Brexit—and one nation’s bewildering battle to wake from the nightmare of historyby Fintan O'Toole / December 7, 2018 / Leave a comment
In an early chapter of Ulysses, James Joyce’s alter ego, Stephen Dedalus, goes to collect the wages he is due for some part-time teaching in a Dublin school. The opinionated headmaster Deasy talks to him of history.
“History,” Stephen replies, “is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” Then, from Stephen’s perspective, we read: “From the playfield the boys raised a shout. A whirring whistle: goal. What if that nightmare gave you a back kick?”
The great difficulty of Brexit was always going to be Ireland. Not just because of the enormous practical problems of a border that was never properly drawn—a temporary solution that became a semi-permanent fixture, with 208 official crossing-points and countless unofficial ones. But because of something that goes deeper: two incompatible ways of escaping history.
We all, in some way, desire to escape history, to imagine a future untrammeled by the uncertainties we have inherited from the past. Stephen’s expression of this desire raises two questions, one implicit, the other explicit. Firstly, what do you awake from the nightmare into? Secondly, what if the nightmare of history kicks back? Do you awake to reality or do you merely escape into a kind of dreamtime, and—if so—with what consequences? The deeper problem raised is not just that Ireland and the border are the great spoke in the Brexit wheel. It is that there is another kind of border, a line separating one way of thinking about the trajectory of history from another, very different one.
In Ireland, we have been trying to awake from the epic into the ordinary, from the gloriously simple into the fluidly complex, from the once-and-for-all moment of national destiny into the openness and contingency of actual existence, with all its uncertainties and contradictions. In the England of Brexit, on the other hand, this process is working in reverse. The imagined movement has been from the ordinary into the epic, from the complex to the gloriously simple, from the openness and contingency of real life into a once-and-for all moment of destiny: 23rd June 2016 as Independence Day, a day from which a new history begins, a day you can never turn back from.
This is a thing that emerging nationalisms do.…