The Perils of Plenty | Jeff McMahon

        For a thousand years the rains rinsed the blood from the sod, the sea-winds swept the smoke from the ruins, and the Irish transformed hardship into poetry and song. But there’s a strange new stain too stubborn for the rains, a change in the air unmoved by the winds, and the poets scribbling all the long Irish night in cottages and pubs have little yet to show.
        Everywhere the Irish are lamenting the prosperity. Even though the prosperity, only a decade old, follows some of the most enduring misery in the history of Europe.
        “Our whole way of life is disappearing,” cried a clerk in Kilkenny. “People have become materialistic,” said a construction worker from Cork. “Why on earth would anyone need to shop in the middle of the night?” asked an innkeeper, astonished by the 24-hour Dunnes store, a kind of Irish Wal-mart, newly opened on a narrow medieval lane in the center of her ancient town.
        The newspapers tell tales of prosperous woe — these lines clipped from the Irish Independent: “If prosperity is accompanied by such negatives as road deaths, binge drinking, obesity… and suicide, can the general quality of life be said to have improved?”
        The ellipses — theirs, not ours — elide offenses that would have rendered the sentence too terrible: murder, racism, violence toward immigrants, environmental and archeological destruction, and something else, something harder to describe, the loss of something unnamed, a mystery, an elision….

        Some will dismiss the Irish as a nation of complainers, but as a nation they know what it means to have cause to complain. Outlaws in their own land, bereft of home and kith and kin, denied worship and language and liberty, too often deprived of life itself, the Irish knew genocide at the point of Cromwell’s sword and again at the blunt end of English neglect. A million Irish starved, their mouths stained green from the unnourishing grass, while English ships sailed to English ports with bellies full of Irish grain. None of these sorrows are forgotten, what with the scars still etched on the churchyard stones, so how can the selfsame people now lament the prosperity?
        It’s a question that ought to pause the spin of the world at this moment of liberal democratic triumph, for no one has answered it well. Oxford historian Avner Offer has tried perhaps the hardest. Having noticed that the newly prosperous become newly unhappy, he wrote, in The Challenge of Affluence: “Affluence breeds impatience, and impatience undermines well-being…. Abundance and novelty cause harm as well. They displace and devalue the stock of pre-existing possessions, virtues, relations, and values.”
        Prosperity devalues values, Offer offers, trying to find scholarly gears in an effect that a few poets — Carl Sandburg, Ezra Pound among them — noticed a century ago in the laboratory of America:
        “I asked the professors who teach the meaning of life to tell me what is happiness,” Sandburg writes. “And I went to famous executives who boss the work of thousands of men. They all shook their heads and gave me a smile as though I was trying to fool with them.” While Pound urges us to remember that “the rich have butlers and no friends, and we have friends and no butlers.”
        The poets teach that the pauper, despite the struggle, is closest to happiness, and the executive, despite the privilege, is furthest. For the pauper finds happiness in every coin plucked from the gutter, every stroke of sunshine that breaks the gloom, while the executive tries to abstract happiness from graphed movements of fractions of dollars per share. Happiness plucked from struggle is happiness known — known as sure and hard as struggle itself. Happiness abstracted from accounts has already been exchanged for security from struggle, and all that remains is an empty numeric symbol.
        The wiser executives, recognizing the emptiness of the numbers they’ve chased, have a god to defer happiness beyond death, a pill to emulate its effects in life, or a sense of philanthropy to reconvert the numbers, at substantial loss, to something of value again.
        Nature retains her balance: whenever she gives a coin, she takes something equal away, a value-unit of known, authentic, aliveness. It may be invisible, weightless, nameless, but it’s something we know from the start, for we have it in full when we’re born naked and helpless and hungry. It’s something we have in struggle, something we lack in privilege, something the pauper retains or regains, something the executive loses or squanders, something that poets sneak into print, something that newspapers mention only by elision, something kept quiet for the sake of a prosperous economy.
        No one can plausibly suggest that anyone should risk survival to avoid prosperity. For who among us, given the choice, would chose hardship over comfort? No one, we like to think. Just don’t ask the Irish.
        Everywhere the Irish are lamenting the prosperity. Everywhere the Irish are looking the gift horse in the mouth and spotting the Greek soldiers hidden in its belly. Sadly they note the horse already within the city walls. “Our whole way of life is disappearing!” cries the clerk, as sure as the sentinel when the wall’s been breached.
        After a thousand years of resistance to kings and armies, Ireland faces another beast to drive from its shores. And this beast has no army but all of us. And this beast is no king, but is invisible, everywhere, and bewitching like a god.

Contrary editor Jeff McMahon is an Irish citizen, Chicago-born.

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commentary | poetry | fiction | chicago | winter 2008  
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