Psychoanalysis in Ireland—Ireland in Psychoanalysis

Author: Joseph Valente (University of Buffalo)


It would be useful in my view to inaugurate the consideration of “Ireland in Psychoanalysis” by taking a look at what the provocative title phrase might be taken to signify, with what stakes and ramifications. And I thought to begin by puzzling the relationship of this suggested formulation to its chiasmatic (and more accustomed) counterpart, “psychoanalysis in Ireland.” Are we to gloss these rubrics as synonymous? Am I, in addressing the question of Ireland in psychoanalysis, expected to speak to the institutional presence, the methodological variation, and the sociocultural fate of psychoanalysis in Ireland? Left to wonder whether I should be identifying or differentiating these inverse formulae, and on what grounds, I came to imagine a rather unexpected distinction to be immanent in this pair of discursive/disciplinary constructs: psychoanalysis in Ireland is an object of history; Ireland in psychoanalysis is at bottom a literary proposition. The topic of psychoanalysis in Ireland poses relatively straightforward questions of genealogical fact—how psychoanalysis entered Ireland, how it developed there, how widespread was its influence at several points over the last century, and so on—although owing to the privatized nature of clinical practice in psychoanalysis, its focus on individual subjects in confidential settings, it leaves open, if not unanswerable, certain questions of social impact or cultural consequence. Ireland in psychoanalysis, by contrast, does not respect the regime of empirical fact, there being no collective subject, Ireland, who could be, as a literal matter, in psychoanalysis. Ireland in psychoanalysis is rather a symbolic construct, whose reality depends on the allegorical function that attaches, all but automatically, to modern Irish narrative literature. If, as Frederic Jameson famously holds, the postcolonial novel necessarily solicits interpretation as national allegory,[1] the post-Freudian, postcolonial novel—the novel of development or Bildung in particular—necessarily solicits interpretation as a psychoanalytic allegory of a nationalized subjectivity, a psycho-national allegory if you like. This is what it means to put Ireland in psychoanalysis. Such readings not only make available for our understanding the social consequence and cultural impact of psychoanalysis in Ireland; they exert and even embody that impact—they can register, in every sense of the term, that consequence. By placing Ireland in psychoanalysis, such novels can speak to modern Irish history—including the history of psychoanalysis in Ireland—but more than that, they help to make that history, construed as the intimate yet undecidable relationship of event and account. The psycho-national allegories supplied in these texts anticipate, no less than record, the terms of that history’s unfolding, as seen from the perspective of subsequent readings, which at once discover and retroactively confirm these pre-figurations. Through this dialectic of allegorical self-reflection, modern Irish literature will have come to provide both running commentary on and a proleptic version of the psychoanalytic history of Irish life. My test case for this literary historical paradigm will be the most conspicuous psycho-pathological phenomenon of twentieth century Ireland, the episode most clearly indicative of a national need for psychoanalysis: the rolling series of child sex scandals grudgingly detailed in such documents as the Ryan and Murphy reports.


Part I: Psychoanalysis in Ireland

Owing, it is believed, to the overbearing power of the Roman Catholic Church, institutional psychoanalysis came late to Eire, in 1942, three years after the death of Freud, and nearly a half century after his Studies in Hysteria first appeared.[2] And when psychoanalysis finally did arrive on Irish shores, it came in a decidedly Christianized form. The first organized cadre, the Irish Psycho-analytic Association, informally known as the “Monkstown Group,” was headed and indeed dominated by Jonathan Hanaghan, who is said to have “developed an unorthodox charismatic radical Christian approach to psychoanalysis.”[3] Assembling his disciples (not to say his apostles) at his Monkstown home throughout the 1950s and 1960s (there is a weird parallel to the famous seminars of Jacques Lacan in this), Hanaghan apparently lectured every Saturday night on the correspondences between psychoanalytic principle and those found in the New Testament, expounding with particular emphasis upon the prophetic kinship of Sigmund Freud and Jesus Christ. Now as Freud had endeavored—in his manifesto, The Future of an Illusion—to debunk the Messiah and all religious belief as wish-fulfilling fantasy, “near to psychiatric delusions,”[4] it is astonishing to discover that his daughter, Anna Freud, lent her blessing to Hanaghan’s project, declaring “the mantle of my father’s work has fallen on your shoulders.”[5]

Of course it is not unreasonable to suspect Anna Freud of knowing little of Hanaghan’s actual program when she conferred this endorsement, beyond his evidently passionate embrace and general promotion of her father’s “Copernican revolution.” But then perhaps skeptical of papa’s enlightenment confidence that human reason would in good time banish religious belief to extinction, Anna glimpsed in Hanaghan the strategic need for psychoanalysis to engage and even accommodate the capacity of religious “illusion” to fulfill, as her own father said, “the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind,” rather than simply rejecting this function outright.[6] If so, her retrenchment on Sigmund’s secularizing agenda finds an echo (still more astonishingly) in Jacques Lacan’s avant-garde “return to Freud.” In later texts like Discourse to Catholics and The Triumph of Religion, Lacan proclaims the power of what he calls “the one true religion, the Roman one,” to reduce the entirety of existence, including that impossible, inassimilable Real on which it founders, to the dimension of significance, “to secrete meaning to such an extent that we drown in it.”[7] For Lacan, this “triumph of religion” was inscribed from the first in the discourse of Freud himself, a “declared partisan of a resolutely anti-religious Aufklaring,”[8] who nonetheless aroused universalizing religious sentiment by delineating ethical experience “in the very terms with which Judeo-Christian religious experience has historically developed and articulated it.”[9] From this perspective, while the notion of Freud actively transferring his mantle to a priested psychoanalyst like Hanaghan remains all but unthinkable, that his mantle should “fall” upon such shoulders—Anna Freud’s precise formulation—might seem all but inevitable.

In this regard, the very condition that delayed the appearance of psychoanalysis in Ireland also gave it an advanced cast. On the one hand, psychoanalysis in Ireland was belated, owing to the diffuse cultural impediments mounted by an inveterately, overbearingly Catholic Gemeinshaft. On the other hand, the need to tangle with these impediments conditioned the psychoanalysis that did emerge to engage Christianity in a remarkably robust, reciprocal, and thoroughgoing version of the dialectic of imitation and rivalry which, on Lacan’s reading of Freud, tacitly characterized their discursive relationship from the start.

According to Tom Inglis, the Catholic Church in Ireland had long used the privatized space of the confessional to authorize its priests not just as the arbiters of personal and public morality but as ministers of healing, clinicians of body and mind as well as soul, enjoined to treat sexuality— specifically genital sexuality—as both the epicenter of quotidian evil proceeding from original sin, and hence the primary occasion of actual sin, and as the chief psychopathology of everyday life, a “dreadful disease.”[10] The stock phillipic of today’s religious conservatism against the medicalizing, rather than moralizing, of personal errancy, makes it easy to forget the Catholic conservatism of yesteryear, and more lately in Ireland, has sought to consolidate its considerable social power by rendering bio/psycho/medical diagnoses and subsuming them under its spiritual and theological judgment. Witness this passage from the Treatise on the Decalogue, a textbook for seminarians at Maynooth:

Since the confessor acts the part both of a judge and a physician, he ought to become acquainted with the diseases and the offences of the penitent, in order that he may apply suitable remedies and impose due penance; and lest […] the foul viper lurking in the deep recesses of the heart should not venture to put itself forth to view, he ought therefore sometimes to question the penitents on these 6th [7th] commandment, where he suspects they are not altogether pure […]. Has he or she felt unlawful passions? […] [H]ad improper thoughts? […] [A]dorned herself to please men? [...] [U]sed paint, or stript her arms, shoulders, or neck?[11]

Having arrogated a therapeutic role to the priest (suggesting an imitation of psychoanalysis), with an eye to preempting alternative consultation (suggesting rivalry with psychoanalysis), the quoted passage gradually, seamlessly assimilates the earthly “physician” to the divinely sanctioned “judge.” The passage thus reflects a classic strategy of Christian apologetics: to assimilate the other (discourse) and thereby extend its authority, silently, across the entire field.

