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The Poor Bugger’s ToolIrish Modernism, Queer Labor, and Postcolonial History$

Patrick R. Mullen

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780199746699

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199746699.001.0001

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J. M. Synge and the Aesthetics of Intelligent Sympathy

J. M. Synge and the Aesthetics of Intelligent Sympathy

(p.47) Chapter 2 J. M. Synge and the Aesthetics of Intelligent Sympathy
The Poor Bugger’s Tool

Patrick R. Mullen

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter argues that Synge deploys a queer aesthetic in his representation of the Irish peasantry. Furthermore, it suggests that by doing so, Synge develops a more fluid and inclusive model of Irish national affiliation than other writers of the Irish Revival. Rather than seeing a break between Wildean aesthetics as they are embodied in the figure of the dandy and the figure of the peasant promoted by the Revival, the chapter reveals Synge’s project as an elaboration of queer aesthetic practices along new lines. By expanding our understanding of the queer beyond questions of identity to modes of style, the chapter explores how the critical and ethical concerns of queer theory might be brought to bear in novel contexts.

Keywords:   John Millington Synge, Irish Revival, Irish peasantry, Irish national affiliation, dandy

At first glance, it might seem that the Irish Literary Revival, inspired by such things as the bucolic sentiment of William Butler Yeats’s Celtic Twilight, the translations of Irish folk culture by Douglas Hyde in The Love Songs of Connaught, and the religious themes of Edward Martyn’s plays, turned away from Oscar Wilde’s modern aesthetics and urbane sensibilities. By most accounts, the Revival preferred the apparent authenticity of the Irish peasant to the artifice of Wilde’s dandy. Of course, both the Irish peasant and the dandy were characters who embodied worldviews and promoted values that challenged philistine and imperialist strains of British culture. However, the cliché of the peasant was in certain ways cast as the antithesis to the dandy: sexually modest as opposed to sensual and pleasure-seeking, religious and devout as opposed to secular and ironic, Irish-speaking and of Gaelic origin as opposed to cosmopolitan and polyglot, rural and not urban, interested in spiritual reward rather than earthly riches; and certainly, so the story went, this sincere Irish peasant was not queer. This image of the authentic peasant was largely conjured and circulated by the cultural nationalists of the urban (Anglo-Irish and Catholic) bourgeoisie, and ultimately the promotion of this modest figure, and the culture it represented, proved to be more incendiary than the Revivalists at first imagined. Despite early attempts to insist on the political neutrality of the project, the cultural revival of Gaelic Ireland in this period paved the way for the political upheaval and transformations that came about with the 1916 Easter Rising and the subsequent War for Independence (1919–21).

(p.48) This chapter will argue that in the work of John Millington Synge, the revival of the Irish peasant and Irish national culture was not only politically volatile in unforeseen ways, but was a surprisingly queer project. In particular, I maintain that Synge’s peasant is a figure whose discursive dynamics are much closer to those of Wilde’s dandy than has been allowed. Furthermore, by expanding our understanding of the queer beyond the confines of sexual identity to include a range of non-normative affects, desires, and cultural strategies, this chapter argues that Synge should not be read as turning from Wildean artifice to embrace a rural authenticity but instead should be seen as extending a queer aesthetic project along new lines.

Intelligent Sympathy

Of all the people to address the representation of the Irish-speaking peasant, Synge did the most to disrupt burgeoning orthodoxies, and presented the most complexly modern view of the peasantry and its conception of the world. Synge combined a rigorous engagement with Irish speakers—he took the time to learn the living Irish language, to consult experts within the Irish-speaking populations, and to learn to read notoriously difficult Irish-language manuscripts—with a subtle understanding of the contradictory forces at play in the representations of folk culture. In Tinkers: Synge and the Cultural History of the Irish Traveller, Mary Burke reveals the depth and range of Synge’s engagement with diverse elements of Irish rural society.1 She establishes his sophisticated understanding of the rich history of representations that converge in the figure of the “tinker,” a nomadic element of Irish rural life distinct from both rural and urban sedentary cultures. She shows that Synge’s portrayals of “tinkers” are “more nuanced than those of his Revival peers in subtly unfolding the European literary origins of the motif” (59). Furthermore, she examines how this understanding of the literary origins of the motif enables Synge to bring into focus the diversity of Irish cultural life that is at once national and cosmopolitan. She explains: “The complex figure Synge depicts is indisputably Irish, but possesses an Irishness that encompasses what he recognizes to be that identity’s multifarious discursive roots. In short, Synge’s tinker is cosmopolitan on two levels: it is a construct understood to be of sundry cultural origins and reality that exemplifies Irish cultural diversity” (59).

This chapter will elaborate a concept of “intelligent sympathy” as a way to describe Synge’s aesthetic engagement with Irish folk culture. The phrase recalls Wilde’s insistence on sympathy with thought, which we encountered in the last chapter, and both concepts represent attempts to track the social (p.49) and historical dimensions of affect. The phrase “intelligent sympathy” comes from Synge’s own work and appears in a favorable review of Stephen Gwynn’s travel guide, The Fair Hills of Ireland. Synge claims that Gwynn’s book is “likely to bring many minds into a more intelligent sympathy with Ireland, where, for good and for bad, the past is living and the present so desirous to live.”2 Gwynn’s book interests Synge because it forges an intimate and critical relationship with Ireland by taking the inventory of both the contemporary country and the historical legacy that has left its traces on the landscape:

The Fair Hills of Ireland is a guide-book, in the best sense of the words, addressed to travelers and friends of Ireland rather than to ordinary tourists. At the same time it is a sort of popular history, telling its story topographically instead of chronologically, and yet so effectively that one does not grumble at the confusion of the ages that some are likely to fall into, as the author passes back and forward from the times of Cuchulain to those of O’Connell and from the route of the Danes at Clontarf to the modern affairs of the new Irish creameries. (387)

This chapter argues that Synge fashions his own intelligent form of sympathy in his encounter with Irish folk culture. He does not simply offer a chronological historical account of the peasantry, but through his aesthetic style he takes an inventory of the historical traces that circulate in the representations of rural Irish life and suggests a critical form of sympathy as a mode of national affiliation. Using Daniel Corkery’s seminal Synge and Anglo-Irish Literature3 to trace the contours of Synge’s project, this chapter shows that the playwright uses a queer aesthetic to shape a model of Irishness that both engages the national specificity of Irish history and situates Ireland within a global modernity. Corkery’s critique functions as a sort of photographic negative for the argument of the chapter. On the one hand, I look to his work to validate my own reading of the queerness of Synge’s sensibilities. On the other hand, while Corkery rejects the queer excesses of the playwright’s aesthetic as un-Irish, I situate Synge’s artistic practices in a persistent, if subterranean, queer genealogy of modern Irish culture.

Corkery’s work on Synge is impressionistic. Its rambling style is rife with contradictions. Nonetheless, there are fundamental values which anchor his romantic nationalism and through which he measures Synge’s work. Nationalism for Corkery is a value of “every normal people” (2) and is set against what he refers to variously as the “freakish” (93), the “queer” (101), and the “international” (236). According to Corkery, the Irish nation is Gaelic, Catholic, and intimately attached to the land and rural work. Following the work of Kathryn Conrad and Margot Backus, we can see Corkery’s (p.50) work as part of the broad discourse of heteronormative nationalism. Conrad and Backus explore this discourse through the figure of the heterosexual “family cell” in Irish culture and politics.4 Conrad explains the historical rise of the family cell as an organizing unit of Irish culture and political life: “In other words, the dual forces of Christianity, which reinforced a patriarchal system of familial relationships, and British colonialism, which divided the land and penalized social formations that did not further British interests, helped to fix the heterosexual nuclear family as the primary unit group of Irish society” (5). She further explains the political and discursive dynamics that this structure produced: the cell “is a method of concealing any instability within the cell in order to present the image of control. If the cell is stable so are the social institutions built upon it, and one can present to the world one’s capacity to rule. Instabilities must therefore be constructed and treated as foreign—not only to the family, not only to one’s political position, but also to the nation as a whole” (9–10). This discourse projects heteronormative sexuality onto the national stage and connects the sexual norms that govern individual subjects to national questions of colonialism and the postcolonial state. Mutations of this normative heterosexual discourse run throughout Corkery’s analysis, in which he articulates Irish national politics through the micropolitics of sexuality, for example in his invocation of the revival of Irish culture through a sexualized framework: “The national virtue of the country had been led astray, perdu, in some wayside cavern: only the temerity of lovers could reach to it and rescue it” (100).

