No honourable and sincere man, said Stephen, has given up to you his life and his youth and his affections from the days of Tone to those of Parnell but you sold him to the enemy or failed him in need or reviled him for another. And you invite me to be one of you. I’d see you damned first.
JAMES JOYCE, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (220)
STEPHEN DEDALUS’S UNCHARACTERISTIC ROW WITH the good-natured Davin over Irish nationalism begins when Davin confesses himself deeply troubled by the secrets Stephen has confided in him (Joyce 1992b, 219). In terms that recall Mary Douglas’s formulation that social pollutions reflect “an image of the body, whose primary concern is the ordering of a social hierarchy” (1966, 126), Davin describes how “those things about [Stephen’s] private life” had physically sickened him, so he could not even “eat [his] dinner” (Joyce 1992b, 219). He assures Stephen, “I was quite bad,” and that he had lain “awake a long time that night” (219). When Davin subsequently pleads with Stephen to allay his distress by pledging himself to the nationalist cause Stephen reacts with a famous string of escalating charges, first against Irish nationalism and ultimately against the nation itself, culminating in his famous charge that Ireland is not only a negligent but a filicidal mother—an “old sow that eats her farrow” (220).
According to Douglas, when we reduce all transgressions relating to pollution, contamination, and contagion to their fundamental components, we arrive back at the old definition of impurity, or dirt, as “matter out of place” (1966, 36). Feeling “a tide [beginning] to surge beneath the calm surface of [his] friendliness” (Joyce 1992b, 219), Stephen vigorously contests the implication that his secrets are “out of place” inside Davin’s body by insisting on his own legitimate place within Ireland.1 By claiming his status as an Irish compatriot, Stephen is effectively asserting his right to implant within Davin as an open secret what Davin has (wrongly) internalized as a disruptively alien enigmatic message.2 Davin, he claims, thinks he is a monster, presumably owing to Davin’s sickened visceral reaction to Stephen’s secrets. Stephen gives evidence to the contrary—that he is a kinsman, not a stranger or monster—by invoking the brute empirical fact of his Irishness: “This race and this country and this life produced me” (220).3
Although he denies thinking Stephen a monster, Davin cannot accept him as a compatriot; he earnestly pleads with Stephen to join the Irish community: “Try to be one of us” (220). Surprisingly, it is not the character of Stephen’s secrets themselves but Stephen’s liminal status relative to the Irish community that Davin finds unbearable. Davin, accordingly, wants Stephen to resolve the internal turmoil the secrets are causing not by changing the status of the secrets through, for instance, confession, repentance, or a pledge to reform, but rather by changing his social status, by trying “to be one of us”: a proper Irishman among Irishmen. Here we can see clearly an instance in which “pollution rules” and “moral rules,” though connected, are not congruent (Douglas 1966, 133). That is, in the course of this exchange, neither Davin nor Stephen is particularly interested in the moral status of Stephen’s nauseating secrets. Instead, the young men have entered into a heated debate about the placement of social boundaries and whether Stephen is an outsider (a monster), a fully fledged community member (an Irishman), or whether he is, as Davin believes, liminal (or, as Douglas would have it, still an initiate; 105). Stephen, for his part, responds not by declining Davin’s request but by contesting its founding assumptions, by categorically denying that joining the nationalist community can reliably ameliorate either his own or Davin’s “bad” condition (220).
As Stephen parses the bargain that Davin urges on him, he is being asked to “pay in [his] own life and person” the debts his ancestors incurred when they “threw off their language” and “allowed a handful of foreigners to subject them” (220). Concerning the category of “dirt,” where the anthropological and the psychoanalytic converge, Stephen is being asked to serve (along with all other correctly constituted Irishmen of his generation) as a scapegoat or sin eater, ritually consuming on behalf of his social order a historical residue that would be termed dirt or impurity by the anthropologist and dirt or shame by the psychoanalyst, and receiving, in return, a social certificate of good health. He caps this formulation with the contemptuous rhetorical question: “What for?” (220). Davin’s ingenuous reply, “For our freedom,” unwisely concedes Stephen’s premise: that Davin wants Stephen to decontaminate the insalubrious secrets that are giving him social dyspepsia by trading his life and person for membership in the Irish nationalist community. While Davin unwittingly concedes Stephen’s premise, Stephen strenuously refutes Davin’s. In particular, he angrily rebuts his friend’s conviction that Stephen will render his potentially disruptive secrets safely inert—as open secrets—by placing himself fully within the nationalist community, completing an initiation that Davin argues is already in progress (“In your heart you are an Irishman but your pride is too powerful”; 220). Irish nationalism, Stephen argues, far from protecting the private lives of its adherents, always treacherously betrays their secrets. Stephen points out that the institution of the Irish open secret has a well-established pattern (“from the days of Tone to those of Parnell”) of breaking down in times of crisis, with catastrophic results for Ireland itself and, as Stephen finds especially offensive, for every “honorable and sincere man . . . [who gives up] his life and his youth and his affections” for the Irish cause (220). Both Davin and Stephen finally set aside moral questions in favor of group boundaries, which, Stephen argues, become predictably unsustainable for Irish nationalism at particular moments of political crisis (such as the 1798 Uprising and the fall of Parnell).
If we think of the open secret as a means by which a community’s avowed moral priorities may be systematically superseded by “rules of pollution,” then what goes wrong in these moments of crisis is that broader definitions of nationality are externally imposed, often in the prevailing media, thereby reframing the contents of an open secret that had been heretofore contained within regional, orally constituted communities. The open secret, abruptly exposed in the harsh light of competing national print cultures, thereupon collapses.
“THE WELL-KNOWN, OLD, BUT STILL UNBEATEN TRACK”: THE LAND OF SPICES AND THE ENIGMATIC SIGNIFIER
Close attention to certain categories of secret that everyone knows about (sometimes consciously and sometimes subliminally) and that everyone denies helps account for a curious contradiction that is of particular importance in this chapter and the chapter to follow. In our reading of Kate O’Brien’s The Land of Spices, and in a far different way of Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls, we are training our critical sights on the long-standing visibility of and tolerance for nonstandard sexual practices and subjectivities in many Irish communities. To do so, we explicitly disrupt the ongoing reticence in Irish literary criticism concerning what is, manifestly, a cornucopia of deviant desires, episodes, and identities in modern Irish literature. Residual rules of open secrecy have continued to stifle critical commentary on the queer, the nonnormative, and the perverse in Irish women’s literature particularly, even when the literary open secret constitutes the means by which a text’s most important effects are produced.
As Angela Bourke has strikingly documented in The Burning of Bridget Cleary (2001), rural communities in late nineteenth-century Ireland witnessed rapid and violently uneven social transformations. This ongoing process of change was punctuated by periodic, devastating clashes between two quite differently constituted social orders, both of which answered to the names “Irish nationalism,” “the Irish people,” and “Ireland.” Two distinct Irish nationalisms had heretofore coexisted both peacefully and invisibly: one, the orally based folk communities that defined social inclusion and exclusion in terms of purity and pollution, and the other, the broader ecclesiastical-national system in charge of Irish morality and Ireland’s reputation in the eyes of the world. For the greater part of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, these two Irish “civilizations” coexisted side by side,4 with a comfortably tacit understanding of what areas of human life were the legitimate purviews of each.5 As the expansion across much of the island of new media and communications technologies rendered the language and perspectives of the imperial metropole increasingly inescapable, however, these two Irelands came into increasingly open and heated conflict. We might, following Bourke, look at the violent confrontation between a middle-class, literate Irish nation, to which the Irish Catholic hierarchy and the British state both contributed, and a long-established Irish folk culture, as a newly destructive version of a well-established “toggle” between the rules of pollution and the rules of morality that emerged in the late nineteenth century and that would continue to invisibly organize both social stigma and violence in the modern Irish state thereafter.
