An interview between Johnny Flynn and Ciarán O Rourke, author of a new collection of essays on art and politics
JOHNNY FLYNN: Will we start with that quote from your essay on Martín Chambi? You say that what most attracted you to artists in particular, and their techniques, is that they “draw on their chosen traditions skilfully” but “also with a view to making a statement on reality.” Throughout your book, even in your theses on poetry, you’re eager to say: “look, don’t give me any of this, he’s in love with language… that’s a rarefied métier you’re creating, with none of the grubby material reality of money-making, or whatever”. So you’re against that?
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: I could also have quoted someone you introduced me to, Eduardo Galeano, who said that “in an incarcerated society, free literature” –or free art, free cinema– “can only exist as denunciation and hope.” The idea that denunciation and hope should be connected together, but also that they would be legitimate artistic goals or aspirations, is very much out of favour today.
Many years ago, as you know, I was working as a student shelver in the vaults of TCD library, off-site, in a warehouse without windows but full of forgotten books, where you were ensconced, surrounded by the most radical authors of all time! I would arrive [every day] after an hour’s cycle, very sweaty and dishevelled, into the cavern of forgotten books, where you would recommend all of these beautifully incendiary authors to me… and so I think you bear a great of the responsibility for the kind of anarchic communism that I’ve embraced and decided to enjoy in the years since. So thank you, belatedly, for that!
JOHNNY FLYNN: It was a funny thing. I think our first conversation was about Shelley: we both liked The Pursuit, the [Richard] Holmes book. We’ll get onto Shelley, but to go back to Galeano for a second: he talks about “centres and subjugated outposts”.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: That’s the phrase exactly. He gives you an entire paradigm for understanding the world, but he does it with total lightness and ease. He says that “we live in a world of powerful centres and subjugated outposts”, which, when you extract it, might sound a little bit vague or abstract, but actually it helps you to make sense of town and country, of the first world and so-called global south, and of indigenous cultures within the global south as well. It’s got layers upon layers to it.
JOHNNY FLYNN: And there’s the ‘stages of history’, too: if you’re in the metropolitan centre, that’s where the important part of life takes place, where the fine art and culture is, where all the wealth will be taken to feed this metropolitan world. And then on the periphery, which may be a peasant society, they can be dispossessed, expropriated, or fed into a factory: basically, pushed aside. In your essay on Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz, you mention ‘The Trail of Tears’: you’re supposed to euphemise it, but it was basically genocide and dispossession.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: We’re in the belly of the beast here, and quite comfortably, too, relatively speaking! But you’re right. Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz, whose work you were referencing there, she makes the point that the defining question for the American political class, over the entire history of the US of A, has been (in her words) “how to reconcile democracy and genocide, and characterize it as freedom for the people.” And she says (again, brilliantly and provocatively) that this has been true of everyone from Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama, and beyond. It may sound like there’s some polemical extravagance to that, but when you immerse yourself in her analysis and narrative – of the formation not just of America, but of this modern world we live in – you realise that it’s not just a chaotic and violent vista where terrible things happen, but that there’s actually a political calculation and a kind of political culture behind it, driving these conquistadors, these expropriators, into the world, and at the expense of indigenous people, indigenous cultures, and all the rest.
JOHNNY FLYNN: That formulation of “genocide and democracy” is disturbing, but it reminds you of ‘the ethno-state’: how people refer back to Andrew Jackson and the creation of the ‘white republic’ (Portland, Oregon was going to be for whites only). That legacy lives on: you still find iterations of white nationalism and white supremacy in those areas: they draw on this tradition. Just as you might draw on an indigenous tradition, or a tradition of resistance, white supremacists draw on the ideas of Andrew Jackson, and other presidents like Woodrow Wilson, the ‘liberal’ who said about the film Birth of a Nation, about the Ku Klux Klan, “that’s how it happened.” And that was Woodrow Wilson! Of the League of Nations!
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: It was actually when I was reading and then trying to pay tribute to Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz, and also Ursula Le Guin, two figures you might think are poles apart, I felt that I wasn’t just tramping through history or wandering through science fiction, but that the kinds of questions that they were raising, struggles and forms of violence that they were bringing to light, were very much present in the world we’re living in now.
You mentioned there about the ‘ethno-state’, and the history of white supremacy in America (coming from Europe, of course). Ursula Le Guin, in one of her late essays, non-fiction essays, asks, “What does it feel like to be an oak?” And then she expands and expounds on that: it’s a beautiful piece of work. But I came away from it conscious, not only of the fact that Ireland’s native woodlands and oak groves had been razed as a way of controlling and defeating indigenous cultures, but that similar processes are being on the Amazon, and the peoples of the Amazon, that the olive trees in Palestine are being uprooted as a way of clearing the Palestinian people, to make space for Israeli settlements. There are similar processes still being carried out, still destroying communities and cultures that in the future we may depend on, but will be a distant memory.
JOHNNY FLYNN: And then somebody says, imagine yourself as an oak tree! In classical education, someone might say, think of yourself as Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon,or think of yourself as Napoleon, or put yourself into the imperial mindset. Either you’re theorising for people to be subjugated, because they’re ‘non-essential’ to the broad march of Western civilization, or that everything can be consumed in the capitalist process. In your essay on Jason W. Moore, you talk about what he’s saying: that capitalism is a way of organizing nature, so the earth is almost like a machine for producing (as well as the workers) surplus value that will then go into these monuments that the bourgeoisie create in honour of themselves.
But to think of yourself as an oak, it’s a very political thing, but almost elliptically so: the long durée approach of putting humans back into nature, as opposed to thinking of ourselves as entitled to re-shape nature in our own image.
Art and Politics and the Future
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: Ursula Le Guin: I just can’t say enough about her. The easy clarity of that question, what does it feel like to be an oak? and yet the gorgeous complexity that it demands of us to even attempt to answer it is wonderful.
You mentioned Jason W. Moore there. He describes himself as a “world-ecologist”, which sounds like the ideal occupation! Although I’d imagine it’s quite precarious these days. But again: I love the fact that he takes Marx’s observation that capitalist civilization and capitalist agricultural progress is only possible “sapping the original sources of all wealth, the soil and the labourer”… both Le Guin, in her own way and in her own genre, and Moore, in his deep analysis of our present moment, they’re taking interrelationship and complexity and feeling, the capacity for human feeling and critical thought, as the starting point for a new way of living collectively, which is inspiring, and also audacious. It’s kind of a bugbear of mine: I’m always complaining about how sloganized and often pompous and power-hungry Left-wing formations and their discourses can be. Whereas with Le Guin and Moore, it’s the opposite: there’s a rejection of sloganeering or regurgitation as a virtue in itself, and, again, a recognition of the complexity of present circumstances as the starting point for whatever future we might be able to build.
JOHNNY FLYNN: But also, imagining yourself as an oak, it’s cautious but from her point of view, I don’t think she’d ever come out and say she was an anarchist, even though she did have a utopian imagination, but I think she was always very cognizant of the fact that a utopian project could be derailed, to create something that in some ways would be an exacerbated version of what you’re trying to overthrow.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: Her novel The Dispossessed explores that, and again with total clarity, but also real depth: exactly that conundrum or dialectic that you’ve mentioned, about needing, say, an alternative to capitalist civilization, and yet at the same time needing to hold whatever power dynamics exist within that alternative to account – how to make it human and keep it human. By turning to oak trees!
