(réf.  Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines n° 6. Montpellier: Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1995)



John McGahern's subdued modernity


Pascal Bataillard (Université de Saint-Étienne)


Two observations have motivated my paper. The first is simply that John McGahern's writing is not, on the whole, made remarkable by any outstanding experimental or innovative feature. For example, The Dark's shifts of narrative voice (the passage from "he" to "I"and then "you") are quite mild by Nouveau Roman standards. John McGahern himself was dissatisfied by the most aggressively daring features of The Leavetaking, to the point of rewriting some passages, seemingly smoothing it out to make it, as Marianne Mays put it, "a more civilized, a more normal novel" (CJ 42)*. Yet it is John McGahern's own statement that writing is always, indeed ought to be, experimental, but this bold affirmation is simultaneously counterbalanced by an apparently contradictory statement:

I would think that while I am a traditional writer I have no interest in experiment for experiment's sake – I actually think that the real experiment is a constant experiment, and that's the experiment of the voice, of the way of seeing, and unless that is matched with impossibility all the time, then one starts imitating oneself [italics mine]. (Sampson 16)



* The abbreviations used in the article are the following: CJ = Canadian Journal of Irish Studies 17, n° 1, July 1991;
works by Joyce: PA = A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man;

U (+ episode and line number) = Ulysses;
SL = Selected Letters;
by J. McGahern: B  = The Barracks;

L = The Leavetaking;
CS = The Collected Stories.



We can note here more than reminiscences from one of the most prominent figures in the modernist movement, namely TS. Eliot, and his propositions in "East Coker" for an Ars Poetica of the impossible, écriture being "a raid on the inarticulate." According to Eliot it does not even matter if the adequate wording:

. . . has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate – but there is no competition
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost ... .
For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
(Eliot 203)

The whole notion of originality is dismissed as a mirage, as irrelevant to the business of writing. What matters is not innovation in its most spectacular aspects. We are far from the loud cannonading of Blast – or any outré stance (1). I am not at present suggesting there is an essence of writing but that there is in writing something which makes it absolutely out of season. I make mine Nietzsche's notion that the thinker/artist does not belong to his days, which means he does not merely react to his days, a reaction always accompanied by resentment, the very quality which has so thoroughly contaminated and stifled the households in The Barracks and Amongst Women (2). The notion I have just hinted at is certainly akin to what Blanchot has relentlessly brooded upon – rather than conceptualised – and named désoeuvrement. This quality in John McGahern's writings absolutely mesmerised me and, to my mind, accounts for the discreetness of what makes his prose so distinct and discrete.

The second motivation for this paper is that, because John McGahern seems to conform to the classical if not reactionary criteria of realist writing, critics have to a large extent restricted their studies to what is liable to bolster up a correspondingly conservative and, in short, reassuring reading. This is all the more strange as the same critics persist in comparing John McGahern with Joyce. I should add they usually mean the young Joyce, which seems to imply the essentially readable Joyce of Dubliners, not the Joyce eliciting dismay among his friends and family with the later work – his brother denouncing the


1. For an exploration of the modernist canon and its bombardiering, see Jean-Michel Rabaté, "Du canon moderniste aux écrans post-modernes (Eliot, Palmer)," in Haberer, p. 167-183.
2. For instance in The Barracks: "And the one trophy they all had to carry away was a gnawing resentment of each other's lonely and passing world" (B 28). The word and notion are even more insistent in Amongst Women where I found at least twelve occurrences of the signifier applied in turn to all of the characters save Luke, the son in voluntary exile.



"drivelling rigmarole" when James embarked on the writing, ever in progress, of Finnegans Wake. Anyway this view of a young Joyce, orthodox in writing, which would mean, so to speak, orthodox in deed if not in creed, is simply untenable.

