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Territoires de l'étrange dans la littérature irlandaise au XXe siècle

Gaïd Girard

Quatrième partie. Du merveilleux à l’inquiétante étrangeté du réel

Mc Gahern’s Inverted Uncanny

Victor Sage

Texte intégral

  • 1 All quotations from John McGahern, The Leavetaking (London, Faber and Faber, 1974) unless otherwis (...)

1My point of departure is a passage from the end of McGahern’s The Leavetaking (1974)1. Patrick, the narrator, having finally forced the Catholic Church to sack him from his post as a schoolmaster in provincial Ireland because he refuses to hide the fact that he is living in sin with Isobel, the woman he loves, returns to their lodgings in Howth. The text renders, and indeed to some extent displaces, the emotional charge of this moment of stubborn rebellion into the details of the serenely banal scene before him at Howth harbour, as Patrick gets off the bus and makes a space for himself to reflect on what this decisive action means for the future :

“I get off at the stop past Howth Station to walk a few minutes by the harbour. Some boats of the fishing fleet are moored to the wall, their wet decks gleam under the glare of the harbour lights, nets and coils of rope and winches and empty fish boxes. A fisherman comes out of his cabin into the white glare and empties a teapot over the side and only a door creaks as he silently returns to the mystery of the dimly lighted cabin, above it the still wings of the radar. The full tide surges against the wall and boats, withdraws, and surges back. ‘Begin and cease, and then begin again.’ It was Matthew Arnold. And… ‘it brought into his mind the turbid ebb and flow of human misery’. That bright girdle he spoke of had been long broken for me too before this last night. I turn uphill from the sea and boats towards the room.” (p. 169.)

2What Patrick’s eyes take in here is conditioned by the effort to dismiss the idea of the numinous – he has just convinced himself that his decision to leave his profession, is neither a return nor a leavetaking, but a permission (or, with crucial ambiguity, a sentence) for himself and Isobel to continue, renewing themselves and

3each other every day, which is “the only communion left to us now” (p. 168). This concentration on the harbour’s sights and the water’s rhythms is the antidote to a sudden and paradoxically desperate need to pray, that follows on that thought about the loss of “communion” ; and this very honed movement of perception represents metonymically the rejection of transfiguration, the metaphysical and the numinous, the loss of Matthew Arnold’s “Sea of Faith” with its bright girdle at the earth’s imagined shore :

“The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
To… breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

  • 2 The Poems of Matthew Arnold, Kenneth Allott (ed.), London, 1965, p. 242, l. 21-30. There are a num (...)

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another2 !”

4Instead, in McGahern’s text, it is this simple shore in front of him, this literal sea between himself and the England he will emigrate to, and the love for a woman which is the only truth he can know and hold on to. Arnold’s progressive reduction of religious Faith to human sexual love (“Ah love, let us be true/to one another !”) is imaged in a kind of exile that fits perfectly Patrick’s state of mind.

5The passage is full of little touches of denied transcendence : it refers casually to the’mystery’of the lighted cabin to which the fisherman returns after emptying the teapot over the side, and, “above it, the still wings of the radar”. This low-key, lower-case figurative manoeuvre imprisons the sublime in the quotidian. If “mystery” had been in the plural, it would be like a distancing trick of Dickens (“the mysteries of the lighted cabin” would be the typical humorous glimpse the urban flaneur takes of a courtyard or a recessed space he flashes past, the charm of which lies in the exclusion of the happily moving observer). But that isn’t McGahern’s tone : instead the reader is faced with the sudden but uncertain strength of a conviction ; a passing feeling of knowing what such an unmetaphyical “mystery” might mean. The surge of the tide against the boats and the wall, and its withdrawal, recalls the lost mystery of Faith, and thus the rhythm invokes in little, the sublime grandeur of its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar on the shingle at Dover. The echo springs up here and haunts the end of McGahern’s text : the simple “room” where he and Isobel will be true to each other – their sexuality, (even the “glimmer” of her slender white arms in the dark recalls the whiteness of Arnold’s vision of the cliffs “Glimmering and vast”), their ability to procreate, their gamble on an unknown future, all this in the shadow of death – is finally Patrick’s “mystery”, his unknown sea.