As the decidedly junior partner in this institutional agon, the “Monkstown Group” chose the prudential course of telescoping their imitation and rivalry with the Church, using their own privatized space of secret disclosure, the psychoanalytic “session,” to affiliate the therapeutic and the salvational, the discourses of psyche and spirit, on an even footing. The constitutive force of primal repression in the formation of the unconscious and thus the subject per se could be seen to double in another dimension the constitutive force of original sin in the formation of “soul” and thus the human being per se. More importantly, sexual rapport as irresoluble problem through which to be worked mirrored, as in a glass brightly, sexuality as incurable “sickness” to be inhibited and quarantined. Although this blended approach might be criticized for anticipating Lacan’s “Triumph of Religion” over psychoanalysis by acceding to a triumph of religion within psychoanalysis, as Joel Goldbach has remarked,[12] the aim and effect of this synthesis might just as easily be seen as poaching upon the outsized power and prestige of Christianity in Ireland in order to preserve a fledgling movement that the Church itself had helped to arrest if not abort. This approach made psychoanalysis in Ireland a less visible but also less endangered alternative to the dominant pietistic mode of self-interrogation.

Ireland in the coming times would certainly tend to vindicate a strategy so conceived. In a second order parallelism between the two discursive formations, as the Catholic Church lost sway over Ireland, thanks to the secularizing forces of expanding media, increased participation in global capitalism, and closer ties with Europe, psychoanalysis in Ireland gained ground and began to flourish, in part by shedding its own Christological accretions and by doing so not in alienating opposition to a predominantly Catholic populace but in synchrony with the people’s own growing secularization. The younger Monkstown contingent joined with other analysts interested in Klein and Winicott as well as Freud, to form the Irish Forum of Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy (IFPP), which begat the Irish Forum for Child and Adolescent Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy (IFCAPP), which begat the Irish Group Analytic Society and then the Irish Council for Psychotherapy. By the 1990s, the latent interest in Jacques Lacan, which had marked the first move beyond Monkstown, spawned the College of Psychoanalysts in Ireland (CPI), a group that brought psychoanalysis in Ireland fully into the European and worldwide community of practitioners.[13]

These developments placed in a most intriguing light perhaps the most parroted libel against the very idea of psychoanalysis in Ireland: the misattribution to Freud himself of the exasperated belief that the Irish could learn nothing from and “could not be helped by psychoanalysis.” When psychoanalysis in Ireland had been nearly as nugatory a phenomenon as this invented Freudian “mutter” asserts, no one and certainly no churchman felt a sufficient urge to say so. That Father Thomas Cahill came to make such a claim in 1995,[14] let alone locate its source in the historically distant author of psychoanalysis itself, suggests not only that the opposite is true (that is, the Irish had clearly learned something from psychoanalysis, to the Church’s chagrin), but that the opposite was intended: that is, Cahill’s statement is really about striking a blow in the Church’s newly recognized rivalry with psychoanalysis by intimating that the latter, on its own account, did not have standing to mount such a rivalry in the first place.

But the year 1995 has an additional layer of importance for this institutional-cum-ideological duel. In 1992 and 1993, the respective sexual affairs of Bishop Casey and Father Michael Cleary came to public awareness along with the offspring of the former.[15] In 1994, the serial child sexual abuser, Father Brendan Smyth, surrendered to the Garda, and early in 1995, a report was sworn out against Father Sean Fortune, opening up the notorious Ferns Scandal.[16] By 1996, Committee of Inquiry into Sexual Abuse at Madonna House, Dublin, released its initial, albeit heavily censored report, implicating the Sisters of Charity in the widening outrage.[17] Father Cahill’s dismissal of psychoanalysis, then, in a book entitled How the Irish Saved Civilization, appeared during a period when institutionalized psychoanalysis had gained a footing in Ireland and was having a discernible effect. More than that, it appeared at just the moment when the Irish Catholic Church, having relegated sexuality to the status of insidious, pernicious necessity, and something to be both rigorously policed and tightly constrained within marital/reproductive bonds, was forced to admit that it could neither police nor constrain sexuality within its own Jansenist walls. With this intersection of events in mind, Cahill’s book can only be seen to have debuted at the very moment it became evident, to anyone who cared to look, that Irish Catholicism could indeed learn some vital lessons from psychoanalysis.

The most basic lesson, of course, is that instead of an incurable “sickness”—the violation of a naturalized bio-ethical norm—sexuality is a radically if problematically constitutive element of subjectivity, indissociable from both the somatic and the spiritual dimensions of experience. As such, it is not to be abjured or straightened out of existence. Any attempt to do so, whether by sacramental dispensation, celibate vows, reproductive imperatives, ascetic regimens, or shaming rituals, serves to fuel, shape, and ultimately turn into another displaced modality of sexual expression. This brings us to the second lesson of psychoanalysis, which has special relevance to the recent troubles of Catholicism in Ireland. The policing of eroticism inevitably becomes an erotic and an eroticizing activity all its own, whether voyeuristic, sadistic, or so on. Having been accorded a nearly absolute because divinely appointed authority, including a pretense of mastery over the vagaries of sexuality itself, certain clerical exponents of these denegated modes of sexual expression—what we might call “operations of the drive under denial”—can wind up eroticizing the sanctified power and the entitled sanctity with which they have been invested. That is to say, even as sanctity is consciously “taken” (in the sense of both “construed” and “appropriated”) as a corollary of sexual renunciation, sexual gratification and sometimes license can be unconsciously taken (again in both senses) as the prerogative of church-endorsed sanctity.

We can see this reflexive turn of the drive in the disavowed jouissance, the enjoyment in disgust, at work in the clergy’s judgment of the perceived sexual delinquency of those under its authority, the brutal disciplining of those marked as sexually corrupted—whether by internment, chastisement, forced labor, stigmatization, mutilation, some combination thereof, or by the implicit encouragement of the wider populace to engage in cognate acts of sanctimonious abuse from ostracism to confinement to abandonment. We see this sort of reflexive turn as well in individual cleric’s grooming for sexual seduction, trauma, and abuse of those minors and spiritual dependents under their tutelage. Finally, we see just this sort of reflexive turn illustrated in Sebastian Barry’s tour de force, The Secret Scripture, where “savage” nuns beat the sexual errancy out of the poorer girls “with every ounce of energy in their own bodies,” a practice that just exudes exorbitant libidinal release.[18]

Now the practice of psychoanalysis encountered an analogous problem concerning the protocols of treatment, and, in another lesson for the church to heed, the therapeutic community confronted head on the structural nature of the hazards in question. The dynamics of transference and counter-transference in particular were understood to comprise such a volatile, eroticized mix of power, mastery, knowledge, intimacy, and affective identification that a discourse programmed to interrogate and demystify taboos self-imposed one of its own, against any social, let alone sexual, commerce between therapist and patient. Unlike the church, which left its governance of pastoral relationships to its general moral precepts and rules of conduct, psychoanalysis addressed the peculiar pressure of the therapeutic relationship and tailored to it a specific professional taboo—one that the “physicians” of the church in their respective offices (their “cures” as they called them) may be said to have grievously transgressed.

In large part, this divergence between entrenched therapeutic policy and aberrant clerical practice is fostered or conditioned by the opposed postures that Catholicism and psychoanalysis bear toward the big Other. Like many faiths, the Irish Catholic church conceives the big Other as plenary, willful, and perfectly self-consistent. This is a big Other of demand rather than desire, which implies lack—in other words, a sovereign, not a subject. We should not allow the familial rhetoric endemic to the monotheistic and Trinitarian traditions of Judaism and Christianity to confuse us on this point. The biblical God, unlike the father, does not bear the phallus in any sense, being himself the Word before all signification, the latter arriving only as a substitute for a lack. Accordingly, the church concerns itself with how the penitent—subject of such lack par excellence—might conform his or her volition to the will of God, as defined or projected by Catholic dogma. The immediate goal is to close the gap between his or her (sexually contoured) desires and the demand of the almighty Other. The Judeo-Christian name for that gap is precisely sin (separation from God). The ultimate aim is for the penitent to fashion him or herself as an instrument of the infinite yet doctrinally reified will of God. As Žižek remarks, such self-instrumentalization in the service of the Other is a classically “perverse position,”[19] but so far as the church is concerned, the only danger in this process is that the penitent will fail to objectify the self sufficiently and will succumb instead to the incurable “sickness” rooted in the sexual drive.

