Thursday, 22 January 2009

The Ecstacy of Angus by Liam O'Flaherty

Robert Graves is probably more famous for the personal mythology that he developed in The White Goddess than the poems that his muse actually inspired. It is to this personal mythology category that Liam O’Flaherty’s novella The Ecstacy of Angus seems to fall.
While much of O’Flaherty’s writing is poetic I am not aware that he ever wrote any verse but many of the sentences in this piece possess a rhythm and diction more often found in a poem.
It is O’Flaherty’s attempt at a creation myth, telling the story of “ever-youthful Angus, god of love” wandering through the land of Banba (an ancient name for Ireland) and “saving his mortal children from Crom, the dark lord of death”.
There children are not his offspring but ‘inspired’ into being by Angus, who in the same ways inspires the rest of nature to reproduce - animals, insects, fish. However, their numbers have soon grown to such an extent that there is no longer any room on Banba and people start turning against one another and fighting for territory.
Angus approaches Mananaan, the god of the sea, and asks him to give up part of the ocean to create land for people to live on.
But with words that could be found in a Gnostic text Mananaan tells Angus that overcrowding and strife in Banba is: “the outcome of your rash conceit, which drove you to the senseless task of making mortal beings in your own image, but without the fullness of your power. Restless, passionate youth, with little knowledge you undertook a monstrous labour, which required wisdom beyond the comprehension of your feverish mind.”
In anger Mananaan whips up a storm and Angus is forced to flee from the sea to shelter in a glen where he is discovered by “the fairy princess” Fand.
Fand is an archetypal femme fatale, intent on seducing Angus– although admittedly it is unusual for such women to be surrounded by an entourage of sprites who pleasure both her and her conquest during foreplay.
Like her predecessors – or maybe in terms of mythological timescales successors – Eve, Delilah, Salome, Cleopatra and Morgan le Fey, Fand’s seduction of Angus ultimately leads to his downfall.
Her sole aim was to become pregnant by him so that she should become “the mother of a host of kings”. However, Angus has been left emasculated, his eternal youth drained from him and left as a fragile old man.
He encounters another Gnostic like entity, “the Genius of Unrest” who is “neither god nor human, since I am part of the universal space, of which neither gods nor humans have yet gained comprehension”.
The Genius of Unrest, along side the Tree of Knowledge, says he will enter the minds of Angus’s offspring and “shall give him no peace”.
As he dies Angus “curse[s] with my last breath, man, whose blood shall be salt and who shall forever languish in desolate pain”.
The novel ends with the words “Hail! Genius is born.”
John Zneimer in the The Literary Vision of Liam O’Flaherty writes that O’Flaherty felt that this was what was taking part in himself.
“Genius is the quality of being possessed, being driven, being used by a more than human force,” writes Zneimer.
He continues: “For O’Flaherty, genius is above all mere complexities. It is concerned with a different realm, ‘the cold majesty of Beauty’, and to attain that all mere human pleasures and aspirations must be forsaken.”
That O’Flaherty associates himself with genius is perhaps arrogant but then he was an arrogant man and in spite of his avowed communism he was often contemptuous of “peasants” and ordinary working people.
The Ecstacy of Angus was first published in 1931, but the Wolfhound edition I picked up very cheaply online was reprinted in 1978 and includes line drawings that would not be out of place in an illustrated edition of the Mahabharat.
The language is over-flowery and probably embarrassing to those who might have been looking for something in the style of The Assassin or The Informer. However, O’Flaherty’s literary terms of reference were wide and as readers of his short stories will know he can write just an intensely about events in a rock pool on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean as he can about an interrogation in a seedy Dublin tenement.
(I couldn't find an image of the book cover so settled for this image of Mananaan for now)

1 comment:

Fionnchú said...

I was thinking (without saying his name, for unfortunately no one would've heard of O'Flaherty) about his nature stories the other day in class when musing about why and how we might enter into an animal's mind. We can only do so by stories, I told my students, not by our limited vision, hearing, or touch senses. (Not to mention smell or taste!)

O'Flaherty excelled at capturing what it must be like to live as a horse, bird, or cow; it's been thirty years since I read his nature stories, but I can still recall how he allowed me the illusion of identification with the animals around me.