Dalarna University College, Sweden | Published: 15 March, 2007
ISSUE 2 | Pages: 107-120 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2007-2649
2007 by Michal Matynia | This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.
This article attempts to reveal a transitory point in the course of which the protagonist of Eilis Ni Dhuibhne’s “The Pale Gold of Alaska” endeavours to question polar truths that position her in the ‘Irish female’ scheme, thus causing her transformation into the enigma –a symbol that escapes the necessity of verbalising one’s Self. In order to carry out my goal, I dwelled heavily on musical parallels which proved helpful in the analysis of the mentioned negation of verbal identity. The use of musical symbolism, though, does not evolve solely from an analytical interest, since, as I see it, musical patterns and symbols are deeply rooted in literary works and help us understand literature in ways not yet explored. Though musicology bears a strong resemblance to philosophical and literary movements, the ideas of philosophers like Kristeva, who is very fond of musical metaphors while describing her semiotics, never formed a separate area of literary criticism. Still, her idea of using a non-verbal signifying system to explain linguistic and even psychological patterns is inspiring enough to carry out similar practice in relation to literature.
El artículo pretende revelar un punto transitorio en el transcurso del cual la protagonista de “The Pale Gold of Alaska” de Eilis Ni Dhuibhne intenta cuestionar las verdades contrapuestas que la sitúan en el esquema de ‘mujer irlandesa’, transformándola en el enigma –un símbolo que obvia la necesidad de verbalizar el propio ser. Para tal propósito, he recurrido frecuentemente a paralelismos musicales que me han resultados eficaces para el análisis de la mencionada negación de identidad verbal. El uso de simbolismo musical, no proviene únicamente de un interés analítico, puesto que, a mi parecer, las estructuras y símbolos musicales están fuertemente enraizados en obras literarias, y nos ayudan a entender la literatura de forma inusitada. Si bien la musicología se asemeja mucho a los movimientos filosóficos y literarios, las ideas de un filósofo como Kristeva, que recurre a menudo a las metáforas musicales al describir su semiótica, nunca constituyó un área separada de la crítica literaria. No obstante, su uso de un sistema de significación no verbal para dar cuenta de modelos lingüísticos e incluso psicológicos abre el camino a prácticas similares en relación a la literatura.
Psicoanálisis; Semiótica; Musicología; Identidad; Negatividad; Enigma
And the instrument of Darkness, whom they have
designated, will not be set down a word from then
on except to deny that she must have been the
The process of growing into adolescence is the key to understanding Eilis Ni Dhuibhne’s writing. Yet, in «The Pale Gold of Alaska» this process is not linked with the effects of physical ageing as such, but with Irish heroine’s mental change achieved through her adaptation of the American lifestyle and perception. However, despite the highly assimilatory character of mainstream American culture, Sophie, the story’s protagonist, succeeds in finding herself a niche in a new cultural context. Due to the flexibility and openness of her ontological melody, Sophie manages to break down overtly disparate Irish-American identities into one semiotic ‘melody of self’, a melody which resounds in the musical body –the female Diapason. It is the process of negativity that accompanies musical fusion and propels a continuous movement between polar opposites, thus enabling Ni Dhuibhne’s woman to go beyond both Irish and American instruments of categorisation. The perpetual movement between the semiotic and the symbolic triggers the fusion of categories and transforms the Irish female in Ni Dhuibhne’s writing into a musical enigma that questions positioning of any kind. Therefore, the purpose of this analysis is to explore musical patterns that dwell in the female psyche of Ni Dhuibhne’s characters; the patterns of negativity that allow the female protagonist to escape being labelled by national archetypes and metamorphose her into the enigma –a mouldable semi-identity that exists somewhere in-between-the-binaries.
Due to the fact that the process of negativity is set in the movement between two opposing entities, the analysis of «The Pale Gold of Alaska» is also framed around juxtaposition of binaries, in order to mark the path of negativity and see how the dissolution of categories advances. What is more, such a binary framework helps in adding a more universal dimension to Ni Dhuibhne’s work, thus saving her from the ‘Irish female writer’ label. One ought to bear in mind however, that Ni Dhuibhne’s ‘melody of the self’ is encapsulated in a female body, which means that even though her protagonist moves in-between gender dichotomies, the same protagonist continues to deliver an engendered discourse of Ni Dhuibhne’s female Self. The gender binary is crucial for understanding the duality and omniscience of Ni Dhuibhne’s writing, for her female protagonist, Sophie, is set firmly against the capitalist mode of production that Kristeva associates with categorising and patriarchal practices (Kristeva 1995: 28). Both Orla in TheDancers Dancing and Naoise in «Summer Pudding» (The Inland Ice) or Sophie and Pat in The Pale Gold of Alaska manifest strong attachment to semiotic rhythms of landscape, the rhythmical flow of rivers or the seeming spirituality of Nature. Thus, the quest that Ni Dhuibhne maps out for her female characters aims to retrieve the melody of their inner selves, the melody which is not connected with the verbal system, but with the pulsating patterns of Nature. Consequently, it is the melody that enables Ni Dhuibhne’s women to escape being patronised by a capitalist society.