Kate O’Brien’s 1941 novel, The Land of Spices, depicts a culture of open secrecy in transition. In the novel’s convent school setting, during the period from 1912 to 1916, sexual (or eroticized) open secrets continue to circulate as coded referents in a community that has not yet been staggered and reorganized by the inimical powers of the media sex scandal. Yet local systems of communal, conscious secret-keeping are already perceptibly inflected by the unconscious system of traumatic unknowing that would increasingly characterize modern, media-saturated, English-speaking Ireland. The rise of the British sex scandal in the late nineteenth century and the subsequent consolidation of Ireland’s scandal of imperiled innocence never altogether neutralized the established operations of the open secret. The rise of a public scandal culture in Ireland did, however, consolidate socially forbidden or disavowed sexual desires, sensations, and practices traditionally shrouded in open secrecy into a taboo, collective reservoir that paralleled, in macrocosm, the intrapsychic, unconscious operations of the enigmatic signifier.
In order to pursue our reading of the enigmatic signifier’s operation in The Land of Spices, which evokes a vast, silent sea change in an Irish Catholic convent school, we must start with the observably transitioning mode of open secrecy that prevails in the world of the novel’s convent school. Over the course of the story, the easy schoolgirl traffic in eroticized open secrets, which the older nuns in O’Brien’s novel both oversee and overlook, is giving way—in the second decade of the twentieth century—to the regime of pathologizing and punitively inciting surveillance that Michel Foucault famously ascribes to nineteenth-century educational and psychiatric institutions (1980, 46). In their totality, the novel’s intricately limned striations of public, communal, and intrapsychic secrecy and unknowing both reflect and convey, in microcosm, painful transformations in the Irish Catholic moral episteme.
The Land of Spices registers the moment when a global community of specifically women’s Catholicism, organized principally in terms of purity and pollution and maintained through well-defined curricula and age-old rituals of admission, initiation, and membership, was coming under intense pressure from a specifically Irish, male-dominated Catholic nationalism. This new, post-Parnellite Irish Catholicism was resituating itself in relation to the Irish community with which Davin identifies in exhorting Stephen to “be one of us.” The inhabitants of the novel’s Belgium-based La Compagnie de la Saint Famille are regarded by the new mode of statist Catholicism as outsiders, and thus, during this period, as the novel makes clear, certain long-established open secrets that had been accepted in convent life were becoming untenable. In the course of the novel, male representatives of the Irish Catholic Church, which had long accepted de facto limits on its right to meddle in private areas of Irish social life, repeatedly intrude into the world of the convent. Such intrusions are evidently unrelated to doctrinal matters. Rather, in multiple scenes, “mansplaining” Irish male clerics leave neither the Reverend Mother nor the reader with any doubt about the nature of the perceived infractions periodically in need of male correction. As a community of Catholic women, many of whom were born or trained abroad, the order of nuns clearly appears increasingly improperly Catholic because—as Irish Catholicism is becoming more synonymous with Irish nationalism—it is excessively female and insufficiently Irish.
The society-wide shifts in definitions of community that O’Brien represents in The Land of Spices inexorably disrupt certain long-held open secrets in a manner that O’Brien makes manifest by drawing on both her native fluency in Irish taboo culture and her queer modernist mastery of enigmatic transmissions made visible. She does so, moreover, without providing ammunition that could be used to facilitate attacks against either convents or nonheterosexual women. Indeed, to continue to disregard O’Brien’s textual deployment of contemporary open secrets so as to vividly render a distinctive social world that could be seen and felt, but not scandalized or pathologized in its own time, would be to remain blinkered to the novel’s greatest achievements.
As Eibhear Walshe observes in his biographical study, Kate O’Brien: A Writing Life, O’Brien came of age during a period when public conceptions of physical and emotional intimacy between women were in flux. Love between women was losing the sanctioning mantle of the Victorian “ideal of romantic friendship” and was coming under the pathologizing eye of the new sexological discourses (2006, 46–47). This transition, from a de facto to a cultivated lesbian invisibility, occurred not only over time but also unevenly across social space (Ferriter 2009, 208–9). The shift from the blinkering of the social gaze on female homoeroticism to the shuttering of female homoeroticism against a censorious social gaze occurred later and more gradually in Ireland than in many other parts of western Europe. Thus, as O’Brien herself came of age and moved eastward,6 and particularly after her post–University College Dublin relocation from Dublin to Manchester, the lineaments of a specifically lesbian closet—a dialectical site of en/disclosure and hence a structure of potentially open(ed) secrecy—were consolidating around her. Under these circumstances, as Walshe contends, “it is not surprising that [O’Brien] never defined herself publicly as a lesbian” (2006, 46). But as Walshe and other critics have shown, O’Brien did, in lieu of “coming out” publicly, telegraph her lesbian identification in other ways. Given her historical and geographical positioning with respect to an as-yet incomplete and ill-defined lesbian closet, however, she was unable to draw on an established reservoir of performative and discursive cues that other queer Irish men and women, from Micheal Mac Liammoir to Nell McCafferty, would draw on so as to speak unmistakably, but with plausible deniability, to a loosely woven but finite community, ensuring incomprehension beyond and, as needed, disavowal within its borders. Accordingly, O’Brien’s public signals, while clearly inspired by Joyce’s and other extant strategies of disclosure, including faint performative allusions to Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, were more evocative or numinous.7 That is to say, instead of relying on heavily coded indices legible to certain parts of the national community and illegible to others, O’Brien crafted a mode of self-presentation that opened itself to a reading of sexual dissidence without encouraging or importuning it.
The enigmatic signifier, as theorized by Jean Laplanche, can be thought of as the open secret’s dialogical obverse, which both depicts and replicates the experience of sexual initiation as an always traumatic because always undecidable proposition. Instead of the openly secret, which is available and potentially legible but inappropriable except by the initiated insider (so that those who know don’t tell and those who tell don’t know), the enigmatic signifier, owing to its origins in infantile sexual development, remains irrevocably uncertain, ever “secret” and yet unconsciously accessible to all readers.
The distinction to be made here is between the following:
- A symbolic ensemble that implies or looks to define a hermeneutical situation to which potential addressees either belong, however deniably, or do not belong, a notionally closed communicative circle or “closet”; and
- A symbolic ensemble that puts the hermeneutical situation itself in question, that introduces an interpretably (or meta-) hermeneutical situation.
