Reflections on an Academic Journey

I established the aim of this blog in September before I really knew where it would take me. I declared that I would “strive to chart my increasing understanding of Irish literature and film and that I would also include artists and other such figures as an attempt to illustrate the sweeping effects of literature in other forums and how they interrelate”. Looking at the blog today, what is evident is my own consistent interest in Irish short fiction and gothic literature. My academic interests are broad and varied beyond those particular focal points. I will treat my blog entries thematically in order to illustrate how my academic journey has taken a number of different routes, and how I feel I have benefitted from taking each of them.

My first entry offered a reading of a newly released Irish film, A Nightingale Falling. It was presented more as a summary but did include a fleeting engagement with Frank O’Connor’s story ‘Guests of the Nation’:

May’s psychological unravelling is particularly effective. She goes from a headstrong, commanding and daring woman, to one blinded by envy, desperation and bitterness. The naïve and almost insipid younger sister Tilly provides a stark contrast to her sibling and they create a remarkable dynamic which is both intriguing and credible.  Their conflict revolves around Captain Shearing (Gerard McCarthy) who they idolise while under their care, highlighting the torment of unrequited love. Elements of Frank O’Connor’s story ‘Guests of the Nation’ are to be found in how the sisters take an injured British soldier into their home and nurse him back to health. The political war thus becomes pooled with the domestic war as desire; secrecy and desperation threaten to perturb any sense of their previous familial harmony.

I progressed to a more personal engagement in my second entry, which detailed an excursion to Bowen’s Court.  My mother’s homeplace is a few short miles from this location, and my grandmother met the lady herself, so from a young age I was always keen to learn more about this site. Besides that layer of interest, I am also an avid Bowen reader:

Bowen’s work is intensely cinematic. She is wonderfully adept at creating the tension and suspense of a thriller, with the lush depth of a romance. Her dealings with madness and psychological unravelling are not to be ignored as gothic elements are peppered throughout all her work. She hauntingly uncovers the murky, unexamined horror of what goes on behind closed doors. Her short fiction is especially eerie, with stories such as ‘The Cat Jumps’ and ‘The Demon Lover’ bearing heavily on the psyche of all who read them…Bowen had a great fear that the house would burn down (a trope in her fiction) but its tragic fate was no less devastating. The house which once embodied so many memories for Bowen (and transferred to us as her readers) is now obsolete and nothing remains except a gate and a field. However, the land will always bear the weight of its important inheritance and I find it difficult to envision what could ever take its place.

Events I attended in Cork were also documented, including a reading by Rachel Trezise and Kristiina Ehin at the Cork International Short Story Festival and readings by Kevin Barry and Colin Barrett at UCC. The earlier entries were descriptive rather than analytical but I consciously attempted to rectify this in later entries.

Kevin Barry on the 16th of October was both entertaining and thought provoking:

In the introduction prior to Barry’s reading, we heard of how he is someone who is both an observer and a listener, and whose frame of reference is passionately Irish. This is all reflected in his work which both astutely and comically posits Irish society in unusual and interesting terms…The sobering topics of hysteria and madness threaten to depress the evening but Barry once again punctures that with comic and eloquent prose.

When I attended the reading by Barrett on the 16th of January, I endeavoured to go beyond the reportage style of prose which characterised my earlier entries by offering a brief comparison between the two.

UCC also saw Kevin Barry make an appearance last term. It is unavoidable to draw parallels between the two as both of their fictional worlds seem to be preoccupied by young men, small towns and transgressions. Crudeness and honesty are combined in both which makes for entertaining reading but which is not devoid of an insistent analysis of the modern psyche.

Seminar reports were another aspect of the blog which I found tested my ability to question academic work and to formulate my own position in relation to it. One such case was Dr. Mary O’Connell’s paper titled ‘The natural antipathy of author and bookseller: Byron and John Murray.’ My blog entry provided a summary and engagement with Dr O’Connell’s seminar as well as leading into a discussion of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and the complex issue of authorship which arose due to publication complications.