Since the corporeal-instrument echoes the semiotic rhythms and melodies of the environment, the body is a repository of internal semiotic melodies as well as the tone-drives of the social context. As a result, the heterogeneity of Ni Dhuibhne’s female characters does not emerge purely from the internal juxtaposition of feminine with masculine, but is anterior to such gender division. In its most primeval form the heterogeneity begins with the dissolution of binaries imposed upon the body by spatial and class positioning. In an interview, Ni Dhuibhne mentions that contradictions of Irish identity, such as the difference between urban and rural, contribute to duality in the Irish individuality torn between a number of drives (Moloney 2003: 102). Indeed, the social differentiation between urban and rural which is present in Ni Dhuibhne’s works bears the significance of a spatial binary that triggers heterogeneity at the level of the psyche. The author allows her female protagonists to enter a rite of passage by forcing them into a binary struggle on the level of soma and social context in order to internalise their drives, which later enables them to question both outside and inside positioning. In a way, the struggle of urban-rural oppositions recreates Ni Dhuibhne’s personal experience and how she herself manages to enter the realm of in-between-the-binaries.
The author acknowledges her familiarity with the condition of being in-between, for she states that the process of questioning polar opposites started for her very early and can be traced back to the time when her family, from a rural background, moved to an urban environment (Moloney 2003: 104). This social differentiation created a number of scission layers in Ni Dhuibhne’s mind that later contributed to the process of negativity in which a constant negation and affirmation formed a truly heterogeneous subject: the enigma. The author transfers this negativity model upon her female characters, which results in their creation of sound space in-between-the-binaries. Indeed, though the author positions her writing in the bildungsroman tradition (Moloney 2003: 102-103), Ni Dhuibhne’s bildungs deviates from the tradition in that it alternates the quest for «knowledge» with fluidity and movement between the symbolic and the semiotic. In this way, Ni Dhuibhne allows Sophie to abandon the pursuit of knowledge and moves her into the realm of in-between in which no final solution can ever be acquired. In the words of the author herself, her bildungsroman is more about survival in the struggle between flux and stasis, rather than achieving success (Moloney 2003: 112). Yet, in order to survive in-between-the-binaries without losing self integrity, the protagonist needs to rediscover the trans-verbal enigma, for, as Kristeva puts it, the survival in the clash of the semiotic and the symbolic structure can only be obtained through non-verbal significance present in art, music and dance (De Nooy 1998: 183). Hence, as a result of the musical nature of the enigma along with its kinetic patterns, it is possible to draw parallels between musical theory and the process of negativity, in order to designate the point where the transformation into enigma occurs.
The choice of musicology as a method of analysis may seem quite unusual. However, there are a number of reasons for which musical analysis seems more applicable to reading Ni Dhuibhne than purely textual insight. Primarily, since my analysis attempts to mark the movement of enigmatic drives that dwell outside the realm of verbal significance, it seems more reasonable to use an equally ephemeral medium through which the language of analysis describing the movement can be filtered. Apparently, there is always a danger that the structuring qualities of language may fix the flux of analysis in categories inherent in the capitalist mode of production. On the other hand, music is a non-verbal practice and, as such, fits the analysis of semiotic flow better than the verbal system. At the same time, the language of musical theory is close enough to the realm of linguistic meaning to save an analysis from falling into a psychosis of non-significance. Still, musical language cannot be treated as an alternative to human language, since music is a signifying system which, repeating Kristeva, does not carry linguistic meaning because codes-pitches do not form a one to one relation with the signified (Jackson 1991: 247). Consequently, in the course of this analysis, musical parallels will refer strongly to human language as such, yet, certain philosophical terms will be used interchangeably with musical terms and symbols to bring Eilis Ni Dhuibhne’s writing closer to non-verbal signifying practice.
