Reflection: Maud Ellmann
Over the four decades that I’ve known Seamus Deane, what I most admired about him was his intellectual independence. He’s always avoided the noisy position-taking that seems to be swamping the humanities. On the contrary, his critical writing topples the reigning pieties of literary studies with thrilling panache. I find his skepticism about the rhetoric of multiculturalism particularly bracing: he’s rightly suspicious of the kind of pluralism that “refuses the idea of naming; that plays with diversity and makes a mystique of it.” This pluralism, he claims, “is the concealed imperialism of the multinational, the infinite compatibility of all cultures with one another envisaged in terms of the ultimate capacity of all computers to read one another.” After a critique like that, nobody could think about diversity and multiculturalism in the same smug way.
What I also value about Seamus’s work is his immense learning, worn not so much lightly as with dash: learning that he brings to bear on a single phrase, or even a single comma. This ingenious attention to verbal detail makes you see literary works in a completely new way. In his latest and sadly his last book, Small World, he’s particularly dazzling about punctuation, grammar, and syntax. About Elizabeth Bowen’s novel The House in Paris, for instance, where several key scenes occur in front of a mantelpiece, Seamus writes: “In this and other instances, the marble mantelpiece acts as a magnetic field on the syntactical surround, sending prepositions into single file at the tail of a phrase, like a comet streaming all it meets behind in its wake.” There’s something dandyish about that sentence—in the best way—it’s both playful and brilliantly exact. Whenever I read Seamus’s work, I keep wishing that I’d thought of that, and even more so, I wish I’d said it like that.
We have lost a great mind, a brilliant stylist, and a beloved friend.
Maud Ellmann is the Randy L. and Melvin R. Berlin Distinguished Service Professor and Interim Chair, Department of English, at the University of Chicago. At Notre Dame from 2005 to 2010, she held the chair originally held by Seamus Deane: the Donald and Marilyn Keough Professor of Irish Studies.