An abridged chapter from my 1993 Book Race of Angels
U2 are not funny. I hate to spring this on you at the last moment like that, but it had to be said. Forget all this talk about irony and humour, or at least try to see it for what it is: a jokescreen to hide a deep and solemn purpose.
There are two kinds of laughter, writes Milan Kundera in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, 'and we lack the words to distinguish them'. True laughter, he maintains, is the province of the Devil, a laughter tinged with both malice and relief. Malice at the refusal of the world to behave in accordance with the Divine plan, and a certain relief on account of the release from responsibility which this allows us. The other kind of laughter, the laughter of angels, is not real, but an attempt to turn the Devil's tactics against himself, to drown out his laughter and reassert the meaning of God's plan. The angel's laughter is subversive and tactical, but also itself open to ridicule. 'Seeing the laughing angel,' Kundera writes, 'the Devil laughed all the louder, all the more openly, because the laughing angel was infinitely laughable.'
So the jokes which U2 perpetrate are jokes about jokes, double negatives seeking a positive, an attempt to restore a balance to the cabaret of life. World domination, as everyone knows, may be divided between demons and angels. But, as Kundera observes, the good of the world does not require the latter to win — ‘all it needs is a certain equilibrium of power’.
This is the meaning of the apparent changes in U2 over the years. When they were younger, they too thought that the angels always needed to win. Now they know that this is neither desirable nor possible. This knowledge has led them closer to, rather than further from, the heart of the territory at which their music is aimed. The journey has been made within themselves, within individual souls and a collective heart.
The Fly, the character which Bono began to portray in the wake of Achtung Baby, is a good illustration of this solemn purpose. The Fly is not Bono, and yet is a part of him not visible before. The Fly is both mask and confession. But he speaks of me and you, too. We all share his confusion, his cunning, his ugliness, his style, his contradictions. He is me turned inside out, just as he is you turned inside out. Perhaps it is only in such inverted images that we can deal with a world in which bad is good and good is bad.
The human race is an accidental by-product of insect activity. Our poetic notion of battling dinosaurs and great apes is largely a Hollywood fiction based on what was a minor sideshow on the evolutionary stage. It was the behaviour of flying insects which led to the evolution of flowering plants, which in turn resulted in the first primates. The Fly begat the flower, the flower begat the tree, the tree begat the hairy mammal from which our humanity evolved. Within us all is the aspiration of the Fly. But we cannot find it in ourselves to love him, because he reminds us of our own dark centres.
At stake is more than the issue of evolutionary justice. It is a question of being able to see straight. Our tendency to develop a prefabricated version of our own world in which inconvenient connections are separated and obscured from one another has led us down the path of delusion and hubris. Not only have we managed to separate ourselves from the consciousness of our own flyness, we have succeeded also in dividing off every element of our apparatus for dealing with the world — separating the acts of consumption and production, the cause of pollution from its effect, the First World from the Third, tradition from modern, human from technological, high art from low art, and on and on. As the world heads towards self- destruction, carried forward on a thrust towards growth, development, wealth, progress, we manage to conceal from ourselves the truth that our world cannot sustain this process for much longer, and that the bustle which moves us is not merely unnatural, but possibly fatal. As the danger grows, our capacity to describe it is reduced by the day. Everyday language has become so contaminated that it is useless as a means of describing what we feel and know. Words become increasingly crude instruments, allowing us to give but vague hints of what we feel. Like ourselves, they have been colonised in the service of utilitarianism, allowing us to no more than scrape the surface of our own meaning.
All the things we talk publicly about, as well as the way we talk in public about them, give the impression that we have no idea whatever of how much faster things are occurring, how time is being devalued, how quickly our values and beliefs are being consumed and burned out by the forces of change. This unknowingness does not occur for the want of talk. But our ceaseless debates assume always that the extent and rate of change is still within our control. In a world dominated by technological communication where, at any given moment, human voices are being conveyed simultaneously by several million impulses through the cyberzone, a technology that is also capable of the remote-control zapping of a cityful of human collateral — human beings are dwarfed and rendered less and less in touch with themselves and one another. The more communication, the less.
Everything is technology and commodity — especially ourseives. We have arrived at the most perfect form of colonialism the world has ever seen.
In this postmodern world, beliefs can be expressed only as uncertainties, permanence as movement, identity as flux and truth as irony. And yet, the more unpredictable the world grows, the more simplistic, dogmatic and polarised public discussions seem to become. As the world's man-made systems career out of control, the only permitted dissent is that expressed in the babytalk language of our fossilised collective intellect and the dynamics of its impotent discussion. Words like ‘progress’ and ‘modernity’ have been so infected by ideology and propaganda that we can see, hear or use them only as virtuous concepts, without a downside. Only the inevitability of our demise, it appears, will cause us to see where our delusions have landed us.
And so it may be that the prospect of crisis becomes not something to be feared but a thing to be welcomed; not as an embrace of the apocalypse, but as the only way of correcting our crazy impulse towards self-destruction. Only in sight of the road's end will our fear reach the pitch of provoking a rethink. So, whoever lures us to that point, by flattery, threats or gifts, is our friend disguised as our enemy, an angel in a devil's coat. What is bad becomes good. To perceive our true nature we must climb into the belly of the beast that is ourselves. To fight it is merely to delay the inevitable. Each of us must be our own Judas, must sell his soul for thirty pieces of silver, must kiss the man who gave us the warning, both to betray him and allow him to say, I told you so. To refuse to do so is not merely naive, but is the response of the meddling enemy of understanding and renewal.