JOHNNY FLYNN: It’s an inspiring, metaphorical way of thinking… and a natural way of thinking! We’re looking at a planet destroyed. I think the Moore essay brings that out: it’s what happens when you just treat the earth as something to be plundered (and I suppose capitalism is a history of plunder). Even with your Shakespeare essay, in the background is both the class struggle within England, the rise of what becomes a bourgeoisie, and official piracy. Le Guin mentions the ever-present search for El Dorado, likewise.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: That reminds me: the book has an obituary for Derek Mahon, who described himself, or his poetic impulse, as being in opposition to what he called “the bedlam of acquisitive force / that rules us, and would rule the universe.” This seems very resonant in the age of Jeff Bezos shooting himself off to space, but I think the idea that “acquisitive force… would rule the universe” is Mahon’s recognition that capitalism needs conquistadors, people who will keep expanding the frontiers, and the formations of exploitation and expropriation, in order to exist. Again, there’s a strange pleasure in the fact that we have to turn to poets and fantasists, science fiction writers, to get that kind of clarity.
David Graeber, as well, is one of the people I try to pay tribute to. I know you have a lot of admiration for Graeber.
JOHNNY FLYNN: It was a huge loss…
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: The shock of his death was something else…
JOHNNY FLYNN: I used to go onto his Twitter page every day! It was a refreshing thing, because he always had an irreverent attitude… kind of like, despair is easy, don’t despair! Here’s why.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: Even when he was lecturing and speechifying, he seemed thoughtful, and funny, and humane. He was that rare creature on the Left, where he was actually a human radical… which isn’t really allowed. We’re all supposed to just repeat the party line.
JOHNNY FLYNN: He didn’t seem cynical. I think because he wasn’t pursuing a narrow project. He believed in the horizontality of everyone engaging, which, like a person claiming to be an oak, might seem like my God this is going to take forever… where’s your plan! Whereas he was saying that you can continually enrich your project if it’s engaged in participation like that.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: That sense of deep world-history, the fact that he would write a five thousand-year history of debt, or that Le Guin would try to reconfigure our sense of time and time-spans in terms of the life of an oak, I mean, that’s rare. Even on the Left, I think: because everything’s about winning the local council seat, or getting on the six o’clock news, or whatever it may be. Whereas Graeber comes in and says that “the ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make, and could just as easily make differently.” And then he’s got the anthropological background to point to some of the ways in which that’s been possible in the deep past. And not just in the deep past: I think it was that consciousness, which for him was also a kind of conscience, that drove him into the Occupy Wall Street movement, and to support the Kurds in Rojava, and the list could probably go on of movements and campaigns that he offered explicit support to, including the Corbynistas.
JOHNNY FLYNN: Which is surprising for an anarchist, to be so sympathetic. I think he thought that around the Corbyn project, there was a lot of very positive, progressive thinking, maybe less traditionally top-down, some actual listening to the constituencies that were being included… none of this ever got implemented, but it did create a huge (for the Labour party, quite incredible) breakthrough.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: I imagine Graeber had a realistic sense of the political landscape in Britain as well. I mean whatever about the United State of America as a somewhat monstrous political entity, the so-called United Kingdom, or Great Britain, is something even more toxic and bloated, and deep-seated.
JOHNNY FLYNN: Sure. They’re like failed entities now. I think it was Peter Linebaugh who said that they were both born out of the theft of the commons, in different ways, and if we’re to have any future they need to be disbanded.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: So Graeber probably interpreted the Corbyn moment for what it was, which was a kind of upsurge of possibility, a levelling moment, or potentially a levelling moment. Either way, I think it’s to his credit that he didn’t hold to a rigid, ossified, abstract anarchist credo in place of throwing himself into the fray of political action.
Poetry as Way of Thinking
JOHNNY FLYNN: You were saying that you can turn to poetry as a way of thinking about the world. On the train over, I was reading William Carlos Williams. I think he’s addressing a lover, and he says, look, you don’t get your news from poetry, but some people die in misery because they’ve been starved of what’s in the poetry. He seems to imply two things: daily life can drain you, and something in poetry can replenish your willingness to live. We were thinking about Shelley, who wrote a poem that commemorates a horrific event like Peterloo, and yet its last lines are resonating in the Corbyn campaign, as they did in the 1909 garment workers’ strike. Poetry can keep alive the memory of struggles (defeats and struggles), like with Thomas Kinsella’s poem that references Shelley.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: The Masque of Anarchy, yeah absolutely… I often find myself haunted by the final section of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, where he describes the task ahead, for these hell-raising rebels of mythology and history, as “to hope till Hope creates / From its own wreck the thing it contemplates”. On a parochial level, that could be a pretty apt metaphor for the state of the Left, post-Corbyn or even in Ireland, the endlessly fractured and rancorous Left. But more broadly, I think it gets to grips with the reality of catastrophe, of wreckage and devastation, as historical forces, that it’s against this and within this vista that the struggle has to happen.
You mentioned Williams, and you put it beautifully: this idea that poetry can replenish our human sources in ways that perhaps aren’t noticed or given proper credit. When Sacco and Vanzetti were executed, the fact that Williams was aware of this and incensed by it is probably telling enough of what kind of poet he was. But he wrote a long poem, at the end of which he said: “No one / can understand what makes the present age / what it is. They are mystified by certain / insistences.” I love the idea that Williams’s often exuberant attempt to bring us back to the gut-rooted, mouthy, sassy realities of our lives is also an effort on his part to dismantle the myths and mystifications that surround us in our society, that prevent us from living our lives.
JOHNNY FLYNN: And which are replicated in high poetry sometimes. High modernism can sometimes seem like a Latin and Greek world of learned quotations, the Pound/Eliot type of thing.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: Absolutely. Williams was motivated by an unapologetic hatred of Eliot in particular, for political reasons. He thought this was reactionary, conservative and elitist, the impact that Eliot had on modernist poetry, whereas for Williams, the moment of modernism (in the 1910s and 1920s) was one of democratic possibilities, of bringing the tradition and the canon to the streets, and vice versa. Whether he succeeded in that is an open question, but I think the impulse was true.
JOHNNY FLYNN: And that’s what he saw in Joyce. He responded really strongly to Joyce, even the more forbidding work like Finnegans Wake, he was an enthusiast for it.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: Absolutely. He and Sam Beckett, then unknown, were contributors to the first ever roundtable pamphlet or panel on what was then Joyce’s Work in Progress, which became Finnegans Wake. The fact that you can have this New Jersey doctor, working fifteen hours a week as a paediatrician and doctor-on-call, enthused by this exiled Irish writer, this modernist across the waters, there’s a wonderful humanity to it.
JOHNNY FLYNN: And it makes it sound very exciting. Sometimes even the great critics writing about modernism can be quite off-putting: it can be about intellectual posturing, and a display of learning. It seems divorced from any kind of day-to-day reality. But from what I’ve read of Williams, he seems to be coming at it from the opposite way: he hears the buzz of the street in James Joyce, and thinks it’s great! It’s like a huge repository of jokes and puns and daily references.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: And in that sense he probably helps us to recuperate a Joyce that is maybe less enshrined in the archive, the shackles of academia! Actually, Mike Gold, who I know you’re interested in, the one-time editor of New Masses, he said that “when someone writes the future history of proletarian literature in America, William Carlos Williams will be somewhere large in the table of contents.” I think that hasn’t come to pass: insofar as Williams’s proletarian sympathies are recognised as part of his aesthetic, part of his politics, it’s on the fringes, it’s not really included in the mainstream image of him.
JOHNNY FLYNN: The Lowell quote comparing Williams’s poetry to a “homemade ship, part Spanish galleon, part paddle-wheels, kitchen pots, and elastic bands and worked by hand” is a great image, and a fun idea… bringing everything together.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: Yeah, that the poem might be as anarchic and colourful and joyous as life itself. Not necessarily joyous: maybe I’m sentimentalising it slightly. But I think that’s a quality you also find in Langston Hughes’s work: they remind me of one another sometimes.