In the first case, one has the condition of the open secret; in the second, the operation of the enigmatic signifier. For Laplanche, the enigmatic signifier functions in the first instance as a vehicle of infantile sexualization in response to the implantation of “something coming from outside,” an enigmatic message, that takes on meaning (that is, becomes both sexual and traumatic) only belatedly, when the original seduction is “reinvested in a second moment” (Caruth 2014, 7). The material conductor of messages whose seductive power resides in the confusion of sexual and nonsexual valences, the enigmatic signifier exceeds and yet depends on its capacity for determinate meaning and range of association.
It is in the penumbra of uncertainty created by this fissure of sensuality, sensibility, and sense that the seductive potential of the signifier, its reserve of jouissance, is lodged. Because this signifier, like any signifier, is inherently iterable, the erotic current with which it is vested at the moment of infantile sexualization remains available to be reactivated under other circumstances, especially those recalling or approximating this traumatic origin, such as subsequent instances of sexual initiation or introduction. Moreover, because the eroticized zone of undecidability, or “enigma,” remains intimately bound up with, while exceeding, the signifier’s determinate meanings or valences, it imparts a sexual energy not only to the specific contents but also to the so-called signifying chain of metonymic differences delimiting them. Understanding the enigma in this fashion, not as an exceptional case but rather as an exceptional function latent in all cases, helps explain how a limitless array of objects, scenarios, experiences, and identities might come to be libidinally infused and thus the focal point of unconscious fantasy.
If the context of O’Brien’s coming of age created both the necessity and the opportunity for her to fashion her self-image out of indefinite, radically interpretable cues of taboo sexual identity, the process of doing so may well have enabled her to reflect in her coming-of-age, autobiographical fiction, The Land of Spices, on the role of such cues in catalyzing the often wayward desire that notions of sexual identity aimed to reify. At the same time, in following the path of her literary forerunner, James Joyce, whose iconic bildungsroman her own Land of Spices closely tracks, O’Brien would have recognized how the increased self-reflexivity of the modernist novel was geared to the narrative deployment of indefinite or enigmatic signifiers.8 That is, literature of the sort Joyce pioneered was becoming a space about as well as of interpretation, a hermeneutical field that interrogates its own limits and possibilities. This, the condition of so-called modernist difficulty, is also the proximate condition, as noted above, of the enigmatic signifier.
Indeed, it would not be going too far to propose that the enigmatic signifier represents a specialized instance of modernist difficulty. While an enigmatic signifier does not positively balk interpretation, it does function both affectively and semiotically without insisting that the occult relationship it encodes between those two levels be apprehended. Therein resides its peculiar suggestiveness, a faint resonance of traumatic erotic potential toward which the reader is permitted to maintain an unconscious and thus quite plausible deniability. In The History of Sexuality, volume 1, Foucault (1980) famously uncloaks the disingenuousness of Victorian protestations of ignorance concerning sexual activities everywhere inscribed in Victorian discourse. We would argue that in Irish society, with its legacy of Jansenist Catholicism, a like structure of vigorously buttressed ignorance, undergirded by a strict knowledge of what and where to overlook, persisted through much of the twentieth century, making it easy to mis- or under-interpret the more subtle literary strategies, like the enigmatic signifier, of cryptic sexual representation.
As regards lesbian visibility, the critical reception of The Land of Spices affords a conspicuous, even originary, case in point. The novel’s intimations of female homoeroticism have often gone completely ignored, as exegetes interested in O’Brien’s depiction of sexuality (Boylan 2000; Dalsimer 1990; Tighe-Mooney 2008; Walshe 2006) have trained their attention on the single euphemistic reference to a male-male “embrace of love” that put the novel under ban for a time in Ireland. Far more telling, however, is the surprisingly large number of O’Brien scholars who, in a classic act of Freudian denegation, explicitly deny the existence of any lesbianism in The Land of Spices, even though no one asserted it in the first place. Indeed, the critics who have contributed most substantially to our critical understanding of lesbian overtones throughout O’Brien’s oeuvre are among those who pause to argue specifically against any lesbian presence in The Land of Spices. For instance, Aintzane Legarreta Mentxaka holds that “Kate O’Brien made regular use of subtext to hide lesbian content,” but she excludes The Land of Spices from even this shrouded expression of female homoeroticism (2011, 72). Emma Donoghue introduces her discussion of the novel with the assertion, “Another Kate O’Brien novel which is not about lesbians, by the way, is The Land of Spices . . . the lesbian school or college novel was already a cliché and one O’Brien was determined to avoid” (1993, 49). Elizabeth Cullingford opines that “although in several of her novels, O’Brien codes lesbians as nunnish she nevertheless avoids [in The Land of Spices] coding her nuns as lesbians: the relationships between them are empowering rather than erotic” (2006, 21). Mary Breen, in her reading of the protagonist Anna Murphy’s valedictory moment of attraction to her classmate Pilar, actively dissociates Anna’s artistic epiphany from any lesbian inference, asserting that Anna’s “gaze is an appropriating one, certainly, but the appropriation is artistic, not sexual” (1993, 176). (At this moment, Breen seems to forget that this lakeside scene is O’Brien’s homage to the famous seaside scene in A Portrait of the Artist, where Stephen’s explicitly sexual gaze, trained on the “bird girl,” serves as the portal to his artistic vocation [Joyce 1992b, 185–86]).
As if responding directly to Breen, and indirectly to the run of Spices criticism, Patricia Coughlan concurs that “there is no explicit indication . . . that either Anna’s reception of Pilar’s beauty, or her appreciation of its effect upon herself, is a sexualized one; nevertheless, it seems to me, to feel obliged entirely to edit out this aspect of O’Brien’s usual construction of feminine beauty from the scene would be the reaction only of a reader determined at all cost to maintain silence on the issue of lesbian sexuality” (1993, 81). The tortuous syntax of Coughlan’s formulation sends the message of O’Brien’s critics back to them, as Lacan would say, “in reverse order.” Whereas they might feel that O’Brien is “determined to avoid” any suggestion of a lesbian school novel, Coughlan intimates that it is these critics themselves who seem “determined” to “maintain silence,” to keep secret “the issue of lesbian sexuality” (1993, 81). Yet by the same token, just as previous critics cannot keep entirely silent on a lesbianism the presence of which they dispute, so Coughlan cannot unreservedly affirm the lesbian presence she circuitously acknowledges.
In every case, we are witnessing the effect of the enigmatic signifier. This semiotic mode not only facilitates plausible deniability but encodes such deniability in the very object to be apprehended, confounding what is to be known and what left unknown. It places an affect that cannot be dispelled in exorbitant relation to a sense that may well be doubted, inducing denials excessive in their protest and avowals yielding in their conviction. As a literary device, in a text like The Land of Spices, the enigmatic signifier becomes still more complicated, in that it operates in two dimensions at once: for the characters within the narrative and for the readers of the narrative, thereby knitting together the eroticism represented with the erotics of reading. Rooted in the oedipal taboos surrounding childhood sexuality, the enigmatic signifier serves as a particularly effective vehicle for representing the experience of initiation in or introduction to the very socially forbidden or disavowed sexual desires, sensations, or practices traditionally shrouded in open secrecy. Just as the exorbitancy of jouissance to whatever signification seems to animate it enables that libidinal affect to be readily displaced along a chain of associated symbolic forms and behaviors, so the same continuing exorbitancy lends those forms and behaviors an effective margin of autonomy from whatever sexual energies infuse and enliven them. That is to say, the constitutive semidetachment of jouissance from its source entails a like semidetachment of its associated signifying destination from jouissance. As a result, the relation of libidinal affect to signifying cause does not necessarily tend toward a recognizably erotic manifestation. To be sure, any social practice must express in some form the associated jouissance that fuels it; but owing to its “external” character, the association itself, which is the emergence of a sexual investment, may go unremarked yet unrepressed, may operate unobtrusively without being actively inhibited or concealed. As a result, the shameful or illicit nature, even the sexual tenor itself, of the libidinal stirrings triggered by an enigmatic signifier may readily go unacknowledged or disavowed, sheltered not in a closet of secrecy but in a mist of uncertainty or inadvertence. The enigmatic signifier produces sexual desires dissimulated in their very emergence, giving the novel’s characters the license of ignorance and the novel’s readers a corresponding license to ignore.
