Monday, November 12, 2007

John Moriarty's "Invoking Ireland" Book Review

Moriarty considers the "Transcendent Immanent," which "is bountifully immanent in the the herb that heals us, the cancer that kills us." (197) As this book is one of three written in the last year or so of his life, stricken down by three forms of the latter force of nature, I paused to reflect on the power that engages this combination of fictional narrative and mystical musings upon Ireland's mythic past and forlorn present. Reading his earlier autobiography, "Nostos" (to which he completed a sequel immediately prior to his death last June, "What the Curlew Said"), I often became disenchanted with his repetitive prose. I tended to drift off for long stretches under his incantatory, recursive, and steadily chiding rhythms. While I recognized that I may have been encountering a dazzling intellect and a sensitive soul, I recoiled from the attitude. Warming never much to Yeats, Lawrence, or Blake, I sensed Moriarty sought to reclaim their poetic mantle, while tinting such an ornate cloak with a embellished Celtic motif. The whole pattern appeared too intricate for easy appreciation, too heavy for ordinary wear. It appeared to cobble together aboriginal, Navajo, Norse, Egyptian, Christian, alchemical, and Irish contexts into what Kevin Kiely critiqued in Moriarty's career as repeating hubristic Causabon's Key to All Mythologies, famously one of (for me) the best parts of "Middlemarch"!

I had a soft spot for poor Causabon, and my generosity towards Moriarty despite his shamanic mannerisms continues. Like Blake and Yeats, he's gravitating towards the pre-Christian, and even the pre-Celtic, notably, as he seeks answers for what he urges us to accept as an "Én-flaith," a Bird-Reign of ecumenical oneness with the natural world, one of the fatal hawk and not only the gentle dove. In a striking passage he cites Patrick's double-edged question to Bran: "How perfect is an otter's face when he has a brown trout between his teeth? What does the trout think?" (144) Moriarty, perhaps driven by his own mortality's pace, in this book takes on this puzzle. He never answers it, and how can he or any of us truly? He takes a couple of hundred pages, nevertheless, meditating over it by recalling Irish stories, from both before and after Patrick, and struggles towards an acceptance of a realm that would call Irish people beyond a mere Republic towards a reign of deeds done in harmony with the greater culture that urges all life towards breakthroughs into the eternal, beyond the mind and certainly the body that we fill with poison and the earth that we foolishly pollute in our warp-spasm. He doesn't use this phrase from CúChullain as I recall, to be fair, but the death-rattle of our own end-time, Moriarty would agree, can only be countered by a healing and a reverence towards Danu, the primordial presence that emanates only when her back is turned away from us.

I was surprised that he did not connect this to G-d's showing to Moses from behind, but as the author admits, this collection of tales is a set of tarot cards, a shuffling of many themes he has already drawn upon before. So, perhaps in his other books over the past fifteen years, he forged such a link. The inconclusive, speculative style of his thought on the page perhaps lacks a drama that, as I have only read, he possessed in his vocal presence. Parts of this are in Latin or Old Irish, and while some is translated, some eludes those of us less educated than the Causabons or George Eliots of our degenerate century. Such, on the other hand, is the discipline that rewards the adept.

Alan Titley, one of the pre-eminent critics in Irish, in "The Irish Book Review" noted the accuracy of Moriarty's translations, and my limited ability can verify this. Moriarty does, as Titley praises, enter into the spirit of the texts he gathers, and he resurrects many stories and tells them with vigorous compassion and hard-won wisdom. Rilke, D.H. Lawrence, Ted Hughes, Mircea Eliade, Marguerite Porete, William Law, Thomas Traherne, and Indian (in both senses of the adjective) sources speckle, as veins in quartz, his own integration of other-worldly reflections from around the world and across the centuries. Moriarty's range remains impressive. I am not sure how to build the Bird-Reign after ending this retelling of Irish sources, but I am impressed with his erudition put towards the cause of not self-promotion, as with so many scholars, but the betterment of us all, the weak and the struggling and not only the tenured and the acclaimed. His own decision, decades ago, to leave academia behind for his own vision-quest informs and enriches his work. While critics may scoff at his magpie eclecticism and his gnomic tone, I admit he earns my respect as well as my occasional bafflement. Luckily, a glossary explains most of his coinages, borrowings, and untranslated (in the text) phrases from Sanskrit or Irish.

Out of such materials has Moriarty left us to roam the ruins and to attempt to rebuild. His publisher, The Lilliput Press, will be issuing a pricy (250 euro!) spoken-word CD set to fund a hedge-school project he had dreamed of in his native Kerry. In print, and as I have observed about "Nostos," Moriarty's reflections can, taken at random, appear almost random or half-crazed. I suppose this is the prophetic tone. He seeks the oracular, and although I perhaps wished in this slim volume more direct suggestions for how to heal an Irish psyche and transform yearnings for territorial dominance into spiritual ecumenism, Moriarty-- as with earlier sages and gurus-- leaves the hard work of change with those of us who must follow the message with the mission.

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