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Luke Gibbons, Edmund Burke and Ireland: Aesthetics, Politics, and the Colonial Sublime

Monday, March 5, 2007 - 05:29
Luke Gibbons, Edmund Burke and Ireland: Aesthetics, Politics, and the Colonial Sublime. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.  xiv +304 pp.  $60.00 (Hdbk;  ISBN: 0-521-81060-4).

Reviewed by
Frans De Bruyn
University of Ottawa

Until fairly recently, the Irish dimension of Edmund Burke's life experience and his views on colonialism and empire have been under-explored by scholars and critics.  Yet, as Luke Gibbons shows in Edmund Burke and Ireland:  Aesthetics, Politics, and the Colonial Sublime, both these circumstances are central to any adequate understanding of Burke himself and his extensive writings.  Moreover, as Gibbons further claims, Burke's opinions about the British imperial project were intimately shaped by his experience of the colonial system in Ireland.  Gibbons brings these interconnected themes together across a wide range of cultural and political contexts, including aesthetics, economic theory, philosophical history, and Irish unrest (the Whiteboys, agrarian struggle, the United Irishmen) to argue for a more integrated understanding of Burke's multifarious thought and experience.

Gibbons uses Burke's aesthetic theory, particularly his ideas about the sublime, which Burke developed during his youth in Ireland, as a unifying link between his formative experience and his later critique of colonialism.  Gibbons presses hard on the Irish context, insisting that the Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) witnesses to Burke's "intimacy with the 'colonial terror' of the Ireland of his upbringing" (7).  He argues that approaching Burke through his aesthetic thought opens up "unapproved roads that have received less inspection" (15) than the stereotypical "reactionary" Burke, perceived as the defender of hierarchy, privilege, social and economic inequality—in short, of "things as they are," to borrow William Godwin's phrase.[1]

Reading Burke through the sublime is not a new strategy, nor is it one without hazards.  One problem is the anachronistic use of the term "aesthetic" in connection with Burke's ideas about sublimity and beauty, especially if one thinks of the word as connoting a wholly disinterested, formal, distanced response to objects and experiences.  Burke's treatise on the sublime and the beautiful is, like most such theories in the eighteenth century, fundamentally a study of human psychology, and as such it has a much wider applicability to human experience than a narrowly defined study of purely aesthetic response.  Gibbons is alert to this fact, and one of the strengths of his book is his recognition that sympathetic engagement is one of the key features of the Burkean sublime.

This insight leads Gibbons to an illuminating distinction between Burke's conception of sympathy and that of Adam Smith, a difference Gibbons ascribes to the contrasting national narratives of eighteenth-century Scotland and Ireland.  "If the cordial influence of sympathy was pre-eminent among the responses of the Scottish Enlightenment to integration within the Union, Burke's theory of the sublime," Gibbons speculates, "with its emphasis on terror and the threat of self-annihilation, articulated a less optimistic Irish response to the embrace of empire" (87).  Whereas Smith imagines a decorum of sympathy in the distancing mechanism of the "impartial spectator," by which we learn to see ourselves as others see us, Burke defines sympathy as a passion that ineluctably draws us into the concerns of others, however painful they may be.  We are hindered "from shunning scenes of misery; and the pain we feel, prompts us to relieve ourselves in relieving those who suffer."[2]  The Burkean sublime thus permits an engagement and identification with the body in pain, in contrast with neo-stoical and neoclassical curtailments of the expression of pain in art and polite society.  These concerns of Burke place him in the company other eighteenth-century Irish writers, such as Swift, for whom "the trope of the injured body recurs as a national allegory of the plight of colonial Ireland in the eighteenth-century" (xii).  Gibbons argues that Burke's and Smith's views on sympathy both differ, in their strongly social, outwardly directed orientation, from the prevalent understanding of sensibility in the period, which was private, individualistic, inner-directed (89).