6These delicate movements of contradiction and subdued allegory hidden in the small change of the mundane are absolutely integral to the distinctive yearning effect of McGahern’s prose. The logic of this writing is not simply mimetic and realist, despite its concentration on the normal and everyday. The banal object is precious precisely because it reveals the absence of the metaphysical guarantees that would give it value ; it becomes strange because it is not transfigured, because it is post-transfigured. The only certainty is that one is to leave the company of the mundane ; and this “leavetaking” casts a shadow, for Patrick, over all people, events and things, even love itself, creating an uncanny that lurks at the very heart of the bright substance, the familiarity of things.

7This shadow of natural death (the “leavetaking”) permeates everything, robbing objects and events of their singularity. It is death itself which has already possessed that singularity, and everything that follows in life, follows logically, not just temporally, as a spectral resurrection of Death :

  • 3 This passage was rewritten in McGahern’s 1984 edition, as follows :
    “We feel all things are relativ (...)

“All things are relative except our own death, and seen in its shadow even the dismissal of this day borrows some of the graveclothes of the absolute, and must wear them in that dignity they acquire from having undergone the ultimate indignity.“ (p. 180)3

8The ambiguous phrase “the dismissal of this day” refers either literally to Patrick’s “dismissal” from the School that morning ; or metaphorically to our ability to put off the day of our own death. This figurative manoeuvre is a solemn parody of the miracle of Christ’s Resurrection, in which the ghostliness of things is installed at the heart of their very materiality – they have arisen and wear the graveclothes that are meant, in the original Christian story, to act as the witness of eternal life. Despite the insistence of a secular inversion of the lie of faith, the uncanny persists in the added “dignity” of things, in the paradox that their truth lies in their value, which is their half-absence, not their reality, like a mythic afterimage, a “trace” of mystery and fear.

9The last lines of this novel are Patrick’s statement of faith in their “communion” of a daily renewal of love. The allegory of the boat and the harbour stretches through these final paragraphs like a strand of brighter weaving in plain cloth. The reiteration of a faith in the inverted sublimity of simple unadorned being is symbolised by the leaving of the harbour for the open sea, and “no boat needs so much trust to put to sea as it does for one body to go human and naked and vulnerable in to the arms of another”. But the figurative representation of a commitment to the consolation of sexuality, the communion of the evanescent, is finally subjected to an uncanny and irresolvable ambiguity in the final phrase of the novel :

“The odour of our lovemaking rises, redolent of slime and fish, and our very breathing seems an echo of the rise and fall of the sea as we drift to sleep ; and I would pray for the boat of our sleep to reach its morning, and see that morning lengthen to an evening of calm weather that comes through night and sleep again to morning after morning, until we meet the first death.” (p. 195)

10That final qualification clangs shut ; and it undercuts the statement of faith in the singularity of being. Here, the shadow appears to be cast backwards from the end, the final cause, towards Patrick’s present, flickering, forward-looking consciousness, backwards from the future, from that “first death” – whomsoever’s it will be ; or, is it that the shadow of that other first death in his past, the terrible death of Patrick’s mother, – for him the original “leavetaking” into life, – is casting its shadow forward to condition all other deaths and all echoes of deaths, – endings like his dismissal from school, including, even, the “little death”, the “last flame” into which their lovemaking breaks ? The echo here, for one of McGahern’s generation, is of another poet : as Dylan Thomas puts it in that famous elegy of his about the London blitz, “Refusal to mourn the death of a child by Fire” :

  • 4 Dylan Thomas, Collected Poems, 1934-1952, (J. M. Dent & Sons, London, 1952), 101. Thomas also carn (...)

