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Published online by Cambridge University Press: 23 April 2021
Cynicism styles itself as the answer to the mental suffering produced by disillusionment, disappointment, and despair. It seeks to avoid them by exposing to ridicule naive idealism or treacherous hope. Modern cynics avoid the vulnerability produced by high ideals, just as their ancient counterparts eschewed dependence on all but the most essential of material needs. The philosophical tradition of the Cynics begins with the Ancients, including Diogenes and Lucian, but has found contemporary valence in the work of cultural theorists such as Peter Sloterdijk. This article uses theories of cynicism to analyze postcolonial disappointment in Irish modernism. It argues that in the “ambi-colonial” conditions of early-twentieth-century Ireland, the metropolitan surety of and suaveness of a cynical attitude is available but precarious. We therefore find a recursive cynicism that often turns upon itself, finding the self-distancing and critical sure-footedness of modern, urbane cynicism a stance that itself should be treated with cynical scepticism. The essay detects this recursive cynicism in a number of literary works of post-independence Ireland, concluding with an extended consideration of W. B. Yeats’s great poem of civilizational precarity, “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.”
1 Often this was refracted through the revisionism-nationalism debate that marked Irish studies as postcolonial studies rose in the international academy and the Troubles raged in Northern Ireland. For a summary of those historical debates see Ciarán Brady, ed., Interpreting Irish History: The Debate on Historical Revisionism (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1994). A seminal work for analyzing Irish literature through the lens of postcolonialism is Declan Kiberd, Inventing Ireland: Literature of the Modern Nation (London: Jonathan Cape, 1995). Other postcolonial approaches were spearheaded by David Lloyd beginning with Anomalous States: Irish Writing and the Postcolonial Moment (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 1993). See also Seamus Deane, Strange Country: Modernity and Nationhood in Irish Writing (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996). Historians who have disputed the colonial model in Ireland include Stephen Howe, Ireland and Empire: Colonial Legacies in Irish History and Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), and Liam Kennedy, Colonialism, Religion and Nationalism in Ireland (Belfast: Institute of Irish Studies, 1996). For recent assessments of Ireland and postcolonialism, see Joe Cleary, “Postcolonial Writing in Ireland,” The Cambridge History of Postcolonial Literature, vol. I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 539–42, and Calvin W. Keogh, “The Critics’ Count: Revisions of Dracula and the Postcolonial Irish Gothic,” The Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry 1.2 (2014)L 189–206. For a wider history of Irish studies since 1980, including the waxing and waning of postcolonialism, see Ronan McDonald, “Irish Studies and Its Discontents,” in Irish Literature in Transition, vol VI: 1980–2020, eds. Eric Falci and Paige Reynolds (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 327–43.
2 Derek Attridge and Marjore Howes, eds., Semicolonial Joyce (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Joseph Valente, “Between Resistance and Complicity: Metro-Colonial Tactics in Joyce’s ‘Dubliners,’” Narrative: Michel de Certeau and Narrative Tactics 6.3 (October 1998): 325–40.
3 Said, Edward, “Yeats and Decolonization” in Nationalism, Colonialism, Literature, eds. Eagleton, Terry, Jameson, Frederic, and Said, Edward W (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 69–95, esp. 73Google Scholar.
4 Pascale Casanova shows how Irish modernism became “consecrated” in the global Anglophone marketplace. Her analysis challenges the postcolonial paradigm by showing the comparative advantages that Irish writers enjoyed. See Pascale Casanova, The World Republic of Letters, trans. M. B. DeBevoise (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 303–22.
5 Eagleton, Terry, Heathcliff and the Great Hunger: Studies in Irish Culture (London and New York: Verso, 1995)Google Scholar.
6 Alexander Adkins is currently writing a book about the role of satire as response to political cynicism in the developing world. See his article “Chinua Achebe’s Beautiful Soul,) The Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry 4.3 (2017): 398–408. Also see Alexander Adkins, “Postcolonial Satire in Cynical Times” (PhD diss, Rice University, 2016 [https://scholarship.rice.edu/bitstream/handle/1911/96613/ADKINS-DOCUMENT-2016.pdf?sequence=7&isAllowed=y]).
7 Many anecdotes about Diogenes of Sinope are contained in Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, trans. Robert D. Hicks, 2 vols., Loebs Classical Library 185 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958). See especially vol. 2, book 6, 22–85. The anecdote of the drinking vessel appears 6:39.
