Emil Čić, 
hrvatski novinar, 
glazbenik i publicist

Christ will come again;
is here already

        At the 22nd Zagreb Literary Discussion (that took place from May 28 - 31, 1999, at the European House, as well as in Samobor, on May 30, entitled "Writers before the third millennium"), the Irish writer Desmond Egan gave one of the most brilliant presentations and articulated the clearest attitude towards art. Desmond Egan is a free-lancer, well-known and widely recognized in the English speaking countries. As a famous Irish writer, he was the guest of President Clinton and his wife during the latter's visit to Ireland and received a letter from them, thanking him for the impressions that his poetry had made on this world-renowned couple.


        Desmond Egan said in Zagreb that there were no more solid criteria in contemporary literature and art in general, and that standards and professionalism in art were totally ruined. Can some uneducated writer who managed to publish six poems be called an artist? And it is exactly such people who get an opportunity and attain recognition nowadays; anything is proclaimed to be art. It has become art to exhibit a wardrobe in the street, any object becomes a sculpture, the most banal story is regarded as art. That is the problem of Europe and the world: the lack of professionalism and sound criteria, based on talent and education. In order to do any job whatsoever, one has to have the appropriate qualifications or a recommendation of relevant people, and in the field of literature, visual arts and music one can come on successfully or even attain recognition on the ground of successfully sold i.e. published scribbles! While speaking about the muddled criteria, Mr. Egan pointed out that it should be clear that a qualified reviewer is more valuable than a bad artist and he pleaded for respecting the criteria in literature (as well as in other arts since they are all "one art", as Desmond Egan put it in his essay "Poetry and Abyss/Chasm"). That is the direction that our conversation/this interview has taken.

            Mr. Egan tell us something about your impressions of 22.nd Zagreb literary meeting, and what the Irish people know about Croats and Croatian culture...

Egan: The Irish have always felt with the Croat people and identified with your struggle. My visit to Zagreb strengthened my feeling of admiration for this great people and their culture; I felt at home. The fact that you are Catholics, mainly, was surely a factor. The Conference was interesting and stimulating; I hope we can develop the connection - and that poets and genuine intellectuals like Emil Čić will come to Ireland and participate in The Gerard Manley Hopkins Conference, an International celebration of the arts which takes place in the last week of July every year.

            In Zagreb  you spoke about the lost criteria in the arts. In you book it is evident that relation of writer to Good plays very important role.  Would you be so kind and elaborate your thesis about writers, lost belief and lost criteria?

Egan:  My lecture says most of what I have to say here: you have the text - which has also been sent to Lipovčan in the W. Union. The problem about loss of real standards in the Arts - a world-wide one, I believe - is at root a philosophical one: lose of belief in the transcendent. "Like Ezra Pound, modern poets (those who deserve the name poets: the dreary tail of Victorian versifiers do not enter into this) tend to focus on the detail, on the objective thing, and to make it present in words, as vividly and completely as possible; speaking for itself. The reasons for such a change of approach, I believe, are metaphysical: they derive from an intuition of chaos which begun to develop when Keats was writing his last, great, odes: the revolutionary movement had fanned-out across Europe and, in an atmosphere of war and of uncertainty, old values and presumptions were being questioned or dismissed. The devil of Disbelief was afoot - and Goya actually painted him in Los Desastres de la Guerra -and as reality rather than as symbol. Victorian imperialism and its attendant smugness would partly succeed  in putting a lid on this new philosophy which was calling all in doubt - yet one can detect that uncertainty even in the work of Tennyson, whose Lady of Shalott dies when she risks the course of facing reality. There was no saving the Twentieth Century, torn by world wars and genocide, by atom bombs, concentration camps and a new, unexpected, barbarity, from that  angst in which  we live and move and have our being. From loss of belief. Art was in turmoil; a sense of meaninglessness everywhere. Expressionism, Cubism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Pop, Conceptualism ... all had their literary equivalents and all, one way or another, had their starting-point in the search for a new vocabulary of response. In the age of anxiety, a move began towards the only kind of certainty possible: towards the world of senses. Towards colour and shape and texture and sound and visual. Towards the image..."  (...) "I am suggesting that Poetry and the sense-image have entered into a new kind of relationship, one more direct, more obsessive than ever. The gap between metaphor and meaning, between symbol and significance, has gone; the medium has become the message. The detail. The sound. The taste, feel, smell of a moment ... these are presented as sufficient in themselves, within the context of the statement of the poem ..."