My good friend Professor Mike Cooley is an engineer and computer designer who specialises in the development of human-centred technologies. He comes from Tuam, Co Galway, in the west of Ireland. Although he is not the least familiar with the music of U2, his view of the drift of progress and technological development is singularly germane to the area of cultural expression in which I perceive their importance. Professor Cooley is one of the world's leading experts in his field, and in 1981 won the Alternative Nobel Prize for his work. His book Architect or Bee? The Human Price of Technology which has been translated into more than twenty languages since it was first published in 1980, addresses the need to perceive the present drift of technological progress as just one of a range of possible options. A narrowly defined view of the machine, he maintains, is causing us to create technology which will not merely usurp the creative impulses of human beings but actually truncate our potential for further progress. He argues for the development of an approach to technology, systems and language which will enhance rather than limit the imaginative input of human beings.
We should be in no doubt, he says, about the gravity of the crisis facing us. Our own cleverness as a species has led us to fashion technologies which liberate us from onerous physical tasks, but so successful have we become at conferring activities to machines that we have diminished ourselves to the point where we may not much longer be capable of invention at all. Part of what his analysis suggests is that the dynamic underlying technological progress may not be what it appears. The most fundamental hubris of which the human race has been guilty may be the belief that knowledge and competence are historically cumulative. In fact, as Cooley says, each new layer of knowledge supplants a previous one, pulling the ladder up on our awareness of how we got to this point.
One way of putting it is to observe that mankind has followed a pattern of creating technologies in the likeness of himself, and then proceeded to see in such creations a precise mirror image of the human condition. There have been three broad stages in this evolution: machines that walk, machines that feed and machines that think. The first machines worked by clockwork: Man, by winding up a spring, gave life to something outside of himself. Art and culture began to mirror this, depicting human beings as machines, all sinews and cables and joints. The second stage was machines requiring an energy form like coal or wood. The steam engine, for instance, became active and independent once ‘fed’. We again began to see ourselves as such a machine. The third, perhaps final, stage is the ‘thinking’ machine. ‘You get the computer scientists,’ observes Mike Cooley, ‘saying things like, “The human brain is the only computer made by amateurs”, and, “Humans will have to accept their true place in the evolutionary hierarchy: animals, human beings and intelligent machines.”’
There is a high price to be paid for this technological narcissism. ‘Once you begin to perceive machines as being capable of thinking, you begin to reflect on the human mind as a machine, and things like imagination and intuition go by the board. There's a kind of metamorphosis going on in which the created, the machine, is becoming more real, and the creators are becoming more artificial.’
Cooley says that the dichotomy between right and wrong approaches can be seen as an undefined shape in the difference between analogic and digitalised views of the world — the capacity to see angels in a slab of stone or to see only the figures and measurements which describe its physical characteristics.
‘We talk in those two terms all the time in the band,’ says Bono. ‘Neil Young has spoken about the way sound has been ironed out by the digital process. That is, the kinks of the sound, which is what we're attracted to, are removed. We've known this for years. We tried working digitally, and my description was that it had the personality of ice. So that there's this kind of evening-out of responses. But I’m not sure that it is the gagging of a culture. One of the things we're also learning is that maybe music isn't best suited to the new media. Maybe there are better media for digital. And that often happens, and there's an awkward moment when the old ideas can't be expressed in the new way. Like the best way to use sampling wasn't rock 'n' roll, but a new format: rap. So you create new media. And that’s what our music is. We have to stop thinking in terms of the rock 'n' roll group thing. We have to break with our peers and our past and our idols.’
Machine-centred thinking has spread like bushfire to other aspects of human thought. We have reached a stage, maintains Cooley, ’where we can accept something as rational and scientific only if it displays three predominant characteristics: predictability, repeatability and mathematical quantifiability. And, by definition, this precludes intuition, subjective judgement, passive knowledge, dreams, imagination and purpose. And that, it seems to me, is going to be very damaging in the long term.
This is the point of the concern to create human-centred systems: technologies which will preserve and enhance human nature as the core of progress. The kind of computer and other systems we tend to create are fast, reliable, but non-creative. The human being, on the other hand is, in systems terms, slow, inconsistent and unreliable. The fact that it is also highly creative is undervalued. What we have been doing is perceiving our own path of development as a species purely in terms of the One Best Way dictated by the developing machine.
That technological trend is reflected also in political, geographical and cultural patterns. As we have come to believe in the One Best Way of organising our activities, so we have come to believe in the One Best Place (the West), the One Best Tongue (Anglo-American), the One Best Way of Seeing (the rational world-view). The cultural aspect of our condition is characterised by a vacuous restlessness, a void within our souls that we mistake for boredom. Life, we are convinced, is elsewhere. Reality always disappoints us. Where we stand or sit, in this moment, is fixed and ordinary, where we are not is steeped in a seductive exoticism. We need more and more diversion, but somewhere else around the corner, across the ocean, at the other side of the globe. Our disbelief in the virtue of a place has led us to a placeless unease. The original colonisers simply told their victims that they were worthless, and would have to live with it. The modern form of mass-media colonisation tells us that we are only worthless if we remain where we are; it bombards us with images which devalue our own place, diminish our psychic gravity, and lure us away. We are all angels now, rootless, restless, horizonless, homeless.
Pop is part of the problem: a common language for the race of angels who inhabit the Universal City. In this sense, it encapsulates perfectly the seemingly contradictory elements of oppression, victimhood and collaboration which characterise our colonised condition. But the possibility arises: can it also be part of the solution? If there is no future in admonishing the tide, perhaps the answer lies in getting our feet wet.
