Of Cats and Men; History in the Making: An Eventful Year.

Part I: The cats are given a chance

Maybe it is by way of consideration of a local church magazine discussion that the present article has arisen but it’s also been as a kind of reaction to a mix of horror and some pleasure as we have found ourselves in one summer – a summer of sanity in horror if that isn’t an Irishism – neighbouring witnesses of a surprising and remarkable pace of unfolding of history within our islands. Maybe too it is the fallout of the issues involved into local church publications in Cardiff – parish magazines and Sunday service notices – and their outcropping in a spectrum of comments and views which has highlighted their mixed religious and political natures. Such discussion in such places does also possess a value in serving to “keep in the news” a vein of recognition that all our arguments are subject in the last analysis to measure against transcendent standards of conduct and morality. Maybe further, as Ava Gardner’s character the Hindu-Welsh Victoria Jones observed in Bhowani Junction (novel 1954, film 1956), we often behave as if situations do not change. But they do. John Master’s India has changed, George Orwell’s Burmese Days are a legacy of a soon-to-be-changed period, and to complete as examples a Celtic three, our neighbour Ireland is changing apace. Such change is called evolution. Such exists. It exists in theology and Christian doctrine (see John Henry Cardinal Newman’s essay on same, 1845, which was 14 years before Darwin). And it exists in politics. Allowed freedom, which the Nazis didn’t in their hijacking of the theory, it favours adaptation, growth and development, and cooperation.

A spectrum of views like those in the parish publications implies a spectrum of demands to call forth our sympathies and, just as we cannot serve two masters (thus the Sermon on the Mount in Matt 6: 24 and Luke 16: 13), so generally we cannot be all things to all men nor long occupy two opposing viewpoints. A striking contemporary example has been PM Tony Blair’s political stratagem of compromise between socialism and capitalism called the ‘Third Way’ which has proved to be one of the shortest-lived movements in modern history. As Mr. Blair’s personal vision of the Third Way was released in London in a Fabian Society pamphlet, its author and President Clinton, as panelists, attended a seminar on the idea at New York University. The cards, however, seemed destined to run unfavourable to the policy, or, rather, the video of the President’s country‑schismatizing grand jury Starr chamber interrogation was playing worldwide. “When the chips are down,” columnist Polly Toynbee wrote in The Guardian on the release of the 4-hour videotape, “there is only Them and Us, Democrats and Republicans, progressives and reactionaries, the tolerant and the intolerant” (‘It’s not about sex, it’s politics, stupid’, 22 Sept., 1998). “Every vox pop on the television tells you which way the speaker swings, left or right.” And no sooner were the centre-left Social Democrats elected in Germany in September and a pact arranged with the radical left-wing Greens of that country than the deregulatory, monetarist, New Labour ‘Third Way’ gave way to the New Liberal, Keynesian demand management, ‘New European Way’. This, like L. Frank Baum’s Yellow Brick Road, so one commentator, “leads to outwardly impressive castles in the air from which fireworks and smoke emanate, magicked up by unimpressive men pulling levers behind a curtain” (John Laughland, Politics: Blair’s Third Way ditched, The European, 23-29 Nov. ‘98).

The demise of the Third Way and the polarisations about the separate issues of Mr. Clinton and Ireland – the investment of emotion on the part of the respective supporters in such issues – are together symptomatic of the subjectivity contained in their discussion, and of kneejerk reaction to any initiative which ventures to propose reconciliation. Sometimes it takes a strong figure to knock heads together, or a shock to give the process of evolution a jolt, a bolt from the blue to knock out the dinosaurs and give the mammals (or the allies of progress among them) a chance.

