I suppose you’ve been in an absolute agony of suspense in recent weeks over this question: What does Sam Jones think of the essay in the new Review of Contemporary Fiction on his professed idol, Flann O’Brien? If we’ve been the cause of any suffering, I’m sure the entire staff of Golden Rule Jones regrets it. I can’t say so definitively, because Pitt is “out of pocket” this morning (where does he get these expressions?). I suspect he’s at the clinic being de-liced.
But enough funny business. This is a very good issue. In addition to the Flann piece, there are essays on Huxley and Guy Davenport (no doubt I just sent someone scurrying for information on this “Huxley Davenport”), and reviews of recent books by or about Monson, Walser, Algren, Steve Stern, Ashbery, Nabokov, etc., etc.
Considering that the ROCF comes from that great center (or epicenter) of Flann-appreciation, the Center for Book Culture, I expected the article on Flann to be something special. The author, Neil Murphy, is obviously a keen student of O’Brien, and he focuses here on the five completed novels — At Swim-Two-Birds, The Third Policeman, The Poor Mouth, The Hard Life, and The Dalkey Archive — in an attempt to provide a “sustained theoretical framing” so far absent, he says, from O’Brien scholarship. In short, he proposes that:
the most fruitful way to consider O’Brien’s work: as a perpetual assault upon all forms of human knowledge, usually by using various parodic modes within polyphonic texts that repeatedly draw attention to the obvious fact of their own construction and, by inference, to the fact of the construction of all texts, all knowledge.
Yes, sadly, that’s the way he writes. Reading the first line of the essay:
The difficulty with writing about Flann O’Brien’s work emerges as soon as one pens the name of the author, itself a most slippery signifier in a fictional universe of evasive signification.
I was reminded of a remark made to Sherlock Holmes by an uppercrust client who sniffed at Holmes’s street number, with its humble “B.” In other words, this is “not an address that inspires confidence in others.”
But I suppose we shouldn’t fault Murphy for speaking academese, any more than fault a Dubliner for speaking Irish or a Rio de Janeiran for speaking Brazilian. Looking at the substance of the piece, Murphy is right in many, many ways:
The tragedy with O’Brien is that after The Poor Mouth, a point at which he was clearly at his comic and artistic peak, he didn’t publish another novel for twenty years and wrote almost nothing of literary value during this period. The reasons for this hiatus go beyond the scope of this essay, but suffice to say that on the point of greatest promise, something was lost and the two novels that were eventually published in the early 1960s, while still indicative of the early powers, had diminished somewhat in the execution.
Personally I think the newspaper columns are of considerable literary value, but nonetheless Murphy is right on here. I’d go further: pick up Hard Life or Dalkey after reading the early books and there’s no mistaking that the genius is gone.
I think Murphy is also right in his main contention: that O’Brien’s work is an attack (albeit a very funny one) on human knowledge. However, is it such because, as Murphy claims, “O’Brien participates in what might be described as a tradition of radical doubt stretching forward from Menippean satire to Nietzsche, Swift, Joyce and Beckett, to metafiction, postmodernism, and poststructuralism”? Or is there another possible explanation?
Well there is another possible explanation, and we find it on page 114 of Cronin’s biography of O’Brien, No Laughing Matter. (Apologies for the long quotation.)
The gleeful reduction of all the types and modes of supposed knowledge, exemplified by the foolish De Selby, was something of which O’Nolan never tired and from which he derived a constant mordant amusement. This can be most clearly seen in the case of Myles na Gopaleen. He too is an encyclopaedist who claims all knowledge for his province and can easily discuss hundreds of subjects, scientific and otherwise, with equal ease. Like De Selby, in terms of knowledge he is very nearly omnipotent and always infallible. Like De Selby he is an inventor in an ingenious but always rather pointless sort of way. At the same time he has no real intellectual curiosity. He does not tremble at the outcome in any field of enquiry and the difference between him and De Selby is that he is aware of the joke. He realizes that none of these fields of enquiry really yields anything at all and he approaches them all in a spirit of mockery, knowing that none of them can add a cubit to our true stature or affect our appalling state.
