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Seamus Heaney's the Grauballe Man: Description of Violence in Society

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Seamus Heaney’s The Grauballe Man: Description of Violence in Society

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Inflicted Self-Awareness through Unuttered and Unanswerable Questions

While studying P. V. Glob’s The Bog People in 1969, Seamus Heaney became aware of the extreme violence which occurred within Scandinavian tribes during the Iron Age. Having lived during the time of The Troubles, the obviously brutal deaths of the bog people struck a chord with Heaney. Shelley Reece summarized Heaney’s connection: “The ritual significance of that early violence in Scandinavian countries helped Heaney to see the events of contemporary Ireland as current instances from a long tradition in a larger northern context. For several years, he searched this subject for his own origins and the meaning that the sacramental violence might give to the current troubles” (94). This connection Heaney found, through pictures of the bog bodies, between the past and the violence of the present inspired him to write a book of poems, North, commonly considered to be a means for Heaney to confront violence and its role in society. One such poem, “The Grauballe Man,” acts as a prime example of this confrontation, and has been subject to many critical analyses as an effort to reveal the conclusions Heaney drew about society.

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Many critics agree that “The Grauballe Man” is a means for Seamus Heaney to address violence in society; the vast majority of these critics argue within their analyses about specific messages they feel Heaney intended to convey within the poem. However, one critic, Martin Dodsworth, conducts an analysis which allows for Heaney to have left an ambiguous message in this poem instead of poetically stating absolute opinions. Dodsworth essentially refuses to draw any concrete conclusions about the poem, simply arguing that Heaney intended only to pose questions in the poem instead of blunt opinions. Although this idea is somewhat radical in analyzing poetry, Dodsworth’s analysis was unfortunately clouded by anger, and was thus extremely limited in its reach. Dodsworth’s essay, “Edward Thomas, Seamus Heaney and Modernity: A Reply to Antony Easthope” was simply that: a reply to another critic. Easthope is a famous critic who labeled Heaney as cliché in approach, and empiricist in writing. Dodsworth argues that Easthope is completely mistaken, and that he misunderstood “The Grauballe Man” entirely. He suggests that Heaney uses the empiricist writing style intentionally to paint pictures for the reader, and through these paintings pose implied questions for the reader to consider. Dodsworth states that “There is no readily seized ‘truth’ here…” (150), implying that the truth must be found through deliberate effort and consideration on the part of the reader. I intend to expand on Dodsworth’s suggestion of unspoken questions, identifying a few of those questions relating to societal violence and dehumanization, and explain their significance. The questions focus specifically on the topics of attraction to violence, the dynamicity of violence over time, the ways in which the military fosters dehumanization, patterns of dehumanization through museums and the media, and the ways in which violence fosters self-dehumanization. Each question highlights a specific form of violence and dehumanization, showing just how ubiquitous these aspects of society are. Through these implicit questions latent within “The Grauballe Man”, Heaney forces the reader to acknowledge their own relationship with violence, and to participate in the consequences of that relationship and the ensuing dehumanization of human beings on both an individual and societal level.

In order for the reader to accept responsibility for societal violence, Heaney first needed to make them aware of their personal attraction to violence. He approaches this process in several phrases throughout the poem. One such phrase, “The cured wound / opens inwards to a dark / elderberry place” (Heaney 22-24), provides a particularly powerful introspective opportunity for the reader. In writing in the third person perspective, Heaney puts the reader directly in the scene, looking over the wounded, leathery body. This perspective allows the words of the poem to seem to come from the reader himself as he overlooks the corpse. Thus, the reader essentially dehumanizes the Grauballe man in not referring to the gash in his neck as “his wound” but as “the wound”. The words “elderberry place” then invoke a feeling of wealth—thoughts of wine, velvet, and rich colors. This juxtaposition between the dehumanization of “the wound” and the beauty or entrancement of “elderberry” puts the reader in an awkward position of realization: they just considered a corpse, victim to horrendous brutalities, to hold an undeniable sense of attraction and appeal.

