What Makes a Book Scottish: On Caledonian Antisyzygy and Nostalgia
Caledonian Antisyzygy and Nostalgia: The Question of National Identity and Nationalism in And The Land Lay Still and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
When discussing Scottish literature, a familiar point of discussion is determining what element makes it Scottish, distinguishing it from other countries’ literature. Along with the theme of national identity, Gregory Smith’s idea of a Caledonian antisyzygy will inevitably come up. Smith writes:
[Scottish] literature is remarkably varied, and becomes, under the stress of foreign influence and native division and reaction, almost a zigzag of contradictions. The antithesis need not, however, disconcert us. Perhaps in the very combination of opposites— what either of the two Sir Thomases, of Norwich and Cromarty, might have been willing to call the Caledonian antisyzygy —we have a reflection of the contrasts which the Scot shows at every turn, in his political and ecclesiastical history, in his polemical restlessness, in his adaptability, which is another way of saying that he has made allowance for new conditions, in his practical judgement, which is the admission that two sides of the matter have been considered (20).
This notion that Scottish literature, or its social mentality, is inherently harbouring two distinct and opposing stances or ideas has been disputed but also defended on numerous occasions. For the purposes of this argument, however, supporting or refuting this claim is of secondary interest. Instead, the function of the Caledonian antisyzygy is to assist in understanding the ways in which the themes of national identity and nostalgia form Scottish literature itself, as well as its perception. In the cases of James Robertson’s And The Land Lay Still and Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, these themes of national identity and various forms of nostalgia come up and are of great significance to the texts.
For both these novels, a case can be made in favour of the Caledonian antisyzygy’s omnipresence, but it is a way to identify further ideas in the texts rather than defining their nature. In other words, the conflicting dualities in the novels do not necessarily define them as works of Scottish literature, but they should not be dismissed either. Maureen M. Martin, while commenting on Robert Louis Stevenson, expands upon the definition of this idea: “Writings by Scots on their country’s national psyche and literature often point to what has been called a Caledonian antisyzygy - a conflict between rational and romantic, canny and reckless, moralistic and violent, an idea of dueling polarities within one entity that finds fictional expression not just in Stevenson but in Scottish writers such as James Hogg and Walter Scott” (84-5). The polarities mentioned above do not have to be necessarily Scottish, but what can be inferred about a text when opposing stances on independence are put within the context of Caledonian antisyzygy? In the second part of And The Land Lay Still, Don and Jack are debating on this issue in a pub:
What is particularly interesting in this passage is not the different approaches to the issue - after all, the 2014 independence referendum hinted at how divided Scotland is on this topic - but the fact that Don, who is against independence, is speaking in Scots, while Jack, who is an ardent nationalist, is speaking in English. During the course of the novel, Don is a character that seems more at peace with Scotland’s situation and with himself as a Scottish person, which by extension projects a more confident approach to the national identity issue. Jack, on the other hand, believes in an idealised future version of Scotland which meets his ambitions, but at the same time is losing hope and eventually disappears into the landscape of rural Scotland, seemingly defeated. On the one hand, the antisyzygy is manifested in both men’s psyche, where Don seems effortlessly Scottish while remaining inactive in his country’s political life and Jack believes in a vision of Scotland which he quickly abandons, and on the other hand, the two men represent opposing mentalities coexisting in Scotland at the time.
In Jean Brodie a much different and more subtle approach to national identity is present. While she never addresses it explicitly, her fondness of fascism in Italy and her obsession with the arts reveal a great deal about her. On a few occasions, her view of Edinburgh is expressed: “We of Edinburgh owe a lot to the French. We are Europeans” (Spark 33), and when Spark is describing the “progressive spinsters of Edinburgh” she writes “Some assisted in the Scottish Nationalist Movement; others, like Miss Brodie, called themselves Europeans and Edinburgh a European capital, the city of Hume and Boswell” (43). One of Jean Brodie’s famous expressions is “creme de la creme”, which encapsulates her elitist ideology, not only in teaching, but also in other areas of life. Her group of students is hand-picked, and is taught to value art above all else, often disregarding other subjects. This ties into the 19th century idea of art ‘belonging’ to the aristocracy and, along with her fascination with the fascist regime in Italy, relates to the idea of nostalgia, which will be discussed later. From the quotes above, a sense of belonging to Europe can be inferred. Miss Brodie’s social class disregards Scotland’s geographical ties - among others - to England altogether, to highlight the intellectual status of Scotland and its academic ties to mainland Europe. This can be seen as an implicit statement in favour of a seemingly de facto independence of Scotland from England.