“Deep with the first dead lies London’s daughter,
Robed in the long friends,
The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,
Secret by the unmourning water
Of the rising Thames.
After the first death, there is no other4”.

11Thomas’s characteristically heroic (pagan) formula is weakened by the way McGahern places the phrase, knell-like, at the end of an uncannily hypothetical prayer (“I would pray”) simply to continue, a prayer that is never made and cannot now with any sense be made, and yet is made.

  • 5 The quotation is from Section VI of Stevens’s “Credences of Summer” (1946), which begins :
    “The roc (...)

12I have been urging above, that, in the elegiac figurative logic of “The Leavetaking”, the uncanny arises as an effect of the inverted sublime, the persistent polemical denial of religious faith. In both modes, there is an unrepresentable residue that triggers the emotional response to its mystery and awe – either exultation or fear. This is because denotation is finally baffled – the sublime or uncanny object has an unrepresentable “other half”. The sublimity of a rock depends on its vanishing point : it ascends into “such rock as placid air becomes”, in the words of Wallace Stevens5. Denotation cannot denote an absent presence, without calling upon the aid of connotation. The process of signification is not interrupted by the inversion caused by the denial of transcendence – transcendence persists in offering its possibility and its consolatory “otherness” with the sign of cancellation against it. Natural death puts on the graveclothes and renders all our experience in time the fearful shadow of a final ending, the repeated ghost of our own absence.

13I now want to turn to the short story, “The Wine Breath”, to explore how this figurative turn achieves structure in a shorter prose piece.

* * *

14John McGahern’s’The Wine Breath’begins with a moment in which it seems the Uncanny could not survive : a priest, imagining himself dead, catches himself in a moment of nostalgia for life, an instant of naïve anthropomorphism, a piece of bad faith that apparently his modernity could never admit :

  • 6 All quotations from “The Wine Breath” are from John Mcgahern, Collected Stories (London, Faber and (...)

“If I were to die, I’d miss most the mornings and the evenings, he thought as he walked the narrow dirt-track by the lake in the late evening, and then wondered if his mind was failing, for how could anybody think anything so stupid : being a man, he had no choice, he was doomed to die ; and being dead he’d miss nothing, being nothing. It went against everything in his life as a priest.” (p. 178)6

15The brute post-Enlightenment fact of natural death, an insistent theme in McGahern’s prose, is here linked with the priest’s life. Not, interestingly, his vocation : there’s not a whiff of superstition here, nor even, as one might expect, of the consolation of his faith. Instead, the quotidian struggle is portrayed as beginning with the dull and stubborn material fact of the world, in which he, like all men, is doomed to be nothing. There’s no room for fantasy or daydreaming in this reaction.

16Almost immediately, indeed dialectically, the solid world invoked by his banal visit to his parishioner, Gillespie, is undermined by an extraordinary, apparently Proustian, epiphany. The experience is heralded by the sound of Gillespie’s chain-saw : “The rise and fall of the two-stroke stayed like a rent in the evening.” (p. 178.) The fabric of’the solid world’is figuratively torn by a vision of light :

“The priest put a hand to the black gate, bolted to the first of the alders, and was at once arrested by showery sunlight falling down the avenue. It lit up one boot holding the length of beech in place, it lit the arms moving the blade slowly up and down as it tore through the beech, white chips milling out on the chain.” (p. 178.)

17The style here has already begun to move the notation of the banal into the realm of the figurative ; and yet it is held here, delicately poised, in the initiatory moment of transfiguration, the light that picks out in painterly fashion the one, upraised boot of Gillespie, his arms, and the small fragments of fresh beech mounting inches deep around him. The “solid world” is in shadow and the light, by implication, is already beginning to rob the objects it catches of their mundane specificity.

