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The Voice of the Past: Regionalism as Historical Consciousness in Three Contemporary British and Irish Writers

-- Stephanie Hilger


History is not only an academic discipline,
but a major concern for everyone who tries to understand the present and envisage a picture of the future. Yet historical consciousness is not inherently present; it has to be created and sustained. Various twentieth-century intellectuals have struggled to counteract the danger of a cultural amnesia after the two World Wars. Their writings force the reader to confront aspects of the past which have frequently been hidden in the bottom drawer of historical representation.

In his Moses and Monotheism--published in 1939--Sigmund Freud attempts to explain the emergence of a monotheistic system of belief for the Jewish people by drawing analogies between individual and mass psychology. This transposed method allows Freud to introduce valuable concepts for a different, "non-traditional," perception of historical processes. One of these concepts is what he refers to as the "return of the repressed." In the context of Jewish history, Freud defines the return of the repressed as the return of the religion of Moses. Freud tentatively establishes a theory according to which Jewish monotheism stems from pre-Exodus systems of belief, so that the creation of the God Jaweh is a manifestation of the latent content of the society's memory, that is the figure of Moses and the idea of a "Golden Age" associated with it.

In the aftermath of traumatic events, such as the Exodus--in the case of the Jewish people or the two World Wars and the British-Irish confrontations over Northern Ireland in the twentieth century--repression takes place until the repressed/latent content forces its way out of its confinement in the unconscious realm into consciousness. Although there are proponents of Theodor Adorno's injunction that poetry has become impossible after Auschwitz, other writers have self-consciously written about just these traumatic events. The writings of these post-war novelists, dramatists and poets constitute a performative effort to end the period of latency by describing the painful process of recovering repressed violent events. In their attempt at recovery, they describe a society characterized by--what Freud calls--a "neurosis." When the period of latency ends and the repressed contents surfaces it is never in its original appearance: The "distinctive character of them [all phenomena of symptom-formation associated with neuroses] . . . lies in the extensive distortion the returning elements have undergone, compared with their original form" (Freud, Moses 164). The "repressed" returns in a disguised form, so that this "extensive distortion" results in a "substitutive satisfaction" (163) of the past's claim to consciousness.

In the works of twentieth-century authors writing after a traumatic event such as a world or a civil war, the "return of the repressed" is represented by the appearance of an unreal and distorted figure, a kind of vision, or a disturbed, neurotic individual who is one of the symptoms of this repression. The return of this repressed is often a witness to a sense of guilt or inadequacy. Wilfred Owen expresses his experiences as a soldier in the First World War by describing such a "vision" both in "Dulce et Decorum Est" and in "Strange Meeting." His dead comrades reappear in the form of revenants that surface everywhere he goes, "[i]n all my dreams, before my helpless sight, / He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning" ("Dulce Et Decorum Est" lines 16-17) or "[d]own some profound dull tunnel . . . there encumbered sleepers groaned / as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared, / With piteous recognition in fixed eyes" ("Strange Meeting" lines 2-7). W.B. Yeats faces the revenant in the form of a supernatural appearance which represents his modernist vision of the apocalypse. In "Byzantium," the speaker encounters "an image, man or shade, / Shade more than man, more image than shade . . . A mouth that has no moisture and no breath" (lines 9-13). In "The Second Coming," a "vast image out of Spiritus Mundi / Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert / A shape with lion body and the head of a man, / A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun." (lines 12-15). For various writers of the first half of the century--Yeats and Owen serving as "representative" examples in the context of this argument--the revenant appears either in a disguised representation of a personal experience on the battlefield or in a global vision of world history.

In the second half of the century there appears to be a shift in sensibility, especially from the seventies onwards, because the scene for the return of the repressed is neither personalized nor globalized, but happens in a space in-between. Novelists and poets writing after W.W. II have tried to achieve the process of recovery by an intense preoccupation with regional history as manifested on a geographically limited terrain. Graham Swift's novel Waterland (1983) Seamus Heaney's sequence of poems Station Island (1984) and Geoffrey Hill's Mercian Hymns (1971) are three instances of this newly represented historical consciousness. In all of these three texts, an investigation of regional concerns represents an attempt to understand both the individual situation and the broader context associated with it. Hill's scouring of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia, Swift's intense preoccupation with the marsh region of the Fens in East Anglia and Heaney's archeological interest in the traces of history on the Irish landscape are all attempts at uncovering a society's "neuroses."

