Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Judas by Brendan Kennelly by Hatto Fischer

'Judas' is a widely acclaimed epic poem by Brendan Kennelly. He published it first in 1991. Most important is the preface in which stands out that key sentence "a learned hatred is most difficult to unlearn." (see below *)

Interestingly enough many reviews refer to a kind of unexpected normality described in the poem. Often commentators would stop at such passages when, for instance, Jesus conducts a job interview, and ends up hiring Judas. As if here finally a poet conjoins with what many people go through when seeking a job, they marvel at what Brendan Kennelly manages to drive home by taking up such historic figures as Jesus and Judas.

No wonder when almost all reviews go therefore straight to the text. It is one written with a touch of humour so much akin to an Irish man like Brendan Kennelly. He has a huge heart and the human sensitivity to know what is amiss. Hence he listens to what the children living in the streets have to say to him, the 'he' implying not him as poet but as the professor of Trinity College. And rightfully they demand payment after he has listened to their story even when both sides know a lot of it was fabricated. It is the skill to listen and to hear the true part of the story while not forgetting that not only children like to pretend they have grown up and achieved something.

But beside the epic poem there is the introduction. As the case of so many introductions, their importance is generally overlooked. For instance, what Karl Marx writes in the introduction to his dissertation is skipped as everyone wishes to see what evolves out his question who of the two ends up being wiser, Democritus who travels to gain knowledge or Epicure who stays at one location? Yet the introduction is of crucial importance insofar as Marx links there 'human self consciousness' to a language which requires the bringing together of categories of both productivity and creativity. Only in philosophy, in particular since Hegel mapped the difficulties to start out with some ideas and ended up with the 'phenomenology of the spirit', there seems to exist an awareness for the importance of introductory words.

Likewise is the case with the introduction by Brendan Kennelly to his epic poem 'Judas'. So far it has been mainly overlooked. Yet a closer look at that introduction reveals it is worthwhile to ponder over his words. For instance, Brendan Kennelly makes there the important observation, that 'learned hatred is most difficult to unlearn'. This seems most apt for our times. Too often it is forgotten that most of the hatred is the result of an education which has turned it tools into services of a certain ideology.

Brendan Kennelly explains why this is so. He begins with having in mind the Irish situation especially due to the inclination to mistake violence as being the best means by which to gain freedom and in the process to preserve one's identity. But as everyone knows killing someone does not leave the identity unchanged. Rather it ensnares the person in a story filled with hubris.

He starts out with reflecting what really takes place when children are taught certain things at school. It seems that the school system is bent on teaching from day one the children never to listen to the voice of Judas, for that would mean betrayal. This teaching is done with such fanaticism that children adopt very quickly the role of wishing to identify the traitor, in order to punish him with all the severity any traitor deserves. It begins with not speaking with that traitor but does not end there. It can end up with throwing stones at him. How questionable that is becomes more apparent throughout the epic poem with Judas being portrayed as anything but as a traitor. Once that message is grasped, then Judas becomes almost another story not taught at school.

There is something sinister behind such a teaching method used at school. Deployed by having something definite in mind, its prime aim seems to be to instil hatred against Judas, the symbolic figure for all traitors. However, Brendan Kennelly wishes to point another dimension. While the children learn to hate a traitor like Judas, they are distracted from another kind of betrayal. By focusing solely on Judas, they forget that they are in the process to give up their own childhood dreams. Brendan Kennelly implies that the betrayal of their personal dreams severs first of all their contact and communication with humanity. By the time they leave the school, they no longer know how many of these dreams they have betrayed already and that they have become as a matter of fact a traitor as well. If taken a bit further, it means by implication that something is built into their psyche which brings about a kind of destructive self hatred once they discover themselves to be traitors. Usually it is too late for such a realization to evoke a change of heart. By that time they may be caught up already in some kind of dubious organization which fuels this hatred to an extreme and very dangerous level, that is when violence translate itself into political terror. Brendan Kennelly made that kind of violence explicit in his Cromwell poems. And everything is made far worse by not allowing any kind of self critical questioning. Such a process cannot take place if only self hatred dominates. Rather the person has to search for and to examine the self with critical, but equally loving eyes to correct those earlier mistakes made while still at school.

