Sunday, February 17, 2008

IN A WORLD GONE MAD - Sunday Tribune

Sunday Tribune, 2 Sept 2007
by Padraig Kenny.

Pioneering nomad or plain mad? Whatever people think of the globetrotting gaeilgeoir Manchán Magan, Padraig Kenny find it hard not to be impressed by his fearlessness and self-possession.
If you were to listen to other people's opinions, Manchan Magan is either an irritating intellectual twerp who is all "lentils and tweed" or the strident gaeilgeoir fascist of No Bearla with no regard for people's sensitivities. In private, however, Manchan Magan is a lot more personable and grounded than some people give him credit for.
Talking to him reminds you of the lost persona of his new travel book on his time in India. It's a story which details his "rescue" by his brother Ruan, who arrives with a camera to convince him that making a travel documentary for a fledgling Irish-language station would be a good idea. The documentary became the first of many critically acclaimed pieces for what was then Teililfis na Gaeilge, and an unlikely TV star was born.
As Magan sees it, Telifis na Gaeilge and the Irish language saved him. When we first encounter him in the book he is skirting the realms of insanity in a hut halfway up a mountain. Looking back now he realizes how important Ruán’s intervention was. ‘If that hadn’t come at that point I don’t know what would have happened. I was completely unemployable. All I had is what I call a useless degree in cretinhood. I was determined not to use it and not to get any other job.’
India was probably the final chapter in a personal trilogy which had taken him straight from the Leaving Cert to Africa, the Americas and finally to working in a leper station by day and dangerously descending into the self in his hut – where he transcribed ‘angelic messages’ and had the frightening ‘early stirrings of a messianic complex’ – by night.
But what becomes obvious is that he was different from the great mass of backpackers in the early to mid-90’s, a lot of whom were motivated more by personal vanity and a sense of being hip, rather than the urge to explore and understand other cultures.
‘It wasn’t a sense of wanderlust that sent me traveling, I was basically fleeing. The reason I went traveling initially was because I was just so disillusioned with life growing up in Donnybrook. And all these expectations of a mortgage and a nice job in some sort of consultancy just had no interest for me. I just couldn’t identify with any aspect of it.’
Others paid lip-service to this urge to escape the middle-class confines of society only to return to the job, the mortgage, the suit and tie – but Magan realised his own mortgage-free idyll by first building a straw bale house in Westmeath in 1997. This has since been replaced by another self-built house on a piece of land which he calls ‘my own little world.’
He describes his first year in college as ‘disillusioning’. Fully expecting the world to open up he found it restrictive and stifling. Fortunately it provided just the spur he needed to go traveling. “‘Severely disillusioned with life and depressed, I went to Africa. I saw things no kid ever should, getting so near death, facing appalling things, and I came out just thinking: ‘this is actually the most ecstatic moment of my life,’ so it informed everything, I thought, ‘if I’m not Afraid of death, then let’s just live life.’”
What he calls this ‘child man, Peter Pan sort of thing,’ of being open to experience led him down some very strange paths. On arriving in India he was given a book on urine-therapy, an essential component of ayuvedic medicine. Needless to say he took to it with gusto. He confesses in a low voice at one point that he is ‘afraid to admit to it it’ but this doesn’t stop him discussing its positive advantages with the kind of unaffected enthusiasm that has made his travelogues such compelling viewing.
He also describes a typically spontaneous moment in the book where he allowed a man put a wire into his ear, in a mesmeric feat that convinced him it was traveling into his brain. ‘Itls like when you’re faced with ice cubes in a foreign country, normal tourists will not drink the ice cubes. If you see someone wanting to put a wire into your brain in India you just say no. But I don’t.’ It makes for an interesting experience but probably a more dangerous one.’
His bookish appearance hides a tremendous fearlessness which has brought him to the edge on many occasions. All of this stems from a desire to oppose the ‘conditioning’ of society and a resistance to being labeled. He doesn’t care what people think of him, going so far as to present himself even further outside the mainstream when I bring up the subject of how close he came to insanity in India. He makes no excuses for his freeform moments of metaphysical introspection and postulating the kinds of theories about existence that might make others nervous.
‘I am mad. According to every convention set in the western world we’ve got to accept that I am mad. But if I choose to see that the Western world is mad, the conditioning and conventions of our society, that’s my choice. But it does mean that it put me at odds with the rest of the world so it makes me by definition mad.’
He believes offering himself up in such a way prevents him from going down the route of being a guru-like figure. For him it’s a mechanism, a means of making sure he resists both glib expressions of absolutism and becoming a tiresome, preaching, proselytizing type. ‘It’s so much better to present is as the ravings of a fool.’