Geoffrey Hill's poetry reflects a self-conscious relation to history in general and in particular to the aftermath of the Second World War. The form of the prose-poem makes his verse often sounds nervous and strained in its reflection of the speaker's feeling of guilt and inadequacy. The fragmented Mercian Hymns resonate with the voice of Offa, the king of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom in the eighth century who says in and about the first hymn that "'I liked that . . . sing it again'" (Hymn 1, line 9). His wish will be fulfilled by the following twenty-nine hymns, but his identity will be fragmented in the course of this long prose-poem in order to incorporate both the past and the present. The representation of this ever absent and ever present ghost-like king with a maimed and dispersed identity encompasses a consciousness about history and the violence associated with the "progress" of civilization.

Offa becomes a chef, a "king in / his new-risen hat, sealing his brisk largesse with / 'any mustard?'" in the context of a twentieth-century British coronation ceremony (Hymn III, lines 1-3). Offa also adopts the voice of the poet "who was taken to be a king of / some kind, a prodigy, a maimed on" (Hymn V, lines 7-8) and he later emerges as a "village king" in the car accident alluded to in Hymn XVII (line 6). Although a protesting and angry voice rebels against this disintegration by asserting its perceived integrity -- "I am the King of Mercia, and / I know" -- in Hymn VIII (lines 3-4), the presence of the "maimed /souls" (lines 2-3) and the "mad" (line 1) does not allow an unproblematic or essentialist conception of identity. The "repressed" return and with them all the violent aspects of history, the "ridged gleam" (Hymn XXVIII, line 10), "the solitary axe-blow" (Hymn XXVIII, line 7), the "Tiber foaming out / much blood" (Hymn XVIII, lines 10-11) and the "traces of / red mud" (Hymn XXX, lines 3-4) which are scattered on the landscape of Mercia in particular and of history in general.

The ghost of Offa haunts every subsequent identity, always claiming its presence in the collective consciousness, which might be repressing the treaty of commerce which Offa signed with Charlemagne in 796. Offa's commercial dealings are hinted at in the first hymn; he is referred to as the "contractor / to the desirable new estates: saltmaster: money- / changer: commissioner for oaths: martyrologist: / the friend of Charlemagne" (Hymn I, lines 5-8). As Hill considers commerce to be at the root of most of the violence in history--a conviction which he most explicitly voices in another poem, "Of Commerce and Society"--his invocation of Offa reinforces his endeavor to deconstruct the mythical and legendary aura which history books and public consciousness often attach to "great" figures in history.

The voice of the deconstructed and disintegrating Mercian king forces the reader to face the immediate past. By intermingling the atmosphere of the eighth century with references to other historical periods, the twentieth century is always already implied. The contemporary violence claims its presence through the mask of the past. Masquerading appears as a strategic means in claiming consciousness. This disguise goes along with Hill's reluctance to paint clear descriptions of concretely defined physical violence. Vincent Sherry, one of Hill's critics, claims that this method results from Hill's "moral conscience, his reticence about using atrocities for heightened effect [which] seems to join the intrinsic conservatism of British poetry to a world of postwar awareness" (Sherry 7). Death and violence are omnipresent in Hill's sequence of prose-poems, yet they are always invested with a vagueness which is typical for all of his poetry. Hymn IX describes a burial where the churchyard is characterized by "spoil-heaps of chrysanths dead in their / plastic macs, eldorado of washstand marble" (lines 7-8). On another occasion--after a description of commerce and coins that "struck with account- / able tact" (Hymn XI, lines 3-4)--the reader stumbles upon "[s]wathed bodies in the long ditch; one eye upstaring" (Hymn XI, line 9). This is Hill's most concrete description of violence, yet it is vague enough in leaving out specific details in accordance with Hill's specific post-war sensibility. The bodies are presumed to have been killed by the "king's anger" (line 10), but the reference is certainly not limited exclusively to the context of Offa and the eighth century. The landscape is always covered with the red of violence, so that the "[e]arth lay for a while, the ghost-bride of livid / Thor, butcher of strawberries, and the shire-tree / dripped red in the area of its uprooting" (Hymn XXVII, lines 9-11). The sequence of hymns ends with an allusion to the remains of historical processes. When the ghostlike apparition vanishes, "he left behind coins, for his lodging, and traces of / red mud" (Hymn XXX, lines 3-4). The ghost disappears, but the traces of violence remain. Each period has its "butcher[s] of strawberries," leaving behind destruction and death in their wake.