The second argument for the choice of musicology as a method comes from the fact that the very flow of drives in the semiotized body is based on the tonality of that body. Since even the most primordial process by which the body is shaped and semiotized refers to music, the perception of music as an external phenomenon is bound to change into a vision of an internalised ‘melody of the self’. Owing to drive vibrations, the body changes into a musical instrument that responds to vibrations and sets rhythmical patterns of sound. At this stage, the drive vibration is echoed by the body for the first time and the resonance level of the corporeal is established. The body chooses the range of sounds that it is capable of resounding and, in turn, receives a range of pitches in which the ‘melody of the self’ shall move. The musical range of the body, the Diapason, attributes a tonal scale to the subject’s biological instrument, whereby the scale designates how the instrument should be tuned in order to resonate the music of the Self and the environment in one sounding body. Furthermore, the process by which musicality of the body is established corresponds to what Wishart describes as a vocal act that triggers the biological instrument to enunciate its Self in language (1996: 263-269).However, the Diapason is a biological construct prior to entering the verbal system and is not to be understood as a complete tonal scale of the verbal act. The Diapason is a semiotic music that has not yet been affixed to particular pitches. Therefore, it is but a complete range of sounds that the body is capable of resonating, sounds tuned directly from vibrations and frequencies of the semiotic drives.
As soon as the Diapason enters the structure, sounds are attached to particular pitches and pitches are assembled into musical scales. The scale of the Self, which consists of five pitches that revolve around one tonic pitch, is the sole survivor of structuring practices carried by the body and the biological substratum. Thus, the Pentatonic scale is the first scale to play the ‘melody of the self’, yet, in musicology, it is also the most ambiguous scale in which the centre of gravity is constantly shifting and any of the five pitches is always already prepared to become a tonic (Duckworth 2001: 202). During the initial phase of negativity, the Pentatonic subject strives for fusion with the object, in order to integrate with a melody of the external world. Simultaneously, the Pentatonic scale searches for a centre of gravity for its melody and looks upon social structure as the source of stability. The gravity is achieved by adding two pitches from the social context, one dominant and one subdominant tone, to the Pentatonic scale and the melody of the subject and object comes to its harmony via seven pitches in a full Octave. Consequently, the composition of the Self, consisting of internal as well as external pitches, resonates in the body-instrument as a single ‘melody of the self’ fused with social structure in which the body is positioned. But there is a price to be paid for the harmony of the body with the surroundings. The dominanttones also formulate the hierarchical order of dominant (better, preferable) and subdominant (worse, negative) and as soon as the Pentatonic ‘melody of self’ is fused with the dominant tones in one sounding body (Diapason), the tones cause a thetic rupture in our perception of the environment.
As far as the function of the Pentatonic is concerned, suffice to say that the term pinpoints the five primary desires in the corporeal order, the Freudian desires which trigger the psychic dynamic as well as the process of negativity (Kristeva 1995: 6). Yet, the function of the Pentatonic does not cover its rich symbolism. In the process of negativity, the musical motion, which is advanced by affirmation and negation of varying musical structures, is in fact perpetuated by the Pentatonic desires. Hence, the Pentatonic ‘melody of self’ is the enigma, for it exists outside the linguistic and visual order and forms, at once, an integral and disintegrated identity. It is the essential core of our Selves built upon trans-verbal echelons of being. Still, the Pentatonic does not mark a single scale, but rather the relations between the five pitches that can further be retuned to different reference tones. The connection between different musical modes based on five pitches and human behaviour dates back to Ancient Greece. Aristotle believed that the Pentatonic inclines specific desires in people, depending on the musical value of the tonic (reference) pitch. He developed an ‘ethos of music’, the effect that music has on people’s mood, so as to create a detailed description of each of the modes and its effects on human characters.2 By using Aristotle’s ‘ethos of music’ it becomes apparent that the desires-tones underlying the typically Irish Pentatonic fit Aristotle’s Hypodorian mode perfectly. The Hypodorian mode is central for the Irish collective Self as it parallels what Ni Dhuibhne calls a typically Irish feeling of dislocation and remoteness stimulated by the process of transition (Moloney 2003: 102). Therefore, in the Irish context, the Pentatonic has a specific timbre marked by tones of life, lack, joining with the Other, exile and death that match the Hypodorian mode of sadness, melancholy and dislocation.
The Nature of Sonic Space
As I have suggested above, the Pentatonic enables a subject to articulate itself through trans-verbal enunciation and makes it possible for the subject to go beyond the biological fatalism of a solely verbal enunciation postulated by Lacanian model of identity construction (Eagleton 1983: 143-145). Since the musical subject gains an additional layer of signification on top of the verbal one, it is always already prepared to play the ‘melody of self’ in order to counter and dissolve the purely verbal construct. Indeed, Kristeva argues for the abandonment of a purely verbal function, in order to understand the process of negativity visible through corporeal drive pulsations (1984: 122). However, upon the release of the semiotized body into the social structure the subject is forced to repeat the ‘melody of self’ in order to sustain the identity construct imposed by the environment and, in effect, falls into a vicious circle of a continuous articulation of Self. As soon as the ‘melody of self’ turns into a repetitive practice, the five primary desires of the Pentatonic fade in the composition that structures the tones into a more socially compatible identity. Butler argues that the process of repeating one’s Self on the verbal level, results in incapacity to achieve self-identity (Rivkin and Ryan 1998: 727). Still, the ‘psychic mimesis’ of the trans-verbal ‘melody of self’ may cause even more damage, for the subject gradually fails to discern the Pentatonic architecture of desires. It is therefore imperative to explore what propels the musicality of Ni Dhuibhne’s protagonist before her arrival to a repeated ‘melody of self’, so as to establish the timbre of tone-desires that the isolated Pentatonic scale embraces.
