- Against the Nouning of DesireHomonational Tragedy and Queer Form in Jamie O’Neill’s At Swim, Two Boys
In an interview with the Irish Echo newspaper Jamie O’Neill relates that “on one visit back to Dublin, I remember going past the walls of Arbour Hill where Pearse was executed, and I asked myself, was the love of Ireland for which he died, so very different from loving an Irishman” (McKinley). His elision here between two different forms of desiring, the nationalist and the queer, belies a confused and overlapping set of concerns in much twentieth-century thinking. To what extent are these two forms, in fact, distinct? Do the forces of capitalist liberal governance take advantage of, or pervert, the individual’s desires to serve their own ends? Are the forms of desiring distinct within the decolonial moment and the later structures of reified national identity? How can the novel hope to represent, or even potentially resist, these motions? In this article, I hope to resettle the conversation between these ways of understanding queerness’s relation to nationalism and identity within the field of Irish politics through an examination of Jamie O’Neill’s novel At Swim, Two Boys (2001). By appearing to look backwards and insert homosexuality into Ireland’s formative moment, the Easter Rising, O’Neill seems to romanticize the Irish State, which had, as the novel was written, only recently decriminalized homosexuality. By weaving nationality and sexuality so tightly around one another, O’Neill is often [End Page 23] taken to construct an uncritical and conservative historical narrative as a justification for today’s gay politics. In this view O’Neill’s history would tell an origin story for the current state of what Jasbir Puar calls “homonationalism”: the structure wherein gay and lesbian men and women become full subjects of the state, and then, in turn, actively seek to strengthen the state as a means to protect their newly enfranchised identities. In this sense, one could be tempted to take At Swim, Two Boys as a retroactive justification for the Irish state by intertwining Irishness and gayness at the inception of the nation.
I argue, however, that O’Neill’s novel results not in a valorization of the Irish State by unambiguously inscribing homosexuality into its birth, but in an unsettling of both Irish and gay identity. Fundamentally, At Swim, Two Boys represents the seductive elicitation of nationalism— the ease and comfort of treating one’s lover and one’s nation as the same— while simultaneously cautioning against this elision. This is accomplished in two primary ways. On the level of content, it appears in the novel’s tragic plot by showing what happens when desire becomes uncritically hitched to nationalism. The tragedy of the novel is caused by the creation of an identity: a ‘nouning’ of the active expression of desire between two boys. On a formal level O’Neill’s critique builds from his creation of an anachronistic intertextual narrative that borrows across time in order to demonstrate the ways that identities are created provisionally, not only from a history marked by the traumas of violent oppression but also from the best of our pasts: the most important stories we have to tell ourselves. As such, while the book, no doubt, elides the love of one’s country and the love of one’s beloved, it does so not proscriptively, but, rather, to foreground the ways in which the reduction of desire to identity— understood as the result of a linear development— leads to a tragic diminution of the very desires that propel history.
To read this novel through the lens of sexual normativity and nationalism is particularly important in a period when marriage equality has so recently become a constitutionally defined reality in Ireland. Regardless of whether we consider literature a mirror of subjectivity, or an experimental laboratory for new subjectivities, the verisimilitude of literary and economic life of gay and lesbian characters, not to mention the economic publishability of such works, are often judged against a [End Page 24] heterosexual norm. And yet, many lives are happily indistinguishable from that norm. We must, then, ask...