When Freddy Parr's body floats down the Leem in the East-Anglian region of the Fens and gets caught in the Cricks' sluice, the body of history claims its presence in the form of the dead teenager's corpse. Just as Hill's Hymns constitute a self-conscious reflection on history, Waterland can be read as what Linda Hutcheon, in A Poetics of Postmodernism, has termed "historiographic metafiction"--fiction which self-consciously focuses on epistemological issues (105). Many of the concrete events in the novel can therefore be read on two levels, a literal and a metaphorical/symbolic one. Freddy Parr's corpse presents a mystery which encourages an inquiry of the past. But the novel does more than ask the question "Who killed Freddy Parr?" It forces the characters and the reader to roam the landscape of the Fens in search of an explanation which reaches back into a more remote past than initially expected. The disrupted time sequence of the novel is a reflection of the going back and forth between the present and a variety of past periods. Again, as in Hill's Mercian Hymns, the confrontation with the present can only be achieved by making a digression to the far past, to the time of the Viking fleets and the Norman besiegers of the Fenland region. But the search for traces in the Fens, where water takes away what man has created, is a process which has to overcome denial and repression. The water acts as the prison of the unconscious, locking in those memories which the ego and the super-ego repress due to a fear of punishment and a feeling of guilt.

The search for an explanation in the past makes it clear that reaching "the complete and final version" (Swift 8) of history is an illusion. The ghost-like appearance of Freddy Parr and the presence of the narrator's brother, Dick Crick, destroy this illusion. In the imaginary search for "the complete and final version" of history, the events of the outer world become crystallized in the Fenlandian microcosm, in a region where "[h]eavy drinking, madness and sudden acts of violence are not uncommon" (17). On July 5, 1943, the narrator's father finds Freddy Parr's body, but resists the acknowledgment of the violence associated with its presence in his sluice: "He stood, facing us, on the tow-path. Then quite deliberately, for a matter of several seconds, he turned to look the other way . . . He was hoping that if he turned his back, counted ten, whispered a covert entreaty, it would go away. But it didn't" (28). The narrator's father, Harry Crick, looks "the other way." He wants to repress this ghost of history and attempts to "un-see" the bruise which is visible on Freddy's forehead. In the course of the novel, the bruise comes to stand as a metonymic representation of historical violence. For Harry Crick, the bruise is a disguised reappearance of the violence he witnessed during his service in W.W.I in the mud of Flanders. Freddy Parr appears as a revenant reminding Harry Crick of his own experiences and the larger contemporary background of both W.W. I and II. Parr's ghost destroys the illusion of the self-contained and non-contaminated Fenlandian way of life. As the narrator puts it, "there's no escaping it: even if we miss the grand repertoire of history, we yet imitate it in miniature and endorse, in miniature, its longing for presence, for feature, for purpose, for content" (41). It is this "longing for presence" of history which has as a result that "[t]here was no suppressing Freddy Parr" (49). The bruise has to be acknowledged, which means that its perpetuators have to be identified. From the beginning, the narrator establishes his brother Dick, the uncanny character in the novel, as the main suspect. This attribution conceals the narrator's own feelings of guilt and inadequacy, so that the character of Dick Crick, the narrator's brother, comes to represent the destructive results of historical repression.