Brendan Kennelly takes in the introduction all of this still one step further. For he sees this learning to hate as part of the entire process of education. In other words, it follows a much larger logic and reminds of the thesis by Dostoevsky that it is easier to unite people with hate than with love. A second look at the educational process bringing children to betray their personal dreams will reveal how it works. Hatred is based on a simple prejudice, but once it is adopted as a 'world view' (Weltanschauung), it ensures that people have converted their original prejudices into the strongest possible 'convictions'. For now they need to take a stand, collectively speaking. Betrayal of national interests can easily be evoked to identify the traitor or the enemy. What characterises these convictions is that they cannot easily be challenged thereafter. Once taught to hate Judas, they are convinced all traitors have to be hated. As such prejudice becomes through the conviction a negative force since ready to use at any time violence against the traitor. A prior the use of violence is clearly justified. In so doing, Brendan Kennelly reminds, that they forget how many of their own dreams they have betrayed. Yet this betrayal does not stop there.

By asserting their convictions, they become resentful of anyone who attempts to challenge them and even tries to make them aware that those convictions are in reality nothing but mere prejudices i.e. ill founded opinions and even worse very generalized notions about 'people'. It is expressed, for example, by those who are rich in a way that it justifies no compassion needs to be shown, for 'all poor people are just lazy and therefore their own fault why so poor'. Instead of letting themselves to be challenged in what is after all but an expression of opinion, they feel insulted and consequently lash out.

Repeatedly this has been seen in reactions within the Muslim world when something trivial is taken to mean an insult. It is a worrying sign that the highest law in those countries stipulates above all, that no one is allowed to insult the highest authority or the high priest. It is a most arbitrary case and does not require much proof to find the one being accused thereof being indeed guilty. However, this artificial denial of another, equally critical opinion is not confined solely to the Islamic world. Many variations and forms of suppression along those lines can be found within organizations of the Western World. At the same, it can be observed how the rise of Nationalism is ever more linked to national pride and national interest in order to cultivate certain, indeed typical attitudes along those lines. Most of the arguments end up in stereotypical fashion i.e. the Greeks, the Germans etc. In the end, it makes possible to even label the others with an enemy picture so that hostilities, even wars can be started at any given notice. The famous saying about needing only a burning match being to be thrown in an oil tank, if one wants to start a political explosion, does remind of all the dangers the world confronts when artificial emotions have suppressed nearly all authentic feelings for humanity not to be separated into us and them.

Due to such unnecessary escalations, and one needs only to think about the Danish cartoons, the introduction of Brendan Kennelly is ever more relevant. When following developments especially in the Middle East with the Arabic spring and the song of freedom by the 'blue bird' being put ever more into doubt, it is crucial how to reduce this extremism based on convictions! And these problems prevail, as said, not only in the Middle East. However, it becomes life threatening when such convictions begin to form the core of a religion which prepare youngsters to kill someone for having insulted God or Mohammed. Likewise extreme views are becoming popular in Greece, and this presumably at first glance as a response to the current economic crisis. But the readiness by which even the state president Papoulias of Greece can be called traitor for having signed what the then government in power had committed itself to the Memorandum of Understanding, that shows how effective this teaching method can be once it succeeds to transform the minds of many young people and not only theirs into hatred of those who seem to give up national pride and independence. In a world economy with multiple interdependencies that is indeed very easy to level such a charge, but it distorts completely reality.

The writer Salmun Rushdie has been living for long by now with this fear that he could be killed for what he said about the Islamic religion. The author Naipaul was asked not to come despite having received originally an invitation to attend a writers' congress in Istanbul at the beginning of 2010, that is when the city was one of three European Capitals of Culture. The explanation given for the cancellation of the invitation was that he as author of the book 'Beyond Belief' might offend Muslims if he attends. Nowadays writers and poets but also journalists receive death threats from extremists if they dare to write critically about these religious movements seeking to impose a religious law by force and by violence, and this not only in Tunisia, the birth place of the Arabic spring, but throughout the Middle East. Similar someone critical of Israel would not be allowed to speak or vice versa academics form a coalition to exclude Jewish scholars and scientists.