Heaney continues this process of forced awareness by directly addressing the duality of the aesthetic of violence in the lines “but now he lies / perfected in my memory… hung in the scales / with beauty and atrocity: the Dying Gaul” (Heaney 37-43). Still writing as if the reader himself were speaking these words, the poet further forces the reader to acknowledge that the Grauballe man’s body truly is, for them, balancing somewhere between beauty and repulsiveness. If this body, victim to such atrocious brutality holds such beauty, do not all victims hold that same appeal? The Dying Gaul acts as a prime example of this concept. The Dying Gaul is a famous statue of a gladiator wounded in battle. Immortalized in stone, the wounds and pain of this gladiator stand as a monument for people to stare at and admire. For centuries people have idolized the beauty of this relic of violence. In selecting a statue as famous as the Dying Gaul for an example of beauty in violence, Heaney impresses upon the reader the ubiquitous adoration of violence in society. To cement this consciousness of attraction in the reader’s mind, through the third person perspective Heaney has the reader say, it is “perfected in my memory”.

A critic, Jonathan Hufstader also addresses this concept of beauty verses atrocity. He suggests that Heaney considered the death of the Grauballe man, and most of the bog bodies, to be part of a religious rite. He writes in regard to Heaney’s comparison of the Grauballe man to the Dying Gaul and the following lines, “Having created a beautiful Grauballe man, he erases that beauty and leaves only a corpse slashed and dumped. Having rejected the violent rite as sacred in “The Tollund Man”, he now rejects it as beautiful” (Hufstader 68). In “The Grauballe Man” along with all of the other poems in North, Heaney constantly challenges this idea of beauty in violence. He acknowledges that there is an innate and undeniable appeal to brutality in direct opposition with societal morals—the idea that killing and hurting others is wrong. The Grauballe man symbolizes the paradox of human attraction to and abhorrence of violence.

Having brought his readers to a consciousness of their attraction to violence, Heaney uses these opposing ideas of attraction to violence and societal morals to begin to make the readers aware of the reality of actions which arise specifically as result of this attraction. He begins with an example from a time of violence which occurred within his own lifetime. In the last few words of “The Grauballe Man,” Heaney compares the violence exacted on the bog bodies before their deaths to the violence towards of the Irish citizens victimized during The Troubles. The death of the Grauballe man directly paralleled some of the injustices of Operation Demetrius, a British army operation in the course of the war (Operation Demetrius 1). During Operation Demetrius, 14 men were captured and tortured. As part of their torture, each man was hooded, and exposed to loud hissing noises, deprived of sleep, denied food and water, and finally, were taken on a helicopter. On the helicopter, the men were told they were far above the ground (when in reality they were only a few feet above the earth) in order to scare them. They were then pushed, or dumped out of the helicopter (Operation Demetrius 1). The last words of “The Grauballe Man” are “each hooded victim, / slashed and dumped,” (Heaney 47-48). Whether for sacrifice, punishment, or basic brutality, the Grauballe man’s throat was slit before he was dumped into the peat bogs as a means for his murderers to conceal his body. Charles O’Neill draws the conclusion that, “The poems themselves deliver a recognition…that man’s nature is essentially murderous and that culture has been built upon it only the better to conceal it from his view” (102).

“The Grauballe Man” also mentions “the grain of his wrists / is like bog oak” (Heaney 6-7), implying the presence of obvious indentations or marks in the skin. Operation Demetrius involved hand-cuffing the prisoners, which left deep bruises on their wrists (Operation Demetrius 1). The 14 men captured in Operation Demetrius, just like the Grauballe man, were seen as mere bodies instead of actual human beings. While we cannot tell what other torture the Grauballe man may have experienced before his death, the parallels between the method of his murder and the concealing of his body directly correlate with the violence and brutality shown the victims of Operation Demetrius, thus revealing the, as O’Neill said, essentially murderous nature of mankind.

