Violence, the Irish and Religion

Here, from Maud Gonne’s autobiography, is her rationale for being a firm “physical force” advocate, scorning the “constitutional” road toward Home Rule pursued by the Irish Parliamentary Party from 1885 to 1914.

“A robber will not give up his spoil for the asking unless the demand is backed by force.  Once a constitutional party turns its back on physical force, because not being able to control it, . . . its days of usefulness are over.  It may linger on, but, being unable to deliver the goods, it falls shamelessly into the corruption of its environment.  . . . The funeral of the Parliamentary party should have taken place when its leader Parnell was lowered into his grave at Glasnevin in October 1891.  He had failed when he had repudiated acts of violence.  He was never a physical-force man himself, but he had walked hand in hand with physical force in the early days when luck and the spiritual forces of Ireland were with him, so that even ordinary words from his lips became charged with great significance and power.  Luck deserted him when he deserted the force which had made his movement great” (174-75). [The Autobiography of Maud Gonne, University of Chicago Press, 1995).

Charles Taylor, in his A Secular Age, spends hundreds of pages worrying the issue of violence.  Basically, he keeps insisting that humans experience some kind of mysterious or mystical connection to the “numinous” when engaged in or stand as witness to acts of violence.  He never gets more specific than that, but insists efforts to simply repress violence will never work.  Violence is as ineradicable as sex; religion both gropes toward a way of grasping the meaning of violent and sexual acts, while also providing forms (rituals and stories) that enclose those acts.  Here’s a typical Taylor passage along these lines (he repeats this point several times without ever getting more concrete):  “if religion has from the beginning been bound up with violence, the  nature of the involvement has changed.  In archaic, pre-Axial forms, ritual in war or sacrifice consecrates violence; it related violence to the sacred, and gives a kind of numinous depth to killing, and the excitements and inebriation of killing, just as it does through other rituals for sexual desire and union.  With the coming of the ‘higher,’ post-Axial religions, this kind of numinous endorsement is more and more withdrawn.  We move toward a point where, in some religions, violence has no more place at all in the sanctified life. . . . But nevertheless . . . various forms of sanctified and purifying violence recur.” {at which point Taylor instances the Crusades and the violence of ideologies like fascism and communism} (688-89).

Without ever saying so, Taylor seems to imply that religions that incorporate violence, that practice sacrificial rites, can thus contain it.  Whereas attempts to eradicate violence only lead to uncontrolled, massive outbreaks of the sort that characterized the 20th century.  At other points, he references William James’s idea of finding a “moral equivalent for war,” but doesn’t pursue that idea; rather, he seems faintly skeptical that some substitute would do the trick.  We want/need real violence because of that urge to connect to the “numinous.”  All of this goes mostly unsaid in Taylor because he cannot bring himself to simply endorse sacrificial practices.  Yet he is also committed to this idea that violence and the numinous have some kind of “deep” (his favorite word in the whole book) connection to one another—and thus religion has to attend to, even provide the means for, achieving, that connection.

What has this to do with Maud Gonne?  Yes, she offers a utilitarian defense of “physical force.”  The English robbers are never going to relinquish hold of Ireland unless forced to do so.  But there’s more.  Non-violent movements become corrupt (she argues); without the laying of one’s all, one’s life, on the line, there is no way to overcome the temptations of life.  The reformer will succumb to the fleshpots available to him; he will betray the cause in favor of his own comfort and advancement.  As in Yeats’s and Lady Gregory’s play Cathleen ni Houlihan (Gonne, famously, played the lead in its first public performance), only those who renounce everything to serve the Queen (Gonne’s autobiography was titled “Servant of the Queen” with that Queen being Ireland) can be trusted to serve the cause faithfully to the bitter end.

The logic here is precisely the logic of sacrifice, where in some weird way the proof of one’s absolute devotion to the cause, the willingness to die for it, becomes more important than the success of the cause itself.  Pragmatism and utilitarianism are spurned; caring about the ends violence might achieve is subordinated to the glorious commitment itself.  Such would seem to be the burden of Padriac Pearse’s sacrificial fantasies—embodied in the plays and pageants he staged—in the years just prior to the 1916 Easter Rebellion.  And, of course, the dating of that uprising at Easter was no coincidence.  The rising was a pageant itself of sacrifice leading to resurrection.

And as we see in Rene Girard’s work—and this idea lurks there in Taylor although never made explicit—an embrace of violence is palatable when connected to self-sacrifice.  Harder to countenance is murder, the killing of the other guy.  It’s the embrace of one’s own death that is fairly easy to sanctify; even ritualized killing of the other is harder to stomach.  For all her hatred of the English, Gonne devotes her life to the cause of aiding imprisoned Irish rebels and their destitute families, not to killing Englishmen.  The one time in her autobiography where actual violence seems in the offing, Gonne (to her credit) backs down and avoids pushing the confrontation to killing.  Gonne is speaking to a riled-up crowd, when the police arrive.  Here’s her rendition of the incident.

“’If you go on I shall give the order to fire,’ said the officer.

‘Go on, go on,’ cheered the crowd.

I heard an order given. I saw the constabulary get their rifles at the ready and heard the click of triggers.  Most of the men now had their backs to the platform and were facing the police; they had nothing but ash plants in their hands but were ready to fight; some still shouted for me to go on.

‘No,” I said.  ‘Men, you know your duty; the proclaimed meeting is now over,’ and I got off the car.

