Jeremy Lowe

title.none: Nagy, Conversing with Angels & Ancients (Lowe)

identifier.other: baj9928.9906.001 99.06.01

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Jeremy Lowe, University of Washington,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Nagy, Joseph Falaky. Conversing with Angels and Ancients: Literary Myths of Medieval Ireland. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997. Pp. xiv, 356. $22.50. ISBN: 0-801-48368-9.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.06.01

Nagy, Joseph Falaky. Conversing with Angels and Ancients: Literary Myths of Medieval Ireland. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997. Pp. xiv, 356. $22.50. ISBN: 0-801-48368-9.

Reviewed by:

Jeremy Lowe
University of Washington

Jo seph Falaky Nagy seems to have a penchant for choosing daunting subjects for his literary analyses. In the 1980's his study of the vast and unwieldy corpus of Fenian Tales, The Wisdom of the Outlaw: The Boyhood Deeds of Finn in Gaelic Narrative Tradition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), managed to chart this unfavorable terrain at the edges of early Irish prose narrative, and offer us a coherent analysis of the role of the outlaw in early Irish literature that remains the chief authority on the subject. In his latest work Nagy turns his attention to the early Irish saints' Lives, which may well seem to be unpromising subjects for literary analysis, and which have received correspondingly scant attention from scholars of literature. As in his earlier book, Nagy negotiates this complex material by presenting subtle and perceptive interpretations of numerous episodes from various sources, which connect in a rich meditation upon a central theme. In this case -- and as the title of the book suggests -- the theme is conversation, and at the most basic level this refers to the conversations that saints conduct with supernatural representatives of both pagan and Christian tradition -- the angels and ancients of the title. These conversations lend the book thematic unity, but in the idea of conversation itself Nagy discovers a complex metaphor that allows him to discuss the relationship between pagan and Christian, past and present, and, ultimately, truth and representation in the saints' Lives, all of which are brought into contact with one another by the mediating figure of the saint.

Nagy is aware that the last of these seeming dichotomies may give scholars of early Irish cause for concern; after all, the conflict between truth and representation sounds more like the topic of deconstructive literary theory than a crucial element of Irish hagiography. In his introduction Nagy makes it clear that "the historical events and persons that may lie behind the texts . . . concern me less than the ideological truths these texts communicate" (p. 13). Historical 'facts' are less important than the ways in which these facts are represented in the texts, largely because, according to Nagy, "we encounter in Irish literature the question what constitutes an authoritative representation, that is, a sign that genuinely communicates what was or what was once truthfully said?" (p. 15). In their ongoing quest to discover the nature of literary authority the creators of these texts were rarely content to accept the idea of simple auctoritas, and so the question revolved around the ways in which signs could be interpreted, and by whom. Clearly, then, the early Irish literati were textually sophisticated, and this means that modern-day methods of literary analysis are not merely applicable to the texts they produced, they are the very least these texts deserve.

Accordingly, Nagy's book is founded on contemporary literary theory -- in particular, the semiotics of Saussure and the deconstructionist theories of Derrida. Saussure provides Nagy with the definition of the sign -- the culturally determined relationship between a "signifier" and a "signified" -- whereas deconstruction insists that these signs can never be reduced to one literal meaning, and that the system of relationships that constitute the semiotic order is complex and ever-widening. This is particularly useful to remember when approaching the saints' Lives, where the text is perpetually unable to contain all of the knowledge of the past: each Life is only a version of the truth, and only a partial version at that. The frame that the text places around this vast history is always under threat from competing voices, and "loose ends are left loose, contradictions are not resolved, and simmering tensions are allowed to boil over" (p. 21). According to Nagy, the Lives constantly produce more signs in a complex meditation on the past that is both self-conscious and self-reflexive.

