“Writing at the End of a Civilisation” by Pádraig Ó Meiscill

ONCE UPON A TIME, in the heady days of economic collapse, a number of French malcontents got together, christened themselves the Invisible Committee and wrote, ‘It is useless to wait — for a breakthrough, for the revolution, the nuclear apocalypse or a social movement. To go on waiting is madness. The catastrophe is not coming, it is here. We are already situated within the collapse of a civilisation. It is within this reality that we must choose sides.’

The Invisible Committee: what a name for a time when everyone of us is expected to put ourselves ostentatiously on display; our every twitch registered, our every lie inflated, our neuroses in lights and our dinners transformed into works of erotic art. Although, not all of the time are all of us worth observing. Where is the mass scrutiny, for example, when the smugglers’ boat capsizes in the sea, tossing its precious cargo this way and that with the cruel want in the waves? In the 21st century, to suffer in silence is no longer within the gift of the victim, an act of stoic self-discipline, but a sentence to be imposed upon them from without. Anyway, as you can see, the Invisible Committee are far from enamoured with our current state of affairs. For them, the present ‘offers no way out’, which is ‘not the least of its virtues’.

What concerns me, as a writer, with all of the above is not the imprecation to act or pick a side; whether we like it or not, know it or not, we are acting and standing on one side or other every day of our lives. Concern isn’t even the correct word. What strikes me about the words of the Committee is their description of the collapse of today’s dominant civilisation as an incontrovertible fact.

Where is the mass scrutiny, for example, when the smugglers’ boat capsizes in the sea, tossing its precious cargo this way and that with the cruel want in the waves?

While rooted in the same place — one-fourth of a provincial town — all my life, I’ve nevertheless teetered on the precipices of many contradictory civilisations, wobbling and gaping with unabashed sadism at it all. I’ve irredeemably hated some of them, yet never been able to define or feel at home in the others; and no one should argue against the sustenance that can be gained from hate in the absence of belonging. When asked to name such civilisations, I struggle for labels, but they are there nonetheless.

Ireland serves as a north-western outcrop of Europe, marking the jumping off point for America and Brendan’s albatross; the country was the first conquest of the nascent British empire while its north-eastern extremity looks doomed to act as that monstrosity’s last constituent part. Belfast lies to the east of that north-east, a faux-British broken industrial city-cum-village, its face sternly turned to the long-gone protestant work ethic across the Irish Sea. The western quarter of Belfast has long been a recalcitrant outpost of fenian discontent and brooding, the place where British soldiers went to die when Maggie Thatcher ordered them to reassert the primacy of Finchley over all. All of these extremities rub vigorously, sometimes painfully, against each other on those tectonic plates. If I sit still enough for long enough, I can hear their dull scrapes. It’s enough to drive one insane.

The dominant civilisations here are historically Anglo-Saxon, latterly American, increasingly continental European. And I don’t mean by this strawberries and cream on the tennis lawn, scoffing Big Macs in front of the Simpsons, or quaffing black coffee and smoking cigarettes on sunny terraces. I mean the attempted extermination of a people and, failing that, their language; the butchery of the Shoshoni in California by a refugee from Kerry and planes that bomb Afghanistan refuelling on the banks of the Shannon; I mean Fortress Europe and arresting refugees in the Gap of the North because they’ve crossed someone else’s border. You can see refugees are a recurring theme here. I don’t mean to labour, but they are the ones who typically get crushed by these tectonic plates when they begin to break one another apart under the pressure of contact.

Despite this dominance, an Irish civilisation was never completely dead, it just had to subsist in bogs and prison cells for a long time. Its resurgence, chiefly through the language, is one that embraces Syrians and Poles and east Belfast planters alike, but it will be left to my daughter to fully make herself at home in it, with hopefully a few healthy reservations of her own instigation. If my English is awkward, typically sentimental, usually inadequate, my Irish is painful, bumbling and stumbling, drastically unfit for purpose, tripping me up all over the shop. The collapse of Fortress Europe, on the other hand, which is a necessity if we are to survive, or even deserve to, will be conducted from the south and east by those whose lands have become charred and barren, not from the north-west. So it looks like I’m stuck here in between two or three or more timeframes, if you will. Which is the optimistic reading of the situation.

If my English is awkward, typically sentimental, usually inadequate, my Irish is painful, bumbling and stumbling, drastically unfit for purpose, tripping me up all over the shop.

The collapse of the dominant civilisations causes within me intrigue, something approaching hope sometimes, but not concern. What causes me concern is that collapse, like much else, is a process as opposed to a standalone event. What causes me concern and what I feel I have been writing about for some time is the damage done to human beings as a civilisation is again and again resuscitated by the spectacle of others being crushed. Although that puts too altruistic a veneer on my motivations for writing. Maybe ‘intrigue’ is, after all, the most accurate word for much.

