William Irwin Thompson
“We know from our literary histories that there was a movement called the Irish Literary Renaissance, and that Yeats was at its head. We know from our political histories that there is now a Republic of Ireland because of a nationalistic movement that, militarily, began with the insurrection of Easter Week, 1916. But what do these two movements have to do with one another?Because I came to history with literary eyes, I could not help seeing history in terms and shapes of imaginative experience. Thus Movement, Myth, and Image came to be the way in which the nature of the insurrection appeared to me. This method of analyzing historical event as if it were a work of art is not altogether as inappropriate as it might seem when the historical event happens to be a revolution. The Irish revolutionaries lived as if they were in a work of art, and this inability to tell the difference between sober reality and the realm of imagination is perhaps one very important characteristic of a revolutionary. The tragedy of actuality comes from the fact that when, in a revolution, history is made momentarily into a work of art, human beings become the material that must be ordered, molded, or twisted into shape.”
This book The Imagination of Insurrection was the doctoral dissertation that started the career of one of the most brilliant interdisciplinary scholars of modern times. I’ll have a review of it latter but simply reading the above Preface was enough to get me to order the book. Over the years, I’ve read a number of things by Thompson but missed this. The idea of the link between culture and literature explored first in The Imagination of Insurrection became a theme pursued and refined by Thompson throughout his life. Much of this exploration was the subject for a brilliant paper “The Cultural Phenomenology of Literature” he wrote in 2002 as part of a conference at the University of York. More on Thompason and these two brilliant works in a later post.
William Irwin Thompson was born in Chicago in 1938, but moved to Southern California in 1945, where he grew up to graduate from Los Angeles High School in 1957 and Pomona College in 1962. He received a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to study at Cornell in 1962 and a Woodrow Wilson Dissertation Fellowship to do his doctoral research in Dublin in 1964. He received his doctorate from Cornell in 1966 and published his first book, The Imagination of an Insurrection: Dublin, Easter 1916 in 1967. In 1972, his second book At the Edge of History was a finalist for the National Book Award. In 1986 he won the Oslo International Poetry Festival Award for his novel, Islands Out of Time.
Thompson has taught at Cornell, MIT, and York University in Toronto. His interdisciplinary interests are indicated in that he studied anthropology, philosophy, and literature at Pomona, and literature and cultural history at Cornell. He has served as visiting professor of religion at Syracuse University (1973), visiting professor of Celtic Studies at St. Michael’s College, the University of Toronto (1984), visiting professor of political science at the University of Hawaii at Manoa (1985), Rockefeller Scholar at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco (1992-1995), and Lindisfarne Scholar-in-Residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York in the autumn of each year from 1992 to 1996. In 1995 he designed an evolution of consciousness curriculum for the Ross School in East Hampton, New York and serves as a Founding Mentor. Thompson also founded the Lindisfarne Association in 1972 and served as its Director until 1997. He has retired from Lindisfarne and taught and lived in Maine until his death in 2020.