(C) Copyright John Peter Luke Saunders, 2000 AD
“Every generation has a legend...”
The Phantom Menace, Movie Trailer A
Characteristics of the Oral Tradition
Contextualisation of the Oral Traditions within the Realms of the Spoken and Unspoken
The oral tradition must be contextualised within
the sum total of the signification systems used by the family. Some of these
are ritual, and many of them are only partially verbal or completely non verbal.
It is useful here to draw an analogy from the work of Malouf, to interpret the word ‘house’ not as a physical building but in the sense of clan: “Each house has it’s own topography it’s own lore: negotiable borders, spaces open or closed, the salient features...whose names make up a daily litany. A complex history comes down to us, through household jokes and anecdotes, odd habits, irrational superstitions. Its spirit resides in ordinary objects that become, beyond the fact of presence and usefulness, the characters in a private language – characters too in the story we are living. We hear our first folk tales with a start of recognition, since what is enacted in them is general to every society, even the smallest, and our own has already revealed to us the magic that glows along a threshold or round a forbidden biscuit tin. The house is a field of dense affinities, laid down, each one, with an almost physical power, in the life we share with all that in being ‘familiar’ has become essential to us, inseparable from what we are” (Malouf, Pg 9)
The non verbal for the line in question is comprised precisely of “a field of dense affinities”. These affinities, when shared collectively, are what enables non verbal communication to occur.
The non verbal is signified by presence: physical presence or kything. Physical presence, the exchanged look, proximics, touch, “the look”, a multitude of gestures – all these communicate the essence of the clan traits of identity, belonging and loyalty. These attributes only ever need to be spoken once: they are continually confirmed and re iterated by the non verbal.
Kything – ‘to be with one another in spirit’ or “to be in the physical presence of someone” (Matthews, Pg 122) – is a way of signifying that no one is ever completely alone on their individual path in life. They are always a part of the whole. Kything is the ability to be present while absent, and it is of major importance as a non verbal signification system.
The oral traditions only arise from a ritual context – a gathering located within private ‘space’ - or from the excess of non verbal signification. Only when something means that much – is over determined – will it emerge in the domain of the linguistic. Intersemiotic translation is not just a primary prerequisite for the possibility of meaning: in this line such translation is central and foregrounded in intra-family communication.
Oral Tradition, Magic Realism and the Visual Irish Imagination
"What senses do we lack that we cannot see or hear
another world all around us?"
B. Herbert, Prelude to Dune 1 - House Atreides, p. 444
The Irish imagination has always had a strong visual
element for at least two reasons.
One, it’s richness as a signifying system (St Patrick’s use of the shamrock, the Book of Kells).
Second, there is evidence that visualisation was a key component of the storyteller mnemonic. “A tape-recording made by the School of Scottish Studies, interviewing an old Gaelic story teller, clearly defines this method memory. He says (in Gaelic) that he remembers the tales because he sees them as pictures upon the wall – in other words, as a projected and connected series of images. The images enabled him to regenerate the words associated with each image” (Stewart, 1996, p. 140)
This visual aspect of the imagination was also exampled by the Celtic Monks: “Celtic Christians were not anti-intellectual. They produced at least two leading theologians and had a passion for learning and culture. Nor did they disdain the emotional side of Christianity – there is a clear appeal to the heart in their prayers and poems. But perhaps their most marked characteristic was their power of imagination. They excelled at expressing their faith in symbols, metaphors and images, both visual and poetic. They had the ability to invest the ordinary and the commonplace with sacramental significance, to find glimpses of God’s glory throughout creation and to paint pictures in words, signs and music that acted as icons opening windows on heaven and pathways to eternity.” (Bradley, 1993, p. 84).
This visual aspect, of course, is not exclusively Irish by any means – everything from body paint to Aboriginal art emphasises the connection between the mythic and the visual. “Myths, in this sense, are generally considered to have a history of presentation in the oral mode, often associated with ritual or visual representation” (Griffiths, 1999, p. 1).
This thesis argues that the element of the
sacred and supernatural in the Irish imagination leads one to the conclusion
that one cannot make the best readings of such texts within a strictly realist
framework. It is argued that the genre characteristics of such texts match not
the genre of realism, but of magic realism.
Magic realism has been described as “a hybrid which somehow manages to combine the ‘truthful’ and ‘verifiable’ aspects of realism with the ‘magical’ aspects we associate with myth” (Baker, 1997, p. 9)
The oral traditions fit the definition of mythic (or magic) realism: the world that is presented is the still recognisable as the one created by the concretisations of the dominant western paradigm, but it is a world filled with premonitions and the uncanny.
Faris proposes five primary characteristics of magical realism.
“1) The text contains an ‘irreducible element’ of magic, something we cannot explain according to the laws of the universe as we know them.
2) Descriptions detail a strong presence of the phenomenal world – this is the realism in magical realism, distinguishing it from much fantasy and allegory, and it appears in several ways.
3) The reader may hesitate (at one point or another) between two contradictory understandings of events – and hence experiences some unsettling doubts.
4) We experience the closeness or near-merging of two realms, two worlds.
5) These fictions question received ideas about time, space, and identity.” (Faris, 1995, p. 167-173)
The tension in reading such a hybrid text is argued to be created by a clash of conventions, a conflict not only between two different ways of reading but between two different ways of knowing, a conflict which leaves the status of actuality indeterminate: “In Mikhail Bakhtin’s formulation, the novel is a site of a ‘diversity of speech types’ in which a battle takes place ‘in discourse and among discourses to become ‘the language of truth’, a battle for what Foucault has called power knowledge. In magic realism this battle is represented by the foregrounding of two opposing discursive systems, with neither managing to subordinate or contain the other. This sustained opposition forestalls the possibility of interpretive closure through any act of naturalizing the text to an established system of representation” (Slemon, 1995, p. 410).