8 Freud, Sigmund, “Humour” (1927), The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works (London: Hogarth Press, 1976), 162 Google Scholar.
9 For cynicism and the Enlightenment, see Shea, Louisa, The Cynic Enlightenment: Diogenes in the Salon (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 2010)Google Scholar and Stanley, Sharon, The French Enlightenment and the Emergence of Modern Cynicism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.
10 Lucian, , “The Death of Peregrine,” The Works of Lucian of Samosata, trans. Fowler, H. W and Fowler, F. G, 4 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1905), iv, 75–94 Google Scholar.
12 Peter Sloterdik, Kritik der zynischen Vernunft, 2 vols. (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1983), published in English as Critique of Cynical Reason, trans. Michael Eldred (Minneapolis and London: University of Minneapolis Press, 1987). Michel Foucault, Le courage de la verité. Le gouvernement de soi et des autres II; Cours au Collège de France, 1984, ed. Fréeric Gros (Paris: Seuil/Gallimard, 2009). Published in English as The Government of Self and Others: Lectures at the Collège de France 1982–83 (Palgrave Macmillian, 2010).
13 Heinrich Niehues-Pröbsting, Der Kynismus des Diogenes und der Begriff des Zynismus (Munich: W. Fink,1979).
14 Robert Bracht Branham and Marie-Odile Goulet-Cazé, eds., The Cynics: The Cynic Movement in Antiquity and its Legacy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996); Timothy Bewes, Cynicism and Postmodernity (London: Verso, 1997); David Mazella, The Making of Modern Cynicism (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007); Arthur Rose, Literary Cynics: Borges, Beckett, Coetzee (London: Bloomsbury, 2017).
15 Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason, 5.
16 Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason, 171.
17 For an elaboration of these themes see Warwick Anderson, “Crap on the Map, Or Postcolonial Waste,” Postcolonial Studies 13.2 (2010): 169–78.
19 Yeats, W. B, The Variorum Edition of the Poems, eds. Alt, Peter and Alspach, Russell K (New York: Macmillan, 1957), 513 Google Scholar.
20 Beckett, Samuel, “Recent Irish Poetry,” in Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment (London: John Calder, 1983), 70 Google Scholar.
21 Samuel Beckett, First Love and Other Shorts (New York: Grove Press, 1973), 21. For a now classic analysis of this story in relation to postcolonialism, see David Lloyd, “Writing in the Shit: Beckett, Nationalism, and the Colonial Subject,” Modern Fiction Studies 35.1 (Spring 1989): 71–86.
22 Beckett, Samuel, “Recent Irish Poetry,” in Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment (London: John Calder, 1983), 70, 71Google Scholar.
23 Esty, “Excremental Postcolonialism,” 34.
24 Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 6, 22–23.
25 Flann O’Brien, The Complete Novels (New York and London: Everyman Library, 2007), 257.
26 J. M. Synge, Collected Works, gen. ed. Robin Skelton, 4 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1962–8), IV, 169.
27 Sean O’Casey, Plays, 2 vols. (London: Faber, 1998), 31.
28 For an elaboration of Joyce’s complex engagement with the Irish literary revival, see Emer Nolan, James Joyce and Nationalism (London: Routledge, 1994), 23–54, and Andrew Gibson, Joyce’s Revenge: History, Politics and Aesthetics in Ulysses (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 60–80, 103–19.
29 James Joyce, Letters, ed. Richard Ellmann, vol. 1 (London: Faber, 1957), 64.
31 Yeats, W. B, “Easter 1916,” in The Variorum Edition of the Poems, eds. Alt, Peter and Alspach, Russell K (New York: Macmillan, 1957), 391–94Google Scholar.
32 Letter from Yeats to Olivia Shakespear, April 25, 1928, in The Letters of William Butler Yeats, ed. Alan Wade (New York: Macmillan, 1955), 742.
34 Vendler, Helen, Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007)Google Scholar.
35 Yeats, W. B., “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” in The Variorum Edition of the Poems, eds. Alt, Peter and Alspach, Russell K. (New York: Macmillan, 1957), 428–33Google Scholar.
36 The murdered mother refers to an instant in the Irish war of independence when British forces killed a Galway woman, Eileen Quinn. A. Norman Jeffares, A New Commentary on the Poems of W. B. Yeats (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1984), 231.
38 Yeats, The Variorum Edition of the Poems, 433.
39 Wood, Yeats and Violence, 208.
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