“Insubstantial vs. Substantial” in Dracula, and how this reflects fantasy in the Irish Literary Revival.

In reading Terence Brown’s excerpt “Cultural Nationalism 1880-1930”, in conjunction with Siobhan Kilfeather’s Dublin: A Cultural History, I was interested in Brown’s assertion that rapidly advancing technology and scientific advancements necessitated in part Ireland’s urge to reach backwards into a mythic and irrational past. Brown asserts that this reaching back into the past was a deliberate step taken by Irish artists, writers, and thinkers to tackle the everpresent realism that began to dominate both English and Irish society. Kilfeather’s excerpt from pages 105-132 provides a good insight into the specific developments that were taking place in Ireland at the same time as in the United States and in Britain. The idea of “global” Dublin comes across strongly in Kilfeather’s descriptions of medical advancements, the opening of its zoo, the visitations from Frederick Douglass and the overall burst in political and intellectual movements and thought. 

(1865 print showing construction of the Dublin International Exhibition)

Returning to Brown’s assertion that a return to the past was a side effect of Ireland’s modernization along with the rest of England, I want to also point out how this idea shows itself in Irish author Bram Stoker’s Dracula as well. The novel, unlike the “realism” novels popular in Victorian England, points to a realm that is mythic and incomprehensible to the average intellectual or scientific thinker. This embracing of that which cannot be seen, or measured, but instead is ancient and invisible, is similar to the Irish Literary Revival’s turn towards Ireland’s long forgotten pagan Celtic culture, language and history. It is understandable that there would be a feeling of fear of becoming “just” like England in their sharing of its rapid development. This imperative need to hold onto, and preserve something unique and at risk of being lost with rapid technological and scientific development, is seen in Count Dracula’s own resistance to the modernizing world.

(Táin Mural Wall in Dublin)

Brown’s comment on the criticism regarding this return to an “insubstantial” sense of Irish identity, grasps how this sense of Irish identity was not something that could be “learned” or adopted. It was instead based around unsubstantial, invisible forces culminating in a “feeling” of allegiance to something long dead and ancient, that was meant to be a unifying force for all Irish people regardless of religion and class. The idea that a sense of nationalism could be awakened in a people that was not based on something clearly palpable or “real”, but mythic, ties closely with the sense in Dracula that the characters must abandon all senses of modern logic and scientific reality, in order to get in touch with the invisible immaterial world that lies behind its modern facade.

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