What you notice in talking to U2 is the extent to which questions which on the face of it appear unconnected to the business of making music are almost invariably greeted without surprise. The questions scientists like Mike Cooley have to grapple with are also the material of the kind of creative work which the band regard as their business.
‘That kind of mentality of control — dominate — synthesise into some sort of structured format, is where so much of the world's culture is going,’ agrees The Edge when I ask for his perceptions of the dialectics of the technological trap as observed through the U2 experience. ‘And ultimately it's not culture, but anti-culture. Anti-difference, anti-individuality. It's going to a very dangerous end. We talked about totalitarianism of the fascists and the communists, and I think in a weird way, as we get closer and closer to single world order, where technology gives governments power to locate any individual instantly — which is where we're headed — that's a very dangerous place to be.
Is there, then, any hopeful way of seeing it?
‘I think the key to it is freedom within the constraints of technology. What we find liberating about technology is when you are free to be truly creative with it. And that means to discover it for yourself and to approach it almost like play, to approach technology as a toy. The problem is, almost as soon as some new idea gets developed, there's an adult set of instructions which you're given which destroys the chance to be creative within it. We describe is as ‘abuse of technology’ — the creative approach. I think sampling, for example, as a technology, has all the hallmarks of real creative play about it. People have ended up using samplers in a way that nobody envisaged they would be used when they were first developed. And the second, third, fourth generations of samplers are now being designed with this use in mind. Fairlight was the first generation, and everybody was making recordings of jamjars being hit. Sampling was going into the area of sonics and unusual instrument sounds, almost helping people to capture nature, capture natural sounds and bring them to the realm of conventional recording. No one imagined that people would be sampling recording itself, and collaging previously recorded works, and making new pieces out of old pieces — which, in fact, was absolutely in sync with what was going on in literature and a few years behind fine art. That was really hip, but none of the technical people had thought about it.’
It seems to me that what U2, and all the best modern artists, are engaged in is an attempt to bring to the surface things which we know but have lost the means of saying. We need to discover old languages and apply them to the latest things. The struggle is against the One Best Way, against seeing the world in terms only of what is codifed and written down, rather than understanding it by what is known to us in a much more instinctive and passive way.
As a species we seem to be coming to a cultural wall. Under the pressure of technology and convergence, the Tower of Babel collapses into a single heap of words, but coherence brings a shrinkage, rather than an expansion, of understanding. And we are all both perpetrators and victims. We lead ourselves to believe we are exercising choice and freedom, but the freedoms we choose are destroying more fundamental ones. So compromised are we by the consequences of accommodating ourselves to our own comforts that we no longer have the consoling luxury of someone to blame. Caught in our own web, we make ourselves comfortable.
Language is at the centre of the battlefield. We cannot fight, only answer back. Our language mutates to match our mechanised view of the world, locking us into our potentially fatal condition. Public language, as utilised in politics, economics and other areas of civic discourse, is disintegrating, narrowing in its capacity to express what we really feel. But while the rhetoric of progress as irrefutably virtuous may have built itself into our language and thinking, there is a paradox that we cannot escape: As we hand over our skills, memories, narrative abilities, we actually abort the possibility of further advances. Far from progressively embracing the future, we paint ourselves permanently into the present. By mortgaging our own cultures, creativity and imagination, we are running the risk of obliterating our capacity to progress.
What is happening is indistinguishable from an advanced and most perfect form of colonisation. But Mike Cooley, for one, believes it is in the nature of the species to fight back.
‘The notion of colonisation is something that is rooted in power relationships and historical senses of how it takes place. But you can never succeed in fully colonising something, unless ultimately you destroy it. Because there will always be part of it that will remain outside your control. The American Indians could not understand how we Europeans thought we could buy the land. In the great letter from Chief Seattle to the President he said, “How can you buy the ripple on a stream? How can you buy the whisper of the wind in the trees?” What he was saying was that there is always a part of any process or activity which is outside our colonising abilities. And I see that in a cultural sense. You see, they cannot quite get at the gold in people's minds. They cannot get at the imagination and the consciousness that is unique to every human being. They will be able to get to part of it, which is the codified written part. But they can't get to the other part, and since they can't get control of it, they tend to organise things, consciously or unconsciously, to destroy it. It's a kind of cultural scorched-earth policy.’
Since the rational mind cannot reduce everything to rule, it has had to persuade itself that what it cannot quantify is no longer relevant. Only what can be objectified counts. Facts matter, feelings don't. Maybe the fact that I am unable to properly articulate my fear that I am losing the capacity to articulate certain fears means that such fears are not only unimportant but possibly non-existent?
‘As a scientist and an engineer, l've always found,’ the Professor reassures me, ‘that the things you can state explicitly constitute only a tiny part of that which is the human experience. How do you state explicitly: love? How do you state explicitly: fear? How do you state explicitly: affinity? Such things are processes as well as definitions. And therefore they are things which we have to possess. To really describe love for something or somebody, we must demonstrate it rather than simply define it, and they haven't found any way of doing that. So what they tend to say is that if you can't state something explicitly, it isn't real knowledge in the modern sense.’