The target of Corkery’s most vigorous critical attack are the writers of the Protestant Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, whom he condemns as both unbalanced and foreign. Corkery is at pains to distinguish Anglo-Irish Synge from this cohort. However, he is never able to render the playwright fully “normal,” and a queer trace remains. Corkery can praise Synge in nationalist terms: “Here, by one stroke, to show how [Synge] stands apart from his fellow Ascendancy writers, it is but necessary to state, that he, an Ascendancy man, went into the huts of the people and lived with them” (27). Nonetheless, he ultimately claims that Synge’s writings reflect an imaginative and emotional decadence that distracts from their historical and political validity. At suggestive flashpoints in his analysis, Corkery formulates this imaginative and affective excess through a euphemistic homophobic discourse made culturally available in the wake of Wilde’s trial. The figure of Wilde and the specter of the queer operate in subtle, and perhaps unconscious, ways in the text. Within the broader promotion of a heteronormative nationalism, these flashpoints come to suggest that while Synge might not be queer himself, at times he writes dangerously as if he were.

(p.51) What interests me is the power of Corkery’s formulation. What is important in it is not the blunt fact of identity but rather the structure of an analysis that can organize its force through the threatening specter of a particular characteristic—as in the example of Wilde, whose queerness operates as definitively homosexual—and yet still target someone whose particular self-definition does not seem to conform to this identity: Synge is targeted as dangerously close to the definitively homosexual. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has analyzed this dynamic as a form of emotional terrorism that circulates as homosexual panic.5 I would like to turn the phobic flashpoints in Corkery’s analysis on their head in a slightly different way and to use them to stage questions about Synge’s aesthetic. By engaging Corkery as a kind of litmus test of the queer dynamics in Synge, I want to ask if it is not possible that a writer who did not himself identify as gay or homosexual, such as Synge, might adopt queer aesthetic strategies because he sees in them a creative and critical vitality, a power that can shape more progressive models of social belonging and historical understanding. As a reader trained in the recuperative queer context of the 1990s, it seems to me that Synge’s work readily responds to queer readings. My strategic reliance on Corkery’s phobic responses to Synge’s project is an attempt to transform a symptomatically aggressive reading into a queer affirmative one and to keep in critical view the violence of such hostile evaluations in an attempt to diffuse and redirect their power. Moving beyond Corkery’s panic, I argue that the playwright harnesses a queer affective excess both to detach Ireland from clichéd relationships to its own history and to connect the nation with a global modernity.

The compelling critical reasons to analyze Synge’s concept of “intelligent sympathy” specifically in terms of queer cultural aesthetics are thus manifold, stemming from Synge’s own language and the critical role that affect plays in his writings to the terms and tone of Corkery’s critique. The preponderance of the term “queer” as a qualifier of emotional states and relations in Synge’s work begs for elaboration. The term appears throughout The Playboy of the Western World: Pegeen is referred to as the “queer daughter” and Michael James as the “queer father.”6 Lynching is referred to as the villagers’ “queer joy” (100). Shawn Keogh accuses Pegeen’s interest in Christy of being a “queer story” (122). The village itself appears as a particularly queer place full of macho women (Pegeen Mike the bartender and the Widow Quin husband-killer) and feminized men (the spineless Shawn Keogh and the cross-dressing Christy). It is not clear that any of the characters in the play are involved in same-sex erotic practices; nonetheless, the preponderance and fluidity of the term invites critical attention. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the term in Irish dialect operates as a general intensifier. It has the meaning of both the peculiar and the (p.52) derogatory. As early as 1894 the term had a homosexual valence, quoted by the OED from a letter of the Marquess of Queensberry: “I write to tell you that it is a judgment on the whole lot of you. Montgomerys, The Snob Queers like Roseberry & certainly Christian hypocrite Gladstone.” Likewise, an emotional and aesthetic sensibility circulates in the body of Synge’s work that at times takes on a specifically homoerotic syntax and at other times sheds this homoerotic specificity yet suggests a relation to it. Even Synge as a writer is a sort of queer figure.7 He is difficult to categorize in generic terms and does not present a clearly systematized aesthetic practice.8

Corkery indicts “the narrowness of Synge’s range of mind” as well as “the promiscuity of his mannerisms” (viii). In this formula, we begin to see the phobic tensions that animate the discourse of heteronormative nationalism. In the calculus of this observation, the target both has a narrow obsession with a singular topic, an obsession that marks a degenerate interiority, and is inappropriately expressive, as this interior obsession becomes socially legible in the promiscuity of mannerisms. This dynamic has a sexual valence that Corkery here marks with the word “promiscuity.” Looking back to the public assault on Wilde in the trial, we see a similar dynamic invoked against the writer: “His adversary Edward Carson read out one of [Wilde’s] clever paradoxes—‘Wickedness is a myth invented by good people to account for the curious attractiveness of others’—and asked whether this was ‘a safe axiom to put forward for the philosophy of the young.’ To which Oscar replied, ‘Most stimulating.’ Carson read out another seditious maxim and again asked, ‘Is it good for the young?’ ‘Anything is good that stimulates thought at any age.’”9 In this exchange we can read the contradictions that subtend the public legibility of private vice. From Carson’s aggressive point of view, that legibility is necessary for the containment of the purportedly vicious. From Wilde’s position that same legibility is highly unstable and offers a potential point of reversal as “wickedness” is detached from the object of scorn and is used to measure those who would project it as an epithet. For Wilde, the term ultimately marks not the degeneracy of its target but the curiosities of those who deploy it. Corkery’s characterization of Synge reprises the same dynamics, and in the wake of Wilde’s trial the fear of promiscuity in Corkery’s logic is marked by a fear of the homosexual. It is important to note that Corkery does not name Synge as homosexual even as he marshals the syntax of assault made available by Wilde’s trial. Consider the use of this syntax, for instance, in his dismissal of the macho women of The Playboy in a passage that clearly calls to mind Wilde’s Dorian Gray, without, however, claiming anything about Synge’s identity: “Little else do they possess, except their tomboyish spirits. By the fitful light of their unruly hearts they live. The (p.53) only evil they fear is the quenching of that light. Old age may quench it, bringing not lack of love so much as lack of lovers. Nothing matters only the retaining of their good looks, by virtue of which their lovers may be retained” (102).

As a way of understanding the ambiguous status of the queer in Synge’s work, the fleeting presence of the homoerotic, the emphasis on the strangeness of emotions, and the conflicting responses that the playwright provokes in his critics, I would like to call again on a concept of affect derived from Spinoza.10 We know from Synge’s diaries that he was at least familiar with the philosopher, and we will analyze later in the chapter traces of Spinozist thought in his work. For now, Spinoza’s concept of affect can serve as a critical tool for elaborating his queer aesthetic practice. Gilles Deleuze defines Spinoza’s use of affect in a passage that compellingly evokes the transitory and dynamic nature of affect in Synge:

Therefore, from one state to another, there are transitions, passages that are experienced, durations through which we pass to greater or a lesser perfection. Furthermore, these states, these affections, images or ideas are not separable from the duration that attaches them to the preceding state and makes them tend towards the next state. These continual durations or variations of perfection are called “affect,” or feelings (affectus).11

The particular composition of affects in Synge might at times invite the reader to assign a stable identity, yet they ultimately resist any such assignment, insofar as they are “variations” in Deleuze’s terms. In this sense the affective quality of his work and the preponderance of the queer intersect. Throughout Synge’s work, affects are channeled in chains of shifting analogues that at times take on a homoerotic valence and at times shed all but the trace of this valence as they acquire new forms. These affects need to be theorized in the movement of their variations, and the musical connotations of this movement will prove very important. While the uncongealed nature of these affects makes them difficult to measure, four key features do emerge. These affective variations point to (1) an embracing of theatricality, (2) an attachment to the nomadic forces of international circulation, (3) an emphasis on the powers of the feminine, and (4) the accentuation of “perverse” sexuality. Understood in their transformative dynamic, these affects provide a critical version of Irishness that extends the importance of queer sexual discourse, economic forms, and modes of cultural expression seen in Wilde.

A taxonomy of affects can be routed through a characterological interpretation, and in the context of Irish culture the biographical implications of the queer have been especially important in the representations of Oscar Wilde and Roger Casement. However, in Synge affects do not primarily (p.54) play a role in the identification of the subject; rather, they are indissolubly linked with the historico-political narratives of Irishness in an international frame. Affects in Synge intersect the subject, yet they also exceed this particularity and form part of the fabric of the social. They are examples of what Vicky Mahaffey has theorized as micronationalism: “Micronationalism … bypasses the predictable opposition of nationalism and internationalism. Micronationalism is a concentration on highly local and sometimes submerged features of a country, a person, or a text that are never taken as ‘representative,’ but which instead initiate an expansive and energizing process of connection (as opposed to a movement of consolidation).”12 The expansive dimensions of affect in Synge have implications for the tracking of queer valences in his work: the genetic project of locating the emergence of the homosexual as modern individual seems misguided because queer features do not condense into the figure of a particular subject. Rather, in Synge the queer measures the historico-political and cultural forces that intersect and collide in the Irish situation. This chapter, therefore, will not attempt to recover the identity of a particular psyche—it will not attempt to claim, for instance, that Synge was gay—but will instead measure what Synge refers to as “the psychic state of the locality” (Corkery 185), the intersection of forces that define the Irish situation. The queer will be a particular aesthetic rendering of intelligent sympathy, a particular mode for reading the social dimensions of affect in the Irish situation.

