Having commenced the summer holday reading with Ronan McGreevy’s Great Hatred:The Assassination of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson MP, I am now halfway through Diarmaid Ferriter’s Between Two Hells: The Irish Civil War.
Looking for an escape from 1922, I turned to James Joyce and picked up Dubliners. My most recent copy of Ulysses sat next to it on the shelf.
It seemed odd to reflect that the imaginings of the strange mind of James Joyce can command a readership around the world, yet the hideous story of the events of the Civil War is hardly known within Ireland, yet alone further afield.
Why do fictional characters matter?
What difference does it make if Leopold Bloom was being badly treated ? What difference does it make if Blazes Boylan was cuckolding Leopold Bloom, or if the whole thing was in Bloom’s imagination? What difference does it make if Molly Bloom expressed her feelings in a lengthy monologue?
In the detective novels that are often the stuff of holiday reading, what difference would it make if all those on the good side in a novel were dead at the end?
Reading Alastair MacLean’s HMS Ulysses as a thirteen year old, there was a struggle at the end to work out if any of the novel’s central characters had survived the sinking and I remember a sense of relief that one officer had been transferred to another ship; but what did it matter?
There is a scene in Shakespeare’s Hamlet where the Players visiting Elsinore are asked to perform lines from a Greek tragedy; the performance has a profound effect upon Hamlet:
Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wann’d,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in’s aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? and all for nothing!
What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her?
What did it matter to a seventeenth century actor that tragic events had befallen a Greek city? Nothing, yet the lines are acted as though every moment was in personal experience, that everything described was being felt at first hand by the actor himelf.
Sometimes the fictional evokes more response than the factual. A novel can bring a spectrum of emotions, yet confrontation with real tragedy can bring an overwhelming sense of numbness.
Perhaps realities are just too overwhelming; illness, sudden death, accidents, pain, grief, bereavement; inexplicable tragedies.
Perhaps stories, plays, fiction are a way of coping with daily grimness; providing a safety valve through which emotions may be released. Hamlet protests at such a situation; he allows his emotions free rein and piles tragedy upon tragedy.
Fictional endings provide a safer world than the one described by historians.