There was disappointment; one man said: ‘You should have gone on.’  I heard another man say: ‘You couldn’t expect a woman to fight.’  I said: ‘If you had guns I would have gone on; the rifles were pointed at you, not me. I couldn’t see unarmed men shot down.’

Again a wave of depression overwhelmed me. . . . Perhaps I had been wrong in not letting the Woodford evicted tenants fight and be shot down.  Dead men might have aroused the country as living men could not and at least made the evicted tenants a live issue.  I had not dared take responsibility; I had refused leadership and the situation was not of my own making” (301).

The practical triumphs over the ideal here, as I (for one) would wish it to.  But then she is led to wonder if bloodshed would have been impractical.  A massacre might, in fact, have advanced the cause, making it (ironically) a “live” issue.  She wonders if she, at the moment of crisis, has proved weak, has allowed inappropriate scruples to stop her hand.

Which brings us back to the earlier passage—to Gonne’s analysis of Parnell, an analysis that actually seems to put some flesh on the bones of Taylor’s idea that violence connects us to the “numinous.”  Gonne argues that Parnell’s charisma in only intact so long as he remains tied to the ”physical force” revolutionaries. And that is because the “physical force” advocates are in touch with, bring forward into some kind of mysterious presence, “the spiritual forces of Ireland.”  Violence is the way those spiritual forces speak to us, through particular men who are its priests, its mouthpieces.  Here, eloquently stated, is Taylor’s conviction that violence provides a pathway to the numinous.

Of course, to a pragmatist skeptic like myself, the numinous here is better described as “nationalism”—and the cult of the nation seems to result in much more evil than good.  Taylor knows that, which is why he keeps stumbling on the vexed question of just what is the content of the numinous, just as he cannot specify an actual violent rite that we, with our modern sensibilities, could actually endorse.

Historical distance offers one out here.  Do I wish that the 1916 rebellion never took place?  One hundred years later don’t the rebels seem admirable heroes—even though I have no doubt that in 1916 I would have thought them vainglorious fools.  And didn’t their sacrifice actually achieve, in the long run, their ends?  Yes and no.  Plausible to say that there would have been no Irish Republic without the Easter rising.  Equally plausible to say that the ongoing violence of Irish politics throughout the 20th century was also a product of that rising.  No violence, it seems, without answering acts of violence, producing those cycles of violence that are all too familiar, and rarely conclusive, rarely actually creating a desired state of affairs.  There is always some rub, some imperfection, that justifies more violence—even if it is just the violence of revenge.

Would Taylor accept that the numinous is always out of reach—and thus no act of violence, even if it yields intimations of the numinous—ever satisfies?  Religion is born of frustration, of a longing for “something more” than what the ordinary provides—and violence is born of frustration as well.  Infinite desire in a finite world.  Or a desire for the infinite in a finite world.  We can dream of more than what we can actually have.  Taylor wants to honor how those dreams push us beyond the here and now, how they lead to the astounding, almost unbelievable, things that humans manage to do.  But why claim that destruction and violence are part and parcel of that reaching for what exceeds our grasp? Why not, instead, think of destruction and violence as the rage engendered by our reach falling short, as the spite (resentment) we feel against the world and against others when they disappoint our visions—or worse when someone else achieves what we have failed to accomplish?

One riposte from the Taylor side—and here we return to the power of nationalism—is that violence (like religion more generally) is a collective act.  Soldiers always talk of the astounding camaraderie, the enjoyed intimacy, of the platoon.  One of the things we long for is that kind of melting of the self into communion with others—and that melting can feel numinous, a connection to some larger and higher power.  Violence, like sex, is a way of escaping the self, of ecstatically merging it with others.  It carries us outside of ourselves.  That’s one of its attractions, its lures, its way of thumbing its nose at bourgeois calculations and prudence.  Violence is aristocratic (as in Yeats and in Gonne) or sub-bourgeois (as in Synge).  Taylor wants to tap that “noble” side of religion as well—a task made rather difficult by Christianity’s affinity with book-keeping.  The ledgers of sin must be kept so as to see if the reward of heaven will be won.  Hardly an ecstatic way of thinking.

Another, very different, note on which to end.  In Roy Foster’s wonderful book about the Irish revolutionaries, Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland, 1890-1923 (Norton, 2014), he mentions how naïve the “physical force” rebels were.  In some ways, they simply shared the naiveté of a Europe that went blithely to war in 1914.  A massive failure of imagination.  Violence is rarely attractive when seen close up, which is why historical distance is so often needed to sanitize it.  (We are back here to Grossman’s work on killing—which is only exhilarating at a distance except for a very few, exceptional, persons.)  I have always thought it greatly to Yeats’s credit that he mostly abandoned his romantic celebrations of violence once he witnessed actual violence during the 1920 to 1923 wars in Ireland.  Foster quotes Min Ryan, who “admitted afterwards that when Tom Clarke told her in 1916 that most of them would be ‘wiped out,’ it brought her down to earth with a bump. ‘I got an awful shock because I was living a most unreal kind of life as if nothing could happen to anyone.  I could hardly believe that we would take up arms at all and then I began to believe that we would come out of it alright.’”  Foster goes on to comment: “The five years from 1916 to 1921 would provide a steep learning curve” (72)  Why he excludes the two years of the Civil War, with its brutal executions, is a mystery.

In any case, the rhetoric that calls for violence is easy, all too easy, and very often disconnected from any real sense of what violence means or entails.  Again, violence is more palatable the more distance one maintains from it.  It is hard for me to imagine Taylor participating in the rites he seems to endorse.  Certainly, I want no part of them—even if the numinous were to arrive as promised.

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