16 May 2014

Come in to the parlour (but not too far...)

Do we have this in common?
UpStart Poster, Dublin, 23rd February, 2011
I spent a rare weekend in Dublin last week, though the cause was work rather than fun. 

I had a client visiting from America, more specifically from California (for the two are not necessarily the same thing). This was their first time in Ireland and although they themselves had no connections to the Aul' Sod, their partner was Irish-American. They could not say exactly what the ratio of Irish-to-American was, but it was somewhat less than their grandparents fled the Famine-ravaged lands and somewhat more than their grandparents owned an Irish Setter. The connection was far enough back that they didn't know where or when it originated, but not far enough to prevent it from shaping every aspect of their sense of self-identity.

They were Irish, and that was the end of it.

I had a number of restaurants booked for the visit, not too showy but nice enough (a difficult enough task to do when you want to go a) somewhere nice that b) won't contain bankers, developers, rugby "personalities", politicians or Sindo "journalists" and c) uses cutlery), but alas my business partner thought differently. "They want corned beef and cabbage", he said, "They want to try Irish food".

"Irish food?" I asked, "You mean like the chipper?"

"No, proper Irish food, like boxty. Colcannon. Corned beef. They want the full Irish experience".

"Are you sure you're not thinking of a Spice Burger," I said, "cause I'm pretty sure they don't make them anymore?"

But no, corned beef and cabbage it was, which presented a problem because I was pretty sure nobody had actually eaten that in Ireland in a hundred and fifty years. I think it would have been easier if they had asked for some braised swan and a trencher or two.

You see, Americans have a very specific idea of Ireland, one that flows around St Patty's Day and Corned beef, neither of which bare any resemblance to contemporary reality. The image they hold dear is of a devote and superstitious Catholicism, an ignorant, drunken and criminal rabble, a violent masculinity tempered by a devote and chaste femininity, all wrapped up in tales of the Wee Folk and British brutality.

In essence the picture they have of Ireland is one ripped from the lives of the poor and dispossessed, the rural refugees and the urban malcontents, the human detritus of the Irish 19th Century forced to flee their homes and determined to hold on to their sense of self in an alien world. Time has stood still for Ireland in America, 150 years later we are still viewed by them through Famine lenses.

Baudrillard likened America to a hologram, to a perfect simulation of everything that might be:
 "America is neither dream nor reality. It is a hyperreality. It is a hyperreality because it is a utopia which has behaved from the beginning as though it were already achieved. Everything here is real and pragmatic, and yet it is all the stuff of dreams too. It may be that the truth of America can only be seen by a European, since he alone will discover here the perfect simulation - that of the immanence and material transcription of all values. The Americans, for their part, have no sense of simulation. They are themselves simulation in its most developed state, but they have no language in which to describe it, since they themselves are the model, As a result, they are the ideal material for an analysis of all the possible variants of the modern world."

- Jean Baudrillard, America, pp 28-29
It would seem that contained within that hologram is a multidimensional snapshot of every culture ever absorbed in to its foundational fabric, like an insect trapped in amber, preserved for all eternity, unchanging and unmoving.

And yet when we encounter this amber snapshot of Ireland, we recoil, we pull away in disgust and reject it like the most unflattering selfie (#nofilter). We are confronted with all the worst aspects of our own cultural psyche, the drunkenness, the violence, the criminality, the superstitious ignorance and sheer buffoonery that for generations the English press and high society applied to us as damning labels. We see what for generations were public shames heaped upon us by our colonial masters now embraced by our lost children as badges of pride. We are forcibly confronted by an external sense of self that we rejected many years ago, and are frightened by the implication of its resolute preservation across subsequent generations of exiles.

What we have here are two sample groups drawn from the same original culture. One group has grown and matured, the other remains almost identical to the original. Yet it is us left behind in Ireland that have changed the most, that have evolved and matured - but we have done so only in the space of the last sixty years, for would the Ireland of the 1950s really have been as alien a landscape to the amber-preserved Famine emigrant as that of today?

This leaves us with a difficult question, for if our culture has evolved so quickly in the last sixty years, reshaping itself beyond recognition to those who came before, does that not make us the mutation and not the control?

Is this not the true reason we reject the Irish-American and the greater Diaspora beyond, the fear that in them we are faced with a true reflection of who we are at our core and that everything we believe ourselves to be today is just a short term aberration, a mutation, a deviation from our essential essence?

At the Boxty House in Temple Bar, over coddle and corned beef, our guest asked us why there was so little fish on the menu. They wondered why as an island nation was fish not our main food. The answer, we replied, was Catholicism, that fish was associated with fasting on a Friday, that it was a food you only ate when you were forbidden from eating anything else. If you could eat meat, "real' meat, instead why would you want fish?

"But," they asked, "I thought you guys weren't really religious anymore?"

So while we no longer fast on a Friday, culturally we still reject the notions of poverty from the past. Fish was a sacrifice, and since we are no longer poor we no longer have to sacrifice and eat fish, so quick, let's start buying property like the smart ballsy people.

The Celtic Tiger and its inevitable collapse, and our recoil and revulsion when seeing our reflections in the culture of those who come back to find their roots, are two sides of the same bitter coin. We reject the past by ignoring it, by dismissing it, and by distancing ourselves as far as possible from all traces of what came before, mainly because we are afraid that what we see is actually our true essence.

Our fear is that Baudrillard's American hologram is not a simulation, but a Platonic world of forms, that Patty's Day and the fighting Irish are the Ideal, the true Ireland, and we are but the pale shadow cast upon the wall. We have spent the last sixty years trying to shake free from that image, but what if that is actually our true essence and what we cloak ourselves in now is the simulation?

See, if we'd stuck with my original choices, or even gone to the chipper in a futile quest for a Spice Burger, I wouldn't have faced this existential crisis of cultural identity.

Yet another reason why I'm a vegetarian.

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