18The full vision comes upon the Priest in a rush ; it is an intense memory experience that transports him into a “lost day” almost thirty years in the past, the deep snow-filled day in the terrible winter of 1947, when his father’s friend, Michael Bruen, was buried. It is the same white light, “an incredible sweetness of light”, in which he is now bathed, that appeared then.

19I said an apparently Proustian epiphany, because, in McGahern’s text, this involuntary recall of the experience is not a re-living of it, a proof of immortality by the subject’s existence in two times at once, but, sublime as it seems, it is a diminished echo : “Never before or since had he experienced the Mystery in such awesomeness. Now, as he stood at the gate, there was no awe or terror, only the coffin moving slowly towards the dark trees on the hill.” (p. 179) For, despite the claim implied in the capitalizing of “Mystery” here, the memory picture is a dramatic sociological account of a community’s loyal and pious actions, rather than a direct revelation of the power of the Holy Spirit :

“Ahead, at the foot of the hill, the coffin rode slowly forward on shoulders, its brown varnish and metal trappings dull in the glittering snow, riding just below the long waste of snow eight or ten feet deep over the whole countryside. The long dark line of mourners following the coffin stretched away towards Oakport Wood in the pathway cut through the snow. High on Killeelan Hill the graveyard evergreens rose out of the snow. The graveyard wall was covered, the narrow path cut up the side of the hill stopping at the little gate deep in the snow. The coffin climbed with painful slowness, as if it might never reach the gate, often pausing for the bearers to be changed ; and someone started to pray, the prayer travelling down the whole mile-long line of the mourners as they shuffled behind the coffin in the narrow tunnel cut in the snow.” (p. 178-179)

20The only oddity of perception, and thus of figuration, though it is indeed also beautifully observed on a naturalistic level at the same time, is that the coffin acquires agency : it appears to move of its own accord across the “long waste of snow”, so effaced have the bearers transporting it become by the transforming strangeness of the natural world – the snow is so deep that they are literally not visible to the boy’s sight – and the figurative climax of the revelation is surprisingly a slightly uncanny one – the animation of the coffin becomes the metonymic animation of Death itself, which waits for the bearers to change beneath it, – not the sublime metaphor of the afterlife we might have expected. The expectation of a religious sublime becomes, for a moment, the uncanny image of mortality : in its silent repeated form, the dark coffin makes its way to the equally dark yew trees. Despite the presence of the light which provoked the memory, the darkness of the quotidian has already encroached.

21It is fairly clear from this delicate pattern of figuration, that this is a priest, in some sense, without a vocation who retains an unconsoled fear of his own natural death. And yet the vision of the “dead day” is so intense, so pure and perfect, “that he felt purged of all tiredness, was, for a moment, eager to begin life again” (p. 180). This is the trap which the vision of the scene springs for him : “life”, life in the present, is encroached upon by death ; the numbers of “dead days” are increasing, and pushing him into a smaller and smaller space, while the revelatory vision he has just undergone, now, as he turns away, not having rattled Gillespie’s gate to attract his attention, seems to him to have lost its substance, as the dull material world reasserts itself :

“Safe on the wide main road he let his mind go back to the beech chips. They rested there around Gillespie’s large bulk, and paler still was the line of mourners following the coffin through the snow, a picture you could believe or disbelieve but not be in.” [my italics] (p. 180).

22The dream is dead : the mourners themselves have become paler than the fresh beechwood, and the existential thrill of the vision has died into a mechanism of exclusion or inclusion (“belief or disbelief”), driving him down into the dreary prison of actuality again :

“In idle exasperation he began to count the trees in the hedge along the road as he walked : ash, green oak, whitethorn, ash ; the last leaves a vivid yellow on the wild cherry, empty October fields in dull wet light behind the hedges. This, then, was the actual day, the only day that mattered, the day from which our salvation had to be won or lost : it stood solidly and impenetrably there, denying the weak life of the person, with nothing of the eternal other than it would dully endure.” (p. 180)

23The vision here has separated off and almost disappeared ; instead, the actual day, “challenging the weak life of the person” has taken its place, and the Priest clings to his isolation in the minimal plainness of his house and its few objects, as he skirts round the church, commenting : “Always when about to give birth or die cattle sought out a clean place in some corner of the field.” (p. 181) That “clean place” is the actual, the now, life as the site of mortality itself, a space that shrinks with every moment that passes.