The chapter proceeds in three sections. First I look at the production of Synge’s aesthetic sensibility through the staging of affective intensities. The theatrical staging of affects in his writing produces a mode of aesthetic consciousness; the queer is key for understanding the social dimensions of this aesthetic consciousness. Second, I track the deployment of this affective sensibility in his aesthetic encounter with Irish folk culture. Specifically, his engagement with experimental continental literature enables a particularly sophisticated and subtle presentation of the peasantry. The chapter argues that the writer takes an inventory of the social and historical situation of the peasants through the aesthetic presentation of an intense array of affects. I read this critical engagement as an “intelligent sympathy” and suggest that Synge’s representation of the peasantry points to an expanded understanding of modernity in which the social dimensions of aesthetic experience are able to recast and redirect the dichotomies and power trajectories of the modern imperial imaginary. The model of intelligent sympathy that emerges in Synge’s practice of montage allows for the reversal of one-way colonialist subject/object imaginary that situates the colonized merely as objects of metropolitan speculation and consumption. Finally, in a reading of The Playboy of the Western World, I explore the socialization of Synge’s (p.55) affective sensibility in the “queer” little village on the west coast of Mayo. Synge reveals the perimetric figures of the Irish peasantry as engaged participants in world modernity.

Queer Orchestrations

Affect has an irreducible social quality in Synge’s thought. This social quality is apparent in his brief early Autobiography, in which he marshals a network of queer tropes and connotations to describe the emergence of his aesthetic sensibility. The Autobiography should not be read simply as presenting the formation of an individual identity, but as tracing the deployment and circulation of a social and affective mode of being in the world. “Mode” is a richly suggestive term in this context and offers a compelling way for thinking about affect in Synge’s work beyond the consolidation of sexual identity. Based on the definitions in the OED, “mode” has a number of valences that connect with the articulation of affect in Synge’s writing, particularly as its connotations connect to the related term “mood.” “Mode” has grammatical connotations, in the mood of a verb as either active or passive, and in the character of modal propositions that are either necessary, contingent, possible, or impossible. In relation to these grammatical senses, a mode of being points to the affective complexity that circulates in and through language. Mode also has musical denotations, describing the tonal and temporal qualities that produce melody, rhythm, and musical style. As we will see, music is a very important art for Synge and is connected with the Spinozist variations of affect discussed above. The word “mode” points generally to a style or manner of acting, and even of fashion or dress. In its Middle French roots it meant “a collective manner of living or thinking proper to a country or age.” These senses will be directly invoked in The Playboy. Finally, in its philosophical registers “mode” is an elastic and interstitial term, pointing to “a manner or state of being of a thing; a thing considered as possessing certain non-essential attributes which may be changed without destroying its identity.”

Synge links his development as a young artist and the emergence of his aesthetic sensibilities with a queerly acute emotional sensitivity. His heightened affects are predicated through ambiguously queer fantasies—though the result of this predication is not the constitution of a homosexual identity but the staging of an emotional and aesthetic sensibility that will later be used in his engagement with Irish folk culture. To understand Synge’s engagement with folk culture properly, we must first examine the emergence of this receptivity. In the following passage, the development of Synge’s artistic awareness coincides with a homoerotically inflected friendship: (p.56)

Although I had the usual affection for my near relations I began while still very young to live in my imagination in enchanted premises that had high walls with glass upon the top where I sat and drank ginger-beer in a sort of perpetual summer with one companion, usually some school fellow I hardly knew. One day the course of my class put me for a moment beside my temporary god, and before I could find a fit term of adulation he whispered an obscene banality which shattered my illusions. (6)

The eruption of explicitly sexual content within a same-sex, and therefore a putatively (by a normative estimation) nonsexual companionship, gives this scene its charge. Notice that the content of the obscenity and the motivations behind its circulation are missing. Was it meant to shock, seduce, disgust? The passage, even as it registers the eruption of the sexual, also suggests repetition: it is usually some school fellow he hardly knows. The experience is both marked by the unknown obscenity that breaks the frame of the narrator’s consciousness and is part of the regular rhythm of experience. Synge is both accustomed to this experience and surprised by it, and readers are similarly both knowing and unknowing participants in the dynamics of the passage. Synge here describes the growing autonomy of his aesthetic powers through a queer syntax. The fantasies of his imagination are charged with a homoerotic value as they coalesce around a sort of romantic attachment to his male schoolmate. The passage, with its emphasis on the young boy’s enchantment and delicacy, also delights in the subversion of normative gender roles, a subversion that has a long history in Irish writing.13 However, neither his aesthetic powers nor the queer syntax point to a particular identity (one could no more say that he is an artist because he daydreams than that he gay because he daydreams of his schoolmate). Instead, both appear as modes of being in the world; they point to the extension of personal affects into the dimensions of the social.

Synge does in fact describe his affections for and relations with girls—indicating that his sexual orientation in this sense might more properly be considered heterosexual. However, he presents heterosexuality in a peculiarly queer mode that rejects, rather than reinforces, normative regulations of desire. Synge here is queer before queer, in a sense, as it is the tropes from an emerging queer culture that are capacious enough for him to articulate his desires. So despite cross-sex affections and attractions, he insists throughout the Autobiography on his separation from the normative structures of heterosexual identification and courtship. As he separates himself from these normative structures and the circuits that direct, conduct, and regulate normative desires, his affect and affectations acquire a queer charge. In this way, the queer articulates his broader rejection of a normative conception of the world and his attempt to forge his own critical (p.57) understanding of his place in society. For example, in the following passage he links his poor health with a rejection of marriage:

I surmised that unhealthy parents should have unhealthy children—my rabbit breeding may have put the idea into my head. Therefore, I said, I am unhealthy, and if I marry I will have unhealthy children. But I will never create beings to suffer as I am suffering, so I will never marry. I do not know how old I was when I came to this decision, but I was between thirteen and fifteen and it caused me horrible misery. (9)

The theatricality in the passage is high camp: the sickly and effeminate teenage boy who prefers to spend his time daydreaming of palaces and of sipping ginger-beer, faced with the coarse actualities of rabbit breeding, divorces himself from the prospects of marriage (perhaps more accurately described as the physicality of “breeding” in this passage), and resigns himself to misery. The passage is camp insofar as it is the queer inflection of normative culture with an alternative sensibility. Synge literally opts out of the normative arrangement of desire by refusing marriage and ends on a note of affective excess. This excess is not an irony through which the “real” meaning of the passage is conveyed to an elite audience. Instead, it is part of a melodramatic camp imaginary that is ultimately more capacious than irony in that it allows for a richer and more complex network of associations. The passage operates through the reversal of gender and sexual norms and culminates in dramatic excess. It is precisely this excess that later writers will harness as they extend the queer aesthetic practices of modern Irish culture.

In both of these passages it is not exactly a question of Synge’s actual sexual inclinations or practices that is at stake. Rather, the theatrical intensity of the affect measures the distance between Synge and a normative conception of the world. The passages are organized not around the facts of sexual inclinations and activities, but around the staging of the affect itself. This staging or theatricality is a question not of authenticity of a particular identity, but of the intensity, tone, and charge of the affect, which in these passages evoke a cultural network of queer allusion and connotation.

Synge also separates himself from the normative structures of religion. He explains that reading Darwin led him early on to adopt atheism. Much as with his rejection of marriage, Synge’s atheism isolates him from certain dominant social relations and intensifies a particular affect—in this case the affect of misery: “The story is easily told, but was a terrible experience. By it [his atheism] I laid a chasm between my present and my past and between myself and my kindred and my friends” (11). The misery or suffering that Synge describes in the previous passage has a queer valence in (p.58) that it makes him recuse himself from the structures of normative heterosexuality. Here misery has lost the specifically homosocial content it possessed in the passage with his foul-mouthed schoolmate, but still maintains a queer trace insofar as misery is again the affective intensity used to stage Synge’s relation to the social. As Synge separates himself from the physicality of sex, from the normative structures of heterosexual courtship, and from a belief in God, an aesthetic sensibility emerges. This aesthetic sensibility is attached to affective forces and brings key figures into a constellation:

Vulgar sensuality did not attract me but I was haunted by dreams of the verdant liberty that seemed to reign in the pagan forests of the south…. I think the consciousness of beauty is awakened in persons as in peoples by a prolonged unsatisfied desire…. The feeling of primitive people is still everywhere the feeling of the child; an adoration that has never learned of or wished to admire its divinity. (12–13)

The queer, the child, the pagan, and the primitive share in Synge’s view a heightened sensitivity and an aesthetic sensibility or “consciousness of beauty.” This constellation of figures, each organized around a heightened sense of affect, disrupts a certain Eurocentric narrative of modernity’s progress and sets the stage for the disruption of clichéd representations of Irish folk culture and sensibilities. Synge tracks the emergence of an aesthetic consciousness in these four figures not to repeat the familiar trope of infantilization of purportedly primitive cultures, but to reveal the modern sensibilities of these supposedly peripheral figures. Synge does not cast the pagan and primitive as left behind by progress, or the queer as a perversion of progress. Through Synge’s representations of these figures we can highlight the progressive tendencies available to the queer, the child, and the primitive pagan.