Langston Hughes is always presented and praised as the poet who said, “I, too, sing America”, but it’s important to remember that Langston didn’t just expand the inclusivity of American poetry and American democracy: he also articulated in his poems a lifelong critique of white supremacy, and came to view, in his poems, blackness (black power, black culture, black community) as a portal into history-at-large. He said, “The Belgians cut off my hands in the Congo. / They lynch me still in Mississippi.” It’s almost unsettling to read Langston Hughes today: seventy years after he was recording and condemning police brutality in the North, at the same time that he was bearing witness to the lynching of black bodies in the South. In the age of #BlackLivesMatter Langston Hughes is not just a prophetic voice, he’s a necessary witness to the world that we’re still living in.
At the same time he didn’t resort to two-dimensional sloganeering, I think. His poems are full of the sass, and the wit, and the jazz of his people, who are black and brown, bohemian and proletarian, and living their lives.
JOHNNY FLYNN: He tried to understand what the Blues is, and how it came about. And he describes it in a way that it becomes a depository of a tradition, but also a kind of intellectual thinking about the work process. It fits very well with your book, because you’re saying, I want to talk about poetry as carpentry, the way Hughes talks about the work song, the way the Blues are related to the work song: you can hear these rhythms from the work, the sometimes-coerced work, coming through. There’s his humour, but behind it the horrible reality that you were talking about, of #BlackLivesMatter and white supremacy. His poem, “Ku Klux Klan”, describes the poet dragged to this isolated place and being told I want you to recognise the greatness of the white race, and the man has an irreverent response: I’ll say anything if I can get out of here. That, to me, was pure Charlottesville.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: And the emotional current in that poem, of mockery of the white supremacists combined with pained sympathy for this person who could be his own, with at the same time this kind of perfectly expressed retort to the culture he’s living in (and writing against)… this idea that a change is gonna come, it’s a difficult faith to hold.
JOHNNY FLYNN: Isn’t it incredible that some poem you can look at and think, that looks like a very simple poem, still carries such a political and cultural and emotional heft… it’s only however many lines long, but there’s so much history in it.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: It’s sometimes enjoyable to remember that both T. S. Eliot and Langston were Missouri-born modernists. So if you compare their sources and their instincts, the content of their poems: you have the kind of Euro-centric, classically allusive poetry of Eliot… when you compare it to the streets-up, jazzy, deep-delving, human verse of Langston Hughes, you realise there’s actually more than one kind of modernism out there, and we can make it our own if we try.
JOHNNY FLYNN: I think at the end of your essay on Langston you suggest that his poetry is close to the streets, it’s still fresh: you could see how new ways of speaking and writing could be created, as well as understanding him as a very politically relevant character. A bit like Williams, he’s listening to the voices of the street.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: And in an odd way I think that’s actually relevant to Shakespeare as well. I’m generalising a bit, but if you were to summarise Shakespeare’s plots, the narratives of his plays tend to end with the restoration of some kind of social order that is feudal or patriarchal or hierarchical in some way: a status quo that is mellifluous in its verbal expressions and effects, but at the same time totally brutal and punitive in the power dynamics that sustain it…. And yet when you immerse yourself in the cut and thrust, and tumble and dance, of the vast array of characters that he created you suddenly start encountering these secondary, or subaltern, outsider figures, each one of whom articulates a totally compelling and eloquent view of the world. They’re living in the state, and close to nature, and with one another, and so they have to be observant, and witty, and sceptical, and eloquent in their own way. It’s telling that someone like the inn-keeper in Henry IV Part 2, or Shylock, is as eloquent and compelling in the moment of their own self-articulation – which is a kind of moral self-articulation, as well as just chat – as a Hamlet, or one of the kings or princes or lords who also march across the stage. So I think there’s an implicit democracy and also a kind of demotic exuberance, at times, in Shakespeare’s work that can be quite thrilling: similar to what we find in Hughes and the others you mentioned there.
JOHNNY FLYNN: Do you think, then, that if you were a reader of Shakespeare, a scholar, there’s history-from-above and history-from-below, so you can get a very formal criticism of Shakespeare, talking about the language and metre, but you’ll never really meet the streets in it. You never get a sense of what Shakespeare’s work looks when examined from below, like you get in these histories that came from Communist historians in the fifties. In your Shakespeare essay, you do talk about the social tumult and resolution, the power plays at the top of society, and how language can be beautiful and violent at the same time. Often, the characters who are evil, or whatever, are totally disabused of any kind of belief in the grand project: they’ll say, I’m going to use a religious verse to cover over my bloody deeds…
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: There’s a total scepticism of mellifluous, flowered language, of well-wrought sentences, that pervades Shakespeare’s work, I think. There’s a lovely irony to that, but it’s worth remembering that the scepticism is there.
JOHNNY FLYNN: Is it in Richard II that John of Gaunt has his famous speech, “this sceptr’d isle, this England”? It goes on forever! In your essay, you talk about a tumult in one of the history plays, the commoners getting mobilized, and some character tries to turn it towards patriotism instead.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: Old Clifford. Similarly, Cardinal Wolsey as he appears in Shakespeare is haunted and terrified by what he calls “the ragged multitude”. That’s a fear that you encounter again and again, stalking the minds of Shakespeare’s men of power – wonderfully!
JOHNNY FLYNN: Oftentimes they’re the ones dispossessing the commoners, who go on to haunt their dreams… a bit like the many-headed hydra: for all these ruling-class people, if you cut off one peasant insurrection, another one will rise not too long after.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: Absolutely: that embedded terror at the heart of this supposedly impenetrable and indomitable system of power is something that Shakespeare taps into all the time, and it often drives the bubbling, seething conflicts that are going on in the background of his plays.
JOHNNY FLYNN: All of this is in there. I’m thinking of how in the tv show, Deadwood, everyone gets great speeches, the good characters, the crazy characters who could be murderers, and yet you’ll get this brilliant soliloquy… Deadwood is basically a mining town, so there’s nothing good about it: it’s just destroying the earth, and so the language is full of swearing. The only things you can do in Deadwood are drink, go to a bawdy house, probably get into a fight, and if someone else is always running away with the money.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: I’d love if you started a podcast about Deadwood, specifically. I think you’d be the ideal MC for drawing out the pure, horrible beauty of the Deadwood vision.
JOHNNY FLYNN: That would be great. And actually, speaking about tv, you have one essay in there, which is political in the way you talk about Dublin, the whole landscape of the city being changed, where any cultural institution gets closed down and then some hotel or office block goes up instead. It’s your Screen Cinemaessay.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: Well I was asked to write an essay on ‘space’… you know. It was in the Architectural Review or wherever. So I thought I’d write about the Screen Cinema. And this was around the time – I can’t remember the exact week or month, but it was around the same time – when you and I were both members of a Marxist reading group. You may remember this: we had our last reading session for Das Kapital (book 1) in a pub in the Liberties in Dublin, just around the corner from where Robert Emmet and the many Dublin weavers who had taken part in the 1798 and 1802 rebellions had been crushed (Emmet had been executed, obviously). This is the area of Dublin where Shelley had visited in honour of Robert Emmet in 1812. So you’re walking these red-brick, crumbling streets back home from the pub, after talking about Marxism for the afternoon, and you realise that old Dublin is still alive here, physically and spiritually, and yet at the same time that the city has been wrecked and pulverised. You’ve got the faces of poverty and addiction and defeat around you in these bustling streets… the demolition of the Screen Cinema is very much a part of that Dublin, which is, not just disappearing, it’s being quelled and uprooted and replaced by something glossier, emptier, and more neoliberal.
