DBF Interviews: On Hubert Butler

Hubert Butler (1900-1991) may be the best Irish writer you have never read. Regarded as one of the great essayists of the 20th century – and celebrated by writers such as Joseph Brodsky and John Banville – he  was, and remains, a unique figure in Irish writing. With an extraordinary career that spanned time in Stalinist Russia, Nazi Germany and inter-war Croatia, Hubert Butler provoked controversy in 1950s Ireland for his criticism of the collaborationist activities of the Catholic Church in Croatia – and particularly of the imprisoned Archbishop Stepinac, then a cause célèbre in Ireland. We asked Chris Agee, editor of Butler’s sixth collection of non-fiction, Balkan Essays (The Irish Pages Press), about why this great Irish essayist still has the power to excite and provoke.

Q. In his experience of wartime Europe, Hubert Butler had a much larger sense of the world than many of his Irish contemporaries. Balkan Essays is an extraordinary collection spanning a turbulent period in that region’s history, from 1937 to 1990. What drew him so far from home?

Having come to maturity when the Russian, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian empires disintegrated and the British world imperium began to unravel in Ireland, Butler was deeply alert to the complex, ambiguous, and pan-European phenomena often blithely described by that single rubric “nationalism.” Furthermore as a member of the Protestant minority, and steeped in the religious history of the island, where since the seventeenth century the great schism of Western Christendom has contended and coexisted, he had an intuitive feel for the complexities of the Yugoslav confluence of Islam, Orthodoxy, and Catholicism.

Of the bifocal Irish-Yugoslav parallel, which he often elaborates, he remarks: “So even when these essays appear to be about Russia or Greece or Spain or Yugoslavia, they are really about Ireland”. In his lexicon, nationalism was a positive and inclusive concept, the love of one’s country and all its inhabitants – defined thus when speaking of an early Irish nationalist: “He would have said that a country belongs to the people who were born in it and intend to die there and who make its welfare their chief concern.” It was racialism – the decay of nationalism into chauvinism and exclusiveness – that he saw as the grave and abiding danger. Perhaps no modern writer has enunciated this essential distinction with greater subtlety – and certainly no other modern Irish writer has handled notions of nation, nationalism, national culture and temperament, with such well-grounded and magisterial precision.
Balkan EssaysIn no essay does he give us a full picture of what exact combination of circumstance and inner-life led him, at the age of 34, with his wife, to plumb for a long sojourn in the new state of Yugoslavia. But it is not hard to glean with some certainty that this decision was of piece with his lived trajectory since mid-adolescence. In 1916, returning from boarding school in England, he passed through the smoking ruins of Dublin in the aftermath of the Easter uprising against British rule and concluded, against all claims of familial background, that he was an Irish republican. That early decision, like the one to stay put in his ancestral place in Kilkenny, would shape decisively the entire course of his life and intellect.

Unlike many or most nationalists at the time, Butler from an early stage did not view the Irish War of Independence in primarily insular terms. The freedom of Ireland was inextricably bound up with a wider pan-European phenomenon, the disintegration of empires and the emergence of what in the interwar period were known as the Succession States; a dozen small nations, he wrote “formed at the same time (1919-1921), and under the influence of much the same ideas.” From this perspective, which he never abandoned, indeed never ceased refining, the ideals of the Easter Rising were but a spiritual stone’s throw from those that brought forth the new states in the East. Pearse in Dublin was cognate with Princip in Sarajevo.

But before Yugoslavia there was, for Butler, Russia also. Like many of his post-war, post-imperial, post-Versailles generation, Butler became interested in the new revolutionary Soviet state and, in particular, the Russian language, which he studied in the early twenties. By 1930, Russia had become enough of an intellectual focus (of distinctly non-communist hue) to prompt him to attempt spending his honeymoon there. He tried to enter through Latvia, but was turned back. The honeymoon was spent among Letts, Russians and Jews on the coast of the new state, resulting in one of the greatest of all his essays, “Riga Strand 1930”, where his extraordinary and moving intimations of the coming Holocaust are atmospherically palpable.

Hubert Butler
All in all, by 1934, he had become something of a Slavist, with intimate experience of the one succession state of undoubted world-historical importance – the USSR. It is not hard to see how his experience of the wider Slav world, along with that perception of certain problems in common with Ireland, might have “first attracted” him to Yugoslavia – especially as he had already travelled in Greece in the late twenties.

Within a quarter century, all but one of the free small succession states had been extinguished by Hitler and Stalin: “Of the dozen states which were created from fragments of empires a score of years (Russian, British, Turkish, French, Dutch), ours alone [Ireland] is intact.” But if these states had been first menaced, then consumed, by the new totalitarian great powers, they were also decisively weakened by their own internal conflicts. Everywhere in his work Butler alludes to the fault-lines of “race, religion, language, and the political use that can be made of them” that quickly overwhelmed the humane and republican “nationalism” of a shared homeland, and decayed into the catastrophic “racialism” so poignantly described in “Mr Pffefer of Sarajevo.”