As a man, O’Nolan had no real intellectual curiosity either. In spite of his mental alertness, even effervescence, he frequently complained of boredom. He pursued no subject, even speculatively, beyond fairly narrow limits. Knowledge was an entertaining province in which a clever mind might disport itself, but it had no ultimate importance. The real questions were settled and the answers known.
The Third Policemen is the only one of Brian O’Nolan’s works in which there seems to be an original approach to philosophical questions involving the mystery of existence. But this is largely an illusion. Brian O’Nolan was born a Catholic and he remained one throughout his life. If he had any doubts about the faith in which he was brought up, they were on Manichean grounds; somehow perhaps the balance of good and evil in the universe as we know it had been disturbed in favor of evil. This world was perhaps hell, or part of its empire. It is by no means impossible for a Catholic writer to combine a general orthodoxy with a Manichean view, or at least Manichean leanings. Heresies are, after all, branches from the parent stem; and Graham Greene has on occasion so described himself. One of the most remarkable things about Brian O’Nolan’s writing is the way this view of the dominance of evil coincides with and reinforces the innate nihilism of the comic vision.
Like most Irish Catholics of his generation he was a medieval Thomist in his attitude to many things, including scientific speculation and discovery. For the Thomist all the great questions have been settled and the purpose of existence is clear. There is only one good, the salvation of the individual soul; and only one final catastrophe, damnation. Though meliorations of the human condition may be looked for, perhaps even within limits, actively sought or encouraged, they must be strictly subordinate to the primary end of existence.
Mysteries about God’s purpose of course remain, but human history is to be read in the light of the battle between God and the devil for the possession of individual souls. The only important event in that history is therefore the Christian revelation. Every soul born into the world since the incarnation of Jesus Christ has had a chance of salvation; and there can be no such thing, in any important sense, as further progress. Once the revelation has been accomplished and received the state was set. The operations of divine grace through the Christian sacraments maintain the ground won and prevent the triumph of evil, even if only partially, locally and in terms of individual salvation. But science, social organization and psychology are almost irrelevant.
Thus all secular knowledge is largely a joke. And science and philosophy are even more of a joke inasmuch as they pretend to hold out a hope that the end result of their enquiries will be to reveal something about the mystery of existence or to affect the balance of good and evil. All scientists are, to some extent, mad scientists and the archetypal scientific figure is the ridiculous De Selby, to the study of whose theories the depraved hero of The Third Policeman has given over his life — and for which indeed he has risked his eternal salvation.
I reread Cronin when I blogged about Flann not long ago and I found this passage incredibly haunting, both for the harsh judgment on O’Brien and for the idea, which I had not seen expressed so succinctly before, that in O’Brien’s work “all secular knowledge is largely a joke.” In a strange way I found this funny, just as Flann can often be funny, because it’s audacious and logic-defying. But I also felt it a little troubling, much as I find this headline troubling. That is, in a rather personal way.
Anyhow, the upshot is that O’Brien’s attitude toward knowledge could reasonably be considered not postmodern but premodern. Murphy should have taken this up, since he does cite Cronin elsewhere and this passage bears directly on his main thesis.
One additional point, just a cavil: I don’t think we should take too seriously O’Brien’s comments in later life about hating At Swim-Two-Birds. I think Cronin got this right too, as I blogged about earlier. We should treat “Disappointed Author Who Rejects Past Masterpieces” as a pose, much the same as “Man Whom No Dog Ever Bit.” 1
Nevertheless, it’s a good, thorough, informed, and informative essay. Read it for the excellent summaries of Flann’s five books. Use the handy checklist to compile or gap-analyze your own collection. (I’m at nine of thirteen, thanks to discovering Hair of the Dogma at a used bookstore just last week. Think of the odds.) And by God there’s a lot of other good stuff that justifies your forking out the eight dollars for this issue.
1 Cronin again (p. 222): “The Conollys also had a dog called Adam who had become rather wicked. One day when Brian came to the house, Angela told him to go into the drawing room where Adam was, but not to touch the dog in case he got bitten. ‘No dog ever bit me,’ was the reply. Moments later he emerged with blood pouring from his head. In spite of the plainly visible wound, he denied he had indeed been bitten.”