Reflection by Matthew Reznicek
Reading Mary L. Mullen’s wonderfully argued and brilliantly insightful Novel Institutions: Anachronism, Irish Novels and Nineteenth-Century Realism, I was reminded of an oft-quoted passage from Heaney’s The Cure at Troy: “When History says, don’t hope/ On this side of the grave./ But then, once in a lifetime/ The longed-for tidal wave/ Of justice can rise up,/ And hope and history rhyme.” Heaney insists on an apparent discord between hope, justice, and history; the three are incompatible in the current construction of the world. His use of “But,” however, disrupts this discord and suggests an alterity or, as Mullen argues, “otherwise possibilities” (Mullen 3).
It is this disruption of the accepted future, created by institutions and their ability to control the “horizons of futurity” through “path dependency,” that struck me while reading Novel Institutions. Mullen’s argument about the supposed Irish alterity in nineteenth-century realism seems to continue in the age of Brexit (Mullen 4). Before moving into a discussion of the ways in which Ireland is depicted as anachronistic or out of step regarding Brexit, it is worth dwelling on Mullen’s argument about the way anachronisms disrupt institutional order and enable these “otherwise possibilities.” For Mullen, the concept of modern institutionalism is a socio-temporal structure with remarkably political implications; it not only distinguishes between “modern institutional subjects and supposedly backward people,” but it also “delimits futurity by defining political and social life through institutions and thus extend[s] existing institutional arrangements into the future” (Mullen 4). Institutions define modernity in two ways: they mark certain people as unable to assimilate into modernity and they collapse our understanding of the present and our imagination of the future into a trajectory that is determined by the institution itself.
The implication for nineteenth-century realism reverberates across the works of Maria Edgeworth, Walter Scott, William Carleton, Charles Dickens, and George Eliot, as Mullen indisputably proves. The power of Mullen’s argument extends beyond nineteenth-century realism into twentieth-century Irish fiction, Kate O’Brien’s Mary Lavelle (1936), for example. But Mullen’s claims also made me think of the way in which the rhetoric around the Irish Backstop, the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and the institutions that intersect with the Good Friday Agreement are characterized as out of step with the modernity that is being constructed around the inevitability of Brexit. In her chapter on Carleton and Charles Joseph Kickham, Mullen argues that part of nineteenth-century Irish realism’s response to modern institutionalism is a refusal and “resistance” (Mullen 75). This is accomplished, as Mullen argues, through a refusal to forget. It is this sense of resistance to accede to supposedly ordained future and the refusal to forget alternative options that seems to resonate so clearly in the political framework of Brexit. Indeed, Brexiteers often argue that the pesky or unacceptable Backstop, which is meant to protect the achievements of the Good Friday Agreement, should not derail the inevitability of Brexit. Recently, Jacob Rees Mogg claimed that inspections ought to return to the Border like “during the Troubles,” the period of armed resistance and civil war in Northern Ireland that lasted from the 1960s till 1998. Mogg’s anachronistic recalling of the Troubles reminds us, as Mullen’s discussion of Kickham points out, that a refusal to forget the lived experiences of the past enables us to challenge the supposed fixity of institutionalism like that being used to present Brexit as an already-accomplished fact.
The discourse of provincialism, backwardness, and refusal to assimilate into today’s institutions remind us that the futurity of those institutions are not the only imagined future; instead, we might, in fact must, continue to hope for that rhyme that “History” wants to deny “on this side of the grave.” In Novel Institutions, Mullen provides scholars of nineteenth-century literature, realism, and Irish Studies a reminder that our job is to challenge the presumption of permanence and preordination that these institutions suggest; our job remains, like Heaney’s, to seek the “once-in-a-lifetime […] tidal wave.”