In other words, there seems to be a wild incoherence, a blatant inconsistency, between the names of writers commonly associated with John McGahern – I have already mentioned Joyce, but we also find Proust and even Beckett among the favourite ones – and the reception of his work. That is why I deem it necessary to defend and justify the notion that John McGahern's writing is modern, however awkward this sort of labelling may prove for the time being  (3). Somehow things need to be straightened out a bit in this respect, or ironed out, a word much more in keeping with Elizabeth Reegan's functions and John McGahern's method. I already signalled the essentially contained, unobtrusive quality of "modern" traits in John McGahern's oeuvre, mostly The Barracks. Now the other meaning implied by the word "subdued" is the notion of control. I will attempt to substantiate the argument running as follows: in McGahern, but maybe in all instances of écriture as Barthes posits, there is a conflict between mastery, the ideal of order, and disrupting forces, darker drives I shall call jouissance:

Deux bords sont tracés : un bord sage, conforme, plagiaire ..., et un autre bord, mobile, vide ..., qui n'est jamais que le lieu de son effet : là où s'entrevoit la mort du langage. Ces deux bords, le compromis qu'ils mettent en scène, sont nécessaires .... De là, peut-être, un moyen d'évaluer les oeuvres de la modernité : leur valeur viendrait de leur duplicité. (Barthes 14-15)

1. Modern? Novel?Realist?

The qualities I started referring to as modern do not primarily lie in any spectacular manifestation of anything new about to happen or happening on the page. The adjective novel could be justly preferred to modern, in its being solely referring to the fact of writing fiction and in common use since the glorious 18th century, conjuring up at once Sterne's experiments and Defoe's realism. However John McGahern's relation towards modernist writers will have to be considered, indeed not as much to know what his opinions and tastes are as to determine – to some degree only – what type of traces of them have been left on the page, what reshuffling of their aesthetic creeds has been achieved to task the modernist paradigm.


3. Such a proposition is certainly not "new" (see Richard Kearney, op. cit.) but only too rare. Reviewers have preferred to emphasise John McGahern's craft.



Terence Brown argued quite convincingly that the urge to demythologise the newly created Irish State could account for the realism common to most post-Independence and post-war Irish writers (4). But this would be of very little help to understand McGahern's poetics, if it did not make us suspect that assuming realism could betray a possible desire to lure as many as possible. McGahern's realism would be a means to have the readers believe they are visiting a familiar country while they are taken on a voyage towards darker regions. Whatever the possible extent of conscious manipulation, there are never any obvious signs or tokens of "modernity." Everything looks familiar but to the point of uncanniness, to the point of verging on the Unheimlich. The reader is left to his or her own devices to thread his way through the text without any guarantee as to its status. Strangely enough, it might well be where The Barracks concurrently participates most of the Realists' ways and departs most radically from them. I will consider the example of Courbet. Courbet greatly shocked people at the Salon in 1849 with Après-dînée à Ornans simply because he used canvas dimensions so far reserved to the treatment of "elevated" or "dignified" subjects to paint a scene belonging to the daily life of common people. Besides there was not in his work the obvious intention to celebrate the virtues of ordinary people in the style and manner of Le Nain, nor to idealise, as did Millet, who claimed the mission of painting was "faire servir ce qui est banal à l'expression du sublime" (5). Specifically, what disturbed most was Courbet's total absence of comment on, and justification of, his work. The painting was presented without any reading code to guide the public and validate their personal experience of the work. But while Courbet created an aesthetic shock on the one hand and a mystifying effet de réel on the other hand, McGahern seemingly works along well-established lines and actually unbalances the reader's assumptions about the world or, more accurately, questions such notion as "the world." We can assert that, in The Barracks, the poetics of realism is put to the test, strained so severely that an inner tension is created, such that we gradually do not know any longer how to read the novel, are no longer sure if we read things into the text or shy away from them.

As a particularly striking example of the confusion set in the process of reading, I will now turn to the title. It seems to make it clear that the novel is not as much dealing with characters as with a place. As Philippe Hamon shows, the range of possibilities offered to the realist writer is much more restricted than commonly assumed because it depends so heavily on univocity of meaning that virtually anything is liable to lapse into


4. See in particular p. 154-160 and p. 227-231.
5. Quoted by Colette Becker in Lire le Réalisme et le Naturalisme, Paris: Dunod,1992, p. 48.



noise (6). This danger is precisely what the realist writer tries to fend off, more often than not falling into the pitfall of didacticism. Now, if we suppose it is really the story of Elizabeth Reegan's last year we are going through, Elizabeth Reegan would have been a more fitting title in a conformist realist perspective. Still, a reading made along realist lines is not so easily defeated. Thus the title The Barracks can be only too readily justified. The barracks are really the place where Elizabeth, confined as she is, has to come to terms with her own life; from the same viewpoint, it is really the place Reegan wants to get away from.

