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


John McGahern's poetics of excess in The Barracks 

Josiane Paccaud-Huguet (Université Louis Lumière-Lyon 2)


"Christ looked at the water and it blushed ... Not a word wasted": these are Brennan's words of praise for the essay describing the miracle of the marriage feast of Cana written by the Jesuit who got 100 percent in an exam in Oxford (173) (1). Not a word wasted: unlike the ideally minimalist impulse of academic writing, the narrative thrust in McGahern's text is characterised by a poetics – i.e. a deliberate strategy – of excess whose effect will be to destabilise a number of truths about subjective identity, language and narrative. Excess as "différence en plus" (Robert dictionary) informs many layers of reading, ranging from the imaginary dimension to the form in which this text is written, which in the last resort will only be accounted for in the light of the construction of subjective identity and of narrative desire as regcounting and ordering.

 Figures in excess of determination

 As characters, Elizabeth Reegan and her husband are figures in excess of their own reality since they are on the verge of detachment, about to escape – however ironically – from the general claustrophobia and paralysis: Reegan like some tragic, royal figure of disorder (230) and Elizabeth through her identification with Christ's passion "both in sorrow and in ecstasy" (194).

The text offers signals of Elizabeth's eccentric, excessive position – of her oddness in the numbers metonymically associated with her: we are told that no one notices that she'd said eleven Hail Marys in her decade" (33); she says thirteen times tables in order to forget the postgsurgery suffering (121) and on Christmas day, as the family play twentygone,


1. All page references will be to The Barracks, London: Faber and Faber, 1963.




she keeps "the scores on the margins of the radio supplement" (184). The fact that she kept to herself a little roll of money that secured her freedom from the bond(age) of marriage and the patriarchal order(ing) (104) is equally significant of her difference in excess. What is striking is that in each case there is somehow one number too many, which might cast a different light on the nature of Elizabeth's desire for some ordering vision of her life that would allow her to "gather the strewn bits of her life into the one Elizabeth" (72). My argument would be that this "one" which first reads as the one of unity should also be overheard as the one of beginning (2) – Lacan's trait unaire, the enigmatic bar which separates the subject from the void by naming him/her: hence Elizabeth's concern with her name (3) throughout the novel.

That disturbing excess can also be read in the very cells of Elizabeth's suffering body: it is symbolised by the hard cysts in her breast which place her on the margin of life and of all social/religious determination. The fact that during the family ritual of prayer, she puts "her hands to her breasts more than once in awareness of the cysts there" (33) is also symptomatic of her position outside the "magic circle" of religion which has already determined her countrymen's lives and deaths:

The observances they had to keep: if they kept these their afterlife was as surely provided for as toil and marriage and a little luck would provide for the one here on earth. Everything was laid out and certain, no one needed to ask questions, and there was nothing to offer to anyone who stumbled outside its magic circle. ( 123)

 Like her fictional brother, Stephen in Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Elizabeth is a heretic, one of those "eccentrics who could not be coerced" (163): who instead of subjecting herself to the One Truth warranted by the Church, opts for her own religion (123) and for the confrontation with the enigma of her own existence. As she goes through her agony we are told that "she tried never to let the priest close ... . She didn't let him know any of her thoughts ... if her own truth wasn't written within herself she didn't see how it could possibly concern her anyhow" (217). A position which illuminates Elizabeth's exile from the cultural fictions enclosed in the "magic circle" of 112 human realities – these fictions bear the names of "purpose," "meaning," communication."


2. As Jacques Lacan suggests, "le nombre, comme le signifiant, pose toujours la question de son engendrement" (KAUFMAN P., L'apport freudien, Paris: Bordas, 1993, p. 278).
3. See for example p. 8, "her name, her Christian name, Elizabeth, struck her out of the child's appeal" and p. 204: "I am Elizabeth Reegan, and another day of my life is beginning."



What matters in Elizabeth's gradual identification with Christ's passion is that it is related to the question of oneness, with all the ambiguities inherent in this signifier "Christ on the road to Calvary, she on the same road ... both to be joined forever in Oneness" (137). It is surely not accidental either if the problem of Christ's generation – i.e. of original creation – has always been the centre of religious heresies. It involves the enigmatic passage from chaos to humanity, from zero to one: within the Roman Catholic doxa, the mystery of the Holy Trinity which includes the "invention" of Christ gives the latter the mediating position between the inaccessible transcendental order and humanity.

Joyce – who, Lacan claimed, was another heretic just like himself – debunks in Ulysses the religious "certainties" of the Church which has substituted the figure of the Virgin Mary for the actual mystery of generation: "Sur ce mystère, et non sur la madonne que 1'astuce italienne jeta en pature aux foules d'Occident, 1'église est fondée inébranlablement parce que fondée comme le monde, macrog et microcosmes, sur le vide" (quoted by Millot, 87). Stephen muses sarcastically that in order to call Edenville you need to dial 0.0.1 (Tardits, 114). As far as Mc Gahern's novel is concerned, I would argue that it is the position of "the God made flesh in a woman" that fascinates Elizabeth in The Barracks and determines her fantasy of identification as well as her own unconscious desir – her own heresy which might not be unrelated to the artist's own heretic position with regard to creation.

