James Stephens’ The Crock of Gold

by Mark Wallace

Occasionally the reading of a book serves simultaneously as a rereading of another book existing somewhere in the memory. The later-read sheds some light on the composition and the literary roots, perhaps, of the earlier. Such was the case when I came to read James Stephens’ The Crock of Gold (1912) this week. CoG is a comic fantasy set in rural Ireland recounting the coming together of human and divine characters – the latter class represented both by Celtic figure Angus Og (see also W.B. Yeats’ poem “The Song of Wandering Aengus”) and Greek woodland divinity Pan. The plot of the book is rather incidental as it’s a shaggy-dog story with much long-winded serio-comic pontificating on life, the universe and everything. The dialogue works by comically counterpointing discursive modes and positing total failure of communication between its characters, with each character basically talking to himself and getting nowhere. The biggest gap is between the talk of the Irish peasantry and the intellectual discourse of the Philosopher. Take the following, between Meehawl MacMurrachu, whose daughter has disappeared (actually captured by Pan) and the Philosopher:

“What I came about was my daugheter Caitilin. Sight or light of her I haven’t had for three days My wife said first, that it was the faireis that had taken her, and then she said it wa a travelling man that had a musical instrument she went away with, and after that she said, that maybe the girl was lying dead in the but of a ditch with her eyes wide open, and she staring broadly at the moon in the night time and the sun in the day until the crows would be finding her out.”

The Philosopher drew his chair closer to Meehawl.

“Daughters,” said he, “have been a cause of anxiety to their parents ever since they were instituted. the flightiness of the female temperament is very evident in those hwo have not arrived at the years which teach how to hide faults and frailties and, therefore, indiscretions bristle from a young girl the way branches do from a brush.”

[…]

“Many races have endeavoured to place some limits to this increase of females. Certain Oriental peoples have conferred the titles of divnity on crocodiles, serpents, and tigers of the jungle, and have fed these with their surplusage of daughters. In China, likewise, such sarifices are defended as honourable and economic practices. But, broadly speaking, if daughters have to be curtailed I prefer your method of losing them rather than the religio-hysterical compromises of the Orient”

“I give you my word, sir,” said Meehawl, “that I don’t know what you are talking about at all.”

“That,” said the Philosopher, “may be accounted for in three ways – firstly, there is a lack of cerebral continuity: that is, faulty attention; secondly, it might be due to a local peculiarity in the conformation of the skull, or, perhaps, a superficial instead of deep indenting of the cerebral coil; and thirdly-”

“Did you ever hear,” said Meehawl, “of the man that had the scalp of his head blown off by a gun.” (CoG, Ch. 7)

And so on. The comedy lies in the juxtaposition of Meehawl’s rural Irish diction and the matter-of-fact Oxford English of the Philosopher, and the inability of the latter to  register the situation-specificity of the case, consistently falling into abstractions (rather sexist in this case, but that’s just the Philosopher, not Stephens. I think). This is a feature of CoG, and one that Flann O’Brien used to great effect later in At Swim-Two-Birds – and that is the book that came constantly to mind as I read CoG. For “the Philosopher” read “the Student” (O’Brien’s unnamed narrator) and for “Meehawl” read “the Uncle” (also never individually named); there’s the same breakdown in communication and the same association of rural Irish diction and unintellectualism, a narrow practicality that Stephens views more positively than O’Brien. Or he seems to. He’s never fully there in the speech of any character, or to put it more Bakhtinianly:

The author participates in the novel (he is omnipresent in it) with almost no direct language of his own. The novel is a system of languages that mutually and ideologically interanimate each other. (“From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse”)

It is the shade of mockery behind the interesting ideas in the novel’s dialogue that give it its piquant charm.

This is far from the only similarity between the two works. Both are in certain respects parodies of the Celtic revival texts of Yeats, et al., a more timely parody in Stephens’ case. To this end, both books introduce characters from Celtic mythology. The theory of literary characterology outlined in Swim is, in effect, anticipated by Stephens:

Characters should be interchangeable as between one book and another. The entire corpus of existing literature should be regarded as a limbo from which discerning authors could draw their characters as required, creating only when they failed to find a suitable existing puppet. (At Swim, quite near the start)

Hence Angus Og and Pan in Stephens, Mad Sweeny, the Pooka and the rest in O’Brien. taken from the world of myth and set down in a world of postmodern bathos. The ravings of Sweeny derive a pathetic dignity from the prosaic blandness of the characters that surround him, at some indeterminate point behind it all is O’Brien, laughing or perhaps crying at the absurdity of it all. There is always a dim hint of tragedy during O’Brien’s wildest flights of humour.

But enough of this – “It’s all bosh”, as Stephens’ Philosopher said. The point is that for all that is said of O’Brien’s labouring in Joyce’s shadow, the real source of Swim‘s humour and invention, its lunatic juxtapositions and its discursive mixology is a quite other James. Probably, better men than me have already made the comparison – I don’t know, I haven’t checked. It seems that behind Swim is a different lineage than is generally cited – behind Stephens I detect the also great and underrated Lord Dunsany. But the selective tradition has spoken, saying Joyce, Joyce, Joyce, so the rest are destined to remain in the shadows. They were born, they wrote, and they died. It is pleasant (but probably wrong) to consider that this blog post will serve as a very small candle, lighting up a tiny corner of the obscurity in which these almost-greats dwell.

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