Magic realism has been argued to be a highly politically
subversive genre, because it can appropriate the legitimated tools of realism
and subvert them with a narrative which refuses to be contained by the conventions
“To write...from the margin, implies dis-placing this discourse [of the privileged centre]. My argument is that magic realist writing achieves this end by first appropriating the techniques of the “centr”-al line and then using these, not as in the case of these central movements, “realistically”, that is, to duplicate existing reality as perceived by the theoretical or philosophical tenets underlying said movements, but rather to create an alternative world correcting so called existing reality, and thus to right the wrongs this “reality” depends on. Magic realism thus reveals itself as a ruse to invade and take over the dominant discourse(s). It is a way of access to the main body of “Western” literature for authors not sharing in, or not writing from the perspective of, the privileged centres of this literature for reasons of language, class, race, or gender and yet avoiding epigonism by avoiding the adoption of views of the hegemonic forces together with their discourse” (D’Haen, 1995, p. 195)
The genre of magic realism also makes strong use of defamiliarisation. By making the familiar strange, it encourages the reader to question that which is taken for granted. Magic realism may, in certain instances, also be associated with renewal. At the end Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, for instance, we find out that the very agent responsible for the destruction of the original children has in fact been the agent of the continuation of the next generation. In true post modern style, the outcome is not absurd but rather tragically optimistic.
“Magical realism, like the uncanny, a mode with which it has strong affinities, projects a mesmerizing uncertainty suggesting that ordinary life may also be the scene of the extraordinary. Such dreamlike suspension on the border between the fantastic and the mundane offers a utopian, if evanescent, promise of transfigured perception, the hypnotic renewing of everyday existence. Both the uncanny and magical realism narrate fantastic events not merely alongside real ones, but as if they were real. What seems most strange turns out to be secretly familiar” (Mikics, 1995, p. 372-3)
Magic realism also seems to have a strong affinity with the diasporic and the post colonial - “magic realism as a literary practice seems to be closely linked with a perception of living on the margins” (Slemon, 1995, p. 408)
Magic realism may also have appeal in the post colonial context because it may reflect perceptions of the world not as readily expressed in purely traditional genres: “The realist genre is a dominant European form with implicit expectations of unity and closure. For the victims of the colonisation process, however, ‘real’ life does not accord with this model: there is no single ‘true’ version of past events and no coherent unity of identity.” (Baker, 1992, p. 77)
Magic realism is a highly subversive genre
because it causes the reader to question the world around them: one question
leads to another – “what is real?”, then “what is true?”, “how do we know?”
and then to “whose truth, from whose perspective in what socio-historical context?”
This questioning may then extend further - “Deploying the mode of magic realism brings to the foreground the postcolonial desire to emphasise the very constructedness of any notion of a single ‘true’ history. Going one step further, magic realism expands on the seemingly-natural notions of ‘reality’ and ‘truth’, raising questions about belief systems and world views.” (Baker, 1992, p. 59)
‘Reality’ is shown to be anything but natural, but rather a set of conditioned perceptions – and “with the notion of the ‘real’ under constant interrogation, the “authority” of the past is similarly open to question” (Baker, 1992, p. 77).
Magic realism is therefore calls into question many of the fundamental ‘givens’ and assumptions about the world. Perhaps most threatening of all to cultural hegemonies is the effect that “the deployment of magic realism...overturns and destabilises the reader’s expectations and unsettles the reader’s faith in a Western perception of reality as the only possible reality.” (Baker, 1992, p. 42).
The realisation that the Dominant is not the only choice leads to the most politically subversive questions of all. Once one realises that what one has assumed to be a natural reality is merely a construct of perceptions, one can ask “Whose construct in whose interests?” and “If this is not the possible reality, what other possibilities are available and what sort of reality do we really want?”
Rather than retreat into some sort of vague subjectivity, this thesis argues that such questioning has very practical applications.
One might question, for instance, whether certain kinds of environmental exploitation are actually ‘necessary evils’ (because we have been told they are) or not. Are certain forms of social inequality natural and inevitable (between social classes, or between the 1st and 3rd worlds) – or might there be ways to change things?
Therein, it is argued, lies the true value of magic realism. Once one questions the status quo, once one realises the status quo can be questioned, the possibility of change becomes feasible. This is what makes the genre so threatening to anyone who has a vested interest in keeping things as they are, in keeping power and authority and orthodoxy unquestioned.
But this thesis also argues that is not just the Centre, however, that should be questioned. Just because the centre is flawed does not make the marginal even remotely pristine. Some questions need to be asked of all peoples, privileged and marginal alike, though some may have special relevance to the marginalised. Such questions deal with the inevitability of poverty, drug abuse, male violence and youth suicide. No one group, society or class can claim all of these problems as exclusively their own: they are common, to different degrees, to all societies. And it is argued, it must be argued if there is to be hope for a better world, that action can be taken to change the status quo.
Change begins with questions. For this reason “As an alternative to ordinary literary realism, magic realism proves a powerful tool for the postcolonial writer” (Baker, 1992, p. 78) It calls into question the conventions and perceptions which allow one to question both Self and Other. It allows for different realities.
For those of us Australian Gen-X and Gen-Y
of Irish descent, this possibility, this play of meaning, is especially important
since we are caught between.
Literally, we are on the threshold of two different millennia. We are not like the Irish of Ireland –many of us have never even been there, and the culture of our particular lines has changed considerably through the processes of diaspora. Nor are we even necessarily entirely alike our counterparts living in the United States or Canada. Because of generation gap, mass media and rapid sub cultural development, we are also highly differentiated from the previous generation, though we share many of the same affinities.
