Chipping Away

Writers and Politics—Essays and Criticism.
by Conor Cruise O'Brien.
Pantheon. 259 pp. $4.95.

“Britain presents in the United Nations the face of Pecksniff and in Katanga the face of Gradgrind.” This pronouncement was one of many equally forthright ones made by Dr. Conor Cruise O'Brien in 1961, soon after his term as the United Nations special representative in Elizabethville had come to an end. The aptness of the allusion gave some pleasure: its being made at all by someone actively engaged in the cut-and-thrust of international politics gave even more. Literary people are not usually notable for the way they impinge on public events and, for this reason alone, Dr. O'Brien's career is of special interest.

At his best, Dr. O'Brien is a disarmingly witty and perceptive writer, full of unpredictable quirks and movements. He is a socialist, but his broader political alignment is, as he puts it himself, “incurably liberal.” He is anti-capitalist, rather tolerant of the deficiencies of Communism, strongly pro-African nationalism, and tolerant again—sometimes to the point of almost complete permissiveness—of its excesses. His essay, for instance, on last year's Belgian-American rescue operation in the Congo is an imaginative attempt to see it from an African point of view, but it seriously underplays the scale and nature of the atrocities which were taking place around Stanleyville at the time. Dr. O'Brien especially detests anti-Communism, particularly the kind which he designates as “professional”—his relation to his own views is, by implication, disinterested and amateur. He is pugnacious and fond of polemics. In much of what he says there is usually an element of truth, even where it is dramatized or overstated.

He is now about to assume a teaching post at New York University, having worked out the last weeks of a turbulent period as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ghana. The present collection includes a short account of some of the things which have been happening at the University of Ghana, as well as two addresses he delivered there to staff and students. Together they make up the most important section of the book. Dr. O'Brien's account of the pressures that have been brought to bear on the University is written with great care and in a manner which is un-typically temperate. Its effect, together with that of the addresses, is moving, and it reveals a picture of a good man torn by conflicting loyalties.


Dr. O'Brien's position in Ghana has been an immensely difficult and delicate one. He has evidently made great—perhaps excessive—efforts to understand the basis of the official criticisms leveled against the University. These have been crudely and violently expressed, and it would be easy, and not so inaccurate, to dismiss them as paranoid and uninformed. Dr. O'Brien has resisted this temptation and looked always to his own house, reminding his students of what they owe to the workers and farmers of Ghana and of the need for the University to adapt itself to the revolution going on outside its walls. The charges are the familiar ones of neo-colonialist subversion. Dr. O'Brien refutes them with dignity and eloquence. He strives not to alienate those elements in the government with whom he has any kind of dialogue, nor to confirm in their prejudices those people in the West who would find any signs of disillusionment—and particularly from him—the cue for expressions of cynical satisfaction. He tries hard to co-operate with the authorities; he tries also to uphold the great liberal platitudes about truth, knowledge, and free inquiry. In the end these apparently have been severely eroded at the University, though perhaps less than they might have been.

The Pecksniff-Gradgrind allusion, as it happens, applies in Ghana too. It would serve, for example, to point the contrast between President Nkrumah's many protestations about academic freedom and what he suffers to take place there. From his tightrope, though, this is not the kind of reference which Dr. O'Brien permits himself to make, for like most of us he is selective about the events and occasions which call for forth-rightness. In his introduction, he writes of the “uneven distribution of moral worry” in the attitudes, particularly toward Africa, of many Western liberals, but he is better able to detect this in others than to avoid it completely in himself. The murderers of Lumumba deserve his contumely, but there are no signs of sympathy for the late Mr. J. B. Danquah, in some ways the father of African nationalism in Ghana, who died recently in prison. Alongside Dr. O'Brien's good points, his intelligence and his wit, his generosity of outlook toward unpopular and unfamiliar points of view and toward people of the wrong color, we must set what he himself admits to—“a touch of the propaganda fiend”—an admission which is candid but not completely disarming.