With regard to the essay about the Screen Cinema and movies, I think it’s also a bit polemical, trying to recognise this Dublin, this homeless capital that we’re living in now. And of course just around the corner from the Screen, Apollo House, which has now also been demolished, obviously that was occupied in glorious, insurrectionary protest against the sadistic housing policies of the government at the time… all of these ghosts still inhabit the city, although that’s not necessarily comforting.
JOHNNY FLYNN: The autobiographical aspect of the essay comes from your film-love: you’re looking at Thompson’s History of Cinema and Ebert’s Great Movies.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: And I’ve graduated since then to Pauline Kael, and people that you’ve recommended, like J. Hoberman and A. S. Hamrah. I think I had the good fortune to be born into a family of movie buffs or film enthusiasts.
JOHNNY FLYNN: Your grandfather was big into Westerns.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: I think one of the first movies I watched, and which is still one of my favourite films, was Stagecoach, which I know James Baldwin excoriates as a vision of, as you were saying, a vision of the ‘white republic’ that was to be. But I absolutely love that film: everything from the complexity of the characters to the thrill of the chase scenes… I think chase scenes are very difficult to film, or to find appealing or novel, especially today. John Ford’s slightly confused democracy.
JOHNNY FLYNN: Is it ‘democracy and genocide’ again?
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: I’m not sure. Do you think? I feel there’s enough complexity in Ford’s best pictures… maybe in the same way that we approach Shakespeare, we can use his films as a way of critiquing that system…
JOHNNY FLYNN: There’s kind of a rough-and-tumble life in Stagecoach, a working or proletarian life.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: Even the sex-worker is given her due, and is actually a real character in it. But also, the cinematic sweep of it I absolutely love. Stagecoach was filmed in six weeks, so it’s an epic film (it won an Oscar or two, I think), but at the same time you’re not at this hyper-curated and stylised mode of epic film. I don’t want to knock David Lean, or more recent directors, because often their cinematic visions are quite aesthetically pleasing, but I think you’ve got a roughness to Ford’s movie-making style, which is part of the thrill of it.
JOHNNY FLYNN: He’s kind of like an art-film-maker as well, though, isn’t he? He’s got a real art-film sensibility: I remember the first I watched The Grapes of Wrath, I thought, wow!
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: In Citizen Kane, Orson Welles rightly is given a lot of credit for the fact that he had the camera drilled into the floor, looking upwards… whereas Ford before that stuck the camera-man in a hole in the desert! And then ran the stagecoach over him! Not unlike the train coming towards the screen, in that early film. There’s a classical audacity to the film-making… I owe all that, my acquaintance with Stagecoach, to my grandad, my grandparents.
You’re the supreme movie-buff, as far as I’m concerned. I’m not just saying that. Honestly, I’ve never encountered anyone with the kind of encyclopaedic enthusiasm for movies that you have. I’m following in your footsteps.
JOHNNY FLYNN: When you think of some of the stuff we were talking about at the beginning (An Indigenous Peoples’ History), there’s a whole mythologising of the West in those movies.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: The strange thing was that when I was a teenager I read Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and I think because I had been, in a small way, immersed in the whole mythology of the West on-screen, which is normally more complex than it’s given credit for… I mean, Dee Brown’s book just blew me away: it wasn’t that it dispelled all the prejudices I had been accumulating, it’s that it confirmed a sense of struggle, or human history, that the cinema had helped me to realise before.
I think I’ve mentioned this to you before (it’s probably a terrible film), but when I watched They Died with Their Boots On, where Errol Flynn plays General Custer… I could have the films mixed up but I think there’s a moment in that movie, the only scene I can remember, when they’re worried that they’re going to get ambushed by “Indians” and a wagon-driver says something like, “well, they were here first”. So maybe I was being brainwashed but somehow there are these small moments that stuck with me from the Western genre which were enough to light the fire later on.
JOHNNY FLYNN: Maybe some Left-wing, Popular Front-type screenwriter smuggled in an acknowledgement line in there…
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: You don’t want to whitewash anything, but if you go in with your head screwed on… I think it’s possible to enjoy cinema and still think critically about the world in which cinema exists, you know?
JOHNNY FLYNN: Of course. Definitely. Art like that is complicated, like you were saying about Shakespeare. Same with Deadwood: over the course of an episode, you accidentally end up feeling warmly towards a villain, just through the mise-en-scene! Some guy might leave the site of a bloody murder and then walk through a happy scene… the show will end and you’ll be accidentally smiling at this villainous character.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: And you know, that may be true to life. We live in a brutal world, with complicated people. It’s quite difficult to maintain a kind of purism of political categories when you’re actually living in this rough-and-tumble world.
JOHNNY FLYNN: So do you think you’ll look back on this book autobiographically? In the Chambi one, you say, “just before the third lockdown, I went to the library and found myself a store of books”.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: Well that’s the truth. In some ways the book is a homage to Carrick-on-Shannon library, or the Irish library system: all these books and movies and other resources that you can get for free… you have this national network of service centres that provide you what you need, it’s almost utopian to describe. But yeah, I didn’t edit out those autobiographical references.
JOHNNY FLYNN: I think they add to it. It seems like it’s a political book of essays, but political in different ways: political in the moment of the pandemic, political in your life…. At one point you’re in the sea in Seapoint: you’re talking about the ebbs and flows and tides, about Michael Hartnett, but then you get angry! You look over and you see the incinerator… I like that!
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: Ha, it’s a true story!
JOHNNY FLYNN: I think that’s the one that begins with Napoleon crossing the Alps, supposedly on a horse but actually he was on a white ass.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: Not inappropriately! I said earlier that David Graeber actually seemed to be a human as well as a radical, and I think there’s probably a lesson in that. As well, because I’m obsessed with poetry, I think it’s far too easy to try to present yourself or other people as icons. I’m not a great writer, I’m not saying that. The point is that it’s easy to strike a pose when you’re writing, even when you’re paying tribute to other figures, which is just unhelpful. Why not acknowledge where you’re at and what you were doing, the banal details of my life when I was writing these essays.
JOHNNY FLYNN: Well, it fits. It’s as if the theme of the essay fits in around it. You even, in that particular essay, have not exactly a despondent reflection of politics, not even that you’re disabused of utopian possibilities, but just a realisation that you’re in a period of withdrawal. I mean if you wrote the book, you must be still engaged politically.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: As you know, I was a member of a socialist organization. I was actually an active member for about a year and a half, so not particularly long. I act in the essay as if I’ve had this epic experience of engagement over the years, whereas it was about a year and a half. And the rest is cultural dressing: that’s my politics.
But after my period of disillusionment and despondency, you, actually, helped me to discover rambunctious joys in the Wobblies, and other areas of political struggle outside of party-oriented campaigns. So thanks!
JOHNNY FLYNN: That’s probably reflected in your approach in the book, where the Left-wingers you pick are the Wobblies, or Rosa Luxemburg. But the Rosa Luxemburg passage you quote is when she’s writing a letter, in prison, when she’s seen water-buffalo in the yard and how they’re being tormented by the overseer, and she empathetically enters into where they came from, their daily life before they were wrenched away, and here they are.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: She writes this absolutely luminous and heart-broken letter from prison, as you’ve described there. We always hear about Nietzsche responding to the Turin horse, and this is a big moment in European philosophy. Whereas I find Rosa Luxemburg’s humanity and eloquence totally stirring. It’s a little bit glib, but I say in the essay that there’s more poetry in this one letter by Rosa Luxemburg than most writers manage in their entire life. But in some ways it’s beyond poetry. Derek Mahon has a line somewhere, saying that we shouldn’t make a fetish of the printed page. And that letter by Rosa Luxemburg and her writings in general are just stray residues of this luminously human life that she was living, that she embodied. You can catch glimpses of it in that letter, when she feels a total empathy for the wounded and exploited water-buffalo from Romania.