Several caveats might be entered against Gibbons's strong emphasis on the Burkean sublime throughout his analysis.  One problem is that the term "sublime" became such a fashionable critical catchword in the late eighteenth-century (as it has again in our time) that it lost precision and cogency.  Like ice cream, the sublime comes in a range of sometimes mutually incompatible flavors: colonial, gothic, heroic, natural, political, religious, revolutionary, rhetorical, and sympathetic, to name but a few.  For Burke the sublime was about awe and astonishment, as well as about terror and fear, and the experience of the sublime was understood by him to be a salutary one.  Fear and awe, as he makes clear in Reflections on the Revolution in France, are responses that shape positively our relationship to customs, traditions, and political institutions:  "We fear God; we look up with awe to kings, with affection to parliaments, with duty to magistrates, with reverence to priests, and with respect to nobility.  Why? Because when such ideas are brought before our minds, it is natural to be so affected."[3]  Furthermore, some of Burke's most prominent evocations of sublime sympathy—his accounts of the plight of Marie Antoinette and of Indian princesses under British rule (the Begams of Oudh) come to mind—are pleas on behalf of highly privileged unfortunates.  These recognitions do not vitiate Gibbons's argument, but they do complicate matters significantly.

A related point is one that might be made in connection with just about any critical discussion of Burke that attempts in some way to synthesize his thought or his career.  His writings are heavily beholden to circumstance, frequently captive, for instance, to the demands of party and political office.  His texts were often written in collaboration, and he was frequently called upon to employ pragmatic modes of expression—memoranda, motions, resolutions, committee reports, and articles of charge—indelibly marked by the specific situations that generated them.  As a result, difficult questions of form, occasion, and textual authority can form traps for the unwary reader attempting make sense of a wide variety of texts..  Gibbons is often sensitive to these problems.  In a discussion of an economic tract Burke wrote late in his life, Thoughts and Details on Scarcity (1795), Gibbons argues against Victorian readings of this text by Trevelyan and others, who found in it an intellectual justification for economic policies that proved ruinous to Ireland during the great famine of the 1840s.  The generalized principles that the Victorians extrapolated from Burke's text are utterly unwarranted, as Gibbons demonstrates by means of a reading that is carefully contextualized, both historically and politically.  As is so often the case with Burke, arguments made in one context and in response to a particular set of circumstances cannot be applied to other situations or systematized without careful qualification.

A final consideration is the central place of Burke's Irish identity in Gibbons's argument.  Its importance, as Burke's biographer F. P. Lock points out, cannot be gainsaid:  "Burke's character and ideas cannot be understood without reference to his Irishness and the complex conflicts of loyalty which he inherited."[4]  On this point there is broad consensus.  But the devil, as always, is in the details, and the historical record is often tantalizingly opaque about those aspects of Burke's life that contribute importantly to what we would today call his sense of identity, including his Irishness and his religious connections.  Historians may therefore demur when Gibbons resorts to conjecture in order to bridge gaps in his argument.  An example is his statement that Burke's father "would appear to have acted" (24) as legal counsel at the trial of James Cotter, an Irish Jacobite sympathizer who was tried and executed in 1720.  Lock is more circumspect on this score and points out that there is no evidence that the Richard Burke who worked for Cotter was Edmund's father.  Similarly, in discussing Burke's response to Irish privation, Gibbons conjectures that "Burke may have been talking from first-hand experience of famine" gained during childhood periods spent with relatives in Cork (131).  These moments of speculation are in fact unnecessary, since Burke's writings and correspondence attest amply to the passions and concerns that Gibbons makes central to his argument.

The broad cultural studies perspective of Edmund Burke and Ireland may not always satisfy those looking for documentary confirmation in the biographical record or for detailed historical investigation of economic, social, and political conditions in eighteenth-century Ireland.  Nevertheless, this is an important critical reassessment—intelligent, original, and thought-provoking—that contributes significantly to our understanding of Burke and to the broader context of Irish studies in which Gibbons places his subject.

[1] "Things as they are" is, of course, the primary title of Godwin's novel Things as They Are;  or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams (London, 1794).
[2] Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, in The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 222.
[3] Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, in The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, vol. 8, ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), pp.137-8.

[4] F. P. Lock, Edmund Burke, Volume I:  1730-1784 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 28.