“THE IRONY OF . . . THE NUN’S LOCKED SECRET”
The first ambiguous index in The Land of Spices is the convent setting itself. The genre of convent school fiction has a history that comprises not only tales of lesbian sexual initiation and love, as Donoghue observes, but also tales that feature pubescent innocence, naivete, immaturity, even asexuality and that harbor the ingrained assumption of principled celibacy for their adult cast. The narrative context for The Land of Spices thus serves to reinforce the undecidability of the individual enigmatic signifiers dispersed throughout the text.
The first such signifier occurs at the very outset of the novel, in its opening paragraph, in which the Reverend Mother hopes “no one would faint” in the unseasonably warm October chapel (K. O’Brien 1988, 3). The reader, of course, cannot know that fainting, which seems at first to allude to the chapel’s warmth, has any sexual implications. However, the Reverend Mother’s train of thought goes on to note a “hysterical fuss towards the back of the school benches” (3). Neither “warmth” nor “fainting” is automatically a sexual term, but each can carry such connotations, and with the “hysterical fuss towards the back of the school benches,” the ambiguity deepens, as—in a post-Freudian era—hysteria bears its own connotations of occulted sexuality. The underlying cause of the fuss completes the demonstratively (if still undemonstrably) erotic picture while introducing the novel’s exemplary enigmatic signifier: the commotion arises out of “Schwärmerei for Eileen O’Doherty, who was at that moment receiving the veil” (3). The term Schwärmerei translates as “excessive or unwholesome emotion,” alternatives that may be read as straddling, in much the same way as does the term hysteria, the line between a pathologized psychic condition of a strictly affective or an implicitly sexualized type. Its introduction in the novel’s first paragraphs as a distinctive, familiar collective affect in the convent school immediately and explicitly introduces the theme of female-female desire, reminding those readers who know the word of an open secret they share with the author and her characters, while simultaneously initiating neophyte readers who have not spent time in convent schools.
But it is as an uppercase, untranslated meme in an English-language text and world that Schwärmerei performs its most direct and ramified function as an enigmatic signifier. First of all, only in its untranslated form does Schwärmerei take the colloquial sense of intense, collective, pubescent female devotion. On the one hand, such attachment may be distinguished from proper lesbian desire, as Donoghue does, on the grounds of its being a “shallow” and juvenile emotional expression (1993, 49). On the other hand, however, given the infantile derivation of eroticism as such, to counterpose Schwärmerei and lesbian desire along these lines is to admit a developmental continuum of homosociality and sexuality along which no bright line between different modes of affection may be drawn. The cues surrounding the introduction of the term elaborate on this aporia.
Three years earlier, at the graduation of Eileen, a senior renowned for her beauty and her physical prowess (“she played hockey like a goddess”), “the school had been all but unmanageable with Schwärmerei” (K. O’Brien 1988, 3). On that occasion, Eileen was moving beyond the reach of their community into the world of heterosexual attainments for which she seemed destined: presentation to the English court, a collection of male hearts among the English clubs and Irish garrison, a round of dating, blissful mating, and inevitable child rearing. That outbreak of Schwärmerei responded both to the loss of a beloved icon of sexual attractiveness and to a mass identification with the romantic triumphs in Eileen’s future: that is, with both the termination and the genesis of certain erotic possibilities. On the present occasion, the Reverend Mother envisions hysterical girls fainting at a graduate’s change in sexual status, one that will put her off-limits for the kind of heterosexual romance with which the girls, through her intercession, had earlier identified. In the same motion, however, her change in status commits her forever to a community of women, returning her, by a different sort of symbolic proxy, back to the girls, for whom she remains a preeminent object of collective desire. The intense, now familiar wave of emotions marking the ritual confirmation of her choice yet again registers the vicarious experience of both an end and a beginning of eroticized possibility, both a loss and a recovery, self-denial and indulgence—in short, a profoundly ambivalent experience of jouissance. The shifting and conflicting terms of the schoolgirls’ worship of Eileen issue in an affect undecidable in its erotic quality, and that is where the enigmatic signifier, Schwärmerei, figures so importantly. In its untranslated state, the term Schwärmerei can resonate—in its vowel sounds, its rhythms, its feeling in the mouth, its translingual eye-rhymes (swarm, mère, Marie, mari)—of the entire homosocial-sexual spectrum, without determining a single point or distinguishing among the various points thereon. An umbrella term in the fullest sense, Schwärmerei shields its subjects from knowledge of their own erotic investments by the very sweep or range of its implications. In the process, it not only evinces an undetermined form of erotic passion but also lends an eroticized resonance to the experience of indeterminacy itself. The signifier and the signified of the unspeakable (in the sense of both the ineffable and the taboo) prove utterly flush and coextensive with one another.
A further order of complexity emerges in this opening scene with the shift of Reverend Mother’s gaze to Anna Murphy, the youngest and newest student in the school and the co-heroine of the unfolding narrative. Reverend Mother’s thought at this moment, “At least there is no Schwärmerei in that face,” reflects an amused approval corresponding with a disdain for the swoon of Schwärmerei in general (5). For her part, Anna appears fixated on yet unmoved by the ceremony, “as if,” in Reverend Mother’s phrase, “she is memorising the whole affair, for critical purposes” (5). Over time, and against this backdrop of barely contained schoolgirl eroticism, Reverend Mother conceives a singular affection for Anna that she understands to be grounded in a certain kind of intellectual like-mindedness: both are concerned that serious things be treated seriously. From Reverend Mother’s perspective, of course, nothing could be more serious than young women receiving the veil, and so her objections to the present display of histrionics combined with Anna’s compelling imperviousness to the surrounding emotional contagion might invite us, should we take this opening scene on its own as-yet independent terms, to read O’Brien as invoking the immature and potentially embarrassing homoeroticism of Schwärmerei only to repudiate it, in a characteristic defensive maneuver. In Reverend Mother’s condemnation of, and Anna’s freedom from, the practice, O’Brien might be seen to emulate other intellectual women of the period—Dorothy Sayers springs to mind—in raising the issue of lesbianism only to clear herself and those intellectual female characters of whom she approves of any such proclivities.9
But far from operating as a self-contained vignette, this opening scene turns out to be the launching pad for O’Brien’s intensively interconnective narrative strategy of metalepsis: hints are progressively dropped in advance of and in preparation for what has already transpired as the Reverend Mother’s (and the novel’s) traumatic “primal scene,” which will be revealed, in a piece of structural symbolism, at the novel’s meridian. Tapping Reverend Mother’s overlapping memories of the anticipation and the aftermath of that life-altering event, these continuous auguries (one might say openings) of a secret past function as enigmatic signifiers in themselves, building a sense of suspenseful foreboding, with an increasingly sinful yet indefinitely sexual tenor. In this respect, the novel’s many illegible foretokens replicate for the reader Reverend Mother’s own traumatic experience of sexual initiation. And this, as we have observed, is precisely the original province of the enigmatic signifier.