Nagy makes subtle use of critical theory, and his writing is free of its specialized vocabulary; instead, Nagy develops his theme though the practical analysis of a wide array of texts. This has its advantages and disadvantages: on the one hand, the book is accessible to those not particularly well-versed in critical theory; on the other, the reader can sometimes struggle to comprehend the implications of Nagy's complex arguments. Any work of criticism is treading this fine line, and for the most part Nagy gets it right, but every once in a while it would be helpful to see him engage more directly with some of the trickier concepts underlying his analysis. As a case in point, Nagy introduces Derrida's crucial term "supplement," which refers to the self-perpetuating nature of representation, on page 320, describing it as "an artifice defining the putative presence it supplements." Given that Nagy is primarily concerned with the nature of representation in the saints' Lives, it would be helpful to see this concept treated earlier, and at fuller length. The same could also be said for Bakhtin's term "heteroglossia", which Nagy defines on page 329 (the last page of the book proper) as "both a staging and a babble of disparate voices" which permeates the text. Clearly this term is fundamental to the book, which deals with the constant irruption of voices into the linear narrative of the Lives, and some readers may prefer to be armed with the term before they venture into the heart of the analysis.

These are minor quibbles, however, and they hardly detract from what is otherwise a convincing, absorbing, and challenging analysis of the systems of representation in early Irish hagiography. Chapter 1 focuses on the so-called Confessio of Patrick, and introduces the textual anxiety of the authorial voice that leads to questions of authority and representation. In the Confessio Patrick wrestles with the problems facing many of the authors of the hagiographic texts: how to translate an unwritten text (an oral performance, a historical event, or even a vision) into written form. Patrick turns to Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians for a precedent; in it, Paul insists that we are all letters written by Christ -- we are "living letters" -- and so in his Confessio Patrick aims to become his own letter, co-authored by God (p. 28). The author cannot stand outside the text: Patrick is interwoven with the very process of textual transmission.

In Paul's vision (Corinthians 12: 2-4) we see this process taken one step further. Here, Paul becomes a "twinned" apostle: the man who experiences the vision of heaven directly and the man who tells of it (or relates its inexpressibility) in the form of a written account. Paul becomes the visionary experience, the true nature of which God alone knows, and which the earthly Paul cannot describe. Thus he is simultaneously "the bearer of an unfathomable epiphany and its joyously frustrated would-be interpreter" (p. 30). Patrick's own transcendent experiences render him an "epiphany himself" (p. 30); unlike Paul, however, Patrick develops, when introduced to the divine voice, an alter ego. This "Patrick in the third person" (p. 31) is able to mediate between the voice of the heavenly spirit and the "I" of the Confessio, so that some of what the spirit says is rendered intelligible. Thus Patrick emphasizes that language is a channel of divine authority, and may allow a man with a divine mission to communicate something akin to God's message. Nagy calls this "conspicuous displacement" (p. 37), whereby the totality of things is replaced by, or channeled through, one single thing and so rendered comprehensible. Patrick's very personal struggle to translate the inexpressible finds echoes in the wider cultural role of the translation of pagan Ireland into Christian Ireland, ascribed to him by his later biographers. Both writing and speech are powerful modes of expression for Patrick, a means of establishing his authority.

In Chapter 2 Nagy turns to the writings about Patrick, specifically the Bethu Phatraic and the works of Muirchu and Tirechan. Muirchu's Life in particular expresses the textual anxiety of the writer, concerned about the fact that what he is doing -- collecting together the available materials about Patrick's mission to Ireland and writing them down -- is so innovative. No written text can hope to communicate everything in this vast sea of unwritten lore, into which Muirchu ventures alone. Muirchu's journey, therefore, echoes Patrick's own into the heart of pagan Ireland, and again we see how the writer is woven into the text; Muirchu's challenge, however, is to maintain mastery of his materials. The translator, like the saint, will succeed by establishing his authority over the interpretation of his material. Nagy perceptively argues that the success of Patrick's mission depends upon the saint's ability to interpret signs, and so the historical conversion of the Irish is also a linguistic conversion. For example, Patrick's encounter with Dichu, the first Irish convert, is "replete with ambiguous signs" (p. 52), allowing a "flexibility of interpretive attitudes and responses . . . [that make possible] a breakthrough in intercultural communication" (p. 53). When it comes to the encounter with the recalcitrant Miliucc, however, the signs are fixed, preventing any possibility of communication, leading eventually to the any possibility of communication, leading eventually to the "spectacularly self-defeating referentiality of Miliucc's funeral pyre" (p. 60). Patrick's struggle is not merely a struggle for dominance, but a mission to translate the pagan Irish into Christian terms.

