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Pól Ó Lorcáin
Paul Larkin

Chroniclers are privileged to enter where they list, to come and go through keyholes, to ride upon the wind, to overcome in their soarings up and down, all obstacles of distance, time and place.
Charles Dickens - Barnaby Rudge, Chapter The Ninth

Ordinary language philosophy - or what I said in Copenhagen

The author speaking at the Pontoppidan Society AGM in Copenhagen

A number of Cic Saor aficionados have been in touch to ask how I got on when giving my talk in Copenhagen (see Cic Saor below - and I will now oblige them with a report back. Readers will recall that I spoke about Danish writer Henrik Pontoppidan, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Superman III.

The content of my talk was delivered mostly in Danish but I will translate it to English within a week or so. For those of you who can read Danish, the text of the speech is available at the Pontoppidan Society’s website here:

In the meantime, I can happily report that the speech was well received and, as far as I could see, none of the audience fell asleep during what was probably an overlong presentation. It is worth noting in passing that public speaking is a skill in itself and not one that working class people are encouraged to do.

I must admit that I got a fit of nerves before going up to speak but the strange thing is that, if you have prepared well (if you what you want to say is on the tip of your tongue almost), all of your own words on the page are familiar to you and you get a different head on, feel the work to be your own, like a trench you once dug or a poem in your head coming back to fruition - you look out across the audience and begin acting out a character that is not quite you. Some other character that comes out for performances – like you are acting a role.

I will return to this theme at a later date.

My motivation in writing the original essay in praise of Henrik Pontoppidan, which led to the speech, was sparked by my continual dissatisfaction with modern day literature and an arts world that seems to have become the preserve of academics and the middle class functionaries who service that world. It's a world where everyone is neurotic, in crisis, and depression is promoted as the natural human condition. It is not a world I recognize and it doesn’t speak to me of my life, not least because working class men are generally invisible within it. The works of writers like Arundhati Roy, Garcia Marques, Sebastian Barry and Michael Ondaatje aside, there are no characters or stories that strive through hardships to a greater clarity – a greater good.

I blame philosophers and Freud worshipers for this state of affairs. They spread cynicism and despair like a canker throughout the 20th century.

In opposition to this Dark Star mania, there were a number of brilliant writers in the 19th Century who, whilst recognizing that life could often be tough and that there were some nasty people around, portrayed a range of characters who not only enjoyed life but sought to make life better for others and I'm not just talking about happy clappy Charles Dickens or Jane Austen (two authors of "high seriousness" it must also be said). In particular, literature coming from the “extremes” of Russia and North America made profound and ultimately uplifting statements about the human condition. Think of the difference between Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (soaring tragedy) and Flaubert's Madam Bovary (cynical parody).

I argued in my talk in Copenhagen that Henrik Pontoppidan was part of that tradition of lightening bolt enlightenment and not, as he is often portrayed, a Scandinavian merchant of cynicism and despondency.

What happened in fact in the mid to late 19th Century (and somewhat into the 20th) was that authors like Herman Melville (Moby Dick), Dostoevsky, the early Tolstoy, Pontoppidan and Jack London picked up a dropped thread from ancient Greece that asserted our need to speak a world that went beyond sense and certainty (or lack of it) to a place of wonder and revelation. They are continually astonished at the miracle of life and being alive in a way that alleged modernists could only sneer at.

If I might paraphrase Ludwig Wittgenstein (who did a lot of his important work whilst living as a wannabe hermit in Dublin and Connemara), we have to return words from their metaphysical use to one which we know and use in our everyday lives. We all possess the wonder of speech or speech thought. The world in which we work, live and converse is not necessarily the world we think (and fret) about. Empathy and emotion sweep us up and make us act or dream before we think.

Ordinary language philosophy was what Henrik Pontoppidan did in his brilliant books, no less than Melville or Jack London. A people’s philosophy far removed from our "prawn sandwich" literati.

Watch this space

@Paul Larkin
Carrick, Gaoth Dobhair
Mí Bealtaine, 2013
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Title: Ordinary language philosophy - or what I said in Copenhagen
Date posted: 24 May '13 - 13:54
Filed under: General
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