Throughout The Barracks we see her deconstructing the fiction of God as Father/Author/Origin in her own quest for "the one Elizabeth" which would at least grant some significance to her name in the line of generation which is always, as is well known, a shadow-line: hence her desire to count as different although she realises that "she was no different ... . She was no more than a fragment of the same squalid generality" (137). Thus as a critic points out in relation to heresy in Joyce's work, "Le Un hérétique serait à verser plutôt du côté du "un" du trait unaire, imprononçable mais dont le Nom propre, chaque fois qu'il est prononé, manifeste 1'opération"(Tardits, 136) – which explains the otherwise curious remark whereby "her Christian name ... struck at her out of the child's appeal" (8, emphasis mine). It is surely not accidental if she is precisely not that child's biological mother, and if she is attended on her death-bed by one of Reegan's daughters whose name is Una: the very name raises here the question of the marking and the counting of a subject as one – "le marquage d'un "un" au regard de la subjectivité du sujet, de manière qu'il puisse (se) compter" (Kaufman, 459) (4) –, a marking which necessitates an absence – dramatised here by a death.


4. Kaufman goes on to quote Lacan's seminar on Identification which is particularly helpful to account for the relation between Elizabeth's death and the emergence of "Una": "Dans 1'avènement du sujet, it y a également un marquage d'une fonction numérique ... : le trait unaire est donc le signifiant non d'une présence, mais d'une absence effacée" (459).



So much for the dramatic resolution of Elizabeth's fictional fate. My argument will be that there are interesting parallels between this outline and some peculiar characteristics of the text: to put it otherwise, there is a metaphorical relation to be drawn between Elizabeth's subjective positioning in excess of the Transcendental order and its one Truth, and the form in which The Barracks is written.

 Opaque transparency

 McGahern's narrative betrays the positivist determinism on which bourgeois narrative is built, by a number of textual excesses which give the prose its strangely over-polished surface, producing the uncanny effect noted by critics. The expressionist, hyper-realist overtones, curiously reminiscent of the medieval mystery play (5) are subversive in that they undermine the apparent adequacy of word to thing, and encourage the reader to visualise scenes and words with detachment, as images of images instead of stable realities.

It is again in the fictional world of The Barracks that the attentive reader will find a built-in image of this structural pattern in a passage describing Reegan's excessive, mock-obedience to the rules and conventions enforced by Quirke:

No man in his senses would be out cycling on a night like this without grave reason. Good God, Reegan, don't you realise that all rules and regulations yield at a certain point to human discretion? ... No word was lost on the children. They loved this savage mimicry and it frightened them. They heard him laugh fiendishly. Then he repeated Quirke in a high, squeaky voice, the accent so outrageously exaggerated that it no longer resembled anything human. (12-13)

 Similarly McGahern's realism repeats the rules of the genre as if to denaturalise the narrative act and its medium, language. I would suggest that Reegan's outrageous exaggeration when


5. Hyper-realism is an aesthetic movement derived from the visual arts: "école de peinture issue des Etats-Unis, qui privilégie les procédés 1iés aux illusionnismes figuratifs, en s'inspirant notamment des effets des procédés photographiques" (Robert dictionary); according to Jean-François Lyotard the painter's task "ne consiste pas du tout a créer un objet, pas du tout à interpréter la nature, pas du tout à faire voir 1'invisible; au contraire dans 1'hyper-réalisme il ne fait que répliquer le plus visible, le moins naturel (photos, affiches) et le déjà donné ... . Ce qui est athlétique et huilé dans notre production industrielle moderne et dans la production hyperréaliste, c'est 1'objet, la caravane et la photo de la caravane et la peinture de la caravane sur photo." (Lyotard, Des dispositifs pulsionnels, p. 112 – quoted by Robert). The privileging of the visual illusion, the strategies of "denaturalisation," the emphasis on the object issued from mass production, the general strategy of duplication all seem to me very helpful to grasp McGahern's aesthetics.




he mimics – i.e. repeats – Quirke so that "it no longer resembled anything human" is a thematic reflection of the de-personalisation at work in McGahern's mode of narrative representation. When a fictional dialogue draws into "a litany of truisms, draining whatever little life the conversation ever had" (26), it is also the illusion of communication that is drained out of life. Another "special odour of corruption" then oozes from the characters aseptised linguistic intercourse, betraying the possibility of an original utterance.