It may well be just a phase we're going through. Out of the depths of our colonial condition there may emerge, from time to time, the sudden flash of the real. In the throes of the disease, we may seek a cure within the reserves of the human soul. Our thought processes, though squeezed into a shrinking space, may just become more capable as the threat of extinction increases. ‘If you think of knowledge as consisting of a core of fact,’ outlines the Professor, ‘around which are the fuzzy reasoning, the imagination, the intentionality: one person sees a sunset and that sparks a certain thing; another sees a little skeletal spiderlike child on a television set that hasn't even got the strength to take a fly from its eyes. And these things move us, in spite of everything. l am not pessimistic. My view is that it requires imaginative dialectical turnarounds. I sometimes talk about centring on the periphery, refocusing on the edge, beginning to valorise diversity. We need a renewed recognition of cultural, regional diversity.’
Here lies the importance of discrete and individual tongues and cultures: to tell of the way the world tastes to us, from inside of ourselves, not through the mediated languages of the marketplace or the global village. If the twenty-first century heralds a renewed interest in minority languages, it will not be for sentimental or racialist reasons, but because of a flipping over of our thinking from One Big Tongue to all the little tongues. The virtue of language or ethnicity is not to do with maintaining an attachment to one place, one nation, one landscape, one tongue, but with the capacity to have a metaphysical relationship with any place, any landscape, any language, so as to be able to live in the world at all.
‘I think,’ says Mike Cooley, ‘the reason the idea of the One Best Way is so rooted in our psyche goes back to the Tower of Babel. People had the arrogance to believe that they could build something right up into heaven. And, as a way of punishing them, all this diversity was imposed on them. So they began to speak with diverse tongues. And this was seen as an awesome thing to do to people. Whereas, in fact, in nature and in biology it is this tremendous diversity which is so important. Yet, right from our species’ origins we have been intimidated by the idea that this is a terrible disability.'
It is in the diversity of our languages that we carry different ways of understanding things. We cannot trust the translation to say what we really feel. In the absence of words and specific meanings, we lose not merely the distinctive emblem the language affords but also the consciousness that it contains. We need our diverse tongues not just to communicate with others but to gain access to the knowledge within ourselves. Instead of looking to the external model, which is agreed and defined and fixed and codified, we must go back into the bank of knowledge which has been passed to us by the culture of which we are part.
We come, then, to the $64,000 question: can a people, when their culture is under severest threat, go into their innermost resources to try and save it and themselves? Is there an instinct that will enable, perhaps compel, us to fight back? This is, for me, the meaning of the U2 story. It is to do with the extent to which, in infiltrating the mass medium of rock 'n' roll, they have succeeded in sneaking past the gates of the One Best Way the values and impulses of their peripheral beginnings, their marginal place, their eccentric conditioning, all contained inside the Trojan Horse of their implicit understanding of the nature of seduction in the pop marketplace. Professor Cooley acknowledges this:
‘I’m sure that's a possibility. I don't think that most of these things happen in a very conscious way. If things are not done consciously, we don't regard them as being significant, because we're obsessed now with planning. It may just be that it's a natural part of our efforts that if something is suppressed it surfaces in some other form in some other way. Just as in some cultures you have trigger words that resonate things in the unconscious and bring up whole pyramids of knowledge, it may be that with groups like U2 they consciously or unconsciously use words or metaphors or descriptions or forms of music that call up these things within us, and that we feel an affinity for this kind of thing; that it somehow speaks to some part of our suppressed consciousness in a significant way.
‘There are basic movements and body rhythms and images that are deeply rooted in our psyche. When a particular rhythm is played by people from a particular culture, that will call up that kind of morphic resonance in a particular culture.
‘Or perhaps something is so deeply rooted in our species that, even when we don't hear it, we feel a deep need to somehow try and recreate it. And if we come across it even accidentally, once we've heard it, it begins to fit in with some pattern that we've absorbed from our past. All biological species build in all kinds of capabilities through their own evolution. I marvel at the capacity of salmon to navigate from Lough Corrib to Nova Scotia. They don't consciously do it, but they can do it.
‘We are essentially an analogic species, and I think there is great damage when we move to a digital way of knowing things. It is terribly difficult sometimes to cope with information, whereas often an analogy will make the whole thing clear. And I think a lot of music draws analogies with things, the words of songs and all that. They don't quantify things, they just fit in with the way one sees things. I notice that sense in a lot of pop songs, which I think is incredibly powerful. So I see it as supporting and reinforcing that part of us that is analogical rather than digital.’
A new self-awareness is only just beginning to surface in Ireland, the merest chink of a belief that perhaps there is something we are useful for after all, that perhaps our past has not been entirely an expense of spirit in a waste of shame. Put simply, it is the growing awareness that, in a world being swept to its ruin by centrifugal forces, hopes of a better future may lie in a return to a view from the fringe, a view which, by virtue of its marginality, is less contaminated by the forces of convergence. In other words, the extent to which Irish forms of thought remain 'primitive' may be increasingly useful in the coming years.
In his essay, Dreaming of the Middle Ages, Umberto Eco asserts that the Middle Ages are the root of all western society's contemporary ‘hot’ problems. Most of the systems and technologies we now use, including modern languages, capitalist economy, banking and trade unions, he points out, have their beginnings in the Middle Ages. To look back to the Middle Ages is to look to the infancy of what we call ‘modern’ society.