For Butler, the foremost of these fault-lines – because it binds all the rest – is the problem of minorities and so of minority rights. As he is fond of remarking, the imperial power invariably manipulated, and often privileged, minorities to further its own control. But when the imperial power withdrew, the privileged or protected minority of whatever stripe (like his own Anglo-Irish class) suddenly became vulnerable to the liberated majority. Here the unseasonable Partition of Ireland is his tragic background exemplar.

Q. In highlighting the collaborationist activities of Archbishop Stepinac at a time when the cleric was something of a popular martyr in Ireland, Butler was handling explosive material. Could you say he anticipated the popular struggles with Church authority in later years?

Yes, very much so. In retrospect, we can now see that the controversy that embroiled him about the collaboration of the Catholic Church in wartime genocidal Quisling Croatia was a truly exemplary moment in the history of the public and secular intellectual in modern Ireland; one where Butler exemplifies, in the life of the parish and of the nation, the independent spirit whom his hero Chekhov extols. Butler is also thought by many to be a kind of freelance solo forerunner of the Irish human rights movement. As Fintan O’Toole – one his many literary admirers – has remarked, “Butler is that rarest of things – a private ethical investigator without a client”.

Q. Unusually, Balkan Essays appeared in Croatian translation before its publication in English. What resonance do you think these essays have for Croatia today?

The Croatian edition, Balkanski eseji, was published by the leading Croatian press Fraktura and launched at a major literary festival in Zagreb in September. Ours is perhaps the first major collaboration between Irish and Croatian literary presses.
It is no exaggeration to say that the relevance of this book to contemporary Croatia – which is highly polarized politically over the wartime role of the Church – is both tremendous and hugely controversial.

For it seems likely that both Balkan Essays and Balkanski Eseji are bound, in some way or other, to enter the fray in post-communist Croatia over the possible canonization of Archbishop Stepinac. The first stage of this process, beatification, was begun by the Church in 1981. In 1998, Stepinac – who had been elevated to cardinal in 1952 after his trial and imprisonment in Tito’s Yugoslavia for collaboration – was declared a martyr at the hands of communist persecution and beatified by Pope John Paul II in front of a crowd of 500,000 in Marija Bistrica, central Croatia.

A contrary view, still widely held in Croatia, albeit somewhat silently, is that, as Butler puts it, “Mgr Stepinac’s martyrdom had been deliberately courted” and that “there is something callous in this engineering of sympathy … towards a sectarian end.”
In this epic struggle between hagiography and historiography – “of utmost importance to all thinking Christians” – Butler’s posthumous voice may prove an especially tough foe, for his arguments were well-tempered by the intensely contemporaneous “Nuncio controversy” that engulfed him in 1950s Ireland. “The Stepinac legend,” he writes already in 1949, “is not dwindling, it is growing.”

Nonetheless, against the continuing “fairy tale” of much Stepinac hagiography and Church kitsch, Balkan Essays has real strengths. First and foremost, Butler was neither a foreign Communist, nor a home-grown Partisan, but an independent spirit writing out of a clearly Christian ethic; a more improbable “fellow-traveller” there could not be. Secondly, he knew the Croatia of the day (from the mid-thirties to the mid-forties) in a way that most partisans of Stepinac today cannot have experienced with any sophisticated adult perspective.

Whether any of the Croatian hierarchy takes any ethical account of Balkan Essays remains, of course, to be seen – but perhaps this is beside the point. What seems possible is that the Vatican might – especially The Stepinac Commission, comprised of Catholic and Orthodox prelates from the Balkans, established by Pope Francis in 2016 to report to him on the proposed canonization. You cannot, of course, make mistakes with future saints.

Q. In their ethical concerns, these essays bear comparison with the work of another great wartime essayist: George Orwell. But what really sets Hubert Butler’s writing apart?

Not only is Butler a superb prose stylist, he is also one of those rare writers, like George Orwell indeed or Alexander Solzhenitsyn or Albert Camus, for whom the source of his inspiration is what might be termed “the ethical imagination.” His palette is narrow yet profound: he writes out of a compact but interrelated set of preoccupations that over the course of his life he elaborated into a unique terrain of historical, cultural, religious, and philosophical reflection. A true son of the New Testament and the classics, of the Reformation and the Enlightenment, he writes with a modern dissident sensibility that is profoundly at odds with the civilizational grain of our centripetal age. The crux of his worldview is the championing of the small-scale over the colossal, the parish over “the global village,” the solitary spirit over the metropolitan “centres of culture” – the ant, in short, over the anthill. He is, in fact, an “artistic philosopher” of the various meshed forms of human relations – local, regional, national, continental, global: arguing from the start that our age’s human energy and focus must be shifted back to the first two of those adjectives, whose vitality sustains the health of the rest.