Clearly enough, the purpose of McGahern's realism is not to designate any "petty object" since beyond the window-pane of narrative lies the void. Instead, prominence – a form of linguistic excess – is given to form and tone and it is the very exaggeration which ruins the possibility of a wholly transparent narrative. The fact that Elizabeth wraps her Christmas gifts in yards of paper in order to stimulate her relatives' imagination – however petty the object inside – certainly reflects her creator's narrative strategies. The same applies to Reegan's repeated narratives of the clash with Quirke in which very little actually happened (6). What matters here is not the factual event but the "tones of violence" which produce significance by taking "the violence of a constant theme repeating itself through the evening"(27), a violence itself duplicated by the text's own poetics of excess: the reader's attention is less directed toward the object (here, the referent) than toward the truth of narrative desire as a play of energy, a play all the more derisive and extravagant as its object is by definition lost.

There is something equally caricatural about the somehow excessive omniscience of the novel's impersonal "Arranger" (7), especially in the way it allows the proliferation of focalisers. In the classic realist novel, focalisation – i.e. the rendering of thoughts, perceptions, feelings whose linguistic medium is the structure of Free Indirect Discourse is distributed in function of the rules of verisimilitude and of the "hierarchy" of characters of who counts more than whom. Prominence is often given to the "inner life" of the "chief" character and the shift from one centre of consciousness to another is motivated by changes in space and time. In The Barracks focalisation seems to proliferate arbitrarily, indifferently of these conventions as if the various consciousnesses represented were as many spheres into which the reader is allowed to peer erratically. Thus we are invited into the drunken brain of an unnamed character (178) and at the same time estranged from the


6. "Reegan began to recount the clash; and it had become more extravagant, more comic and vicious since the first telling."(20, emphasis mine); "[he] began to tell his clash with Quirke to Brennan and Mullins, Casey forced to listen again ... . They listened nervously to his frustration and spleen too – to the end of his telling" (26); when another such clash takes place we are told that "Nothing happened ... . Except what happened the last time and the time before and the time before" (67).
7. A term which I borrow from Hugh Kenner's description of the narrative voice in Ulysses (Kenner 70).



consciousness of the chief actors of the scene, Reegan and Mullins – as if the narrative meant to illustrate here one of Elizabeth's relativistic principles – "Each person was a world; and there were so many people" (215). Many of these shifts – or transfocalisations often border on epistemological impossibility: so that, the reader inevitably reflects, a narrative agency shifting so easily and "unnaturally" from one focaliser to the next cannot be referred to anything human, but rather resembles a very mobile camera eye. Thus the narrative ruins any possibility of anthropologizing this excessively unstable arranger which flouts the rules of verisimilitude as if what mattered was simply to cover the void with countless words and images.

The extensive use of Free Indirect Discourse in the focalised passages often serves as an expository device: the pages focalising on Halliday's thought process create an impossible post-mortem point of view since he is narratively dead; yet they cast a new light on the first and second chapters whose apparently purposeless, excessive rituals and verbal repetitions can be read as a sort of compensation for Elizabeth's sense of emptiness after Halliday has opened her eyes on the existential void. Elizabeth's own function as focaliser also serves the narrative economy: it allows the imaginary exploration of human consciousness in the confrontation with that which exceeds ordinary human knowledge, i.e. the unnameable Real (8). As a former nurse left with "no illusion about what would happen" (32), reading herself clinically, dispassionately as a reified body, Elizabeth is the narrative's privileged reflector – "She was Elizabeth Reegan: a woman in her forties: ... with a little time to herself before she'd have to get another meal ready: with a life on her hands that was losing the last vestiges of its purpose and meaning,: with hard cysts within her breast she feared were cancer ..." (49). Here as in many other places, Elizabeth is nothing but an image within an image – certainly not the one, original Elizabeth she is looking for.

Along similar lines the narrative "voice" often sounds like an arbitrary, unmotivated authority reflective of the unnaturalness of the narrative act itself. Many generic statements and narratorial comments thus float on the phenomenal surface of the text, creating the fiction of a voice whose function seems to be to invite the reader to stand from a superior stance – but whose "excessive" knowledge betrays the device, provokes a disagreement between reader and text which makes the writing itself jar. Thus we are told that to the children, "this world of their father and Casey and Elizabeth was as


8. I am using here the now common Lacanian use of the term "real": "Le réel qui pèse sur ]a vie, qui lui donne du poids, passe par la déchirure et par la mort de 1'image. La mort ne se soutient d'aucun reflet, d'aucune image. Elle est ce qui arrive et ce que nous ne pouvons pas imaginer, et c'est d'être impossible à imaginer qu'elle est lourde d'un tel poids de réel pour 1'homme" (VASSE D., Le poids du réel, la souffrance, Paris: Seuil, 1987, p. 40).




unknowable to them as the intolerable world of God to the grown, if they have not dulled their sense of the mystery of life with the business of distractions of the day and hour" (24, my emphasis). Who speaks here, on whose authority – we are simultaneously invited to stand in a position of judgement and mistrust of a narrative voice which so blatantly bares itself in a narrative where we are told repeatedly that nothing can ever be really known about anything.

