Tearing Down the Walls That Hold Them Inside: U2 and the Irish Desire for Transcendence

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“In Race of Angels: The Genesis of U2, rock critic John Waters insists that, because two of the band’s four musicians were born outside of the country to British parents, there is nothing fundamentally Irish about the band from Dublin. Subsequently, in their critical essay “Irish Culture: The Desire for Transcendence,” literary theorists Walentina Witoszek and Patrick E. Sheeran argue that Irishness is characterized by the longing for and rejection of transcendence, a quest that is responsible for much of what is compelling and influential in Irish art and life in the twentieth century. The pair contend that the Republic’s post-colonial condition drives the Irish need for autonomy, that insanity and religion are the only acceptable forms of escape from oppression, and that the barren landscape of western Ireland inspires passive creativity rather than active discovery. When examining Waters’ allegation through the lens of Witoszek and Sheeran’s theory, one can argue that, on the basis of U2’s work for universal human rights, Bono and Edge’s early “residence” in the fictional Lypton Village and later religious conversion, and the quartet’s lyrical inspiration vis a vis the American west, U2 is a logical manifestation of the Irish fixation with rescue and redemption and, therefore, demonstrates an Irishness in which transcendence is not only possible, but one that also stretches the limits of modernism in the late twentieth century.”

This paper was presented at the U2: TRANS Conference held in conjunction with the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland in April 2013. Please contact Arlan Hess for a hard copy of the text.

U2 1980-1983: Portrait of the Artists as Young Men

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“Since the publication of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in 1916, Irish writers have rewoven Joyce’s entangled nets of family, religion and politics to accommodate changing circumstances and eras. While Irish writers such as John McGahern, William Trevor and Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill remain writers known mostly to scholars and students of Irish studies, U2 has introduced millions of worldwide listeners to cultural issues facing the Republic in the late twentieth century. Thematic parallels in the band’s trilogy, Boy (1980), October (1981) and War (1983), suggest  Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr. struggled with the same repression endured by Joyce’s semi-autobiographical hero, Stephen Dedalus, a century earlier. Like Joyce’s artistic manifesto, U2’s early albums, considered as a whole, are the youthful rejection of societal orthodoxy and a musical declaration of intent that act as an emotional, intellectual and moral framework for the albums that followed. Although these three studio albums are linked by subject matter to the band’s fourth release, The Unforgettable Fire (1984), they are separated by the November 1983 release of U2’s first live album, Under a Blood Red Sky, and a shift from the band’s first producer, Steve Lillywhite, to the more technologically savvy pairing of Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, an adjustment which resulted in a substantial modification of U2’s style and tone and the unambiguous maturation into the second phase of their career.”

This paper was presented at the PCA/ACA Conference in Boston, MA in April 2007. Please contact Arlan Hess for a hard copy of the text.

Verwandlung und Uebersetzung: Metamorphosis, Translation, and the Poetry of Nelly Sachs

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“Although she stopped writing during the Holocaust, she emerged from its destruction, like the butterfly of which she so often writes, to use her talents to help prevent the slaughter from happening again. In translations, Sachs’ spirit was evident, but her meaning was often lost in too-literal attempts; most of her work is translated by purists who believe in the primary importance of the line. I find the results of this loyalty misleading and confusing. They seem more concerned with denotative level of words than with the spirit of the poetry, yet it is my conviction that Sachs’s work is more lyric than narrative. Her form follows content. Her imagery embodies a highly complicated structure that uses symbolic language to communicate fear and acceptance. She often links two or more words together in unexpected ways, freeing semantic components and intensifying connotative implications (Ilek 135). She juxtaposes words and phrases that in German reflect confusion, pain, trauma, etc. Yet, in English, those patterns don’t always apply. I found myself doing a great deal of work just to understand what was happening in her poems before I could study the deeper implications of her theme. My translations grew organically from my need to understand her work and my desire to see her language flow as easily in English as it does in German.”

The original paper was published in the Journal of Evolutionary Psychology in August 2002. For a hard copy of the full-length text, please contact Arlan Hess.