As indicated by the growing violence in Syria, the international world seems unable to either understand the forces on either side or else there is a systematic failure to comprehend mediation between all sides can only be possible if all agree to disagree in public and still respect the other for his or her opinion.

Naturally there are always many obstacles in the way before people can make out of any public debate some truth to live by. Clearly stated, it is a matter of sharing common values which then make possible governance insofar as certain things are self understood even if not self understood. For never is Freedom of Expression to be taken for granted.

It is always helpful to remind what Cornelius Castoriadis said, namely that 'values are set, hence they cannot be discussed'. He went on to warn any attempt to change them can lead to conflict, if not to war. Indeed the question of law in relation to values is a most complex issue which has never been resolved to the satisfaction of all. Still, there are workable constitutions and there is the common moral impulse that each person should be respected in terms of the freedom to live in human dignity. So the movement towards a new constitution is a part of the political process requiring a maturation but also further going experiences before wise political decisions becomes an expression of existing social capital, namely the trust in the collective decision making process. If disrupted, then many other problems will remain unresolved, such as fair distribution of resources and of making sure that no one takes the law into his or her own hands. Again it is a matter of what kind of mediation or arbitration is needed to resolve human conflicts and grievances, in particular if the one side feels in having been wronged and the other side refusing to admit to the mistakes made.

At the level of public debate something peculiar takes place when instead of allowing others to question one's own opinion, different views are blocked off completely by the sole claim of feeling insulted, if the other(s) dare(s) to question at all one's beliefs. This is at the core of Brendan Kennelly's incredible important introduction to his epic poem 'Judas'.

It would mean some progress in human development can only be envisioned, if people share in public truths and thereby allow the questioning of their opinions. This crucial precondition for further development has been outlined by Bart Verschaffel in his essay about 'Public Truth and Public Space'. All the more reason to link this to Brendan Kennelly's amazing introduction to his epic poem 'Judas'. It does give a further understanding as to why it is so difficult 'for learned hatred to be unlearned!'

Hatto Fischer

Athens 15.6.2012


* Preface to „Judas“ by Brendan Kennelly

Note: at times prefaces are more important than what follows. This was the case with the dissertation by Karl Marx. While he talks in the introduction about the language needed for human self consciousness to prevail, the thesis itself is about two ancient Greek philosophers, Democrit and Epicur. They have very little to do with the language question, even though indirectly it can be imagined that staying at one place or constantly travelling around does have an impact upon use of language. In the case of Brendan Kennelly, Judas figures greatly in terms of the language of hate, but the explanation for which can be found in this amazing preface.



The imagination provides the most effective means of confronting and expressing the prejudices and inherited hatreds buried in the self until they exist before our eyes like to so many lucid accusations confirming Ibsen's belief that poetry is a court of judgement on the soul. But it's more, much more than that. In a long poem, Cromwell (1983), I tried to open my mind, heart an imagination to the full, fascinating complexity of a man I was from childhood taught, quite simply, to hate. A learned hate is hard to unlearn. It would be easy ernough to go through life hoarding and nourshing such hate, feeding it dutifully with endless “proofs”, thus keeping alive the explosive frenzies that fuel political situations such as that in Northern Ireland. But when one tries to substitute the uncertainties of altruistic exploration for the certainties of inherited hate, one is immediately disrupting and challenging one's “cultural legacy”, spitting in the faces of the authoritative fathers and their revered, unimpeachable wisdom. The process of unlearning hate is a genuine insult to some, particularly those whose prejudices are called convictions.