The disruption of a dominant imperialist narrative of European progress—one that yokes scientific, cultural, and political advancement with the “mature” civilization of Europe—becomes clearest in the discussion of sexuality. This is particularly important in the Irish context because of the colonial program, which involved the emasculation and infantilization of the indigenous culture, and because of the intensely contested nature of sexuality in the Irish national and religious imaginary. In the following passage, Synge describes how he and a young girlfriend developed their understanding of the sexual. The primitive in this passage should be read both as a recoding of the value of the indigenous “primitive” culture in the colonial context, and as another mode of affective sympathy, as another sort of intelligent feeling that takes an inventory of social relations: (p.59)

We were always primitive. We both understood all the facts of life and spoke of them without much hesitation but a certain propriety that was decidedly wholesome. We talked of sexual matters with an indifferent and sometimes amused frankness that was identical with the attitude of folk-tales. We were both superstitious, and if we had been allowed … we would have evolved a pantheistic scheme like that of all barbarians. (7)

It is true that here Synge links barbarians with the creation of superstitions. However, through the deployment of the primitive—including folktales, barbarians, and superstitions—the children also share a decidedly modern relationship to the sexual. The children’s discussions and pagan folktales adopt a relaxed and open attitude toward the sexual. The declaration that “we were always primitive” does not work to mark the backwardness of the “primitive”; instead it points to an understanding of modernity from which the primitive is not excluded. The primitive in this case is not so much a sociological condition as an analogous affective mode in the circulation of a modern sensibility.

Synge is at pains to separate himself from prevailing social structures and to isolate an intensity of affect that links his own aesthetic sensibilities with the peripheral figures of the queer, the child, the pagan, and the primitive. The dominant metaphor that situates Synge’s understanding of affect is musical. He explains:

Every life is a symphony, and the translation of this life into music, and from music back to literature or sculpture or painting is the real effort of the artist. The emotions which pass through us have neither end nor beginning—are a part of the sequence of existence—and as the laws of the world are in harmony it is almost the cosmic element in the person which gives great art, as that of Michaelangelo or Beethoven, the dignity of nature…. I do not think biography—even autobiography—can give this revelation. But while the thoughts and deeds of a lifetime are impersonal and concrete—might have been done by anyone—art is the expression of the essential or abstract beauty of the person…. If by the study of an adult who is before his time we can preconstruct the tendency of life and if—as I believe we find in childhood perfect traces of the savage, the expression of a personality will reveal evolution from before history to beyond the silence of our own époque. (3)

This passage in particular, and his interest in questions of affect and pantheism more generally, bear the mark of Synge’s reading of Spinoza. According to this passage, affects do not point to the authenticating inner truth of the individual; rather, they are variations in the subject’s implication in the “sequence of existence.” Synge will take up affect not to measure the truth of identity but to measure this exteriorized sequence that passes through (p.60) the figure of the subject. Consider Spinoza’s description of how the affects represent the human’s implication in the order of nature:

Most of those who have written about the affects, and men’s way of living, seem to treat, not of natural things, which follow the common laws of Nature, but of things which are outside Nature. Indeed they seem to conceive man in Nature as a dominion within a dominion. For they believe that man disturbs, rather than follows, the order of Nature, that he has absolute power over his actions, and that he is determined only by himself. And they attribute the cause of human impotence and inconstancy, not to the common power of Nature, but to I know not what vice of human nature, which they therefore bewail, or laugh at, or disdain, or (as usually happens) curse…. But my reason is this: nothing happens in Nature which can be attributed to any defect in it, for Nature is always the same, and its virtue and power of acting are everywhere one and the same, that is, the laws and rules of Nature according to which all things happen, and change form to another, are always and everywhere the same. So the way of understanding the nature of anything, of whatever kind, must also be the same, namely through the universal laws and rules of Nature.14

Affects in Synge and Spinoza index the implication of the subject within the sequence of existence; affects index the human’s encounter with the order of nature as opposed to the expression of a human separate from the natural. The sympathies that we have been tracing—the queer, the primitive, and so on—have all pointed not to the truth of the individual but to the implication of the subject within a larger fabric. This use of affect to explore the social is part of the Spinozist inflection of Synge’s work.

The queer has been a particularly important mode of being and evaluation in the Autobiography, and playing on the musical metaphor, Synge ends the text with a declaration that reinscribes a particularly queer tone. As a way to fashion a subjectivity that is attentive to the movement of these affects—understood both as a question of the kinetic and as a question of musical rhythm and composition—Synge declares himself a musician. This particular modality of aesthetic consciousness reintroduces a queer valence: “For the hypersensitive organization the musical excitement is perhaps too powerful, too nearly a physical intoxication, but it is not surprising that when I found in the orchestra the world of magical beauty I dreamed of, I threw aside all reasonable counsel and declared myself a professional musician” (15). Here Synge’s subjectivity is organized around a hypersensitivity to music that borders on physical intoxication. This hypersensitivity is another analogue in the chain of affective intensities and modes we have traced thus far. Interestingly, the passage also marks a seminal—though ironic—avowal. The intensity of his affect and the discovery of others who share this affect lead him to an ambiguous declaration: finally discovering (p.61) the “world of magic and beauty” that resonates with his “hypersensitive organization,” he throws off “all reasonable counsel” and declares himself a “musician.” The tone and the metaphor of the passage evoke a sort of coming-out narrative, although rather than coming out as a particular identity, Synge “outs” his aesthetic sensibility. (In fact Christopher Isherwood, in Christopher and His Kind, points out that the term “musical” was common English-language slang for homosexuals in the first half of the twentieth century.)15 His declaration is not an act of authentication—Synge comes out only as a musician. The passage points to the theatricality of its staging rather than the authenticity of identity.16 This aesthetic sensibility, which is here again coded as queer, is essential for understanding Synge’s aesthetic engagement with Irish folk culture.

Corkery also registers the queer valence of the aesthetic sensibilities presented in the Autobiography. Measured against what he refers to as “normal” Irish identity, Corkery describes the young Synge as “delicate,” “strangely reserved and even unboyish to a certain extent” (32). This unboyishness and delicacy come to influence his creative work. Corkery explains that Synge’s work is “emotional rather than intellectual” (35). This emotional character will direct the type of nationalist that Synge will be. He is an emotional nationalist who sees the Irish peasantry through eyes lit by the “flame of love” (38). Consider how the following description by Corkery reinforces this chapter’s reading of the queer affective mode in Synge’s description of the formation of his aesthetic sensibilities:

Picture him: the boy, one of a large family, left, one thinks, much to himself, not robust enough to join in the usual games—and how much that means in the development of a boy’s character!—driven in upon himself, finding solace in nature and the wild,—companionship that does not betray. He takes to music also, the most social of the arts, yet it was for himself, and not for others he was accustomed to play…. Always therefore desiring affection yet always afraid of it, such a one wanders with his dog and mumbles snatches of lyric poetry to himself as he makes across the hills. All softness in a certain sense, yet untamable also…. No if Synge was such as we imagine it is not the politics, naturally part and parcel of Irish nationality, that would coax him to its service; rather it is the folk, the Gaelic-speaking peasantry, with their immemorial lore, their aloofness from the modern world, their simple life; for going to them would be for him a way of extending the passions that warmed his breast in boyhood. (55)

Synge is effeminate, receptive, sensitive, and separated from the normal development of boys—this characterization of his artistic sensibility has a queer tone, admittedly uneasy on Corkery’s part, as it collects key attributes that have become associated with the figure of the homosexual in modern Western culture. We read in Wilde a queerly productive receptivity at the (p.62) end of the last chapter, and here we could suggest, through a subversive use of Corkery’s characterization, that Synge offers an iconic and bold queer aesthetic: untamable softness. Both of these formulas suggest powerful alternatives to hard-edged masculinist nationalism, whether colonialist or anticolonialist. Corkery would undoubtedly not be pleased with the styling and promotion of this image of Synge. He attempts to cut this untamably soft aesthetic into a proper nationalist passion. My reading argues that Synge shakes loose from any such attempts at domestication and that by declaring himself as a musician he aims to keep all of the dynamism and ambiguity of his aesthetic sensibility in play. We can conclude this section by directly quoting Corkery, but at the same time playfully redirecting the motivations of his claims: “[Synge] could conceive of character clouded over by a mood, but apparently not stiffened by faith…. We must accept what he did. The rather boyish or even tom-boyish types he chose accord with his outlook on art and life…. The riddle of the universe they read, as did that returned Irish girl Synge had met: Everything is queer!” (101).