In this respect, the role of the clergy is to mediate this sexual exercise, first by representing the always equivocal signifier of divine purpose as the master signified, the revealed Word; and in so doing, second, by embodying, in their very estate as sensual or “pathic” (in the Kantian sense) subjects, self-instruments of the sovereign demand whose voice they accordingly become. They are thereby presumed to model the success of the spiritual exercise to which they summon their charges, to stand as living proof of its possible achievement. This mediating role constitutes the main warrant for a clerical exceptionalism endemic to the Roman church, and it is from this exceptionalism, in turn, that the exceptionalism of the Irish people-nation, as “that holiest land,” in some measure derives.

At the same time, this pastoral role contains an all-too-obvious danger that typically passes unrecognized due to the profound, overdetermined transference binding priest and penitent in their triangulated relationship to deity. In representing the always equivocal signifier of divine purpose, in channeling the already projected will of God, the Catholic clergy occupy an equivocal position of their own, wherein the ineluctably phantasmatic aspect of religious faith can slip unnoticed into the religious, faith-based legitimation of personal fantasy. A clerical exceptionalism predicated upon an identification with the canons of sanctity proceeding from the big Other can easily induce a sense of exception from the binding force of those very canons. Beginning with Freud’s Totem and Taboo and continuing in the ethics of Lacan and Žižek, one lesson of psychoanalysis has been the close psychic kinship between the father of the law and the father beyond the law, the père du jouir.[20]

In this immixing of the Imaginary and the Symbolic functions, the different vectors of the church fathers’ (and brothers’ and sisters’) desire as subjects of the Other can inform and/or distort, infuse and/or contaminate, supplement and/or supplant the particular expressions of the sovereign demand they supposedly relay as deputies of that Other. Put another way, in placing themselves wholly, perversely, at the disposal of the Other, as the instrument of Its demand, members of the clerical order run the risk of enlisting the Other, consciously or unconsciously, as an instrument of their own occluded desire. By extension—and here is where the real danger lies—they risk positioning their penitents and pastoral charges as instrumental objects of their own disavowed wishes under color of rendering them instruments of God’s will. What is more, the surpassing authority they enjoy for the faithful, as models of just such a successful concurrence with God’s will, can create a similar confusion on the part of their spiritual followers and dependents. So great is this moral prestige that the church’s sexual abuse and exploitation of its wards could be obfuscated and disavowed under the rubric of a pastoral care enacted “in the best interest of the child,” “conducive to their spiritual development,” and in accordance with “the will of God.” This was made all the more likely in that the affective and libidinal energies of these same wards (who are not, after all, empty vessels) were first demonized as “dreadful disease” only to be tapped and sometimes licensed as sources of clerical pleasure—in other words, when their acknowledged duties to God were subtly repurposed and reprogrammed as loyalty, affection, and attachment to God’s earthly legatees.

Psychoanalysis, by contrast, construes the big Other to admit of multiple stand-ins—the mother, the father, the law, the analyst, the divine, language, among others—but to exist nowhere outside of these various instantiations, at once irreducible to and inseparable from them. Envisaged along these lines, the Other can only be inconsistent, lacking, in “want” of the subject to fill out its design and afford it a functional coherence. On the one hand, this primordial “lack in the Other,” qua language, determines the signifier as an equivocal, undecidable agency, the metonymic vehicle of a profoundly labile desire. On the other hand, and on the same logic, this primordial lack affords authorized surrogates of the Other the opportunity to determine, directly or indirectly, the meaning that the signifiers hold for their individual subjects, to reduce, at least provisionally, the mobility and contingency of desire to the stability and clarity of demand. The dynamics of transference, without which an analysis cannot get traction, begins with the analysand placing the analyst in just this position, as the “subject who knows,” to whom powerful emotions attach, the figure who can answer the perennial question that the analysand addresses to the Other, “che vois” (what would you of me). But this analytic necessity is also why the analyst must remain especially vigilant against trading upon her presumptive mastery, whether for ostensible therapeutic reasons, such as offering herself as a pattern for the patient’s infirm ego, or for more personal reasons, such as entertaining companionable or intimate relations with the patient. Psychically, the consolidation of the demand of the Other entails a fixation for the subject, an inability, in Bruce Fink’s phrase, to “dialectize” the terms of his or her enjoyment in order to change and grow.[21] Politically, the consolidation of the demand of the Other entails the subjugation of the subject, the mortgaging of its unconscious investments to an outside force or figure. Lacan speaks to this dual impasse with perhaps his most famous injunction: “Do not give ground on your desire.”[22] He does not intend that no one should give in on the object or aim of desire, one’s “desire-for.” Quite the contrary. What Lacan is insisting upon is not a tenacity of content—as in “Don’t give up the Oreos for Lent”—but on a certain form of engagement with the world, a flexible, open-ended form of engagement that a properly nurtured desire sustains: “Don’t fixate. Don’t obsess. Don’t ossify.”

In a recent interview with The Paris Review, Adam Phillips makes essentially the same point. The aim of psychoanalysis, by Phillips’ lights, is not to “reduce appetite” through the ruses of self-knowledge, but rather “the recovery of appetite” through a regime of self-unlearning and self-undoing.[23] The implications for the analyst conducting such a program are profound and make for a stark contrast with the pastoral and confessional practices characteristic of the Irish Catholic Church. To whit: whereas the Irish clergy typically enjoined a renunciation of desire, specifically sexual desire, in putative obedience to the sovereign demand of an almighty Other, the analyst facilitates a break with the tyranny of the Other’s perceived demand in favor of an often internally anxious reckoning with the subject’s desire—not a specifically but an unstably sexual desire, what Bruce Fink calls “desirousness.”[24]

In The Metastases of Enjoyment, Slavoj Žižek attributes to sexuality “a universal surplus—the capacity of sexuality to overflow the entire field of human experience so that everything, from eating to excretion, from beating up one’s fellow man (or getting beaten up by him) to the exercise of power, can acquire a sexual connotation.”[25] This is not, Žižek notes, “a sign of its preponderance […] but of a certain structural faultiness: sexuality strives outwards and overflows the adjoining domain precisely because it cannot find satisfaction in itself, because it never attains its goal.” In keeping with this orthodox (I think) psychoanalytic perspective, one could say that there is no sexuality “in itself,” no proper or essential satisfaction, and that its goal is ever elsewhere than proposed, not so much unattained or unattainable as missing in its apparent attainment. It turns out that Lacan’s scandalous formulation, “il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel,”[26] refers not only to the impossibility of relationship or congress across genders (as it is often heard) or between individuals, but between any given cathexis and its cathected. Importantly, this coincidence of structural faultiness and universal surplus does not distinguish sexuality from the general economy of desire, which likewise works by way of slippage in both senses of the term: a glitch in each signifier effects a bleeding or association among signifiers. But the persistent and conspicuous force of the coincidence does distinguish sexuality within this general economy, does render sexuality exemplary of the whole, a particular operation of desire that encapsulates its nature.

Precisely because the universal surplus of sexuality emerges out of a structural faultiness, the appetites it occasions do not simply unfold automatically (as Žižek seems to intimate), but are rather always available as a prompt for different courses of action—for example, cultivation/proliferation (Adam Phillips’s recommendation) or canalization/eradication (Maynooth’s dictate). They are, in other words, a matter of ethos. And herein lies a main source of the oft-noted antagonism between certain conservative strains of the western religious tradition and the wide variety of sexual expression. The constituent belief system—whether Jewish, Muslim, or Christian—presents the moral regulation structuring sexual experience as having issued univocally and categorically from the Other. But psychoanalysis enables us to take a reverse view: sexuality must be subordinated—in the sense of both controlled and depreciated—in order for faith communities to sustain a unilateral construction of and commitment to the Other, hence for the Other to legislate in an effectively (projectively) univocal manner, which is to say for an utterly consistent Other to enjoy a secure existence in the minds of humankind.

