Psychoanalysis in Irish Studies—An Interview with Margot Backus

Author: Margot Gayle Backus (University of Houston)

How has the discourse of psychoanalysis shaped or contributed to your exploration of Irish literature and culture more generally?


My earliest engagement with Irish literature and culture sought to explore historical grief as informing literary representations of homoerotic love and loss. Psychoanalysis became methodologically crucial as I came to see the heterosexual nuclear family as mediating, within the Anglo-Irish settler colonial order, between the socio-historical trauma of colonial appropriation and the individual subject. I became particularly interested in the Anglo-Irish gothic, and found in its recurrent staging of supernatural assaults against youths on the cusp of sexual maturity a reversal of the idealized projection Freud describes in the family romance—as a fantasized projection of traumatic historical forces internal to the Anglo-Irish family onto monstrous external figures.



To what degree and in what ways do you feel psychoanalytic conceptions have affected literary and cultural production in Ireland over the course of the long twentieth century?


In his memoiristic essay “G(ay)ness is Good for You,” Lance Pettit recalls arriving in pre-Celtic Tiger Ireland as a young gay Englishman expecting to find the social order thick with sexual repression and instead finding the hegemonic invisibility of male homosexuality unexpectedly liberating. His account parallels a recurring theme that American historian George Chauncey has noted in accounts of pre-Stonewall gay male life in New York City. Chauncey’s informants frequently recalled the particular sense of communal intimacy they had enjoyed in the days when homosexuality was unspeakable. Psychoanalytic perspectives in Irish literature and film may have benefited from a similar collective disavowal extending back to the time of Yeats, Synge, and George Moore; and to Joyce, Kate and Edna O’Brien, and John McGahern. These and other Irish cultural producers seem to have benefited from access to what Synge termed “a popular imagination that is fiery and magnificent, and tender,” specifically because Irish modernists had read or at least imbibed the insights of Freud but were writing about and in a theocratic social order dogmatically impervious to Freud’s fundamental insights—for instance, that it is impossible readily to distinguish between sexual and asexual actions, feelings and expressions; that the mother/child bond is inherently erotic and the seedbed of human eroticism; that violence or saintliness, art or criminality, avarice or charity, and of course all aspects of religious ritual express either more or less effectively sublimated eroticism; and that, owing to the operations of the unconscious, we are largely deceived concerning the motives that animate our words and actions, the actual effects of our words and actions, and sometimes even the words and actions themselves. (I hope this also touches on question 3).



Is there any one strain of psychoanalysis that has been most useful to your Irish Studies projects?


This question is tricky because my most recent applications of psychoanalytic theory to Irish Studies projects have been so dependent on the work of my co-author and interlocutor Joe Valente. My contributions to the French psychoanalytic theory that Joe has brought to our work have been limited to requests for elaboration or elucidation, editorial revisions clarifying or aestheticizing certain concepts, the application of our theoretical frame in cultural or literary critical readings, and occasionally, the conceptual expansion of our theoretical frame. It is to Joe that I owe the continually expanding significance of Jean Laplanche’s theory of the enigmatic signifier in the several co-authored articles that are now coalescing as a book on Irish literary representations of child sex scandals. Laplanche’s enigmatic signifier brilliantly accounts for the constitutive “knowing and not knowing” we originally set out to examine in James Joyce’s early representations of scenes of sexual initiation, and affords a rigorous and compelling lens through which to examine the otherwise unaccountable coordination between the individual unconscious and the social symbolic order that is maintained, for instance, in the final group of stories in James Joyce’s Dubliners through ritualized speech acts that through their enunciation serve to recontain a scandalous secret.


Because I do not wish to sell myself short, I am drawing below on a close reading of my own that applies but also develops the Laplanchian schema that Joe has developed in the course of our first three articles. Here, in a reading that benefited from an extended conversation with Joe and (I feel sure) from at least one round of editorial responses, I am connecting Laplanche’s intrapsychic account of the enigmatic signifier to the social operations of Irish and transnational sex scandal, which has been my own most recent focus. This will, I hope, illustrate why I have found this model so useful for virtually all of my work in Irish studies.


Owing to the rootedness of all sexual knowledge in the enigmatic signifier’s enticing/occluding scar tissue, sexual matters occupy a particularly charged, paradigmatic, and intensely unstable position in the broader realm of the socially scandalous. That is, any sexual or sexualizable fact or claim is potentially designatable as scandalous, and the sexual is perpetually available to explicitly or covertly render scandalous otherwise irreproachable figures, groups, and political movements. We can see this, for instance, in the recent film Selma (2014), which repeatedly recalls the larger pattern whereby J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI used sexual surveillance, personal blackmail, and loosely sexualizing slurs like “degenerate” and “unnatural” to privately intimidate and publicly stigmatize leaders of movements that were advancing democratizing political agendas. On the other hand, the dangerous intrapsychic forces that the enigmatic signifier contains both demand and empower an array of established social codes turning, in the manner of Freud’s dreamwork, on distortion, displacement, and condensation. This pattern of coordinated social disavowal renders even the most opprobrious sexual signifier publicly articulable in encoded form in a radically contingent array of registers, from outpourings of outrage to stony-faced complacency to uproarious, knowing laughter.


This radical contingency of the scandal signifier is also made exceptionally clear in the first scene of The Magdalene Sisters (2002). Through its reinvention of the New Testament’s Samaritan “woman at the well” as rural incest victim, a priest’s performance of the traditional ballad “The Well Below the Valley” evinces a distinctive mode of traumatic pleasure. Yet the same unspeakable sexual trauma that—in the priest’s performance—evokes one enveloping affective response from both wedding assembly and contemporary filmgoers immediately recurs in what is, for the viewer, a shockingly different register, charged with the full force of unalloyed trauma. When Margaret’s cousin unexpectedly assaults her, film-viewers are inescapably confronted with the same “secret” that we have, just moments before, been contemplating with trauma-tinged pleasure. The same sexually traumatic taboo that we have seen generating social pleasure when condensed into an uncanny vision in a mythic landscape now operates, from the standpoint of the viewer, like the child’s original encounter with the enigmatic signifier. Having undergone a mimetic reenactment of the child’s unmediated encounter with the enigmatic signifier, the film viewer is abruptly repositioned so as to observe the reactions of the wedding assembly to the same occurrence. The community’s disavowed awareness of the assault is registered by the young boy who covers his ears, presumably to shut out Margaret’s screams. The boy’s evident attempt to screen out sounds that must be equally audible to the other guests, who do not react, visually registers Laplanche’s account of the child’s encounter with the enigmatic signifier. Unlike the already initiated guests around him, the young boy does not have the wherewithal to rationalize or screen out what he nonetheless understands he must not know.