Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Modernism, John Millington Synge, and The Playboy of the Western World.

“Rapid social change at the dawn of the twentieth century demanded new literary forms” 

Concerning the above proposition, it seems rather over-focused historicism to decontextualise early 20th century modernist literature – and the ongoing social change it accompanied – as though it was some dislocated event suddenly “demanded” by history, rather than an (admittedly explosive) link in a developmental concatenation. By 1900, modernising forms of literature had been engaging with the wholesale social and cultural transformation of a newly-industrialising Europe for half a century, and both progressive experimentation in writing (and other arts) and social change were far advanced long before the “rapid social change at the dawn of the twentieth century.” “Around 1850,” writes Roland Barthes, “classical writing […] disintegrated, and the whole of literature, from Flaubert to the present day, became the problematics of language” (Barthes, in Bradbury and McFarlane, 1991, p. 21). And by 1863 Charles Baudelaire had identified “that indefinable something we may be allowed to call ‘modernity’” (1863, p. 6), naming simultaneously a highly engaged (if somewhat fazed) observational/artistic state – “loftier than that of a mere flâneur (1863, p. 12) – and the arrival of mass (and spectacular, in Guy Debord's sense of the word) population in burgeoning urban areas, as the former assemblages of villages and churches known as 'cities' became industrialised centres of unprecedented change: the “fourmillante cité, cité pleine du rêves [swarming city, city filled with dreams]” (Baudelaire, 1970/1857, p. 88).

“Modernity,” writes Baudelaire, anticipating modernist preoccupations with the mythopoeic and the the semi-conscious, “is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent“ (Baudelaire, 1863, p. 7) – and these (whatever their classical antecedents in Homer etc) were now new concepts of human experience for societies which, before industrialisation, had remained predominantly rural, slow-moving, socialised into retrogressive narratives of fixity and certainty, and resistant to change – occasional revolutions notwithstanding – for a millennium. Mainstream literature – for much of the 19th century a stylistically entangled bricolage of post-Romanticism and the vestiges of Neoclassicism – was variously ornate, moralistic, domestic, religious-based, romantic-adventurous, or Gothic, or various combinations thereof; and much of it, despite the exponential and transformative arrival of the novel, scarcely represented the uncertainties and anxieties of societies in flux. In France, Baudelaire, symbolist-harbinger of the modern, would soon be joined by writers like Rimbaud, Verlaine, Mallarmé etc; and by the late 1880s and the 1890s a complex fin de siècle philosophical and literary package of decadence, pessimism, nihilism, anarchism (interpreted from Schopenhauer, Nietzsche etc), and literary avant gardism would tentatively begin to surface in Britain, perhaps most importantly through Oscar Wilde (though also through such writers as Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Machen etc), and would contribute in attitude, volition and perspective to Modernism. (Perhaps we might credibly include the much earlier Laurence Sterne – as a major influence on, for instance, Viktor Shklovsky and the Russian Formalists, as well as British/Irish writers including James Joyce, John Millington Synge and Virginia Woolf – in the proto-modernist canon, and, by extension, François Rabelais and Miguel de Cervantes.)

A new conversation was in development, but it had as much to do with reaction against (and critique of) earlier literary artefacts such as the realist novel as with wider social concerns, and writers would hardly avoid engaging. This was still an age of empire, and of social, racial and sexual inequality, and we find early modernistic critique in, for instance, Stevenson's The Beach of Falesá (1892): a radical blend of romance, adventure, Gothicism, satire, travel story, realism, and the 'novel of manners,' with even an unusually modern variant of the domestic outcome: a mixed race family, and a satirical deconstruction of the perverse assumptives of empire – an anticipation of postcolonialism (which we can regard as one of the formulations of Modernism), also operating as a potent subtext in Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World [hereafter, Playboy].

Synge, “specifically attracted to the discontinuities created when Irish and English cultures intersected” (Cusack, in Gömceli and James, 2015, p. 108), controversially deploys Hiberno-English (with its unfamiliar Gallic lexicon, its unbound reflexive pronouns, and its 'let imperatives') in Playboy, “to demonstrate the continuing power of the radical Gaelic past to disrupt […] the colonial identity projected onto Ireland” (Kiberd, in Gömceli and James, 2015, p. 108). So a hybrid language becomes itself a politicised proposition for reasoned Irish autonomy, and Christy Mahon's (and perhaps his nation's) almost Jungian journey of self-discovery is planted in the constructedly inviolate western counties, amongst the ideologically and linguistically totemic and politically charged “people of the Irish peripheries” (Kojima, 1998, p. 53), where – through the deconstructing and reversal of his own narrative (“what Aristotle would call a triple peripety” (Davy, 2000, p. 122)) – he symbolically frees himself from a delusionally heroic misidentification with murder, and from the paralysing political-hierarchical protocols represented by his father. He becomes “a character who constructs an identity for himself through language, and thus reaches a state of liberation from the repressive forces in his own community” (Gömceli and James, 2015, p. 112). Having twice failed to kill his father, he finally transcends the physical dimension of this need, and achieves some level of individuation and a reconstituted identity, eschewing both subordination and spurious heroism. 