A vein of metafiction – which comes in excess of representation – similarly runs through the text and destabilises the novel's world of imaginary reference. The unrelatedness of the chief protagonist, her ironic detachment, her liminal position are symptoms of the modern artist's necessary alienation; they create a useful standpoint from which to view the tragic pathos of all fiction, like Reegan's blind passion to liberate himself by working on the bog. The metaphorical bent of Elizabeth's mind as she observes the fruit in the orchard and makes analogies with her own life surely invites the reader to look for metaphorical networks in excess of the mere realist description:

The blackbirds flew clacking between the low branches to peck the skin of the honeycombs for the wasps to burrow in, so that they'd fall light as leaves, just shells of red and yellow in the trodden grass of the orchard – and she was beginning to make vague analogies, to think of herself. (166)

 Real books, Elizabeth learns from Halliday, are less those that describe facts than those one experiences with one's desire, knowing that they are and are not the truth, in excess of factual knowledge therefore, subjected to the play of difference – "You feel and see them with your own life, so much that it becomes real as your own, but it's not yours ... All real lives are profoundly different and profoundly the same ... But there's very few either real books or people" (87). Surely a significant warning for the critical reader too.

The traditional plot of the realist novel is equally subverted by a series of proleptic details which offer an excess of information leaving no doubt about the factual resolution, thus diverting the reader's eyes from the story lines in a narrative which has neither beginning no ending since it is built like a wheel. The function of these advance notices is at least twofold: on the one hand they kill narrative tension and create a Beckettian sense of doom; on the other they direct attention to the textual composition in its material aspect – we are told on the very first page that Elizabeth "had never felt pain in her breasts but the pulse in the side of her head beat like a rocking clock" (8) which will actually be the clock of narrated time since the novel is divided into eight chapters that scrupulously follow the stations of Elizabeth's own passion, the cancer.



The same politics of "excessive" realism characterises the description of trivial objects and scenes which have no less relevance – which count no less – than the moments of intense life in the eyes of the eternal mystery – as one of Reegan's colleagues observes, "One action is as good as the next before God, it's the spirit of the thing counts, that's all" (172): the same applies to things. Here again the emphasis on the trivial serves many purposes: to celebrate the materiality of the simplest object, to subvert the hierarchy in representation of classic realism, to betray the loss and violence of modern experience. Hence the emphasis on the trivial gesture whose mock-ritual repetition is all the significance and joy that can be drawn from this life, on the plain object antithetic of the "decorative" Victorian detail used to mask the cracks of subjective experience – "a plain wooden chair, ... the roughly made clothes-horse" (13), "the table littered with cabbage leaves and the peelings of turnips" (20). No monumental staircases either which a confident character might climb in the assurance of a grand life beginning, but wooden stairs with "the paint completely worn away in the centre of the steps, and even the wood shredding and a little hollowed by years of feet" (38).

A reference must be made here to the Joycean notion of "epiphany": originally, epiphany" is a religious term which denotes a moment of divine revelation. Since Joyce however, the term has had a considerable – albeit mistaken – literary fortune. Joyce began his writing life by jotting down short and apparently meaningless scenes which he called "epiphanies" and which he later integrated in the body of his larger works. What is foremost is that they are moments of luminosity, of shining – Claritas, a term which in the work of Aquinas designates the third quality which the beautiful should possess –, of pure meaningless irradiating presence of the object in the absence of the Thing itself (9). The representation of such moments is one among other aesthetic concerns in The Barracks. In the absence the Divine Truth systematically deconstructed by Elizabeth's critical consciousness, claritas – shiningness – is cast on the trivial object before the stumble into


9. "L'épiphanie, dans les épitres de Saint Paul, est synonyme de parousie. Manifestation du sacré, dans le champ de la perception, elle est révé1ation par monstration du divin qui devient visible, mais aussi bien verbe qui se fait parole... . A la notion d'épiphanie s'associent I'éclat et la luminosité ... . Claritas, ce moment où 1'artiste conçoit 1'image esthétique ... "la stase lumineuse et silencieuse du plaisir esthétique (Joyce) ... C'est à cette place où est appelée la signification paternelle, où elle n'a pu advenir, que se fait jour, et d'une surnaturelle luminosité ... le réel, dans sa radicale étrangeté au symbolique ... . La radiance qui illumine soudainement I'être dans le suspens de ce temps d'arrêt ... que les mystiques désignent d'un oxymore, 1'étemel instant ... [est] l'étalement d'une présence pure, sans au-delà ... . Cette brillance, c'est le réel même qui fulgure, signalant la sous-jacence de la Chose au spectacle du monde. La brillance de la Claritas, c'est le retour dans le réel du vide de la signification phallique ..." (MILLOT C., "epiphanies," in Joyce avec Lacan, éd. J. Aubert Paris: Navarin, 1987 (p. 87-95), p. 93-94.




meaninglessness which is the moment of encounter with the nameless Real. The "shocking vividness" (89) of the colour symbolism, somehow reminiscent of the "excess" of expressionist painting, connotes the lack and loss of a post-Nietzschean world. Landscapes burn with violent shades that metaphorically evoke loss/fall/disappearance, like "the incredibly shiny leaves still on the crawling branches, the last of the scarlet berries devoured in the December snows" (50) or the "pure shining blackness of the currants" before they fall into Elizabeth's hands. Thus the text will subtly convey the violence of the dominant order through some apparently innocent descriptive detail: whether it be religion – "the ghastly blood-red of the Sacred Heart Lamp" (72), or law – the buttons and medallions of Reegan's uniform "polished until they shone like brightnesses," his "viciously" shining baton.

