Francesca Caraceni (Catholic University of Milan)


Francesca Caraceni is Research Fellow in Literature at the Catholic University of Milan. Her main areas of interest cover Victorian Studies, Modernism, Translation theory and practice, and the interplay of Religion and Art. She has published essays and contributions on Samuel Butler, James Joyce, W. B. Yeats, and John Henry Newman among others. She is currently researching the literary legacy of John Henry Newman in 20th-century Ireland.

Modernist Forms from John Henry Newman to Irish Modernism: The Case of James Stephens and Flann O’Brien

In his literary writings, and more specifically in an 1829 essay on Poetry and in a lecture on Literature delivered in 1854 at Catholic University in Dublin, John Henry Newman (1801-1890) presented a surprisingly farsighted theory of art. In particular, he envisioned art as the formalization of abstract ideas, deriving such a view from a composite reading of Patristic theology, Platonism, and Romantic literary theory and practice. As it reads in his 1829 essay, where an analogy between plastic arts and writing is put forth: “portrait painting, to be poetical, should furnish an abstract representation of the individual, the abstraction being more rigid, inasmuch as the painting is confined to one point of time. The artist should draw independently of the accidents of attitude, dress, occasional feeling, and transient action. He should depict the general spirit of his subject – as if he were copying from memory, not from a few particular sittings.” These few sentences vividly anticipate some of the strongholds retained by Modernist art: the mind as the subject matter of representation; time as a foundational variant to artistic expression; and a general move away from naturalism towards a formalism of sorts which would seek to represent ideas, or visions, rather that the visible.

Considering Newman’s influence on Modernist authors such as James Joyce, who deemed him “the greatest prose writer”, this paper sets to investigate the legacy of Newman’s literary theory on Irish Modernism, in particular on James Stephens (1880-1950) and Flann O’Brien (1911-1966). Both Dubliners, albeit from different religio-cultural backgrounds, set out to incorporate metaphysical, almost phenomenological frameworks in their essays and narratives. In particular, Stephens’s An Essay in Cubes (1914), and O’Brien’s character of DeSelby in The Third Policeman (1940) and The Dalkey Archive (1964), all put forth immaterialistic views of physical reality and art that can be tracked back to Newman. Hence, being Newman’s literary views so grounded on Romantic premises, this talk will challenge the notion of Modernism as an ideological rift between itself and the Very Long 19th Century, by proposing to retrace the seeds of Modernist formalism to its Romantic-Victorian forebodings.