Episode #15 Barry McCrea on Modernism and Minor Languages

“The language we speak is always borrowed. We don’t invent it ourselves.  It comes from somebody else.”

Some modernist writers in search of a way out of their alienation found that leaving their own native languages offered a new freedom. Professor of Comparative Literature Barry McCrea explores the unexpected choices that helped some find a sense of belonging to some kind of community.

What is unexpected in their choices is that they decided to write in minor, dying languages in the hope of creating a language of the soul. The four authors at the centre of this discussion — Pier Paolo Pasolini, Marcel Proust, Seán Ó Faoláin, and James Joyce — synthesized new literary languages at a time when the standardizing steamroller of major European languages was erasing local difference and nuance across the continent.

In this quickly changing linguistic universe, minority languages offered some writers the utopian prospect of fully realist expression that was the common dream of the 19th-century novel and of many modernists.

This interview offers a fascinating account that joins the literary careers of a range of writers who are rarely if ever discussed alongside one another.

We end this episode with an extract from ‘Gleann na Gealt’, a piece for cello and violin by Neil Martin, performed by him and Paddy Glackin at University Church, Dublin, in January 2018. The lecture delivered on that occasion by Seamus Deane, on ‘The Right to Have Rights’, may be viewed in full here.


Barry McCrea

Barry McCrea is the Donald R. Keough Family Professor of Irish Studies at University of Notre Dame. His 2015 book that informs much of this interview is Languages of the Night: Minor Languages and the Literary Imagination in 20th-century Ireland and Europe, published by Yale University Press. He is also the author of The First Verse, a novel, winner of a number of awards including the 2006 Ferro-Grumley prize for fiction and a Barnes and Noble “Discover” prize.