restricted access Modernism, Ireland and the Erotics of Memory (review)
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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.4 (2003) 870-873

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Nicholas Andrew Miller. Modernism, Ireland and the Erotics of Memory. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002. xi + 226 pp.

"The principal purpose of this book," writes Nicholas Andrew Miller in this wide-ranging, ambitious and theoretically top-heavy work, "is to [End Page 870] explore memory, both in the Irish context and in general, as the unfolding process through which the past continuously 'occurs,' for the first time, to the present." The exploration is carried out in two stages. The first consists of a dense, far-reaching theoretical overview characterizing the ontological pastness of the past, its essential irrecoverability and the problems posed thereby for such cultural objectives as continuity, tradition, remembrance, and commemoration. These objectives rely on a false, or at any rate ideologically fabricated, sense of the availability of the past. Problems arising from this sense are illustrated by an analysis of the Holocaust "counter-memorials" of the German conceptual artist, Jochen Gerz, whose work defies the commonplace public assumption that the Holocaust can truly be disclosed to memory. The result is to provoke an awareness of the past grounded in its own essential ignorance.

Miller then goes on to develop a view of memory based not on the conception of the rememberer as a knowing subject but on an "erotics": "a discourse that implies the existence of subjects constituted not only in their capacity to know but also to desire." The theoretical model for this discourse is psychoanalysis, the "key structure" of which is the symptom, "the mark of a history necessarily retained, if not necessarily remembered." Accounting for the symptom inscribes a history that makes its presence felt by replacing the rational, knowing subject with the desiring subject. (Very crudely: Lacan yes, Jameson no.) The symptom is both the ever-present and never-recoverable past. The first stage of "exploration" concludes with a reading of Roberto Rossellini's film Viaggio in Italia—"a cinematic counter-memorial"— conducted in terms of its symptomatic memory of Joyce's "The Dead."

This textual demonstration rehearses the readings of three Irish "case studies" that constitute the exploration's second stage. The first reading deals with the cinema's presumptive recovery of the past in a work such as Birth of a Nation, viewed in the light of its Dublin premiere in September 1916. Particular attention is devoted to one of the film's captions, "The Uncrowned King," which an Irish audience might well read as a reference to their late political leader, Charles Stewart Parnell. Clearly, such a reading is incorrect; nevertheless it calls to mind a time prior to what Miller refers to as "a crisis of historical imagination." The symptomatic trace of the Parnellite past prompts both an awareness of rupture and a desire to recover, whereas Irish films of the period are merely narratives of simplistic historical recuperation. The inadequacy of these narratives is further underlined in the second case study, which deals with Yeats's reaction to the emergence of a triumphalist nationalism. Yeats's complicated deployment of the image of Cuchulain, particularly in his later [End Page 871] work, is considered as a means of resisting the narrativist rationalizations to which contemporary events were recruited: "[r]ather, that image embodies a heroic passion, the 'Irishness' of which is not wholly susceptible to a logic of cultural or political value." In that sense, Cuchulain projects a countermemorial grounded in an eroticized past. The third case study focuses on the Nightlessons section of Finnegans Wake. In its verbal enactment of an always-approaching, never-attaining discursive experience, Finnegans Wake—and Lacan's "Joyce le symptome"—replicates the symptomatic presence of the past in the consciousness of present reality, a presence that is apprehensible though not comprehensible. The Wake, thus, is the ultimate countermemorial site.

As with the uneasy relationship between the symptom and the unconscious, and with the complicated connection between a knowing subject and his unknowable historic past, there are difficult relationships both within and between the two stages of Modernism, Ireland and the Erotics of Memory. One...