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John Waters doesn’t believe that the current economic problems lie with systems but with an incapability for earthly satisfaction. No doubt that will be of great comfort to the victims of those economic problems. March 17, 2009

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Complete nonsense, Economics, Economy, Irish Politics.

Granted this is a couple of days late, but it’s sort of suitable for St. Patrick’s Day as you’ll discover. And incidentally, what happened to the freezing rain and biting cold of previous St. Patrick’s Days? It’s an almost balmy 11 degrees in Dublin, although standard operating procedure hasn’t been entirely superceded. The sky is gray. I was working in Dublin city center yesterday (incidentally I’m guessing most made a long weekend of it, where I was was a ghost town) and at lunch went out for a few minutes to find the streets filled with tourists clutching tricolours and/or with fluorescent dyed green hair. Ah, our national holiday.

As regards John Waters. He’s in fine form. Oh yeah. He’s in fine form. Revived and revitalised from his break earlier in the year John Waters has decided to give us the dubious benefit of his opinions on a range of issues. Now he starts with a reference to his book “An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Ireland” which I have to admit is one I like more than usually. Sure, there was a hint of later problems seeping into the text, but it remained a pluralistic and essentially grounded work. But now he seeks to quote from it in reference to a point he made about the Éamon de Valera 1943 St. Patrick’s Day speech which is often misquoted as mentioning ‘comely maidens’.

He argues that:

…recently I’ve taken to floating an idea I ceased promoting over a decade ago because you cannot argue it with success: that Éamon de Valera, when he delivered his 1943 St Patrick’s Day “dream speech” was not wrong about everything. For years it was impossible to say this without being run out of town.

He continues;

At the mention of Dev, my recent researches have established, the national expression still creases into a sneer. The objections haven’t changed, in spite of everything.

And then that:

I find it infinitely interesting that, even now, in response to such provocation, someone will immediately mutter disparagingly about Dev and his “comely maidens dancing at the crossroads”, although the speech referred to neither phenomenon. Unfazed by such semantics, the speaker will invariably plough on to condemn de Valera for urging us to remain poor and isolated.

But here’s the problem. Even though the speech contained no such phrase, that doesn’t suddenly mean that the speech was correct in all or part. But for Waters it is not just a speech, it is never – as his words on Brian Cowen’s recent speech to businesspeople demonstrated – just a speech, but instead a sort of psychological mine that dives to the hidden depths of the Irish essence. So he argues that:

[De Valera’s] purpose was to establish a philosophical bedrock on which a coherent society might be built. The idea that Ireland might be “the home of a people living the life that God desires than man should live” is surely recognisable as code for a society in which connectedness with absolute values would enable a balance in which human happiness would be maximised. Dev was speaking at the level of metaphor, outlining not a literal landscape but a parable of a society in which human beings might prosper without succumbing to illusions or false gods. He was proposing the cultivation of a collective consciousness wired to the true meaning of human existence, bounded by a healthy sense of sufficiency and capable of growing by its own lights. The nearest he came to fantasising about comely maidens was the expression of a desire that his ideal Ireland would include the “laughter of happy maidens”, which always stuck me as fairly unexceptionable. He made no mention of crossroads at all.

Was de Valera really doing any such thing? Did he genuinely attempt to generate such a parable, or was it more likely that in a time of war, this was after all the Emergency, when a small impoverished neutral and essentially undefended state on this island attempted to stand aside as best it could, he decided to give a pep talk to the nation, one that remained within the limits of what was achievable?

And like all pep talks it consisted of saying back to the recipient the truth varnished with some stirring rhetoric about just how fabulous we as a people are. Ireland was dilapidated, in material terms there was little to be done about it at that point, what else would de Valera have suggested but that “Ireland was the home of people who value material wealth only as the basis for right living”? He was hardly going to usher in the consumer society. And Waters mistakes or elides the loftily worded but essentially pragmatic statement of the now in 1943 with some sort of template thereafter.

Which makes his subsequent statements seem just a little bit odd…

Is what scares us the thought of being satisfied with frugal comfort? Are we still offended by the notion that the population of this ideal Ireland might devote its leisure to the things of the spirit?

That’s all fine and dandy, but it seems wildly at variance with the reality of life in a somewhat secular democracy. Because it’s not due to offence at such a notion as to a sense that it is simply not a plausible mode of life for people. Nor, quite frankly, does it seem terribly attractive, or even hugely worked out. What is the detail of this life of the ‘spirit’? What would it entail? How would it be imposed and so on?

Because the reality away from the life of the mind Waters parades for us is that things haven’t been quite as wonderful at the coal-face as he might like to suggest. The boom in this state lasted about fifteen years, a little more or a little less depending upon analysis (I’m of the view that things really took off in 1997 – 1998 – late enough in the day). It’s impacts were far from even either geographically or demographically.

And the major complaints that one will hear expressed, if one asks about fears are not about the fripperies of life, DVDs, Flatscreen televisions, new cars and so on, but about the fundamentals. Will I have a job next week? What sort of health care can I expect as I get older? Will my private or state pension be sufficient unto the day? Will I get by?