The novel itself highlights the complex issue of its own authorship. Swift pretends that Gulliver is the author of his travels and Gulliver repeatedly defends the authenticity of his travels as a factual account. This is emphasised in a letter from the publisher to the reader: “[t]here is an Air of Truth apparent through the whole; and indeed the Author was so distinguished for his Veracity, that it became a Sort of Proverb among his Neighbours as Redriff, that when any one affirmed a Thing, to say, it was as True as if Mr Gulliver had spoke it.” This emphasis on authenticity pervades both the fictional history and the real history of this novel and justifies the apprehension authors have when dealing with publishers at this time. Byron came to write out of this literary history and his dealings with John Murray show the changing relationship between author and publisher in the matter of a few decades.

Dr Christina Morin’s talk on ‘The Geography of Gothic Atrocity: Place and Space in Irish Gothic Fiction c.1770-1820’ compelled my interest and prompted the following analysis:

Of course, in such a large study which seeks to reappraise a long established canon, there are critics who endorse and those who criticise such an endeavour. Margaret Kelleher acknowledges that “the Gothic mode with its distinctive anxieties is a significant form in 19th C Irish writing,” saying that the “coherence and extent of such a tradition may be overstated” (Spooner, Routledge 89). Fred Botting argues that the Gothic ‘mode’ is something which “exceeds genre and categories” and is “restricted neither to a literary school nor to a historical period” (ibid, 87). In opposition to these views, is the surprising scepticism of W.J. McCormack in The Field Day Anthology where he declares his research has led him to the conclusion that “The Irish tradition of Gothic fiction turns out, on examination to be a slender one” (833). Ultimately, Morin’s study will be informative as to the neglected writers of the Irish Gothic novel, and will provide a wider definition of the term ‘Gothic’ in terms of the geography it is typically associated with. However, such a study could only be a small part of a wider consideration given its singular focus on the Irish Gothic novel. Therefore, there is a need for a similar approach to be taken to poetry, periodicals, and all such productions which are necessary for a conclusive redefinition of such a long-established view of the genre.

I also made a video detailing the content of my blog and planned posts:

While not a seminar report, a talk by Professor Patrick Crotty at UCC on the editorial process of The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry elicited this response:

Heaney’s Preface declares it “the most comprehensive and confident anthology of Irish poetry yet,” which attests to the success of the collection but inevitably, there were ‘eyebrows raised’, as Crotty acknowledges at various choices. He laments ‘the casualties along the way’ but obviously, in such an endeavour, everyone has their personal take on the matter and it is my opinion Crotty managed well to pander to most tastes as well as maintain his independent interests while reflecting a history of writing that is extraordinarily complex, highly varied and diverse.

Now, with more of my MA completed, I feel better informed to challenge his editorial decisions (while simultaneously respecting the reasons for his choices) and if I were to review this entry, I would offer more analysis of those excluded from the collection.

The theme of my blog (which, as it emerged, is the Irish gothic) was not a conscious focal point but with hindsight seems inevitable given my interest in psychoanalysis and psychopathology, the playground for which is very much the Irish Gothic. I approached this subject matter in several entries as already evidenced, but a different angle is given here, from a photographer’s lens:

Tarquin Blake read at UCC on the 12/11/14 at 7pm in West Wing 9. Ominous music echoed throughout the corridors as I approached the chamber. That, combined with my clicking heels sufficiently set my mood before approaching what I knew would be an insightful and interesting talk by one of my favourite photographers. Blake has published a series of books detailing Ireland’s abandoned mansions and supposedly haunted ruins; combining literature, history, architecture and photography. His presentation began with a recitation of ‘The Listeners’ by Walter de La Mere (an English writer of psychological horror and the supernatural) and a consideration of the relationship we have with space. In this respect, the presence of absence is what is most interesting to viewers of Blake’s photographs, offering poignant reminders of what once was, and how it can linger. This ‘lingering’ translates in the imagination as horror. At the borderland between the real and the unreal, our imagination often uses this liminal state to create ghosts, demons and vampires.

