In response to:
The Dylan Cult from the December 9, 1965 issue
To the Editors:
Only today have I seen the review, which you published on December 9th, of two books concerning Dylan Thomas, one of which I wrote. The author of this review, Dr. Conor Cruise O’Brien, is quite friendlily disposed towards my book, nor would I object were he not. He blames me, it is true, for not having written a book which I never intended to write, namely a critical biography, but then this is nowadays a stock-in-trade of critics who must at all costs prove their own superiority to the author whose book they are paid to review. It is an approach that might, with advantage, be extended to other fields of human endeavour. “Brilliant as was Dr. O’Brien’s achievement when sent to pacify the Congo, we can only regret that he failed to carry out what is surely the primary task of all men in public life, namely the speedy termination of the Cold War.” And so on and so forth.
Nevertheless, and accepting the good Doctor’s strictures as I must, there are certain gross inaccuracies in his review of my book that should be pointed out before that ex-international public servant repeats them, as is his fashion.
The first of these is his apparent confusion between Welsh and Irish nationalism. His knowledge of Irish matters is, of course, very great: his acquaintance with Welsh affairs would appear to be minimal. In such circumstances it is not “correct,” as the Marxists would say, simply to assume that what applies in Ireland also applies in Wales. The preservation of the Welsh language is the very kernel of Welsh nationalism whereas in Ireland, and despite the schoolmasters, it has always been peripheral. Irish nationalism was essentially political, and many of the greatest Irish leaders (Grattan, Parnell et al.) in that country’s struggle with England cared nothing, or less than nothing, for the native language. Welsh nationalism, a much more recent growth, has always been essentially religious and cultural. Therefore the disdain that Dylan Thomas felt for the Welsh language, a disdain he had learned from his father, made him inevitably hostile to Welsh nationalism.
The good Doctor goes further in this confusion. Not only does he confound the Welsh and the Irish in grosso, but in petto he attempts to identify Dylan Thomas with his own compatriot, Brendan Behan. In this, of course, he is merely following in the steps of the most yellow press (odd steps for the former head of a university to choose) which habitually links their names because both of them are supposed to have “died of drink.” In fact, of course, from any, slightly more, educated viewpoint they were as dissimilar as Goethe and Voltaire, both of whom “died of old age.” Dissimilar not only as writers, but also as men, and even as drinking men. Brendan Behan was a very sick man, in the true sense of the word, the medical sense, an alcoholic. (I have this from one of the foremost experts of alcoholism in this country, Dr. Dent, who tried on more than one occasion to cure Behan of this sad malady.) To the best of my knowledge, and relying on the best medical advice I could obtain, Dylan Thomas was not an alcoholic. Nor, in my opinion as expressed in the biography that Dr. O’Brien began to review before he launched into Behan-inspired abstractions, did Dylan Thomas die of drink.
Once launched behind his ill-assorted pair of drunks, Dr. O’Brien now proceeds to excoriate “society” for their demise. But first he sees fit to repeat a mendacious tale—already printed by him elsewhere and already refuted—concerning Mr. Malcolm Muggeridge. He states that Mr. Muggeridge deliberately got Brendan Behan drunk before a television interview in order to make a mock of “an artist” for the delectation of a philistine and even murderous public, our old friends “the bourgeoisie.” In fact Behan was drunk long before he went to the Television Center, having reached that condition in a club which Dr. O’Brien also frequents on the occasion of his visits to London: when members of that club realized that he was to appear on television, they attempted to persuade him that he plead sickness, but Brendan Behan insisted on going, because he wished to insult the English public by shouting obscenities at the cameras: at the Television Center, Mr. Muggeridge and B.B.C. officials attempted, and failed, to sober him up: without the stimulus of further drinks, he sank into a glazed semi-coma, and said nothing.
It is on his misinterpretation of these facts, facts in any case totally irrelevant to the books under review, that Dr. O’Brien proceeds to base his philippic against society’s attitude towards the artist. In fact “society” was no more responsible for the death of Behan than for the death of Shelley, though were Shelley to be drowned today, no doubt Dr. O’Brien would blame our “organization men,” whoever they may be, for that too.
So far as Dylan Thomas’s death was concerned, “society” must bear some of the blame in that the fantastically heavy direct taxation imposed upon him was a major contributory factor to his awful anxieties. That taxation existed, at the scale it did and does, in part to pay for the war against Fascism, in part to finance the Welfare State. Whether Dr. O’Brien’s enthusiasm for the political methods of Dr. Nkrumah has led him retrospectively to change his opinions concerning the methods of the late Adolf Hitler, I do not know, but I imagine not, though his sour remarks about the illusory nature of Western “freedom” might have come from another politically active Doctor, in Germany, thirty years ago. As for the Welfare State, taxation for that purpose is presumably sacrosanct to so pure a “liberal” as Dr. O’Brien.
Or does he perhaps advocate less taxation for poets than for plumbers? Or perhaps no taxation for artists at all? This would indeed be a refreshing thought. On the other hand, would it be right, would it be democratic, would the Uncommitted Nations approve, were we to grant to men who have composed a “few poems that will live” the privileges so sensibly granted to those scores of thousands of invaluable men and women who toil manfully and womanfully for the U.N., UNESCO (how could artists exist without UNESCO?), WHO and the rest of them? After all, it is there that the “values” so crudely despised by “society” exist in their purest and pristine form.
Conor Cruise O’Brien replies:
Mr. FitzGibbon uses the time-honored technique of distorting statements which he dislikes, and then refuting his own distortion. Readers of my review will have noted for themselves that I did not in fact confound Welsh nationalism with Irish nationalism or attempt to identify Behan with Thomas. As for the Behan television incident, Mr. FitzGibbon should have a look at the gleeful article which Mr. Muggeridge published on that subject, in the New Statesman, just after Behan’s death.
February 3, 1966