Passion and Cunning

Conor Cruise O’Brien has long enjoyed respect and popularity for his ability to analyze a wide variety of political and literary subjects with passion and informed objectivity. Distrustful of political labels and a foe of intellectual, political, and religious absolutists, O’Brien finds himself most at home with the antiauthoritarian, anticlerical Enlightenment thinkers who rejected philosophical systems. In “Virtue and Terror: Rousseau and Robespierre,” an essay especially appropriate on the eve of the bicentennial of the French Revolution, O’Brien finds “the Incorruptible” the moral and spiritual successor of Rousseau. Finding THE SOCIAL CONTRACT “incompatible with the spirit and practice of a democratic and liberal state,” O’Brien concludes that Robespierre’s attempt to impose Rousseauvian virtue on the French people through the Terror ultimately led him to fall victim to his own fanatical excesses and to his fellow terrorists. “Like the English people,” the author caustically concludes, “the French preferred cakes and ale (or wine) to the rule of the saints, though the saints had had their uses in their day.”

In the title essay, the author describes and condemns W.B. Yeats’s authoritarian and Fascist leanings. In a scathing essay on Pope John Paul II, the author argues that “the liberal Pole” of the Second Vatican Council is, in reality, an intransigent, authoritarian traditionalist and, although in outward appearances “hearteningly modern, open in style, no longer reclusive,” in spirit John Paul II’s Pontificate “is a tremendous archaism, a splendid example of the Polish Baroque.” In other essays, O’Brien decries the futility of Ronald Reagan’s anti-Sandinista policy, provides firsthand observations on the ongoing tragedies in South Africa and the Middle East, and most convincingly attempts to explain the problems in Northern Ireland with special reference to the unenviable role of the Republic of Ireland. He is especially critical of the Irish Republican Army for its perversion of Catholicism and legitimate nationalism.

O’Brien has produced a collection of essays, most dealing with immediate national problems, that demand the attention of the student of contemporary political issues. His wit and intellectual acuity assures that their reading will be a pleasurable as well as informative experience.