"Players" by Desmond Hogan (2006, 22 pages)
Cohosted by Shauna Gilligan of
Happiness Comes From Nowhere.
"The dandy’s craving for oblivion is “not a resignation but a heroic passion”, in fact the only form of heroism still practicable in the absence of a courtly backdrop. A hero thus becomes someone who knows, and says, and lives the truth that traditional heroism is no longer possible." Daniel Kiberd
So far I have read and posted on thirty of the thirty six short stories in Larks' Eggs and Other Stories by Desmond Hogan as well as a story from a recent issue of The Stinging Fly, Ireland's premier literary journal. I am firmly convinced now that these stories are world class cultural treasures of the highest order. I am approaching his work using a literary concept of the long ago, as found objects. In most cases I am treating the short stories individually but I have no hesitation now to generalize about the stories as I did find them all together. Hogan has written a large number of short stories and hopefully will write many more. I have as of now access to only the thirty-six in Larks' Eggs and Other Stories, the one in The Stinging Fly and two additional stories in other anthologies I own.
In a post on Juan Luis Borges I said I saw him as belonging to the tradition of literature with cosmic ambition: the Bible, The Iliad, The Divine Comedy, Ulysses..works that strive to convey complete universes, containing everything. I think it is useful to see Hogan in this same tradition with the qualification that he is trying to convey the complete world of the inhabitants of his stories, their history, their culture, their way of being in the world. He is also, I think, recreating mythic structures among the debris and detritus of the times of his stories. I think for sure that is part, though far from all, what is behind the many references to Irish Travelers and Gypsies in his stories. In my posts on the remaining six stories in the collection (I did not post on the stories in order) I will not really attempt to convey the plot action, even though the events in "Players" are quite fascinating but will instead try to look at one particular think that strikes me in a story. I also think that the stories of Hogan are very inter-textual, they reverberate off the walls of the literary culture of the world.
Today I want to talk about the concept of the dandy as detailed in Declan Kiberd's great book, Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation as set out in his chapter "Elizabeth Bowen: The Dandy in Revolt". Susan Sontag talks a bit about concept of the Dandy, in her land mark essay "Notes on Camp" and I think that if this is understood correctly it helps us understand why a number of the narrators in these stories are gay. These will help us understand two of the "big questions" readers might have on the stories: why so many references to Irish travelers and why so much gay sex. If you look in detail, there are more gay male narrators in the stories that center on travelers than the other stories. This allows us to see into the structure of the stories without stooping to biographical analyses of an author of whom we know nothing, which is what it means to treat the stories as found objects. I know it is more fashionable or common place to treat stories as social commentaries or treat them as political documents but to go deeper as the stories of Hogan demand, we must move away from this.
I will first explain what Kiberd means when he talks about the tragedy of the dandy. This is also directly related to all of the seeming only cultural references to thinks not taught in school and the narrator's conversations with young Traveler men about arcane historical matters in which they have no interest and which we can only speculate as to whether or not the narrator knows he is talking to no one. I realize many may not know what I am talking about at this point (or perhaps I am like the narrator talking to no one who is listening) but I will proceed on in the hopes some will be interested. (There is world wide interest in the stories of Hogan-I base this by the visitors that come to my blog drawn by the Hogan posts, not just in Ireland.)
The best way to explain the concept of the Dandy is to quote a bit from Kiberd.
To the cynicism of the modern undergraduate, he would infinitely prefer the desperate composure of the dandy...Traditionally, the dandy has been the stuff of comedy, especially in the brilliant Anglo-Irish example of Oscar Wilde..the .dandy’s perennial problem: how to maintain an aristocratic hauteur and decorum in the absence of any available court at which to rehearse and play out such gestures...The dandy’s craving for oblivion is “not a resignation but a heroic passion”, in fact the only form of heroism still practicable in the absence of a courtly backdrop. A hero thus becomes someone who knows, and says, and lives the truth that traditional heroism is no longer possible.
