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Review: IAHIP Pre-AGM Event Dumbness and Eloquence by Seamus Deane

Reviewed by Bronagh Starrs

IAHIP members who were present for the Friday night gathering on the eve of our most recent AGM in Newry were treated to a wonderfully rich and thought-provoking address by the renowned poet, author, commentator and academic, Seamus Deane. He focused on the theme of “Dumbness and Eloquence”, describing an aspect of the lived experience of the Irish people since the Famine. The trauma of the Famine, the ensuing forced exile and language shift which happened within one generation effectively silenced the Irish people, who were already living with British oppression. He explored how the legacy of this trauma continues to be felt in the Irish psyche.

The references from Irish literature which Deane drew on were deeply resonant with our work as psychotherapists, particularly our work with those clients who have known trauma. Certain themes of the Irish experience keep recurring and others keep being ignored, and Deane noticed that none of the Irish-Americans he first met ever mentioned the Irish Famine – the very experience which prompted the mass exodus west. He believes that their silence was as eloquent as anything they could have said and that there is a relationship in Irish writing and in wider areas of Irish life between the degree to which we can be eloquent about our condition and the degree to which we are dumb about it. He described this quality of silence as not just being ineloquent, but being unable or even unconscious about being unable to speak. As a psychotherapist working in the north of Ireland, this is particularly familiar to me with regard to people’s experience of the “Troubles”.

Deane spoke of this dumbness having a central preoccupation in the work of Irish writers, who often demonstrate a fascination with what it is to speak. Dumbness, he described as the kind of condition which provokes eloquence about its absence: the greater the eloquence, the more it is deriving from a determined deep-seated dumbness or aphasia. He reminded us of the two clichéd Irish postures: our “brilliant executive eloquence” and our “gift of the Blarney”. He suggested that we might indeed be experiencing the effects of transgenerational trauma, in that we are still suffering from the trauma of the Famine, and that one of the ways in which we have attempted to overcome this trauma, and the ensuing dumbness, has been to produce great literatures in English. These “brilliant moments of eloquence” are in fact part of our answer, a way of living with the silence that we then experience. Irish writers have a reputation for being eloquent and having mastery over the English language, which is certainly remarkable since it is not their language. He quoted Yeats, who described English as the language which, while his native language was not his mother tongue.

In his talk, Deane drew on several key works of the Irish Revival, to illustrate this theme of dumbness and eloquence. For example, Joyce, in Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man gives a cleverly unconventional account of a young child growing up who, when he becomes a young man, takes over the writing of the novel. The central character Stephen Dedalus who first appears as an infant (from the Latin infans meaning “one unable to speak”) and makes the journey towards deeper conscious awareness of and choiceful positioning against the embedded religious and philosophical contexts from which he emerged. Deane points out that this work, which feels like an autobiographical novel, is actually a third person rendering of the experience, and a statement about Irish culture itself. Not only does the infant Stephen learn to speak, he becomes a voice for his people:

“Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”

The structure of Synge’s Playboy Of The Western World has a similar thematic preoccupation with someone – Christy Mahon – who cannot say a word and is supported in his metamorphosis from “this dumb little creature” to the playboy of the western world, becoming very eloquent as he develops. In both works, the hero is somebody who, at first, cannot speak, and in the end, not only can speak, but has achieved a degree of eloquence which is the hallmark of his liberation.

Moving to the contemporary period, Friel’s work Translations which launched the ground-breaking Field Day Theatre Company in Derry, of which Seamus Deane was a founding member and Director, is also set in this linguistic condition; “the translation of one condition into another” as Deane described it. At the beginning of the play we are introduced to a young woman who is dumb. Someone is teaching her to say her name. By the end of the play, she is so traumatised by the burning of the village by the British that she recedes back into dumbness. She loses her language and in Deane’s words, “the whole play, of course, is about the notion of how, not so much that a place, or a people or a community or an area loses its eloquence, but how it can be rendered dumb by experience; how it can be changed into something else.”

Deane spoke of Beckett’s frustration with language: his enormous effort to escape English, to find experience-near language which is not merely describing and reproducing experience, a language which makes meaning of the experience and describes the “more than” which language cannot express. Beckett was a student of Descartes and attempted to dramatise the mind on stage, free of the body in so far as it can be. He found, however, that despite his attempts to cancel out the body and simply have a voice, it was impossible for speech not to belong to the body. We cannot separate consciousness from the body. Consciousness, as Deane described it, is the body, though one of the things it wants to do is assert its freedom from the body. “The minute you say ‘I am silent. I am unable to speak.’ You speak and you deepen the silence. Speech is an alternative, a substitute for silence.”

The theme of Dumbness And Eloquence hold strong echoes for our work as psychotherapists in Ireland. The transgenerational trauma of the Famine, which created devastation through death and forced exile, and which lives strongly in the Irish psyche, has been replicated in the experience of The Troubles in more recent times, where thousands died and thousands more emigrated. Working as a therapist in the six counties, I have found that many people are unaware that they have lived through experiences which have been so profoundly traumatic as to render them dumb in an already muted world where terror was the order of the day. The horror and cost of living in these traumatic conditions has never occurred them, nor have they space in which to give voice to their experience. Creating the possibility of a safe and trusting relational space in which the client’s voice can emerge is often the heart of the work. Deane’s description of this quality of silence as not just being ineloquent, but being unable or even unconscious about being unable to speak is familiar, and sadly continues to be poignantly relevant, as in today’s Ireland, we are witnessing communities being decimated by unemployment, poverty and forced economic migration.

I have attempted in this article to highlight some of the key themes and messages arising from Deane’s presentation to the IAHIP Members who were present at the gathering on the eve of the AGM in Newry. His full presentation is available to download via podcast at deane-podcast.

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