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Step Right Up spacer Issue 10
Step Right Up - Famous Seamus
by Paul Moore
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'Whatever you say, say nothing!' If any phrase has come to epitomise the way in which people in Northern Ireland live their lives and connect with others it is this. And if you ask people why this is they will tell you it is 'common sense' and indeed 'wise' to do so. Of course, thanks to Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, we now know that the idea of a collective 'common sense' will not wash anymore especially in a country where any form of consensus is treated not only with suspicion but with outright hostility. 'Common sense', we have come to realise, is a construct aimed at encouraging an unquestioning acceptance of ideas and behaviours that serve to stabilise social behaviour and cement given ideologies of power.
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Wisdom, however, or 'being wise' has not been subject to the same intellectual rigour and questioning. Wisdom, we imagine, is something some are born with and others not. It is given to some to be able to make wise decisions, to be wise about social issues and to spread wisdom to lesser mortals who are, unfortunately for them, not so wise. And of course wisdom cannot exist without its binary opposite, idiocy, so logically it appears that those who are not wise must be blessed with varying degrees of idiocy. Not for nothing do we suggest of those whose behaviour we fail to comprehend that they must be given licence because 'they're not wise'.
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But like common sense wisdom is also a construct. It is not true that some are born wise while others attain wisdom. But some do have wisdom thrust upon them by societies that have, since the beginnings of community, needed wise leaders.
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In Ireland's case the great man of wisdom is, naturally, a poet. And in its most famous case a poet laureate, Seamus Heaney. But what is it that makes him wise? It is the art of negotiation. The great poet has learned to negotiate his way through the labyrinth of social and intellectual choices that litter everyday life like a series of well-laid traps for the unwitting or not yet wise. As a child he was born into a home where the father was (almost literally) from the land and the mother from the urban landscape of mills and mill workers. In the home the father barely spoke but the mother talked constantly, and at school he had to reconcile an attachment to the land with his love for the esoterics of education. These contradictions were resolved by negotiation not only in reality but also intellectually through a developing portfolio of work that reconciled Latin, Gaelic and Anglo-Saxon and ironically elevated him to the title of Professor of English.
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But the wise man cannot be wise without his alter ego, the idiot. And since Professor Heaney knows his Anglo-Saxon he will be more aware than most of the role of the performance idiot in historical ritual. The name may have been different according to the culture but whether it was the Trickster, the Joker or the Jester the role was always the same; to take the accepted social wisdom and deconstruct it. This deconstruction involved turning the agreed definitions of wisdom inside out, inverting the logic and behaviour associated with social practice and in so doing reinforcing the rituals, ceremonies and everyday lived experiences on which the concept of wisdom was grounded. In this sense the idiot was not merely idiotic but often more 'street-wise' than the wise choosing to negotiate a different path but acknowledging by default the role of the wise in their society. And this idiot savant now passes down to us through popular culture. If television has become our carnival then carnivalesque idiots like Jimmy Cricket become our jesters a local, more benign, equivalent of Jack Nicholson in Batman. Hence, like our own global village idiot, Jimmy Cricket assumes the mantle of court jester, prepared to take the world at face value, prepared to be reminded constantly that only one Wellington boot can be left and one right, and prepared to go through life aware, but unconcerned, that 'Com'ere, there's more!'
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What sets Seamus Heaney apart from us, then, is that he knows he has negotiated a path to wisdom and has respect for those who find other ways to make the negotiation. Hence his praise for Eminem, praise that prompted many less wise commentators to question his sanity and to ask if the 'real Slim Seamy' would stand up. No doubt he was amused at their lack of negotiating skills and was reminded of a rural saying used to describe those who appeared to be unwise or, indeed, to have taken complete leave of their senses - 'He's crazy all right - crazy as a fox'.
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