There is a story – David Foster Wallace among others has told it – of a big fish swimming along in a river and encountering two small fish coming the other way. ‘How do you like the water, boys?’ the big fish says to the two little fish. They don’t reply but, as they swim away, he hears one saying to the other: ‘What’s water?’ That story can be applied, at the highest level, to the God who, as St Paul told the first century Athenians, is the one ‘in whom we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17,28) and might serve as a timely parable for our forgetfully agnostic times. At a quite other, very much more mundane, level, it might speak to our current situation as unwitting inhabitants of a communications bubble, the implications of which we hardly understand at all. Some of the lead pieces in this issue of Studies are concerned with this notionally familiar and increasingly influential feature of contemporary life.
Much, if not most, of what we know derives not from the narrow strip of our own direct, personal experience, always tiny against the range of human possibility, even for the actually or metaphorically most-travelled among us, but from communication by others. Even in the matter of our direct experience, like T. S. Eliot in ‘The Dry Salvages’, we may say of ourselves that ‘we had the experience but missed the meaning’. This points to the need for reflection on what is going on in our lives and in the world around us and on what the culture may be doing to us. ‘The unexamined life’, as Socrates said at his trial, expressing a perennial truth, ‘is not worth living’, which is to say it is unworthy of the rational beings that we aspire to be. And the quest for meaning, to the extent that we engage in it (and our noisy, over-busy world largely discourages us from doing much of that), will commonly depend on others, sharing their experience and their wisdom, to help us in the task of interpreting our own (a community of faith such as the Church is in part about just that).
Those first century Athenians heard Paul for themselves on the Areopagus, a public square in the proper sense. But, as Margaret O’Brien Steinfels points out in her enlightening essay in the present issue of Studies, that is only one, and perhaps the least significant, of the public squares in which we encounter others now. The mediated square of the media properly so-called and, even more intangibly, the ever-growing virtual public square of social networks of all kinds, are both likely to contribute in crucial ways to our self-understanding and how we see our world. And who, as she asks, are the gatekeepers and who has standing in these successively more elusive “places”? The little fish had few questions about the water; we swim with equal insouciance in our communications-soaked human habitat.
A common theme emerging in several of the articles in this issue of Studies, which is not narrowly themed, is that of “framing”. This is a concept of the first importance in communications, but one we scarcely take heed of. Peter Steinfels, in his powerful essay on how the media functioned at the time of the Catholic sex abuse scandal in the United States and its continuing aftermath, quotes Timothy D. Lytton’s definition of framing as ‘the selection, organisation, and presentation of issues, events, or people that places them within a context with the aim of promoting a particular interpretation or evaluation’. Elsewhere, writing on a quite different topic, Irish media coverage of Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Sì, David Robbins writes that, ‘To frame information is to select some salient aspect of an issue over others, to present a problem definition or an interpretive package by which the receiver of the communication can make sense of the matter’. A frame, he adds, is ‘essentially … a way of looking at an issue or event, selecting and foregrounding certain aspects’. He quotes the all-important observation of science communications scholar Matthew Nisbet: ‘there is no such thing as unframed information’.
The questions that arise include: who is doing the framing? With what intention? What is being left out? How reliable and how objective is the information I’m receiving within such-and-such a chosen frame? These are perennial questions in the present context. In our so-called “post-truth” climate, which seems to have so suddenly enshrouded us in the wake of the often mendacious Brexit campaign and Donald Trump’s assault on the most basic values of rational discourse in the current American presidential election, the questions are much, much more urgent. Pontius Pilate’s rhetorical question to Jesus has become the default position of very many in post-modernist Western culture. This has, perhaps, never been more so the case than now, when something called “truthiness” - an adherence to rationality in public discourse, founded on evidence and, as necessary, the testimony of experts - can be cavalierly derided and dismissed and popular opinion (opinion, not understanding, the mot juste, as Socrates too well knew) all too readily swayed.