In the various critics' reading of Waterland, Dick Crick crystallizes the novel's perceived main themes. John Schad's Marxist reading of Waterland as "an allegorical exploration of postmodern theories of the end of history" (911) interprets Dick's situation as a "posthistorical vacuum that is still, very obviously, set in relation to the Jamesonian nightmare of history: namely labor" (914). Pamela Cooper's reading of Waterland as a postcolonial text posits Dick as an instance of alterity: Dick Crick and his uncanny exterior appearance of "a long potato-colored face, with a heavy jaw and a slack mouth which hung invariably open . . . [and in which] the eyelids only registered emotion" (Swift 27) "becomes a kind of revenant or ghost: the equivocal and fugitive accretion of those returnings which stalk the embattled scene of modern history" in "Derridean terms" (Cooper 381). Without confining Waterland into the postcolonial category, Cooper's interpretation of Dick as "Other" does justice to the novel's attempt to redefine and expand historical consciousness. Dick's mere presence counteracts "those amnesiac, those time-erasing qualities so craved by all guilty parties" (Swift 134). In the course of the novel, the narrator's inquiry into the past reveals that Dick is not Harry Crick's biological son, but that of Helen Crick-Atkinson--Harry Crick's wife--and her father, Ernest Atkinson. The incestuous relationship results in a character whose mental limitations induce his surroundings to suppress that part of the past which is associated with his presence. In the context of Freddy Parr's death, Dick's "mutilated" identity and its illegitimate origin vehemently force their way into consciousness. The past seems to take revenge for its repression in the present. Dick is suspected to be Parr's murderer, but this is never proven. At the end of the novel Dick disappears--in a similar way to the various types of revenants in Hill's and Heaney's poetry -- only to leave the other characters behind with a feeling of their own responsibility and involvement.

One of the conditions for the "repressed material [to retain] its impetus to penetrate into consciousness" is present '"[w]henever recent events produce impressions or experiences which are so much like the repressed material that they have the power to awaken it. Thus the recent material gets strengthened by the latent energy of the repressed, and the repressed material produces its effects behind the recent material and with its help" (Freud, Moses 121). The bruise on Freddy Parr's forehead, which recalls the blow that Atkinson inflicted to his wife and which foreshadows the bruises that the narrator inflicts on the abducted baby in an attempt to take it away from his wife, is one instance in which the connection between the past, the present and the future manifests itself. When the narrator's emotionally unstable wife, Mary Metcalf--conjectured to have had a sexual relationship not only with her future husband, but also with his brother, Dick--abducts a baby from a supermarket, Dick Crick's repressed origin is forced into consciousness. The parallelism between these two instances of an illegitimate creation of parenthood is also echoed by the Christian references associated with it. For his biological (grand)father, Ernest Atkinson, Dick is supposed to become the savior of the world, whereas Mary Metcalf insists that the baby was sent to her by God. Both Helen Crick's father and Tom Crick's wife are afflicted by a kind of "madness," a neurosis which -- according to Freud--always "conceals a quota of unconscious sense of guilt, which in its turn fortifies the symptoms by making use of them as a punishment" (Civilization and its Discontents 86). Dick and Mary bear their own guilt--the murder of Freddy Parr and Mary's abortion when she was a teenager--and that of previous generations.

The symptoms of this "unconscious sense of guilt" manifest themselves not only in Dick Crick, Mary Metcalf and Ernest Atkinson, but in all the characters in the novel, not the least the narrator. It is at this point that the past has to be faced and can no longer be repressed because sometimes "the happening won't stop and let itself be turned into memory" (Swift 329). The narrator, who considers himself to be "a prisoner . . . of irreversibly historical events" (319-320), tries to break free from this confinement when he "unlocked the past inside a black wooden chest" (320). This unlocking of the broader context is achieved by the replacement of history with his story. Price, the narrator's student, represents a part of Tom Crick's history. Price, who paints his face white, appears as another revenant in the present of the narration. He haunts the narrator, a history teacher, with his challenging and critical questions about historical representation. Price's questions lead to Tom Crick's recovery of personal history and to an awareness of the larger context, "[t]he very sentiments . . . of 1789" (6), "the Afghan crisis, the Teheran hostages, the perilous and apparently unhaltable build-up of nuclear arms" (7). The unlocking of the regional past in order to understand personal and global history is the narrative motor of the novel. The novel itself becomes the space where the past is reworked. In the "historiographic metafiction" of Waterland, the novel assumes some of the functions of "that place which modernity forbids we call an asylum:" "First you tell your dreams. First you speak your innermost fears. Then all the rest follows--the whole story. Even back to when you were a little . . ." (155). Narration assumes the function of psychoanalysis; the expression of the "innermost fears" constitutes the first step on the way to recover as much as possible from "the whole story."