Treated as a priority, sexuality would inevitably emerge as a competitive mode of ecstasy, even transcendence, a privileged dimension of experience over which religion wishes to claim exclusive propriety and by which those claims are affectively undergirded. The perverse jouissance that Lacan identifies in Saint Theresa of Avilas’s contemplation of divine truth resides partly in her belief that it is the one and only truth that she is contemplating, that such contemplation is the sole legitimate path to the divine, and that the jouissance she takes has no other experiential source.[27] Perhaps more importantly, because sexuality is an inherently ex-orbit-ant appetite—exorbitant in not coinciding with, and therefore perpetually exceeding, its own orbit—even its moderate desublimation might be reasonably felt to menace that totalized vision of the proper and the improper supposedly emanating from a universal standard/bearer of value and judgment. As Žižek writes, “sexuality can function as a co-sense that supplements the desexualized neutral meaning” of any given signifier,[28] and the ambiguity or “innuendo” it can inject as a result has a potent and threatening effect on an Other whose own signifiers and their respective valences are at once sovereign but shrouded, categorical but controvertible, ostensibly univocal but radically interpretable—an Other whose demands accordingly amount, in Žižek’s elegant phrase, to a “fragile absolute.”[29] In investing manifold, interlinked, and ever shifting objects and associations, libidinal energy opens up different scales and gradations of value, disparate constructions of the supreme good, and, with them, uncertainty as to the true nature or exclusive authority of any given version of the divine Other. The collective repression of sexuality on the part of these faith communities, I would submit, speaks strongly, if indirectly, to a will to repress this sort of all-encompassing ontotheological doubt.

In defense of this theory, I would adduce the fact that those religious sects most absolutist in belief and most thoroughgoing in their regulation of every aspect, activity and stirring of daily life—diet, dress, ritual, and so on—also tend to be the most intolerant of sexual difference, dissidence, or self-determination. These are the fundamentalisms—defined as the comprehensive marriage of uncritical belief and unquestioning obedience—and they seem to apprehend in the metonymic play of sexual desire a deeper threat to the totalizing mandate they espouse than even the biblically designated “root of all evil,” the “love of money.” And not without reason. The love of money posits a rival good or idol as the anchor of a cleanly opposed symbolic order, as memorialized in the scriptural phrase, “Ye cannot serve both God and mammon.”[30] The volatile adhesiveness of an uncorseted sexuality, by contrast, entrenches no such specific object or idol to anchor the symbolic order, but infuses every symbolic motif, element, object—every signifier in fine—with an alternative implication or energy. “Sexuality,” Žižek writes, “is characterized by the universal capacity to provide the metaphorical meaning or innuendo of any activity or object—any element including the most abstract […] can be experienced as alluding to that.”[31] Whereas mammon confronts religious fundamentalism with an antagonistic but similarly consistent Other, an ascendant sexuality threatens to vitiate the very consistency of the prevailing Other.

For a number of reasons—religious persecution during the time of the Penal Laws, the fractiously sectarian structure of colonialism and metrocolonialism in Ireland, the Calvinist attitudes of certain elements within the settler community, the agrarian code of familialism, which answered economic scarcity with sexual self-denial (the theme of Kavanagh’s The Great Hunger)—Ireland developed a distinctively fundamentalist brand of Roman Catholicism, with the attendant conjunction, if not confusion, of overwhelming piety and oppressive sexual regulation. In the decades following independence, this conflation became the site of intense ethno-national identification and was consolidated in law (the Constitution of 1937), in actual governance (the partnership of the Church and the state apparatus), and in the ideology of the everyday (the imperialist bad faith of the claim “Home Rule is Rome rule” does not vitiate its truth value). DeValera’s Ireland constituted a virtual theocracy, of which the commingling of clerical and Irish pietistic exceptionalism was a salient manifestation. Most pertinently for our purposes, a theocracy brings to consummation the totalizing mandate of the religious fundamentalism it enforces, in that a theocracy, by its very nature, looks to align church, state, and civil society in a single airtight compulsory vision of the Other and in the policing of full compliance with Its projected demand.

Indeed, well-known abuse survivor and advocate Colm O’Gorman lays the entire scandal at the doorstep of theocracy.[32] Here is why he may be right. In Ireland, of course, the clergy represented the interface joining church precept and state policy across a wide range of cultural enactments. Given the finely calibrated hierarchy of church organization, its circumambient role in the social welfare and educational apparatus of an impoverished nation, and the extremely localized (not to say personalized) exercise of power within the ranks of the clergy and between the clergy and the laity, Irish theocracy functioned as a network of Foucaultian micro-power, its top-down impetus at once diffused and enhanced via a dense mesh of disciplinary, tutelary, and pedagogical relationships. Like any such microcircuit, on Foucault’s own account, this one does not operate on a strictly repressive basis (all appearances to the contrary) but through an alternating and symbiotic current of constraint and provocation, the inhibition and implantation of desire. The underlying condition of the Irish case, however, bore distinctive consequences. Being at once institutionally ponderous and well-integrated (Catholic after all), yet embodying a grass roots fundamentalism, this network of spiritual authority was specifically designed a) to interdict any avenue of unapproved release for the very libidinal energies it aroused–in-interdicting; b) to domesticate and desexualize any approved release for these energies, or to tie approval to desexualization; so as c) to prevent the claim of supreme moral good ascribed to the transcendent Other from being infiltrated, contaminated, or even eclipsed by alternative desiderata and their supporting values underwritten by powerful erotic overtones or connotations.

The same logic that makes this defense of absolutes against the subversive displacements of sexuality necessary from a fundamentalist point of view also makes such a defense counterproductive. For in the systematic attempt to strip the unruly erotic longings from their prospective symbolic object, the regulatory machinery of the Irish church could not but fuel the underlying, zero degree aim of the drive: to reproduce itself endlessly by circling back upon itself. In this instance, the reflexive arc of the drive is driven back, so to speak, on the primary sites of its disciplinary constraint and purgation.[33] In seeking to jealously neutralize sexuality as a potential vehicle of alternative values, the church-state complex in Ireland wound up saturating the sites and agencies of ecclesiastical regulation—the orphanages, industrial schools, sacristies, convents, rectories, laundries, “homes” and others—with all of the libidinal energy it sought to tame. On any psychoanalytic reading, the actual manifestation of this recursive libidinal energy extended well beyond the illicit romances of popular bishops or the serial sexual abuses of rogue priests. Rather, it extends along a continuum that comprises not only these overt sexual acts, but an entire repertoire of avid punitive cruelty whose erotic undercurrents cannot be ignored. Indeed, these are cruelties often associated with the most infamous sexual predators: the corporal punishment administered to children of industrial schools and the inmates of Magdalen laundries; the long-term forced imprisonment of these same populations, with mandatory labor superadded; forced childbirth, even following rape; the extravagant shaming and ostracism of “wayward” girls; the sexual exploitation of minors of both sexes; the mistreatment of the offspring of unsanctioned couplings—an entire jouissance of coercion enacted under the sign of moral correction. Beyond shocking the conscience, these outrages all but defy explanation, especially if one takes seriously, as any psychoanalytic account must, the perpetrators’ own claims to godliness.

The answer to this conundrum, I contend, is to find the explanation in those claims, those aspirations, to godliness. Having rerouted and confined eros within the sacred precincts of divine rule (so that they would not lend support to any competing god or ideal) the Irish church empowered certain of its clergy to eroticize that very rule as reflected in themselves and enabled a certain conflation of the clergy’s service to the transcendental Other or master, the mastery the clergy asserts over youthful others in that service, and the “services” those youthful others render the clergy. Sanctified service to God, a moral code, and the church itself comes to bear an unconscious sexual charge; eroticized practices of indulgence or chastisement, overt or veiled, direct or displaced, come to be unconsciously sanctified. The always equivocal signifiers of sexual attraction—appeal, seduction, danger, and so on—are readily confounded with the always equivocal signifiers of divine sanction and prohibition, blessing and disapproval. As a result—and this is crucial—the totalizing mastery that the church sought to exert in the name and as an instrument of the Other, a mastery sealed by the rigorous confinement of sexuality, readily translates into a far more localized mastery exerted by individual clergy, clerical orders, and institutions upon their minor, dependent wards, a mastery sealed at times by a sexualized control over those wards.