Peter Steinfels, in his wonderfully balanced reflection, is scrupulous in insisting that what he says about the lamentable clerical sex abuse scandal is based on the American experience and he does not wish to presume how relevant it may be to Irish circumstances. But, of course, it is extremely relevant and anyone familiar with the way in which the Irish scandals were reported and responded to will quickly perceive as much. It cannot be said too often, as he is very rightly concerned to say, that ‘even one life or aspect of life blighted by abuse is absolutely one too many’, and the Irish record, above all the part played by clergy, is shameful beyond words. But that having been clearly stated, there are other things that need to be said too, if what happened is to be best understood and inadequate framing is not to remain in place. All those concerned in responding to the Irish experience – particularly journalists and the media, but also Church authorities and others – could study this important essay with great profit. We are not served by false paradigms or partial truths.
In this connection, warm tribute should be paid to the Loyola Institute in Trinity College Dublin which, last June, organised the international interdisciplinary conference where both Peter and Margaret Steinfels delivered the papers reproduced in only very slightly edited form here. Studies is deeply appreciative of permission to publish them. The provocative title of the conference was ‘The Role of Church in a Pluralist Society: Good Riddance or Good Influence?’ The papers covered a wide range of topics and were not, for the most part, focused on the Irish situation. But the large lay and clerical attendance, which included the Anglican Archbishop of Dublin, Michael Jackson, who chaired a session, and at least one Catholic bishop in the audience, had a relatively rare opportunity of pondering the place of religion in modern society at a genuinely serious level. The Loyola Institute initiative is to be warmly welcomed and such initiatives deserve every possible support from all who are concerned for the future of intelligent, reflective religious faith in this country.
Journalism, as Peter Steinfels writes, is ‘the first draft of history’. It has a bearing on current affairs and current perceptions as well as on the past. David Robbins, in his essay, pays close attention to the range of possible frames within which Laudato Sì might have been presented by the Irish media. Before ever the issue of framing in a narrower sense arises, there is already the question of coverage. In the present media climate in Ireland, even Pope Francis is liable to be side-lined. An egregious example, but not the only one, is the American-Cuban détente of late 2014 in which the Pope and the Vatican played an important part. This aspect was widely acknowledged and received front page headlines and extensive coverage in such leading world newspapers as The New York Times and The Guardian. In one prominent Irish paper, such reference was buried in half a sentence on an inside page.
Because of its scope and relevance far beyond any faith-community, Laudato Sì was amply reported by the Irish media, as it was around the world. As David Robbins points out, ‘The amount of coverage given to the papal encyclical is important, not least because the public equates high levels of coverage with salience’. He quotes sociologist Michael Schudson’s observation that coverage ‘provides a certification of importance’. His own paper here provides a fascinating analysis of the kinds of frames that might be applied to such a document as the encyclical and its publication and concludes that, in this instance, the papal initiative was eminently successful in media terms.
Kevin Rafter in these pages echoes the point about coverage and underlines the particular relevance of framing to our ongoing commemoration of Ireland’s “decade of conflict”. 1916, as he says, was the easy bit. Much more contentious centenaries lie ahead, of events about which people were then, and have remained since, much more divided. As he writes, there will be competition ‘to establish the dominant version of history’, in a way that was not true of the generally very well received official commemoration of the Easter Rising earlier this year. Which political party will supply the Taoiseach who will ‘frame’ the commemoration of the state’s foundation in 1922 and what impact will such framing have on the fragile state of politics in Ireland at this time? As Professor Rafter notes, ‘we are likely to see more rearranging of the past to justify not just past deeds but also contemporary ones’.
Sean Brophy continues his chronicle of that troubled decade, highlighting in particular the huge Irish involvement and volume of loss in the Great War which formed the context in which 1916 and later key events in the decade occurred. In passing he notices how, in the disastrous Gallipoli campaign when some 115,000 men from either side were killed, ‘Irish regiments … accounted for nearly nine percent of the British losses between March and October 1915, between 3,000 and 4,000 men’, but they were ‘barely mentioned’ by the GOC, Sir Ian Hamilton, engaged in a little ‘framing’ of his own, in his final despatch before Kitchener withdrew him. What information, we always have to ask, is being left out here – and why? Photoshopping, we might say, and as Stalin in his sinister way knew well enough long since, is not a new art.