It is also in this light that we need to read Elizabeth's aesthetic experiences: an "explosion of blue and white" shocks her "passing eyes" (97), the "tangle of green and white light" comes "violently to the window," the heavy white frost shines against "the black-red rust of the beech trees" (170) – or this remarkable little scene:

The whiteness was burning rapidly off the fields outside, brilliant and glittering on the short grass is it vanished; and the daffodils that yesterday she had arranged in the white vase on the sill were a wonder of yellowness in the sunshine, the heads massed together above the cold green stems disappearing into the mouth of the vase. (48)

 She remembers with emotion the scarlets and golds of the beautiful church ceremonies (123) while the religious images at home shine with their "bright golds and scarlets" (7). Choosing Elizabeth as focaliser in moments of liminal being, celebrating the thingness of the thing, at a moment of return of the Real in human reality, has important reverberations in terms of textual politics: McGahern's text clearly opts for "un discours qui ne serait pas du semblant" (Lacan) but which strips naked the reality of the void on which human fictions are constructed.

What remains for the artist is the possibility to celebrate the thingness of form/word, to paint the veil in vivid shades, to render the truth of language and narrative as the locus of the Other's discourse, forever enigmatic, in which human subjectivity is inscribed in unexpected places.


 From the point of view of narrative economy, repetition comes in excess of mere representation both on the plane of words and narrative motifs. As Freud and Lacan well saw, it is founded on "une erreur de compte" (Lacan) which is related to the impossibility of



situating the moment of passage from zero to one, of accounting, for human subjectivity (10) and therefore for the origin of language. It is this passage that the Church has masqueraded with its own fictions and which, we have seen, is the focus of Elizabeth's own heresy. As I will attempt to show, narrative and verbal repetition might offer a possible textual resolution to the issue – as well as illuminate the writer's own heresy with respect to language and narrative conventions.

In The Barracks the conventional plot of the bourgeois novel is replaced by a series of repetitions which betray the profound meaninglessness of any concatenation of events, and forbids the reader any access to a position of dominance with respect to a "story-line." Elizabeth's death "repeats" Reegan's loss of his first wife: it is also a blow at any possible "originality" in her own story. The futility of all plot is rendered by the lists of nominalized verbs rendering her daily experience, the effect of nominalization is to drain out the energy of the verb in favour of the static effect of the noun which denotes the result rather than the process. Thus, as another Court Day comes, we are told that Elizabeth "knew the things she had to do: they never varied; and in the morning there'd be the shining of his boots and baton sheath, the scrupulous shining of the silver buttons and badges and whistle chain as on every other court morning" (194). Elizabeth "knows" and so does the reader since the scene has been narrated in detail already, and returns here as if in petrified form – the image of an image as in hyper-realist painting.

The same sense of claustrophobia pervades the repetitions history of' Ireland in the bitterness of the post-revolutionary years where power "always stands up for power ... Examples began to be quoted, old case histories dragged up for it to end as it began –g with nothing proven, no one's convictions altered in any way..." (28). It would however be a critical mistake to believe that it all boils down to the rendering of modern Irish reality. As the very plotlessness of the novel suggests, the significance of repetition exceeds the social/historical/psychological readinga. The Barracks is definitely not a story of what happens nowadays in Ireland: rather, I would suggest, if all meaning is dead g there as anywhere else the living significance can be sought in the process of repetition itself, in terms of libidinal energy: the event repeated, whether petty or primordial, simply constitutes here the primary matter – the raw material g on which the energy releases itself in the "joy" of textual mastery which allows a subject's inscription in the process of writing/reading.


10. "Le trait unaire sera au coeur de la répétition [qui] se fonde, selon 1'expression de Lacan, sur une erreur de compte … A considérer la suite des nombres entiers naturels, il est évident que le zéro est noté pour 0, mais ne peut qu'être compté pour un, sinon la succession est impossible. If s'agit donc de comprendre le marquage d'un "un" au regard de la subjectivité du sujet, de manière qu'il puisse (se) compter" (Kaufman 459).



