The Future Is in Millions of Pieces: The Double Life of Birdie Hegarty
By Logan Gwinnet Roche
Harvard University Press
Cambridge, Massachussets, 2003.
Review by Seamus Sweeney
There is not just one but several double lives referred to in the title of Logan Gwinnet Roches biography of Bridie Hegarty, the anthropologist and historian. Firstly, there is the distinction between Hegarty the academic anthropologist and the popular historian. Secondly, there are the two careers she pursued as a historian; the first as the author of the vast, compendious The Civilisations of the World and The Progress of History. As the names suggest, both were massive works of dense scholarship, of epic sweep and of epic boredom. The second, beginning in 1970 and marked by her publishing as Bridie Hegarty rather than B.E. Hegarty, was stranger, richer; her histories were incomparably shorter, yet infinitely more comprehensive.
B.E. Hegarty was Bridie (Bridget) Hegarty, born in Annagry, County Donegal, Ireland in 1934. Aged five she accompanied her parents to New York. Roche is good on her early life, and speculates that all that probably remained for her of her native country was a few transitory images. The Hegartys settled in the Woodlawn area of the Bronx. Bridie won a scholarship to New York University, where she majored in Comparative Anthropology. She taught in Buffalo, New York before returning to NYU to obtain a Masters, with a thesis on the proliferation of Polynesian Cargo Cults. This was among the first serious academic studies of this phenomenon.
Throughout her academic and teaching career Bridie Hegarty was on the one hand gregarious and lively, and on the other seemed to have no close, confiding friend. This may be interesting, but is hardly unusual, and doesnt merit the intense study Roche makes of her personal life. I deplore the tendency of literary biographers to look for some kind of secret life; Roche wastes many pages speculating, in a complete vacuum of evidence, as to possible depressive tendencies, or lesbianism.
In neither phase of her writing did Hegarty discuss the land of her birth in depth. Roche estimates, in what strikes me as an odd statistical approach to the relative importance bestowed by an author to a topic, that she devoted an equal amount of inches of text on Ireland and Gabon. Yet she was an active member of many New York Ireland Associations. Within these she continued to socialise with a group of friends who had grown up together in Woodlawn.
In 1970 Bridie emerged from B. E. Hegarty with the publication of A Pearl Falling Like her universal histories, these books showed a wide range of scholarship. But rather than the sweeping vision of her previous works, A Pearl Falling consisted of eight hundred fragments, each a paragraph or two. Each focused on one incident; the Empress of Japan dropping a pearl into the ocean, the execution of Remirro de Orco, the beginning of a tea ceremony hosted by Sen no Rikyu. Each fragment was carefully footnoted and came complete with the apparatus of scholarship.
In the Gallaudet Historical Review, she explained that she wanted to forge a new direction in history writing; history was not just battles and kings and dates, neither was it only a length narrative of various social trend. The task of history is time travel, she wrote,
and a single instant can transport the reader as readily as thousands of pages of argument. She was not writing imaginative fiction, she wrote, but an evocation of a definite moment in history researched as well as any historical work.
A Pearl Falling was published by Simon and Schuster. Against Bridie Hegartys wishes, it was published as fiction. From then on, Hegarty was published by the independent Spectrum 7 Press.
Spectrum 7 had been founded in July 1969 by M.K. Yen and Randy Sutherland with the almost de rigeur counter-cultural ethos of its time and location. It mainly published experimental San Francisco authors, but also reprinted esoteric books from the past; de Oliveras Brazilian Magicians and Clarkes Folk-tales of the Upper Punjab for example.
The Future is in Millions of Pieces was her first book published by Spectrum 7. In many ways it is a sequel to A Pearl Falling, further small, paragraph-sized pieces of history; it focuses less on pivotal events and more on inconsequential people. Again the book is grounded in scholarship; the endnotes are twice as long as the actual text.
The title of her last published book would seem to indicate a return to the vast preoccupations of her earlier work. Universal History of Nations was an attempt to write a series of historical essays of traditional length, discussing many historical events as if they were one event, varying only by incidental proper names. They were not attempts to write general laws of history, but to create archetypal historical narratives. Certain combinations of events recur again and again in human culture, with only differing by some names. She denied any Marxist tendency here; she did not believe that any historical event was inevitable, but that given enough time, circumstances and hence events will recur. Her history was equally applicable to the future as the past.
Roche is most intriguing in describing her last planned project; a sentence-long history of the world. A sentence no longer than twenty words, she wrote in her notes, and even that would be too long. She was suffering from the early stages of dementia at this time, but mostly she was as sharp and lucid as ever. The last note she wrote was as follows: A sentence of any length is too much. A word should be enough. A syllable would suffice. She died in 1980.
Roches book is primarily of value in so far as it restores this extraordinary figure to greater prominence. Roche is pruriently interested in her private life; he pays too much attention to her ponderous Universal Histories and not enough to her real work, the great process of the infinite compression of history.
(Entry by Seamus Sweeney)