However, on a totally different level, the title becomes the place the novel creates (and not the referent in "real life"). Only then does it become the matrix of a general form of control, internment and subjection of minds and bodies alike: the Church, Court, school, hospital, arc the counterparts of the barracks in the world without. A crux at this stage is that the dividing line between what is inside and what is outside is perpetually changing, blurred and crossing the reader. The Church shapes public and family life through ritual, spies on people with confession, mobilises them in sodalities such as the Legion of Mary, "organized on exactly the same pattern as Communism" (B 163). The father is the paradigmatic figure of all these agents of power and of these symbolical places. Even trivial conversations become the most potent vehicles of ideology to doubly or trebly enmesh children, here Reegan's, in the dominant social discourse:

The talk of town and court, their father echoing the world that they would one day climb to out of the servitude of their childhood captured the three children... (B 70)

In other words a complex dynamics between title and text is created by the reading. What generates or announces and what follows, the inside and the outside, cannot be so cuttingly differentiated. The disseminating powers and centrifugal forces exceed the tolerance of the "oldfashioned" text (7). The bourgeois text could very well subdue tensions and organise complexities, but only provided one knew where to start from. Speaking of beginnings the function of analepses rapidly goes beyond the role of mere flashbacks meant to illuminate


6. "Or le projet réaliste s'identifie avec le désir pédagogique de transmettre une information ..., donc d'éviter au maximum tout "bruit" qui viendrait perturber la communication de cette information et la transitivité du message" (Hamon, p. 134).
7. I think it is very telling that John McGahern, although so wary of saying anything liable to identify him with any movement or trend, could not help reacting, almost violently, when John Updike entitled his review of The Pornographer, "An Old-Fashioned Novel" (New Yorker, December 24, 1979). He even wrote an ironically autobiographical short story called "Old-Fashioned," which he considered for some time to be eponymous for what was finally published as High Ground.



the reader by creating the illusion the text was already there and by reinforcing the general coherence (8). At this stage more has to be said about the title.

In the traditional realist text the meaning of place names can be quite transparently symbolical, as in romance, but more often than not it is hidden. In the latter case the reader is provided with the means to decipher the meaning, for example through a character such as a genealogist or an antiquary (as in Tess of the d'Urbervilles). Hence coherence is ensured and the writer secures and manifests his authority, his craft and superior knowledge. With The Barracks there is nothing of the sort, there is not the slightest indication that the reader ought to seize an etymological dictionary. If we do, we find barracks is a word of French origin (baraque, tent for soldiers), but also of Gaelic source, Bret. bar, a branch, Gael. barr, a spike (9). The twofold origin of the word should point to the duplicity of the text as a whole as much as to the question of the lost mother tongue. Answering the Gaelic root, there is the obsessing leitmotif of chainsaws felling trees (10); indeed it was quite a usual thing in those days in the countryside of the Irish Midlands and this might be deemed as the sign of a rhetoric of the banal, the meaningless element par excellence becoming an emblem of the landscape of the novel. Nevertheless the howling chainsaws or the stone-crusher in the quarries create that sort of noise which, by realist standards, disturbs the reader. It also pinpoints the fact that Gaelic was lost as a vehicle of cultural identity. Gaelic Ireland was vanishing largely because it had been a myth unsupported by actual policies and undefended by its policemen:

"Peter Mulligan . . . . He wanted a licence to cut trees."
"Is it difficult to get a licence now?" ...