Within this analysis, I drew from several texts covered within the course; Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful, W.B. Yeats’ Purgatory and Elizabeth Bowen’s A Last September. These allusions were brief and not explored in the depth I would like, but I am encouraged that there is still somewhere for my research to grow and continue.

Irish short fiction is one of my main areas of interest. I was concerned to include a (very brief) overarching narrative of the history of Irish short fiction as informed by Heather Ingman’s A History of Irish Short Fiction and Frank O’Connor’s The Lonely Voice. It was at this point in the blog that I made clear my intention to focus on Maeve Brennan for my thesis, and also my ardent (at times excessive) avocation for the increased inclusion of female Irish writers in the canon of Irish literature.

In The Lonely Voice, O’Connor associates the short story with voices excluded from the ruling narrative of the nation. This, when applied to Irish women, is particularly fitting. However, as Ingman points out, the stories of Somerville and Ross, Mary Lavin and Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, for example, resist his theory of ‘the lonely voice’ by writing out of and to a community. Ingman also points to how O’Connor had difficulty fitting Mary Lavin into his framework for the Irish short story, he himself admitting, “the point of view is perhaps too exclusively feminine.” The canon of the Irish Short story has (thankfully) been looked at again in a way that allows for the admission of short stories by Irish women, but it has still neglected to include writers such as Maeve Brennan sufficiently. I will write more about Brennan as this blog progresses but I’d like to establish now that I view her as having written an equivalent to Joyce’s Dubliners from the female perspective.

The engagement with Maeve Brennan in my blog has thus far been restricted to two articles related to the Textualities Conference held by MA students in March. I have been brief in my allusion to her as I have been stockpiling my research on her for the thesis but I hope to continue this blog throughout my thesis and document my engagement with her work. I find the process of writing entries both stimulates my motivation for research, provides feedback, and challenges my ability to write both concisely and academically.

I was keen to conduct some interviews in order to include a different register in my blog. One of the interviews I conducted was particularly pertinent to my studies in that Tim Robinson’s Stones of Aran came up in the course of my conversation with Land Artist, Gerry Barry:

Robinson produced a fascinating and special map of the Burren which was, as Barry puts it, simultaneously “a history, a geography and storytelling”. The microscopic attention to detail in Robinson’s documentary style books Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage and Stones of Aran: Labyrinth bear certain similarities with Barry’s land art. Both attempt to realise nature in a form which inspires wonder. Both inspire an awareness of the world and also allow us to interpret the elements in a new manner.

Also included in my blog, is an interview with poet Elaine Cosgrove in which I wrote the following:

Given my own focus on Gender and Sexuality within my Masters, I was keen to find out what Elaine thought about being a ‘female’ writer; admittedly, I approached the topic with caution: “It’s frustrating to look back at the history of Irish writing and the lack of recognition. I can gladly say I’ve never been described as a female writer, there is definitely a stronger recognition of female writers now, but sexism is still regular. I was in a bookshop in Kinsale, and saw a window display of Irish writers, not one of which was a woman. It’s not that they didn’t exist, they’re just written out”.

Within recent weeks of course, this ‘wrong’ has been ‘righted’ with the publication of an all-female alternative by the Irish Times. Three other interviews were included in my blog, one with film producer Tim Meaney, filmmaker Seán Creagh and visual artist Ruth Denham. The purpose of including these interviews within my blog was to further my own knowledge of the actual physical processes involved behind the creation of art, and not merely the academic learning I conduct through reading. These were insightful exercises for me and deepened my understanding of the strong relationship between artists and their influences and as well as my familiarity with contemporary writers and filmmakers.

I also included a number of readings of texts as informed by my studies. One such entry was of Paul Durcan’s ‘The Beckett of the Gate’ as interpreted using Walter Benjamin’s notion of the flâneur.

The claustrophobic nature of the city is visualised in how the narrator has to scrunch up his legs in the theatre seat even though the theatre is largely empty. He takes a night walk which becomes nightmarish as the urban and suburban landscapes appear oppressive under the cover of darkness. Durcan is very alert to the changes and rhythms of the city which he mimics with his language.

