The novel is based on Crofton Croker’s short tale about the holy man who is lured from the monastery and off into the wood by the sweet singing of a little bird. He reemerges from the wood to find he has been dead for over an hundred years. How many brushes with death have you known? For my part, I have come within an inch of death perhaps a dozen times in my long life; some were medical emergencies, others were near-accidents, including the one that claims the protagonist’s life. I have often wondered in retrospect, when of an immaterialist state of mind, if perhaps I had died from one of those accidents, perhaps my soul had moved on to a self-deceptive mode of denial in an attempt to finish my unfinished business in life. This is not a new idea, but it is an interesting one.
On page 240 of the story, Pól’s letter home to his mum closes with some thoughts on the nature of reality. He cites Father Peadair as saying, “Our reasoning has a fundamental flaw, says he (Father Peadair ). Conventional wisdom has a misguided notion with regard to the true nature of reality, says he. History is not linear. The Hindus have it pegged. Life is a circle or perhaps a ball. ”
This notion of looking backward is part of many religions, including that of the pagan Celts. This principle is manifested in Celtic art knot artwork. It is widely believed that the civilization presented in the Irish epic Táin Bó Cúailnge and the book itself can be traced back to Greek civilization. Aristotle himself presented an argument in regard to first cause, saying that if the motive cause (one of his four, all of which are mentioned in the novel) of a chain of events is traced back to its alleged source, eventually one must reach something which caused an event but was not caused by any event itself, the source of which is often referred to by theologians as the unmoved mover or the prime mover. What Father Peadair proposes is that there was no first event, that reality (which to him as an immaterialist is the mind of the supreme being) has always existed and has no beginning nor end but rather weaves around without beginning or end. This theory does not reject the concept of causality, as did David Hume and others; it subordinates cause and effect to a role within a weaving chain that itself has no beginning nor end.
The burning question underpinning the story is this: What is the nature of reality?
This metaphysical enigma is first mentioned in chapter one when William says he came upon a damaged oak in the Botanic Gardens and his “mind was set to wonderin’ about that Idealist limerick” about God and the tree. The term idealism has multiple meanings. Here it is used in its philosophical sense, for I refer to the Irish bishop George Berkley’s radical position on the nature of reality, also known as immaterialism, it being the polar opposite of materialism, by means of which the good bishop sought to prove the existence of a supreme being who sees and sustains the universe. It is tantamount to the telling of the tale that immaterialism can be seen as a viable explanation of the nature of reality.
Although Will is curious about his own intuitive experience of the holy, by no means is he preoccupied with unveiling the nature of our universe. Will is confused, depressed, and subject to the many weaknesses of the flesh. He is also a realist in the Aristotelian sense of the term, and that is why he struggles to make sense of a mystical experience that makes little sense. Father Peadair, however,believes the conventional conception of reality is fundamentally flawed. He is an extreme Idealist whose duty is to enlighten Will to the true metaphysics of God’s creation. The source of the father’s authority becomes incrementally evident as the tale unfolds.
Will has little knowledge of the history of Northern Ireland. He is not alone in this respect, for most of the characters are also naïve to historic events key to the understanding of their plight. The problem is compounded by the flawed history found in Saga of the Six Counties, a copy of which Will finds in his B&B room and then reads to excess during the course of the novel.
At the beginning of the story, Will mentions a “…wee bit of a slender book I toted along for the long flight over: Friedrich Nietzsche’s essay on the advantages and disadvantages of history for life.” The reader is meant to assume that Will has read the 50-odd page essay prior to the story’s outset while inbound to Ireland from the states. While the book is not again mentioned until the climax of the story, the tenets of that essay are often alluded to in the plot. A reading of the essay is recommended, as it provides important insights into the inner makings of the story.
Here is a link to the entire essay: Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche
Sample pertinent excerpts from said essay:
“Only when historical culture is ruled and led by a higher force and does not itself govern and lead does it bring with it a powerful new stream of life, a developing culture for example, something healthy with future promise.
