The “farmer’s nod,” it was an expression new to me. Did it encapsulate not only a physical gesture, but a mindset?
The expression was used by the poet John Montague in a 1977 interview broadcast on John Bowman’s Sunday programme, the person nodding was as far as could be imagined from being a farmer in rural Ireland. Montague was living in Paris where he counted Samuel Beckett among his friends, they would sit talking and drinking deep into the night. Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were neighbours, they would frequent the cafe where the two Irishmen sat deep in conversation and would greet them with a farmer’s nod.
“His death leaves a vacuum,” wrote one obituarist when Sartre died in 1980; being a silly student I had wondered whether it was an upright or cylinder vacuum and whether it had been manufactured by Hoover. In my early-20s, I attempted reading at least two of Sartre’s novels, but they seemed unrelentingly bleak. The problem with Sartre’s existentialist philosophy was that it was bleak; the facts of here and now, mortality and death, they were what existence was about. To avoid the brute reality before us was to live an inauthentic life. Reality as described by Beckett had little more by way of light or joy, but at least Beckett infused his writing with a dark humour.
But what about the farmer’s nod across that French cafeteria? What prompted Montague to thus describe a recognition, an acknowledgement of the other?
Montague was born in New York, but raised on a farm in very rural Co Tyrone. His recollections are of a close-knit community where the sectarian divisions of 1930s Ulster were not sufficient to prevent a warm neighbourliness between Catholic and Protestant farmers, a willingness to help each other in difficult times. So why describe a glance from an existentialist philosopher as “a farmer’s nod”?
A man of Sartre’s intellect would have seemed entirely inscrutable to most of those gathered in that cafe, if he was like Beckett he might also be distant, arbitrary, unpredictable. Was that how Montague saw the members of his childhood community?
Were farmers proto-existentialists? Did they embrace and expound a sort of existentialism without being aware of it? The church has like to regard farmers as practitioners of natural theology, those who believed in God because of their daily experiences. If John Montague drew a parallel between Sartre and Tyrone farmers, even subconsciously, was he suggesting that the church’s assumptions were wrong? Was he suggesting that the brute reality of farming life, with its mortality and final death, was what there was, that it was an authentic existence. Was he suggesting that his neighbours in Co Tyrone might have found more common ground with a Parisian philosopher than with the priest or parson of the parish?