Later essays in this issue have a literary focus. Eminent Marist historian Brendan Bradshaw pays a touching tribute to the late Breandán Ó Buachalla to mark the twentieth anniversary of the publication of his great study of the eighteenth century Aisling genre. For Ó Buachalla, as Dr Bradshaw points out, the Aisling was not a French literary derivative but had medieval Irish roots and ‘preached a message of defiance and hope to the dispossessed and immiserated Irish Catholic community’ of those dark years, a ‘treasonous’ message, ‘coded to conceal its import from the authorities’. Framing, perhaps, of a rather different kind.
Wei Kao, who writes from there, recalls a little-known episode of how W. B. Yeats, fascinated by Asian culture and occultism as he was, once nearly visited Taiwan. He had been tempted by an invitation to Japan in 1919 and wrote to a friend at the time: ‘[It] would be pleasant to go away until the tumult of the war had died down, and perhaps Home Rule established . . . But would one ever come back?’ The question didn’t need to be answered because the project fell through. A decade later, in 1929, he was invited to Taipei as a visiting scholar (and Nobel laureate) and was keen to go: ‘What an adventure for an old age – probably some new impulse to put in verse’. But the illness of his son Michael and other factors ensured that this visit never took place either.
The darkening vision of another Nobel laureate, Samuel Beckett, as reflected in his relationship with County Wicklow, south of Dublin where he had grown up, is the subject of a revealing paper by David Clare. Early experiences walking and cycling with his father left him with ‘wonderful memories’ of the county. But the darkness gradually begins to colour his depictions and his memories. Dr Clare traces the echoes of this change in Beckett’s writing. The process seems to culminate in a mysterious moment of ‘revelation’ on or near an Irish pier, whether Dún Laoghaire or Greystones is not clear, leading to what Clare calls ‘a conscious embracing of the darkness’.
Finally in this issue, poetry functions in an ancillary capacity in Fergus O’Ferrall’s quest of a new vision for rural Ireland, as he invokes the insights of Oliver Goldsmith, Patrick Kavanagh and – a third Nobel laureate – Seamus Heaney, to further his case for ‘remaking home’. Everywhere in rural Ireland the sense of place and home is being eroded. Urban life, as we know, suffers more than elsewhere from some of the ills mentioned earlier, but Dr O’Ferrall disparages the suggestion of one sociologist that ‘providing a haven from the fast-paced city life may secure rural Ireland’s future’. False nostalgia for the rural will not solve the problems of urban dwellers or their country cousins, as Patrick Kavanagh and his colleagues might be quick to tell them. That said, the author sees a serious role for poetry and the kind of culture it embodies in regenerating rural communities and his thoughtful essay here valuably explains this at some length, concluding with six suggestions about how such regeneration might be brought about.
A final thought. Fergus O’Ferrall quotes Seamus Heaney’s striking remark in an interview towards the end of his life (in a series by Jody Allen Randolph called Close to the Moment: Interviews from a Changing Ireland), that the ‘biggest shift in my lifetime has been the evaporation of the transcendent from all our discourse and our sense of human destiny’. In the same interview, he referred to the child abuse scandal as that ‘shocking chapter in the spiritual history of the country’. A quarter of a century earlier, Heaney had written in his poem ‘The Birthplace’ – and O’Ferrall quotes this too:
Everywhere being nowhere,
who can prove
one place more than another?
Arguably, the rootlessness and loss of a sense of place, contribute to the process of evaporation the great poet so poignantly refers to in the 2010 interview. There is, of course, framing here too, and another Ireland than the ostensibly post-religious society promoted in so much of the Irish media continues to exist. But that is a topic for another day.