The Aesthetic Stylization of Folk Culture

Synge’s engagement with the problem of aesthetic consciousness in his early writings is clearly indebted to a network of continental European writing. Two pieces of his juvenilia, Étude morbide and Vita Vecchia, reverberate with the thematics and experimentation of French decadent literature and are particularly reminiscent of J. K. Huysman’s Á rebours. Synge eventually repudiated his early works, along with the projects of French writers such as Huysman and Mallarmé, and turned his attentions to Ireland. This turn to Ireland is frequently framed as a return to the authenticity of the nationalist folk culture. Yeats’s legendary advice to the young Synge, recounted in Yeats’s foreword to Synge’s play “The Well of the Saints,” points to the Aran Islands (and by extension the West of Ireland in general) as the heart of a nationalist folk project. Finding the young Irishman in Paris, Yeats extols him: “Give up Paris. You will never create anything by reading Racine, and Arthur Symons will always be a better critic of French literature. Go to the Aran Islands. Live there as if you were one of the people themselves; express a life that has never found expression.”17 In one sense, Yeats’s advice calls on Synge to fashion a project focused on the nationalist authenticity of the Irish peasant. Traveling to the Aran Islands, Synge was to turn to the most Celtic, the most traditional, the most authentic origin of Irish identity and help that origin find expression. Yet even Yeats saw that Synge’s engagement with the Irish-speaking peasantry of the West could not ultimately be reduced to an expression of ethnographic authenticity. In (p.63) his foreword, describing the language of Synge’s plays, Yeats hesitates: “His plays have created their own tradition…. Perhaps no Irish countryman ever had that exact rhythm in his voice, but certainly if Mr. Synge had been born a countryman, he would have spoken like that” (63–64). Though Synge had been charged with the task of “express[ing] a life that [had] never found expression,” he had not exactly managed to express the authentic voice of the peasantry—rather, he had created a stylized form of expression that implicated the peasantry and engendered its own tradition. Synge had abandoned the decadence of Parisian literary experimentation, but he did not shed the role of the aesthete in his engagement with the peasantry.

Though the peasantry of the West bore the burden of the project of nationalist expression, Synge’s engagement with the representation of the peasantry hinges on the same stylized aesthetic consciousness that emerged in his Autobiography. To begin, there is an irreducible theatricality of the Irish peasant in Synge’s work. Irish peasants are theatrical not only as they step from a century of stage-Irish buffoonery to the nationalist authenticity of the Abbey Theater, but also as they play with the propriety of their aesthetic and affective representation. Synge describes the theatricality involved in the peasantry’s reception of the nationalist project:

When a benevolent visitor comes to his cottage, seeing a sort of holy family, the man of his house, his wife, and all their infants, too courteous to disappoint him, play their parts with delight. When the amiable visitor, however, is out once more in the boreen, a storm of good-tempered irony breaks out behind him, that would surprise him could he hear it. This irony I have met with many times, in places where I have been intimate with people and have always been overjoyed to hear it. It shows that, in spite of relief-works, commissions, and patronizing philanthropy—that sickly thing—the Irish peasant, in his own mind, is neither abject nor servile. (Prose xxiv–xxv)

As in the Autobiography, this passage is organized around the staging of affect. This affect does not measure definitively the inner authentic truth of the individual but traces the subject’s implication in a constellation of forces—in this case a history of cultural and religious expectations about the peasantry, and a history of interventions into their lives. The passage also recalls Wilde’s discussion of the authoritarian tendencies in sentimentalist interventions into the lives of the poor from the previous chapter. Both the visitors to the Irish cottage and the sentimentalist demand forms of imitation; they demand that the people they encounter live up to their moralized expectations. Wilde takes on what he terms the tyrannical force of these expectations, and Synge reveals their subversion through a sophisticated affective performance by the peasants themselves.

(p.64) Even The Aran Islands, the most ostensibly ethnographic of Synge’s writings to address the peasantry, relies heavily on the aesthetic organization and staging of affect in its investigation of the inhabitants of the remote Western islands. The broadest frame of The Aran Islands is an engagement with the Irish language: the text follows Synge’s learning of Irish while on the islands. Despite the pedagogical frame, the text does not follow a developmental model; rather, it is organized through textual montage. The text juxtaposes anecdotes, ethnographic observations, folk songs and folktales, first-person interior monologues, free indirect discourse, dialogue, and aesthetic, social, and historical commentary. The accumulation of such generic diversity in an attempt to explain the islanders places the text within the long tradition of writings about Ireland. In The Aran Islands this tradition—which normally figures England looking westward to Ireland—is folded in on itself as Ireland’s gaze turns inward to the islands of its own western periphery. The insistence on montage is important because even if the text is at times dominated by the interiorized consciousness of the narrator, this dominance is not absolute. The narrating consciousness is continually exteriorized, displaced, rejected, corrected, complemented, and juxtaposed by the myriad forces of other voices and features in the text. The montage structure displaces a simplistic observer/observed binarism that had marked much writing about indigenous populations. Montage allows for some of the most striking passages in the text, in which the “natives” reach beyond the confines of their particular locale:

There is hardly an hour that I am with them that I do not feel the shock of some inconceivable idea, and then again the shock of some vague emotion that is familiar to them and to me. On some days I feel this island as a perfect home and resting place; on other days I feel that I am a waif among the people. I can feel more with them than they can with me, and while I wander among them, they like me sometimes, and laugh at me sometimes, yet never know what I am doing. (58–59)

In some sense, this passage deploys the common colonialist notion that the observer from the metropolis ultimately enjoys a privileged point of view. This trope is first complicated by Synge’s own status as an Anglo-Irish writer with deep sympathies with Gaelic Irish peoples and traditions. On another level, the passage also tracks an affect that overwhelms the distinction between Synge the narrator and the islanders he is observing: shock. Despite Synge’s disavowal of French literary experiments with modernity, this passage is strikingly similar to discussions of the role of shock in modernity that appear in writers such as Charles Baudelaire. Shock produces an idea and an emotion that is partially articulate and partially ineffable; a sense of consciousness that is both shared and isolated; a (p.65) type of knowledge that appears unsure and partial. Synge stages his discussion of shock in a radically different context. For Baudelaire the prototypical experience of modernity occurs in the movement of the Parisian boulevards, whereas for Synge it occurs in the wake of the English colonial project in the depopulated regions of western Ireland. As in Baudelaire’s famous “A une passante,” shock breaks the temporal frame of modernity with the power of an unconceivable idea (“Un éclair … puis la nuit!—Fugitive beauté/Dont le regard m’a fait soudainement renaître”), it opens the instant to the eternal, time to timelessness (“Ne te verrai-je plus que dans l’éternité?”), and human consciousness to the power of thought and speculation familiar to both the self and the other (“Ailleurs, bien loin d’ici! trop tard! jamais peut-être!/Car j’ignore où tu fuis, tu ne sais où je vais,/Ô toi que j’eusse aimée, ô toi qui le savais!”).18 The passages seems to strain for the fuller sense of sympathy that Wilde calls on: the shock of the modern not only marks what emotions the characters are experiencing and the shape of the world in which they find themselves; it also suggests what new and unforeseen sympathies are possible and what the world might be.

The colonialist trope would have the experience of modernity lodged solely within the consciousness of the narrator rather than the consciousness of the colonized, and on one level Synge’s passage suggests as much. But the montage structure of Synge’s text intervenes to allow another possibility to emerge: the consciousness of modernity can lie in the colonized, the peripheral, the abjected. When the sensibility of modernity involves the contradictory feelings of confusion and clarity, isolation and intimacy, desire and frigidity, as in Baudelaire’s poem, then the circulation of this same contradictory sensibility in Synge’s representation of his time with the peasantry does not simply reinscribe colonialist dichotomies but points to modernity as a condition shared by Synge and the peasants.

Following the above passage, Synge’s text turns to a discussion between himself and a young woman native to the island. Like many of the islanders, she has spent time on the mainland and shows a broad curiosity, her interest ranging from men to world affairs:

One evening I found her trying to light a fire in the little side room of her cottage, where there is an ordinary fireplace. I went in to help her and showed her how to hold up a paper before the mouth of the chimney to make a draught, a method she had never seen. Then I told her of men who live in Paris and make their own fires that they may have no one to bother them. She was sitting on a heap on the floor starting the turf, and as I finished looked up with surprise.

“They’re like me so,” she said; “would anyone have thought that!”

Below the sympathy we feel there is still a chasm between us. (59)

(p.66) The passage repeats a part of the earlier colonialist dichotomies: the narrator is associated with knowledge that he imparts to the colonized. But the passage contains a surprise of its own: the young native woman cuts through the substance of the narrator’s anecdote to find a point of identification between herself and urbane and sophisticated Parisian bachelors.19 (That the young woman identifies with the figure of the bachelor, a bachelor whose social dimensions we traced in the discussion of Wilde, should be kept in view.) Always ready to undercut overly facile points of identification or differentiation, the passage ends by reinvoking the chasm that separates these two speakers. This chasm figures a chain of contradictions. It marks the distance between Synge and the peasant girl, it calls to mind the colonial “chasm” (both discursive and political) that separates Ireland from England, and it represents an experience of modernity shared by the islanders and the Irish metropolitan narrator. The aesthetic organization of the text, the insistence on textual montage and the staging of affect, destabilizes the differences between the metropolitan center and the colonized periphery. The montage structure of Synge’s Aran Islands allows for an “intelligent sympathy” in which the peasants represented are not mere passive curiosities offered for metropolitan consumption. The affects produced in the montage of Synge’s text allow for acts of intelligence through which Synge and the islanders measure their mutual implication in modernity.