Christy refuses also to be wedded to the 'West' (the east coast of Ireland projected as the west of England) and its paralysis (which Joyce identifies – in Dubliners – in a book-length parallelism, as the central Irish malaise of the time) and its credulous unreality, embarking upon (in theory, at least, though one has to suspect it still rests on a fragile narrative of self) a new and self-defining life: “a likely gaffer […] I will go romancing through a romping lifetime” (Synge, 1992, p. 110). This moving away from the language of oppression without the self-defeating and irrational need for a total rejection of all influence from the oppressor, is, in actuality, a sophisticated postcolonial application, using language itself both as metaphor and as medium, superpositioning a number of the recognised and unrecognised, formative, defining discourses (of a people) over each other.

In attempting to understand Modernism as a “new literary form,” we might note that what Modernism actually does is address, examine and represent the semi-conscious, semi-participant mythologising of the human psyche by constructing characters as larger-than-life-but-stunted, humanised myth-figures, unknowingly enacting ritual behaviours almost typical of Greek theatrical heroes manipulated unawares by the godlike powers of internalised socialisation, performing blind rites of belonging or duty, which, theoretically, constitute the psychological imperatives of human lives. 

Much early Modernism utilises – and can be distinguished by – something like this perspective. We see this in Synge's Rabelaisian, bathetic character constructions: nothing is reliably to human scale, and the characters are entirely capable of believing in the grandiose giantism of themselves or others, and the inflated significance of their actions and speech, while simultaneously remaining tiny, absurdist humans hiding behind tables in a world somehow still peopled by legendary giants, in whose stories they locate and define themselves. Here is the liminal gulf of Modernism, the tension between this world and that: the “disjunction between subject and objective world find[ing[ a natural point of focus in an oft-quoted line” (Davy, 2000, p.116) : "There's a great gap between a gallous story and a dirty deed," (Synge, 1992, pp. 107-108). We will find it again in Joyce's Odyssey-in-a-day of Ulysses, or in Woolf's Mrs Dalloway – a related twenty-four hour descent into the mythic temporal distortions proposed by Proust and Henri Bergson, in which time telescopes or inverts in images reminiscent of the spacetime illustrations of Einstein's Theory of Special Relativity (1905). And we find it in Eliot's stopping of time altogether: “one end, which is always present […] At the still point of the turning world” (Eliot, 1983, pp. 190-191); and in Katherine Mansfield's even more relativistic transmutation of the temporal into a vertiginous spatial realm (brought on by gazing at a pear tree) in Bliss: where the notion of chronological time as logic sequence and linear succession is [...] disrupted [...] replaced by spatialisation: the subject [...] perceived as object, as non-self” (Casertano, 2001, pp. 100-101). These are not the regular powers and events of human lives dealt with in 'realist' literature; they are the mythic in Modernism, enabling an entirely other view of the human transaction.

Irish dissent – considered as “rapid social change” – was also hardly new, as Joyce illustrates with his transmogrified litany of the names of the dead nationalist heroes in The Dead (written at approximately the same time as Playboy), incarnate in street names, statues, parks, city squares – the undead deceased of the Irish struggle emanating their mystic influence from some spectral other-Ireland, with the dead Michael Furey (a deconstructive motif of the chthonic Furies / Erinyes of Greek myth) operating as the western taxiarch archangel and rebel-spirit of the Irish periphery – and it is this otherworld, this in-between place, this 'gap,' that Modernism asks us to enter, and whose Irish discourse we find ourselves inhabiting in Playboy (another temporally compressed descent into the underworld of the psyche). So in Playboy we find both linguistic and generic hybridity, almost a postmodernist montage of old and new literary forms – from the Rabelaisian and hyperbolic characterisations of “the mad Mulrannies were driven from California and they lost in their wits […] Daneen Sullivan knocked the eye from a peeler, or Marcus Quinn, God rest him, got six months for maiming ewes” (Synge, 1992, p. 43), to the “lexical chaining [and] extreme parallelism” (Gömceli and James, 2015, p 119) of the word “lonesome” (Synge, 1992, pp. 73-75) repeated by Christy and Pegeen nine times to the point of absurdism. The very syncretism and advancement of all this, alongside postcolonial imperatives and the presentation of female characters as rather more animated, intelligent and spirited than most of the males, qualifies Playboy as a playful, modernistic, politicised, theatrical foray into “new literary forms,” even Modernism itself, though the reasons for its appearance in that form at that time may have their origins considerably earlier than “the dawn of the twentieth century.”

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