I’ve gone off on a tangent now…. But I think whatever combination of poetic Marxism or Marxified poetics is possible, that’s the way to go.
Social Relations in Visual Art
JOHNNY FLYNN: That’s probably why she would resonate with someone like John Berger. It is a materialist thinking, but it’s almost elliptical. You wonder where he’s going, how he’s getting there. He’s thinking about a country doctor, or farming or painting or sketching, he goes about it by circuitous ways and then draws a whole picture, which is fascinating. But it is materialistic: he’s thinking about the physical work and the craft, the social relations that are always there.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: I think his writing is also lit by the recognition that moments of warmth and connection and nurturing are possible, even in this world, which he doesn’t shy away from calling out for what it is: exploitative, ruthless, militarised, a disaster-zone. Berger didn’t dissolve his own humanity in a kind of academic despair, which I think you sometimes find in certain Marxist traditions. I’m not knocking Marx, but you sometimes find these well-storied intellectuals giving up on everyone else. Whereas Berger seemed to draw some kind of sustenance or solace from life.
Maybe that sounds cheesy! But even the fact that he could ask himself, similar to Le Guin, why look at animals? or explore some of the ways in which he was already living and working with animals (killing them for food while at the same time living somewhat humanely with them)… there’s an admirable embrace of complexities that we all live with anyway in Berger’s writings. It’s probably what made him such a compelling art critic (although he probably wouldn’t have described himself with that moniker).
JOHNNY FLYNN: There’s a lovely section in Bento’s Sketchbook, where he’s in a community pool in Paris. He’s going there, swimming away, and he brings you through it: he sees a woman swimming, I think one of her legs was damaged (she was a victim of the Khmer Rouge), and anyway eventually he put a Japanese pencil into her bag (she used to draw), and that’s grand. And the next day she approached him in the pool and said, bird or animal? And she did a special painting of a bird for him. It’s very beautiful and only he could adequately include that passage.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: I’m not sure if it’s in the same essay, or book, I might be mixing up with a section in his late book, Confabulations, but he describes swimming in the swimming-pool and thinking, it’s almost impossible to imagine the limitless cruelty that we inflict on one another, when doing your twentieth lap in the pool, surrounded by people who are bobbing against you as they go. And the reason, I think, that has meaning and pathos coming from Berger is the fact that he spent so much care and time actually investigating, trying to recognise in close-up, those very cruelties, those infrastructures of cruelty, that are constructed around us. There’s a kind of heroism to that(I don’t want to inflate it too much): living in the world we have, and yet at the same time reaching for those small pockets of connection.
JOHNNY FLYNN: I think there’s a Berger book called The Size of a Pocket, which is partly a pocket of resistance.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: Of course. Exactly. And on which all the world depends, whether we realise it or not.
JOHNNY FLYNN: At the end of it he’s corresponding with Subcomandante Marcos. There’re a few pictures of them. He did a sketch of Subcomandante Marcos, which is pretty good.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: It occurred to me that the legacy of Rosa Luxemburg, or in Ireland of James Connolly, even the 1798-ers, it doesn’t live on in whatever commemorative group or self-aggrandizing political formation that claims those legacies. Their radical fire is still sparking in the anti-neoliberalism marches in Chile, or in the autonomous, self-organized Kurdish zones in Rojava, or in Palestine, where artists are still composing their poems and doing their paintings and swimming in the sea… I think in Berger you get that world-historical sense of continuity between the past and today, rather than that itemised, and again, somewhat fetishized, pompous sense of political continuity that you sometimes find (I don’t want to sound too rancorous here) in the formal Left-wing, party-oriented branch of the resistance, which is always presenting party success as an end in itself, or a revolution in itself. But when you’re reading Berger, or Le Guin, or whoever, you get a wider and deeper picture of struggle and of human possibility.
JOHNNY FLYNN: Franklin Rosemont? You include him in the ‘further reading’ at the end of the title essay, his Joe Hill book.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: Well, once again, I first heard of Rosemont through you. All the good bits in this book, Johnny, are actually inflections from your own enthusiastic self-fashioning as a radical.
JOHNNY FLYNN: What I like about that Joe Hill book is that it’s so untidy, it just goes everywhere. He actually spends very little time on Joe Hill. He’s filling out anecdotes and stories, it’s very free-wheeling. He’s always commemorating the rank-and-file, and he has a kind of surrealist mentality anyway, so I’m sure he just followed whichever way he wanted.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: So it’s a collage-portrait of Joe Hill and his times.
JOHNNY FLYNN: He didn’t have any love for the Popular-Front Communist Party, which would have been the time when Langston Hughes and William Carlos Williams…
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: And Woody Guthrie!
JOHNNY FLYNN: And Woody Guthrie. I think Rosemont says that Woody Guthrie couldn’t avoid having some of the narrow qualities of that Communist Party iteration, even though he does respect Woody Guthrie. But he does say, look at T-Bone Slim and Joe Hill. They seem so irreverent, even though the class politics is there. It’s a bit like Langston Hughes with the Ku Klux Klan poem… responding to the brutalities of life with an irreverent spirit.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: Which can seem indomitable, when the stultified slogans of yesteryear have long been forgotten.
JOHNNY FLYNN: That was the Wobblies. I think it’s said that no trade union could have been less patriotic than the Wobblies. Even the Communist Party were arguing to get behind the war effort in the Second World War, or some trade unions in the First World War were lining up, dutifully… while the Wobblies were saying, you can do what you want, but we’re not for it.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: Apparently Williams was ostracised in his middle-class community in Rutherford, New Jersey, for his open opposition to the first world war. He said that the same people who were calling me a German-lover, twenty-thirty years later they were calling me a Commie during the witch-hunts.
JOHNNY FLYNN: Names change, but the arguments are the same. Sure, poor Rosa Luxemburg was tarnished as well.
There’s a part in the book when you talk about The Tollund Man, comparing Williams and Heaney. I thought that was very interesting.
Poetry, Politics and Art
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: A couple of weeks ago the London Review of Books did a retrospective article on Seamus Heaney’s work, and again the bog bodies, those poems of the late 60s and early 70s, were almost the centre-piece, they were the hinge that this LRB article was turning on in trying to assess Heaney’s legacy. So: he wrote this poem, “The Tollund Man”, based on photographs by P.V. Glob, the archaeologist, which were published in the late 60s in book form. But Williams, fifteen years earlier, came across the same pictures and the same story, in truncated form, in an article in The National Geographic Magazine, and wrote a completely different, chirpier, more exuberant response to The Tollund Man. He’s even echoing Hamlet in it, Hamlet the Dane, jumping in graves; and talking about the seeds in the stomach of the recovered bog-body… so Williams’s medical sympathies and bright-eyed approach to the world shine through: it’s a totally different image of atrocity. And there’s also hints, in Williams’s poem, that this lynched body has a kind of after-image in our own time, in the 50s when he’s writing.
JOHNNY FLYNN: The two of them counter-posed was good, because in the North of Ireland you had sectarian killings, in “the old man-killing parishes” of Jutland (that Heaney line), and then what Williams says is that yer man swallowed the grains, but he didn’t chew them.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: And Heaney… one of his poems is called “Strange Fruit”, which is a deliberate echo of the Abel Meeropol song that Billie Holiday and then Nina Simone made famous, about the brutalization and lynching of black men, mostly, in America. So I think Heaney, in fairness, was alert to other, potential resonances that these murdered bodies, millenia-old bodies, that had been found in the bogs might have.