Modernity in this context is akin to Foucault’s formulation in “What is Enlightenment?,” in which he discusses Immanuel Kant’s short piece of the same title:

Thinking back on Kant’s text, I wonder whether we may not envision modernity as an attitude rather than as a period of history. And by “attitude,” I mean a mode of relating to contemporary reality; a voluntary choice made by certain people; in the end a way of thinking and feeling; a way, too, of acting and behaving that at one and the same time marks a relation of belonging and presents itself as a task. No doubt, a bit like what the Greeks called an ethos. And consequently, rather than seeking to distinguish the “modern era” from the “premodern” or “postmodern,” I think it would be more useful to try to find out how the attitude of modernity, ever since its formation, has found itself struggling with attitudes of countermodernity.20

Unlike the young peasant girl and Synge, who adopt modernity as an attitude in their examination of themselves, of each other, and of their historical situation, Corkery registers an intense anxiety over the possibility of such a global modernity as it threatens his sense of nationalist authenticity. Describing the dangers inherent in experiments such as Synge’s, he writes: (p.67)

That way of writing which produces best sellers not only in one but in half the countries of the civilized world, sanctioned it seems to be not so much by its filling of a need, as by the annihilation of distance which modern transport methods as well as wireless have brought about, one asks where it is to end? One is left wondering, for the world has never seen the like. Mr. Shaw writes a play and it is produced for the first time in a different language a thousand or more miles a way. Literature designed for such ends can be nothing but brain…. What can such work have in common, say with the literature of the Greeks, for whom Greece was everything? (236–37)

Synge disrupts the certainty of such a nationalist model of cultural production. Though he does not simply write “best sellers,” and he does not particularly rely on the modernization of technologies, Synge does work to close the distance between Irish folk culture and modernity by tracking their mutual implication. In The Aran Islands as in the Autobiography, his intelligent measurement of the affects circulating in representations of the Irish peasantry does not rest on an essentialized and reified identity; rather, it relies on a stylized social sensibility that disrupts the distinctions of colonial subject/object imaginaries.

The Playboy of the Western World

The Playboy of the Western World is the most famous of Synge’s theatrical productions, most noted for having sparked riots among Dublin audiences during its first run in 1907. According to the lore surrounding the riots, conservative Catholic audiences in Dublin erupted at the reference to a “drift of Mayo girls standing in their shifts itself.”21 In one sense, what seems to have provoked the reaction was the attribution of a modern sexual sensibility to the chaste image of the peasant woman. In The Playboy, Synge displaces the nationalist model of peasant authenticity and replaces it with a more fluid model of the social organized around the circulation of stylized affects. Synge proposes an affective model of Irishness caught in the open-ended play of stylization.

The preface to The Playboy opens with what seems like a gesture toward authenticity: “In writing The Playboy of the Western World, as in my other plays, I have used one or two words only, that I have not heard among the country people of Ireland, or spoken in my own nursery before I could read the news papers” (96). In this sense the play presents itself as part of an authentic look at the national folk culture, a faithful ethnographic representation of peasant life. The language of the play does not simply spring fully fashioned from the imagination of the author; rather, it is worked out through what Synge refers to as the process of “collaboration” between the (p.68) author and “the people” (96). This process of collaboration, however, quickly troubles any simple model of authenticity by introducing the problem of style to the representation of peasant life:

All art is collaboration; and there is little doubt that in the happy ages of literature striking and beautiful phrases were as ready to the story-teller’s or the playwright’s hand as the rich cloaks and dresses of his time…. In countries where the imagination of the people, and the language they use, is rich and living, it is possible for a writer to be rich and copious in his words, and at the same time to give the reality which is the root of all poetry, in a comprehensive and natural form. (96)

The language of the play in this formula is organic to the people; it is a “natural form.” However, language is also a matter of style, like the “rich cloaks or dresses” to be appropriated by the artist. As a stylized form, language is not authentic but is simply a mode used to evoke particular affects, moods, memories, ideas, and settings. Indeed, once the process of collaboration is introduced in the preface, the problem of authenticity turns from a question of ethnographic verisimilitude to an invocation of “the profound and common interests of life” in a broader sense. Here Synge again echoes Spinoza. Synge explains that the reality of life can be achieved through an understanding of the affects, and in particular the affect of joy: “On the stage one must have reality, and one must have joy, and that is why the intellectual modern drama has failed, and people have grown sick of the false joy of the musical comedy, that has been given them in place of the rich joy found only in what is superb and wild in reality” (96). As in Spinoza, the intensification of joy corresponds with a deeper understanding of reality. We saw earlier in Spinoza that the affects are to be understood as the traces of the human implication in the order of nature. In discussing how these affects are to be understood Spinoza explains:

We see, then, that the mind can undergo great changes, and pass now to a greater, now to a lesser perfection. These passions, indeed, explain to us the affects of joy and sadness. By joy, therefore, I shall understand in what follows that passion by which the mind passes to a greater perfection. And by sadness, that passion by which it passes to a lesser perfection. The affect of joy which is related to the mind and body at once I call pleasure or cheerfulness, and that of sadness, pain or melancholy. (161)

As subjects in Spinoza act more and more in accordance with the reason of nature, as they broaden the sphere of their intellectual and physical activities, they increase their joy. Joy in this sense represents the deepening sense of reality in Spinoza because it represents the broadening of the (p.69) subject’s power. Similarly, joy in Synge is the deepening of an understanding of the reality of life. The style of Synge’s play is no longer simply a question of ethnographic verification. The “copious” style is in fact an index or feature of the abundance of life itself, and insofar as this copious style and the affect of joy are expressive of life, they exceed the protocols of simple verification.

The play itself also opens with a gesture toward the discourse of authenticity. The scene is set in a “country public house or shebeen, very rough and untidy” (99). The shebeen figures as both the center of the peasant community and the imagined center of the national folk culture for the Dublin audience. The first character encountered is “Pegeen, a wild-looking but fine girl of about twenty, [who] is writing at a table. She is dressed in the usual peasant dress” (99). The style of Pegeen’s dress suggests her implication in a discourse of folk authenticity, her implication in a repertoire of images of country life; the audience is prepared for a presentation of vraisemblance paysanne. Again though, Synge quickly introduces problems of the aesthetic to this image of authenticity. The “usual peasant dress” does not just express the ethnographic but introduces the problem of style, understood both as fashion and as writing. In the opening lines Pegeen is not merely a passive object for the audience’s consumption; rather, she is fashioning herself through writing:

[slowly, as she writes] Six yards of stuff for to make a yellow gown. A pair of lace boots with lengthy heels on them and brassy eyes. A hat is suited for a wedding day. A fine tooth comb. To be sent with three barrels of porter in Jimmy Farrell’s creel cart on the evening of the coming Fair to Mister Michael James Flaherty. With the best compliments of the season: Margaret Flaherty. (99)

The image of Pegeen writing out the order for her wedding dress represents a confluence of stylization: here the authenticity of the peasant dress literally is revealed as a sort of writing. If the initial images suggest the social organized around an authentic core, the introduction of the problem of style, and in particular the relation of the feminine to style, opens the world of the comedy to a certain dynamic of the aesthetic, a dynamic both vertiginous and playful. That is to say, the central activity of the play will be the social process of aesthetic evaluation: of language, characters, motives, actions, feelings, identity, and value. Unlike a model of authenticity that implies an objective standard of verification organized around a core and true identity, the farcical universe of The Playboy is organized around an open-ended process of stylization that defies simple models of verification. The social gestures of stylization, which trace the limits of ethnographic authenticity, happen within the realm of sexual (p.70) discourse, within the social institutions of marriage, and it is precisely a queer sexual discourse that Synge will use to disrupt the orthodoxies of folk authenticity.

