Flann O'Brien A Postmodernist Who Happens to Be a Thomist
Villar Flor, Carlos, The Review of Contemporary Fiction
There has been ample critical debate about the propriety of including Flann O'Brien among the portents or forerunners of postmodernist (either with or without a hyphen) writing. Keith Hopper places him among the "Holy Trinity" of Irish writers who, by the start of the Second World War, produced emblematic works marking "the moment when high modernism drifted, almost imperceptibly, into post-modernism: Joyce's Finnegans Wake (1939), Beckett's Murphy (1938), and Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds (1939)" (Hopper, "The Dismemberment," 120). Since a comprehensive definition of postmodernist literature is rather inaccessible, whatever claims are made for O'Brien's inclusion must examine his compliance with the various notions associated with this contemporary sensibility. Certainly many of such are easy to find in O'Brien's early oeuvre: irony, playfulness, parody, pastiche, pun, metafiction, intertextuality, poioumenon ... But some other ingredients of postmodernity, perhaps closer to the Derridean deconstructive relativism, may admit some further, possibly vigorous, discussion. A common attitude among postmodernist authors, which distances them from the modernist search for meaning in a fragmented world, is the abandonment of any pretence of undertaking this search, which for them is pointless and often the object of a playful parody. Or in the words of Snipp-Walmsley, "postmodernism attacks the ideas of a stable, autonomous being and the possibility of grounding our knowledge in certainty and truth" (408). Critics such as Thomas Shea imply that O'Brien's subversion of conventional narrative structure and rendering of collapsing discourses entail an ultimate lack of meaning and its resulting "desperately squalid void" (Shea 142). But such an approach may not be easily compatible with the sense of purpose of a Christian outlook and its perspective of the ultimate realities of existence.
Although modern literary theory teaches us that biographical input should not be decisive for criticism, some credit may be given to O'Brien's major biographer, Anthony Cronin, who had contact with the writer over twenty years, when he affirms that the author remained a practising Catholic, and never rejected the Christian faith in which he was brought up. Cronin even goes as far as stating that he "was a medieval Thomist in his attitude to many things including scientific speculation and discovery. For the Thomist all the great questions have been settled and the purpose of existence is clear. There is only one good, the salvation of the individual soul; and only one final catastrophe, damnation" (Cronin 104). Far from attempting to evaluate the degree of personal commitment to his faith, my aim here is to determine if the implied author of O'Brien's early fiction (following Seymour Chatman's 1990 revision of the traditional concept proposed by Booth in 1961, that is, the productivity of the meaning of a given text such as given by the real reader) reveals a sense of purpose and an assumption of the ultimate realities of life conceived from a Christian perspective. My attention will focus on O'Brien's early novels, At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman, which hold considerable critical unanimity as regards their stature as O'Brien's masterpieces and early examples of an experimental writing arguably akin to postmodernism. Even if we may find in both novels some essential postmodernist traits such as "ambiguity, discontinuity, heterodoxy, pluralism, randomness, revolt, perversion, deformation" (Hassan 94), the implied author's (alleged) understanding of a world ruled by a divine providence must make a substantial difference to the major postmodern tenets.
It is true that not every critic places O'Brien primarily on the postmodern shelf. Joshua D. Esty, for example, considers it more "appropriate to evaluate O'Brien's aesthetic anew in postcolonial rather than postmodern terms" (Esty 41). Neil R. Davison, in turn, feels inclined to deny O'Brien the benefit of the (postmodern) doubt precisely because he sees the author as "a product of parochial Irish Catholicism,' displaying a characteristic "somatophobia" and male repression projected onto the female, "which in turn serves to image, contain, and defeat sexual appetite, psychoanalytic investigation, incestuous desire, fear of female power, and, indeed, subversion of patriarchal authority. …