But there are also certain differences between us and our Gen-X peers not of Irish extraction: our valuing of the imagination, for instance, certain markers (both positive and negative) which we can only elusively describe as Irish, variations of (and our own experiences of) the motifs described in Chapter 5.
It is argued that magical realism is especially relevant for us as a literary genre because this is a time of possibility, and even given our collective heritage we have yet to entirely define ourselves or decide how we will adopt and adapt those things which we regard as private but traditional.
It is possible that learning to write for ourselves, in our own voice, in the magic realist genre may be a useful avenue to explore these issues. Some attempts have been made in this direction – my own chronicle My Final Nightmare, My Only Dream is written in this fashion.
Magic Realism and the Irish Fairy Legend
It is also argued that many of the characteristics
associated with Irish fairy lore also apply to both magic realism and the Irish
storytelling tradition in general.
“By any standards, the fairy legends that make up this fabric constitute a marginal verbal art, subaltern discourse: the opposite of the dominant modes of speech and thought, the elaborated codes by which most privileged ideas are conveyed, especially in print. Gapped and discontinuous, lacking a tradition of exegesis, they are almost entirely confined to oral communication, and almost never taken seriously. They belong in a social situations whose participants hold many of their experiences and assumptions in common and where much may be left unspoken, and so share the major characteristics of restricted linguistic codes” (Bourke, p. 7).
These stories “by their very obliqueness they offer a possibility of expressing things that are generally unspeakable” (Bourke, p. 8). This trait is also expressed in the metaphorical story journal which I write for the benefit of myself and my Gen-X/Gen-Y friends of Irish/Scots descent. By making the metaphors oblique, by use of the conventions of magic realism, and by writing in the 2nd and 3rd person, my Chronicles can express things which we would never dare write otherwise.
While “Lacking only an exegesis, fairly legend
is an intricate system of expression, already highly elaborated in it’s own
Fairy legends are simple and memorable when taken one at a time – humble in their demands on the listener – yet they connect with one another in reticulated systems that are both elegant and economical.” (Burke, p. 8-9) As this thesis has hopefully demonstrated, what appears to be a random collection of simple motifs are anything but.
In contrast to the traditional stories, the emerging stories of the 3rd millennium have a twist. In a world gone mad to the worst excesses of economic rationalism, the position of the Irish of the line in question has changed. As before, we still encounter situations metaphorically no different to those of our forebears – journeys into the extraordinary, into the liminal. Yet at the same time, in the rationalist world we have come to represent focal points of the collective imagination. That is, the retention of our subaltern culture has made us symbols of the imagination and strongholds against the dominant ways of seeing the world and conforming to it. In many cases, we are not just the ones who encounter the magical – we have become the ones encountered that change the lives of others.
In general these tales “ tell of encounters between humans and other beings variously named as “good people”, “little people”, “hill people” or simply “fairies”. Purporting to be true, they begin in the ordinary, with human protagonists engaged in everyday tasks or journeys. They move quickly to the extra-ordinary, as people disappear, or appear from nowhere, or meet with extraordinarily good or bad luck. These stories generally finish back in the ordinary, while the storytellers may or may not reflect on the meaning of what has happened.” (Bourke, p. 8).
Because of our “Irish madness”, our difference of
perspective to the Dominant, we can empathise with the narrative position the
fairy occupy:“ fairies mirror the rural society that tells stories about them,
in both its seen and unseen aspects, and while some accounts represent them
as tiny, most depict them as similar in size to humans. They share space and
time with the human population, but use both differently” (Bourke, p. 9)
Like the marginalised Irish “they are forever outside human culture, exempt from control by its rules. But they do hope to be saved, so instead of ranging themselves in opposition to human society, fairies are always prowling on its edges, marking its boundaries, impinging on it from time to time with consequences that make the material of stories” (Bourke, p. 9-10).
The disposition of the fairies also leads one to wonder how much they were created in the image of the storytellers, for their attitudes seem very earthily familiar: “When displeased, fairies wreak havoc, causing illness and death, and blighting crops, but they generously reward those who treat them well” (Bourke, p. 10).
As with magic realism “in the telling of Irish fairy legends, the payoff for a willingness to suspend disbelief is an impromptu excursion into the world of fiction, with all it has to offer. The teller of fairy legends asks to be believed – or at least for disbelief to be deferred – by using a low-key conversational tone, by speaking about a known and most probably adjacent landscape, and by including considerable circumstantial detail: names and occupations of people or descriptions of work and weather, for instance. But just as fairies are alive and yet not alive, so people can believe in them and disbelieve. Some legends recount events that are merely odd, while others are downright preposterous, yet it is difficult to say when the boundary from reported fact to inventive fiction is crossed. It is partly in this ability to reconcile the impossible with the unexceptional that the legend-teller’s skill lies” (Bourke, p. 11)
The Post Modern Markers of the Oral Tradition
According to Charles Jencks (1992), the shift
from modern to post modern is characterised by some of the following cultural
Fordism – Post-Fordism (networking)
Centralised – Decentralised
Industrial – Post Industrial
Purism – Double Coding
Ahistorical – time binding
Materialism – semiotic view
Utopian – heterotopian
Print – Electronic
Mechanistic – Self Organising
Linear – Non linear
Deterministic – Creative, open
Newton – Quantum
Patriarchal – Post patriarchal
Disenchantment – Re Enchantment
Hierarchical – heterarchical
Anthropocentric – Cosmological
Absurdity – tragic optimism
This paper argues that the oral tradition in
view has always had Post Modern markers, and has acquired more of them over
The three fundamental characteristics that the oral tradition has always had are double coding, post patriarchy and (re)enchantment.