Many simple gestures in McGahern's novel are presented in terms of rituals – and at times mock-rituals: thus the scene of Reegan preparing to shave – an echo of the first page of Ulysses (43) –, the ceremony of dividing the sweets (97) both repeat and deride the religious ceremony of dividing the Holy Bread. There is more to it than the mere heretic debunking of the religious code, however, and we need to pay more attention to the situational context of these rituals. For example, before the cancer operation Elizabeth feels dressed "as if for some old rite, horribly unreal" (120): needless to say, the operation involves a loss, a separation, a division whose prosaic version is Reegan's shaving (a form of ritualised cutting) and the division of the sweets (11).In each case the ritual itself functions as what Freud has identified as the symbolic work of mourning, founded on repetition as an attempt to make up for the loss of the primordial object and a play on the process of loss itself – as Freud well saw when he analysed his grandson came of Fort-Da and as Lacan then commented:

Cette bobine, ce n'est pas la mère réduite à une petite boule par je ne sais quel jeu digne des Jivaros – c'est un petit quelque chose du sujet qui se détache tout en étant encore bien à lui encore retenu ... répétition, mais non pas du tout celle d'un besoin qui en appellerait au retour de la mère. C'est la répétition du départ de la mère comme cause d'une spaltung dans le sujet – surmontée par le jeu alternatif, fort-da, qui est un ici ou là, et qui ne vise, en son alternance, que d'être fort d'un da, et da d'un fort. (Lacan 1973, 61)

 Similarly, I would argue, the rituals and repetitions in McGahern's text must be read as a form of mastery and compensation for the divisiveness inherent in human subjectivity.

The same applies to the text's representation of fictional dialogue which often appears as repetitions, instead of original utterances guaranteed by a stable source of enunciation. Reegan for example mimics Jude Donovan's joke which is itself a repetition of something heard on the news, the ridiculous point being that Donovan believes he has cracked a new joke (68). Reegan's own "outrageous exaggeration" when he repeats the scene with Quirke betrays the nature of all narrative as repetition, as does Elizabeth's exasperation on hearing one of Casey's stories again – "Good God, how many versions of this same story had she heard before?" (143) The arbitrary repetition of a radio ad chanting in Elizabeth's brain


11. … they cried out with excitement as the ceremony of dividing them began and the offering of their portions to Mrs Casey and then Elizabeth" (97). I am grateful to Jean-Louis Chevalier for underlying that this ceremony involves both a division and the counting of one extra portion offered to the mother substitutes as if in sacrifice.



not only renders the mystification of commercial incantations, but also it denaturalizes the so-called "communicative" function of language, until the very words come alive on the page in their material truth of building blocks and cohesive devices in between gaps in meaning. Along similar lines, Halliday's recurrent question, "What is all this living and dying about anyway?" (94) denotes existential despair, while its repetition functions as a device of narrative binding between the fragments of Elizabeth's and Halliday's represented thought. The very repetition makes the question resonate on a level of significance that certainly exceeds the denotative function of language: it achieves a symbolic dimension more effective than any illustrative anecdote or philosophical musing.

Last but not least, the ritual of prayer condenses many interesting features, with important metafictional reverberations. Prayer, in this novel, is part of the daily rituals at home whose spiritual leader is the father in his patriarchal function. Throughout the text, the prayers are repeated "over and over in their relentless monotony" (33), devoid of any substance except the very shape and ring of the words and sentences: i.e. in their quality of mere signifiers:

The even, religious tones continued in their unvarying monotony... Reegan sang out the prayers as he sang them every evening of their lives and they were answered in chorus back, murmurs and patterns and repetitions that had never assumed light of meaning, as dark as the earth they walked, as habitual as their days. (73)

If, to Elizabeth, prayer sounds like "the highest form of human celebration" (183), this is because it is a verbal artefact which formalises the despair and beauty of the condition of human speech barred from any transcendental authority, and yet compensating for that loss with the mere physical life of the word, just as the memory of the church rituals flows before her mind "with the calm and grace and reassurance of all ritual" (123). Prayer thus comes as a verbal insistence which substitutes itself for the lost object since what characterises human symbolic activity is that "on ne cesse d'engendrer des objets substitutifs" (Kaufman, 355).

What is worthy of note is that despite her nihilistic outlook Elizabeth is highly sensitive to "the beautiful ceremonies of the Holy Week" (194) and to the poetic chanting of the rosary:

The rosary had grown into her life: she'd come to love its words, its rhythm, its repetitions, its confident chanting, its eternal mysteries; what it meant didn't matter, whether it meant anything at all or not it gave the last need of her heart release, the need to praise and celebrate, in which everything rejoiced. (220)



In other words the rosary provides "une épure signifiante" (Lacan) possible only in the absence of meaning. The need to celebrate the joy of words in excess of mere denotation, can be felt on many pages of The Barracks which transcends the matter-of-factness of life into joyful incantation; the very excess in verbal matter can be read as the textual trace of the gap left by the lost object, and the mark of the joy – "j'ouis-sens" – derived from the verbal play trying to cover that gap.