Consequently, the two druids, Reon and Recrad, whom Patrick confronts in a story in the Tripartite Life, are translated into signs representing various reactions to the Christian message. Reon is buried in earth and 'resurrected' by Patrick so that he might believe; Recrad is raised on high (i.e. lifted into the sky) and brought down with a word, thereupon to be consumed by flames. Reon lives, Nagy argues, because he "allows himself to function as a living sign of the religion Patrick brings" (p. 73) -- he submits to linguistic identification. In this chapter, then, Nagy develops the semiotic basis of his analysis to interpret the wider reaches of Patrick's linguistic mastery. Patrick's ability to interpret signs grows as that of his opponents, the druids, diminishes. Crucially, the Christian system of signification is one that lives and grows; it is more subtle and flexible than pagan systems, and does not strip away the authority of old signs, but invests them with new meaning. This is exemplified in Tirechan's story of the well, venerated as a God by local people, that Patrick breaks open, and in so doing frees the pre-Christian Irish from their superstitions, and "replaces this closed system with an open, dynamic system of signification" (p. 131).

The focus of Chapter 3 is Adomnan's Life of Columba, which represents a "continuation and a ripening" (p. 135) of the dialogue between Christian and native tradition begun in Patrick's Life and mission. The tensions between the oral and the literary persists, illustrated by the story of Columba's encounter with the angel, who offers the saint a glass book containing the rite of ordination of kings. Columba resists the commands of the angel, who beats him into submission with a whip that leaves a permanent blue scar. (Nagy, alert to the humor of this story, gives his analysis of it the heading "Struck by an Angel"). In Columba's Life, the written and the oral form jostle for mastery, but neither is able to dominate entirely, reflecting Columba's own role as a saint who comes after Patrick's linguistic triumph, and moves in a world of greater social, political, and textual complexity. Nagy remarks that "the hagiographic terrain of Columban legendry serves as a laboratory for testing formulations of the institution of poetry in Christian terms" (p. 169): whereas oral poetry is contained and limited at the fateful meeting at Druim Cet, in the story of Scandlan's resurrection it is Columba's own prophetic voice that guarantees safety. Text never entirely replaces voice, which is both immediate and personal.

Columba's Life expands upon Patrick's mission in other ways. Nagy offers us a thought-provoking interpretation of Columba's habit of transforming his enemies into the forms of his favorite creatures: these transformed animals represent some part of Columba himself, a part intrinsic to him, yet simultaneously independent and beyond his total control. The birds also reflect the poets who cross the waters to meet with Columba. They are complex metaphors both of the 'darker' side of the poetic art, and of the connections that exist between poet/ancient and saint. The creatures so cursed become " productive signs of the saints, values, and media that they have attempted to oppose" (p. 195). Yet they retain their connections to the old culture. Such a sign echoes the fate of poetry itself: it is "reframed or recycled to suit Christian literary purposes, without its traditional import being erased" (p. 195). As in Patrick's Life, Christianity succeeds by enabling the proliferation of signs, which are then focused through the interpreting figure of the saint. Pagan and Christian elements commingle within the body of the saint which, like the text of the Life itself, acts as a frame, though one that is constantly being tested and renegotiated.

