Friday, August 30, 2013

Remembering Seamus Heaney: Imagining a World with a "Less Binary and Altogether Less Binding Vocabulary"

Irish poet Seamus Heaney died today. In his 1995 Nobel lecture, he tells the story of St. Kevin of Glendalough. As Kevin knelt at prayer one day, his arms outstretched, a blackbird mistook his hand for a roost, and nested in it, laying eggs there. Moved by pity and love for all creatures, Kevin remained rooted to the ground for weeks until the chicks hatched and fledged and finally flew off.

Heaney notes that though this is a specifically Irish story, there are parallels to it in the cultures of many other parts of the world. It is one of many such stories cultures tell as they down their core values, generation to generation. As poetry itself does, Heaney notes . . . . 

And then he says,

The century has witnessed the defeat of Nazism by force of arms; but the erosion of the Soviet regimes was caused, among other things, by the sheer persistence, beneath the imposed ideological conformity, of cultural values and psychic resistances of a kind that these stories and images enshrine. Even if we have learned to be rightly and deeply fearful of elevating the cultural forms and conservatisms of any nation into normative and exclusivist systems, even if we have terrible proof that pride in an ethnic and religious heritage can quickly degrade into the fascistic, our vigilance on that score should not displace our love and trust in the good of the indigenous per se. On the contrary, a trust in the staying power and travel-worthiness of such good should encourage us to credit the possibility of a world where respect for the validity of every tradition will issue in the creation and maintenance of a salubrious political space. In spite of devastating and repeated acts of massacre, assassination and extirpation, the huge acts of faith which have marked the new relations between Palestinians and Israelis, Africans and Afrikaners, and the way in which walls have come down in Europe and iron curtains have opened, all this inspires a hope that new possibility can still open up in Ireland as well. The crux of that problem involves an ongoing partition of the island between British and Irish jurisdictions, and an equally persistent partition of the affections in Northern Ireland between the British and Irish heritages; but surely every dweller in the country must hope that the governments involved in its governance can devise institutions which will allow that partition to become a bit more like the net on a tennis court, a demarcation allowing for agile give-and-take, for encounter and contending, prefiguring a future where the vitality that flowed in the beginning from those bracing words "enemy" and "allies" might finally derive from a less binary and altogether less binding vocabulary.

A world in which our vocabularies for everyday life might be "less binary and altogether less binding," less fixated on "enemies" and "allies," and in which the words of poets and storytellers counted as much as the words of politicians, corporate executives, and media spinmeisters: that might be a world, worth talking about, indeed.

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