As a coda to “Psychoanalysis in Ireland,” I want to clarify certain facets of the argument by contrasting my approach with a recent psychoanalytic gloss on the church scandals undertaken by Slavoj Žižek in Welcome to the Desert of the Real. In Žižek’s synoptic analysis of the “sexual abuse by priests […] from Austria to Italy to Ireland to the U.S.,” he is concerned to debunk the celibacy thesis, the prevailing wisdom “that if the priests’ sexual urges do not find legitimate outlet, they have to explode in a pathological way.”[34] For Žižek, the “abuse of children is the Church’s internal problem” that is “an inherent product of its very institutional symbolic organization.”[35] As a result, “allowing priests to marry would not solve anything, we would not get priests doing their job without harassing young boys,” since pedophilia is generated by the Catholic institution of priesthood as its “inherent transgression.”[36]

Without defending the celibacy thesis in any way, what I find peculiar in Zizek’s account is the wholesale omission of sexuality as a frame of reference, let alone an explanatory factor. Pedophilia is permitted by the “obscene unwritten rules” of the Catholic Church and priests evidently go about “harassing young boys” simply because they can.[37] I wonder if this rather startling omission does not stem from Žižek’s refusal to take serious note of the ethno-cultural context that configure the sexual outrages in different ways from case to case, his strange willingness to take Roman Catholicism on its own terms as a universal church, rather than an articulated series of regional and/or national traditions. As far back as Freud’s considered rejection of a universal symbolism in The Interpretation of Dreams, psychoanalysis has premised its clinical practice on the essential nature of contingency in unconscious fantasy formation and the vicissitudes of the drive. By treating the Catholic Church as a self-contained monolith, whose two levels, official and unwritten, always complement one another in the end, Žižek largely eliminates the contingencies of context in favor of a self-determining institutional script.

A “psychoanalysis in Ireland” approach to the church scandals has, I hope, revealed the diacritical significance of such contingencies. In Ireland, unlike “Australia and Italy and the U.S.,” the scandals were not limited to priests and prelates but have implicated church personnel of all orders and ranks, including the laity, and, owing to the church’s theocratic ascendancy, have enveloped a singularly wide variety of institutional venues. In Ireland, the scandals were not limited to, nor even necessarily centered upon, the pedophilic “harassing of young boys,” but have encompassed a medley of abusive interventions—pastoral, pedagogical, disciplinary, and retributive—all unconsciously stoked by perverse erotic investment, such as the desire to instrumentalize oneself for the Other. (By the way, up to half the priested pedophiles in the Ferns scandal molested young girls).[38] In Ireland, finally, owing to a fundamentalist Catholicism marginal in “Australia, Italy, and the U.S.,” the avowed sexual abstinence of the priestly caste figured less saliently as an engine of the crisis than a sexual repression all too passionately enjoined upon the culture at large. Taken together, these items strenuously attest that in Ireland, the sex scandals cannot have been, as Žižek says, “a problem internal to the church,” for the simple reason that no reliable border existed between the interior and the exterior of the Irish church. To speak of the moral authority enjoyed by the church in Ireland is to speak, from a psychoanalytic perspective, of an ethno-national identification with the church that effectively obliterates any clean distinction between the sectarian figure and the broader social ground. Catholic theocracy in Ireland may not have meant that the church and state or church and civil society were coextensive, but it did mean the boundary between them was blurry, porous, and open to manipulation. The joint participation of the local parishes, town councils, and law enforcement in the running of the industrial schools, for example, demonstrates this point, as does the willingness of national politicians, in the aftermath of several revelations and reports, to protect rather than fully expose or denounce church dealings, and as does the enforcement of the eighth amendment to the constitution in cases of child rape.

Žižek is correct in some degree to pin the sexual abuse to the “church’s institutional symbolic organization.” But in Ireland that symbolic organization has historically not only affected or inflected the larger Symbolic Order; it contrived to realign that order with itself. Indeed, it deliberately labored to recreate that Order in its own image, fostering a collective identification with the church that was powerful enough to exculpate crimes committed under its aegis.

Thus understood, the church’s position is subject to psychoanalytic critique on at least two main grounds, which I have tried to elaborate here. The more obvious, methodological critique sustains the received sense of a certain parallelism/rivalry between orthodox Catholic and psychoanalytic domains, ministrations to the soul and the psyche, respectively (“psyche,” of course, stems from the Greek “for soul”). In its project of spiritual “healing,” as the Maynooth guide puts it, church officers egregiously transgress what psychoanalysis would frame as the ethics of transference and countertransference. That is to say, the Irish church’s derelictions would be familiar to psychoanalysis as variants of certain pitfalls endemic to its own practices.

The emulous parallelism between the church and psychoanalysis in Ireland collapses, however, at the second, deeper level of critique: the ontotheological. The fundamentalist brand of Catholicism established in Ireland brings everything under an all-encompassing theological principal of spiritual universality: one supreme being, one proper standard of morality, one fully integrated belief/value system, one true church, one authoritative institutional hierarchy, one set of loyalties to one Church/State complex. It is in defense of this overriding principle that sexuality must, whatever the socioeconomic conditions of the moment, be somehow confined, both as a competing mode of gratification, self-abandon, or jouissance, and as an associational catalyst to other alternative forms of pleasure, well-being, and social value. Conversely, the most striking feature of Freud’s work, the ur-text of psychoanalysis, is how he allows the vicissitudes of the drive that he observes in his cases to mutate and ramify the initial and even the intermediate conceptual paradigms under which the cases themselves unfold. We can see this revisionist mindset by reading across his oeuvre, and also within individual studies like The Three Essays on Sexuality, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, and The Rat Man. Along lines exactly the inverse of religious fundamentalism, Freud fractures his own theoretical formulation in order to remain faithful to the event of sexual desire, to the endless phantasmatic variations it presents.

Now it may appear from this last contrast that psychoanalysis has less of a dispute with fundamentalist Catholicism than a dispute with ontotheology as such. If so, what I have outlined here might seem a sublated philosophical version of the aggressive secularism Freud espoused in The Future of an Illusion. But this would be, I think, to adopt an overly narrow view of theological possibility. After all, the itinerary of Freud’s thought, and that of psychoanalytic inquiry in general, remains magnetized by a clutch of theoretical constructs—structurally, the unconscious; developmentally, the Oedipus/castration complex; ontologically, enjoyment as substance of being—all of which, failing as they must the test of controvertibility, function as articles of belief. To be sure, these constructs subsist in multiple and shifting dimensions and support multiple and evolving interpretations as a result of their susceptibility to empirical observation and evidentiary logic. Nevertheless, these constructs possess a certain fixity as underlying frames of reference amid all their permutations of content, a combination that affirms the intrinsically and permanently unknowable structure of its object of analysis. On this score, psychoanalysis displays a family resemblance to the strain of religious thought called “negative theology,” which has enjoyed a second, modern afterlife in influencing post-Nietzschean continental philosophy. Negative theology upholds the simultaneous necessity of seeking after divine truth through conceptual modeling and the impossibility of framing intelligible models answerable to the transcendent, literally unthinkable reality they address.

Concerning their respective objects, God and the drive, negative theology and psychoanalysis share a cross-disciplinary intellectual ethos that Freud couched as “analysis interminable.”[39] The tools of analysis derive from the object of analysis as its imperfect image or secondary representation and so can never compass that object fully, though they must be assiduously sharpened, relentlessly annealed, and perpetually refined in the attempt to do so. The crucial, if paradoxical, implication is that even as one aspires to ever greater vigilance in the elaboration of one’s approach, one is acknowledging and, more importantly, embracing a certain absence of control or mastery. (Thus, Jean Laplanche notes that the evolution of Freud’s thought moved inexorably toward “the idea that we are acted upon by a set of obscure causes,”[40] lighting the way unto darkness.) From this perspective, negative theology and psychoanalysis alike stand in stark opposition to religious fundamentalism per se, which almost by definition refuses to heed one of Freud’s rare yet oft-expressed moral axioms: “One must learn to bear with his portion of uncertainty.”[41] Still more pertinently for us, negative theology and psychoanalysis throw into sharp relief the “perverse position” that a fundamentalist hierarchy, like the Irish Catholic Church, holds with respect to the Other. Even as church officers and clergy offer themselves up as instruments of divine will, to which they accord all control over human affairs, they busily institute and enforce all manner of control over the faithful on behalf of their positive, and therefore necessarily imaginary, projection of divinity. That is, they cede all mastery to the Other in order to reclaim said mastery redoubled and in their own right. The totalizing vision is an active expression of this recursive will to control; the sweeping antagonism toward sexual latitude is its active mode of self-defense; and the sex scandals themselves, broadly construed, are one of its more sinister manifestations.