There is something in Irish life which demands that you over-simplify practically everything. This is another way of saying that everybody must be labelled, made readily accessible, explainable. Protestant, Catholic, Dub, Northerner, Culchie, etc. are such labels. Stick any of these labels on a man or a woman, a boy or a girl, and you needn't bother yourself with further inquiry into their characters or minds. The problems of complex personality are easily solved. The label tells you all you need to know. Kerryman, Jewboy, Proddie Dog, Southsider, Northsider: 'Ah, sure, the bowsie never read a book on his life!' Label. Judas. Now, you know. We have him in his place. The rest is as clear as daylight. We know him to the core.

But there is an electricity in the air that burns the labels and restores the spirit of investigative uncertainty. Poetry tries to plug in to this electricity, to let it thrill and animate one's ways of feeling and thinking and seeing. This electricity is what the labels fear. This electricity makes room for all the voices of the damned and outcast, the horrible archetypes for whom, in the opinion of many “decent people”, there is no ear, no hope of redemption; and because no hope is allowed, these “horrible souls” can be blamed for practically anything. Recently, an English football manager was screamingly headlined JUDAS in an English paper because he changed his mind or 'went back on his word'. Judas was in no position to write a protesting letter to that newspaper. If he had, would the editor have published it? And in what spirit?

How must men and women who cannot write back, who must absorb the full thumb of accusation without hope of reply, who have no voices because we know they're “beyond all hope”, feel in their cold, condemned silence? In The Book of Judas I wished to create the voice of a condemned man writing back to me, trained and educated to condemn him. How shall I listen to someone who, I am told, has not right to a voice? If I could stretch myself to let the butcher Cromwell speak for hmself, articulate his position across centuries of mechanical, hate-filled condemnation, and in the process discover that he had a lot of things to point out to me, to my shame and illumination, might I not also learn to let the outcast scapegoat Judas, suddenly electrified with protean virtuosity, yet remaining dubious, speak back and out from his icy black corner of history, or my pathetic little mind scraping at that black ice? The moment I surrendered to the voice of that icy black corner, the electricity began to flow, the questions erupted, the answers ran away to hide in some cosy little corner of their own. We all learn the nature of the possibilities of our own particular little corner.

The damned soul has a special perspective on us all, but how can we believe him, how can we believe one who is a liar and traitor by instinct? Above all, how can this be poetry? The questions kept coming as I wrote and rewrote the poem over eight years. Was Judas a fall guy in some sublime design he didn't even begin to understand? What was he trying to prove? Was he a not-so-bright or a too-bright politician? A man whose vision of things was being throttled by another, more popular vision? A loner in an organised bunch? One who knew the dynamising power of a timely moment of betrayal? Simply an envious bastard? One who knew how to shock others into a new awareness of their situation? A man wanting to test the limits of his own intelligent, speculative, vicious potential? A spirit not confined to the man who bore the name Judas but one more alive and consequential now at the famined, bloated, trivialised, analytical, bomb-menaced, progressive, moneymad, reasonable end of the twentieth century than ever before? Is Judas by definition the most contemporary of contemporaries? The Judas-voice is odd and ordinary, freakish and free, severed and pertinent, twisting what it glimpses of reality into parodies of what is taken for granted,convinced (if it's convinced of anything) that we live in an age almost helplessly devoted to ugliness, that the poisoned world we have created is simply what we are, and cannot be justified or explained away by sciences or industry or money or education or progress. To this extent, Judas knows nothing is external: where we are is who we are, what we create is merely the symmetry of our dreams. It is therefore insane to blame anybody but ourselves. But can we believe Judas? Or what he calls is poetry? How can the damned man be, even for a moment, admitted into our hearts and minds? Should he be? Why? Does he not deserve not to be heard?

The Gaelic novelist Mairtin O Cadhain once said to me that in Ireland we divert attention from serious issues by creating a hubbub about trivial matters. I never cease to be amazed and amused at the power of triviality over serious minds. (I include myself, insofar as I can claim to be serious-minded.) In this poem I wanted to capture the relentless, pitiless ancedotalism of Irish life, the air swarming with nutty little sexual parables, the platitudinouos bonhomie sustained by venomous undercurrents, the casual ferocious gossip, the local industry of rumour-making and spreading, always remembering that life is being parodied, that this Christian culture itself is a parody of what may once have been a passion. There's an atrocious tendency in Irish life, especially in Dublin, to dismiss people by turning them into sad or clownish parodies of themselves. I believe that the culture of these islands, is, broadly speaking, Christian. I have no wish to offend non-Christians. I'm merely stating a belief. I also believe that this culture is now in an advanced state of self-parody. Or, if you wish, in an advanced state of self-betrayal, playing Judas to itself. In this poem I wanted this man to talk to himself, this culture to mutter to itself of what is lost or forgotten or betrayed or grotesquely twisted in memory. And appallingly obvious now. Yet there are no answers.

