Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Cultural Eclecticism & Irish Music


In his recent post on Caritas in Veritate, Aaron noted Pope Benedict’s call for the integral development of culture as a protection against the dangers of relativism and cultural eclecticism. An integral culture is one that forms a true unity; all the parts of such a culture fit together in a coherent way. The way these individual parts fit together is usually determined by a culture’s ethos, its ordering principles. However, if a culture doubts its own ordering principles, or if outside forces upset a culture’s ordering principles, the culture’s individual parts will be distorted in some way. They either appear too large or too small, anything but their right size, and out of all proportion to the surrounding parts of the culture.

The usual result of the breakdown of an integral culture is eclecticism. Eclecticism essentially dispenses with all ordering principles besides individual preference—which is why throughout history eclecticism has usually been closely linked to relativism in metaphysics, and commercialism in economics. Eclecticism, though, is an unfortunate name for what I mean to discuss. The word “eclecticism,” at least in my mind, usually conjures up images of agnostic elites desperately searching for meaning in the universe by scouring every culture they know for fragments of intelligibility. I think of demoralized Roman senators worshiping the latest fashionable oriental divinity, or 19th-century decadents dabbling in the occult. In the modern world, though, cultural eclecticism has assumed a new, more democratic form. Thanks to the spread of videos, sound recordings, and mere factual knowledge (on the encyclopedia model), a lonely individual can appreciate one aspect of a culture, in abstraction from the rest of the culture. Then, if the enough of the masses share this individual’s taste, the newspapers (or today, the Internet feuilleton) will announce that this particular foreign element has “entered the culture.” But, what the newspapers usually ignore, or do not even know enough to investigate, is how this new development relates to the ordering principles of the culture. All they ever really notice is that someone has become rich and famous in the process. However, the crucial question to ask is: Is this an integral development of culture?

That was all rather abstract, so what is needed is a concrete example. The example I have chosen is traditional Irish music, since it is a hobby of mine (well, more of an obsession). About fifteen years ago, traditional Irish music received a lot of popular attention due to Riverdance, the dance extravaganza starring Michael Flatley. Soon there was a craze for Irish music and dance across America, and parents with Irish surnames—and even those without Irish surnames—were signing up their little girls for dancing lessons (and buying those horrible sequined dresses). This was a major “cultural event.” Yet, after a couple years, the hype died down and Irish music and dancing in America returned to their pre-Riverdance status. At the end of the day, a lot of people had heard some Irish music, seen some amazing dancing, and Michael Flatley was a wealthy man—and people genuinely devoted to Irish music and dance returned to their prior obscurity and their small groups of like-minded individuals. Riverdance, with its incorporation of elements of tap, flamenco, and ballet, marked the victory of modern eclecticism over integral culture. Many people now realize that Riverdance was only based on traditional music and dance, but have no conception of the broader tradition. What was Irish music—and Irish culture—like before Riverdance?

To answer that question, we need to go back to the early 1800s, a time when Irish peasant culture was relatively intact. The Irish have never been a very urban people, and so most of what we think of as traditionally Irish developed in the context of the countryside. At this time, music and dancing were firmly embedded in village social life, which revolved around the farming year and the special events in a community—births, weddings, and funerals—as well as around the Church’s liturgical year. In addition to these grander events, there was the informal practice of visiting neighbors in the countryside, when it was common to tell stories, sing songs, and play a few tunes at home. Music and dance were certainly developed art forms, but they were not art in the way we educated city-dwellers usually think of art. Very few musicians earned a living by their music, though a few wandering musicians did travel from village to village and play for dances, often supplementing their meager income by other work, especially by repairing pots and pans. Moreover, while some musicians were certainly known throughout a region for their skill, they did not think of themselves as virtuosos, and did not define themselves as musicians. Instead, their art and their ego were subordinate to the needs of the community. They simply provided music so that people could dance and celebrate the most important occasions throughout the year. Their celebrations were (at least loosely) bound up with the larger cosmic perspectives of agriculture and salvation history, as well as their own life and death.

At the same time, however, Irish peasant culture was under tremendous pressure from outside. Their English lords had already been persecuting Catholic priests under the Penal Laws for many years. The English language was steadily displacing Irish. The death blow came, though, with the Potato Famine in 1845. From then on, Irish peasants left their homeland in droves, seeking new homes primarily in England and the United States. This mass exodus would last well into the 20th century. If the Irish could resist religious persecution and the loss of their native language, they could not withstand starvation and emigration.

Village life in late 19th-century Ireland was severely disrupted, and the people demoralized. With many children knowing that they were destined to leave their homes once they were old enough to find work on their own, there was understandably little call for celebration. Paradoxically, though, what kept music and dancing alive during this period was the “American wake.” American wakes were farewell parties held for members of the community the night before they left for America, and featured much music and dancing.

Constant emigration, however, eventually took its toll. Many towns and rural areas were so decimated that they did not have enough people for dances. It was at this point that many musicians simply stopped playing. If there were no dances, there was no point in playing. Music and dance were so closely connected that one without the other was barely imaginable. Modern technology in the early 20th century also undermined the foundations of the integral Irish culture. In those places that still had enough people for a dance, the record player brought new, usually American, music to the Irish countryside. People in larger towns usually rejected traditional music as uncouth and un-modern—and so did many peasants in the countryside. Interestingly enough, even recordings of Irish music in some ways had detrimental effects. Many older fiddlers abandoned their instruments when they first heard the likes of New York virtuoso Michael Coleman’s blazing reels and heavily ornamented jigs; they felt they just could not compete with Coleman.

By the first half of the 20th century, traditional Irish music was on life support. The traditional Irish village was no longer a place where most people lived, but simply a place where they were born before they decided to cross the ocean for America. Moreover, with the disappearance of the Irish language from wide parts of the island, a vast store of older sean-nos songs was lost. Finally, the spread of modern technology even to the more backward parts of Ireland discouraged people from playing traditional music.

To be continued tomorrow...
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