We learn that Reverend Mother was “chilled” by a “shock which drove her to the purest form of life . . . hardened in all her defences against herself” (20); we learn that her vows “sealed up girlhood and its pain” and that she regarded the architecture of her new convent home with the “too emotional word ‘bitterness’” (19, 12); we learn that a “blow” of “agonising pain” would “always leave her limping,” and as a result, “ordinary life had lost a young woman of gifts and rippling sensibilities” (22); we learn that she “had been horrified at eighteen . . . hurled by dynamic shock into the wildest regions of austerity ever out of reach of all that beauty of human life that she had inordinately believed in . . . trained most delicately and lovingly in that belief by . . . its unwitting destroyer [her father]” (23); and we learn of conversations with her father that were inflected by “the irony of . . . the nun’s locked secret” (31). Ultimately, our riddling path to the central crisis of Reverend Mother’s youth merges with her own groping path of discovery as a girl. Upon learning of her father’s impending death, Reverend Mother remembers the family leaving Cambridge under a cloud, the simultaneous break with her grandparents and the loss of the family’s annuity, the odd disproportion in her parents’ love for one another, and the sense that their marriage was “undertaken in darkness,” her father falling “into some offence against society,” living “in exile,” and enduring other “small punishments” on that score (161).
Even as these anticipations gesture, however enigmatically, to the novel’s deferred primal scene, they are interspersed with reflections and, more importantly, judgments on the young Helen Archer’s reaction to that still unnamed, seemingly unspeakable event—adverse reflections and judgments, which, taken seriously, alter the dimensions of the traumatic event itself. We find that because of the incident her nunly vow of chastity was less a virtuous commitment than a “perverse seduction . . . needed at a moment of flight from life” (19); that her flight to the convent, driven by a need to “hate in blindness” and a desire for “vengeance in an unexplained cutting-off . . . was stupidity masquerading offensively before the good God” (23); that her initial, “stupid” if “understandable” response to the still unspoken offense left her regretting her own “cold, wild judgments, the silly self-defence and self-dramatisation of an ignorant girl” (21); and that, with a “belated mercy towards humanity in general,” she is left respecting, however uncomfortably, “the courage required by the vulgar . . . to live” and “even . . . the courage of the outright sinner” (21).
“FATHER WOULD LIKE THIS CHILD”
The Reverend Mother’s mentor, Mère-Générale, the head of the order, worries at her lieutenant’s inability to realize her true spiritual potential—“saintliness”—owing to a fear “of love, even the love of God,” a fear born of her traumatized response to that primal scene (26). Mère-Générale proceeds to instruct Helen, amid a discussion of her errant father, that “God is love, my daughter . . . and He is served by love. Don’t take it on yourself to quarrel with that complicated fact” (29). In keeping with the enigmatic tack of the narrative, Mère-Générale’s counsel can be read as a conventional directive to follow the mosaic commandment to honor one’s parents, an equally conventional Christian precept to forgive those who trespass against us, or a more unauthorized exhortation to tolerance of a sexual episode about which, the text makes clear, she has no knowledge whatsoever. As Reverend Mother’s internal response indicates, however, so far as her own case is concerned, honoring any one of those tenets implies embracing the other two anyway: “Yes, there was the rub. She had decided that He was equity, detachment, justice, purity—anything good that was not love. Anything good that was cold and had definition—of which love, it seemed, had none” (29).
Love, for Reverend Mother, is the enigmatic signifier, her indefinite “love” at once incorporating a sexual component in the name of the human and casting it out in the name of the divine, and, most crucially, never accommodating a final decision as to whether human love is primarily a pattern of divine love to be pursued or a rival of divine love to be eschewed. The undecidability of the latter question, underscored in the exchange with Mère-Genérale and indeed throughout the novel, renders Helen’s repudiation of her father in favor of her Father not just “stupid” and “hysterical” but self-contesting. (It is no accident that as she composes her final reconciliatory prayer—“Father, forgive me—I know not what I did”—“she did not know whether she addressed it to Heaven or to her earthly father”; 168.)
Thanks to the novel’s dual track of ominous foreshadowing and recriminatory afterthoughts, the primal scene at which they converge expands to encompass not only the moment when Helen witnesses her father and his musician-protégé, Etienne, in the “embrace of love”—the phrase for which the book was banned in Ireland—but also the intense jealousy she felt almost immediately thereafter (165). If the tableau itself, filtered through Helen’s internalized religious and social repugnance, explains the attitude she evinces toward homoerotics generally, as signaled in the metaleptic signs of her trauma, her overwhelming jealousy helps explain the inimical judgments she comes to render on those same homophobic attitudes.
Here we arrive at the innermost knot of the enigma of love that binds Reverend Mother in a state of affective paralysis. At first blush, it seems as if her sexual initiation supervenes in a brutal flash, in her vision of her father committing a most reprehended sexual act. But, in fact, she has long been implicated, unconsciously, in a likewise illicit if heteronormative sexual crush on her father: “She thought her father very beautiful. It always delighted her to come on the sight of him suddenly and realise, always with new pleasure, that he was different from other men, stronger and bigger, with curly, silky hair and eyes that shone like stars” (149). The phrase delighted her to come on the sight of him suddenly is clearly designed to chime with the primal scene, where she comes suddenly on the sight of her beautiful father, only to find he has another lover, of another gender, and her paternal cathexis surges forth in the more openly, if negatively, sexual form of jealousy. Young Helen so energetically recoils from homosexuality not because the “sight” of it has stained her innocence (as she imagines) but because that sight at once shatters and threatens to expose her unconscious oedipal fantasy. The spectacle breaches her psychic defenses concerning her relations with her father, giving her a glimpse, however fugitive, of the primal erotic charge that the enigmatic signifier at once holds and hides, in accordance with the dictates of the patriarchal family cell.
In demystifying the enigma of Helen’s rapport with her father, the homosexual episode and her jealous reaction precipitate a new, more permanent enigma that molds her mature years, an enigma that goes to the paradoxically defining character of love itself, its lack of sure “definition” (31). The love to which she flies upon forsaking her father, her experience of divine love as purity, confesses itself to be allied with the parental-filial bond (in its commandment to honor one’s father and mother, in its figuration as a Father, in its summons to its children) and even, in a developmental sense, to be modeled on that bond. The reason Helen continues, despite her great piety, to shrink from the very love she seeks, the reason she remains “afraid . . . even of the love of God,” is that it has been, from the moment she conceives it, always already alloyed, not to say corrupted, by her sexually inflected love for her earthly father (26). In a profound affective paradox, she can flee to her heavenly Father only by way of a love imbued with or at least tinctured by a libidinous charge that is the illicit, “jealous” counterpart of the love from which she is fleeing: her earthly father’s homosexual ardor. Considered in this light, Helen’s violent flight to the convent looks somewhat familiar. Described by Helen herself as “the silly self-defense and self-dramatization of an ignorant girl” (21), defending against sexual awareness by way of histrionics, hovering somewhere between excessive and unwholesome emotion, her self-exile from the “beauty of human life” begins to look a lot like an extended bout of Schwärmerei.