"What are licences for only for gettin'?" he laughed cynically. "Unless I want to stop him, that's all! And why would I stop anybody from gettin' anything, Elizabeth?"
"There'll be no trees soon."
"There'll be no country soon, never mind trees, if you ask me, Elizabeth!" (B 58-59)

The branch might be Reegan's stick, or baton, embodying the rigidity of Irish society where law is reduced to law and order, with paralysis reigning supreme. The screaming or


8. "Il semblerait donc que, pour un lecteur ..., le réel soit d'abord le cohérent ... Parmi les procédés assurant la cohérence globale de l'énoncé, nous pouvons enregistrer le flash-back, le souvenir, le résumé ... : le texte renvoie à son déjà-dit" (Hamon, p. 134-135).
9. I have used Walter W. Skeat's classic, The Concise Dictionary of English Etymology, Ware, Herts.: Wordsworth Reference, 1993.
10. Something like twelve occurrences, my possibly non-exhaustive list goes: B 34, 70, 108, 130,138, 144, 146, 151, 193, 202, 204, 213.



singing chainsaws grind social meaning – only presumably a flawless fabric – besides affecting Elizabeth Reegan's nerves and body. The word barrack can also be a verb meaning "to criticize loudly," which derives from northern Irish "to boast" (Collins). This is perfectly relevant with another beginning of The Barracks, that is Reegan's return with a soon proliferating account of his meeting with Quirke. Not only is it an epitome of resentment but also a figure of the syndrome of repetition affecting the barracks." It is also a compelling instance of signifiance, what Barthes ambiguously called the obtuse, as opposed to the obvious. The text is continuously challenging the studious, keen significations we are construing, in other words barracking us, by punctuating and punctuating our reading.

Having reached this stage I think it becomes quite apparent that it would be a mistake to maintain that the wealth of the text consists in an oscillation between realism and symbolism or in a perfect balance between the classical and the modern tempers. T.S. Eliot acclaimed Ulysses for its "mythical method" while Ezra Pound praised the new lease of life Joyce was giving to the great realist tradition (12). Both were simply trying to contain UIysses within existing boundaries. This is where John McGahern's poetics, like Joyce's, delineates elements for what could be his politics, as we have just intimated, and ethics.

 II. Ethics: the ways of the text

The Barracks appears to be a text made of texts, not primarily because it is cunningly playing with other literary texts, but because it tackles its confrontation with social discourse as the deconstruction of a text. John McGahern's accuracy and exacting control of all that could be romance and sentimentality is not mannerism but the constant keeping in focus, very much like Joyce's "style of scrupulous meanness" (SL 83) (13). Irishness, familism, religion are accordingly exposed as the by-products of a power-regulating system but also as places, or topoi, of control. Conversely other texts, other categories of discourse and reading strategies are summoned. In his reading of Nightlines,


11. It also unquestionably echoes Joyce's "Counterparts" where the same sort of tale is repeated, amplified, after the real incident cost the protagonist his job.
12. For Eliot see "Ulysses, Order and Myth" in Selected Prose (Kermode F. ed., London: Faber, 1975, p. 175-178). For Pound see "James Joyce et Pécuchet" in Pound/Joyce (Forrest Read ed., New York: New Directions, 1967, p. 200-211).
13. See Jean-Michel Rabaté's subtle analysis of this position in James Joyce, Paris: Hachette, 1993, p. 41.




Yvon Tosser has established that this happened with psychoanalysis (14). This is the case too with philosophy, not to be conceived as the higher level of meaning, the locus of superior truths it used to be in so many Victorians novels (George Eliot or Thomas Hardy) but as some of the discourses more or less easily available to subjects in society. Words used in The Barracks, such as passions, servitude, denote a philosophical language to which virtually all schoolboys and girls could have access. Books, ideas related to existentialism or to the philosophies of the absurd were something to which Elizabeth Reegan had been exposed by Halliday and the readings he introduced her to:

She had loved Halliday and had counted no cost. She could feel again her excitement bringing him back the first real books she'd ever been given and crying, "But they're real! They're not stories even. They're about my life" … He had changed her whole life, it was as if he'd put windows there, so that she could see out on her own world. (B 87)