            There is a certain circle of Christian intellectuals in Croatia who began to believe that the ugly chaos in the nice arts has a meaning of a satanic presence in the culture generally. We can state a such manifestation in the "rock-culture" (satanic songs), and classics is not absolutely free of  such raids. What is your impression? In your essay Poetry and the abyss you said: "Nowadays Satan can no longer fall ' Sheer o'er the christal  battlements' of any heaven: he lurks within the psyche - insofar as he is individualised at all..." Please, give your comment on it ...

Egan: "Satan" for me lurks in Original Sin, in the accumulation of the wrongness and evil of others of the past. It is a wonderful Christian insight. 

            If we take our age as a barbarian age, with a lot of big and little political tyrants, is it for you possible to say: " As a poet I foresee an Antichrist, I see him in my feelings and poetic visions"! If a poet is a visionar, is it possible for you to have a premonition, a such destructive vision?

Christ will come again; is here already.

Egan: I remain, in spite of everything, an optimist. Grace is everywhere. Christ will come again; is here already. "Poetry is the language of Now; not - a common misapprehension - of the future (the poet as prophet). But I would also add this necessary rider. A poem is gradually illuminated by setting it in the context of its own time and of its author's life." "As befits the most Metaphysical poet of the Nineteenth century Emily Dickinson opens the poem with a conceit and a pointer to the fact that her province is the internal world rather than external. The world of her own mind..." Poetry is the discovery in words of new feelings, new truths; an insight into the universal trough the particular experience; a dialogue between body and spirit. We must talk quietly about it since it eludes definition but I think that the catharsis it brings us springs from an intimation of wholeness."  But as someone who believes in Christ, I never see the advent of the Antichrist.

            One of  your theses is that the poetry and politics can be literary good related (I mean - Yannis Ritsos). Some writers believe that politics and ideology can not be a subject of literature. But the thesis of Aristotle was that music is capable of educating people politically. How to use the nice arts in the right way without manipulating people?

Egan: Of course Aristotle was right. All human life - of which politics plays a central part - is the stuff of art. Otherwise dismiss most of great writing and art of the world. The other argument is used as a way out of responsibility - as many Northern Ireland writers have used it. I am not talking of party politics but of Human Politics, which transcends petty parties (usually). "A reading by Yannis Ritsos can attract two or three thousand people in Greece. Such public interest may partly have to do with politics: in Russia, where I'm told poetry draws huge crowds, it certainly has - as a look at Yevtushenko's meretricious verse would indicate. (...) But Ritsos never descends to the kind of crude propagandising which can spoil political verse e. g. some Mayakovski's: or to the political dilettantism to which Yeats could succumb. Corridor and Stairs impresses by the way in which strong feeling us kept in restraint by complexity of Ritsos' imagination. I can not agree with Edna Longley that ' Poetry and politics, like church and state, should be separated' -  as if in some  situations, such a choice existed. The example of Ritsos shows that there need not even be a distinction between politics and poetry; or not always. When the State tries to buy it, it also inevitably tries to exercise control; paying the piper, it tries to call the tune - and that becomes politicised, with dire results. Pablo Neruda wrote little of consequence after he became an ambassador for the Allende regime and his posthumously published Memoirs  proved a great disappointment - at least to me. As usual, poetry has no place in any establishment, even if the State tries to take it over, the poet should remain independent. No question about that."

            You said that the most modern Irish writing is unnourishing: in Croatia we did not read your Irish literature, and we can not comment on it, but in my opinion modern European literature is not very attractive one. I feel the same about some Croatian writers and other artists, who continued to exist in Croatian culture: they are unnourishing. But how to promote a real great writers, musicians and other artists? Are they not repressed by untalented people who organised their own "Mafia" and just want to promote themselves all over the world? How does it looks in Ireland?