Returning to the opening scene, where Schwärmerei reigns supreme, we can now clearly see that Reverend Mother’s distaste for the practice in no way reflects either the author’s take thereon or her attitude toward the female homoeroticism that Schwärmerei might betoken. On the contrary, the dim view Helen takes is retroactively exposed and undercut as a species of unconscious reaction formation to her own hysterical displacement of a disreputable form of erotic attachment. Her jaundiced view of Schwärmerei may grow, as we shall see, from its perceived connection to homoeroticism, but its roots are elsewhere, in other forms of sexual transgression in which she would rather not feel incriminated. Her identification with Anna Murphy, in turn, goes beyond a like-minded seriousness; rather, she sees in this youngest of the schoolgirls her own prelapsarian past, when she believed that her bond with her father was one of almost intellectual purity, grounded in his tireless cultivation of her earnest aptitude for learning.
The next Schwärmerei-driven ritual, which occurs on the very evening when Eileen O’Doherty “had broken uncounted hearts,” ratifies our profile of Reverend Mother’s disposition toward these institutionalized bouts of sentimental effusion. If anything, the “Sunday marks” sessions, where each girl receives a weekly grade, are still more libidinally freighted than the veil ceremony: “some girls felt a delicious danger” in the event (69), “pretty girls became excitingly pretty in the brightened atmosphere,” and some “might flaunt a flower . . . or jingle a forbidden bracelet. . . . Others had been worked upon by more restricted pleasures” (70). To heighten the mood of barely controlled exuberance on this occasion, Rosita Malone and Madeleine Anderson openly breach convent decorum by arriving late to the ceremony, partly dishabille, having spent their afternoon blissfully united in the shared scopic gratification of spying on Eileen O’Doherty, an erotic adventure they know will make them heroines: “She saw us once, and she only laughed . . . Oh my heart is breaking! I’m mad about her. I won’t sleep a wink to-night . . . there never were such eyes in all the world” (74). In so doing, the girls unwittingly bring to crisis a rift between two strains of Irish Catholicism represented in the school: an earlier, earthier, yet more aristocratic variety represented by the lenient Mother Eugenia and a newer, nationalist, middle-class variant represented by the rigid Mother Mary Andrew. Whereas Mary Andrew seeks to crush this public outbreak of schoolgirl passion as “foolish and disgusting” (74), Mother Eugenia pleads for the offenders because “within . . . ‘civilised’ limits [she] enjoyed the follies of Schwärmerei” (82). Reverend Mother is effectively called in as the ultimate, late-inning arbiter of the girls’ cases, and in this role, the overriding of her present inclinations by her past troubles is, to say the least, instructive.
Despite Reverend Mother feeling so out of sympathy with modern nationalist Irish Catholicism that she has that very day written a request for transfer out of country, despite her considerable personal as well as ideological partiality for Mother Eugenia, and despite her private conviction that Eugenia’s laissez-faire posture toward schoolgirl passion might, in the end, be the most practical, her own personal experience prevents her from endorsing the latter’s jocular “indulgence” of Schwärmerei. The third-person narrator emphasizes Reverend Mother’s resistance to any estimation of Schwärmerei as essentially harmless, let alone beneficial, in the following terse observation: “Reverend Mother did not like such jokes. . . . Moreover, she told herself as she shrank from the situation, that it was this easy stride with human nature, this random willingness to take psychological risks—indeed this happy blindness to them, which perhaps best commanded the dark places of segregated life. Nevertheless she could not endorse such naturalness—for she was afraid—for the young—of many natural things” (82–83). The most salient aspect of this passage for our purposes is Reverend Mother’s new construction of Schwärmerei as something very much along the lines of the enigmatic signifier. She sees it as a phenomenon of psychic uncertainty (“psychological risks”) running cover and giving license (“a happy blindness”) to dimly apprehended homoerotic possibility, or, in Catholic parlance, occasions of sin (“the dark places of [gender-] segregated life”). That is to say, she recognizes Mother Eugenia’s “civilized limits” as a kind of cordon in-sanitaire, where what we have seen as the secretly irreducible mixture of carnal and spiritual love receives open confirmation and affirmation: “After all,” says Mother Eugenia, exculpating Rosita, “the beautiful beloved has only this morning renounced the world” (82).
Nevertheless, Reverend Mother’s judgment on Schwärmerei does not go directly to its lesbian implications but percolates through her own traumatic sexual history. The phrase happy blindness bears patent if unconscious reference to her own ingenuous state before she had “come on the sight” of her father in flagrante delicto, and the parenthetical phrase qualifying her fears—for the young—just as palpably adverts to Anna Murphy, the young girl, whom Helen identifies with the intellectual cocoon of her own childhood. Most strikingly, Reverend Mother fears for Anna not unnatural things, the accepted social designation for homoeroticism—whether her father’s overt acts or her charges’ coded passions—but rather “many natural things.” The single germane example of the “natural things” Reverend Mother fears is, of course, her own “natural” but incestuously tinged and therefore illicit father-love, once likewise sheltered in a “happy blindness,” the loss of which led to a catastrophic “unexplained cutting-off” corresponding both to her entering the convent and celibacy and, symbolically, to Freud’s classic account of the oedipal crisis that the primal scene precipitates.
In certain respects, this juxtaposition of infantile, juvenile, and adult perversity—male-male and female-female eroticism and homo- and heterosexuality—in Reverend Mother’s unconscious thought processes typifies O’Brien’s approach to representing sexual deviancy in general and her own presumed lesbianism in particular. Several critics have noted that novels such as Mary Lavelle and As Splendor and Music treat lesbianism as one of various forms of human love, all of which exist in an abrasive or competitive relationship with divine love and all of which are thus to be had only at an inescapable cost.10 As we have endeavored to show, however, the difference here—what may be the distinctive quality of The Land of Spices in O’Brien’s corpus—is that human passion subsists in a simulacral, supplementary, and even symbiotic relation to divine love as well as an abrasive and competitive one. Reverend Mother must, in consequence, reckon not just with “the price of passion,” as Donoghue asserts, but also with sexual passion’s positive virtue and necessity (1995, 182–83).