24This bleak resting-point is broken into by the warmth of another set of memories of the generous dead man, Michael Bruen, the “warm cave” of his farmhouse kitchen, and “the prettiest of Michael’s daughters”, Eileen, who laughed as she took down the pan to cook what Michael described as “something solid that’ll warm the life back into him” (p. 181). The image of a laughing Eileen is the image of the life (i. e. the wife) he might have had, as he remembers Michael’s comment and the hilarity it arouses : “He’ll remember this was a good place to come when he has to start thinking about a wife.” (p. 181) But this vision of warmth and life is itself dead : “There were days, especially of late, when he seemed to be lost in dead days, to see time present as a flimsy accumulating tissue over all the time that was lost.” (p. 182)

25What is at first referred to as the’solid world’has changed places with this’flimsy accumulating tissue’by this time in the story. It has started to become ghostly, an attenuated, hollowed-out version of a life which in some sense has never been in the present at all : he treats himself to a summary of it that reads like a will-o-the-wisp :

“The country childhood. His mother and father. The arrival at the shocking knowledge of birth and death. His attraction to the priesthood as a way of vanquishing death and avoiding birth. O hurry it, he thought. There is not much to a life. Many have it. There is not enough room. His father and mother were old when they married ; he was’the fruit of old things’, he heard derisively.” (p. 183)

26It is his mother who, in the country speech, “had the vocation for him”. (p. 183). One is reminded, in this double entendre, of Gretta Conroy in Joyce’s “The Dead”, who, when asked by her husband, Gabriel, was she in love with Michael Furey, replied “I was great with him at that time” – as if she might have been literally pregnant with him, instead of passionately in love with him : the Irish idiom is used here in a similar way by McGahern, to intensify the story’s irony : the mother has, in some sense, been the one who had the vocation, and the priest is the one dominated by his overpowering fear of death, and then of life : “Wasn’t it natural to turn back to the mother in this fear ? She was older than fear, having given him his life, and who would give a life if they knew its end ? There was, then, his father’s death, his acceptance of it, as he had accepted all poor fortune all his life long as his due, refusing to credit the good.” (p. 183)

27Like God, mother gives life, and she takes it away. The seamstress tears to pieces all the clothes she has made. The naturalistic level of this disturbing scene of memory insists on the mundane explanation : “I’m afraid it’s just the onset of senility,” the doctor said. “It’s irreversible ?” The doctor nodded...” (p. 184) This, however, is not the whole point : at the symbolic level of the text, this is the eradication of his own life in effigy : “Then he came home one evening to find her standing like a child in the middle of the room, surrounded by an enormous pile of rags. She had taken up from where she’d been interrupted at the herring-bone skirt and torn up every dress or article of clothing she had ever made.” (p. 184)

28After this, he has – without knowing it – become a ghost, looking in at his own life, as if it’s already over. Her end is a tormentingly brief and ephemeral echo of the light that supposedly symbolises eternity : like the beech chips, it leaves him alone in the darkness : “He was with her when she died. She’d turned her face towards him. There came a light of recognition in the eyes like a last glow of a match before it goes out, and then she died.” (p. 184) The comment leaves him at the end of a life he hasn’t lived, in a room which is an “end” : “There was nothing left but his own life. There had been nothing but that all along, but it had been obscured, comfortably obscured.” (p. 185) It is at this point of revelation that the theme of the ghostly insubstantiality of this lost life surfaces explicitly as an inverted form of the uncanny, an uncanny the wrong way round, in the priest’s memories of his mother’s superstitions. She has left him, untorn, the curtain he draws at the end of the day to look out at the graveyard – a last taunting remnant of substance in a ghostly scenario :