I will first of all confess and admit that with regard to Ireland I am moved from a view personal, of ‘some remove’ as Irish‑British, and will counter that we each speak of ourselves whenever we decline to turn away and fail in strength to remain silent. I will not deceive myself into the belief that there exists an objective position and that I do not put myself into a position. We are each hermetically sealed within our own spheres of consciousness and are hard put to shake off our own presuppositions and value judgments, however sometimes desirable. At the same time we are each enmeshed in the scheme of things because here again in our chains of mutual association there’s an Irish link in a central figure who has something to say. It may be apposite to add that even the pursuer of the science of matter and energy as distinct from mind has been led into debate over granting similar recognition in seeking the point in observation, or in answer-fixing measurement. There the properties of the substructure of creation, considered since the for Ireland significant 1920s as an exception to the holding of two sentiments, as dualistic, or “complementary” in two viewpoints, are locked and fixed in an answer which is monistic – “projected out” or “collapsed” are the usual jargon.

This is the so-called “measurement problem or paradox,” of the great John von Neumann, immortalised in scientific folklore in the story of Herr Professor Doctor Schroedinger’s ‘cat‑in‑the‑box’, a nine lifer shut up with a 50-50 chance death or grace‑dealing contraption (which we may call a ‘gun’) inside a hellish microworld-representing black box (‘Höllenmaschine’/ ‘hell machine’). Inside, away from our knowledge, we can’t make any observations or measurements as to the state of the ‘gun’ and, by implication, as to that of the feline, whether still alive or dead. The microworld ‘gun’ is considered correctly to be uncertainly dually loaded and discharged and the measuring cat, in corresponding fashion, to be uncertainly, allegedly, extant – perhaps like the politically immortalised savage dead sheep of the famous (or infamous) Dennis Healy jibe of 1978 – in dual states – “the living and the cat mixed or smeared out (pardon the expression)”, jested the professor in the famous journal Die Naturwissenschaften (‘The Natural Sciences’). Does the ‘buck of decision’ (the end of the ‘von Neumann chain of events’) in settling the uncertainty in the actual fate of the mog rest in the one-life-jeopardising contraption in the box, or does it reach as far as the springing of the lid, in the observation or act of ‘measurement’ (or of curiosity?) of the professor? As an enemy of Nazism (though Aryan), he was actually brought to Ireland for 17 years by the practised, clandestine, calculated efforts of her mathematician – premier (Taoiseach), President of the League of Nations, Éamon de Valera, to head his pet creation, the opened in 1940 Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, DIAS, in Merrion Square.

The cat story may constitute a surprising touch of humour in serious German science literature but it was submitted by Schroedinger as a kind of satire upon the interpretation of ‘collapse’ by an overlong chain, ‘collapse’ by observer. “One can even construct quite burlesque cases” was how he introduced it, and though today he might have transgressed upon the sensitivities of animal liberationists, we must allow that as one of science’s great figures Schroedinger was a nonconventionalist who, as his own man after the manner of a cat as its own creature, was given to breaking boundaries social, scientific, and, at the final count, political and humorous too. Though too, owing to the long controversy over the interpretation of the case, Stephen Hawking has said, “When I hear of Schroedinger’s cat I reach for my gun”, the story does provide a powerful image of the operation of dualities of equal validity in superimposition, and of the mechanism behind decisions.

Alas for Ireland, the professor’s so-called and fortunately imaginary “Hell Machine” may by its name suggest some unfortunate connotations in a country where more than once the creation of hell loomed. One author states (Conor Kostick, Revolution in Ireland: popular militancy, 1917 to 1921. London, 1996, p. 90) without a reference, that a police journal as much as said that the intention of the controversial non-Irish quasi or supplementary police introduced in 1920 was to make Ireland “an appropriate hell for rebels”. In September Seamus Mallon, Deputy First Minister-elect, went on record before the first regular working session of the new Northern Ireland Assembly that took place Monday the 14th to say: “None of us are angels and we will not create heaven on earth, but at least we can end what has been for many of our people in recent years a hell on earth.”

It may be noted in passing that in aeroplanes the so‑called ‘black’ box is usually bright orange for visibility but it is less the intention here to discuss political colours so much as the question of fairness and even ecumenism.