For this reason, Eco asserts, what we now call ‘modern’ societies have been hankering to revisit the Middle Ages almost from the moment that era ended. Mostly this has taken the form of nostalgia, a continuous return in search of lost romanticism. By dreaming of the Middle Ages, writes Eco, we have created a New Middle Age in which to live. Drawing an analogy between the fall of the Roman Empire and the present disintegration of the American Dream, he observes that what is required to make a good Middle Ages is the collapse of both a great peace and a great international power that has unified the world in language, customs, ideologies, religion art and technology. These conditions, which ushered in the ‘previous’ Middle Ages with the collapse of the Roman Empire, are replicated in the collapsing certainties of western society. Eco observes that a study of the two ages reveals a ‘perfect correspondence’ in the way in which both attempted to camouflage their paternalistic efforts to control the minds of their people. Both used visual communication to disperse images of ideologies which they had developed in written form, thereby seeking to bridge the gap between learned and popular cultures. The Middle Ages Eco describes as the civilisation of vision, where the cathedral is ‘the great book in stone’; today, the same function is fulfilled by television and pop culture.
The filthy modern tide, then, the modern and the postmodern, the surreal and the absurd, the science fiction and rock 'n' roll, are all expressions of our hankering after our lost spirit of Byzantium, arising from the need to ‘dismantle and reconsider the flotsam of a previous world, harmonious perhaps, but by now obsolete'. What we face, then, is a period of permanent transition, requiring what Eco calls new hypotheses for the exploitation of disorder, ‘entering into the logic of conflictuality’. There will be born, he begins to conclude, ‘a culture of constant readjustment, fed on utopia.’ The possibility insinuates itself: what we call postmodernism may not be about chaos at all, but a kind of instinctive response to deal with the detritus of the Industrial Revolution.
The postmodern mind is a post-colonial condition. The best versed are therefore likely to be the most practised in the post-colonial limbo dance, the tip of the cap that conceals the sly turn of the mouth, the laughable laughter of angels. As we approach the doorway in the wall that guards the end of the millennium, the confusion we are now obliged to channel through the narrowest of forms may open like an umbrella on the other side. We in Ireland may be sitting on the secret of taking the lighted flame safely through.
The early part of the ‘original’ Middle Ages was characterised by a wave of intellectual activity sweeping through Europe, with the ‘saints and Scholars’ to the fore — Irish monks who, as Eco reminds us, crossed Europe ‘spreading ideas, encouraging reading, promoting foolishness of every description’ among the barbarian civilisations. Here, in the chaos of disintegration, massacres and plague, western man achieved the maturity to go on.
One of Eco's books, Chaosmos, deals with the dialectic between medievalism and modernism in the work of James Jovce, from whom the book’s title is borrowed. ‘Obviously,’ Eco remarked in a 1992 television interview with Richard Kearney, ‘an author who has invented the word chaosmos was a little obsessed by this possibility of creative opposition.’ The only flourishing civilisation during the medieval period, Eco acknowledged, existed in Ireland, and this civilisation already contained the seeds of the Joycean moment. ‘What happened with the Irish medieval culture was that Marginalia became Centralia. The Book of Kells is made only of Marginalia, and that is the way in which Irish culture was already Joycean at that medieval moment, trying to introduce extraneous elements, to disturb the order of things, to find a different order.’
The thrust of the argument is obvious: we can do it again. What it hints at is that there may be something in the Irish mind, a consequence of its unique historical experience, which, being for whatever reasons more attuned to chaos, is therefore more qualified for the present quest for a different order. In the ‘first’ Middle Ages, Irish monks and poets contributed significantly to the development of new forms of thought; in the New Middle Ages, beset by the same quandary of transition, does the Irish mind have the presence to do the same again?
What might the vital characteristics be? Richard Kearney, in his introduction to The Irish Mind, observes that this mind does not reveal itself as a single, fixed and homogeneous entity. It could nevertheless be seen to have remained largely free of the linear, centralising logic of the Graeco-Roman culture which dominated most of Western Europe, which insisted that order and logic could come only from the separation of such ‘contradictory' concepts as reason and imagination, soul and body, and so on. But, observes Kearney, ‘in contradistinction to the orthodox dualist logic of either/or, the Irish mind may be seen to favour a more dialectical logic of both/and: an intellectual ability to hold the traditional oppositions of classical reason together in creative confluence.’ This non-dualistic tolerance of opposites, Professor Ivor Browne has observed, ‘is characteristic of much of Eastern thought, both in the ancient Taoist tradition in China and in the Vedantic traditions of India . . . and may well derive from the early Indo-European culture, the origins of which are now lost in the mists of time.’
One of the paradoxes of the Renaissance may have been that, in uniting the European mind, it began a deep division in the human psyche which, consolidated by the Enlightenment, possibly helped provoke the most appalling nightmares of this present century. In the separating of classical and popular culture, of ‘high’ and ‘low’ artforms, it separated also thoughts and feelings, senses and soul, mind and heart. It was only a short waltz to Auschwitz. Having read lots of books, as writer and critic George Steiner observed to Richard Kearney in the Visions of Europe TV-interview series, does not prevent people becoming barbarous. ‘It did not prevent the collapse of European civilisation into ultimate barbarity: it did not prevent savagery. Instead, it may even have abetted it.’
The reducibility of the world is a classical idea. The attempt to force life into behaving as though the divisions we oursełves had created were natural and sensible is the root of the crises — ecological, political, cultural, economic — which now threaten us. To remind us otherwise must be the purpose of all art: to tell us that we carry within us all the possibilities of our flyness. To venture out at all in the acid rain of modernity, the human soul must clothe itself in garments appropriate to the blur. Perhaps rather than the fascination of the damned, postmodernism is just a rummage for the right coat. Maybe our present confusion is an inchoate beginning to a new kind of response, which will mutate to bring all this chaos into the light of . . . God?
