From the Print Journal

Sounding Irish Radio at Midcentury

Book Cover: The Wireless Past
The Wireless Past: Anglo-Irish Writers and the BBC, 1931–1968. Emily Bloom. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. Pp. xii + 224. $80.00 (cloth).

Reading through these two excellent new volumes situated at the intersection of radio studies and modern Irish literature, one feels presented with two very different instantiations of the radio listener. On the one hand, we have the dial-twirling shortwave enthusiast, stationed in (perhaps) Cork, and tuning in to transmissions Irish in affiliation but emanating from Dublin, Addis Ababa, New York City, Belfast, Geneva, London, and Berlin—transmissions that dazzle by their variety and that impart an awareness of their connectedness in dispersal. On the other hand, we have the idealized Third Programme listener of the mid-century BBC, at domestic ease in (perhaps, again) Belfast, attending closely and in the best tradition of appointment listening to familiar voices made new by the sense of their sudden, newfound proximity via the wireless. The former model is embodied by Damien Keane’s Ireland and the Problem of Information: Irish Writing, Radio, Late Modernist Communication, the latter by Emily Bloom’s The Wireless Past: Anglo-Irish Writers and the BBC, 1931–1968. If Keane’s work rewrites rather dramatically the established geographical and formal dimensions of the Irish cultural field, Bloom’s work pries that field open by slower but still sure degrees. Both make important contributions.

What is remarkable, in comparing these two strikingly different texts, is how many parallels one finds at work in their logics. One senses that a new conceptual framework is cohering around literary radio studies: one that takes seriously the intermedial contexts of broadcasting and of literature, one that is attuned to the simultaneous and overlapping publics radio and literature created at local, regional, national, and international scales, and one that understands radio to be neither an agent of hard determinism (subjecting its listeners to either the pummeling authoritarian tones of the dictator or the come-hither vocals of the crooner) nor of radical autonomy. Present, too, in both of these texts, is an archival consciousness that is at times reverent (as in Keane’s acknowledgement of the work of historians, librarians, and archivists in remedying the longstanding informational vacuum surrounding Irish political culture at midcentury [5–6]) and at other times rousing (as in Bloom’s rallying cry for greater access to extant radio archives that are all too often hidden away from public sight [21–23]).

The differences that emerge between these works are not, however, superficial, even if at times they seem to represent different theoretical languages trying to address the same problems. Keane approaches the titular “problem of information”—which he describes as a simultaneous surfeit and deficit of information structured by global material inequalities—by treating all forms of textual production as part of the same contested field of relations. Thus the first chapter juxtaposes the broadcasts and League of Nations speeches of Taoiseach Éamon de Valera during the Ethiopian Crisis of 1935–36 with Walter Starkie’s travelogue-cum-Italian-apologia The Waveless Plain (1938) as two versions of interwar Irish political self-positioning. In the former, de Valera—informed by a network of diplomats and civil servants—navigates multiple media in order to advocate for a protective withdrawal from an international order increasingly hostile to Ireland’s interests. In the latter, Starkie uses aural media (his violin, the radio) as metonyms by which to conjure an organic fascist society, but neglects to address that society’s structural mediation through government-mandated institutions and practices like the distribution of wireless sets. In each case, Keane’s attention is on the often-obscured material and institutional contexts which subtend conventional debates about what counts as literary or political writing, and which in effect bind them beyond all disentanglement.

Ireland and the Problem of Information: Irish Writing, Radio, Late Modernist Communication. Damien Keane. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014. Pp. x + 195. $69.95 (cloth); $29.95 (paper).

Subsequent chapters deepen Keane’s analysis of the mediated matrix of information that structured Irish cultural production around the war years. Chapter 2, “Dirty Work in New York,” traces the careers of Shaemas O’Sheel and affiliated figures in New York, circa 1914–40, as they oscillated between the convergent poles of political and literary writing. New York’s special position in the history of Irish politics, as incubator of revolutionary sentiment and refuge of exiles, reinforces Keane’s theme of border crossing, even if (as he admits) the chapter does not directly address broadcasting. Instead, the chapter highlights how cosmopolitanism is always locally enacted and inflected and how the adjacency of aesthetic and political discourses can prompt slippage not just between those discourses but also along a political spectrum. O’Sheel, for example, used his base in New York to publish nationalist Irish poetry as well as essays and pamphlets against the British Empire; that some of these essays and poems emerged through the patronage of George Sylvester Viereck, a right-wing pro-German publisher in the interwar period whose books were often sponsored by a German government keen to destabilize Britain, indicates that assertions of autonomy (political and aesthetic) often hinge on heteronomous networks of power.