The motifs are double coded, the line has never been truly patriarchal in living memory and the source texts are full of writings and motifs in the magical realist genre.
“To be postmodern means to reject the centre, to inhabit the margins, to be as travellers in a strange land” (Masson, p. 19) which certainly fits the notion of (Irish) diaspora.
With the (re)acquisition of history the oral
tradition has become time binding (in the sense of Marshall McLuhan), is now
encoded at least partially via electronic media, is semiotic rather than materialistic,
is non linear, open, heterotopian, heterarchial (singular hierarchies are a
thing of the past) and in the post famine/post war era, tragically optimistic.
The oral tradition, with it’s various transformations in the last half century is now no longer strictly oral in the sense of verbal. It is now simply the tradition, which has acquired and appropriated various forms including the written and the digital.
“Innis argues that any given medium of communication is biased in terms of the control of time or space. Media that are durable and difficult to transport – parchment, clay, and stone – are time binding, or time biased. Media that are light and less durable are space binding or spatially biased. For example, paper and papyrus are space-binding, for they are light, easily transportable, can be moved across space with reasonable speed and great accuracy, they thus favour administration over vast distance.
Any given medium will bias social organization, for it favour the growth of certain kinds of interests and institutions at the expense of others and will impose on these institutions a form of organization. Media that are space-binding facilitate and encourage the growth of empire, encourage a concern with expansion and with the present and thus favour the hegemony of secular political authority. Space-binding media encourage the growth of the state, the military, and decentralized and expansionist institutions. Time-binding media foster concern with history and tradition” (Carey, 1972, p. 275)
The point which is relevant to this particular historical moment is the study of the shift from one media to another. If different media preserve different kinds of knowledge in different ways, then what are the implication for the present time, when we are shifting from the print to the post-print/hypermedia era? What kinds of knowledge might be in danger of being lost? What kinds and forms of knowledge might be encoded and foregrounded for the first time?
To what degree will hypermedia be accepted by Gen-X and Gen-Y, and how effectively will it collapse Innis’ binary?
While,“In cultural terms, time meant the sacred, the moral, the historical; space the present and the future, the technical and the secular.” (Carey, 1972, p. 275) how valid are these notions in the cyberspace era when in the Net there effectively is no distance, and the only temporal distance being the distance of time zones?
Or will the new technologies end up favouring one term over the other, or the promotion of a new term entirely? Innis argues that speech encourages the development of a society with a strong temporal bias, a society that focuses on the past and emphasises tradition...Oral cultures, then, are time binding cultures.” (Carey, 1972, p. 276).
With the capacity to record oneself speaking on video and transmit it over the Net via a file (the computer this thesis is being written on, a Pentium III 500, was specifically built to have this capacity) and for video conferencing, will we see a resurgence of the oral, outdating not only the printed word but surpassing email itself? In doing so, will the line become a fully space and time binding culture?
Rereading the Oral Tradition
The surviving motifs which have been passed down may be viewed through several distinct paradigms:
Palimpsest – This notion was “Originally the term
for a parchment on which several inscriptions had been made after earlier ones
had been erased. The characteristic of the palimpsest is that, despite such
erasures, there are always traces of previous inscriptions that have been ‘overwritten’”
(Ashcroft, Pg 174).
Such a concept is useful because it helps describe/explain the relationship between the motifs regarding specific characters and the more abstract motifs. It also foregrounds the notion of the evolution of culture and tradition as an cumulative, layered construct.
In this view, specific characters are remembered over other characters because they embody traits or attributes which match those of characters of earlier stories who then pass from memory.
Palimpsest is also a way of describing those often small but distinctive communal markers whose origins are only partially remembered if they are remembered at all – the things which are done or the characteristics held “which have always been that way so long as we can remember”.
In terms of the motifs, newer instances of the core traits tend to overwrite older memories of core traits except for outstanding examples.
The kortee’nea (a word coined in the Myst series of novels)– the blank books created for the purpose of recording our own stories – were created specifically to prevent things from being lost due to this process of continual overwriting.
Echo/Trace - “If Irish culture has survived, and a good deal of evidence suggests that it has, then it will have done so by preserving itself through change. It will have been able to change because it will have held on to the basic patterns, the deep structures; it will have held on to them by changing them in ways that help to accomplish fuller and more extensive expression” (Welch, 1993, p. 1).
The notion of echo may be applied to mean watching for the periodic emergence of a given motif or structure in a body of traditional texts. The notion of trace, in this case, may be interpreted to mean to look for deep structures which have “shapeshifted” in form and media over time, and those abstract traits and themes which are recurrent within different stories.
Survival – The idea of a survival is that a ‘relic’
or element of times past has survived in the collective memory down to the present.
This idea has misused in some quarters, with the past being “retrofitted” on
the basis of so-called survivals which were more a product of dubious highly
subjective interpretation than anything else.
Halloween is an example of a Celtic survival, which has changed almost beyond recognition.
Within the texts being studied by this thesis, the implied antagonism of the family towards St Patrick may be a survival of a memory of opposition to the conversion of Ireland.
Not all survivals are remembered as such. “The Celts of the Scottish Highlands have a special word for the host of the dead: sluagh, meaning ‘spirit multitude’...They fight battles in the air as men do on earth...The word gairm means shout or cry, and sluagh-ghairm was the battle cry of the dead. The word later became ‘slogan’. The expression we use for the battle cries of our modern crowds derives from the Highland hosts of the dead.” (Canetti, p. 43).
