• L'a(rche)tipico Brian O'Nolan. Comico e riso dalla tradizione al post-
  • Vintaloro, Giordano <1977>


  • L-LIN/10 Letteratura inglese


  • This study aims at analysing Brian O'Nolans literary production in the light of a reconsideration of the role played by his two most famous pseudonyms ,Flann Brien and Myles na Gopaleen, behind which he was active both as a novelist and as a journalist. We tried to establish a new kind of relationship between them and their empirical author following recent cultural and scientific surveys in the field of Humour Studies, Psychology, and Sociology: taking as a starting point the appreciation of the comic attitude in nature and in cultural history, we progressed through a short history of laughter and derision, followed by an overview on humour theories. After having established such a frame, we considered an integration of scientific studies in the field of laughter and humour as a base for our study scheme, in order to come to a definition of the comic author as a recognised, powerful and authoritative social figure who acts as a critic of conventions. The history of laughter and comic we briefly summarized, based on the one related by the French scholar Georges Minois in his work (Minois 2004), has been taken into account in the view that humorous attitude is one of man’s characteristic traits always present and witnessed throughout the ages, though subject in most cases to repression by cultural and political conservative power. This sort of Super-Ego notwithstanding, or perhaps because of that, comic impulse proved irreducible exactly in its influence on the current cultural debates. Basing mainly on Robert R. Provine’s (Provine 2001), Fabio Ceccarelli’s (Ceccarelli 1988), Arthur Koestler’s (Koestler 1975) and Peter L. Berger’s (Berger 1995) scientific essays on the actual occurrence of laughter and smile in complex social situations, we underlined the many evidences for how the use of comic, humour and wit (in a Freudian sense) could be best comprehended if seen as a common mind process designed for the improvement of knowledge, in which we traced a strict relation with the play-element the Dutch historian Huizinga highlighted in his famous essay, Homo Ludens (Huizinga 1955). We considered comic and humour/wit as different sides of the same coin, and showed how the demonstrations scientists provided on this particular subject are not conclusive, given that the mental processes could not still be irrefutably shown to be separated as regards graduations in comic expression and reception: in fact, different outputs in expressions might lead back to one and the same production process, following the general ‘Economy Rule’ of evolution; man is the only animal who lies, meaning with this that one feeling is not necessarily biuniquely associated with one and the same outward display, so human expressions are not validation proofs for feelings. Considering societies, we found that in nature they are all organized in more or less the same way, that is, in élites who govern over a community who, in turn, recognizes them as legitimate delegates for that task; we inferred from this the epistemological possibility for the existence of an added ruling figure alongside those political and religious: this figure being the comic, who is the person in charge of expressing true feelings towards given subjects of contention. Any community owns one, and his very peculiar status is validated by the fact that his place is within the community, living in it and speaking to it, but at the same time is outside it in the sense that his action focuses mainly on shedding light on ideas and objects placed out-side the boundaries of social convention: taboos, fears, sacred objects and finally culture are the favourite targets of the comic person’s arrow. This is the reason for the word a(rche)typical as applied to the comic figure in society: atypical in a sense, because unconventional and disrespectful of traditions, critical and never at ease with unblinkered respect of canons; archetypical, because the “village fool”, buffoon, jester or anyone in any kind of society who plays such roles, is an archetype in the Jungian sense, i.e. a personification of an irreducible side of human nature that everybody instinctively knows: a beginner of a tradition, the perfect type, what is most conventional of all and therefore the exact opposite of an atypical. There is an intrinsic necessity, we think, of such figures in societies, just like politicians and priests, who should play an elitist role in order to guide and rule not for their own benefit but for the good of the community. We are not naïve and do know that actual owners of power always tend to keep it indefinitely: the ‘social comic’ as a role of power has nonetheless the distinctive feature of being the only job whose tension is not towards stability. It has got in itself the rewarding permission of contradiction, for the very reason we exposed before that the comic must cast an eye both inside and outside society and his vision may be perforce not consistent, then it is satisfactory for the popularity that gives amongst readers and audience. Finally, the difference between governors, priests and comic figures is the seriousness of the first two (fundamentally monologic) and the merry contradiction of the third (essentially dialogic). MPs, mayors, bishops and pastors should always console, comfort and soothe popular mood in respect of the public convention; the comic has the opposite task of provoking, urging and irritating, accomplishing at the same time a sort of control of the soothing powers of society, keepers of the righteousness. In this view, the comic person assumes a paramount importance in the counterbalancing of power administration, whether in form of acting in public places or in written pieces which could circulate for private reading. At this point comes into question our Irish writer Brian O'Nolan(1911-1966), real name that stood behind the more famous masks of Flann O'Brien, novelist, author of At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), The Hard Life (1961), The Dalkey Archive (1964) and, posthumously, The Third Policeman (1967); and of Myles na Gopaleen, journalist, keeper for more than 25 years of the Cruiskeen Lawn column on The Irish Times (1940-1966), and author of the famous book-parody in Irish An Béal Bocht (1941), later translated in English as The Poor Mouth (1973). Brian O'Nolan, professional senior civil servant of the Republic, has never seen recognized his authorship in literary studies, since all of them concentrated on his alter egos Flann, Myles and some others he used for minor contributions. So far as we are concerned, we think this is the first study which places the real name in the title, this way acknowledging him an unity of intents that no-one before did. And this choice in titling is not a mere mark of distinction for the sake of it, but also a wilful sign of how his opus should now be reconsidered. In effect, the aim of this study is exactly that of demonstrating how the empirical author Brian O'Nolan was the real Deus in machina, the master of puppets who skilfully directed all of his identities in planned