One way in which the stability of the frame is challenged is through the figure of the charioteer, and in the next chapter Nagy investigates the fascinating relationship between the charioteer and the figure who stands beside him on the chariot: the hero, or, in the hagiographic tradition, the saint. The charioteer in Indo-European literary tradition functions both as the alter ego of the hero, and also as his anti ego, according to Nagy, and this doubling means that the saint's authority is frequently challenged by a figure who in many ways represents him. Nagy examines the curious fact that in several stories in the Patrician legend, the saint's charioteer dies, but the saint does not resurrect him. In fact, in the episode of Patrick's crucial meeting with the angel on top of Cruachan Aigli, the consolidation of Patrick's power and authority is undermined by the death of his charioteer. As Nagy points out, where resurrection stories in Patrician legend "exude confidence about the prospects of recovering the past through a Christian, literary tradition . . . [I]t is the saint's own trusty charioteer . . . who indicates the limitations of that recovery" (p. 216). Nagy then provides us with a long excursus on the function of the charioteer, focusing in particular on Loeg, the driver of Cu Chulainn's chariot. In the secular tales the charioteer has a plethora of attributes -- such as the ability to compose satire, and a habit of making mediation 'too easy' -- that are troubling to Christian narrative, and he has to be brought into line. He therefore becomes the "expendable companion" (p. 286) in the hagiographic tradition, dying so that the saint may live, and so that the saint's message may flourish. The hero's shadowy twin in secular literature ultimately becomes, by the time he reaches the saints' Lives, a figure that can replace the saint as a sacrificial victim.

The charioteer is effectively marginalized in the hagiographic tradition, but in the penultimate chapter of the book Nagy demonstrates how those at the margins of society very often retain an intimacy with those at the center of authority. The figure of the fennid, or outlaw, familiar to us from Nagy's earlier book, lurks at the outer margins of society, and therefore is able to produce signs to which he himself assigns meaning. This ability offers a clear threat to the absolute authority of the saint as sole interpreter of meaning, and it is inevitable then that the fennid's career leads ultimately to an encounter with the saint, "who serves as the ultimate "reader" of the fennid's significance" (p. 296). Very often the fennidi wear special insignia called stigmata or signa diabolica, and it is these signs that the saint translates, liberating the fennidi from their maleficent influence while simultaneously imposing Christian restraint on the outlaws. Very often the places at the edge of meaning require a very special sort of holy man to negotiate them, and Nagy concludes his account with a group of stories surrounding the hermit, Marban, and a variety of other marginal figures. It is a fitting place to end, for although these characters are ultimately reconciled with the Christian tradition, they are "hard to contain and keep down; they sometimes even violate the boundaries of their own or others' 'definitive' readings of themselves" (p. 323). The almost total success of Patrick's mission, in which he establishes his absolute authority as an interpreter of signs, has slowly given way to the proliferation of meaning at the margins of society. This movement is not at all antithetical to the Christian tradition; as we have seen, the notion of authority in the saints' Lives depends upon an ability to negotiate and interpret an ever-proliferating system of signs. Irish scribes were aware that the more contentious the dialogue, the better it serves to stimulate and preserve memory, a point with which Nagy concludes his analysis (p. 329). The hagiographic tradition explores the pagan past in order to bring it into line with the Christian present, aware that the more comprehensive the lore that it embraces, the closer it gets to the unbounded nature of divine truth.

Clearly, Conversing with Angels and Ancients is a difficult book. A short review such as this cannot hope to do justice to the range and depth of Nagy's analysis. Theoretical complexities aside, there is a vast wealth of detail here that may well seem daunting to the casual reader. It goes without saying, however, that the book rewards those willing to persevere. Nagy has an acute critical eye as well as great erudition, and he can certainly tell a story. This is a book filled with stories, and I am certain that every reader, whether s/he is an expert on hagiography or not, will discover something that widens his or her appreciation of early Irish literature. Perhaps more important than this, however, is that Nagy manages to bridge the gap between the seemingly antithetical concepts of 'pagan' and 'Christian', 'past' and 'present', 'oral' and 'literary', and show that the early Irish writers treated these matters with a sophistication that we may do well to emulate. At least as far as the saints' Lives are concerned, Christianity sought to find ways to reconcile all of these oppositions, and bring them under one interpretive system. Similarly, by focusing on dialogue rather than division, Nagy shows us the way forward, reminding us that we need to be alert to the wealth of signs present in early Irish literature. In doing so, he questions some of the fundamental assumptions that we take for granted in our own readings. This is a challenging book, and a controversial one, but it is the role of criticism to re-examine fundamental assumptions and provoke debate. Conversing with Angels and Ancients is an essential book for all those involved in the interpretation of Old Irish texts, but it is also a book designed to encourage fresh dialogue, both between scholars and texts, and among scholars themselves. For a work that explores the theme of conversation, there can be no higher recommendation.