JOHNNY FLYNN: That was interesting, your review of Foster’s book on Heaney. You were critical, you needed to be, but you did parenthesise your criticism well… I didn’t expect to feel so upbeat about a Roy Foster book!
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: Thanks, that’s generous. I think maybe I’m warmer to Seamus Heaney and his work than other Left-wingers might be…
JOHNNY FLYNN: It really came across in that essay.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: I think his work is profoundly human, which gets diluted by the brandification of Heaney, which he participated in himself, of course. I have a good deal of time for Heaney as a poet.
JOHNNY FLYNN: I love the lines you quotes from “Requiem for the Croppies”. Terrific stuff.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: He’s a great poet, at the end of the day. Again, you can catch these glimpses of radical sympathy throughout. For Heaney, it was more of a moral sympathy, I think, rather than a fully-fledged political identification. But I think it’s there, in the work.
JOHNNY FLYNN: I saw him one time at a Chomsky lecture. He was, I think, openly anti-war.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: Oh, absolutely! And similarly, Kader Asmal of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement specifically thanked Heaney for his contributions to the cause. He wasn’t the only one, of course, but again: there’s that moral impulse that shines through Heaney’s work, which means that he can never become just a brand.
JOHNNY FLYNN: Despite being appropriated by what you could call the ‘culture industry’, in the way that Joyce, and even poor Beckett is appropriated…
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: Beckett, with his face beamed up on Front Square of Trinity College. Could you imagine a less appropriate tribute to the man?
JOHNNY FLYNN: I know. But you do address it in the book, excoriating writers, or even the likes of Poetry Ireland, who have forged an alliance with Facebook…
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: That was a couple of years ago. Poetry Ireland, to celebrate Ireland’s National Poetry Day, partnered with Facebook. It was at the time when the Apple tax case, and Ireland’s status as a tax haven, was really to the forefront of news coverage. I think I say in the essay that Poetry Ireland was siding with the enemy, which may have been a bit over-blown or self-righteous, I’m not sure.
The general infiltration of the world of culture by the corporate/commercial sector, it’s quite disturbing. Everything from the BP Art Prize to the Booker Prize for Fiction, and of course the Nobel… you wonder whether these masters of war and degradation, these institutions, are encouraging the arts or just using culture as a way of whitewashing and covering up the crimes that have made them rich.
JOHNNY FLYNN: You speak approvingly of Harold Pinter’s Nobel (no bull!) outburst…
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: Absolutely. He says that a writer has to “smash the mirror”, which actually reminds me that Williams, in the late 30s, wrote a poem that suggests the revolution will be accomplished when noble has been change to no bull…
JOHNNY FLYNN: That’s where I got it from. You quote the poem in the book.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: It was because of that, I think, that re-reading Derek Mahon’s work was almost a revelation to me.
JOHNNY FLYNN: I did not think of him as so overtly political, or in (as you say) the avant-garde of anti-capitalist poetry.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: The Irish Times obituary for Mahon described a “truculent” poet and yet an “ironic” master of his craft. But if he registered any kind of truculence or irony, it was towards his fellow literati, with their complacency and insulation. This is someone who, in his essays and his poems, is quoting Chomsky, Naomi Klein, and Gramsci, he’s translating Pasolini, the Italian film-maker and radical poet, he’s writing a homage to Shane MacGowan in one of his last books of poetry. This is someone who is alive to the demotic, he believes in the democratic: both of those impulses are at the core of his work. And yet it’s written off. That whole dimension of Mahon’s work is either dismissed or ignored by the literary-critical establishment, I would say…
I probably need to engage more fully with Mahon, to be honest. Even re-reading the essay… there’s a lot to his work!
JOHNNY FLYNN: You’re saying that The Irish Times and criticism in general leaves out ‘the political’ from Mahon’s work, but from reading your review that seems like a considerable aspect of his work.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: Then again, if you approach poetry in terms of its metrics, the formal sophistication of the work, Mahon is a master: because he does have a stylish command of the forms that he’s using. He’s a linguistic virtuoso, if you want. But that whole approach to literature ignores the fact that you can express support for fascism, or rape culture, in a mellifluous way, in a formally sophisticated manner. Those are extreme examples, but the point is that you have to examine the content of the work, and especially in the case of a poet who’s saying, don’t make a fetish of the printed page.
Maybe it goes back to Williams’s line about literary critics being deliberately “mystified by certain / insistences.” So it’s up to the rest of us to try to cut through, to lift the painted veil.
JOHNNY FLYNN: Cleanth Brooks and others always wanted to take away the content and examine the form, which seems like a really limited way of reading. Think of one of those old, seventeenth-century Irish poems: even read in translation there’s a tremendous verve to it, but it’s got very political content. I mean, how could you just discuss a poem like that in terms of style and metre, and completely ignore that the whole movement of the poem comes from the content… the anger being expressed?
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: That’s a great example. I think John Berger comments on the art of the translator, and suggests that translators have to return to the pre-verbal emotion or experience that the original poem was attempting to express, in order to get to the heart of the work. I think that’s probably true: that the verbal and formal paraphernalia of a poem are just the vessel that holds the real thing.
JOHNNY FLYNN: Or Langston Hughes saying that Blues verses carry the memory of the field, or the work-gang, in the rhythm. You almost have to do a material and political analysis of a Blues song. It carries so much political and cultural and historical weight, you couldn’t just analyse it as a piece of music.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: I totally agree. A couple of years ago, Trinity College Dublin hosted a conference on the work and legacy of Ezra Pound, notoriously one of the openly fascist modernist poets, and he was punished and incarcerated for that. But there was an article in The Nation magazine in the States, criticising this conference for the fact that there was not one mention of Ezra Pound’s fascist sympathies. Which I think ties in to your emphasis just there on the totally vacuous emphasis on poetic form. Of course, from a formal point of view, Pound is a reasonably interesting poet. But it occurred to me that the same people who expound on the virtues of poetic form will also blithely quote Pound’s aphorism, make it new. And yet if you excise the political undercurrents to some of Pound’s thought, then suddenly you miss the fact that Trump made it new. There are other kinds of modernists who are tapping into Pound’s legacy, or the traditions that he was engaging with, and they’re making it new.
I’m probably not expressing that very well, but it’s not just that there’s complacency, there’s also a danger and an ugliness to eliminating ‘the political’ from our sense of poetry and what it’s about.
Art and Politics in Poetry
JOHNNY FLYNN: Frederic Jameson, of all people, addressed that brilliantly in The Modernist as Fascist, his book on Wyndham Lewis, which I actually read in Santry book depository. He does examine the content and the form, but then decodes the writing of Wyndham Lewis. One of the novels in particular, he says, you gotta read it, it’s brilliant, but know that all these things are in it. This is the same guy who went to Italy and wrote a book ‘explaining Hitler’ to the English middle classes. He was incredibly reactionary, although he became an anti-Nazi during the Second World War, because he had to support his country. But he never changed his core beliefs: violently misogynistic, nationalistic, totally xenophobic, intensely racist. His imagination was really very violent… dazzling on the page sometimes, but very disturbing.
Jameson does a brilliant decoding of Lewis as a fascist, but he references Pound as well. Hugh Kenner, one of the great scholars of modernism, wrote 900 pages without once mentioning that Pound was a fascist! I mean, Pound went back to Italy in 1950 doing his fascist salute. Now, in Italy, there’s an explicitly fascist organization called Casa Pound.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: But the point is not to burn the books of Pound as a result. I know you’re not suggesting that. In our engagement with Pound’s work, which we can value if we want to, we have to challenge ourselves to reckon with what this guy was about.