The heterogeneous nature of any discourse, and in particular of Elizabeth Reegan's thoughts, is made manifest by the presence of words, phrases, notions which belong to various orders of discourse. Beyond mere schizophrenia, this suggests the possibility to elaborate techniques, forge strategies liable to allow subjects to resist authority and elude univocal definitions of themselves (15). To put it more simply, the several voices that collide in Elizabeth Reegan's stream of consciousness allow her to make out a voice she can identify with, select in preference to others:

"What is all this living and dying about anyway?" came almost as flesh of her own  thought at last in this small-town café, but it had been Halliday's question in the beginning, it had never been hers alone. (B 94)


14. "La référence explicite à un analyste dons "Peaches", les commentaires sans complexe du narrateur de "My Love, My Umbrella" ou encore la mise en évidence dons "Korea" des mécanismes de la mémoire du père – autant de signes qui apparaissent comme des consignes de lecture et semblent autoriser un déchiffrage faisant appel à quelques notions élémentaires de psychanalyse..." (Tosser, p. 11). See also Richard Kearney's seminal article, "A Crisis of Imagination (An analysis of a counter-tradition in the Irish novel)": "The notion of a psychoanalytical transformation of memory into imagination serves as a metaphor and model of the activity of writing" (The Creme Bag, vol. 3, I, 1979, p. 58-70: 66).
15. I am here more particularly referring to the last portion of Foucault's work, his Histoire de la sexualité, especially Le Souci de soi, Paris: Gallimard, 1984.




We could marvel at how apposite Foucault's theses in Les Mots et les Choses, Surveiller et punir or L'archéologie du savoir could be with The Barracks and speculate on the Zeitgeist. We can also very soberly consider that The Barracks and Foucault's writings develop in their own ways strategies to create new modes of visibility, to think and speak of things in a way we had not experienced before.

Having already hinted at the motif of paralysis pervading The Barracks, I will now address John McGahern's essay on Dubliners. What is remarkable about it is how little McGahern says about Joyce's short stories. Remarkable also is the measure in which what he says could be applied to his own work. I will first retain his rejection of the notion of any Irish literary tradition (CJ 31). The second is his definition of "Joyce's temperament as essentially classical" (Ibid.) and the third the long quotation from Joyce's famous letter to his publisher, Grant Richards. In this letter Joyce emphasised the integrity of his art, that is, first, the place of a diagnosis ("My intention was to write a chapter of the moral history of my country and I chose Dublin because that city seemed to me the centre of paralysis," CJ, 31/ ST, 83) and, secondly, the ethical value of his work residing in its standing exactly as it is ("I cannot alter what I have written", ibid.). A crucial distinction has to be made here so that ethical should not be understood as moral (16). I will make mine Deleuze's words on Spinoza:

L'éthique de Spinoza n'a rien à voir avec une morale, il la conçoit comme une

éthologie, c'est-à-dire comme une composition des vitesses et des lenteurs, des pouvoirs d'affecter et d'être affecté sur ce plan d'immanence. (Deleuze 168)

John McGahern is holding a "nicely polished mirror" for the Irish to have "one good look at themselves" (SL 80), perhaps holding it without the animosity of the young Joyce, but certainly with the same ethical intent. Now the mere word modernism conjures up the notion that the text is self-reflexive without being self-conscious about it. Let it be said that it would be a very naive view to hold that the reader's awareness of the artefact as such is a guarantee for him or her not to be deceived, by the same stroke of good fortune saving him or her the trouble of orienting oneself or the danger of getting lost in the adventures of the narrative. While we tend to identify reflexivity with noise, signifiance and jubilation, it can also threaten the text (like any other narrative intrusion) with what could be the ultimate avatar of didacticism and authorial mastery, the supreme form of tactlessness as graphically formulated by Proust: "Une oeuvre où il y a des théories est comme un objet sur lequel on laisse la marque du prix" (Proust 189).


16. Joyce's intent in this respect was singularly ambiguous as shown by another letter: "I think that people might be willing to pay for the special odour of corruption which, I hope, floats over my stories" (SL 79).



