Last week, the International Association for the Study of Irish Literatures held its conference in Montreal. Primarily an academic conference, it also included literary readings and film screenings. I had the pleasure of sitting in on a number of academic panels on poetry, nature writing, fiction and film. It was an engaging combination of intellectual stimulation and creative inspiration.
One of the recurring themes during the conference was the question of mapping or framing landscapes, both literal and figurative. Dr. Alison Lacivita explored that in her talk, “Wild Dublin,” which provided the startling fact that Dublin’s rating on the Green Index was in the lower half of most rankings, similar to former Eastern Bloc cities such as Sophia and Bucharest. When a nation is known as The Emerald Isle, this is surprising news, indeed. Clearly, the Irish are just as conflicted with the nature/city dichotomy as is most of the Western world. When kids in large cities think beef originates in grocery stores, it would be naïve to think that a respect for nature would be on the menu. Lacivita suggested the solution might be to create more outdoor events in the city that encourage a familiarity with urban nature, including publishing urban nature books, though she admitted there is a long way to go before the Irish attitude towards nature is healed.
Kevin Donovan, in his talk about Roddy Doyle’s novels, pointed out that in a post-colonial landscape, the self is distorted because the constraints of history have been eradicated in favour of a corporate re-mapping of society. Where does the individual stand in such an alienated world? This question was explored in various ways throughout the conference, including in Christine Cusick’s talk on the narrative negotiation of coastal boundaries in the works of Colm Toíbín and Tim Robinson. For novelist Toíbín, “the landscape is a lens for clarity and peace;” it helps humans to position themselves within the world, as well as knowing “how to be human.”
While nature can provide clarity and peace, it can also be treacherous. One of Ireland’s most well-known natural landscape features is the bog, which Bram Stoker, the Irish-born writer of Dracula, called the “carpet of death.” In his paper on Stoker, Derek Gladwin engagingly spoke about how the bog defines human movement. It literally “controls where we can go.” Eco-criticism, he argued, asks us to accept we don’t have control over the landscape, and so we’re called on to reconfigure how we negotiate within that land.
Many of the papers presented emphasized how locked into our frames of reference we are, even imprisoned by them. However, many people do manage to live without point-of-view angst in whatever landscape they find themselves, country or city. Though scholars search for patterns and meaning within textual landscapes, it can sometimes feel as if their conclusions force us into unlivable corners.
A refreshing reminder of that came in the form of a comment by a man who, with his long and wild grey hair and snakeskin cowboy boots, looked like an aging rock star – definitely an incongruous image at an academic conference. It was John T. Davis, the filmmaker who made Route 66 and whose poetic autobiographical film The Uncle Jack (1999) was screened at the conference. Davis pointed out that, while he enjoyed the panel, he has actually made his living by framing life through his documentary lens. (I venture to say that many who make their living from the land would say something similar.)
Along with Davis’ documentary, though, there were four other films, and several readings by writers such as Anne Enright, Jane Urquhart, Leonita Flynn and Kevin Barry. Their creative work provided a welcome balance to scholarly work presented at the conference, and their inclusion reflected a keen understanding by the organizers of the conference that art is the source of inspiration for all scholarly contemplation. For observers like myself, the conference offered the opportunity to see specific literary works in a new light, and that is an endlessly pleasurable thing.
More information about the conference can be found at http://iasil2012.com/.