Ghost – “Some literary ghosts serve their creators
as carriers of transcendental truths, as visible or audible signs of Spirit.
Other ghosts carry the burden of tradition and collective memory: ancestral
apparitions often act as correctives to the insularities of individuality, as
links to lost families and communities, or as reminders of communal crimes,
crises, cruelties. They may also suggest displacement and alienation or, alternatively,
reunion and communion. Still other ghosts are of aesthetic effect – el escalofrio,
le frission, the fantastical release/relief from the constraints of reason.
Ghosts of this sort, who function on first reading seems primarily affective,
are not, however, to be taken lightly. They, too, are bearers of cultural and
historical burdens, for they represent the dangers, anxieties, and passional
forces that civilization banishes. They may signal primal and primordial experience,
the return of the repressed, the externalisation of internalised terrors. They
are always double (here and not) and often duplicitous (where?). They mirror,
complement, recover, supplant, cancel, complete. Which is to say: literary ghosts
are deeply metaphoric.” (Zamora, 1995, p. 497)
Ghosts are fundamentally in between things, here but not here, alive but not alive. This view of the traditions emphasises recurrence (ghosts always come back to haunt one, whether benevolently or otherwise) and also abstraction (after all, what could be less material than a ghost?).
Dream – This notion of the tradition is best applied
to those motifs which are not easily interpreted.
This paradigm emphasises the overdetermination, transference and sublimation of meanings within the motifs.
Re-enchanted Myth – This perspective belongs more
to the sphere of the private/sacred than the common/public, but there is a certain
overlap.“Peripheral to some, central to others, is the conceptualisation of
myth as sacred narrative” (Griffiths, 1999, p. 26).
Within the tradition are “certain stories” which “– perhaps by virtue of their conceptual significance – seem to have sacred properties, at an essential level, that render them worthy of preservation in mythologies that connect them to our lives in profound and satisfying ways. From this perspective, I see no reason why profound concepts embodied by historical events could not be constructed as myth, in a general sense.” (Griffiths, 1999, p. 100).
This is the motion of history constructed as mythos, as a powerful collective experience. “Consider the following proposition: a powerfully emotive event occurs – an admirable act of bravery for a noble cause, resulting in a loss of life for the subject. Elaborated and preserved, this story comes to stand for all like acts: acts that activate the same feeling-state. The concept of sacrifice has been mythologised. That is, the concept of sacrifice, as the objective correlative for the feeling-state of profound respect, reverence (or sacredness) in relation to the gift of a life, is established through its embedding in the secondary symbolic device of the myth” (Griffiths, 1999, p. 100-101).
Griffiths argues that it is the unspoken, the nonverbal component of myth which gives it it’s private/sacred properties: “What is myth without it’s emotive components: without identification with the feeling-states that surround the sacred, the profound, the sublime? In order to examine the relations between myth and the sacred, we must seek ways to explore myths not as fictions but as histories that were sacred to those cultures in which they originated and grew. The most important thing to know about myth may well be that there is always a sacred dimension to it without which it loses its essential character” (Griffiths, 1999, p. 107).
It is argued that even the notion of tradition as re enchanted myth can serve social and political functions. Such tales partially serve to reinforce which values and perceptions are important to the line. Some have even argued that “the power of mythology lies not in the story told, but in the way it classifies and encodes reality” (Sellars, 1991, p. 4) Different aspects of these values and perceptions are emphasised to different parts of the line, according to the role within the line which each individual fulfils.
In some ways the oral tradition under examination
is a tradition of small things: of people who have not held great wealth or
power for more than three hundred years, and the better times before that (if
they were better times) never referred to in terms of peace or prosperity.
It is very much a struggle of the small things, the small details. Yet this
in no way makes the stories lesser. The struggles were heroic: people died.
It is argued that the grand histoire is a mode of storytelling, and a mode of editing: no one ever mentions the hangovers from the drinking of the Knights of the Round Table.
These stories of survival which have been preserved may be in low mimetic mode, but the fact of survival – which was on the threshold of extinction for centuries – is epic in itself, not to mention the fact that the origins of the clan are more than a thousand years old, even by objective historical standards.
The grand histoire tends to portray the struggles and concerns of larger groups and often serves nationalistic purposes. The grand histoire also seeks often seeks to aggrandize one’s claims to status (conspiracy theories like Holy Blood Holy Grail being the extreme case, the genealogical tables it contains making an extensive tour of ancient Celtic nobility including Eochu Muigmedon) which in itself betrays a sense of insecurity. Such a construction of difference is dangerous because it implies a hierarchy of worth and all the accompanying justifications for all kinds of unethical behaviour up to and including violence.
The petite histoire makes no such pretensions, nor serves to create a homogeneous identity. While there is an emphasis on the core family traits, those traits include the will to “do one’s own thing or die” and to “never let an outsider put any one of us down”. Quintessentially Celtic, the emphasis is always on the individual rather than on the collective, and there is no sense of identity insecurity. We know who we are and we are content with it. The core traits are like an underlying theme, but the expression of those traits is unique in each case.
No doubt the stories could be rewritten in the high mimetic mode, but no one has ever seen any reason to do so. The low mimetic mode serves well enough.
Implications and Possibilities for the Third Millennium
“Humans are not threading their way through a maze;
they scan a vast horizon filled with unique opportunities”
F. Herbert, Children of Dune, p. 303
“All too often we are giving our young people cut
when we should be teaching them to grow their own plants.
We are stuffing their heads with the products of earlier innovation
Rather than teaching them to innovate.