George Steiner is a man who has given thought to the problem of what he calls 'the Americanisation of the planet’. His is not the old, predictable gripe; the situation is not for him without its ambivalent aspects. The elite notion of culture, he concedes, is now coming under threat, but this is not unmitigatedly bad. There is an understandable anger, he concedes, felt by those who have been left out of the club of recognised culture, which he hopes may lead to some self-questioning by those on the inside about the price to be paid for their elitism. Steiner is alive to the possibility that, somewhere between the apocalyptic and the blasé, there may be an avenue of progress. The question is, as he has so correctly observed: are we going to find something better than Disneyland?
He, like Umberto Eco and Bono, believes that a way forward might be through a revisitation of the distant past.
‘I think we should be studying more about what is wrongly called the Dark Ages,’ he told Richard Kearney on the Visions of Europe series, 'when small groups, particularly Irish monks, scholars, wanderers, lovers of poetry and scripture and of the classics, began copying them by hand again, began founding libraries. We've been through difficult stages like this. I'm not at all pessimistic. I see a pendulum motion between a certain elitist rapture of excellence and the ordinary passion for having a better day and night of it.’
There is a curious resonance between the statements on this subject from George Steiner and Umberto Eco, not merely in their tentative pointing to the same point of possible resolution, but in their sketchy knowledge of the place where the answer may lie. While Eco has some knowledge of popular culture, Steiner has only a mannerly, if patronising, tolerance. But both assume that, for example, pop music is always synonymous only with entertainment. Both men seem vaguely aware that the direction in which they are pointing is the right one, but they seem unconvinced that there is anything there. Steiner looks on Disneyland ‘in despair', as though having examined it he has found it falling short of his expectations. Because he does not understand popular culture, he writes off everything else as well. ‘And yet,’ he muses, ‘you may ask me, do I have something better to offer? What am I going to do for human beings who don't think that reading Kant, or Joyce, or Goethe is the be-all and end-all of their lives, and who, nevertheless, want more leisure, want more elbow-room for sensibility? That is probably the most difficult question of all, and in a funny way, people like us, privileged intellectuals, have almost disqualified ourselves from answering it.’
Everything Steiner says makes sense. But he is missing some vital pieces of the jigsaw. He bemoans the Americanisation of the planet, and also the fact that what the outside world receives of US culture is actually its worst bits: ‘McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken, the comic book, and all the dreadful soap operas. The American language, he protests, has taken over Europe. ‘With the exception of the Beatles,’ he says, ‘there has not been a major counter-statement with any kind of comparable explosive dynamic, in the English language.’
George Steiner has possibly never heard of U2, and might be puzzled at the idea that he should know anything about them. And yet, when he gesticulates vaguely at the merest speck he perceives on the horizon, he may be pointing directly at U2.
U2 may not thank me for associating them with a putative return to the Middle Ages, but when you trace the stream of thought from Eco's dream of the Middle Ages, through Steiner's prognostications, to the Irish mind as defined by Richard Kearney and Ivor Browne, the possibility surfaces that an Irish band with sight of its soul, working in a medium which makes a virtue of fragmentation and brevity may be best placed to make sense in a world disintegrating at the edges. In a colonised world, the only reliable vaccine is the hair of the coloniser or the heir of the slave. And perhaps we can dare to go a step further. If our narrative capacity has been permanently impaired by television, to the point where our memory is incapable of absorbing anything longer than three minutes, mightn't a three-minute pop song be the ideal communication of the future, the ultimate Marginalia in which to scribble the secrets of the soul? And who better to write and sing those songs than the descendants of the saints and scholars who colonised the mind of medieval Europe, using foolishness of every description? I merely ask.
In the face of the pace of modern life, conventional art forms surrender and vegetate. There are no great modern Irish painters or composers, and many of our writers seem content to lean upon the past glories of the tradition they claim. Irish cinema, for all its recent strides, is still in its infancy. In the possibilities of pop music there seems to be something.
Everything you know is wrong. The slogan means exactly what it says. Bad is good. Old is new. The centre is the edge. A laugh is a cry in disguise. In the twenty-first century, the sight of the end of the road will bring us to the realisation that we have been on the wrong road for some time. This will move Ireland from the periphery of things, to the heart of the matter. The periphery will be transformed into the core, not as a return to simpler values, but as a different way of seeing how modernity can be shaped and formed. If the sight of the Gate of Hell does anything at all, it may alert us that progress must become the servant of human beings, rather than the other way around.
We will, if we're clever and lucky enough, unscramble the knots of flawed and dangerous thinking which have brought us to the brink of destruction. Life will cease to be something that occurs only elsewhere. As the absurdities of industrialism become clearer, we will look to the losers and the wronged for the undoing of the destruction which the winners have wrought. Those people and places which opted or were pushed out of the madness will show us the way forward. The victims of greed, imperialism, power and limitless growth will be the ones with the best grasp of how to go on. As the suction of economic centrification eases, the sense of place will renew itself. As we rumble the war in which the benefits of our own evolution have been commandeered by the most powerful forces in the marketplace, we all need to relearn, or perhaps learn for the first time, to make relationships between the most modern technology and the cultural heritage from which we emerge, to understand both with equal profundity. We will begin again to respect diversity, to understand that good does not reside in being alike, homogeneous, but in being different and yet in touch with what unites us.
Because Ireland is still among the most ‘backward’ societies in the western world, because we have escaped the most ruthless effects of capitalist development, we still have a chance of learning from the mistakes of others. The most 'primitive' and unspoilt might lead the way back from the brink.