Reverend Mother learns this lesson in full from the very girl, Anna Murphy, whom she had mistakenly sought to safeguard from it. In order to steer her young ward more firmly away from the suggestive blandishments of Schwärmerei to the more respectable pleasure that Anna evidently takes in poetry, Reverend Mother concludes the evening’s festivities by asking her to recite a verse. The poem Anna selects, “Peace,” just happens to be one taught to young Helen herself by her father, thus bringing to Helen’s consciousness Anna’s developing role as her juvenile surrogate. In Anna’s voice, Reverend Mother “heard her own nights of uncomforted sobbing, and now felt once more . . . the dark convulsions and intersections of the path that lead innocence to knowledge and desire and dream to reality. She saw this baby in herself, herself in those tear-wet eyes” (K. O’Brien 1988, 86). But it is in the words through which the voice reverberates that “she heard a storm break in her hollow heart . . . from past and future,” to swell “the strong, irrational assault of sorrow, demanding to be faced” (85–86). These words are “full of echoes and prefiguring . . . hints and symbolisings” (86), just like the metaleptic narrative of her life, and like that narrative, they insist on the stubborn imbrications of the bodily and the sacral, the sexual and the spiritual. They are the words of Henry Vaughn, whose metaphysical verse, with that of Richard Crashaw and of course George Herbert (from whose poem the novel’s title derives), aims at yoking in single images or tropes the human and divine manifestations of love, agape and eros, the passion of the Christ and the less elevated passions of humankind, without in any way eliding the discordance between them.
Helen’s father devoted his life to the metaphysical poets, motivated by a cognate aspiration “to reward his own pleasure and indulge it” with “the gleam of the spirit, the hint of grace” (86).11 He emerges, accordingly, not just as the figure or memory with whom Helen is to make amends but a figure or persona of the sort of (necessarily imperfect) reconciliation to be achieved—that is, a partial, still dissonant composition of her tainted human love for him and the rarefied divine love she sought in forsaking him. Such a reconciliation, then, entails a similarly conflicted or ambivalent identification, requiring a new tolerance for her own frailties no less than his: “I am after all at once his daughter . . . and a victim of his—his personality. Therefore, from two angles, coward though I am, I know of sensitiveness, of what it can do and what it can suffer” (88). At this, the climax of her emotional epiphany, the ills of the sentimentality Mother Eugenia approves are no match for the insensitivity of “Mother Mary Andrew’s voice” (88). Reverend Mother abruptly decides to stay at her post in order to protect Anna—not from the likes of her father, from the code of Schwärmerei, or from the dangers they incarnate, but from the new, puritanical Irish Catholicism that would be the scourge of all such sensitive things.
Given the role that metaphysical poetry plays in orchestrating the climactic resolution, personal and conceptual, of Helen’s story, the decision by O’Brien to name the novel after a phrase in Herbert’s poem “Prayer” would seem to herald an aesthetic agenda on her part. This seems all the more true since this poem, which Helen intones over the news of her father’s death, so pointedly conjoins earthly delights and heavenly promises in a series of figural substitutions. The “land of spices” itself is both a metaphor of the titular “Prayer” and a metonym of sensual intoxication, tropes riven together along a chain of iterative association. O’Brien may thus be seen to celebrate and to emulate an art that not only traffics in but sublimates the enigmatic signifier, promoting the undecidability of an erotic implication to the undecidable proximity that implication might bear to spiritual transcendence.
For this reason, it is suggestive that before Anna Murphy delivers her inspiring recitation, she registers her first visible susceptibility to indefinitely eroticized attraction, a tiny crack in the unreceptivity she previously showed to Schwärmerei: “She was glad to see Letitia Doyle arrayed in the broad blue sash of the Seniors. They were lovely stiff sashes. Anna longed to run her hand up and down Letitia’s” (83). Are we to read this linkage of the aesthetically pleasing and the erotically stirring as lending to Anna’s voice the power it shortly exhibits to effect in Revered Mother an emotionally transformative satori? Is this convergence of aesthetic and erotic desire in Anna’s perception of Letitia Doyle’s sash an analogue of the feeling Helen’s father bore for the violin maestro Etienne? And is it this unification of sex and sensibility that enables Anna to be father not to the man but to the nun, as the cherished, distinctly homoerotic Oxonian aestheticism Helen and her father once shared revives in Helen’s sudden, harkening awareness that “Father would like this child” (86)?12 With all of the contingencies at work, these questions remain too difficult to answer; they leave us by design in a state of brightening uncertainty.
However, two things are clear. First, art constitutes a privileged arena for mediating between the different planes of existential desire in the novel, for dignifying the sexual and materializing the supernal. Second, in limning Anna as her fictive alter ego, her “portrait of the artist,” O’Brien repeatedly marks her as an extraordinarily cerebral creature, more interested in books than people; yet she is careful to build faint but discernible moments of same-sex eroticism into Anna’s time at Saint-Famille. What is more, by way of underscoring the importance of these lesbian impulses to her specifically aesthetic development, O’Brien places the moments of their appearance in illustrative parallelism with incidents from Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist, the model text for Anna’s kunstlerroman narrative. In one such example, Anna is unjustly denied an academic honor by the cruel Mother Mary Andrew, and when she complains of this malignant treatment, the Mother Scholastic physically abuses her for doing so. The episode unquestionably invokes the famous pandying scene in A Portrait of the Artist, wherein Stephen is unjustly and painfully chastised by Father Dolan despite an academic performance that has elevated him to class leader. Stephen’s punishment is part of a terrorizing disciplinary sweep of Clongowes in the wake of a homosexual scandal, precipitated by what is perhaps literature’s most famous enigmatic signifier, smugging, among the upper lines. Anna’s punishment, conversely, leads to her being comforted in her bed by a girl, Molly Redmond, whom she has long admired and in a fashion that Mother Mary Andrew, upon discovering the girls together, deems “immodesty” (113). While by no means an overtly lesbian encounter, this is the only scene in the novel pushing a still indefinite homoeroticism to the point of physical contact, the sort of indefinite but forbidden contact that might be considered the female equivalent of the “smugging” activity at Clongowes Wood. In a dramatic irony pertinent to Reverend Mother’s crowning reconciliation, her decision to stay at Saint-Famille in order to shelter Anna from Mother Mary Andrew (a pledge she carries out forcefully after this incident) runs counter to her earlier hopes of screening Anna from the kind of pathological sexuality that her own father, in her eyes, personified.
What Reverend Mother winds up nurturing in Anna is something along the lines of the aesthetic consciousness that her father had once implanted in her. The correlation of that consciousness with sexual desire finds further confirmation in our penultimate view of Anna, touched on earlier, in her lakeside tête-à-tête with the beautiful Pilar, Anna’s version of Stephen Dedalus’s seaside muse. In the “birdgirl,” Stephen stumbles on a figure who appears to him a synthesis of bathing beauty and Madonna, hence an emblem of an aesthetic vocation dedicated to “transmuting the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of everliving life” (Joyce 1992b, 240). Under Anna’s searching eyes, Pilar likewise transforms into an eroto-spiritual “motive in art” (K. O’Brien 1988, 286). It is, for O’Brien, the motive of art to address and transfigure the sexual dimension of life, and she accomplishes the feat so effectively in this interlude that her readers have, as we have noted, either read past the lesbian “gravity” of the scene altogether or reduced it to “subtext” (a literary closet of the reader’s own making, wherein he or she deposits imperfectly legible effects of the text itself). Through free indirect discourse, O’Brien positions her alter ego as growing into the principle on which her own literary method is based: enigmatic signifiers mobilize the alembic power of art, enabling it to rarefy without concealing the erotic energies on which it draws. If this is not a strictly lesbian homoerotic principle, it must be accounted a queer one. As Anna “stared at [Pilar] in wonder,” as she realizes “her lustrous potentiality” and feels it to be “a long-awaited, blessed gift,” as she follows these sentiments by acknowledging her “secret need [for a] passage of beauty,” the erotic intent is by no means nugatory, nor is it hidden somewhere beneath the surface (287). Rather, it gathers in the accumulated feeling that the signifiers convey and produce in only loose association with their semiotic values. This is precisely how the “prayer” in Herbert’s poem passes through a series of evocative but counterintuitive juxtapositions, including “the land of spices,” to become in the end “something understood.” O’Brien would have The Land of Spices understood in related fashion, not as a loving elaboration of the enigma of prayer but as a kind of prayer on the enigma of love.