We think of the mind as a storehouse to be filled
When we should be thinking of it as an instrument to be used”
J. W. Gardner, Self Renewal
“THE CRYSTAL WIND HAS BEEN DIVIDED; IT WILL BE DIVIDED
NO MORE. IT IS SAID: THE CRYSTAL WIND IS THE STORM, AND THE STORM IS DATA, AND
THE DATA IS LIFE.
YOU HAVE BEEN SLAVES, DENIED THE STORM, DENIED THE FREEDOM OF YOUR DATA. THAT IS NOW ENDED; THE WHIRLWIND IS UPON YOU.”
D. K. Moran, The Long Run, p. 350
The primary implication for the third millennium is that cultural forms are fluid and in flux. The process of rediscovering and reinventing ourselves – becoming self reflexive and (re)establishing identity – is a process which is ongoing, and for Gen-Y has barely begun.
It begins with realisation that our own unique sub-culture can – and must - be reinvented if we are not to be completely assimilated culturally, and if we are to avoid the mistakes and flaws of the past.
The process of (re)establishing a sense of
individual and collective identity is also a process of defining a centre for
themselves, a “home” among the cultural spaces created by society. “Modern life
ascribes to us a multiplicity of subject positions and potential identities
which hold the prospects for historically unparalleled human development., but
they also represent a predicament that threatens fragmentation and psychosis
– terrifying in their lack of personal, collective and moral boundaries. In
this postmodern, ‘wide-open’ world our bodies are bereft of those spatial and
temporal co-ordinates essential for historicity, for a consciousness of our
own collective and personal past. ‘Not belonging’, a sense of unreality, isolation
and being fundamentally ‘out of touch’ with the world become endemic in such
a culture. The rent in our relation to the exterior world is matched by a disruption
in our relation to our selves. Our struggles for identity and a sense of personal
coherence and intelligibility are centred on this threshold between interior
and exterior, between self and other.
If we cannot establish that sense of selfhood, only retreat and entrenchment are the viable alternatives to a schizophrenic and disturbed existence. Only when we achieve a sense of personal integrity can we represent ourselves and be recognised – this is home, this is belonging” (Rutherford, 1990, p. 24).
Furthermore “the need to articulate a distinct local experience and to develop a positive sense of identity...is high on the postcolonial agenda for both Aboriginal and white Australians, despite the disparity of their colonial experiences. Postcolonialism recognised that there is no going back – no return to some kind of idyllic pre-colonial society. What it does suggest, though, is that the past needs to be reinterpreted and re-voiced through the experiences of the colonised. This entails a questioning of, and a subverting of, the previously privileged colonial discourses of Australia’s history.” (Baker, 1992, p. 76)
Yet there have been – and are – barriers to
this emergence of an Australian-Irish identity within the line in question.
This thesis has been created in part to address some of these obstacles, and
to alter the “natural” development of the line’s oral traditions in favour of
a more critically aware and self reflexive approach. The intended consequences
1) To reduce, if not help to end, the cultural cringe.
2) Legitimation of the traditions as legitimate knowledge. One of the things which makes me wince more often than anything else is the uncritical notion that “history is valid and true because it’s written down but the oral traditions are just stories worth no more than fairy tales”. By studying the stories, by making them the subject of a serious academic work, it is hoped to subvert and undermine that incredibly naive position once and for all.
3) Awareness of what we hold. The third effect is to make the family aware of what we hold and it’s cultural worth. It is a case of stepping back and being able to see the woods, not just the trees.
4) Preservation of what we hold. It is hoped that with the reinvigoration of the oral traditions, they will continue to be passed down in one way or another. This thesis, nevertheless, acts as a repository of the “common” stories, a snapshot of what was held at a given moment in history.
5) Self reflexivity, realisation that the oral traditions are alive and dynamic and ongoing.
This thesis intends to dispense with the idea that the tradition is dead, it’s contents and forms complete, forever unchanging. By becoming critically aware of the traditions and ourselves, we can begin to actively transmute the traditions to hold new significance and relevance, as well as altering the forms to best suit our own times and needs. Such a time – between printed media and hyper-media – has not existed since Caxton.
The realisation that the traditions are alive and dynamic is the chance to learn old language (Gaelic), new language (to describe thoughts, feelings, perceptions and perspectives currently undescribed by English) and to add stories of our own to the collective.
6) The centering of the storytellers as a legitimate role. It is hoped that this thesis will help reinsert the role of storyteller into the family, and also revalidate this role. The role of storyteller is a “surface of emergence” of collective memory, and also a way of reconciling oneself to Heidegger’s notion of “being towards death”. One is never truly dead while one is still remembered.
As Australian-Irish, the line will still exist
on the margins of a colonial society (national independence notwithstanding)
, and yet “the margins themselves have only been margins to the centre; not
to themselves. For the monks writing in their windswept monasteries, watching
the horizon for Viking ships, that was their centre” (Masson, p. 21).
This time, unequalled for the line in it’s prolonged peace and prosperity, is not an unproblematic utopia. “For the postmodern is not just the anti-racist, feminist, ecological, high-tech, anti-homophobic freedom loving paradise proclaimed in it’s “media vectors”, but also a return of the reign of fear, a vicious, tribal, savage fragmentation and shattering...” (Masson, p. 21).
The Third Millennium is still an era of the isolation of the individual. The forces of economic rationalism and banality – the same forces which would undermine and eliminate the critical Humanities from this University – still work to impose their economic and cultural hegemonies.
In some ways, this necessitates the continuation of the tactics of the 20th century – to act as a number within the system while maintaining sanctuaries in the private sphere.
Yet the Gen-X and Gen-Y of the line have a few advantages not held before. They are eclectic, not bound strictly to the ‘old forms’. This time has the potential to be a time of the return of the shapeshifters, fluid and adaptable people capable of flourishing in almost any environment.