With this in mind, we might look to reassess Jonathan Hanaghan’s seemingly bizarre identification of Freud with Christ. Instead of seeing this gambit as a way of appropriating psychoanalysis to the truth of Catholicism, we might see it as a means of injecting Catholicism with the constructive doubt of psychoanalysis. Perhaps it was less a way of enshrining Freud as a figure of religious doxa than of denominating Christ a pre-figure of psychoanalytic para-dox, a man who left behind universal laws, but laws (and only two, love God/love your neighbor[42]) which like the Freudian principles of eros and thanatos are as interpretable as eternity is long.


Part II: Ireland in Psychoanalysis

Among the many contributions of Frederic Jameson to literary and cultural studies, one of the more significant was his crystallization of historicism’s enduring debt to psychoanalysis, in his conceit of a “political unconscious.”[43] This is the notion that the socio-ideological conditions of a text’s production remain inaccessible to literary representation and yet are registered there through motivated strategies of figural displacement or concealment. I would propose that Jameson’s commentary on the postcolonial novel, invoked at the outset of my remarks, suggests that this proposition is fully reversible, that literature forms an unconscious reserve of history, what Fink calls the “censored chapters” of an approved narrative—in this case, a collective or ethnonational script. If postcolonial novels are, as Jameson contends, invariably engaged in sociopolitical allegory, this feature enables them to serve as repositories of difficult, traumatic, and scandalous historical truths disclosed under the guard of Freudian disavowal. In allegories of this type, represented scenarios—say, of child sexual abuse—may but need not be taken to have a specific historical reference, and may but need not be understood as exemplifying a chronic social or institutional pathology; explicit witness to historical outrages against children may be borne, but in a fictive and therefore explicitly non-testimonial framework; and scandalous stories with a factual basis, but without a factual warrant, are retailed. In this fashion, literature records truths inaccessible to an ongoing communal life history by way of figural practices that veil or leaven them to some degree.

Insofar as literary narratives form an unconscious reserve for real-time historical scripts, they remain, of course, a part of those very scripts—interleaved, ambiguously redacted passages in the margins of that history. Occupying such a position denies literature the possibility of distanced reflection on any factual referent of its allegory, precludes it from serving as an analyst of the collective symptoms it surveys. But it does not deny literature—and herein lies a conundrum in need of theoretical elaboration—the capacity for critical and even therapeutic reflection altogether. Without the power to perform a collective (psycho-)analysis of the national and sectarian pathologies it addresses, Irish literature nevertheless has been able to open and hold open the possibility of such a collective analysis. In this sense, certain of its texts can be said to represent “Ireland in psychoanalysis.”

To illustrate by way of an earlier example, Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture contains a neat allegory of this power dynamic, along with the sort of displacements that serve to disguise it. Upon the death of her disgraced father, the protagonist, a then sixteen-year-old Rosa, is visited by the parish priest, Father Gaunt, who proposes to see her provided for by way of an arranged marriage to Joe Brady, a corpulent fifty-year-old man who took her father’s place of employment. When Rosanne replies, “You’d have me marry an old man?”[44] the priest explains that Rosa has received a gift from God, her sexual appeal (though he hems and haws about the term and settles on “beauty”), which allows him to make this advantageous, if precipitous, match. When Rosanne still resists, Gaunt deems that same quality, now unnamed, as a danger, a “temptation” to the “boys of Sligo.” Thus, Rosanne’s endowments are a supreme good, a “gift from God”[45] so long as Gaunt enjoys the power to dispose of them—a root meaning of the term “jouissance”—but deteriorate into evil should he fail to command that power. In other words, Father Gaunt seeks to possess Rosanne’s body sexually by a form of remote control that would maintain the appearance of perfect, celibate self-denial. Not surprisingly, Father Gaunt’s efforts to despoil Rosa’s reputation later in the novel seem undermotivated except as the revenge of the jilted. That the more directly spurned lover, Joe Brady, subsequently endeavors to take possession of Rosa’s body sexually by raping her—and then explicitly justifies the attempt as vengeance for her refusal of his advances—positions the two men as doppelganger figures, each wanting to control Rosa in his own way: one through the violence of (theocratic) law, and one with a violence surpassing law altogether; one a priested pimp, one a rapist john; one the image of muscular Christianity (trim, athletic, and self-restrained, “Gaunt” his allegorical name), one a figure of diabolical excess (his corpulent body and “swollen penis” his allegorical features[46]). But most importantly, the one serves the other as his agent, with profoundly allegorical implications: the authoritative figure of sexual repression, in concentrating libidinal energy around his authority to institute such repression, advances the cause within himself and his circle of sexual violence against the disempowered.

Although dramatically enhanced in literary texts by reason of their public availability, this capacity for immanent traumatic reflection is not specific to them, nor was it first identified in aesthetic or cultural discourse. It is rather a paradox native to psychoanalysis—one of the great paradoxes of psychoanalysis I would say—that traumatic manifestations and symptomatic formations constitute in and of themselves modes of reflection on their prompts and determinants. The object of psychotherapy is already (if not always) an agent of psychotherapy. Building upon Freud’s notion of infantile sexual theory, Jean Laplanche observes,

analytical theory at its most general level (notably the theory of the drive) should show us how, in what conditions, with what results, with what failures, and what costs, the subject theorizes or metabolizes the enigmas that are posed to it from the outset by interhuman communication. Analytic theory is in this respect a metatheory in relation to the fundamental theorization that all human beings carry out, not primarily in order to appropriate Nature, but to bind anxiety in relation to the trauma that is the enigma.[47]

For Laplanche, to be a subject at all is to be the subject of an always traumatic because enigmatic sexuality, and his point in the above passage is that there always resides a distinct if fugitive mental phase between the traumatic experience and its symptomatic reflexes on one side and the psychoanalytic interpretation and traversal of the revealed fantasy on the other. This phenomenological interval Laplanche likens to a “fundamental theorization,” an interlude wherein reflection inheres in the very traumatic, enigmatic experience to be reflected upon. While such reflection stops short of theoretical analysis proper (what Laplanche christens “metatheory”), which entails the elaboration of a coherent, generalizable paradigm, it does “metabolize the enigma” of the experience by rehearsing it on other terms, representing it anew, and, in thus binding the trauma, it prepares the enigma for interpretive clarification and resolution. The realist allegory of Jameson’s postcolonial novel performs this function on the ethnonational stage, treating the traumatic realities of material dispossession, racial abjection, and cultural deracination in exemplary portrayals that bind the resulting affective distress for critical analysis without actually conducting that analysis. If anything, certain touchstones of modern Irish literature (Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist, The Land of Spices, The Butcher Boy, Breakfast on Pluto, The Secret Scripture, Down by the River, The Gathering) offer a still more precise literary version of the “fundamental theorization” delineated by Laplanche. They both specify the universally traumatic nature of sexuality in a series of historically based sexual abuses and they allegorize historically based sexual abuses in narratives implicating the universally traumatic nature of sexuality. The enabling mechanism of such “fundamental theorization” is the vehicle of traumatic sexualization itself, the “enigmatic signifier.”[48] According to Laplanche, parental/authority figures impart the energies of their own repressed desires and compromise formation to children in ambiguous psychic messages that take the form of enigmatic signifiers. This introduction of (adult) sexuality into the child’s life horizon elicits a traumatic jouissance that furnishes the necessary condition of his or her accession to subjectivity. The vehicle of this traumatic enjoyment is precisely the signifier’s enigmatic quality, which conveys a sensory or affective power exceeding its capacity for determinant meaning or function. Jouissance occupies the material lining of the signifier (the acoustics of the word, timber of the voice, sheen of the image) as an occult zone of undecidability, wherein the vicissitudes of unconscious parental desire touch and translate into the turbulent libidinal awakening of the child.[49]

