which I wrote about recently in these pages, but actually it was much worse. Whereas the Ossian at least evokes an atmosphere that is often darkly appealing and offers some pleasing images that must bear some relation to human truth, Gregory's Cuchulain seemed a rather silly and sad book, the literary equivalent of one of those emotional, hopelessly amateurish Irish uprisings where the protaganists were apprehended and hanged before they were able to set any offensive action in motion. The whole idea behind the Irish and other national literary revivals that were fermenting in Europe at that time, as well as the various movements in our own day that fall under the general category of multiculturalism, which I have always seen as analagous to these earlier movements, namely that downtrodden or culturally marginalized people can be uplifted by the development of a highly self-conscious, institutionalized artistic culture whose origins are largely in frustration, resentment, and feelings of inferiority (which formula I continually succumb to myself however), while it seems naive and self-defeating, and usually is in the short term as far as any grand effects go, is also probably a periodically necessary step for such people as feel themselves or their kind 'left behind' by history or high culture and find that they crave a spot therein. It is not to be expected that most of the work produced in the spirit of such strident, groping, identity-asserting movements will achieve a very high standard, however.

p.15--from Yeats's introduction: "Poets have taken their themes more often from stories that are all, or half, mythological, than from history or stories that give one the sensation of history, understanding, as I think, that the imagination which remembers the proportions of life is but a long wooing, and that it has to forget them before it becomes the torch and the marriage-bed."

p.16--More Yeats: "We Irish should keep these personages much in our hearts, for they lived in the places where we ride and go marketing, and sometimes they have met one another on the hills that cast their shadows upon our doors at evening. If we will but tell these stories to our children the Land will begin again to be a Holy Land, as it was before men gave their hearts to Greece and Rome and Judea."

p.27--An example of the zeal and readiness at all times of the ancient Irish to perform feats of heroism: "On that all the men rushed out, not waiting to go through the door, but over walls and barriers as they could."

Apart from a few hyper-rational posthistorical societies in Northern Europe, the ideal of the individual warrior/hero who is so immense that he has the capacity within him to alter the fate of entire peoples is still very much alive in most of the world today. All serious American presidential candidates certainly have to insist that they possess this quality, though this is because the office has evolved to the point that it effectively bestows it on anyone who possesses it anyway; the dream is always to find the man who can regain the mastery over the monster that the state and the society are perceived as having become.

p.38--"While they were talking like this, Cuchulain saw the breasts of the maiden over the bosom of her dress, and he said: 'Fair is this plain, the plain of the noble yoke.' And Emer said, 'No one comes to this plain who does not overcome as many as a hundred on each ford, from the ford at Alibine to Banchuig Arcait.'"

p.51--On Cuchulain's special sword: "It would cut a hair on the water, or it would cut a hair off the head without touching the skin, or it would cut a man in two, and the one half of him would not miss the other for some time afterward."

In Chapter IV ("Bricriu's Feast"), one of the major incidents is a fight between various of the warriors over who will receive the "Champion's portion" of food. I have no doubt that this was a more dramatic and forcefully symbolic event in the original version of the story, but I did wonder if this was really the sort of thing that the modern people of Ireland needed.

p.59--Emer, wife of Cuchulain, on her rivals: "Your fine women of Ulster, they are shaped like cows and led like cows, when they are put beside the wife of Cuchulain." I left out the preceding paragraph, where she compared their husbands to menstrual discharge compared to Cuchulain's clear red blood.

Cuchulain is not big on rationality. He is unreasonably moved to fury by the slightest failures.

This book is a good demonstration of how desperate the cultural situation in Ireland was, or was perceived to be, at the turn of the last century. The whole tone of it indicates that the populace--supposedly its intended audience--was seen as childlike.

p.95--The hunter, upon espying Deirdre, the greatest beauty in Ireland who had been kept hidden in the mountains out of the sight of men, immediately thinks to gain brownie points by telling the king about her--no thought or even momentary fantasy of procuring her for himself at all. I also thought noteworthy the motif of a very beautiful woman having to be kept hidden to prevent men from killing each other for her. When the king did see her, he carried her away at once. I interpret the symbolism as explaining the dynamics and necessary submissions and sacrifices to produce a thriving, vital race of men

p.102--Some heavy-handed patriotic exhortation:"One's own country is better than any other thing...for no man can have any pleasure, however great his good luck and his way of living, if he does not see his own country every day."

The parts where people's only sons have their heads casually lopped off without even causing their vanquisher to break a sweat are really too much for me to take anymore. Certain quarters throughout the Western world have in recent years taken to lamenting and chastising the soft bourgeois parents who are unwilling to prepare themselves and their little, often their only, sons, for the possibility that they may need to be butchered or maimed in some grand civilizational conflict, but given the increasingly impersonal manner in which our civilization, especially for the bourgeois classes, has evolved, it is not reasonable to expect them to embrace the prospect of giving up their children for rhetorical reasons if they feel no intimate or emotional connection with the cause, and this is clearly something that modern Westerners do not feel. I do not approve of this disconnected mode of living any more than most conservatives do, but it is the condition in our society, and it has been rotting it, slowly at first but with steadily increasing acceleration in the most recent years, for some time now. But I have much more to say about this later on.

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