A novel studied as part of our Gender and Sexuality module, Colm Tóibín’s The Master prompted a number of responses from me, not all of them positive:

Besides the treatment of James’ complex sexuality, Tóibín mirrors much of Henry James’ own literary techniques as I will examine by a comparison with James’ The Turn of the Screw (1898). The supernatural elements of James’ stories, their ambiguity and overall narrative structure are all subtly employed by Tóibín in The Master.  Admittedly, I struggled to accept such an attempt given my prejudice that any author who attempts to write like another will most likely fail. In spite of my doubts, it is undeniable that the aspects of James’ novella which I admire most; slippages, gaps, turnings of meaning, and voids, all characterise The Master in a similar manner.  However, they are arguably not employed to the same extent or effect. These techniques create a deep sense of uncertainty and ambiguity. James uses the blanks in his novella to deliberately avoid creating a coherent pattern and this serves to place the reader outside of understanding the events occurring. Beginnings and endings are systematically blanked out and many chapters suddenly break off at points of crisis. We also see this in The Master when the events following crises are reported subsequently or indirectly. This creates the impression that characters (such as the governess in Turn of the Screw) are not simply recalling the events but are instead remembering remembering those events. This calls the reliability of the first-person narrator into question. For instance, if we were to take the governess as a reliable interpreter of events, we would gain one version of the story, but through viewing her as an unreliable, neurotic fabricator of non-existent ‘ghosts of the mind’ we are then reading a diametrically opposed narrative.

The most recent entry on my blog details the exhibition featured in UCC library from February 4th to March 31st 2015. The title ‘Guy Debord – Diagrams of Revolution’ immediately stirred my interest having studied Debord’s theories during my undergraduate. I was particularly interested to use the offspring of his ideas and those of situationist thinkers; psychogeography, in an analysis of Ciaran Carson’s poem ‘Smithfield Market’.

This poem details the city as a map of the city. The market is a locus of memory and the poem offers connections between the past and the present, showing how they exist simultaneously. Important to consider in this regard, is how the space of the city is produced by layers of history. It is not just one city, but multiple cities. Carson cycles to find his old home, but it no longer exists. His memory has overlaid it and embedded it within the fabric of the place, making it impossible to disentangle the two, therefore forming a spectral city or a dream city. This is a détournement, the integration of the past and present into a superior construction of a space based on the traces of things that have happened.

The long lines of the poem, the punctuation and enjambment lead to an overarching impression of fragmentation which verbally creates a labyrinth. The image of the labyrinth is a trope in the works of Carson, symbolising how something which appears at aerial view as organised and coherent, is at a ‘lived’ level, disorienting and disordered. There are interruptions in the forms of colons, breaks of line and abrupt changes from descriptive passages to metaphorical. The market, destroyed in the conflict, is characterised by “shadowed aisles and inlets”, “cul-de-sacs” and “alcoves”. The fact that there are “no entrances and no exits”, posits this as a claustrophobic, insular space. Psychogeography is about unities of ambiance, linking psychological states to particular areas. With this in mind, the psychological states translated in the poem, are confusion, tension, frustration and fear; epitomising the tone of the city in the wake of conflict.

The blog far-exceeded my expectations by receiving over two thousand views and feedback from scholars from multiple universities around the world including Cape Town University and the University of Ulster as well as being re-blogged on a number of websites. I was particularly engaged in scholarship on Irish gothic writing and my interest has only increased as a result of this blog. I had expected I would include much feminist analysis and readings of works by female writers, but that has largely been left to the domain of my thesis which will focus on Maeve Brennan’s Irish short fiction. Ultimately, I found the enforced commitment to continuous writing the most rewarding component of this exercise; I can see the benefits in my own writing and in my increased awareness of Irish literature, film and academic discourse.

Bibliography for all entries available here

Image Source:

– Surviving Study. Digital image. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Mar. 2015. <http://capsunm.tumblr.com/post/64216442898/surviving-the-academic-journey>.

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