At the same time, the eroticized occult penumbra of the signifier only exists insofar as it is propped upon or attached to the potential for meaning or functionality—the everyday purpose of signification—and, as Margot Backus and I have argued, the articulation of jouissance in the enigmatic penumbra of the sign allows those specific contents and objects to take on sexual appeal, resonance, and power. I want to suggest here that the obverse holds as well: the contingent but requisite attachment of traumatic jouissance to vehicles of determinate meaning and valence entails that every experience thereof comes with the potential to be, in Hegel’s phrase, “reflected into itself,” to be or to become a locus of conscious attention and consideration.[50] If the jouissance borne by the enigmatic signifier can lead, like any trauma, to psychic overload, shutdown, and repression, this very insertion in a signifying chain turns that traumatic enjoyment into a possible object of immanent reflection for the subject. With its post-Jamesian renderings of psychic interiority, modern Irish literature was poised to capitalize upon this opportunity. The uncertainties and mystifications that sexualize juvenile experience in the texts I have cited simultaneously serve as occasions and catalysts for the juvenile protagonists to speculate upon and wrestle with that experience. Representational strategies in a Down by the River or a Portrait of the Artist are designed to highlight the nexus in the enigmatic signifier of traumatic affect and the hermeneutical binding of the anxiety aroused thereby.

Margot and I have observed how several Irish novelists of the past century mobilized enigmatic signifiers to explore the complexities of sexual initiation, seduction, and abuse, both within and outside the corridors of the Church. Not coincidentally, the figures we have been looking at—Barry, Keith Ridgeway, Kate and Edna O’Brien, Joyce and Anne Enright—are also exponents of the most sophisticated techniques for recording the feints and illuminations of consciousness: the use of unreliable and undecided narration, interior monologue, and, above all, subtle modes of free indirect discourse, all serve to position those traumatic enigmatic signifiers as textual kernels of immanent reflection.

To take matters a step further: unlike a journalistic account, which presumes an existential ground outside of its effect upon the reader, literary fiction depends for its very being on the relationship between the depicted scenario and the transferential identification of the reader with its several elements (identification with identification). Tapping into this relationship, the texts we have studied consistently syncopate the unfolding of the action so as to replicate for the reader an abstracted version of the experience of the enigmatic signifier as both affective/erotic trauma and hermeneutical lure. They thereby place the reader “in psychoanalysis” alongside the protagonist as it were, nudging her to supply the “metatheory” that will confirm, correct, and/or elucidate the “fundamental theorization” in the text. Following this method, allegories or exemplary fictions of sexual exploitation utilize their structural condition of disavowal to immerse the reader on an individual, personal basis with a larger social and institutional pathology that itself unfolds on a person-by-person basis, and at the very point where individual subjectivity is fully constituted.

To end at the beginning, James Joyce was arguably the author and the very avatar of “Ireland in psychoanalysis” as I have been defining it. Nominally, Joyce was “in psychoanalysis” from the beginning, as his surname loosely translates into German as “Freude” (meaning “joy”). The aptness of this coincidence finds verification in Richard Ellmann’s biography, James Joyce. Ellmann reports how in the years proceeding Freud’s Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Joyce had already discovered and theorized, in a recognizably psychoanalytic manner, the sort of lapsus linguae that formed the staple symptom of that landmark text.[51] This precocious insight, in turn, foreshadowed mature stylistic experiments that modeled a crucial late revision in Lacan’s lifelong return to Freud. Having viewed the signifier as a vehicle for stanching the pre-oedipal jouissance of the bodily Real, Lacan came to discover in Joyce’s work that the signifier itself might be stuffed with jouissance, might be a vehicle not of containment but of excess, a sinthome touching or tapping the Real within the Symbolic order.[52] The resulting “jouis-sense” or “joyceance,” as Lacan terms it, emerges from a particular attention to and massaging of the material properties of the signifier—its acoustics, its shape, its texture, among others, and, as such, it bears a proximate relationship with the enigmatic signifier of traumatic sexual initiation.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the allegory of child sex scandal in Ireland can be traced back to Joyce, and actually has been so traced by virtually every one of his successors in the genre: Kate O’Brien (The Land of Spices), Edna O’Brien (Down by the River), Patrick McCabe (Breakfast on Pluto), Jamie O’Neill (At Swim Two Boys), Keith Ridgway (The Long Falling). The traumatic intrusion of adult sexuality into children’s lives and psyches runs throughout Joyce’s corpus—“An Encounter,” “The Boardinghouse,” the pandying scene in A Portrait, Milly’s exile to Mullingar, the Museyroom episode, and so on—but the exemplary narrative for our purposes is Joyce’s first effort along these lines—that which is also his first published fiction, the short story “The Sisters.”[53] Thus, if Joyce represents the origin of the child-sex-scandal narrative in twentieth-century Ireland, the child sex scandal narrative also marks the origins of Joyce as a major writer of twentieth-century Irish fiction. As that literature has evolved and taken shape over the century, moreover, Joyce’s maiden effort has only grown in influence, the several vectors of which are all on point here:

1. The distress it caused its initial audience, the readers of Douglas Hyde’s Irish Homestead, signaled the part it was to play in shifting the epicenter of short story composition from clever narrative twist to brooding psychosocial enigma, introducing an identifiably modernist turn in the genre.

2. The enigma rendered in the story turns on the question of sexual initiation or exploitation: how far is the priest’s mentorship of the boy eroticized and how far does the uncertainty surrounding the possible eroticization of their friendship enable the traumatic intrusion of adult sexuality into the boy’s life-world to deepen.

3. The enigma crystallizes in a series of signifiers, such as the word “paralysis,” eroticized in their material properties and positioned as hermeneutical prompts for the boy and the reader simultaneously.

4. The enigmatically sexual nature of the priest’s relationship to the boy becomes a point of discernible complicity on the part of his friends and family. An uneasy awareness of something awry emerges in their dinner conversation, but remains frozen at the level of knowing non-assertion, marked by ellipses. Nowhere is Joyce’s work more prescient as to the dynamics of child sex scandal in twentieth-century Ireland, where revelations often triggered retrospective acknowledgements of suspicions not pursued and apprehensions willfully uncorroborated. Joyce’s decision to leave the configuration of the boy’s discipleship fuzzy and obscure extends to the reader a like sense of complicity, once again situating the audience in psychoanalysis as analysand and thereby intimating the collective scope of the problem.

5. The traumatic initiation remains, predictively, a matter of repression and silence for the boy, but of veiled ambiguous disclosure for the reader, thanks to Joyce’s deft filtering of childhood experience through an unconsciously revealing adult retrospection: “I found it strange that neither I nor the day seemed in a mourning mood and I felt even annoyed at discovering in myself a sensation of freedom as if I had been freed from something by his death.”[54] The little glitch in the boy’s thoughts over the idea of liberty—“a sensation of freedom as if […] freed from something”—may be glossed as a muffled symptom of traumatic disturbance and/or fixation occasioned by the priest’s past mentorship and now preserved in his memory.

6. The complicity of the boy’s family in the potential scandal is not unrelated to the central role played by the priest, who commands in his office all of the respect he fails to command in his person: “There was something queer […] there was something uncanny about him,” they agree, but no one will “say he was exactly….”[55] Indeed, Father Flynn’s personal failure to meet the demands of his office serves as a metonym for the scandalous cloud about him. His sister and the boy’s mother actually believe this failure is the scandal itself: “The duties of the priesthood was too much for him. […] Yes, he was a disappointed man. You could see that.”[56] But the narrative structure of the tale hints that his sacerdotal deficiencies were but a catalyst of the scandal. His sexualized mentorship of the boy seems to have been some sort of compensation for his “crossed” life and career.