Thus, I would suggest, the narrative compensates for the futility of all story-telling by the cyclical repetitions which are like a promise of eternity in the sense that "nothing would ever change" (60), and a release of textual energy which can be understood in the light of D.H. Lawrence's declaration to the critics who found fault with his repetitious style:

In point of style, fault is often found with the continual, slightly modified repetition. The only answer is that it is natural to the author: and that every natural crisis in emotion or passion or understanding comes from this pulsing, frictional to and fro which works up to culmination. (Women in Love, p. 486)

 The same libidinal energy seems to concentrate in the following passages from The Barracks:

All answers are stupid and questions too," the game continued in her head. "I am pushing the bike because I am pushing because I am pushing because I am pushing. I am going home because I am going home because I am going home. (96)
The train pulled out of the station. Trees, fields, houses, telegraph poles jerking on wires, thorn hedges, cattle, sheep, men, women, horses and sows with their litters started to move across the calm grass; ... trees, fields, houses, telegraph-poles, Elizabeth Reegan, cattle, horses, sheep, "throbbed in her head to the train's rhythm as they flashed past. (112-113)

 It is textually visible here that the list, the series constitutes in itself an order in the absence of any other ordering: the first "I am going home" does not produce the same effect as the third (12). What repetition seeks to do, Lacan has shown, is to allow the emergence of the one – "de faire ressurgir cet unaire primitif ... ce Un inaugural qui permet qu'un ordre soit possible, qu'i1 y ait la possibilité d'un comptage. C'est cette marque qui est à 1'origine de la fonction de


12.  "Même à répéter le même, le même, d'être répété, s'inscrit comme distinct. Voila pourquoi Lacan signale que 1'essence du signifiant c'est la différence. La compulsion de répétition se structure autour d'une perte dans la mesure où ce qui se répète ne coïncide pas avec ce que cela répète. Répéter, c'est ne pas retrouver la même chose" (Kaufman 354).



répétition" (Kaufman 354) – the very mark which the Irish people pray for when they want the names of Matt Talbot and Oliver Plunkett, their religious figures, to "shift past the Blessed mark" so that they might be canonised, i.e. authorised by the Divine Truth (173).

It is this very process that we see at work in the second passage, except that no divine authority interferes here, but simply the narrative authority that orders a name in a series, and this name is nothing but "Elizabeth Reegan": thus the text provides a textual resolution to Elizabeth's desire to find the "one Elizabeth"; here again Lacan will be most useful:

La nature fournit, pour dire le mot, des signifiants, et ces signifiants organisent de façon inaugurale les rapports humains, en donnent la structure et les modèlent avant toute formation d'un sujet qui pense, qui s'y situe – ça compte, c'est compté, et dans ce compte, le comptant, déjà, y est. C'est ensuite seulement que le sujet a à s'y reconnaître, à s'y reconnaître comme comptant. (Lacan 1973, 23)

 We can see here how Elizabeth's proper name functions as that "trait unaire" which comes in the place of th "'thorn hedges" – that connote a tearsing and a cutting –g in the first series. The proper name is literally that which cuts – differentiates – the subject from the mass of other signifiers: it counts as pure difference because unlike common names, it cannot be translated and therefore materialises that which separates the subject as signifier from other signifiers

On doit donc penser le sujet comme produit de 1'articulation entre deux signifiants ... dans ce rapport entre deux signifiants le statut du sujet serait celui d'un reste. Autrement dit, c'est entre "les deux signifiants au niveau de la répétition primitive que s'opère cette perte, cette fonction de 1'objet perdu." C'est là la place centrale de surgissement du sujet. Il est effet de discours. (Kaufman, 354) (13)

 Which is exactly what takes place in that remarkable passage.


13. 1'importance de cette place de premier é1ément de la série qu'on pourrait appeler I'Un, 1'acte inaugural, le trait unaire. Pour Lacan, répéter a pour but de faire ressurgir cet unaire primitif ... ce Un inaugural qui permet qu'un ordre soit possible, qu'il y ait la possibilité d'un comptage. C'est cette marque qui est à 1'origine de la fonction de répétition. Ce Un ne doit pas être confondu avec I'Un unifiant. I1 faut le penser comme I'Un comptable ... le statut paradoxal de ce Un ... plus il rassemble et plus s'efface la diversité des semblances, plus il supporte et incarne la différence comme telle" (Kaufman 354). Kaufman goes on to explain that "ce qui est recherché par le sujet dans ]a répétition, c'est son unicité signifiante, en tant qu'un des tours de ]a répétition, si 1'on peut dire, a marqué le sujet qui se met à répéter puisque cela ne sera jamais plus qu'une répétition mais dans le but de faire ressurgir 1'unaire primitif d'un de ses tours" (459).




