Ireland used to like its writers dead. When I was growing up there, a young reader for whom “Now Read On” were the three most thrilling words in the language, I knew that almost every author who wrote a worthwhile word in my country had been censored, even hounded out. The only revered writers were the ones who were safely six feet under.
Now, it’s the other extreme, with Dublin now a Unesco City of Literature and living writers regularly signed up in service to the economy, used to flog mugs and merchandise, festivals and pub crawls, even the country itself.
Writers tend to be deeply ambivalent about this. On the one hand, they see it as a more sophisticated form of censorship, the hoopla often drowning out the actual writing; on the other understanding the impulse to honour writing, not just because it’s in their own occupational interest but because writers, it’s sometimes forgotten, are the most passionate of readers and as likely as any other reader to take a literary excursion.
Some have even – whisper it! – been known to buy a mug.
I know I always enjoy the multi-layered vision reading gives when I visit a literary haunt and find my own experience of place adorned with versions that I-and-a-writer created earlier. I believe there is often magic in such visits. A kind of holiness.
A tribute to the pleasure and knowledge gained through reading yes – but more than that. In a secular time, artists become very important because they are the only people offering up their lives to the pursuit of what Yeats called “Higher Things”. This is why a literary jaunt can feel like a pilgrimage and why the bric-a-brac in the tourist shop so resembles the knick-knacks at Lourdes or Rome. Homage is being paid not just to the text but to the writer for keeping faith with the source of inspiration.
“There is only one perfection and only one search for perfection,” Yeats said, and religion and art both originate in that search. In the materialist 21st century, we don’t have a shared language with which to acknowledge this but we know it when we touch off it.
If we can’t find the words, well, we can walk the streets, visit the birthplace, buy the mug with the quote on it or clink a glass of Guinness in the pub where words that have touched us, pleasured us, perhaps even changed us were conjured up out of nothing.
It’s only if we do all this instead of reading, if we substitute a commercial transaction for the writer’s gift freely offered, that the souvenir mug becomes a muzzle akin to the censorship of old and the literary location a mere greasy till.
We all know this. So now we all know what to do.
On Wednesday next, I'll be giving a talk on Literary Dublin hosted by Oxygen Books atThe Word of Mouth Literary Festival. Love to see you there.
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