In the present volume he moves easily—with and without the fiend—between his two worlds of literature and politics. The reviews, articles, and addresses which make up the book, cover, among other things, aspects of the literature of England, France, and Ireland. There is also a bit of Irish history; a scathing and effective attack on the New Yorker; and a few thoughts on contemporary criticism. There follows a section on the cold war, a balanced and, in the end, realistic piece on the workings of the United Nations, and finally a section on the New Africa. The quality of the pieces varies a good deal. Some are very slight and some are too evidently written in heat, but several of the critical essays are outstandingly good. Dr. O'Brien sees literary criticism and political analysis as similar activities. The former is concerned with removing the complacencies and prejudices which stand between the reader and the work; the latter with removing the “distortions and misleading facades” which power blocs erect in pursuit of their interest. Dr. O'Brien's criticism, anyway, comes near to fulfilling its aim.

His long review of that short masterpiece of Camus, The Fall, is a good example. No political or ideological concerns of his own are allowed to modify the full responsiveness he gives to it. For example:

What is ruined here is the morale of the progressives: most of the capital of the intellectual left has long been rewardingly invested in moral indignation, and now, M. Camus, having transferred his own capital to an unspecified destination, engages in inflationary maneuvers. The shareholders are justifiably incensed.

As I see it, Dr. O'Brien was and is himself one of the shareholders. Like the book's barrister hero, Jean-Baptiste Clamance, before his Fall, he specializes to this day in “la veuve et l'orphelin”; the widows and orphans, the deserving cases, not of Paris, but of the world. Dr. O'Brien, too, might be expected to feel incensed at the hopeless and self-punishing quietism of the later Camus. Instead, he admires the book greatly and writes about it with perception and feeling. Whatever its sources, his own capacity for moral and political fervor is not related, as it so often can be, to any serious failure of self-knowledge.

It is possible that, out of its context, the quotation I have made from Dr. O'Brien's essay on Camus gives the impression that, as a critic, he likes formulations, the reduction of literature to its thesis. This is not so. He is sensitive and attentive to tone and language, as a short note on Hardy's poem on the loss of the Titanic shows. But perhaps the most interesting of all the literary pieces is his essay on the two Irish Ascendancy writers, Somerville and Ross, whose Some Experiences of an Irish R.M. was twenty years ago to be found on the bookshelves of a great many English middle-class households.

These two Anglo-Irish gentlewomen belonged to that category of “colonials” and “settlers” whom Dr. O'Brien currently detests most. I remember myself reading some of their stories as a child and being struck, in the illustrations, by the contrast between the stately Edwardian ladies on their elegant croquet lawns, and the crazy Irish retainers, red-nosed loons in “low” costume, with whom comic efforts at communication were being attempted. Irish intellectuals nowadays regard Somerville and Ross as patronizing and vulgar writers, who exploited the Irish in true colonial style, for the benefit of an English middle-class readership. Dr. O'Brien destroys this particular prejudice and shows how even the exaggerations in The Irish R.M. were related to true perceptions about Ireland and were rooted in Irish life. His excellent quotations from Somerville and Ross show that he is capable of seeing through surface badness, the conventionalities of period and class, to less obvious qualities. It is the exercise of a similar kind of intelligence which enables him to put into a wider perspective the nature and extent of bribery and corruption in developing countries. Questions of style are also relevant here.


It should be clear from this that Dr. O'Brien is capable of some magnanimity but also that he takes some satisfaction in rejecting orthodoxies and in rebuking his own people (in politics, his own side) for their faults. His reasons for doing so are clearly set forth in his Introduction:

I have not felt any great need to add my amateur efforts to those of the numerous professional critics of Communist practice. My own guess is that the liberation of the Communist world, and of the poor world, from their crude forms of mendacity, will have to proceed from within and the liberation of the Western world from its subtler and perhaps deadlier forms of mendacity will also have to proceed from within. . . . From the other side we can hear a few writers, Poles, Russians, and Hungarians and others busily chipping away. Our applause can neither encourage nor help them. What might help would be that from our side also should be heard the sound of chipping.

Well, there is something to be said for this, though the history of our times does not support the view that crude forms of mendacity are less deadly than any others. Mendacity, crude and subtle, is bad, though subtle mendacity at least tips its hat to this truth. “Physician, heal thyself,” the classic liberal precept which underlies the passage, is a useful one as long as the nature of the disease is not exaggerated, as it is in Dr. O'Brien's last sentence. Are the handful of chippers in the East at last to hear a faint, answering, and solitary knock? Dr. O'Brien has been chipping away for years in some important Western journals, and he is not alone. It would be a pity if in his assaults on some imprisoning illusions he overlooked such fortifying truths as this one.

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