If the same kinds of violence exhibited in the Iron Age continued into the fairly recent time of The Troubles, this raises two uncomfortable questions: have we as humanity really advanced and evolved as much as we think we have? and does violence ever really change? The reader now has to ascertain how these questions relate him as an individual, considering the true level of his own humanity and sophistication. Additionally, this causes the reader to ponder the nature of violence in society today. For example, we live in an age of iPads and virtual realities, yet we still deal with racial violence, mass shootings, and rape. Even though we now have access to highly technical weapons of mass destruction such as atomic bombs and machine guns, our violence, at its roots, is really no different from the violence of the Iron Age—violence is violence.

As a representation of the continued dehumanization of the Irish citizens which occurred as the British troops overtook Ireland and the citizens were forced to militarize, Heaney also characterizes the Grauballe man as a knight. As a soldier, or a knight, one’s humanity and individuality is lost as war is thrust upon you. You must succumb to the violence, fighting for survival. In lines 17-20, he illustrates “The head lifts, / the chin is a visor / raised above the vent / of his slashed throat.” The Grauballe man has been so completely militarized in these lines that his chin is described as a visor. And not at all referred to as a person, his body parts are noted individually: “the head,” “the chin.” Almost as an afterthought, Heaney writes that the Grauballe man’s throat is slashed. This casual mentioning of the slashed throat represents the British army’s utter disregard for human life.

But why did the British army have such complete disregard for the lives of the Irish? How do most armies maintain this same disregard? In 1961 a professor at Yale, Stanley Milgram, performed an interesting experiment. In his experiment, one person was required to flip switches to shock another person, the levels of shock increasing with each flip of the switch. As the intensity of the shocks increased, the person being shocked (this man was actually an actor, and was not actually shocked at all) would scream in pain and eventually beg to be released and for the experiment to stop. As the experiment progressed, Milgram, or another supervisor, would stand behind the “shocker” and probe him with words like “it is necessary for the experiment that you continue” whenever he hesitated. The results of the experiment were extremely shocking: 92.5% of the “shockers” would continue in the experiment through the highest level of the shock generator, regardless of the other man’s pain (Stout 63). While the infliction of pain is certainly deplorable, almost all people draw the line at killing, which makes it very difficult for military leaders. Martha Stout, a psychologist, concludes that the physical presence of an authority figure can shake the balance between obedience to rules and obedience to personal morals. As long as an authority figure is present, with a little probing, soldiers will kill other men (65). She continues “Also, it helps to encourage moral exclusion, to remind the troops that the enemy soldiers are nothing but its, Krauts, slants, and gooks” (66). With insistent authority figures and conscious dehumanization of the Irish through thinking of them as “its” instead of real people, the members of the British military destroyed countless Irish lives. Through the simple reference to The Troubles in referring to the Grauballe man as a knight, Heaney forces the reader to consider the question of how violently far they would go in dehumanizing another person. Would they kill a man? And how does that principle appear in society today? Racism provides a prime example of this concept as well. So many people of color and different nationalities have been killed or persecuted simply because others have considered them “its” and not the human beings they are.

At the Mosegaard Museum in Aarhus, Heaney saw the Grauballe man in person. Scribbling words on a paper which happened to be in his pocket, Heaney jotted down notes which later were transformed into “The Grauballe Man.” He realized that in the same ways the media and news portrayed the Irish citizens, the museums exhibited the bog bodies—as mere showpieces and stories to create profit. Heaney wrote, “Who will say ‘corpse’ / to his vivid cast? / Who will say ‘body’ / to his opaque repose?” (25-28). Whether or not this was the intention of the museum, everyone who looked at the bog body simply thought of it as a thing—a nice relic of the past. No one thought of him as an actual person who had a life and a name. The same thing happens in the news and media. Victims of violence are dehumanized—people see victims, especially of wars, as simply unfortunate casualties. They rarely think of the families, jobs, hobbies, and lives of the victims; they just don’t remember that these people are real people. This again poses an interesting question: does the public, and do we as members of the public, foster this dehumanization? Is our attraction to violence, and resultant museum, media, and news display of this violence increasing our tolerance to brutality to the point that we no longer give even a passing thought to those directly affected by this violence?