In the Irish context, Northern Ireland too may be perceived as dual, i.e. Protestant and Catholic. However, in welcoming President Bill Clinton to Ulster on Thursday 3 September, First Minister David Trimble introduced the new, wider term, “Pluralism”. Speaking at a rally of 2,000 invited community representatives at the Belfast Waterfront Hall Mr. Trimble said: “I believe we can provide a pluralist parliament for a pluralist people”. Just as Schroedinger had a purpose so too did Mr. Trimble in this tantalising statement in front of Mr. Clinton for, as a statement with historical resonances, its respinning in this form flagged a striking departure for unionism, a willingness to close the lid on hard‑line attitudes, and a welcome disposition to enter a new era of coalition government including Unionists, nationalists, and even republicans. Seized upon by political pundits the intriguing statement represented a deliberate inversion of the folkloric “Protestant parliament for a Protestant people” associated with Sir James Craig (Lord Craigavon), Northern Ireland’s first Prime Minister, which is actually a misquotation. What Lord Craigavon in fact said in the Parliamentary Buildings at Stormont was: “All I boast is that we have a Protestant Parliament and a Protestant State” (Parliament of Northern Ireland, Parliamentary Debates: Official Report (Hansard), London, House of Commons, vol. 16, col. 1095, April 1934).

In the new context the fate of Ulster, dual Protestant and Catholic/pluralist, so often away from our intimate knowledge, has returned to “a devolved administration” but while under the Northern Ireland Act many issues are reserved to the new Northern Ireland Assembly, other issues remain “reserved powers” to be exercised from Westminster. Just as with the cat case therefore, some controversy exists as to the length of the chain and whether the fate of Ulster rests in Ulster or in Britain. Just as one example, pro-lifers view the uncertainty as ‘Irish Dangers,’ the front-page headline in the autumn 1988 edition of their newspaper Human Concern [London, SPUC]. What therefore are the odds on a satisfactory resolution of the many uncertainties? 50 - 50 like the cat’s, or better? Has the role of the gun been completed? Has there been enough revulsion over such incidents as the Omagh bombing of August 15? The Kilkenny cats of the Irish tale are like the pre‑collapsed Schroedinger cat states in that, but for their tails, they disappeared in their fight. Are the Ulster parties to square up with all the mutual respect and tolerance of the Kilkenny cats? Are we to witness a ding-dong scrap? Nay, let the respect and tolerance grow to be genuine and let the claws of the cats, unless the opponents disappear, be worn in the exercise of democracy.

“Nature is not all one,” St. Paul wrote in discussing the nature of the risen Body (Corinthians 1, 15: 39 in Monsignor Ronald Knox’s beautiful, free, all-embracing, almost tailored for modern science, translation of the essence) while: “All earthly creatures are not the same,” (from the New International) might even speak of the living and dead cat! If among other manifestations it is awry‑-;besetting upon its encountering with matter, an unavoidable spreading out of the light from my measurement‑facilitating, not‑under‑a‑bushel lamp which, spread thus and gathered into the microscope of inquiry, inevitably reflects a dualistic picture of matter, objective and conceiving of thought at the same time, “smeared” – pardon the expression, the hope arises by analogy that the new coalition apparatus will more adequately serve to collect the spread of opinion in a consensus. Will the returning light that gives my measure of dual Protestant and Catholic Ulster be less of a woe‑besetting slant? Are its paradoxes to be resolved, the chains of consequences to be broken? Paradoxes and quirks of friendships that come with tensions, Orangemen who holiday in the South, and fearful Orangemen at Drumcree concerned for the safety in their midst of a visiting travel writer with a Southern accent, Dervla Murphy (writing under the title ‘Mortal blow to Bigotry’ in The Guardian, Tues. July 28). And even if in a situation of such paradoxes pure objectivity be impossible, and by corollary impartiality an ideal, the appointment and decisions of a judge so often therefore controversial, I should at least like to beg to be able to claim without conceit to represent a position dictated by a kind of interested neutrality. I’m unable with regard to the political and religious divide to disclaim myself as I represent a family from the two sides, Anglican and Roman, British and Irish (Britain‑and‑America dispersed).