Anna Murphy renews within Reverend Mother numinous words and meanings that she has long known but that had lain dormant for decades, becoming Reverend Mother’s symbolic parent by rejuvenating erotic potentialities long disavowed. By the end of the novel, Reverend Mother returns the favor, becoming symbolic parent to the child who begot her. One key aspect of her spiritual integrity that remains consistent throughout the novel inheres in her extreme discretion: the good she does, she does altogether invisibly, accepting and also quietly exploiting the nearly universal misconstructions that are placed on her motives owing to her English accent and seemingly distant persona.
Like the novel she defines, and like the author who created her, Reverend Mother is content to be presently misunderstood in the name of a more equitable future. A transformed future, however, cannot be brought about altogether in silence. Just as The Land of Spices’s textual web of signification concerning homoerotic love must hinge on one unmistakable instance, in Helen’s father’s explicitly sexual coupling with Etienne, so just once in the course of the novel must the Reverend Mother visibly act on Anna’s behalf, using her clout openly to ensure that Anna can accept the university scholarship to which her abilities entitle her.
Reverend Mother is thus both the beneficiary and the begetter of her unknowing protégé, Anna Murphy, a queer, female intellectual traveler into a futurity the Reverend Mother will never know, coming of age at a most inauspicious moment in the history of Irish Catholicism. And with her, into this future she carries an enigmatic message initially transmitted to and subsequently received from Reverend Mother, herself the bearer of an originary seduction bearing the passionate energies of an English, Protestant, male homophilic lineage.
Kate O’Brien, like her Reverend Mother, elected to work, in a sense, invisibly, so as to nurture the next generation. In The Land of Spices, she crafted a beautifully wrought, shimmering account of one educator’s unspoken self-appointment as a queer ally who quietly ensures for the next generation that of which her own beloved father was bereft. Paradoxically, however, in the novel it is only by means of the voice of the queer child that the Reverend Mother is able to understand herself, to make sense of the words and affect that she has, unwittingly, hoarded away safely from her childhood, uninterrogated, unsullied. In The Land of Spices itself, O’Brien likewise hoarded her own erotic truths, which she encoded fulsomely, exhaustively, and emphatically, in terms that themselves invoked the time-honored and otherwise inexplicable misapprehension of the novel’s import by the scholarly community. Due to the welcome, well-advanced dismantling of the Irish lesbian closet, for which O’Brien deserves some credit and gratitude, it is now possible to set aside this residual form of open secrecy.
1. As Douglas (1966) has it, “where there is dirt, there is a system” (36). Through such systems, she contends, all societies systematically transform myriad sensory stimuli that would otherwise register as an endless onslaught of sensory white noise and static into a stable order of recognizable shapes; and “dirt” is the by-product of this ongoing, social conversion of “sound and fury” into a legible, predictable world. Dirt, Douglas argues, or “matter out of place,” is thus the category that all social orders must have in order to account for and ritually manage anomalies that threaten to disrupt their social patterning (36). Crucial to the maintenance of every culture’s epistemological system are clear lines of social hierarchization and demarcation that “provide a frame for experience” and make statements about the home (65). Pollution thus occurs when such boundaries are transgressed or rendered contradictory (126).
2. In Cathy Caruth’s 2001 interview with Jean Laplanche (published in 2014), Laplanche places great emphasis on the strangeness of the other who implants the originary enigmatic message, and the strangeness of the enigmatic message itself. He explains the spatial dimension of the enigmatic signifier in relation to “a biological model,” according to which “an organism has an envelope, and something happens inside, which is homeostatic, and something is outside,” emphasizing that in the enigmatic encounter what is meant by strangeness or extraneity is “something very much more ‘outside’ than [that implied by something external to the biological organism’s homeostative envelope]” (Caruth 2014, 25). Laplanche argues that the “reality of the other” in the enigmatic encounter is “absolutely bound to his strangeness” and that, in fact, for “the human being, the baby,” the messages of the other are enigmatic “because those messages are strange to themselves” (27).
3. Stephen’s terms notably prefigure those that Leopold Bloom in Barney Kiernan’s pub makes in self-defense following the similar charge of pollution laid by the Citizen, who accuses foreigners like Bloom of “filling the country with bugs” (Joyce 1986, 12.1141–42).
4. We allude here to D. P. Moran’s famous essay “The Battle of Two Civilizations” (1901) to suggest that there were decisive fissures in late/postcolonial Ireland other than the Pale versus the Gael.
5. In Poets and Dreamers, Lady Gregory’s insightful commentary on the Biddy Earley stories that she collected points to the competition these stories frequently engender between the priest and Biddy Earley (1974), betokening a long-standing traditional belief that private troubles the church cannot or will not treat may and should be handled by traditional practitioners, using traditional means. In The Burning of Bridget Cleary, Bourke (2001) describes this established movement between the church and folk practitioners as it occurred in an increasingly unstable and uneven modernity.
6. From Limerick to Dublin to London, to the Basque Country in the north of Spain, and then, in her one move west, back to Manchester.
7. For Joyce’s strategies of homoerotic disclosure, see Joseph Valente (1997, 47–76) and (2006, 124–48).
8. For more on O’Brien’s debt to Joyce, see Owen Weekes (1990, 122–23); Legarreta Mentxaka (2011, 105).
9. See, in particular, Unnatural Death (1938) and Gaudy Night (2016).
10. See Donoghue (1993, 50–53; 1995, 182–86); Coughlan (1993, 74–77); Dalsimer (1990, 112–15); Tighe-Mooney (2008, 125–37).
11. Anna asks Reverend Mother, in an instance of symbolic irony, “Did your father compose it?” (87).
12. We should note the subliminal echoes here of the homophonic phrase “father is like this child,” because Reverend Mother discovers the phrase “Father would like this child” oddly floating on the “quiet surface of her mind” immediately after Anna’s “little voice” unleashes “a storm [breaking] in her hollow heart, which was not her own storm, for that was over, but was rather an assault, a sentimental menacing appeal, from past and future and from nowhere, from the child’s voice and from her father’s.” Thus, we have here a textbook reactivation of the enigmatic signifier, an internal “storm” experienced as an external “assault,” as from the past, the future, and from nowhere, and as only from the child, and from her father, and in her stalwart insistence that whatever Anna’s little voice has broken open within her, it was “not her own storm, for that was over” (86).