Recently, I wrote a story about a refugee incarcerated in a detention centre and, for the past month, I’ve been troubled by whether or not he should have died at the end; at present, I am writing the story of a photographer shot dead by an army during a curfew. Whether Frank, the refugee, dies or no is, of course, all to do with plot and twist and development and motive and whether it makes a more credible storyteller of me and whether it makes of you, the reader, a more jolted cadaver. At present, Frank still awaits his sentence. Zigi, the photographer, dies in whatever manner his story is rendered. His only hope is that I lose faith in him and don’t get around to delivering the head shot. Which doesn’t say much for hope, or myself.

Let’s be honest, Frank and Zigi have already had their horrible deaths: in the Mediterranean ocean, in parched prison cells and lonely deserts, under the tracks of tanks among the rubble of someone else’s home, on Belfast streets and pinioned under the weight of private security guards in economy class before take-off, by their own desperate hands in bathrooms and carparks. What I’m doing is much more grotesque. I’m digging them up and making them die again. I’m making their skeletons jig to demonstrate my dexterity in fiddley-deedley-dee.

And even in the process of questioning what I’m doing, interrogating it for exploitative characteristics, convening my very own self-criticism circle, I am the chief, perhaps sole, beneficiary, as it helps to clarify what it is I seek in my writing. I write first and foremost for myself and then you, whoever you are. My muse is this page, and then the one after that.

What I’m doing is much more grotesque. I’m digging them up and making them die again. I’m making their skeletons jig to demonstrate my dexterity in fiddley-deedley-dee.

I need to digress here. To soften this blow. Make it more palatable, although never less true… To say I am a terrible dancer would be a lie. I can’t dance. I can’t remember the last time I attempted it. Whenever it was, it will have provoked hysteria among those in my general vicinity or fury in the person I was drowning beside. Or both. Neither can I play a single musical instrument. When I was eleven, my music teacher made me stand outside the room when the rest of the class were rehearsing on the grounds that, whatever it was I was doing to my recorder, it could not be down to simple incompetence; it had to be an attempt to sabotage her recitals and win the admiration of my fellow students. It wasn’t. I didn’t put much store in my fellow students. And the teacher was a cunt. I knew that even then. Consequently, it may sound ludicrous to state that what I want to do with you, the reader, is to take you dancing. But it’s true nonetheless. I want you to rhythmically sidle towards the margins of page after page, clinging desperately to the beat of every single syllable. Granted, much of this music may resemble a funeral dirge or a generalised keening, but not all of it is intended to, and the value we place in ecstasy is based, fundamentally, on not how long it lasts, but in its intensity whenever it comes to pass.

But now back to the cold, rough binary code of context and reality…. Not long ago, I was reading a book called something, something critical fictions in work, in a call centre, when I should have been answering phone calls, helping people get their broadband reconnected, fibre optic or otherwise; but for every call where I’d tell the customer to switch their router off and then on again to get them off the phone, I’d sneak two pages, sometimes more. Usually more. Being almost perpetually consumed by anger at the time, and longing for the release of confrontation, I didn’t exactly sneak read either, I propped the book on top of my keyboard up against my computer screen for all to see, primarily the supervisor. Anyway, I can’t find the book now, or can’t be bothered to look hard enough for it, or I know where it is but just don’t want to go get it — you decide which — but there was one line in particular from a north American author which struck me like a dig in the face, ‘after a while, I stopped trying to be a person I could never be and began becoming the writer I needed to be’. So, much of this may be about some form of personal salvation. Although I’m far from decided whether salvation can even exist or the hunt for it be worth it.

It still leaves the subject though. The written about. The mercilessly probed and documented and exhibited. The subaltern, as Frank O’Connor classed them. Although I prefer the term untermensch, not from any hankering after Germanic lyricism but because it much better clarifies the consequences of who the highly civilised become in the aftermath of their own failure. But for the writer, O’Connor put it something like this, ‘How to represent the exploited without, in turn, becoming an exploiter?’ As far as I noticed, O’Connor never answered this query, and I’m not sure that it can be answered, even now.

Which is convenient for me, as it lets me off the hook, for the minute. Instead of a resolution to that conundrum, I can tell you I write because everything on this page is contradiction, as is everything off it. I write because it’s an interlude, an end in itself without end, not requiring the correct answer, a solution, synthesis or, no matter what anyone tells you otherwise, a conclusion. I write because within this mess, you find the shards which are ‘therefore true because her truth kills me’.

Then again, ‘truth’, like ‘civilisation’, is one of those jagged, vicious little words with which readers and writers should take extreme care when handling.

Pádraig Ó Meiscill

Pádraig Ó Meiscill is a writer from Belfast, Ireland. He recently completed a collection of short stories, Nervous Conditions, for which he still seeks a willing publisher, and is currently working on his first novel. Follow the link to read Pádraig’s story Requiem for Those About to Live.