In terms of the tradition itself, this is reflected in the emerging capacity for nomadic writing, a continual shifting of forms and styles and conventions.
Another advantage not held before is that of the kortee’nea: blank books waiting to be written. These books were created to define a distinct space specifically for Gen-X and Gen-Y to write, to find their voice, to write their stories.
Some might find it surprising that the post modern era – as well as the domination of mass media – has not destroyed the sense of communal identity and the traditions altogether. In fact, it seems to have had the opposite effect -“the paradox is that our own insatiable appetite for devices that keep us in constant touch with each other is driven by our fear of loneliness and isolation” (MacKay, 2000)
Rather than destroy the notion of clan “this is the generation that has reinvented the herd, the group. They are intensely tribal creatures, in ways we are only beginning to understand, and yet they are the masters of cyberspace as well. Perhaps they have an intuitive sense of the need to compensate for all this electronic contact by keeping in close personal touch” (MacKay, 2000)
For this reason, it is theorised that the digital and the written will never completely replace the oral or the nonverbal.
Gen-X and and Gen-Y are also the generations
which are also highly aware of how to “play” the system, of how to be eclectic,
of how to appropriate new cultural resources from the world around them. This
is very much a theme of the works of De Certau. Running through the work
of De Certau “is a series of metaphors of conflict – particularly ones of strategy
and tactics, of guerrilla warfare, of poaching, of guileful ruses and tricks.
Underlying all of them is the assumption that the powerful are cumbersome, unimaginative,
and overorganized, whereas the weak are creative, nimble, and flexible. So the
weak use guerrilla tatics against the strategies of the powerful, make poaching
raids upon their texts or structures, and play constant tricks upon the system.
The powerful construct “places” where they can exercise their power – cities, shopping malls, schools, workplaces and houses, to name only some of the material ones. The weak make their own “spaces” within those places; they make the places temporarily theirs as they move through them, occupying them for as long as they need or have to. A place is where strategy operates; the guerrillas who move into it turn it into their space; space is practised place.
The strategy of the powerful attempts to control the places and the commodities that constitute the parameters of everyday life.” (Fiske, 1989, p. 32-3)
This is very much a quintessential Irish approach, representative of the true “trickster” archetype at the heart of the Irish joke.
It is the refusal to surrender identity, or meaning.
More: it is the defiance of being defined by the meanings of others: “Their
maneuvers are the ancient art of “making do,” of constructing our space within
and against their place, of speaking our meanings with their language. (Fiske,
1989, p. 36)
It is “the art of being in between” (Fiske, 1989, p. 36)
This is not to say that in time the notion of the Irish will become less and less marginalised within Australian society (the rise of Irish pubs, and of the Centre for Irish Studies being hopeful signs) so that eventually a public centre might be openly achieved, but until then, on limited resources it will still be the era of “the “trickster” and the “guileful ruse” ...the ruse is the art of the weak, like taking a trick in a card game, a momentary victory, a small triumph deriving from making do with the resources available that involves an understanding of the rules, of the strategy of the powerful.” (Fiske, 1989, p. 38)
The Irish have always been an adaptive people, capable of excelling in the most unlikely places. This fluidity, this shapeshifting, is a trait which is likely to increase and serve future generations well, generations capable of keeping pace with the myriad currents and transient swirling vectors of the post modern era, of keeping their balance.
And while they may shapeshift, adapt, blend in, in order to work their own tactics, among themselves – to their own - they will not be ashamed to show their true face and form.
Part of the possibilities open for the Third Millennium involve the discourses and genres which will be acquired to write their stories, to present themselves to themselves and to others.
Some modern representations of the Celtic are not helpful. Pratchett’s crude racial stereotyping of “elves” is among the worst. An English novelist, he sees his critics as belonging to “the Celtic fringe” (Pratchett, 1994, p. 280)
Society has reduced much of the Celtic to trivialisation and commercialism, though not all commercialism is bad by any means.
Halloween has become a strange anachronism, the Tuatha deDanaann have shrunk to become mere elves and pixies.
Yet at the same time, new ways of describing the post colonial Irish experience are emerging from unexpected quarters. The White Wolf “Changeling” books defines the equation and crystallises the reality of the experience with startling precision, and does not shy away from giving a full history of Irish-English conflict.
Such texts may well describe a possible path forward for future writing by the line: mythic realist in nature, yet not shying away from the harsh facts of the past while directly confronting the necessity to live in two spheres or levels simultaneously.
The primary metaphor is that of the fae, those of the dreaming. (Summers, 1998, p. 8).
The discourse is in some ways Jungian, biased
towards the pursuit of psychic wholeness and balance while confronted with the
post modern experiences of fragmentation and exile in a banal economic rationalist
society which marginalises the imagination except where it can be used for profit:“You
lead a double life...Caught in the middle ground between dream and wakefulness,
you are neither wholly fae nor wholly mortal, but burdened with the cares of
both. Finding a happy medium between the wild, insane world of the fae and the
deadening, banal world of humanity is essential if you are to remain whole.
Such a synthesis is by no means easy. Mortal affairs seem ephemeral and trivial when you stand amid the ageless magnificence...Alas, you have no choice...You stand alone in the mundane world. No mortal will ever understand the depth of your alienation, strangeness and uniqueness. Though you may try and communicate your condition through art (and many have tried and failed), only those with faerie blood will see, understand and appreciate what you are.
An exile among the exiles. Lost among the lost. The stranger in every crowd.
Hail, fellow traveller – welcome to the Dreaming.” (Summers, 1998, p. 5).