Scottish independence is often supported from a point of view that seems nostalgic of a more prestigious past in relation to the present, and that nostalgia comes across both novels, in different ways. When she comes back from her vacation in Italy, Jean Brodie talks to her elite set about Mussolini and the fascists, praising the work they have done, particularly towards fighting unemployment. What she does not say about the fascist regime in Italy is their nostalgia of the Roman Empire, and particularly Julius Caesar. Fascist ideology was built on foundations dating back to Ancient Greece, specifically Sparta, as well as Plato’s Republic, where he promotes the absolute power of a dictator in the form of a philosopher king. Fascism in Italy highly praised not only the political and military power of Ancient Rome, but also the cultural and artistic legacy of the period. This form of nostalgia would be of great appeal to Jean Brodie, who prides herself on her extensive artistic knowledge and appreciation. Her views on Scottish independence, and the question of the Scottish identity in general, could not be far from the fascists’ views on the status of 20th century Italy, and the fascists were nothing if not nationalists. This all ties into her quote mentioned earlier; the Edinburgh of Hume and Boswell mirrors the Italy of Ovid, and later, Da Vinci and Michelangelo. These points point to Jean Brodie’s nationalistic ideas, and are further highlighted by Sandy when she implicitly draws a parallel between Jean Brodie and Mussolini: “It occurred to Sandy, there at the end of the Middle Meadow Walk, that the Brodie set was Miss Brodie's fascisti, not to the naked eye, marching along, but all knit together for her need and in another way, marching along” (Spark 31). The dramatic irony is evident when the reader notes the nature of the fascist regime in Italy during the time that Jean Brodie is visiting it: the aspects which she praises about fascism are hard to argue against - elimination of unemployment, highlighting arts and history - and the reader’s perception of Mussolini regime as massively harmful and disastrous exists only from a post Second World War perspective. Spark, writing this novel about fifteen years after the war, is conscious of this incongruity in perception between the characters and the readers, and she uses it to subtly comment on the nature of nationalism in a Scottish context. This theme of a nostalgia within the context of a national identity, and independence in the case of Scotland, is also present in And The Land Lay Still. While Mike is certainly a character who has a troubled relationship with the past and becomes very active politically in the cause for independence, Jack appears to have a more central role in the novel, even though he is largely absent. In the aforementioned conversation with Don, Jack tries to persuade him of the worthiness of a fight for Scottish independence by mentioning the Acts of Union of 1707 and English oppression on Scottish people all the way to the Second World War, and past it:
Of course, Jack is not nostalgic of Scotland being oppressed by England, but his nationalistic drive is fueled by the past, and the effort for Home Rule and a Scottish Parliament in the 20th century reverberates through the centuries, trying to achieve something that would do justice to every attempt at independence by the Scottish people. He feels he has the chance to vindicate generations of Scottish people who were oppressed and tried to be free but could not, but Scotland’s destructive history forces him to resign and he eventually becomes its ghost, haunting the present. In this way, his absent presence which is felt by other characters in the novel, the idea of someone being so close to the land, in contact with Scotland in a tangible way, is not an acceptance of defeat, but a peaceful reconciliation with the nature of the situation.
In conclusion, starting with the idea of the Caledonian antisyzygy as a context for the issue of the Scottish national identity and independence, it is not as important to accept or refute its existence as defined by Smith as it is to see in what way it can help with the understanding of these issues. Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Robertson’s And The Land Lay Still are very different in their approach, but the characters of Jean Brodie and Jack can still be analyzed in this context. The polarities portray a full canvas of the Scottish psyche where nationalism and unionism, English and Scots, and two different perceptions of fascism can coexist in such a way that not only do they become interdependent, but also crucial in representing a very complex mentality. Jack and Jean Brodie live in different time periods, are from very different backgrounds, have vastly different interests in life, and yet their ideas on nationalism seem to overlap to a certain degree; one of them becomes a disillusioned hermit and the other selfishly and subtly attempts to create an elitist class. Both novels are interested in portraying individuals from a close point of view, and in their complexities, present, even if obliquely, different mindsets in 20th century Scotland.
Martin, Maureen M. The Mighty Scot: Nation, Gender, and the Nineteenth-century Mystique of Scottish Masculinity. Albany: SUNY, 2009. Print.
Robertson, James. And the Land Lay Still. London: Penguin, 2011. Print.
Smith, G. Gregory. Scottish Literature, Character & Influence. London: Macmillan and, Limited, 1919. Print.
Spark, Muriel. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. London: Penguin, 2012. Print. Penguin Essentials.
BA English Literature, MSc Publishing. Passionate about contemporary literature, noir comics, beautifully shot films, and whiskies that are old enough to order their own whiskies. Can bore you to death with La La Land songs, Hollywood trivia, George Carlin references, and extensive knowledge on Leonard Cohen.