‘There's something about coming from this island,’ The Edge agrees. ‘It makes you view the rest of the world somewhat differently. You feel like you're standing slightly outside of the mainstream anyway. Although that's changing. It's astonishing to see how Ireland, at incredible speed, is falling into sync with the rest of the world. And I wonder where that will bring us in years to come. The thing, I suppose, that every eighteen-year-old gets so frustrated with is that it has been so out of sync with other parts of the world. But in some ways it's what makes it more interesting. And if we start to fall in step, how will that affect things? I don't know.’
U2 show the signs of a people well versed in the psychology of colonialism of both the didactic instinct and the inner knowledge of a people in whom what was worthwhile and inspired was stifled and buried. Perhaps we are arriving at a time when this may be able to emerge into a light which will make its confusion seem normal. The world U2 evoke in their music is the world as it is and might increasingly become. What they seek to suggest is what we might do about living in it, and to this purpose they remain fixed on a place within themselves. They are of that world and yet maintain a primitive but timeless integrity which both transcends and embraces the filthy modern tide. Most of their contemporaries sought to run away from the gore and mystery of the past and also somehow to avoid the whirr and rattle of the future. U2 sought a way of bringing the two together to help them live in the present. Like the Cherokee artist Jimmie Durham, though in a vastly more complex form, they are postmodern primitives, cutting up the past to make a better future. Theirs is a moral art without being moralistic. It carries a health warning for the human soul, but one that presents neither ultimatum nor advice. U2 have a ‘view', but it is an ambiguous one, one that crystallises rather than bemoans the modern dilemma. They are neither nihilists, nor reactionaries, nor apoclyptics. They represent, as far as is possible, the condition of being alive at the end of the twentieth century. They offer no 'but's, no 'if's, no 'unless’es. This is the way the world is, they say, and it won't stop. But this doesn't mean that we have to become as hard and passionless as the world we inhabit. After fifteen years, U2 remain as much an aberration within the rock business as in their home territory. They're still not 'cool’. Perhaps it is this very factor that has allowed them to tap into a longing which runs deep in the mind of western society — the desire for a more true means of expression, for what Umberto Eco described as 'the injection of genuine elements', a return to soulfulness, a reconnection of thought and feeling in the soluble capsule of a three-minute song.
‘There's a warmth and humanity in Irish music that I don't see in the big city music of London or New York,’ Bono told Richard Kearney in 1988. The kind of music people would be ‘holding under their arms like holy books or treasures’ in the 1990s would, he anticipated, be much more traditional, whether Irish, American, soul, reggae, cajun or whatever. ‘These musics may be reinterpreted by the new technology, but as we are more dehumanised, urbanised, corralled into confusion, surely we will turn simplicity, to “the pure drop” of Seamus Ennis, the voice of Van Morrison.’
Bono's view has changed only as much as it has needed to in the meantime. Four years on he says:
‘Even in music and art there's a changing of the guard. It's the end of the “cold wave” and hopefully of the hardness associated with modernism, where chaos is not challenged, just reflected — like a mirror. I don't want to get into Anglo-Saxon bashing, because there are such great attributes to that culture, but emotionally, I think, as well as intellectually, we Irish have a lot to offer. It's a less empirical view, if you like, that Irish people have. It's more into magic. And that's the future, even the future of science. The future of physics is in the area of metaphysics. The next century could be full of all kinds of baloney, but it'll be a very interesting time. Because there are two ideas that dominated this century, and one of them was, I suppose, that there is no God, and the other was communism, which is itself a materialist point of view, which saw things very logically — that you can, in a controlled environment — ‘evolve’ people to a point where they're not greedy. But that doesn't work. People start to realise that greed and avarice are problems of the human spirit more than they are political or social. And so the things of the spirit are very interesting, more important, now. People in medicine are starting to realise that our minds and our bodies are linked much more closely than we imagined. And ideas which were laughed at — like repentance, for instance — are centre stage in psychotherapy now, and that the simple act of confession turns out to be years ahead of its time. It's like the idea of speaking to somebody about something that you've done, and leaving it with them, and leaving that little box without it, hopefully that, actually, from a point of view of physical wellbeing, makes you well. So, even Catholicism, which at times had its hands on the throat of Ireland, and maybe oppressed us more than England — there's even value there. I can't take a lot of the dogma, but there are worthwhile things. I'm just saying, in a roundabout way, that we have something to offer, we have a point of view, we have a bent that's worth something as we go into the next century. It's not the whole of the story. It’s a piece of the story. But it's a piece of the story that's more important rather than less important than it was.’
Contained within the concept we know loosely as rock 'n' roll in its modern state are all the signs and clues which can inform us of both the dangers and the possibilities of a future life. The music is poised on the tightrope between human weakness and the endless possibilities of the technologies which man is capable of developing. No other artistic medium utilises technology in the same way. No other medium has the same capacity to engage the human spirit using the possibilities of the most inhuman products of that spirit. No medium is therefore more capable of articulating the contradiction of what it will mean, in the future, to be human. What the best modern rock 'n' roll artists show us is that it is possible not merely to preserve the spirit of humanness through the process of technology, but that there is nothing in the technology which can threaten that spirit if the human beings continue to know who they are and what they should desire.
Back to 2021 . . .
We live in an age in which metaphor morphs and shifts and morphs again, and becomes real; and, meanwhile, the real dissolves and becomes fable. Did human beings once leave their homes and walk around the planet, Granddad? Did they really have metal boxes in which they could roll around the country looking at stuff?