And when the job goes the questions get simpler again, but worse. Much worse.

The last time I was made redundant, some five years ago, and I’m hesitant to bring this up again, those were thoughts that went through my head. Life gets awful simple in that context, dismantled to its most basic elements. How will I eat? How long can the redundancy be eked out? How much dole will I receive and how long can I get by on it? How do I explain to prospective employers what has happened? Then there is the basic raw shock of the situation, so powerful that it saps even the energy to try to get a new job. The fear that nothing will improve, that the responsibilities to family and others won’t be met. And that’s happening to thousands of people across this island.

But for Waters, seemingly insulated from such petty concerns it is all about the big stuff. The very very big stuff. And it’s all a bit absurd and, frankly, more than a bit self-indulgent…

A caricatured version of this speech was used for several generations to sell an entirely different kind of existence: one in which the sense of an absolute relationship with reality was replaced by the idea that limitless progress could one day meet all human needs. In this dream of Ireland, happiness would be predicated on belongings and sensations. Dev’s speech became the key weapon in an ideological war that, in truth, has brought us to this sorry pass: reduced to a dependency on the material and no longer able to maintain the habit.

Which is close enough to nonsense if you think about it. He sounds for all the world like a child who has had their iPod whipped away from them, or rather, he appears to believe that everyone else is like that child. But the situation we face is vastly more serious than such trivialities.

And when he does attempt to make a linkage with the economic he staggers badly…

What has happened, it is surely obvious, is more than an economic crisis. It is a crisis in the relationship between human beings and the systems they created to serve their wants. Human desire has burst at supersonic speed through the fragile edifice of the money system, leaving nothing in its wake but shattered illusions and unsatisfied appetites. The problem lies not with the systems, but with the fact that human longing, being infinite, is incapable of earthly satisfaction.

Which again is near meaningless. The human longing for security of employment, for security of income, for healthcare, for provision for family and friends are all eminently capable of earthly satisfaction and entirely subject to socio-economic and political processes.

The sort of ‘longing’ he refers to sits above such matters, is indeed the product of societies where there is time to ponder such matters. Which ironically is precisely the sort of society we live in today where people have disposable time as much as disposable income.

Oddly enough André Gorz, and indeed most Marxists and post-Marxists, have had similar thoughts, about societies which would eschew the commercial and the mass produced, of humans unshackled by economic concerns so that they could live the sort of insightful and enquiring lives that are a cousin of those proposed by Waters, but their proscriptions (quibble about the details as we might) was that it would take an engagement with the material, not a sort of headlong rush away from it, in order to generate those societies and those reformed human relations. Which means that glib talk about ‘unsatisfied appetites’ when unemployment increases seems at best off the point, at worst callously detached from the day to day concerns of hundreds of thousands.

But that wouldn’t fit into an analysis which concludes:

The idea that “regulation” could have saved us from the present calamity is as ridiculous as it is pervasive. This now constant refrain implies that some among us should have kept their heads, gone against the mood of the moment and sought to deny us our due. But the mindset epitomised by the caricature of Dev and his dream had made this all but impossible. Central to our post-de Valera imagination was the idea that restraint was a reactionary idea, that limits were for losers, that values were whatever the market decided. And despite everything, we remain incapable of making connections. We have learned nothing and understood nothing. Our towers of Babel fall around our ears, but still we hear only what justifies our deluded determination to make the same mistakes all over again.

There is no ‘we’ in this discussion and debate (at least not in the sense that he means it), no meta conversation about the Irish psyche (however that may be defined), no reason to berate people one more time for their supposed failings in not living the life of the mind as defined by Waters. There are only people in a society trying to get by as best they can, as they always have. No help though from articles like that.

And for the day that’s in it… Happy St. Patrick’s… however you choose to interpret that… 😉


1. CL - March 17, 2009

The Sunday Tribune just devoted a whole issue to morale uplift,-a kind of chamber of commerce boosterism. They even had some psychologist spew the most appalling psychobabble about the ‘science’ of psychology and how it would help overcome the national mood of negativity.
But there is one sense in how psychology is relevant in the current crisis: those unable to deal with the deteriorating material reality resort to defense mechanisms such as displacement, projection etc to preserve the comfort they receive from outmoded ideologies.


2. Niall - March 17, 2009

Easy on the psychology bashing CL!


3. Starkadder - March 17, 2009

“The problem lies not with the systems, but with the fact that human longing, being infinite, is incapable of earthly satisfaction.”

Doesn’t that essentially reduce the Christian’s relationship with God
to the level of consumerism? “You can’t be satisfied in this world,
try the Xtian God instead!”


4. WorldbyStorm - March 17, 2009

Yes it does, but that sort of reductionism is far from a stranger to his thought.