Egan: You can not promote great writing and writers: all you can do is ensure that genuine artists (as against the fake) are recognised and promoted. Promoting the others actually smothers the true creators. "How can poetry get much attention from society? A few years ago I went from Newbridge with James McKenna and Michael Harnett down to give a reading in Ennis, where we were joined by some musicians including Tommie Peoples and Paul Brock - surely two of the best -  en rute to a completely empty room! Now I would bet that no one listening to me who writes and gives ridings occasionally has not had a similar experience. No one! Poetry in modern Ireland: the empty room above a pub. I say it with amusement and some regret, but without bitterness. To a greater or less degree it has always been and always will be so. In the arty Eighties could things not improve a little? Do poets ( I now use the word as a blanket term) themselves not deserve some of the blame, if blame fits, for losing their proper audience? "The possibility of patronage? Virgil and Augustus; Southampton and Shakespeare? Each of these writers had the support - and not for very long at that - of a private and enlightened patron. Augustus's sponsorship of Virgil had the quality more of a personal than of a state commitment; Southampton’s of Shakespeare, essentially so. A patron of discernment: what an ideal - but how often has the world seen it? Official promotion by means of Arts councils? The snag here is that any agency distributing public moneys has to promote writers in general: fair enough for the taxpayer but not really much good as far as real poetry is concerned. The first thing a literature officer must learn is how to swallow hard.

            One country has tried to support poetry in a way different from any we have glanced - at. I mean of course Ireland with her Bardic schools - which lasted into the mid - seventeenth century. Here  file  (or lower - ranked  bard) enjoyed a recognised standing in society - deriving from his belonging to an exclusive hereditary caste and from his having undergone long training. He could claim  as a right special patronage and privileges. It has become common nowadays for writers to look back on these as the golden days. But if we examine the results of it all, the glitter fades. Poetasters and exploiters of the system appeared in such numbers that eventually the Convention of Druim Ceatt had to disband what had by than become a standing army of Irish poets ..." "Homer, legend has it, begged for bread - a tradition maintained to greater or less degree by the majority of his successors and never in danger of lapsing in Ireland! 'Was ever poet trusted more'? was Johnson’s laconic comment on hearing that Goldsmith had died owing two thousand pounds. If you pick out the best Irish - language poets - you will find that most of them lived in hardship and poverty. The poet is nearly always poor because society does not support him/her - witness, for example, the case Patrick Kavanagh who lived a life of poverty and who, but for the support of his brother Peter over many decades, might have ended up in the poorhouse. "

            What do you think about American political and cultural imperialism and British influence on politics and culture in the world?

Egan: As an Irishman, I oppose imperialism of any kind. Cultural is only an aspect of financial or political imperialism. It is the duty of the intellectual to expose and reject falso, imposed, "cultural" (really anti-cultural) values and to appreciate and promote genuine national ones. The need for roots is a basic cultural need. Before art takes on any wider significance and nourishment, it must begin in a rooted perception of reality: individualised, local. A thing must be itself first, before it can take on being anything else. "The system produced no supreme poet, no Chaucer, Goethe or Pushkin; but it did not even lead to the emergence of any notable minor figure either. A professor of literature, highly trained in an artificial literary medium, is not a poet; nor is an elaborate panegyric on a patron poetry. ... The system produced historians, and writers whose functions made of them prototypes of the modern journalist .... The best way, finally, in which society can oppose any imperialism and help the cause of poetry (and own national values) may be by carrying - out certain practical functions: publication; giving coverage and maintaining standards through the media (hope springs eternal); prizes or awards made decently and not just passed round like the captaincy of a golf club, setting one more beggar on horseback, with licence to tent in anyone's backyard. ..."

            In the past times, "once upon a time", on the beginning of the century the decadent artist (futurists, expressionists etc.) began to write the artistic manifests with intention to change the art and world. And they did. But not towards better criteria. Should we conservatives, classicists, begin to write the manifest of classical/Christian criteria of Arts? What should we say in the manifest of the third Christian millennium?

Egan: A manifesto: maybe a good idea but very difficult right now.


An interview with Desmond Egan © by Emil ČIĆ          
Croatia in WW II and geopolitics © by Emil ČIĆ

A Bibliography of Writing by Desmond Egan
Desmond Egan related links

Posjetite stranicu / Go to: Udruga Hrvatska - Irska

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