JOHNNY FLYNN: Do what Jameson does. Do an in-depth reading, but know everything that’s in it.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: Exactly: don’t pretend! I think that’s a worthwhile adage: don’t pretend!
JOHNNY FLYNN: Or Jameson’s always historicise. Let’s get onto the people you didn’t include in the book. I expected to see Adrienne Rich in there.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: Oh, I know. She appears almost in parenthesis once or twice. In some ways my approach to poetry in particular is so overtly influenced by Rich, by her essays on art and social justice, that I find it difficult to pay any kind of original tribute to her. But it’s something I have to do. Maybe I could write about her poems, that would be the way to go: close-read the work in light of her general theorisation of poetry and politics.
In some ways the book is full of gaps. I mentioned Galeano, John Berger, Adrienne Rich… I’d also love to write a book of essays purely about movies. I might try that over the next year or so.
JOHNNY FLYNN: In the J. Hoberman style? Where it’s like a social chronicle, but through the movies. He’ll compare Warren Beatty in Reds to Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde as a way of talking about American history. It’s fun!
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: I love the idea of creating a miscellany or kaleidoscope of essays that gives a distorted, partial view of the moment, which at the same time gets to the truth.
Mary Wollstonecraft is someone I’d love to write about. Her travelogue, Letters from Scandinavia, is an astonishing piece of work. That series of letters she wrote while she was travelling solo, with her child, through Scandinavia, seems like the distillation of critical thought, of romantic aspiration and rebellion… you can see how she influenced the likes of Shelley a generation later and, of course, her daughter. I’d love to pay tribute to her properly. She really came alive to me as a person, in those letters, and in a way that happened when I was reading her political treatises, which are brilliant and incisive in their own way. But it was nice to discover the human behind the oil painting, if you like.
JOHNNY FLYNN: The title of your book is obviously more than just a reference to the Wobbly slogan, “One Big Union”, but the reference is there.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: It’s a throwback. Of course, the IWW still exists as an organization. But it’s a throwback to the heyday of the Wobblies, when they dared to imagine, but also to demonstrate that “the wage system” could be torn apart by humour, and song, and community, through uncompromising solidarity with their fellow men and women.
JOHNNY FLYNN: Fellow workers.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: Fellow workers, yeah, but a lot of them were drifters.
JOHNNY FLYNN: Sure. I love that they addressed each other as “fellow workers”. But they were welcoming to drifters and hoboes.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: The supposed outsiders and disregarded were suddenly a new coalition, a new community. They were making waves. This probably an unusual thing to say, but the true testament to their radicalism, the explosive possibilities that were inherent in their vision, is the brutality with which they were met by the state (through executions), by mining and docking companies and their Pinkertons, their hired hands. The Wobblies were lynched, they were executed, they were deported, they were beaten.
I think if can still manage to resurrect the Wobbly spirit in some way, we’d be doing well. But as I mentioned earlier, it still exists in the work of the Zapatistas, in Gaza: it does live on, but we have to keep trying to find it.
JOHNNY FLYNN: We do know of one Pinkerton who repented.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: Dashiell Hammet?
JOHNNY FLYNN: Did he have some connection with the Frank Little murder?
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: I’m open to correction on this, but I think Dashiell Hammet was one of the private eyes, one of the heavies, who was sent to take care of this trouble-maker, this rabble-rouser. And as you say, he repented, or at least he recognised the reality of what they were doing later. And we can acknowledge that.
JOHNNY FLYNN: Red Harvest is his great novel on that topic.
Politics, Art and Photography
Turning to your images, the ones on your website where each essay appeared. Let’s start with Chambi’s photo: Andean Giant. So here’s your Peruvian photographer.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: This is a photograph by Martín Chambi, the first indigenous Peruvian photographer… That’s the Andean Giant, who was seven feet tall. Chambi, I think, managed to meet his people – indigenous people, labourers, peasants, what you could call the wretched of the Earth, although I think that phrase has some academic baggage attached to it at this stage – he paid tribute to the people he knew with his art.
JOHNNY FLYNN: Another Chambi photo: rope bridge. Am I correct in saying you see Chambi in this photograph? Is this the right one?
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: Yes, well found on your part. This is a hand-woven rope-bridge. And you can see Chambi standing slightly taller than the people who are carrying the loads. He’s got his hat on. He obviously had one of his assistants to take the photo.
I love the sweep of the sky, the fact that it seems just a very casual photograph, and at the same time this back-breaking labour is going on… in this non-place. If you were to look at the map of industrial modernity at that moment, in the 20s, none of these people, this landscape, would appear on that map. Whereas Chambi is actually living it.
JOHNNY FLYNN: A Chambi photo: Miguel Quiespe. This is the land-organiser, the guy who walked the hills organising for land rights?
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: Miguel Quiespe is holding two cocoa leaves, which have been outlawed, in the way weed is outlawed today. He’s deliberately about to chew on them. He’s wearing his indigenous garb. I think he was later a member of the Communist Party, but a couple of years later again was found quite brutally assassinated in Lima.
I think in this photograph you get his determination, his hunger (in every sense). You can understand something of the threat he posed to the schematic, modernising forces of the moment. I think Chambi managed to capture something of his power.
JOHNNY FLYNN: Rossinver/Leitrim hills.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: Thank you for including this photo. This is of the Rossinver braes in Leitrim, near where my grandparents were from. I’ve a short piece in the book…
JOHNNY FLYNN: “On the Verb ‘to be’”, which has a hilarious moment in it. You write: …John McGahern, whose stories and often mordant essays my Grandad used to quote with admiring precision. “It takes some skill”, I recall him saying, definitively, “to finish a sentence with the verb ‘to be’”: a feat the Leitrim author had managed to do, with his adage that ‘all understanding is joy, even in the face of dread, and cannot be taken from us until everything is.’” That’s a great line.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: Another thing that my grandad used to say is that the longer you live, the sooner you’re going to die, which had its own wisdom to it. And all of that is represented in this photo.
Actually, I know you’re a traditional Irish music fan, so there’s a track called Rossinver Braes, which I think was written by the Leitrim fiddle-player, Ben Lennon. There’s a version of it on Spotify somewhere.
JOHNNY FLYNN: John McGahern. The man himself.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: John McGahern, looking quizzical and somewhat unimpressed by whatever Irish Times photographer has been sent to document the native life, the life of the natives. I think, as you said, the mordant wit and exploratory impulse that you find in McGahern’s work is probably something to learn from.
JOHNNY FLYNN: Langston Hughes.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: This is young Langston, looking very handsome, I think. And also, you can see the fire in his eyes.
JOHNNY FLYNN: There’s a good painting in the background as well.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: Indeed. I agree.
JOHNNY FLYNN: William Carlos Williams photo one.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: That’s Dr Williams, doing his thing. I’m not sure exactly what date was taken, but when he was in his sixties, after working for a doctor for forty years, and after he started getting a series of terrible strokes (he lost the movement in half his body at one point, I think), anyway when he was in his sixties he was interviewed about his poetry and was even asked about his politics. Obviously, I don’t have a recording of it, but I imagine he sounded something like this: “I’m a radical! I write modern poetry, baby…”. The idea that ultimate proof of being a radical is that you write modern poetry, as he understood it, is very affirming. I’ve a real fondness for his chirpy humanity, and his hard work. He’s working hard here.
JOHNNY FLYNN: Williams photos two and three.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: There’s a kind of hard wisdom in his eyes there.