“How often must she have watched the moonlight on the still headstones beyond the laurel as it lay evenly on them this night. She had been afraid of ghosts : old priests who had lived in this house, who through whiskey or some other ill had neglected to say some Mass for the dead and because of the neglect the soul for whom the Mass should have been offered was forced to linger beyond its time in Purgatory, and the priest guilty of the omission could himself not be released until the living priest had said the Mass, and was forced to come at midnight to the house in all his bondage until the Mass was said.
’They must have been all good priests, Mother. Good steady old fellows like myself. They never come back,’he used to assure her. He remembered his own idle words as he drew the curtain, lingering as much over the drawing of the curtain as he had lingered over the turning off of the radio. He would be glad of a ghost tonight, be glad of any visitation from beyond the walls of sense.” (p. 185)

29The uncanny is reversed here. The post-Enlightenment prison of natural death, the “walls of sense”, is undisturbed throughout this scene ; and yet the text insists on the ghostliness of the priest, his exclusion from the world of his own life in the present, as he “lingers” like the ghosts outside as he draws the curtain and turns off the radio : “Letting his fingers linger on the knob, he turned it off. The disembodied voice was not unlike the lost day he’d stumbled into through the light on the beech chips…” (p. 185) This feeling of the material object under his fingers is a source of nostalgia for the substance of the material world, which has already vanished under the ghostly touch of those fingers. And he lingers similarly over the drawing of the curtain, in a faint reminiscence of the old priest in Joyce’s “The Sisters”, as he remembers his’idle’words to his mother, the trope of lingering beyond his time reminding us of the purgatory in which he is un-living his life in memory, like unravelling a garment.

30As he looks round this room which is his end, he sees what his life has always been, enshrined in a few scattered objects :

“But when he looked at the room about him he could hardly believe it was so empty and dead and dry, the empty chair where she should be sewing, the oaken table with the scattered books, the clock on the mantel. Wildly and aridly he wanted to curse, but his desire to curse was as unfair as life. He had not wanted it.” (p. 186)

31One feels the presence of Beckett here, in this purgatorial endgame : McGahern’s priest has reached the last day, whether it is this day or not, and the uncanny register of his text is suddenly renewed in his final revelation, that there is a ghost in the room, not out in the graveyard – that the post-Enlightenment prison-house of sense is haunted : “Then, quietly, he saw that he had a ghost all right, one that he had been walking round with for a long time – a ghost he had not wanted to recognise – his own death. He might as well get to know him well. It would never leave now and had no mortal shape. Absence does not cast a shadow.” (p. 187)

32This final figurative haunting – “Absence does not cast a shadow” is purely uncanny – it finally suggests that he has finally identified with his own ghostly non-existence – the progressive hollowing-out of the “solid world” is now complete, and has finally left him outside his own life, looking into it, in that final room :

“All that was there was the white light of the lamp on the open book, on the white marble ; the brief sun of God on beechwood, and the sudden light of that glistening snow, and the timeless mourners moving towards the yews on Killeelan Hill almost thirty years ago. It was as good a day as any, if there ever was a good day to go.” (p. 187)

33This last remark either describes the present, or thirty years ago : it is either a Stoic mental suicide in the present, whose suspension and hinted refusal of the sacramental overtones of’the brief sun of God’which makes a brave secular-sounding pun on Christ ; or, it is an acknowledgement that he died to life then, thirty years ago, when he first encountered the Mystery, its awe and terror, at the lovely man, Michael Bruen’s funeral.