7. The channel of communication between clerical shortcoming and sexual scandal is none other than the enigmatic signifier itself. The word “paralysis” likely alludes to GPI, tertiary-stage syphilis, and first sounds in the boy’s ear of a jouissance compact of “fear and fascination”;[57] it then appears in a dream image of sacramental inversion and malfeasance involving the priest.

I saw again the heavy grey face of the paralytic. I felt my soul receding into some pleasant and vicious region, and there again I found it waiting for me. It began to confess to me. […] [I]t smiled continuously and the lips were moist with spittle […]. I remembered that it had died of paralysis and I felt that I too was smiling feebly as if to absolve the simoniac of his sin.[58]

If we keep in mind how simony operates throughout the story as a malaprop/substitute for sodomy, the full force of the sexual-sacramental confluence here can be appreciated. Paralysis reappears, finally, in the denouement of the story, as a subtextual explanation for why Father Flynn committed the ostensibly decisive mistake of his priesthood, dropping a chalice. The sisters’ final report on the incident, “They say it was the boy’s fault,”[59] links the sacramental blunder back to the eroticized scenario of mentorship, particularly given the liturgical synonymy of “fault” with “culpa”—fall (as in felix culpa), hence sin (mea culpa).

8. The compensatory relationship between the sacramental and the sexual speaks precisely to the issue of displaced mastery with which I concluded “Psychoanalysis in Ireland.” The priest’s instruction of the boy indicates his own sense of being overwhelmed by the “grave” duties of the priesthood “towards the Eucharist,” “towards the secrecy of the confessional,” and as detailed by “church fathers” determined to publish doctrine so all-encompassing that it filled “books as thick as the post office directory and as closely printed as the law notices.” The priest’s pedagogy is also a defensive response to his sense of being overwhelmed. He arrogates to himself the superior authoritative position of the church fathers, presenting himself as the subject-that-knows (stories of the catacombs, how to pronounce Latin properly, and so on), and he consigns the boy to the feelings of inferiority and inadequacy that he himself has suffered (“he had amused himself by putting difficult questions to me” and “when […] I could make no answer or only very foolish or halting one […] he used to smile.”[60]

Flynn’s cruel, perversely faith-destroying catechesis of the boy is a means of establishing mastery over his conscious mind. In this respect, the sacramental and the doctrinal provide an outward, visible model for the exercise of power motivating and animating the merely intimated erotic interplay between the two. What is at stake for Father Flynn is to be both under and in universal control, a relay of the Other, for which his relationship with the boy becomes a surrogate mise-en-scène. It is a perverse dynamic that would be variously played out over the next hundred years or so in Ireland.

Faced with the reality that this “censored chapter” of Irish history would itself be censored as literature—like many of its successors—Joyce advised Grant Richards, “I seriously believe you will retard the course of civilization in Ireland by preventing the Irish people from having one good look at themselves in my nicely polished looking glass.”[61] As grandiose as this claim was, he may with hindsight have had a point. Joyce was in effect putting Ireland (or at least Dublin) in psychoanalysis, so that it might absorb some of the lessons that its leading Church signally failed to do.


[1] Frederic Jameson, “Third World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capital,” Social Text 15 (Autumn 1986): 73.

[2] My account of the institutional origins of psychoanalysis in Ireland is drawn from the brilliantly synoptic, “A Brief History of Psychoanalysis in Ireland,” Psychoanalysis in Ireland,

[3] Ibid.

[4] Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion (Garden City: Anchor, 1961), 49.

[5] Quoted in “A Brief History of Psychoanalysis in Ireland.”

[6] Freud, Future of an Illusion, 47.

[7] Jacques Lacan, The Triumph of Religion (Cambridge: Polity, 2013), 66.

[8] Ibid., 42.

[9] Ibid., 27.

[10] Tom Inglis, Moral Monopoly: The Rise and Fall of the Catholic Church in Modern Ireland (Dublin: Gill and MacMillan, 1998), 146.

[11] Quoted in ibid.

[12] See Goldbach and James A. Godley, eds., Inheritance in Psychoanalysis (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, forthcoming 2018).

[13] “A Brief History of Psychoanalysis in Ireland.”

[14] Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization (NY: Doubleday, 1995), 150.

[15] John Littleton and Eamon Maher, eds., The Dublin/Murphy Report: A Watershed for Ireland (Dublin: Columba, 2010), 7.

[16] Ibid., 8.

[17] Bruce Arnold, The Irish Gulag: How the State Betrayed its Innocent Children (Dublin: Gill and MacMillan, 2009), 77.

[18] Sebastian Barry, The Secret Scripture (New York: Penguin, 2008), 90.

[19] Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London:Verso, 1989), 81-2.

[20] Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo (New York: Norton, 1950), 140-6.

[21] Bruce Fink, The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1995), 77-79.

[22] Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959-60 (New York: Norton, 1992), 319.

[23] Adam Phillips, The Paris Review (Spring 2014): 9.

[24] Bruce Fink, The Lacanian Subject, 59.

[25] Slavoj Žižek, The Metastases of Enjoyment (London: Verso, 1994), 127.

[26] Jacques Lacan, Le Séminaire Livre XVII: L’Envers de la Psychoanalyse, 1969-70 (Paris: Seuill, 1981), 134.

[27] Jacques Lacan, “God and the Jouissance of Woman” in Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the école freudienne, ed. Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose (NY: Norton, 1982), 147.

[28] Slavoj Žižek, The Metastases of Enjoyment, 127.

[29] Slavoj Žižek, The Fragile Absolute (London: Verso, 2000).

[30] “For the love of money is the root of all evil,” I Timothy: 6, 10; and “Ye cannot serve God and Mammon,” Luke: 16, 13, The Holy Bible, Authorized King James Edition (New York: Oxford UP, n.d.).

[31] Slavoj Žižek, The Metastases of Enjoyment, 127.

[32] Littleton and Maher, eds., The Dublin/Murphy Report, 8.

[33] As if to exemplify this trajectory, the Piarist order of seventeenth-century Rome took the preaching of sexual repression and stooped in short order to practice child sexual abuse so conspicuous that after years of cover-up by the Church hierarchy, the pope felt compelled to disband the order; see Joe Rigert, An Irish Tragedy: How Sex Abuse by Catholic Priests Helped Cripple the Catholic Church (Baltimore: Crossland, 2008), 88-9.

[34] Slavoj Žižek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real (London: Verso, 2002), 29-30.

[35] Ibid., 29.

[36] Ibid., 30.

[37] Ibid., 29-30.

[38] Joe Riger, An Irish Tragedy, 12.

[39] Sigmund Freud, “Analysis Terminable and Interminable,” Journal of Psychoanalysis 18 (1937): 323-405.

[40] Jean Laplanche, Essays on Otherness (London: Routledge, 1999), 120.

[41] See Hans Sachs, Freud: Master and Friend (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1944), 145.

[42] See Mark: 12, 30-1, The Holy Bible.

[43] Frederic Jameson, The Political Unconscious (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981).

[44] Sebastian Barry, The Secret Scripture, 94.

[45] Ibid., 93

[46] Ibid., 105.

[47] Jean Laplanche, Essays on Otherness, 135.

[48] Jean Laplanche, “The Theory of Seduction and the Problem of the Other,” International Journal of Psycho-analysis 78 (1997): 653-665.

[49] See Joseph Valente and Margot Backus, “‘An Iridescence Difficult to Account for’: Sexual Initiation in Joyce’s Fiction of Development,” ELH 76, no. 2 (2009): 527-8.

[50] G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1977), 13.

[51] Richard Ellmann, James Joyce (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1982), 52.

[52] See Colette Soler, “The Paradoxes of the Symptom in Psychoanalysis,” in The Cambridge Companion to Jacques Lacan, ed. Jean-Michel Rabaté (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003), 97-99.

[53] James Joyce, Dubliners (New York: Penguin, 1967).

[54] Ibid., 4.

[55] Ibid., 1.

[56] Ibid., 9.

[57] Ibid., 1.

[58] Ibid., 3.

[59] Ibid., 10.

[60] Ibid., 5.

[61] James Joyce, Letters v. I, ed. Stuart Gilbert (NY: Viking, 1965), 64.