JOHNNY FLYNN: Ben Shahn painting.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: This is Ben Shahn. He was one of Diego Rivera’s assistants on the Rockefeller mural that was later obliterated for being too radical (it depicted Trotsky and Lenin, among others). Anyway, Shahn worked in the tradition of Rivera. He was a first-generation Russian immigrant and a friend of Williams! A social photographer and a kind of radical, strange painter; when Jackson Pollock arrived on the scene I think he supplanted Ben Shahn as America’s so-called leading painter.
JOHNNY FLYNN: David Graeber.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: David Graeber, with his soft eyes and thoughtful face, encouraging the revolution wherever he went.
JOHNNY FLYNN: The Screen Cinema.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: The Screen Cinema that is no more, with its nice, stocky, brass usher outside.
JOHNNY FLYNN: I like that passage in the essay.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: You can see the run-down, down-to-earth Dublin there. I think that picture is of when the Screen was derelict, awaiting demolition, but I have very fond and delightful memories of going to the movies there, as you do yourself, I’m sure.
JOHNNY FLYNN: Paddy’s Day in America pictures.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: I think this somewhat polemical collage is supposed to illustrate a certain relationship between Irish politics and the imperium that is the United States of America. When I used it on my website, in the essay “Smashing the Mirror”, quoting Pinter’s idea that we need to break in our politics and our literature from the empire and its prerogatives, I think I was trying to suggest that Ireland’s literary and artistic scene is very much complicit in whitewashing and normalising the reign of the war-mongers, the Masters of War.
JOHNNY FLYNN: Photo of the two Malthusiasts!
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: Jason W. Moore in his book, Capitalism in the Web of Life, at one point articulates a thorough critique of David Attenborough and his BBC-approved approach to climate crisis. He also digs up some of Attenborough’s previous opinions on famine, specifically in Africa, as being a welcome natural check to so-called ‘over-population’.
Moore makes the point that when we say we’re living in the “Anthropocene” and that global warming is somehow symptomatic of that epoch or era, we’ve made a category error. Because it’s the expropriators-in-chief, it’s the drive towards capitalist accumulation, and to increase profits, that have produced some of the most ecologically and humanly damaging industries, which have led to the situation we’re in now. The two individuals on the screen tend to obscure that point, for the most part: they prefer to emphasise people voting every couple of years, and using recyclable bags, and all the rest.
JOHNNY FLYNN: Derek Mahon photo.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: This is Derek Mahon, admittedly looking somewhat truculent, and maybe ironic. And also formidable. I think there’s a formidable vision behind that gaze that he’s directing at the camera, and we would do well to learn from.
JOHNNY FLYNN: Naomi Klein photo.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: The kindness in Naomi Klein’s face and voice I always find warming, and assuring. And that’s before we get to the powerful and deep-delving critiques of neoliberal civilization that she has managed to articulate.
JOHNNY FLYNN: Derek Mahon calls here “the great Naomi Klein”, in the poem you quote in your essay.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: You’re right, I should have picked up on the relationship there. So Derek Mahon quotes Naomi Klein, her book The Shock Doctrine, as a way of accusing, in his poem, “the Chicago Boys” in Chile, who facilitated and then allied with the Pinochet regime.
JOHNNY FLYNN: The burning of Cork.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: That’s Cork after being burned to the ground by the Black and Tans. It could be Balbriggan. It could be Gaza. Unfortunately, there’s been far too many sites of colonial and imperial plunder and destruction since then, the 20s.
JOHNNY FLYNN: Roy Foster On Seamus Heaney.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: This is Robert Fitzroy Foster’s tribute to Seamus Heaney, who looks somewhat trepidatious on the cover.
JOHNNY FLYNN: Butcher’s Dozen.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: Butcher’s Dozen, Thomas Kinsella’s accusation of empire, in the metre and form of Percy Shelley’s Masque of Anarchy. I was saying to you the other day that it’s ironic, in a way, that one of the most radical poems of the Irish poetic canon in the twentieth century was written by a civil servant, someone employed deep in the apparatus of the state. He managed to fight the power nonetheless.
JOHNNY FLYNN: Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz, smiling, I presume, for the critique of American power she’s articulated in an unanswerable fashion in An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. She’s helped us to demystify our understanding of how we got to where we are now.
JOHNNY FLYNN: Napoleon.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: Napoleon, looking consequential, and conquering.
JOHNNY FLYNN: James Connolly.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: James Connolly, one of the co-founders of the IWW, head of the Irish Citizen Army, militant trade unionist, a very eloquent writer… who despite all of the above is sometimes accused of not having “a revolutionary party” behind him, oddly. Anyway, here he’s described himself as fighting and hoping. I think we can all aspire to that particular condition.
JOHNNY FLYNN: Ursula Le Guin
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: The elder, the sage, Ursula Le Guin, one and only.
JOHNNY FLYNN: Rosa.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: Red Rosa, who has a glint in her eyes, as I imagine she always did…
JOHNNY FLYNN: Pinter.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: Harold Pinter, looking like he’s about to take off.
JOHNNY FLYNN: Berger. That was the time of the Black Panthers, a picture from then.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: When Berger won the Booker Prize he donated half the prize money to the Black Panther Party in the UK, which was thought to be very provocative and ungrateful on his part. But he was drawing attention to the fact that the Booker Foundation previously profited from the slave trade.
JOHNNY FLYNN: Shakespeare. Is this psychedelic or rainbow Shakespeare?
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: He’s a visionary anyway. And I like his pirate ear-piece in this image.
JOHNNY FLYNN: I do as well! I think this is my favourite picture of Shakespeare.
JOHNNY FLYNN: Ran.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: This is Kurosawa’s adaptation of King Lear. Specifically, the moment when the Lear figure puts himself on the side of, or (if you like) in the shoes of, the poor, naked wretches in the storm of history, the carnage of history, who are bare-backed and abandoned by the mighty and powerful. So it’s his moment of either redemption or revelation, one or the other.
JOHNNY FLYNN: I think your Hamlet/Polonius explanation needs to be discussed further.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: Well, it occurred to me that Hamlet and Prince Hal aren’t very different. Their supposed moral crisis is actually about the necessity they sense, that they have to acquiesce to the will of the court and integrate to their assigned positions in the state. Prince Hal does, he assumes his power, whereas Hamlet can’t, because, I think, he’s terrified that he’ll be the next Polonius, who like him is verbose and subtle, a former actor, and powerful, but utterly impotent in many ways.
JOHNNY FLYNN: Polonius is like someone who collaborates with a totalitarian regime. Didn’t Miroslav Holub write a poem about the Poloniuses?
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: I think Hamlet’s conundrum, or predicament, is “to be or not to be” a collaborator, to collaborate in the new regime. And Polonius is the ultimate exemplar of that style of politics. And the fact that he is beloved of Ophelia, whom he also keeps watch over, he surveils, is quite resonant.
JOHNNY FLYNN: Gwendolyn Brooks.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: Gwendolyn Brooks, who pays tribute to Langston Hughes, and is a fabulous poet in her own right. She has a [poem] called “We Real Cool”, which extend the Hughes mode into the late 60s. She’s one of the greats, certainly in the second half of the twentieth century in American poetry.
JOHNNY FLYNN: John Clare. I had to put in John Clare.
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: I associate John Clare’s poetry with conversations with you, in and around the time of that Marxist reading group. So the ghost of John Clare is still lost and love-lorn in the Liberties of Dublin, in my mind.
JOHNNY FLYNN: I guess we could conclude there. How should we sign off?
CIARÁN O’ROURKE: Maybe I’ll just reiterate David Graeber’s point. (I wrote it down before we started, just so I wouldn’t get it wrong!) “The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make, and could just as easily make differently.”