34The text has one more ghostly surprise for the reader. The last paragraph, springing directly from the life he might have had, paints a purely secular picture of the gift of wine, white wine, as the consummation of the breath of life. As he imagines (or remembers) himself listening to a woman’s footsteps approaching up the hall to the door, he turns the bottle completely round in his hands ; the action signifies the secular mystery of the gift. In a parallel world, the ghost of his former self, who has, so to speak, forgotten his future, prepares, on the threshold of a life that might have been, to meet a female, someone with whom he can enter into the illusion of “world enough and time”. This is a picture one can be “in”, but which, to use McGahern’s own phrase, one could neither believe nor disbelieve.

35The sublime traditionally involves awe and (according to Burke) terror ; and it also involves a residue of the unrepresentable, which may be the cause of that emotional charge. Traditionally, tropically, this is an ascent (“Peri Ypsos”). The uncanny, to some extent, presents a parallel : it also involves awe and fear – it threatens to plunge McGahern’s protagonists in these two texts back into superstition and taboo, a journey backwards and downwards, not onwards and upwards like the sublime, but it too faces the subject with the unrepresentable left-over in their experience. To invert the uncanny, by reducing it to the quotidian world of the senses, which his protagonists see, as if through the wrong end of a telescope, as a resistance and a limit, causes it to reappear at the level of the figurative : Death becomes the ghost of a ghost. In these texts McGahern represents the fear of natural death as a superstition, an uncanny shadow, which neither the exposure of religious faith as a consolatory myth, nor the acceptance of the scepticism of the Enlightenment can quite rid us of.


1 All quotations from John McGahern, The Leavetaking (London, Faber and Faber, 1974) unless otherwise specified.

2 The Poems of Matthew Arnold, Kenneth Allott (ed.), London, 1965, p. 242, l. 21-30. There are a number of other echoes. McGahern’s text also quotes from an earlier passage in Arnold’s poem, too : Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery. (p. 241, l.15-18.)
And it quotes the earlier phrase in the poem, at line 12 : “Begin, and cease, and then again begin.” (p. 241.)

3 This passage was rewritten in McGahern’s 1984 edition, as follows :
“We feel all things are relative except our death, and seen in its shadow even the dismissal of this day borrows some of the graveclothes of the absolute, and must be worn in that dignity – but that was too much like what we’d been taught. Bravura has been described as an attempt to go beyond the truth : we had pitched our human truth out beyond our lives in sacrificial doctrine. The true life was death in life. The sexual life was destruction : the sweet mouth, ruin. In my end was my beginning. One day I would say Mass for her.“ (p. 156)
The language of the new version is interestingly clearer, more perspectivised, more detached than ever from the religious values which Patrick is rejecting. And the qualification (and simplification) of the parody of Christ’s graveclothes that McGahern here gives firmly to his character : “… but that was too much like what we’d been taught”. seems precisely to recognise the problem of a re-figuration of the “Mystery” to serve a secular end. McGahern clearly feels he cannot risk the ambiguity and seeks to disentangle it for the reader, by framing it as containing an element of the thought of the past.

4 Dylan Thomas, Collected Poems, 1934-1952, (J. M. Dent & Sons, London, 1952), 101. Thomas also carnivalises the scriptures in this elegy (“I shall not murder the mankind of her going with a grave truth.”). It seems to me quite likely that McGahern had Thomas in mind, because the presence of the Mother (i. e. London, the Thames) is clearly the conditioning factor on the significance of “the first death” and Thomas treads the same thin line between the sacramental and the blasphemous.

5 The quotation is from Section VI of Stevens’s “Credences of Summer” (1946), which begins :
“The rock cannot be broken. It is the truth.
It rises from land and sea and covers them.
It is a mountain half way green and then,
The other immeasurable half, such rock
As placid air becomes.”
In Wallace Stevens, The Palm at the End of the Mind : Selected Poems and a Play, ed., Holly Stevens, Knopf, New York and Toronto, 1972, p. 290.

6 All quotations from “The Wine Breath” are from John Mcgahern, Collected Stories (London, Faber and Faber, 1992).


© Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2009

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