Insofar as history stands in the service of life, it stands in the service of an unhistorical power and will therefore, in this subordinate position, never be able to (and should never be able to) become pure science, something like mathematics. However, the problem to what degree living requires the services of history generally is one of the most important questions and concerns with respect to the health of a human being, a people, or a culture. For with a certain excess of history, living crumbles away and degenerates. Moreover, history itself also degenerates through this decay.”
“Imagine the most extreme example, a person who did not possess the power of forgetting at all, who would be condemned to see everywhere a coming into being. Such a person no longer believes in his own being, no longer believes in himself, sees everything in moving points flowing out of each other, and loses himself in this stream of becoming. He will, like the true pupil of Heraclitus, finally hardly dare any more to lift his finger.”
I’ve received a few e-mails about the content of Six Counties Seven Sins questioning the accuracy of my “history” and/or the soundness of my religious and philosophical statements. I remind the reader that I am not the narrator. I am the author. William Stone, who narrates most of the story, is an unreliable sort. He rarely sees things the way they are for multiple reasons, all of which, I believe, I have either shown or stated within the body of the novel.
Standing: Professor Paul B. Muldoon. Michael Longley is seated to his immediate right.
The biennial Princeton Poetry Festival, a series of readings and panel discussions organized by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon, was held this past Thursday and Friday in Berlind Theater, Princeton, NJ. I was fortunate enough to attend both days of the festival. The panel discussions, moderated by Princeton University Professor Paul B. Muldoon, centered on the issue of adversity in poetry. The conversations were stimulating. Professor Muldoon is to be commended for his efforts. The readings by the dozen or so poets in attendance were a pleasure to experience, as were the introductions spoken by our current poet laureate, Mary K. Smith. The complimentary refreshments were also tasty and much appreciated.
One issue raised during the panel discussion was this: Should poets write about politics? Should their work be didactic or simply reflect the daily goings on of the human condition? This led to a corollary question: If poets should indeed make political observations, should only those poets living in the country concerned be the speakers, or might outsiders comment as well? In respect to Northern Ireland, both Muldoon and Longley grew up during The Troubles and were of the opinion that the poets should write about the human condition but avoid political commentary in the process.
Prior to reading his poem “Ceasefire”, Michael Longley introduced himself not as a citizen of Northern Ireland but as a man of “Ulster”. In contrast, Muldoon referred to the north as Northern Ireland. And, of course, Longley made the mandatory Orangeman’s allusion to the Battle of the Somme.
Above: A mural commemorating the Battle of Somme located in a seaside park north of Cloghy. Note the diminutive stature of the Irishman in contrast to his “Ulster” counterpart.
“Ceasefire” was originally published in The Irish Times and was written as commentary on the “IRA ceasefire” (his words, not mine, as though the UVF, UDF, etc. had no hand in the violence), so there goes any notion of no-poetry-of-a-political-vein. So one might ask after reading the poem, who is the counterpart in Northern Ireland of the King Priam in this sonnet? The answer is plain to see. King Priam is analogous to Ulster (Loyalist Ulster) kissing the hand of the murderer (the IRA) of his son(s). I should mention in passing that when noting the nearly three thousand casualties of The Troubles, no mention was made that many of those deaths were the result of vigilante acts of terrorism in an effort for the locals, loyalist and nationalist alike, to maintain order in their neighborhoods, order which the RUC failed to maintain. In a sense Longley’s analogy is a valid one, since Priam’s son violated the rules of hospitality and thus incited a war with Greece much as the English did in Ireland. If anyone is adept in the art of violating the rules of hospitality, it is our friends the English.
To address the second horn of this bull, do outsiders have a voice in writing about the internal affairs of any given country, I argue that we do and that task is what I have undertaken in my novel Six Counties Seven Sins. Over the course of my frequent visits to The Six Counties during the heyday of The Troubles, it became increasingly clear to me that the natives could not see the forest for the trees, partially due to the censorship of the press. The stranger often notices nuances of a society that the natives fail to see. Inversely, the stranger fails to grasp many of the nuances of the natives. Both of these factors make for an interesting and sometimes comical point of view for first person narration of a story. The protagonist of my novel sees events in the Six Counties in a far different light than does the native population.
Professor Paul B. Muldoon leads the panel discussion. Michael Longley is seated to his immediate left.