Wednesday, November 7, 2007

John Moriarty: Slí an Fhírinne

I found out today that John Moriarty died this past June 1st, stricken by three types of cancer at the age of 69, in his beloved native Kerry. He departed on "na slí na fhírinne," the way of truth. A fitting metaphor for the journey into the next life. While the "" site appears defunct, this blog, by a Dublin friend of his, Gary, chronicles Moriarty's legacy and his last days:

See the Guardian obituary.,,2158418,00.html

Tony Bailie's "The Mangerton Shaman" blurbs "Nostos" on its 2001 publication and provides a bit of context.

Back to me. I wrote a year and a half ago this brief review (for Amazon Canada as the title was not then listed on the US site; I added it here since) of the first part of his autobiography, his formidable "Nostos." Admiring those authors with the prescience or timing to align their passing with their final writing--impressively a perfectly if lamentably timed autobiographical sequel-- I urge you to seek out the exertions of this philosopher-poet-gadfly.

For all of their rather off-putting incantatory style his publications demand attention. Bailie's article observes how Moriarty'd repeat three times key points in speaking-- a stylistic tick or habitual quirk embedded in his prose. (A subtitle "Horsehead Nebula Neighing" appears too clever; I've passed up more than once a copy in used book stores-- it's from a trilogy titled "Turtle Was Gone a Long Time." Combined, two phrases with too much symbolic dissonance for my own b.s. detector, I confess.

Call me a yokel. Accused in grad school (by one prof) of being "superficially brilliant" myself in a department of grad students diagnosed (by his colleague) as "neurotic egotists," I bear witness to my own psychic trauma akin to Moriarty's recounting of dropping out of academia. (And in those halycon days of 1960s campus expansion, Moriarty had gained a university post with only an M.A. It was in Manitoba, however...)

Nevertheless, Moriarty had the courage to walk away, drop out, tune in, and then retreat to Conamara, cultivating a garden-- if far from having the deluded peace suggested for our eponymous hero at the culmination of "Candide"-- near Roundstone. There, "Nostos" eases off. Moriarty's the prophet in the Irish (former/Fomarian/Fianna) wilderness. He later returned to his childhood Kerry. Wild hair, off-kilter eyes, and a striking visual presence. He concocts obsessive ruminations that in Celtic fashion spiral again and again recursively around mythic imagery and psychogeographical domains. I christen him as a trans-Catholic Irish sage, rare in this age, for his mythopoeic ideas and the force of his insistence that we must turn aside from our secular path to psychic destruction. He merits our attention. I wonder what he sounded like, declaiming on Irish radio.

Before I had left for Ireland the past summer, I bought a copy of one of his newest (he wrote three books in his last year) imaginative, forceful, and disconcerting treatises, "Invoking Ireland," where he argues that his homeland risks, in its embrace of postmodern consumerism, another emptiness akin to that of those who, 150 years ago, suffered by their survival of An Gorta Mór, the Great Hunger. Then, the native language and indigenous culture by most islanders were abandoned; now, the remains of what made Irish character distinctive from that of what Desmond Fennell calls our "post-Western condition" in an Irish resident's willed amnesia. Five million on the island risk a second relegation of their five thousand year (at least) inheritance to the midden or dumpster.

Meanwhile, my sons belly-laugh at "The Simpsons" downstairs, classical music plays softly in my room, and three dogs sleep at my feet. My kids want me to stop bloggin and join them watching the Dave Chappelle show. From the sublime to the ridiculous!

Should I heed Moriarty? Or, have we always had Cassandras? If so, have we, unlike the Greeks, advanced far enough near the abyss that we must heed what our ancestors ignored? Will we-- as the UN warned last week, buried on pg. 8 of the NY Times, nudge a tipping point for our planet that we cannot right? Archimedes asked for a lever to move earth; we might wish for that Greek's ingenuity despite or in spite of all our mechanical acumen. I will begin reading "Invoking Ireland," (if after TV). In time will report what I find. Here's the Canadian review of "Nostos" from April 2006:

Canadian readers will be intrigued by Moriarty's account of his six years spent at the U of Manitoba, and his renderings of native myths. He gives a vivid depiction of "civilized" life led at the fringe of the Arctic assault.

One of the longest and certainly one of the most diffused books I have read. It reminds me of other Irish eccentrics, Denis Johnston and Francis Stuart, who also kicked against the pricks of an earlier 20c Irish conservatism and Christianity to, amidst the wreckage of that century, construct their own alternative mentality. They wrote in a prose style that refused to stand still or sit down. Like Johnston and Stuart, Moriarty can not fit in to the society that invites him to remain as a lecturer, a gardener, or a lover of one woman or one place. He roams from his native North Kerry where he was born at the end of the 1930s to Greece, Dublin, Leeds, Mexico, Manitoba, across the Arizona desert, to 1960s Haight-Ashbury, back to Canada, over to Connemara, and into Kildare and Wicklow as the story, not really the autobiography that its subtitle indicates, subsides around the mid-1970s. Some of the best passages, about his mother's death, a Native American tale of Mouse, and of his father's few but telling words to his wandering son, are right near the end.

While I along with Moriarty wondered aloud, long before he did on p. 300 of this 698 pp. tome, if he'd finally wearied of the same unending questions, the pace is set by him and we must keep up, out of respect and adventure if not comfort or complacency. This book is as grueling as a long slog through the decades of one man's mind, more an inner journey than one easily linked to years and fixed by names or limited to locales. While it has these all at times, its true encounters are as enigmatic and as powerful as those of Jacob as he wrestled--with himself, with an angel, with a demon, with a god, with God--at Bethel. To his credit, Moriarty likewise refuses the easy explication. He never has the Paul on the road to Damascus encounter I feared and expected him to find by the end of his millions of words here, and thank whatever deity or lack of such revelation, for that stubborn and honest fidelity.

This book spirals, in that old Celtic sense. Moriarty constantly circles around key passages from Melville, Pascal, the Book of Job, 19 and 20c scientists, and many myths to elaborate his own fusion of a post-Christian/classically informed/globally aware spiritual and intellectual project. He wants to admire the mountain itself, he says, not the Moses or the Mohammed who came to the mountain with laws and dogma.

If you looked at a page of this book at random, the shamanistic repetition, the invocations, the interruptions and the recriminations would appear as part-sense, part-ravings. But Moriarty, despite his formidable learning, his defiant and curly mane, and his considerable storytelling skills, is no madman on the bus next to you. This book demands attention and rewards introspection. I found myself impatient, intimidated, and irritated by it as much as I was inspired, informed, and impelled to re-examine my own muddled soul's reflection.

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