The voyage into the past triggers a reappearance of deliberately "forgotten" events. In Seamus Heaney's sequence of twelve poems, "Station Island," which constitutes one part of the larger 1984 collection of the same title, the speaker comes across personifications of the regional past on his pilgrimage on the Irish Lough Dergh island, which appears in many ways as a voyage to the underworld. In the course of one of the various penitential exercises associated with the pilgrimage, the figure of a "man had appeared / at the side of the field / with a bow-saw, held / stiffly up like a lyre" (Part I, lines 9-12). This apparition defines itself as the speaker's all-present "mystery man" (line 24). The present and the past mingle in a dream-like landscape where the speaker encounters "half-remembered faces" (line 58). As the poem progresses, it becomes more and more concrete in its reference to the conflicts between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. In part II, the speaker confronts another version of the revenant, an "aggravated man" (line 9) who "smelled hanged bodies rotting on their gibbets / and saw their looped slime gleaming from the sacks -- / hard-mouthed Ribbonmen and Orange bigots" (lines 9-31). Before this vision disappears, it gives the advice to "try to make sense of what comes. / Remember everything and keep your head" (lines 53-54). This advice to understand the future on the basis of the past is an exhortation to counteract the danger of cultural amnesia. Yet, the poem does not present a utopian vision of this process of recovery, of "remembering," because it points to the presence of those voices which constantly shout "Secrets, secrets" and "Don't tell. Don't tell" (177).

As the poem develops, more ghost-like figures appear and the violence is represented in much more concrete terms than in Geoffrey Hill's poetry. In contrast to Hill's "curt, sardonic utterance that borders on silent memorial" (Hart 88), Heaney's poetry is marked by what Hart calls a "fascinated horror" (88). No wonder then that "[t]o Heaney's detractors, he seems to justify atrocities any humane person would condemn" (78). The difference in treatment of the Kurtzian "horror" by Heaney and Hill is a reflection of the poets' opinion on what elements are necessary in the process of creating historical consciousness. In Heaney's "Station Island," a multitude of voices bring in their stories--frequently with concrete descriptions of physical violence--in order to give a sense of history as an accumulation of painful personal experiences: the priest in part IV who went as a missionary to the rain forest and imposed his religion on the "natives;" the man whose "brow / was blown open above the eye and blood / had dried on his neck and cheek" (Part VII, lines 10-12) and who was the "perfect, clean unthinkable victim" (line 76) after a robbery of his store; the Catholic in part VIII who was "dead at thirty-two" (line 39) because a "Protestant . . . shot [him] through the head" (line 72) in a "live sectarian assassination" (line 64); "[t]his voice from blight / And hunger" (Part IX, lines 17-18) that emanates from the coffin to which it has been confined since the "bomb flash" (line 7). Each of these dream-like appearances vanishes after it has told its part of the history. One of them "headed up the road at the same hard pace" (Part II, line 67), another "trembled like a heatwave and faded" (Part VII, line 82) and yet another "moved off quickly [while] / the downpour loosed its screens round his straight walk" (Part XII, lines 47-48). The past appears as a mirage and yet it is real, because the description of the effects of violence--Heaney's "fascinated horror" (Hart 88)--remains with the reader as a "silent memorial" (88). After the vision has vanished, the reader is left with an absence which is a presence. The past is always absent--that is past--yet it is always already present in human consciousness, even if it is in a disguised form and has to be awakened by "[t]his voice from blight / And hunger" (Part IX, lines 17-18).