Kiberd brilliantly invokes Walter Benjamin's concept of the dandy as a hero without work:
Nobody at Danielstown, least of all Mr. Montmorency, is capable of answering that. When asked what the British soldiers are dying for, he insists that “our side is no side” – “rather scared, rather isolated, not expressing anything except tenacity to something that isn’t there – that never was there. And deprived of heroism by this wet kind of smother of commiseration”. Nothing is left to such a man but beautiful manners and a perfect stylization of every gesture, for here indeed is Walter Benjamin’s essential dandy, “a Hercules with no work”.
From Walter Benjamin:
nonchalance is combined with the utmost exertion of energy . . . There is a special constellation in which greatness and indolence meet in human beings too . . . But the high seas beckon to him in vain, for his life is under an ill star. Modernism turns out to be his doom. The hero was not provided for in it; it has no use for his type. It makes him fast in the secure harbour forever and abandons him to everlasting idleness. In this, his last embodiment, the hero appears as a dandy . .
it is the dandy’s tragedy to be able to play every part except his or her own, to become a martyr to performance.
In "Players" a traveling group of Shakespearean actors come once a year to a small Irish town. There behavior is unconventional but that is accepted as they are actor. I should note I am not trying to "prove I am right". I am not a scholar or an academic. This is not meant as a claim of modesty it just explains in part why I feel I can just assert things and if others see my point great and if someone wants to respond all the more wonderful it just means I do not plans to quote a lot of Hogan to prove my point. (It is there, I think, in my prior posts.) Now think back to the prominent figure in the Hogan corpus, that of the narrator of a story who lives with or frequents the haunts of Irish travelers, he also may, and is often gay. I think this narrator is for sure a kind of dandy and once we understand what is in the quotes I made use of we are a good way into understanding these stories. Much of the meaning of Hogan's narrators and the wanderings in his stories and the arcane historical data is made partially clear in this last quote I will make use of from Kiberd. It firmly located the stories at the heart of the Irish literary experience and also illustrates Shauna Gilligan's very illuminating thesis that the one of the core themes of the stories of Hogan is homelessness, real and metaphysical.
Yet, in that very disavowal of a native background or identity, she becomes a voice for all those uprooted, dispossessed Irish, from the Gaelic earls who fled in 1607, through the rapparees and exiled Fenians of later centuries, down to the Joyce and Beckett who had to put themselves at a distance from Ireland in order to convince themselves that the place had ever existed. For the dandy’s tragedy turns out to have been the story of the bards who woke up to find themselves wandering spailpíní, and of gentry who were reborn as tramps. All such nomads know the truth of Wilde’s aphorism: that the first duty in life was to adopt a pose, a style, a way of being in the world. (Declain Kiberd)
I know I have not at all explicated the very interesting plot of "Players". The last line is of the story sent me a shudder of recognition. I may return to this and other of Hogan's stories at some point but for the net few posts I will be kind making points with the stories rather than about them.
But anyway Mr Mahaffy’s life’s work had become irrelevant in Sheona Barrett’s town. A few years before, on a New Year’s Eve, when snow was falling, screens lit up all over the town with their own snow to mark the first transmission by Irish television. (from "Players")
(Mr.Mahaffey was a traveling theatrical player.)
Desmond Hogan was born in Ballinasloe, East Galway, in December 1950 and currently lives in south-west Ireland. He has published five novels: The Ikon Maker (1976), The Leaves on Grey (1980), A Curious Street (1984), A New Shirt (1986) and A Farewell to Prague (1995), as well as four books of stories: The Diamonds at the Bottom of the Sea (1979), Children of Lir (1981), The Mourning Thief (1987) and Lebanon Lodge (1988), published in the USA in 1989 under the title A Link with the River. His travel writings, The Edge of the City, appeared in 1993. In 1971 he won the Hennessy Award, and in 1977 the Rooney Prize for Literature. He won the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize in 1980 and was awarded a DAAD Fellowship in Berlin in 1991. In 1989 he was writer-in-residence at the University of Alabama, and in 1997 taught at the University of California, San Diego.
Larks' Eggs and Other Stories
by Desmond Hogan can be purchased from Lilliput Press
, the premier source for quality books from and about Ireland.
Happiness Comes From Nowhere,
Shauna Gilligan's marvelous debut novel, can be found here.
I will be posting more on the short stories of Desmond Hogan during Irish Short Story Month, March 1 to March 31.