The image of Pegeen fashioning herself in writing and then affixing her signature figures the relation between the feminine and the problem of style. This image is set against another form of writing in the opening lines of the play. Shawn Keogh, the emasculated and cowardly groom-to-be, is attempting to obtain a dispensation from the “bishops or the Court of Rome” (100) to allow him to marry Pegeen, since the two are cousins. This form of writing-as-law will be held up for mockery throughout as the comedy opens to the play of stylization under the influence of the cast of women villagers.22

Between these two modes of writing—the play of a feminine stylization and the institutional gravity of the masculine law—the play is set in the dynamics of transition. The setting is outside a small village on the coast of County Mayo, and the pun of the title is caught between the peripheral and the global. Although the village is on an isolated western coast, it will serve as a lens to the entire “Western world” named in the title. Similarly, the villagers who appear at the shebeen are strangely deterritorialized: the location of the tavern three miles on any road from the village makes all visitors to the tavern “bona fide” travelers and thus not subject to liquor curfews (203). In this sense, they are both locals who are attached to the area, and travelers attached to the movements of the road. The opening scene of the comedy finds the characters poised between life and death: as Pegeen makes the arrangements for her wedding, her father, Michael James, is preparing to attend the wake of Kate Cassidy. The village shuttles between the past, present, and future, and the tension of this thematic recurs throughout: when confronted with the story of the murder of Christy Mahon’s father, the villagers must weigh the importance of the past in relation to the present. Though the play gestures at the outset to the antiquity of Ireland’s native patrimony in its deployment of the image of the peasantry, the village is populated mostly by the young, and in particular young girls, who live for modern scandals disseminated through popular newspapers. With the Widow Quinn’s murder of her husband the village also must weigh the past and present through questions of crime and culpability. Even in the framing of the first scene, in which Pegeen orders her wedding dress, and the final scene, in which she mourns in the traditional act of keening for the loss of her “playboy,” the comedy wrestles with the tension between the past and the present.

The dynamism of the location, the strange mixture of the provincial and the global, and the tension between life and death, all point to Synge’s interest in movement. In the Autobiography, the figure that emerges to (p.71) orchestrate movement is the artist-musician. In The Playboy, it is another of Synge’s favorite figures: the wanderer. Synge explains the importance of this character in a way that resonates with Deleuze’s description of the variations of affect:

Man is naturally a nomad … and all wanderers have finer intellectual and physical perceptions than men who are condemned to local habitations…. The vagrant, I think, along with perhaps the sailor, has preserved the dignity of motion with its whole sensation of strange colors in the clouds and of strange passages with voices that whisper in the dark and still stranger inns and lodgings. (Prose 195–96)

As with the artist-musician, the nomad has achieved a heightened aesthetic sensibility. To the dynamic and transitory environment of the shebeen, Synge introduces the figure of the stranger fugitive. With this introduction of the stranger commences the vertiginous process of evaluation that sustains the farcical comedy of the rest of the play. The initial report of the stranger (who turns out to be Christy Mahon) serves as both a measurement of motion and an instigator of commotion:

SHAWN [going to her, soothingly]:

  • … and I’m after feeling a kind of fellow above in the furzy ditch, groaning wicked like a maddening dog …
  • PEGEEN [turning on him sharply]:

  • What’s that? Is it a man you seen?
  • SHAWN [retreating]:

  • I couldn’t see him at all, but I heard him groaning out and breaking his heart. It should have been a young man from his words speaking.
  • PEGEEN [going after him]:

  • And you never went near to see was he
  • hurted or what ailed him at all?
  • SHAWN:

  • I did not Pegeen Mike. It was a dark lonesome place to be
  • hearing the like of him.

  • Well, you’re a daring fellow! And if they find his corpse
  • stretched above in the dews of dawn, what’ll you say then to the
  • peelers or the Justice of the Peace?
  • SHAWN [thunderstruck]:

  • I wasn’t thinking of that. For the love of God,
  • Pegeen Mike, don’t let on I was speaking of him. Don’t tell your father and the men coming above, for if they heard that story they’d have a great blabbing this night at the wake. (104)
  • The conversation first explores the difference in reactions between curious and clever Pegeen and cowardly Shawn—who it turns out is unwilling to stay with Pegeen at the shebeen to protect her from the threat of this stranger because the local priest would object to such an arrangement before their wedding. The arrival of the stranger also sets in motion the process of storytelling that is at the heart of the comedy. As Shawn passes (p.72) the story of the stranger’s arrival to Pegeen with the hope of making her afraid, she quickly turns the story into a revelation of Shawn’s cowardice. A similarly complicated process of narrative production and evaluation occurs when the stranger Christy first divulges his crime:

    PEGEEN [with a sign to the men to be quiet]:

  • You’re only saying it. You did nothing at all. A soft lad the like of you wouldn’t slit the windpipe of a screeching sow.
  • CHRISTY [offended]:

  • You’re not speaking the truth.
  • PEGEEN [in mock rage]:

  • Not speaking the truth, is it? Would you have me knock the head of you with the butt of a broom?
  • CHRSITY [twisting round on her with a sharp cry of horror]:

  • Don’t strike me…. I killed my poor father, Tuesday was a week, for doing the like of that.
  • PEGEEN [with blank amazement]:

  • Is it killed your father?
  • CHRSITY [subsiding]:

  • With the help of God I did surely, and that the Holy Immaculate Mother may intercede for his soul.
  • PHILLY [retreating with Jimmy]:

  • There’s a daring fellow.
  • JIMMY:

  • Oh, glory be to God!
  • MICHAEL [with great respect]:

  • That was a hanging crime, mister honey.
  • You should have had good reason for doing the like of that. (105)
  • The presentation of Christy’s deed is couched in a search for “speaking the truth.” This search for the truth in a sense echoes the nationalist project’s quest for an authentic Irish identity at the heart of peasant culture. However, this search for the truth occurs within a highly theatrical conversation. Indeed, the conversation emerges from the stage directions as a sort of verbal fencing: there is even the physical rhythm of lunge and parry as the characters advance, feign rage, retreat, and finally rest. The revelation of the truth of the patricide, however, does not settle the meaning of either Christy’s story or his potential relationship to the villagers. Instead, the counterintuitive conclusions drawn concerning the patricide further fuel the absurdity of the comedy:


  • That’s be a lad with the sense of Solomon to have for a pot-boy,
  • Michael James, if it’s the truth you’re seeking one at all.

  • The peelers is fearing him, and if you’d that lad in the house
  • there isn’t one of them would come smelling around if the dogs itself were lapping poteen from the dung-pit of the yard.
  • JIMMY:

  • Bravery’s a treasure in a lonesome place, and a lad would kill his
  • father, I’m thinking, would face a foxy divil with a pitchpike on the flags of hell.

  • It’s the truth they’re saying, and if I’d that lad in the house, I
  • wouldn’t be fearing the loosed khaki cut-thoats, or the walking dead.
  • CHRISTY [swelling with pride and triumph]:

  • Well, glory be to God!
  • (p.73) MICHAEL [with deference]:

  • Would you think to stop here and be pot-
  • boy mister honey, if we gave you good wages, and didn’t destroy you with the weight of work? (106–7)
  • Rather than severing his relationship with the community, the patricide increases his worth in the eyes of the community. But it is not the fact of murder so much as it is the affect of bravery that wins the minds of the tavern. The tension of the comedy has a camp quality in its energetic undermining of normative values and its proliferation of desire. It is not the facts of the situation but the particular theatrical presentation of the facts, and the circulation of affect tied to this theatricality, that forms the basis for the social evaluation of Christy’s deed. In the story of the crime there is an excess that shatters the binarism inherent in the litigious evaluation of the facts. It is no longer about the crime itself and the identification of the criminal; instead, an excess, a freedom, erupts. A form of surplus value emerges that we saw already in Wilde and that prefigures articulations of surplus value that will appear in the next chapters.

    The social approval of Christy’s story is directly linked with its status as aesthetic language and its seductiveness. Pegeen claims of Christy, “I’ve heard all times it’s the poets are your like, fine fiery fellows with great rages when their temper’s roused” (109). And later she flirts with Christy, saying, “Would you have me think that a man never talked with the girls would have the words you’ve spoken today? It’s only letting on you are to be lonesome, the way you’d get around me now” (121). The belief in Christy’s linguistic and seductive powers even have a sort of performative effect in the play as the awkward Christy blossoms into a lover. Christy encourages Pegeen’s affections with the beauty and ease of a lover’s discourse: “Let you wait to hear me talking till we’re astray in Erris when Good Friday’s by, drinking a sup from a well, and making mighty kisses with our wetted mouths, or gaming in a gap of sunshine with yourself stretched back unto your necklace of flowers of the earth” (136). The affective intensity of the language becomes more important than the facts of the deed.

    The villagers do not hold the question of the truth in utter disregard, and with the revelation that Christy’s tale of the patricide was just that, a tale, Christy’s status as a wonder of the western world crumbles. In an attempt to regain his status, Christy makes a real attempt on his father’s life, which outrages the villagers even more. Though Christy pleads with Pegeen to acknowledge his deed and to restore her respect for him, Pegeen reacts incredulously: “I’ll say a strange man is a marvel with his mighty talk; what’s a squabble in your back-yard and the blow of a loy, have taught me that there’s a great gap between a gallous story and a dirty deed” (144). It was never the murder itself that seduced the villagers; it was the stylization of the murder in language and the powerful affects of bravery, courage, (p.74) romance, and rage. The finale of the play is the most vertiginous intensification of these dynamics. Synge explains in the stage directions for the play that the final scene is to be an “elaborate mélange” of drama, comedy, the poetical, the Rabelaisian, and the tragic (xiv). Although the second attempt on his father’s life also fails, Christy at the end of the play asserts himself as the master of his household. He tells his father, “Go with you, is it! I will then, like a gallant captain with his heathen slave…. I’m master of all fights from now” (146). Then to the villagers Christy adds, “Ten thousand blessings upon all that’s here, for you’ve turned me a likely gaffer in the end of all, the way I’ll go romancing through a romping lifetime from this hour to the dawning of the judgment day” (146). Realizing that Christy has finally achieved a transformation—not through the actual murder of his father but through the vitalizing effects of language—Pegeen rejects Shawn Keogh and starts to keen the loss of Christy: “[hitting him [Shawn Keogh] a box on the ear] Quit my sight. [putting her shawl over her head and breaking out into wild lamentations.] Oh my grief, I’ve lost him surely. I’ve lost the only playboy of the western world” (146). Christy leaves the scene with an understanding of affect and style that will lead him to “romancing through a romping lifetime.” In this light the ironic comedy of Pegeen keening for the loss of her playboy acquires an added poignancy: unlike at the wake for Kate Cassidy at the outset of the play, Pegeen’s keening does not mourn the dead; rather, she mourns the loss of life still living. Pegeen’s keening is in fact an act of “intelligent sympathy” in which “the past [the ancient practice of keening] is living and the present [is] so desirous to live” (Prose 387).