III. The Künstlerroman and healing

 In a first approximation The Barracks could be defined as a Künstlerroman without an artist. As writing it is an adventure but without any logbook consigning the tale journey or "adventures of the narrative" for all to read (17). This adventure remains secret which does not mean mystifying. The tale of a novel, in the making or somewhere on th horizon line of our reading, is something the reader must extricate, not something which going to unravel the novel. To put it in a nutshell, there is nothing teleological about McGahern's narrative, which can be considered just the case with Proust when Marcel redeemed by writing in Le Temps retrouvé. As far as McGahern's novels are concerned this is not so with The Leavetaking, in which the protagonist is left more or less in the same uncertainty as in the beginning. The crucial question of "memory turning into imagination" (L 35, 45) remains unsolved. There is no artistic salvation either in The Pornographer, where writing has not gone beyond making the narrator's former life an compromises impossible. Art does not cure, it might not be exactly the plague but it itself diseased, at least a dangerous drug, a pharmakos (18). Elizabeth Reegan is not "mystagogue [who] postulates a revelation" (19), and finds redemption in the darkest of nights of the soul. Elizabeth Reegan is not supposed ever to be in a position to write he story, at least not in the ordinary sense. She seems to fall short of writing even the mop ordinary of letters to an old friend but her very failure informs us about the nature of writing and the poetics of The Barracks as a process of ever erasing, crossing, keeping silent and yet praising (B 187). What is doomed is the quest for meaning as residing in absolute truths.

We could go as far as saying that John McGahern started precisely where Proust's Recherche ended, that is with the same images. At that point, Marcel, the narrator, is last liberated from the flow of time and able to set the poetics of his work. He fine metaphors for writing in what is still often considered tasks related to the maternal function:


17. Cf. Roland Barthes: "... La Recherche du temps perdu est l'histoire d'une écriture" ("Proust et les noms," in Le degré zéro de l'écriture, Paris: Seuil, 1972, p. 121-94: 121).
18. I am of course using the word with the implications given by Derrida in "La Pharmacie de Platon" (in La Dissémination, Paris: Seuil, 69-198).
19. Barthes R., op. cit., p. 122: "L'histoire qui est racontée par le narrateur [de la Recherche] a donc tous caractères dramatiques dune initiation ; il s'agit d'une véritable mystagogie, articulée en trois moments dialectiques : le désir (le mystagogue postule une révélation), l'échec (il assume les dangers, la nuit, le néant), l'assomption (c'est au comble de l'échec qu'il trouve la victoire)."




À force de coller les uns aux autres ces papiers que Françoise appelait mes paperoles, ils se déchiraient çà et là. Au besoin Françoise ne pourrait-elle pas m'aider à les consolider, de la même façon qu'elle mettait des pièces aux parties usées de ses robes, ou qu'à la fenêtre de la cuisine, en attendant le vitrier comme moi l'imprimeur, elle collait un morceau de journal à la place d'un carreau cassé? (Proust 339)

On the very first page of The Barracks, in its very first sentence, Elizabeth Reegan is shown darning socks, desperately trying to make things hold. Her needle is even ironically "flashing" while darkness is becoming general. The idea that life is endowed with meaning is assaulted, here and elsewhere in the text, although the novel gives no answer in this respect; of much more interest is the relinquishment, the leaving behind, of any adherence to the belief that art redeems and that it can find totally adequate, ready-made metaphors: writing is not a matter of stopping gaps even though a desire to achieve such mending and amending might motivate writing, set it in motion.