5. Tortoise - March 17, 2009

Very interesting article, WorldbyStorm, nicely picking apart Mr Waters arguments. I confess, even as a feminist, or “feminazi” as Waters termed us, to enjoying his writing. Once he moves off the patriarchal rant, he is interesting, sincere, and often during the shallow Celtic tiger years, acted as a necessary philosophical corrective to the snappy, soundbyte, yeah-go-for-it culture of that era. I also became tired of the prevailing default opinion of “Wasn’t de Valera hilarious, all the same. Him with his comely maidens and us so modern or post-modern, that, like, y’know, we’d sneer if we had the energy.”
Here is not the place to enter a retrospective on deValera, but my parents and grandparents, growing up not far from Waters in the West, often spoke of Dev’s strange, eerily mythic power, but, more often, of the grinding poverty, narrowness and despair which characterized their daily lives during his time. The call for a polity and personal vision not predicated on material wealth, while laudable in general, was offensive to many, my parents included, as they struggled in a world shorn of dignity and hope because of its grim poverty. A little materialism would have kept their children from the emigrant ship. put food on the table, a flush toilet in the house. “Right living” was no problem in a world without electric light or access to any form of transport other than a donkey and cart. In that era too there were the smug elites who had it all stitched up and were not about to let anyone on a donkey and cart unpick it. Frugal comfort was also preached to a cowed and threadbare peasantry from the pulpits of a fatted and power-drunk patriarchal Church. The condescension and snobbery I saw my father (a poor man of burning pride and intelligence) endure is still with me. There was no “we” in the discussion, then, either.
I, like Mr Waters have a reasonably secure job, gained as a result of the marvellous, revolution of Free Education in the late 60s. We need to be careful here. Now is perhaps not the time to preach the virtues of frugal comforts to people who have no option but to sweat the small stuff, the simple stuff like “Will I ever work again?” or “How will I pay my bills this week?”. The bigger philosophical questions are not as pressing for these people as they might appear to be in the Irish Times. Man shall not live by bread alone, but that aphorism somehow makes more sense after a good expense-account lunch in Patrick Gilbaud’s. It rings bitterly hollow to someone facing unemployment. Yes, we may have drifted too far from the things of the spirit in the Tiger years. But those who thought that “limits were for losers” are not the first in the dole queue. The Masters of the Universe will have ample time on their massive pensions and bonuses to lecture us on the importance of transcending the material, of “moving on”. Meanwhile, ordinary people will on a daily basis have to contend with their “unsatisfied longing” for a job and a living wage. That was the way it was then and that is the way it is now.


6. WorldbyStorm - March 17, 2009

Very much agree. I think that Waters biggest problem is attempting to shoehorn the complexity of the society into a few very rigid categories. Fine as a thought exercise, awful as a proscription.


7. Phil - March 18, 2009

It’s austerità all over again. As leader of the Italian Communist Party, Enrico Berlinguer met the late-70s economic crisis by urging the unions to accept direct and indirect pay cuts under the banner of ‘austerity’, which was supposed to point the way to a more frugal, more egalitarian and ultimately more fulfilling lifestyle. Once the unions had bought this, Berlinguer proposed to make it the basis of an alliance with the Christian Democrats. It would make a cat laugh.

Yes, perhaps, a society of austere and spiritual frugality would be a good place to live. But that society’s not here now, and berating newspaper readers for their materialism isn’t going to bring it any nearer.


8. WorldbyStorm - March 18, 2009

That’s it entirely. That he berates the IT readership sort of almost lends him a degree of credibility 🙂 , problem is he continues to say ‘us’ including everyone beyond that readership


9. Eagle - March 18, 2009

Personally, I always liked Dev’s 1943 speech. Someone gave me a gift book of Irish speeches last year and I thought that speech was very, very good.

It was wartime fare and Ireland, though poor, was not as poor as it had been in the 30s during the economic war. The war had made rural Ireland relatively ‘wealthy’. It was during the post war period that rural Ireland’s relative wealth collapsed.

For many, the pursuit of the material is a necessity. Man, to express himself fully and make the best use of the talents Gad has given him, needs a certain minimum of comfort and leisure. A section of our people have not yet this minimum. They rightly strive to secure it, and it must be our aim and the aim of all who are just and wise to assist in the effort.

He goes on to say that those who have more than they require should consider cultivating “the things of the mind”, particularly those things are distinctly Irish such as the language. And, really that was the theme of the speech. What makes the Irish different and why we should preserve those aspects of our heritage that are uniquely Irish.

When you consider the role nationalism had in the destruction of Europe, it was quite a gentle call to national service.

De Valera’s call was to support the nation and its culture, not just to do “God’s will”, which seems to be how Waters has interpreted it. I think.


10. Eagle - March 18, 2009

By the way, I typed that out myself from the book. I couldn’t find the speech online, but you can listen to part of it through this page.


11. WorldbyStorm - March 18, 2009

An interesting reading of it. I think there’s more than some truth in what you say Eagle. It’s still contains certain viewpoints that set my teeth on edge but as you say in the context of 1942/3 there was a lot lot worse in vogue.


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