I wonder if many people feel as I do – that in the society we have created it is very difficult to give your full, sustained attention to anything or anybody for long, that we are compelled to half-do a lot of things, to half-live our lives, half-dream our dreams, half-love our loves? We have made ourselfs into half-people. Half-heartedness is a slow, banal killer. It is also, paradoxically, a creepy pathway towards “success”, especially if the half-heartedness is of the polished variety. I think it was D.H. Lawrence who said that the real tragedy of modern man is the loss of heart. I don't think so. I believe our tragedy is the viability of our half-heartedness, our insured, mortgaged, welfare voyage of non-discovery, the committed, corrosive involvement with forces, created by ourselfs, that ensure our lives will be half-lived. There's a sad refusal there. A rejection of unique, fragile gift.

Have we refused some love-offering we should have accepted? Is Judas a shrewd refuser of what might have made him loveable and vulnerable rather than – whatever he is? How much of our law of success is bound up with knowing what and how to refuse? Is this refusal-betrayal necessary if one is to be numbered among “decent people”? How “respectable” is Judas? To what extent have we elected Judas to be our real redeemer from the consequences of what we have ourselves created but like to blame somebody else for, when “things go wrong?”

In asking these questions, in following the Judasvoice as it appeared in words before my eyes, I tried to deal with, or let Judas deal with the idea of intention or purpose or ambition, children, a notion of love, history, apostles, you, money, sex, selfhood. Some Lads, politicians and politics, and the possibility that Judas may be the spirit of language, poetry. This last section shocked me. Everybody knows that the literary world everywhere, be it Dublin, London, Paris, New York, or even Sidcup or Skibbereen, can be hate-riddled to an astonishing degree. I've heard people say, 'Poets are self-centred, malignant bastards, aren't they, really?' These same people frequently go on to say that it's a great wonder, and a paradoxical cause for gratitude, that such malginant, self-centred bastards are capable of producing 'such beautiful stuff'. The implication is that poetry is produced in spite of the nature of these 'self-centred, malignant' souls. The Book of Judas explores the possibility that “beauty” is produced because of it. Judas has a permanent residence on the human tongue. His potential vitality in every word known to us incalculable, thrilling and fascinating. Who can fully trust the words out of any mouth, especially his own?

This scapegoat, critic of self and society, throws chronological time out the window. Before his ancestors arrived on the scene, he was. After the unborn will have ceased to exist, he'll be. As others arrive, exist and perish, he tholes. Time is merely a stage where his reticent yet theatrical spirit is repeated and refined as it continues to endure the stones of blame thrown by those who really know the score. If I'd stuck to chronology in this poem I'd have lost the voices of that spirit. By treating time in the ways a blamed person treats it, that is, with the ceaseless nervous agility of the accused-from-all-sides, the poem became open to the stimulating effects of that electricity which saves most thinking people from the pornography of labels. And the man could talk and mutter as he wished, or was compelled to. I have always associated unbridled, passionate muttering with freedom. There is something more attractively genuine in such mutterings than in most of the bland interchanges that go by the name of “communication”. Wherever I see men and women furiously muttering to themselves in the streets of Dublin I am saddened by their loneliness, touched by their sincerity, awed by their freedom.

I would like to thank Terence Brown for his reading of this poem and suggestions concerning it. Thanks also to Gerald Dawe for his reading and comments. And finally my gratitude to Neil Astley for his many ideas on how to shape and re-shape this work. It was he, chiefly, who gave the poem whatever shape it can claim to have.



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