While the memory involuntarily uncovered in Le Temps retrouvé had an elating, almost ecstatic effect on Marcel, the memories Elizabeth Reegan digs out from the past arc much more destructive. The anamnesis, the way to heal, seems to leave only ashes of time past, suddenly brought to nought and threatening the present as well. That is, I think, to be related to the fact that Irish society or the novel itself are never shown as labyrinths. This would assume there is a way out and a key to the riddle. Elizabeth Reegan's need for direction is precisely what led her to the stalemate of her symptom. Her desire to embrace sense, safety, sexuality, spirituality in one single stroke – marrying Reegan – was nothing else than the desire of God, of the Other, reduced to the urge for belief: "She had believed she could live for days in happiness here" (B 49, italics mine). Another believer, "an M.Sf." (B 92) or Ms., «Master of Suffering» (ibid.) or aborted manuscript, is conjured up in the same scene: Halliday. I suggest "Ms," therefore stressing the constant displacements of signifiers, obviously because of the acronym, but also because in the Recherche Marcel often mentioned the manuscript we all bear in us: ". . . ce livre essentiel, le seul livre vrai, un grand écrivain n'a pas, dans le sens courant, à l'inventer puisqu'il existe déjà en chacun de nous, mais à le traduire" (Proust 197). Now Halliday too, after falling in love with Elizabeth, "began to believe in everything again" (B 90, italics mine). It is precisely the nothingness Elizabeth was trying to get away from at all costs which surges up in the remembrance. What had been denied, suppressed, rushes forth from the Other Scene to pervade the whole surroundings. So that the fixed image cracks. We could envisage she is in the posture of the artiste manqué, very much like Stephen, especially in Ulysses. In the same scene I quoted (B 49), her first attempt at self



portrayal is associated with immobility (Stephen's stasis in the Portrait, PA 204-205) but this effort at self-control is defeated.

Memories in The Barracks never seem to reach the metaphorical quality they have, indeed should have, in Proust. They rather create a vacuum than the felicitous superposition preceding the liberation from the flow of time. They only bring a partial catharsis allowing Elizabeth Reegan to free herself from conflicting and always crippling feelings, what Spinoza called fluctuatio animi, that which afflicts beings living in confusion, doomed to be the playthings of circumstances (L'Éthique, Oeuvres 487).

 IV. Mourning and joy

 It then could be argued that The Barracks is a Künstlerroman, but one of a very peculiar sort indeed, in which Elizabeth the artist is shown to die on the threshold of creation and the narrator is totally self-effaced behind her suffering, becoming a martyr, that is to say, a witness of her suffering and also of her joy. Elizabeth Reegan escapes from a quest of meaning, a wish to escape the maze, to turn to contemplation, amazement at things, an experience of pure joy (20). When life has further receded from her, Elizabeth wonders at Reegan's energy:

She woke, the gaze that had been directed inwards in rich dream she turned outwards, to wake on the surface of observance, observing Reegan ... . It was the spirit of life declaring itself in defiance of everything, and it sent a thrill of excitement to the marrow of her bones, but she wasn't able to rise and affirm it with her own life. She was excited, she marvelled, but she couldn't understand. (B 192)

 If she cannot herself identify with these contradictory movements, which is not exactly the kinetic form in Stephen's theory, she does not judge, she does not condemn, "non ridere" (Tractatus Politicus, 1, 4, (Oeuvres 920).

In other words the narrator has to experience not death but mourning, the acceptance of an irremediable loss. This experience of mourning is directly linked with the experience of writing, so that ultimately the experience of writing is directly related with the experience of loss. It indeed repeats, almost re-enacts the experience of loss inherent to language (the


20. Spinozian but perhaps inseparable from philosophy as a whole; as Frédéric Regard noted in "James Joyce et William Golding," "[s'étonner] tel est ... le programme de toute la métaphysique occidentale depuis au moins Aristote, qui dans la Métaphysique fait de l'étonnement la source même de la spéculation philosophique [A, 2, 982b]" (Haberer, p. 59-73: 63).




power to denote what is absent is inseparable from the impotence to speak things "directly"), inherent to writing (each time a start from scratch for the writer for whom tradition is a burden, dross), modalities of loss for which the mother figure is the paradigm, only visible in the oscillation of a fort und da. Writing then is partially a means of reparation, making up for the loss of the mother figure, which is precisely the prototype of fascination and of the experience of the neutre according to Blanchot:

Peut-être la puissance de la figure maternelle emprunte-t-elle son éclat à la puissance même de la fascination, et l'on pourrait dire que si la Mère exerce cet attrait fascinant, c'est qu'apparaissant quand l'enfant vit tout entier sous le regard de la fascination, elle concentre en elle tous les pouvoirs de l'enchantement ... . Quiconque est fasciné, ce qu'il voit, il ne le voit pas à proprement parler, mais cela le touche dans une proximité immédiate, cela le saisit et l'accapare, bien que cela le laisse absolument à distance. La fascination est fondamentalement liée à la présence neutre, impersonnelle, le On indéterminé, l'immense Quelqu'un sans figure. (Blanchot 27)