Two chapters on the years of the Emergency highlight both the stakes of Irish non-belligerence and the inadequacy of the term “neutrality” to describe the complex relationships that existed between Ireland and the Continent from 1939 to 1945. Chapter 3, “The Irish Free Zone,” triangulates three writers in its examination of two translations of Louis Aragon’s poem “Zone Libre” by Patrick Browne and Louis MacNeice, respectively. Aragon’s poem is a triumph of what he called “contraband” writing, in which ostensibly apolitical poems written under Vichy rule could serve as vehicles for politically dissident interpretations (77). Browne and MacNeice each remake the poem in their own fashion: for MacNeice, Aragon’s subtly liberatory poem offers a meditation on “dialectical sociability,” the potential for poetic transmission to effect the exchange of information, while Browne uses it to consider how that flow of information might be managed and how the process of channeling enacts manipulation (94, 106–7). Chapter 4, “Radio Pages,” delves into Francis Stuart’s wartime broadcasts from Germany and challenges his retrospective claims to have focused exclusively on apolitical topics like literature, despite his rights as an Irishman to speak from Berlin—a double assertion of neutrality, both aesthetic and political. Keane pointedly argues that Stuart—like Starkie and O’Sheel before him—rests his claim to autonomy on an erasure of the material implication of both literature and broadcasting in political networks of mediation. In Stuart’s case, this entails ignoring the entire apparatus of the Nazi propaganda industry that enabled his broadcasts and for which assertions of Irish artistic and national autonomy were easily mobilized to score political points; it also entails ignoring the fact that the only reason Stuart’s broadcasts are available to researchers at all is because of their capture by Irish and Allied monitoring services, a process that inscribes them further within a history of political communication.

Keane’s analysis is refreshing in several ways: like Bloom’s, it frees radio as a medium from the grip of a narrow form of radio studies by insisting on its imbrication with multiple other media, from novels and poems to memoranda, vinyl flexi-discs, wireless monitoring reports, and speeches. Furthermore, in recasting midcentury Irish writing around the problem of “information,” it undoes the simple binarism of Emergency-era neutrality and belligerence, so often troped as shorthands for insularity and cosmopolitanism, respectively. Instead, Keane situates Irish cultural production within a field of available positions that scales from the local to the international, in which neutrality in the Second World War might be the product of acute sensitivity to the unfolding of geopolitical events. In doing so, Keane taps the brakes on the rush, among some modernist scholars, to embrace the transnational as always affording newer and better connections than are possible within local and national frameworks. As Keane frames the issue, the decades surrounding the war (and subsequent increases in national/global interpenetration among media systems) scrambled older logical connections between proclaimed outlook and practical political effects. That is, the “position-taking” of the years 1930–50 that was then, and is so often now, read in terms that align cosmopolitan modernism with aesthetic and political autonomy was very often conducted in a charged political field in which autonomy was wielded for political ends (as Peter Kalliney’s Commonwealth of Letters [2013] has recently demonstrated in an adjacent context) and politicization could warp the terms of the literary field.

Bloom’s take on the relationship between literary production and broadcasting at midcentury presents itself in a manner less radical than Keane’s; and yet its readings are nonetheless incisive and illuminating. Although The Wireless Past is a less peripatetic book than Ireland and the Problem of Information, Bloom’s four writers of focus—W. B. Yeats, Louis MacNeice, Elizabeth Bowen, and Samuel Beckett—are united by the fact that they are all Anglo-Irish writers whose lives led them to “persistently or permanently” leave Ireland for parts elsewhere (2). They also, importantly, went beyond the basic broadcast “talk” to test the expressive potential of radio at the BBC, whether through elaborately staged readings of poetry, imagined dialogues with dead writers, vivid propaganda features, or acoustically rich radio plays. The focus of this volume on their contributions to the BBC therefore reflects not only the Corporation’s heightened role as literary patron and site of experimentation, but also the writers’ frequent distance from Ireland itself. This is a spatial and cultural distance from Ireland’s emerging postindependence identity that Bloom treats frankly in her conclusion, acknowledging that Anglo-Irish writers were as often bulwarks against nationalist Catholic participation at the BBC as they were the vanguard for all Irish writers (176–77).

For Bloom, radio offered these writers a means of connecting modern literary practice to the past, by recalling and remediating the Bardic traditions of Ireland, classical and nineteenth-century forms of literary expression, and the problem of self-formation through memory and acoustic archiving. It is precisely this traffic between the past and the present that structures Bloom’s analysis: the radiogenic texts of Yeats, MacNeice, Bowen, and Beckett operate through complex processes of citation, allusion, echo, and repetition in order to weave new arts out of the sonic past. Radio involvement enacts a kind of literary-historical chiasmus in this reading, depending on the presumed attitude of a given author to tradition: just as the wireless transmissions of cultural nationalist Yeats reveal him to have more in common with his cosmopolitan descendants than one might at first realize, so too do Bowen, MacNeice, and Beckett reveal stronger ties to Irish and British literary heritage through their broadcasts.