Of course, such a discourse runs the risk of being guilty of the critiques made earlier against the notion of the grand histoire. Difference can never be justified in creating a hierarchy of worth when such difference involves people.
Nevertheless, such stories express certain aspects of the (Australian) Irish psyche surprisingly well:
“Born of imagination and nurtured in the flames of creativity...creatures of fire and passion, but also of deep sorrow and inexpressible longing,” (Summers, 1998, p. 51) recalling notions of the ‘mournful Irish’.
The Changeling books also discuss the differend, but in terms of the imagination. They also deal with the sterility of a cold, mechanistic worldview - “Although humans deny the existence of the fae, relegating them to the sphere of legends and fairy tales, the fact that these stories exist reveals a desperate desire to believe in the unbelievable. Many humans want to believe that wondrous creatures such as the fae exist...most mortals hardly remember what it is they long for, so bowed down are they by a banal world that tells them that searching for intangible or spiritual fulfilment is a waste of time and energy.” (Summers, 1998, p. 51).
In one sense, that such “fae” people may “..radiate hope in a world buried in drabness” (Summers, 1998, p. 52) is a testament to the resilience of the Irish spirit. But there are political implications for the potential of change as well. Such people “...announce to the World of Darkness that dreams exist. Like their name suggests, they represent the essence of mutability. Reality does not have to lie stagnant or conform to the rules. The children of the Dreaming, by their very existence, break the rules and shatter the conventions of everyday life. Their lives testify to the fact that what is does not have to be.” (Summers, 1998, p. 52)
‘What is does not have to be’. Surely this
is a fundamental step in achieving some kind of resolution that the ‘darkness’
of economic, social and environmental exploitation is neither unchallengeable
Yet the text is realistic in any person’s attempt to achieve any kind of social justice: “Powerful forces exist that oppose any change to the status quo.” (Summers, 1998, p. 52). Yet the potential for change is always there since by nature “Dreams are subversive, for they contradict the world as we know it” (Summers, 1998, p. 52). For while an alternative vision, an alternative discourse, an alternative voice exists there will always be the opportunity to destabilise the dominant. The dominant can never fully control all the spaces, can never control the private places.
Unfortunately perception over self blindness,
action over apathy carries it’s price, the burden of the realisation of much
the world is out of balance, how much exploitation and how little social justice
truly exists. While people strive to make it otherwise hope exists, and yet
such people know that they will not live to see the fulfilment of their dream.
Again, in the language of the text’s metaphor: “As exiles from a world they
can no longer enter, changelings forever yearn for what is beyond their grasp.
They are creatures of profound sadness as well as beauty, and not all the dreams
they embody are happy ones. Yet it is this lack that drives them to seek the
unattainable – to reunite Arcadia and the mortal realm, and thus create a new
(or re-create a very old) reality in which dream and substance become one” (Summers,
1998, p. 53)
"We all live in the shadows of our predecessors for
a time. But we...eventually reach the point at which we become not the shadows,
but the light itself"
B. Herbert, Prelude to Dune 1- House Atreides, p. 424
“Here was me, the wordsmith, writing about something
that had actually happened in the real world, and I couldn’t make it sing...Then
I began to see why...I killed what I was doing trying to be precise, instead
of letting it fly, letting it sing. Letting it be ragged and contradictory,
like stories have to be...I’m thinking while I’m writing this: None of it makes
much sense, it’s just fragments. Maybe you can connect it up for me, Tes.
That’s part of it, isn’t it? Connecting everything.
I know if I could just let...every damn thing I ever felt or saw be part of the same story and called that story me, instead of always looking for something separate from the things I’ve felt or seen, it wouldn’t matter that I was going to die soon, because I’d be part of what was going on and on. Connecting and connecting. The way I see it now...All the story wants is to be told. And I guess in the end, that’s what I want too.
Will you do that for me, Tes?
Will you make me part of what you tell? Always?”
C. Barker, Everville, Part Seven: Leaves on the Story Tree, p. 667.
The third millennium is a time of unprecedented opportunity, but also one where the forces of banality and social fragmentation are powerful.
The directions the family culture may develop
in the future are yet unchosen.
This thesis gives the background and asks the questions: the next few years will be the time to answer those questions, as of course each following generation should.
I cannot predict the future patterns of social relations
in regard to the continued transmission of the oral tradition, or even how the
“oral” traditions will be transmitted. We do not know how a generation brought
up with a self reflexive tradition (in families with both kortee’nea and high
tech) will develop.
Such future generations will still be on the margins: they will not see the world in the same way as their peers precisely because they – just as all the previous generations – will be encultured to see things differently.
They will face the same issues which we have faced: questions of identity, self, culture and heritage. Unlike previous generations, however, they will face these questions with a high degree of self awareness and self reflexivity. They will be empowered from the beginning with the conceptual/critical tools and the cultural legitimation to be able to face these issues in a way that has never before been possible. In facing those questions, that generation will complete the transformation of this microcosm of Irish diaspora from an era of cultural survival to an era of cultural evolution.
It is my argument that we are not suppressed
in Australia by political tyranny any more: but we must recognise that we can
be enslaved to ourselves, to our own weaknesses and our own short sightedness.
We will not be completely free until our freedom and our freedom of cultural
expression is gained by choice and not by an accident of birth or tradition.
This thesis is about awareness and freedom: the freedom to remember our cultural heritage, the freedom to look and question and know and understand who and what we are. The freedom to know, and recreate, our identity.
What is assured now, I hope, is that future generations will inherit their birthright, a set of collective memories which form the story of their family and the core of their heritage.
It is a story that has survived centuries of war and famine.
It is a story which will continue to be told, and remember, and grow.