Historical consciousness becomes possible when there is both an involvement and a distance to the events. The moment of historical awareness becomes the creative impetus in "Station Island." It occurs in part X when the speaker "mouthed at [his] half-composed face / In the shaving-mirror, like somebody / Drunk in the bathroom during a party, / Lulled and repelled by his own reflection" (lines 61-63). This experience of self-division reflects the speaker's understanding of the connection between the regional history which he has been exploring, his own life story and a broader historical understanding. In the last part, part XII, the voice of an apparently blind man--who has been read as representing James Joyce--tells him that "'[t]he main thing is to write / for the joy of it'" (192). At this point the speaker and the poet start to merge and the verses become the poet's comment on the role of history in the creative process. The voice warns the speaker/poet not to get caught in the past, but to move on with a sharp historical consciousness: "'Take off from here . . . Let go, let fly, forget. / You've listened long enough. Now strike your note / . . . You are raking at dead fires, / rehearsing old whinges at your age . . . Keep at a tangent. / When they make the circle wide, it's time to swim out on your own and fill the element'" (Part XII, lines 29-42). Rather than suggesting to repress the past, the voice encourages the speaker to build a vision of the future on the awareness of the past. It is a positive "forgetting" in its desire not to repress history, but to acknowledge it and to work from there.

Heaney's widening circle is perhaps a subtle wink to Yeats's "widening gyre" and all the ambiguities in meaning this much-quoted phrase implies. All of the above discussed works refer to the possibility of a circularity of history. In Waterland, the history teacher's lessons often turn around the question "how do we know . . . that we are not moving in a great circle?" (Swift 135). Even a "revolution" can be perceived as a "turning round, a completing of a cycle" (137). In part IV of the Mercian Hymns, Hill refers to the immobility of a "clogged wheel" (line 4). All of these references to circles, gyres and wheels can be taken to suggest both a vision of despair and of hope. The widening gyre and the broadening cycle imply both freedom and chaos; revolution is both a return of something past and the creation of something new, the "clogged wheel" can befall the driver, yet human power can liberate the wheel and even prevent the clogging. The ambiguity of the gyre points to the responsibility of the individual in counteracting "a loss of happiness [which has been created] through the heightening of the sense of guilt" (Freud, Civilization 81). Acknowledging the past and liberating its "repressed" aspects appears as a way out of the "loss of happiness" and the self-destruction of humanity. Instead of falling into a passive vision of the circle as repetitive and given, Geoffrey Hill, Graham Swift and Seamus Heaney all at least suggest a vision of the circle as a metonym for self-responsibility and agency in counteracting passivity and creating a historical consciousness apt to prevent further violence. Whether this awareness of personal implication in a broader conception of history is created by a scrutiny of the landscape of the ancient Anglo- Saxon Mercian kingdom, the marshy East Anglian Fen region or the Irish Lough Dergh Island depends on the specific kind of sensibility which digs the "repressed" aspects out of the morass of history.

Stephanie Hilger
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


Works Cited

Cooper, Pamela. "Imperial Topographies: The Spaces of History in Waterland." Modern Fiction Studies 42.2 (Summer 1996): 371-396.

Freud, Sigmund. Moses and Monotheism. Trans. Katherine Jones. New York: Vintage Books, 1939.

---. Civilization and its Discontents. Trans. James Strachey. New York: WW Norton, 1961.

Hart, Henry. Seamus Heaney -- Poet of Contrary Progressions. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1992.

Heaney, Seamus. New Selected Poems 1966-1987. London: Faber and Faber, 1990.

Hill, Geoffrey. New and Collected Poems 1952-1992. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York: Routledge, 1988.

Owen, Wilfred. The Penguin Book of English Verse. Ed. John Hayward. London: Penguin, 1956.

Schad, John. "The End of the End of History: Graham Swift's Waterland." Modern Fiction Studies 38.4 (Winter 1992): 911-925.

Sherry, Vincent. The Uncommon Tongue -- The Poetry and Criticism of Geoffrey Hill. Ann Arbor: The U of Michigan Press, 1987.

Swift, Graham. Waterland. New York: Vintage Books, 1983.

Yeats, William Butler. Selected Poems and Four Plays. Ed. M.L. Rosenthal. New York: Scribner Paperback Poetry, 1996.