A continuation of the idea of dehumanization because of violence, “The Grauballe Man” poses the question of whether violence promotes self-dehumanization as well. The poem begins, “As if he had been poured / in tar, he lies / on a pillow of turf / and seems to weep / the black river of himself” (Heaney 1-5). In this sentence the perpetrator, or murderer, pours the Grauballe man into the tar. As he lies there, Heaney shows the Grauballe man’s thoughts and actions as a very intriguing type of post-mortem experience. The Grauballe man begins to weep himself into river of tar. The Grauballe man’s understanding of the act of violence, having been dumped into a bog, led to him degrade himself as he wept until neither he, nor anyone else viewed him as human. As the poem continues, the perspective changes to third person—signifying the change from viewing himself as a person, to total self-dehumanization and utter loss of self. The Grauballe man goes through an interesting process of metaphors. After equating him to a river, the speaker compares the Grauballe man to vegetative material, such as bog oak and a wet swamp root. The process continues on to a mineral state—the Grauballe man’s foot is compared to basalt, a porous black rock. He then moves towards an animalistic comparison, referring to his instep as a swan’s foot, and continuing on to aquatic life. He likens the hips to the ridge and purse of a mussel, and the spine to an eel stuck in the mud. The speaker describes the Grauballe man in every elemental category of the earth except human. The Grauballe man’s self-dehumanization in the poem made him and the reader consider him to be anything and everything but human. This entire process began with one simple act of violence.

All of this causes the reader to think over his own life and situations in which he has been violent or offensive towards another person. This violence extends to verbal violence as well as physical. Did he bully a fat kid in high school? Did make a degrading comment on Facebook? Did he criticize his coworker for not working fast enough? Any and all of these could lead to self-degradation and dehumanization on the part of the victim. How does society perpetrate this violence as well? One example to consider is the stereotypes perpetuated about people from the Middle East. What to Iranians and Muslims think of themselves after Americans label them all as terrorists?

Fortunately, the poem has a short positive note. It refers to the Grauballe man as a forceps baby (Heaney 36), which is a baby a physician pulls from its mother’s womb with a pair of forceps. Although this often leaves bruising, the child is born and successfully completes his journey into the outside world. As the Grauballe man is plucked like a forceps baby, it represents a re-birth or a chance to begin again and stop the cycle of self-degradation. As the Grauballe man is a victim of societal violence and self-dehumanization, this essentially poses the question: will we give victims of violence a re-birth through stopping that cycle of violence and dehumanization?

Antony Easthope writes that “The Grauballe man comes to envision a truth about the human being as victim, a truth eternally the same whether as the primitive suffering of a Bog person, of ‘the Dying Gaul’, or of someone assassinated in the Bogside” (32). Through “The Grauballe Man” Heaney walks the reader through a series of questions to bring the him to an incremental increase in awareness of the suffering of mankind as a result of societal violence and the reader’s own attraction to and relationship with violence. Heaney’s use of questions remains a particularly more poignant method of expressing opinions than simply presenting conclusions because of the questions’ innate ability to force the reader to interact with the subject. Because of the questions, the reader must perform a self-analysis regarding the various aspects of violence and dehumanization, admitting their own responsibility and guilt in this inescapable relationship with brutality. Martin Dodsworth writes “There is no readily seized ‘truth’ here, but an abiding question about the beauty and horror of sacrifice, a question given point for Heaney by his understanding of ‘the exact and tribal, intimate revenge’ (‘Punishment’) that issues in atrocity and victimage” (144). With these questions hanging unabashed in the air, the reader has the opportunity to seize the truths in “the Grauballe Man” for himself. He has to decide what to do with those truths once he discovers them. Will he turn a blind eye to the violence in society or will he strive to make a change? Will this awareness of the prevalence and nature of violence in society change the way he votes? The way he reads the newspaper? These questions within the “Grauballe Man” all have the potential to completely alter the reader’s life and possibly society itself. It all comes down to the moral integrity of the reader, and whether or not he has the courage to take Heaney’s poetic call to action by honestly answering those questions for himself with the intention to act.

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