- 11 Mar 11
Last week your correspondent was invited to Rome by the Cassa delle Letterature to participate in the TransEuropaExpress seminar, in which writers and intellectuals discussed and debated the subject of a common European identity. In order to represent the old sod, this writer had to first get past the 'intellectual' tag, a term that would justifiably provoke howls of derision in the Antique Tavern, Enniscorthy.
The Irish have no philosophical tradition. Instead we have myths, stories, ballads, poems, songs and tall tales. We profess to distrust thinking too much, especially in public. We prefer to make things up. This is why Mr Freud is reputed to have pronounced us impervious to psychoanalysis.
Storytelling, like painting and music, is instinctual, originating from the internal organs, the senses, the spleen and the spine, as much as the frontal lobe. We do not write books. Books write us. We do not 'have' ideas. Ideas think us. The intellect is only one part of the ecosystem that constitutes the human unit which undergoes the experiences required to set down a system of codified symbols that we call words, which beget paragraphs, which form poems, stories, essays and journalistic dispatches.
Every Irish writer has a complicated relationship with his mother country. For many years to be an Irish patriot or Republican was to align yourself with thugs as well as idealists. Here's the riddle: a man who refuses to learn from history is doomed to repeat it, but to identify too closely with history is to risk typecasting ourselves as the victims – or perpetrators – of atrocity and injustice. The Irish writer in particular might do well to heed the psychotherapist's advice: in order for the patient to be cured of dysfunction, he must at some point detach from the narrative of a troubled past.
And yet, a writer with no cultural – local – identity is a man or woman without an original language. The most powerful stories, from Frank to Flannery O'Connor, possess a vivid sense of place and are told in a vernacular language that is colourful, imagistic and pumped full of blood. The point being, there's no such thing as a 'regional' area. In the democracy of the earth's locations, the country borough possesses as much significance as the neon metropolis. A writer must understand where he came from, not in order to remain bound or beholden to it, but so that he can go beyond its boundaries.
Much of the week's talks in Rome returned to the question: what is the soul of Europe? It's a protean idea. Countries like Denmark seem more willing and able to embrace the idea of a common European identity than those who fought for their independence, or are still smarting from relinquishing colonies. And yet, when abroad in Asia or India or the United States, most of us are identified by continent first, country second.
In the end, there is only one state to which a writer should pledge allegiance – the imagination.