Imagination And History

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In any case, the Easter uprising eventually became one of those public events that set imaginations to work. The uprising was the work of poets—chief among them the heroic Padraic Pearse, who died on the scaffold for his pains; and “the imagination of the poet-rebels had been so far beyond the reality of the nation that it took the nation three years to catch up.” Catch up it finally did, however, and before long a hard realist named Michael Collins took over and began the task of dismantling the British Empire. Collins indulged in no poetic flights and struck no heroic attitudes; he simply set out to bring about a general state of disorder, betting that this would be more than the heavy-handed authorities could handle. He lost his life doing it, but he succeeded in what he tried to do. The empire began to shrink.

Mr. Thompson sees a pattern in all of this, and as he traces it, that disturbing cry from outside the window begins to come in more clearly. “Whether,” he writes, “it is the case of the Jews rejecting the Egyptian Empire, the Irish rejecting the British Empire, the Black Muslims rejecting America, or … the Africans rejecting the entire civilization of the West, the pattern is similar. In the face of overwhelming material evidence of the superiority of one culture over another, the inferior culture elaborates a new myth in which it claims to possess the secret to a more holy, more moral, or more beautiful way of life.” The intellectuals begin it, but somewhere along the line they meet ordinary folk who have wrongs that need to be righted: “The explosive power of revolution comes from this encounter of the intellectual trying to save his soul with the common man trying to get even as well as equal.”

Furthermore, the explosion comes when we are not really looking for it—even when we think that things are at last beginning to get better. Hear Mr. Thompson on this point:

The revolution comes not when oppression is greatest, but when oppression has been relieved somewhat; it comes when the revolutionary can glimpse his chance and has the energy to seize it. The revolution came in Ireland when the farmers were profiting, as agricultural countries always do, from the war; it came when the farm boys, who were not bothered by conscription, were jealous of the heroes of 1916 and were looking for trouble. And even our own American Negro Revolution did not come when oppression was greatest, when the slightest mumble of complaint would bring instantaneous murder; it came at a time of improvement, when prosperity dramatized what the Negroes did not have, and liberal whites were displaying the symptom that Professor Brinton calls the failure in confidence of the ruling elite. The appearance of conscience and a divided consciousness in the men at the top is a signal for the men at the bottom, who by force of adversity are not troubled by such problems, to strike for their rights.

The intellectual, in short, starts something and then gets left behind by it, and Mr. Thompson points out that the Negro revolution, like the Irish, has its literary movement:

The early Yeats … screamed revolution, and was welcomed into the better salons of British power and was thus rendered harmless as a revolutionary. James Baldwin, shouting execrations and anathema, is welcomed into the best Manhattan penthouses, where his hands are politely tied by having an ash tray placed in one hand and a martini in the other. If history is always new in content and texture, it can repeat itself in form and structure.