Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Traditional Fears

I was in a gaol, which one I did not know. Cold thick shadows and ugly walls; my boots crashed off the flags. A clerk in uniform asked questions; an officer stood by and looked at me. He spoke in a cold, thinly contemptuous voice. I disliked him thoroughly. “Come to attention when the officer speaks to you,” said the clerk. I did not move my feet or hands. “Am I to be treated as a soldier?” I asked. There was no reply. A soldier walked in front of me , a Webley in his hand, down a gloomy-looking passage. He opened the iron door of a cell, the door clanged.

The gas came through a weak jet which spluttered and gasped, lighting up slightly, now dimming the outlines of the bare walls; shadows jumped up, fell and climbed again. I sat on a few dirty, brown army blankets in a corner. I felt a sense of desolation sitting there all alone. The hard voice of the soldier who had brought me through the tall narrow passage up the clanging stairway kept coming back. “There’s your blankets.” The word “blankets” rolled in again and again as if it had untold significance. He had not answered my “Good-night.”

I was part of an automaton which spoke a regulation voice and was dehumanized. It could not attempt to assimilate so it would destroy. Outside we laughed at the British, here it was different. I felt them now as a machine; their officers could be replaced by others, a spare part efficient for a specific function would always be found. We ourselves had to depend, not on organized strength so much as on personality, understanding and intimate or intuitive knowledge.

There was always something ponderous about the British in the outward effect of their organized efficiency, parade solemnity and purpose. They were important; they took themselves seriously. The inherited class hatred of their officer type, which helped to maintain the isolation of a caste system , filtered through to the ranks of the army. Behind the mask of assurance and arrogance was another appearance; it could be seen in the uncertainty and insecurity that a movement of the people produced. Facing men of their own stamp and mentality the mask was a skin and did not change much; facing a people whom they had exploited, walked on, or laughed at, the skin became a mask. I had seen it lift. Under it was what we feel when we view aspects of our own futility in a clearly dispassionate way, aspects hidden by the outward mask which others think to be wholly strength, poise or arrogance. Fear of the unknown quantity, a spirit, uneasiness at a strength which they could not paperise in an organized roster way or hit at with organized force, and the repercussions from their own propaganda which, to show their achievements, had given us a stature in terms of their own. Their unreal summing-up of the situation cancered them and traditional bureaucracy infected them with traditional fears.

- Ernie O’Malley, “On Another Man’s Wound” , January 1921, Dublin

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