The critic and novelist Anatole France (Jacques Thibault) called our subjectivity “this frightful condition” (in La Vie Litteraire, Paris, 4 vols. 1888-92, selections of articles from the newspaper Le Temps from 1886 to 1893, Englished as On Life and Letters, London, 4 v. 1910-24, Preface), but France was pessimistic because he saw the condition as “a perpetual prison.” Certainly our nurture and nature are often prisons above which we strive to rise, but Schroedinger, a humanist, noted happily as “causes for astonishment,” little recognised through familiarity, that despite our subjectivity we have reached broad agreement in the creation of common language and this agreement is a proof that, firstly, we share a common world and, secondly, under different aspects, membership of a unity (in Erwin Schroedinger, Meine Weltansicht [My World View], Vienna 1961, last chapter, ‘Two Causes for Astonishment’). Removed somewhat with regard to Ireland to the position of an outside observer, my own cross‑culture says it should be an opportunity, and this is one reason why I’m an ecumenicist, a Europhile, and a single currency monetarist. Ireland will acquire the Euro on January 1, 1999. Just as a small example of its place in modern business it has become the first ever place in the world where an international agreement has been signed by digital means using only smart cards, one between President Clinton and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern at the Gateway 2000 Computers European Facility at Santry, in Co. Dublin, Friday 4 September 1998, for Irish‑American cooperation in electronic commerce. For myself, I’m not of the “never the twain shall meet” school. I am not a “Two Solitudes” man (to borrow a phrase expressive of a North American situation, of literary origin, much used in debate in Quebec). Extreme nationalism I regard as diminishing of us and hateful, different cultures as enriching and beautiful. And is entrenchment and ghettoization the only stratagem for the preservation of identity?

Given the forces of reconciliation and conflict within my own family, I’m therefore wont to seek and note the common history and traditions – and language – of the two great denominations of western Christianity. I am still quite aware how in broaching a religio‑political subject I risk finding some small variance of opinion but my purpose is strictly to ask for more fairness and ecumenical thought. I will only point out that historically I am not alone as to any ‘fear,’ for even the illustrious Lord Macaulay (Thomas Babington) still felt constrained, in approaching his own day in his review essay, ‘Ranke’s History of the Popes’ (in The Edinburgh Review, or Critical Journal, October 1840; London, Longmans, Green, & Co., 184-?)* – a composition considered such an excellent example of English prose as to have appeared in at least one anthology, The Treasury of English Literature, from the old Ward, Lock & Co. in London, undated – thus to admit “if we go on, we shall be in danger of saying much which may be supposed to indicate, and which will certainly excite, angry feelings.” The best politicians and historians have always been “equally remote from levity and bigotry; serious and earnest, yet tolerant and impartial,” thus Macaulay in the essay on the Professor of History in the University of Berlin, Leopold (from 1865, ‘von’) Ranke, a chronicler, arguably “father of modern historical science”, reputed founder of the source‑based school of history. Ranke may even stand as a fellow spirit of Anatole France for both were cosmopolitans or internationalists – though Ranke, avowed objectivity notwithstanding, and with Lutheran roots, from a pastor‑supplying family, considered states as “spiritual entities,” even “thoughts of God,” while France, a suspender of judgement on account of our subjectivity, nevertheless became an opponent of Church and State and found himself on the Index of Forbidden Books of the Catholic Church, in that Ireland‑significant 1922.

Would I go too far to regard Ranke and France as precursors too of the founders of the EU, the European Union (and thus of some British‑Irish political binding)?

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

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