He believes the line between really using your imagination and insanity is very thin. ‘There’s a different type of insanity, very often insanity in the west is considered as fear and deep depression. But one of the reasons I went to India was because I wanted to face the whole depression thing, and the whole fear we have of being alone and of trusting our minds. It was something I always wanted to do. I didn’t know what would happen, would I just go deep into a spiraling of negativity and depression or would I just come out the other side.’
He came out the other side and now seems to have a great degree of self-possession and a freedom from many of the tics and neuroses which can afflict other creative people. If anything the contradictions of being both a reclusive global traveler and an intellectual ready to push the boundaries of sanity have contributed to his fearlessness and his ability to immerse himself freely in any culture. So much so that it’s hard to imagine anyone else who would have had the nerve to continuously speak Irish in a Loyalist bar as he did in an episode of last year’s No Béarla.
On the surface he is calm and rational, and yet there is an urge to explore both physically and spiritually, which might express itself as unease in others. But there it is again, that sense of self-possession and self-knowledge, as he talks about this need ‘to see beyond the conditioning and have new horizons;, with a real sincerity that allows him to side-step the old backpacking ‘searching for myself’ clichés that can so easily become a default position.
As far as his preference for isolation, it seems to stem from an early age. He describes being a happy baby and remarks on his ‘good fortune’ to have been born with this tendency towards being positive. For a man who once described himself as an ‘isolated loser’ forever on the edge of things, he is remarkably well-balanced.
Neither was he a typically miserable teenager. ‘I went through my teenage years as an isolated outsider, but actually more or less confident and happy in that.’ Now, he feels well-qualified to comment on the ‘sad miserable existence’ of all those bachelors living on the sides of mountains in our past. He describes them as people who were hiding. Magan, on the other hand, at least has some contact with the outside world through the internet which he claims is ‘almost creating tiny utopias the whole time.’
‘In the past you had to be a citizen of Ireland, and so you had to share all the ideas that Irish people had, the interests like going to the pub and being interested in the latest hurling game, and now weirdos, isolated people on the margins of society, can form their own societies online. Even if it’s just people obsessed with Paul Auster novels and rare types of apple trees. They gel, and meet up if necessary, but nobody feels isolated anymore. And yet you don’t even need to, by definition, throw yourself into the dominant community outside your door.’
He sees this as being more selective and it appears he is now practicing what he preaches, as he describes himself ‘just taking different elements of what I want from the world and ignoring the rest, and basically living this almost hermit life in Westmeath where I have a huge lock on my gate and plant thousands of trees around me.’
But choosing to lock himself away from the outside world doesn’t mean he has to stop engaging it with it altogether. In fact he has a huge interest in Ireland and the latent promise of the Celtic Tiger years. ‘I’m really excited about our potential and how we might define ourselves in the future, rather than defining ourselves as a culture under hardship and repression.’
He is pragmatic in regard to our consumer culture, particularly after seeing the effects of Western consumerism in India. ‘Every country that went through hardship and suffering is going to have to go through a period of conspicuous spending. And it looks garish, the nouveau riche thing, but we need to be able to buy as much Coca Cola and as much bling as we want to for a while. Again it’s probably rosy-eyed and optimistic but I hope that it’s a natural pure stage and that something evolves beyond that.’
He hasn’t been traveling for two years and now writes every day. The next book will be about his travels in Africa. He has no television, just his books, his music and the internet. He’s hoping to do a follow up to No Béarla, and redress the ‘car crash television’ nature of the first series with something much more constructive. The idea of having such a unique special language as Irish, and the idea of throwing it way with ‘absolute foolishness’ is something which breaks his heart. ‘If as a nation we want to throw it away then we should come and say it openly and just stop the hypocrisy.’
Although he doesn’t say it outright he seems happy and content in his little world of his own. All the travel has been about celebrating cultures and changing his perspective. He was particularly taken with Indian spirituality and its emphasis on oneness and unity, and the idea of it’s liberating quality, which he says ‘allows you to free yourself from this small box, the limited view, the frame of the body that you’re given, back to this oneness and realizing that it’s all an illusion.’
But for all his received wisdom he still can’t bring himself to preach. ‘the one thing I’ve realised is that I’ve no idea what anyone should do.’ He laughs, ‘I barely have an idea of what I should do from day to day.’
Manchán’s Travels: a Journey through India (Brandon Books)
©Sunday Tribune