Heather Laird
University College Cork | Views:

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The front cover of Revolutionary Bodies: Homoeroticism and the Political Imagination in Irish Writing features a black and white photograph of the National Gallery of Ireland’s new courtyard. An art exhibit, the image of a man in a seated position suspended in air, is balanced over the book title and author’s name, most of the words rendered in a shade of yellow normally associated with reflective garments worn in high risk or emergency situations. The man is wearing only trousers, and we can see his strong upper torso. His muscular arms are, however, crossed protectively over his body, denoting its vulnerability, with each hand grasping the opposing knee, fingers splayed. He faces downwards, his head gently cradled on his in-turned left shoulder. The outer framing of Revolutionary Bodies is both beautifully executed and indicative of the book’s content; this is one of those instances when you can and, in fact, should judge a book by its cover.

Revolutionary Bodies explores Irish literary depictions of homoeroticism and of gay men within a wider Marxist analysis of sexual freedom and how it is imagined for queer people under late capitalism. The writers discussed include Oscar Wilde, Brendan Behan, John Broderick, Jamie O’Neill, and Colm Tóibín. In the Introduction, Michael G. Cronin anticipates one of the main critiques likely to be directed towards this book: its predominantly male focus. One of the ways he attempts to offset this critique is by pointing to the extent to which the book is attuned to (Marxist) feminist concerns, such as the complex and contradictory relationship between capitalism and the family. Another is by acknowledging ways that the book would have been “enriched and variegated” by the inclusion of an exploration of the depiction of same-sex desire between women by female authors like Kate O’Brien, while nonetheless insisting on the usefulness of a study solely concerned with “how images of gay men circulate in the political imaginary” (12, 13). Cronin then makes a good case for the distinctiveness of discourses of male homosexuality in late capitalism, drawing attention, for example, to the association between contemporary gay men and vapid consumerism. That said, the book makes broader interventions that are not necessarily reliant on this narrow focus and are at least as significant as the insights gained from it.

One of these interventions has to do with the false opposition that has been established by a number of influential Irish queer theorists and feminist scholars, and, in the public domain, by writers like Colm Tóibín, between Irish anti-colonial/nationalist thinking and activism on the one hand and sexual transgression and freedom on the other, a false opposition that has become an unexplored truism. Cronin’s discussion of Oscar Wilde and his scholarly reception in the book’s introduction is key to this particular intervention. A second and more significant intervention concerns politics and political mobilization. As Cronin acknowledges, perhaps the easiest way to establish oneself as political or radical in contemporary Irish society is to express outrage towards institutions and norms that are now safely discredited. John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies (2017), a novel that opens with a young pregnant woman being publicly condemned by a hypocritical priest, is cited in Revolutionary Bodies in this regard. There is also a politics that organizes itself around inclusion, identity, and injury. Cronin draws on the writings of the American theorists Wendy Brown and Judith Butler in his exploration of both why this form of politics can sometimes be necessary, and why it is limited. To seek “inclusion,” he reminds us, is to “implicitly value and endorse that from which one is ‘excluded’” (29).  Further, to structure a struggle around inclusion is to accept that others will remain on the outside, and that, in fact, your inclusion may function to validate or legitimate their exclusion. And this is something that Cronin explores in greater depth in Sexual/Liberation, his forthcoming publication for the Síreacht series, published by Cork University Press. Interdependency and vulnerability, particularly “vulnerability intrinsic to the human body,” are important to Brown’s and Butler’s critical analysis of politicised identity, and to Cronin’s re-working of this analysis in the Irish context (29). “To mobilise politically around human interdependence”, Cronin tells us, is to challenge the ideology of bourgeois individualism as it requires “conceptualising our consciousness and sense of self as relational rather than separative” (30). Vulnerability is also political in that the distribution of corporeal vulnerability in the capitalist world-system is starkly inequitable, he reminds us. To quote at length from Revolutionary Bodies, “for those of us living in the prosperous West, the psychic experience of late capitalism is not unlike having a decomposing portrait hidden in the attic; our suppressed knowledge about that enormity of human suffering and exploitation, and the unfolding ecological catastrophe, which enables our consumerist lifestyles” (17). This macro view of how the privilege of some under capitalism is always reliant upon the often-unacknowledged exploitation of others is reinforced at a micro level in the book’s Acknowledgements in which Cronin includes mention of the doctoral students and occasional teaching staff in his home institution upon whose “grossly undervalued” labour the research time of permanent lecturing staff is reliant (vii).

