On Easter morning, 2020 amidst the cloistered quarantine of the Corona virus pandemic, I finished reading “The Shattered Worlds of Standish O’Grady” written by my friend Christopher Boettcher. He sent me a copy of this book based on his PhD thesis several months ago and I have been meaning to get to it. But there was some hesitation on my part perhaps because this subject matter is not something I would normally seek out. To wit, Standish O’Grady is an obscure (at least from my frame of reference), turn of the 20th century, Irish author with no presently familiar work of literature. He is, however, thought to have influenced Irish authors who came after him (e.g., W.B. Yeats). But I have no background or interest in Irish literature per se.
No, I started to read this book mostly as an expression of my friendship. But I rediscovered that exposing myself to something I would not normally expose myself to can be an enlightening experience. Unfortunately, this is a world where it is easy to confine myself to an informational comfort zone / echo chamber and that is not where growth happens. And I believe I did grow by reading this book I would not have sought out on my own. I first found it interesting to read what my friend had written and what he thought to be of interest. I then found myself becoming (i.e., growing) interested in this subjectively foreign subject matter.
O’Grady became inspired to write and publish after reading a dusty history of Ireland he found in a private library. Apparently, the Irish history O’Grady knew at that point was English in orientation. Reading this history, inspired him to research and write his own history of Ireland. He later (after a non productive stint as a barrister) took on the management and content creation of a publication called The All-Ireland Review wherein the evolution of his ideas and priorities would be reflected from 1900 to 1907. Boettcher repeatedly emphasizes how O’Grady would edit and rewrite what he had previously written to further refine his evolving point of view. Sometimes this happened because his original content was not well received. Other times his point of view had shifted. This reflected on his part, an attitude of personal fortitude that would not let the opinions of others cause him to hide in shame. This aspect of his personality was one of the details in the book to catch my attention.
However, it took me a while to understand why Standish O’Grady was a person worth reading about as well as his broader significance. On the personal level, Standish O’Grady saw the cracks in his world. He observed how the Irish peasants, illiterate and incapable of paying their rents were caught in a system of debt and dysfunction. O’Grady had ideas about reforming society. He advocated land reform legislation and devised ideas about creating communal estates. But his enthusiasm to create this change eventually turned to disillusionment as they never really came to pass. Perhaps his trajectory of enthusiasm was a function of his age.
But the idea I had whilst reading was that Standish O’Grady was part of a larger process at work. On a societal or cultural level, he is considered to be a father of the Irish literary revival of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But he set out to accomplish something quite different. There is the sense that history plays itself out in cycles and each individual despite his illusion of ego and agency ends up being an atom in the cyclical waves. O’Grady’s influence spurred the Irish Literary Revival but he did not intend to affect this course of events. Put another way, his agency did not work to advance his ideas but they did express themselves within a greater pattern.
I picked up this book at the beginning of Lent and finished on Easter Sunday. Easter is about renewal. The liturgical year is a repeated cycle of birth, death and resurrection. This book came into my life not through my own agency. My decision to read it had more to do with friendship than my own desire to learn about its contents. O’Grady had ideas he sought to see manifest in reality, took concrete steps to realize them, but ultimately did not succeed. Rather, his influence spurred or was part of the spurring of a larger literary cycle. Worlds exist and then shatter. But a new world remains after the old one has shattered only to eventually shatter itself. And amidst this cycle, individuals live their lives and pursue their aims but for the most part remain unaware of the larger patterns. This seems to be the case anyway.
The illusion of ego in this sense seems to be an illusion of control. There are forces at work stronger than the individual that sweep us all along. And yet there is a kernel of agency in there, is there not? There is the part of the individual that is dissatisfied with the way things are as Standish O’Grady was with the state of the Irish peasants and as I am with much of the work I find myself doing on a day to day basis. And this part convinces itself that it can change the world. And then this part takes action (or doesn’t). And then this part sees the results of its action or inaction. Whether the results are success, failure or regret for inaction the grander cycle plays itself out and the individual plays his small or large role.
The question, I suppose, is whether the individual’s agency has importance or significance? Certainly, the individual’s agency has significance from the perspective of the individual when he is not awake to or concerned with the larger cycles at play. Or perhaps, human suffering can be attributed to the individual clinging too tightly to the success of his individual agenda not wishing to understand that the larger cycle will always win in the end? Alas, a subject for another day. Thank you for an enjoyable and thought provoking read Betch!