But why, one might wonder, the slightly modified repetition? I would suggest that the slight modification is precisely that which differentiates the process from mere mechanical repetition – Freud's "automaton" as opposed to "tuchè" which involves an encounter with the Real: we have seen this last point with the "epiphanies." More precisely it is the textual trace of the creator's innovation which thus comes in excess of the pattern repeated, already known: it is thus the mark of a subject's inscription in a chain already constituted, a process which we have seen at work intra-fictionally with Elizabeth's name. But what is at stake now is as it were, artistic re-nommée, in a way similar to what happens with musical composition – a word itself loaded with significance in The Barracks: our attention is directed to various forms of composition Quirke's conception of the composition of a legal masterpiece (29), a judge's writ which is a composition of stabbing little references and allegories delivered with pompous sarcasm" (67). These last references signal that all discourse, and by implication fictional discourse, is like the composition of a mosaic – with bits and pieces and broken fragments from other discourses.

As far as creative composition is concerned, it seems that the joy of mastery comes in excess of the "reassurance of all ritual" at work for example in The Barracks each time a domestic ritual is repeated. Thus Elizabeth has made herself the mistress of many rituals. at home where one night "repeating itself in the same order of so many nights" is the result of her will to "protect this calm flow of life against Reegan" (103). This kind of mechanical repetition is a primal compulsion whose nature is made more explicit in the light of Casey's bedtime rituals – "He was at least master of these repetitions, they had no power to disturb him, he knew them in his blood; and they ran there like a drug" (24): like the obsessional religious ritual, this kind of repetition fulfils a function of protection against the intrusion of the Real (Kaufman 356). The drug-like effect, however, implies that one might get subjected, dependent on the drug.

Things are different with the slightly modified repetition with which writing/verbal composition is concerned: narrative is by definition repetition, which involves the novelist's mastery of the flow of narrative information and words since narrated time is an ordering, an author-izing and a compensation for the loss inherent in human, mortal time. In that sense narrative repetition is the antidote to the anguishing. sense that life "will end and never repeat itself" (87, emphasis mine). Elizabeth, we have seen, finds joy in the mere verbal composition of prayer – the mindless repetition of the rosary gives "the last need of her heart release, the need to praise and celebrate in which everything rejoiced" (220). Similarly her creator's narrative is pregnant with the energy and life and excess of its Dyonisian celebration of "the human accident." In this sense McGahern's text is



exemplary of the joy of ordering which has rescued modem narrative from silence after the disintegration of the old modes of representation.

To conclude, it will seem justified I hope to return to a book to which The Barracks surely attempts to respond in its own way, Joyce's Ulysses. Bloom listens to someone playing the piano and goes on with his own musical composition which might tell a word or two about what kind of ordering is involved in writing:

Lightly he played a light bright tinkling measure for tripping, ladies, arch and smiling, and for their gallants, gentlemen friends. One: one, one, one, one, one: two, one, three, four.
Sea, wind, leaves, thunder, waters, cows rowing, the cattle-market, cocks, hens don't crow, snakes hissss. There's music everywhere. Ruttledge's door: ee creaking. No, that's noise. Minuet of Don Giovanni he's playing now. Court dresses of all description in castle chambers dancing. Misery. Peasants outside. Green starving faces eating dockleaves. Nice that is. Look: look, look, look, look, look: you look at us.
That's joyful I can feel. Never have written it. Why? My joy is other joy. But both are joys. Yes, joy it must be. (U 231)

What is remarkable here is the transition from the repeated "one" to the emergence of a musical composition g the patterned repetition of "look" as artistic signature and inscription. In a sense Elizabeth Reegan is Bloom's true fictional sister in that she tries to order the vision despite the misery of the "human accident," despite the horror; and The Barracks, in which it is all joyfully written, surely reads as a companion piece both to the "nicely polished looking-glass" of Dubliners and to the masterful composition of Ulysses: both texts use and disrupt the conventions of realism the better to reveal the truth of narrative desire as repetition, duplication and artistic ordering.






JOYCE James, Ulysses, Harmondsworth: Penguin Modern Classics, 1984.

KAUFMAN Pierre, Lapportfieudien, Paris: Bordas, 1993.

KENNER Hugh, Ulysses, Baltimore: the Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.

LACAN Jacques, "La lettre volée" in Ecrits 1, Paris: Seuil, 1966.

– Les Quatre Concepts Fondamentaux de la Psychanalyse, Paris: Seuil, 1973.

LAWRENCE D.H., Women in Love, Farmer, Vasey and Worthen eds, Cambridge: C.U.P., 1987 (1922).

MILLOT Catherine, "Epiphanies," in Joyce avec Lacan, éd. J. Aubert, Paris: Navarin, 1987, p. 87-95.

MCGAHERN John, The Barracks, London: Faber and Faber, 1963.

TARDITS Annie, "Le renard, 1'appensée et 1'hérésie," in Joyce avec Lacan, éd. J.Aubert. Paris: Navarin, 1987, p. 107-158.

VASSE Denis, Le poids du réel, la souffrance, Paris: Seuil, 1987.

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