Something’s happened to our sense of ourselves, who we are, how we are . . . ‘put together’.
My late friend Mike Cooley was a brilliant man with a great heart, but he may have missed something, just as pretty much all of us missed that something until it was — possibly — too late. Perhaps what we missed was that the process of advancing mechanisation was not something that threatened us merely in the incremental sense — machines growing faster and ‘smarter’ and stealing chunks of our working and creative functions — but that, all the while, some Judas part of the human edifice was seeking to sell us into a new form of slavery, in which the machine would become a proxy for the ‘few men’ whom C.S. Lewis once warned would be the culmination of the assassination of God: that the dead deity would be replaced not by all men, but a few?
And what if this process, too, was osmotically making all men — apart possibly from those ‘few’ — less smart, drying up their intelligence and their creativity in diminishing, eventually undetectable patches, replacing it with tech savvy of a new kind, thus changing the very nature of man? Wouldn’t that be something?
So, perhaps the part of the deal that Mike Cooley missed was not about the capacity of machines to outpace the intelligence of man in potential, but the nature of man in actuality, an actuality that was being tampered with and diminished all the time, and men likewise, while imagining they were simply being ‘themselves’.
And if the experiences and feelings and memories of men could be tapped into, reduced, distilled, made into simulacra of themselves — maybe not quite the same as before but still something approximate, maybe like the way pears and baked beans never seem to taste like they did when you were a child, or the sound of an ABBA song on the a state-of-the-art iPod still seems to be missing something you imagine you heard on a tiny transistor under the blankets three decades ago . . . What then? And here we observe the possibility for ambiguity: Maybe it’s your tastebuds, or your hearing, or . . . something? Maybe it’s not the beans or the pears or the chiqa-chiqa-changes, but some dwindling in your, so to speak, apparatus as you age, so that nothing every feels or smells or tastes or sounds the way it used to? And how does one, even a Nobel prize-winning novelist, describe the taste of baked beans in 1964 in a way capable of convincing the receiver that this was indeed something distinct and definitive — and is now gone, or at least diminished beyond mattering — rather than all this arising from the Proustian echo of childish tastebuds or the distorted memory of an ageing nostalgic? We could compare notes, in an approximate sense, but could never be sure we weren’t confabulating, exaggerating, misremembering.
And so it may prove with just about everything. The trick of making machines more intelligent than men may be achieved by the trick of firstly making men more stupid. By turning men into machines, albeit basic and slow machines that can be turned off when they overheat, the trick that Mike Cooley once assured me was impossible might actually prove easy. But the tricks of time and memory could easily effect a fudge so no one can be certain.
The experience of being human might well be diminishing in the species, or things might be the same as they ever were but accompanied by a constant sense that our minds are playing tricks, and this only in those who were there in the first place, for how would the others know anything? For those who weren’t there, beans as they are now are beans absolute. Pears are the way pears have always been. And ABBA are, are they not? — immortal. Nothing to see (or hear or taste) here.
And what if everything is going like that? Mightn’t it then be possible to reduce everything to a level of duplicability that would suffice for a reduced humanity, without anyone’s memory of things being otherwise causing more than the odd frisson of disruption? And, might it not then become possible to do the things Chief Seattle said were impossible: to buy the ripple on a stream, the whisper of the wind in the trees?
Perhaps, not by some godlike feat of regeneration or re-creation rooted in mechanistic-materialist capacity, but by a series of slight and graduated sleight-of-hand reductions, the ‘few’ could achieve something like what Mike Cooley believed impossible, but only by a series of tricks played on the human mind, convincing it that what was being regenerated, re-created, was the same as — as good as — what had existed before? And what if, by a similar process, the ‘few’ would manufacture machines capable of being smarter than men by the by-no-means-simple expedient of making men more and more and more simple-minded, would that not signify that the parts of the human that once seemed inaccessible, untouchable, non-reproducible, might become so, albeit as pale simulacra of themselves, but in such a fashion that it would become impossible to say — or, if sayable, not provably, or ultimately believably?
If, to couch things in Mike Cooley’s words, they could replace the gold in people’s minds with some baser metal, might that gold not be ‘got at’ to the extent that there was no way of telling whether it was the same or something reduced? What if the imagination and consciousness, unique to every human being, were to be first of all replaced with transplanted imagination, transplanted consciousness? What if nothing was left except the ‘codified, written’ part? This would be the ‘cultural scorched-earth policy’ that Mike worried about without seeming quite to believe it could occur. Maybe — then — ‘they’, the ‘few’, would be able to state explicitly: love, for love would have been lost and replaced by its retarded cousin; maybe then ‘they’ could state explicitly, in an algorithm: fear, for fear would have become the currency of everyday human traffic and interaction; maybe then ‘they’ could write out, explicitly, the algebraic formula for affinity, for affinity would have become a pale imitation of what it once was.
Maybe, it would not be a matter of knowledge, real or otherwise, but of facts newly minted and presented as the only facts remaining. And in that new factuality, against all odds, the human being would have become seamlessly absorbed into the materialist-mechanistic world in ways that had once seemed to be impossible but now were not even detectable? What then? The circuitry in place, all that would be needed was to boot up the New Man and set him to work and play. And he, this New Man, would be the least likely to know.
In the third part of this sort-of series-about-whatever, we will finally come to the remarkable work of the brilliant French philosopher Jacques Ellul, who seven decades ago warned of the dangers of the coming ‘technique society’.