directions, so as to completely fulfil the role of the comic figure we explained before. Flann O'Brien and Myles na Gopaleen were personae and not persons, but the impression one gets from the critical studies on them is the exact opposite. Literary consideration, that came only after O'Nolans death, began with Anne Clissmann’s work, Flann O'Brien: A Critical Introduction to His Writings (Clissmann 1975), while the most recent book is Keith Donohue’s The Irish Anatomist: A Study of Flann O'Brien (Donohue 2002); passing through M.Keith Booker’s Flann O'Brien, Bakhtin and Menippean Satire (Booker 1995), Keith Hopper’s Flann O'Brien: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Post-Modernist (Hopper 1995) and Monique Gallagher’s Flann O'Brien, Myles et les autres (Gallagher 1998). There have also been a couple of biographies, which incidentally somehow try to explain critical points his literary production, while many critical studies do the same on the opposite side, trying to found critical points of view on the author’s restless life and habits. At this stage, we attempted to merge into O'Nolan's corpus the journalistic articles he wrote, more than 4,200, for roughly two million words in the 26-year-old running of the column. To justify this, we appealed to several considerations about the figure O'Nolan used as writer: Myles na Gopaleen (later simplified in na Gopaleen), who was the equivalent of the street artist or storyteller, speaking to his imaginary public and trying to involve it in his stories, quarrels and debates of all kinds. First of all, he relied much on language for the reactions he would obtain, playing on, and with, words so as to ironically unmask untrue relationships between words and things. Secondly, he pushed to the limit the convention of addressing to spectators and listeners usually employed in live performing, stretching its role in the written discourse to come to a greater effect of involvement of readers. Lastly, he profited much from what we labelled his “specific weight”, i.e. the potential influence in society given by his recognised authority in determined matters, a position from which he could launch deeper attacks on conventional beliefs, so complying with the duty of a comic we hypothesised before: that of criticising society even in threat of losing the benefits the post guarantees. That seemingly masochistic tendency has its rationale. Every representative has many privileges on the assumption that he, or she, has great responsibilities in administrating. The higher those responsibilities are, the higher is the reward but also the severer is the punishment for the misfits done while in charge. But we all know that not everybody accepts the rules and many try to use their power for their personal benefit and do not want to undergo law’s penalties. The comic, showing in this case more civic sense than others, helped very much in this by the non-accessibility to the use of public force, finds in the role of the scapegoat the right accomplishment of his task, accepting the punishment when his breaking of the conventions is too stark to be forgiven. As Ceccarelli demonstrated, the role of the object of laughter (comic, ridicule) has its very own positive side: there is freedom of expression for the person, and at the same time integration in the society, even though at low levels. Then the banishment of a ‘social’ comic can never get to total extirpation from society, revealing how the scope of the comic lies on an entirely fictional layer, bearing no relation with facts, nor real consequences in terms of physical health. Myles na Gopaleen, mastering these three characteristics we postulated in the highest way, can be considered an author worth noting; and the oeuvre he wrote, the whole collection of Cruiskeen Lawn articles, is rightfully a novel because respects the canons of it especially regarding the authorial figure and his relationship with the readers. In addition, his work can be studied even if we cannot conduct our research on the whole of it, this proceeding being justified exactly because of the resemblances to the real figure of the storyteller: its ‘chapters’ —the daily articles— had a format that even the distracted reader could follow, even one who did not read each and every article before. So we can critically consider also a good part of them, as collected in the seven volumes published so far, with the addition of some others outside the collections, because completeness in this case is not at all a guarantee of a better precision in the assessment; on the contrary: examination of the totality of articles might let us consider him as a person and not a persona. Once cleared these points, we proceeded further in considering tout court the works of Brian O'Nolan as the works of a unique author, rather than complicating the references with many names which are none other than well-wrought sides of the same personality. By putting O'Nolan as the correct object of our research, empirical author of the works of the personae Flann O'Brien and Myles na Gopaleen, there comes out a clearer literary landscape: the comic author Brian O'Nolan, self-conscious of his paramount role in society as both a guide and a scourge, in a word as an a(rche)typical, intentionally chose to differentiate his personalities so as to create different perspectives in different fields of knowledge by using, in addition, different means of communication: novels and journalism. We finally compared the newly assessed author Brian O'Nolan with other great Irish comic writers in English, such as James Joyce (the one everybody named as the master in the field), Samuel Beckett, and Jonathan Swift. This comparison showed once more how O'Nolan is in no way inferior to these authors who, greatly celebrated by critics, have nonetheless failed to achieve that great public recognition O’Nolan received alias Myles, awarded by the daily audience he reached and influenced with his Cruiskeen Lawn column. For this reason, we believe him to be representative of the comic figure’s function as a social regulator and as a builder of solidarity, such as that Raymond Williams spoke of in his work (Williams 1982), with in mind the aim of building a ‘culture in common’. There is no way for a ‘culture in common’ to be acquired if we do not accept the fact that even the most functional society rests on conventions, and in a world more and more ‘connected’ we need someone to help everybody negotiate with different cultures and persons. The comic gives us a worldly perspective which is at the same time comfortable and distressing but in the end not harmful as the one furnished by politicians could be: he lets us peep into parallel worlds without moving too far from our armchair and, as a consequence, is the one who does his best for the improvement of our understanding of things.


  • 2008-05-26


  • Doctoral Thesis
  • PeerReviewed


  • application/pdf



Vintaloro, Giordano (2008) L'a(rche)tipico Brian O'Nolan. Comico e riso dalla tradizione al post-, [Dissertation thesis], Alma Mater Studiorum Università di Bologna. Dottorato di ricerca in Letterature e culture dei Paesi di lingua inglese , 20 Ciclo. DOI 10.6092/unibo/amsdottorato/938.