    In his critique of The Playboy, Corkery suggests that the “normal” “flame of love” (38) that should guide Synge’s engagement with the peasants has yielded to a queer flamboyance—“outlandish lingo” (200); “wasteful and ridiculous excess” (196); “a verbal even more than an emotional debauch” (196), “drenched in poteen” (185). The Playboy’s “florid diction” even “infects our mind” (195). (The OED lists “florid” as the second definition of “flamboyant.”) The shrill tone of Corkery’s reaction to The Playboy—in a terminology replete with homophobic resonance—contrasts dramatically with the serenity that Corkery imagines undergirds authentic nationalist cultural practices:

    The Irishman looks in the face of his own people, hears them utter themselves with intimacy, knows what is deep in them, what is merely fleeting, has old-time knowledge why they are such and such…. Aware of himself thus advantaged, as with those reasons which the intellect knows not of, the Irishman feels in his bones that Ireland has not yet learned how to express its own life through the medium of the English language. (12)

    (p.75) Synge’s recognition of the complexity of feeling in modern Ireland at the end of The Playboy contradicts the simplicity of any such naturalized national identity. Pegeen as she deploys ancient folk customs to respond to contemporary life reveals an Ireland both cognizant of its historical legacy and open to the contingencies of modernity. In a sense, Pegeen figures the critical sensibilities necessary for the project of decolonization. Christy, as he takes his leave of the village and sets out to the vitality of the unknown, represents the possibility of a young Ireland that has placed its ancient past in the service of the living present. Their decoupling is itself an evocatively queer gesture as traditional gender roles are subverted and marriage, that knot of normative desire, is undone: Pegeen takes on the power and burden of critical thought, and Christy embodies a new masculinity that has shed the violence of physical conflict and has been opened to the vitality of language and desire. The silence that hangs over the question of Christy’s future in a sense echoes the silence surrounding Synge’s death, which occurred before the radical transformations of 1916 took place. Synge was never to see where The Playboy was to lead. If I have struck a positive note in this final scene, there is also a complex undertone to address in the invocation of slavery as Christy steps into the future “like a gallant captain with his heathen slave.” Notwithstanding Synge’s atheism and promotion of the pagan as a progressive figure, the phrase interjects the complex question of Ireland’s relationship to slavery and empire. The next chapter will address these connections as it considers the Irish nationalist Roger Casement’s deployment of a queer aesthetic in the struggle for universal human rights.


    (1) . Mary Burke, “Tinkers”: Synge and the Cultural History of the Irish Traveller (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

    (2) . John Millington Synge, J. M. Synge Collected Works: Volume II, Prose, ed. Alan Price (London: Oxford University Press, 1966), 387. All subsequent quotations from Synge’s prose works will be from this edition and cited parenthetically.

    (3) . Daniel Corkery, Synge and Anglo-Irish Literature: A Study (New York: Russell & Russell, 1931, 1965). All subsequent references to Corkery are from this volume and cited parenthetically.

    (4) . Kathryn Conrad, Locked in the Family Cell: Gender, Sexuality and Political Agency in Irish National Discourse (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004); Margot Backus, The Gothic Family Romance: Heterosexuality, Child Sacrifice, and the Anglo-Irish Colonial Order (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999). Further references to these works will be made parenthetically in the text.

    (5) . For more on homosexual panic see Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, The Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 19–21.

    (6) . J. M. Synge, The Playboy of the Western World and Two Other Irish Plays (New York: Penguin, 1987), 78. The next two quotations from this work will be from this edition and cited parenthetically in the text.

    (7) . For the strangeness of Synge’s character see David H. Greene, “J. M. Synge: A Reappraisal,” in Critical Essays on John Millington Synge, ed. Daniel E. Casey (New York: Hall and Macmillan, 1994), 15–27.

    (8) . For more on the critical reception of Synge see Daniel J. Casey, ed., Critical Essays on John Millington Synge (New York: G. K. Hall, 1994); Declan Kiberd, Synge and the Irish Language (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1979); Daniel Corkery, Synge and Anglo-Irish Literature: A Study (1931; rpt., New York: Russell & Russell, 1965); Maurice Harmon, J. M. Synge: Centenary Papers (Dublin: Dolmen, 1972); S. B. Bushrui, ed., A Centenary Tribute to J. M. Synge 1871–1909: Sunshine and the Moon’s Delight (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1972); Seamus Deane, Celtic Revivals: Essays in Modern Irish Literature, 1880–1980 (Boston: Faber and Faber, 1985); David H. Greene and Edward M. Stephens, J. M. Synge: A Biography (New York: Macmillan, 1959).

    (9) . Gary Schmidgall, The Stranger Wilde: Interpreting Oscar (New York: Penguin, 1994), 301.

    (10) . Synge refers explicitly to Spinoza in his notebooks, and I believe that his introduction to The Playboy of the Western World is also indebted to his reading of Spinoza. The final section of this chapter examines the introduction to The Playboy.

    (11) . Gilles Deleuze, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy (San Francisco: City Lights, 1988), 48–49.

    (12) . Vicky Mahaffey, States of Desire: Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, and the Irish Experiment (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 5.

    (p.192) (13) . For more see the introduction.

    (14) . Benedict de Spinoza, The Ethics and Other Works, ed. and trans. Edwin Curley (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 152–53.

    (15) . Christopher Isherwood, Christopher and His Kind (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976), 74.

    (16) . Adrian Frazier considers a similar passage in the writings of George Moore in which the excessive qualities of musical experience are articulated through a homoerotic encounter. Frazier cautions against reading such passages as simple declarations of homosexual identity, noting that particularly in a Parisian cultural context, these queer musical moments were a common trope that signified in multiple directions. Frazier does not dismiss the importance of homosexuality; rather, he smartly suggests that in the hysteria following the Wilde trial, “when everyone else was running from any association with homosexuality, it would have been like Moore to embrace it.” George Moore: 1852–1933 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), 261.

    (17) . John Millington Synge, J. M. Synge, Collected Works: Volume 2, Plays, ed. Anne Saddlemeyer (London: Oxford University Press, 1968), 63. Subsequent references to the prefaces will be from this edition.

    (18) . Charles Baudelaire, “A une passante,” from Les Fleurs du mal. The translation of the poem reads: “Around me roared the nearly deafening street. / Tall, slim, in mourning, in majestic grief, / A woman passed me, with a splendid hand / Lifting and swinging her festoon and hem; / Nimble and stately, statuesque of leg. / I, shaking like an addict, from her eye, / Black sky, spawner of hurricanes, drank in / Sweetness that fascinates, pleasure that kills. / One lightening flash … then night! Sweet fugitive / Whose glance has made me suddenly reborn, / Will we not meet again this side of death? / Far from this place! too late! never perhaps! / Neither one knowing where the other goes, / O you I might have loved, as well you know!” The French and English versions appear on opposing pages in the bilingual edition. Charles Baudelaire, The Flowers of Evil (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 188–89.

    (19) . Synge reiterates this comparison explicitly: “The women of this island are before conventionality, and share some of the liberal features that are thought peculiar to the women of Paris and New York” (The Aran Islands, 87).

    (20) . Michel Foucault, “What Is Enlightenment?,” in Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: New Press, 2006), 309–10.

    (21) . John Millington Synge, The Playboy of the Western World and Other Plays, ed. Ann Saddlemeyer (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), xvii. Subsequent references to The Playboy will be to this edition.

    (22) . Jacques Derrida explains a similar effect of the feminine: “There is no such thing as the essence of woman because woman averts, she is averted of herself. Out of the depths, endless and unfathomable, she engulfs and distorts all vestige of essentiality, of identity, of property. And the philosophical discourse, blinded, founders on these shoals and is hurled down these depthless depths to its ruin. There is no such thing as the truth of woman, but it is because of that abyssal divergence of the truth, because that untruth is “truth.” Woman is but one name for that untruth of truth.” Spurs: Nietzsche’s Styles, trans. Barbara Harlow (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 51.