The reparation is itself only partial. I cannot fully develop the problems aroused by this statement but the difficult theoretical questions around mourning and sublimation, Lacan's use and rejection of Klein, have to be at least briefly evoked. Seminal in Klein are the notions that depression and inhibitions are consequences of the desire to destroy the loved object, and that sublimation allows to restore the loved object that had previously been damaged (21). Lacan underlined Klein's (or, more accurately, her followers') relative naiveness in this regard, the belief that any activity such as drawing, dancing could cure and functioned in exactly the same way as "art" (22). It seems to me that while Klein was undoubtedly minimising the question of social recognition for patients' productions to be works of art, Lacan probably underestimated Klein's input in regard to mourning and symbol construction. Anyhow Lacan expressed more satisfyingly Klein's notion, indeed provided the theoretical frame necessary for it not to lapse into psychologism and highlight its ethical edge: "... c'est en fonction du problème éthique que cette sublimation, nous aurons à la juger, en tant que créatrice de dites valeurs, socialement reconnues" (Lacan 129). Klein's way of opting for the mother would also make it difficult to grasp how and why this reparation work depends so heavily on the permanence of the presence of the father figure,


21. See in particular, "Infantile Anxiety-Situations Reflected in a Work of Art and in the Creative Impulse" (Klein, p. 210-218), "Psychogenesis of Manic-Depressive States" (ibid., p. 262-273) and "Love, Guilt and Reparation" (ibid., p. 306-343).
22. "On laisse ainsi complètement de côté ceci ..., à savoir la reconnaissance sociale" (Lacan, p. 128).



however eclipsed the latter might be. This is almost a constant narrative and situational matrix in John McGahern's works that the father has survived the mother, the threat thus becoming that he will swap places with the son, except if he takes a new wife. The short stories Wheels and Gold Watch are indeed exemplary in this respect:

I knew the wheel: fathers become children to their sons who repay the care they got when they were young, and on the edge of dying the fathers become young again; but the luck of a death and a second marriage [with Rose] had released me from the last breaking on this ritual wheel. (Wheels, CS 8)

We should notice the ambiguity of the expression "the luck of a death," which almost inevitably recalls Saint Augustine's considerations on original sin which brought Christ's glorious death, the felix culpa generating the same "luck of a death." If Elizabeth Reegan is insistently shown as a Christ figure on Calvary, her death brings no redemption. The ritual is yet set for writing as the fictional duplication of the death of the mother, artistic work of mourning, impossible atonement with the father (such reconcilement seems to be forced into the end of The Dark), the quest of origins and question of the parents' desire (The Leavetaking). We could think that such an aesthetic pattern seems to he questioned by John McGahern's last novel, Amongst Women, in which the son function is split between two characters, one embodying exile and reticence and the other violent rupture, then amused compliance, while the father – and not the stepmother (as in The Barracks or Sierra Leone) – dies. Whatever the case might be, we can say that Elizabeth Reegan is a secret artist, like Leopold Bloom (it is only slyly suggested in Ulysses that "There is a touch of the artist about old Bloom", U 10, 582-3), Spinozian discreetness being the only joyful weapon against ideology and resentment, the conjugation and refinement of Stephen's all too loud proclamation of "silence, exile and cunning" (PA 247). Elizabeth Reegan, John McGahern said, was "as much a way of seeing as a character" (Kennedy). McGahern's voices might well be, like Bloom, the most Odyssean and Protean characters of all, masks that are themselves invisible, speaking – like Achilles in hiding – from amongst women.


Works cited and abbreviations used


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KENNEDY E., "Q. & A. with John McGahern", Irish Literary Supplement 3, Spring 1984, p. 40.

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                "Dubliners", in CJ 3137.

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 (réf.  Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines n° 6. Montpellier: Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1995)