In «The Pale Gold of Alaska», Sophie is thrown into reconstructing the lost two tones of the Irish Octave ‘melody of self’ in order to come to terms with her own amputated existence as an immigrant-exile. Whenever a social context is altered, the hierarchy of values caused by the binary division intodominant and subdominant tones also shifts, which allows the true Hypodorian music to resound in the de-territorialised Diapason. In the story, the immigrants partake in the process of negativity that pushes them into the negation of Irish nationality and effectuates a feeling of emptiness, being remote from Irish dominant tones. The transitive moment between abandoning Ireland and arriving to the Other-America detaches Irishdominant tones from the ‘self composition’ and triggers the Hypodorian mode that reverberates in the immigrants’ Diapasons. Sophie is one of those who can hear the Hypodorian through her ‘exile melancholy’, but, at the same time, is unable to verbalise the feeling. For a moment, she finds herself between the two countries and their social systems, an experience that enables her to hear the enigma that dwells in-between-the-binaries. Sophie’s interrogative mood is consistent with Ni Dhuibhne’s own view that conflicted identities are produced by postcolonial or immigrant experiences (Moloney 2003: 115). However, she is unable to accept the enigma’s flux without losing Self integrity and falling into psychosis. In the process of negativity, the negation is always followed by affirmation, which stimulates Sophie’s assimilation into the American system. Thus, she strives to incorporate American dominant tones into a newly converted Hypodorian ‘melody of self’ by means of affirmation-klisis, a schizophrenic drive that marks a unifying tendency in Sophie to accept the world outside (Kristeva 1884: 168). The unifying drive leads Sophie to lean towards thedominant and subdominant of the verbal significance which deems her musical experience to be of little or no importance. Still, in Ni Dhuibhne’s collection, it is the transitive point between adolescence and adulthood that causes what Kristeva describes as the «hysterical anxiety» (1995: 78), a state of scission between the emotional and «knowledgeable» Self which reawakens the semiotic scale.
As a result of affirmation-klisis, Sophie embarks on a quest to structure the desires on both a biological and social level. Parallel to her national affiliation, Sophie’s corporeal order is at a transitive point between semiotic adolescence and symbolic adulthood, hence the negativity movement between Ireland and the Other also refers to biological migration from innocence to experience. Primarily, for Sophie’s Hypodorian to be structured, she has to adhere to the patriarchal discourse represented by Ned Burns, also an immigrant whom Sophie met during her trip to America. Sophie commits a symbolical infanticide on a child that lingers within the Hypodorian ‘melody of self’ and takes on a more homogenous identity brought about by her marriage to Ned. Apparently, she is unable to sustain the infans stage carried by the Hypodorian, a stage characteristic of autistic children who wish to bury themselves in the inexpressible by expressing the meaning, but not signification. Kristeva observes that the only means of getting through to such children is music (1995: 106), but by deciding on infanticide, Sophie submits to a visual culture of signifying signs and images. Yet, only by offering her virginity and musicality to the symbolic is Sophie allowed to «join with the Other» and accept American structuring tones. From this perspective, Sophie’s fate is an allegory of Irish immigrants’ struggle to create a hybrid Irish-American ‘melody of self’, whereas the name of the ferry, the ‘Maid of Erin’, is a metaphor for Sophie’s role as an offering made to the Other and designates the qualities which are to be sacrificed before the Irish are allowed to mingle with mainstream American society.
One may speculate regarding the circumstances that lead to Sophie’s departure from Ireland. What is important, however, is that she takes thechallenge to seek out new significance by escaping the loop of performativity and continuous enunciation of self. In the Irish context, the obvious choice as a source of musical inspiration would be America, since it stands for the Other and is a polar opposite to what Ireland tends to represent. However, Sophie falls into an illusion of America as a land of promise, an image of the Other that creates false significance and encapsulates her ‘melody of self’: «
- Fragment of Mallarme’s poem in Julia Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language, trans. Margaret Waller (New York: Columbia UP, 1984) 30. [↩]
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Musical_mode, 13 August 2006. [↩]
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