Yeats is paradigmatic of this process of mediated exchange across time: though often skeptical of mass media, he understood radio to offer the listener a more intimate relationship to lyric poetry than could be obtained at a public reading, on account of the domestic, often familial conditions of wireless reception. This enthusiasm for the medium, Bloom contends, played a key role in Yeats’s late-career shift towards a more public view of his role as a poet (29). Through BBC programs like “The Poet’s Pub” and “The Poet’s Parlour,” and through broadside publications by the Cuala Press that reanimate older ballad forms, Yeats continued to reach out to new audiences for poetry even as the media landscape continued to shift (62). For MacNeice—the subject of Chapter 2—radio was not simply a means of extending the reach of his poetry, but of forging entirely new modes of sonic expression and in doing so, to “shape active, engaged sonic citizens” (68). In MacNeice’s case, it is the recurrent trope of the echo that figures a connection to the past; through the repetition of words, intertextual references to past works, and acoustic echo effects generated in the studio, MacNeice’s radio works thematize the return of the sonic past through radio. Not that MacNeice uncritically accepts all media advances as necessarily capable of bringing the past into the future; rather, as Bloom argues, MacNeice often invokes tradition in order to signal its rupture in the present (92–93). (It is worth noting here that, in elucidating MacNeice’s sophisticated understanding of the medium of radio, both Bloom and Keane bolster the case for MacNeice as one of the midcentury’s foremost practitioners of the medium, and hint that yet more work might be done on him, particularly with regard to his less-studied later-career works.)

For Bowen, whose Second World War literary broadcasts form the core of Chapter 3, novelists of the past functioned to focalize the relationship between literature and the public at a time of both increased readership and heightened pressures on the industry (in the form of paper rationing, censorship, and bombed warehouses). Bloom here emphasizes Bowen’s preoccupation with uncanny hauntings; in this case, it is the specter of literature itself that haunts the mediascape of the war. But as much as Bowen exhibits a fondness for those novelists—Anthony Trollope, Jane Austen, and Fanny Burney—whose lives and works she reanimates in radio form, Bloom insists that her subject is not interested in simplistic nostalgia, but rather a remediation of past forms that can induce a critical receptivity in her audience. The past, Bowen’s radio works insist, must be made to address the future, rather than mapped uncritically onto it. Bloom’s excellent closing analysis on A World of Love (1954), Bowen’s late-career return to the Ireland of The Last September (1929), offers a poignant reading of the troubling acoustics of radio in an Anglo-Irish context: the tolling of Big Ben over the BBC airwaves in that novel signals the complex binds between Anglo-Irish identity and imperial institutions of mediation at midcentury (113–16).

Beckett—who also features in the coda to Keane’s book—has attracted considerable attention for his radio work and his obsession with language and memory. And yet, Bloom argues, his plays have not often been read as meditations on the problem of the sound archive as mnemonic prosthesis. By turning her attention to the radio play All that Fall (1957) and the stage play Krapp’s Last Tape (1958), Bloom attempts to remedy this gap, arguing that both works address the growing obsolescence of audio media at midcentury and their transformation into an imperfect archive for the spoken word (128–29). Bloom illuminates Beckett’s treatment of the recorded past through judicious reference to Jacques Derrida’s Archive Fever, which posits the archive both as the product of a will to preserve and as something threatened by a will to destruction. The acoustic past in these two plays by Beckett is an archive persistently haunted by the threat of erasure. By mapping these plays alongside Beckett’s own encounters with recorded sound, Bloom both grounds Beckett’s existential questions in their material history and reveals the existential questions at the heart of our attempts to preserve the past.

The strength of Bloom’s analysis is her subtle handling of the complex set of interrelationships between publics, institutions, and nations. Broadcasting, for all its unidirectionality, has never been a monologic medium, and never less so than in the Anglo-Irish context at midcentury: aesthetic prerogatives jostle against institutional ones; Northern Irish broadcasters with unionist sympathies at the Belfast BBC butt heads with London-based bureaucrats looking to woo listeners in the Republic; and governmental agencies like RTE and the BBC compete with private entities like Radio Luxembourg and Radio Normandy (14). Rather than determining aesthetic and political outcomes, media like radio instead afford a range of possible effects; in mapping these varied and contingent effects, Bloom demonstrates a keen ear for the relation between texts and contexts at a range of scales.

Towards the end of The Wireless Past, Bloom offers a careful reading of MacNeice’s unduly slighted autobiographical poem Autumn Sequel (1954), a reading that doubles as a rallying cry for an intermedial approach to studying texts both in the past and in the present. What has been missing in criticism of Autumn Sequel, writes Bloom, is a full awareness of its enmeshment in nonprint networks of circulation, including its history of wireless transmission and its attempts to evoke the world of midcentury broadcasting. “[I]nterpreting radiogenic aesthetics,” she writes, “involves combining the practices of close reading and archival research to understand the radio contexts within literary texts, as well as maintaining an awareness of contemporary resonances in new media: a process that may very well allow for new forms of ‘close listening’ in literary criticism” (170). In their attention to the contested and multiply mediated fields of literature and politics and their sensitive handling of a neglected trove of transmissions both textual and acoustic, these two monographs enact precisely this kind of intermedial attention and bode well for the present and future of midcentury Irish cultural studies.