A number of key distinctions – injury versus vulnerability, identity versus body, identity politics versus a politics comprised of the collective opposition of all of capitalism’s disenfranchised subjects – shape the book’s analysis of Irish writings about the homoerotic male body. And Cronin, in his discussion of these works, challenges another truism: that all literary writings which could be loosely categorized as works of Irish gay male fiction are by definition dissident. A particularly potent variant of modernization discourse in Ireland that forms a link between economic protectionism and sexual repression, and between further integration into global capitalism and sexual liberation ensures that while some of these writings are indeed “radical, disruptive and utopian,” others are “in comfortable alignment” with the social, economic and political norms of neoliberal Ireland (27).  And, in a number of cases, it is considerably more complex than that. Form and style are to the fore of Cronin’s analysis of these literary works. His close reading of Tóibín’s fiction is worth drawing particular attention to. The Tóibín chapter centres on a trio of gay-themed novels: The Story of the Night (1996), The Blackwater Lightship (1999) and The Master (2004). In these literary works, Cronin points out, Tóibín uses “the conventions of realism to construct gay male characters, and to incorporate those characters into inherited genres and plot types” − such as the bildungsroman or generational narrative − intrinsically linked to the developmental historicism that underpins the bourgeois social order (91). Moreover, the “modern gay men in Tóibín’s fiction embody, and experience as liberating, the political rationality and ‘realist’ ‘common sense’ characteristic of neoliberal subjectivity” (25-6). But combined with frank depictions of the lives of autonomous gay men “embedded in identifiable historical conditions” is the sublimation into the texts of “erotic, specifically homoerotic, energies” to generate “powerful affects and symbolic resonances” (91). And these affects are particularly condensed, Cronin claims, in the parts of the novels where the male body is portrayed as a location of pleasure and pain that “exists only and always in relation to other bodies” (104). Thus, politically these novels pull in two directions, Cronin argues. Ironically, it is when they are most closely in alignment with a progressive sexual politics – through the creation of compelling and recognisable stories about these male characters – that they are most fully in conformity with the values of late capitalism. And, conversely, it is when Tóibín’s fiction seems furthest removed from progressive sexual politics that it is potentially most radical and disruptive of hegemonic norms. Cronin’s focus, in the latter case, is on Tóibín’s aforementioned writing of the male body in pleasure and pain; an aspect of his work that draws our attention to “the vulnerability and porousness of the self” (112).

Revolutionary Bodies concludes with a discussion of Joe Caslin’s murals, visual depictions, and indeed celebrations of vulnerability and interdependency.  These include a mural erected on the wall of the National Museum of Ireland at Collins Barracks as part of “The Volunteers” project in which two young men face each other in a crouched position. The men depicted are a twenty-year-old GAA athlete and volunteer and a twenty-eight-year-old man who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. One of them is looking at the viewer − “his unflinching gaze indexing the physical and emotion strength he can impart” − whilst supporting the head of the other on his chest (199). We assume that he is the “volunteer”, but as Cronin points out, the “awkward physical position in which they are posed means that the two men are literally supporting each other to stay upright” (199-200). Literature and art, Cronin tells us in the concluding lines of the book, are not “roadmaps for the political future,” but can provide “guiding images prompting us towards imagining less alienated, more humane and sustainable ways of being human” − “‘ironic points of light’ to guide us hopefully in dark and hopeless times” (211). Revolutionary Bodies is an important and timely publication that provides a strong critique of the forces that have resulted in these dark and hopeless times, whilst also seeking, like some of the works it discusses, to guide us hopefully.