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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > Jan/Feb 2019 > England’s dreaming

England’s dreaming

Brexit and one nation’s bewildering battle to wake from the nightmare of history

FINTAN O’TOOLE

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 crossingpoints 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. Since recent history is always full of compromises, complexities and contradictions, they seek out a past that is not history but myth. Irish nationalism did this for well over a century: for English nationalism’s June 2016, there is Irish nationalism’s Easter 1916. But Irish nationalism was eventually forced by suffering to return from the land of myth to those compromises, complexities and contradictions. The question for England is: how much suffering do you want to endure before you make the same journey from pursuing epic dreams to making peace with complex realities?

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About Prospect Magazine

In Prospect’s January/February double issue: A host of writers and personalities explain what they think will be the most important thing we need to learn in the new year. From Justin Welby arguing for new emphasis on learning to forgive and Lord Neuberger on the importance of a free judiciary to Hannah Fry on AI and Cathy Newman on what happens next for #MeToo—Prospect has it all. Elsewhere in the issue: Fintan O’Toole looks at Brexit from an Irish perspective, Wendell Steavenson dishes the dirt on what really happens to the waste you want to recycle, Frank Close questions why—half a century after our last visit—we’ve not been back to the Moon. Also, Michael Blastland argues that we’re ignoring the upsides of having an alcoholic drink and Clive James explores the life of Philip Larkin.