Finding oneself again through connectedness in Where Have You Been? by, J O'Connor

Tags: Cian, alienation, Ireland, Catherine Dwyer, connectedness, London, Dublin, O'Connor, Angela, Cian Hanahoe, The European Conference on Arts & Humanities, Joseph O'Connor, Anne-Lise Perotto University of Savoie, France, connection, Irish artist, cultural identity, Robert Emmet, Eamon de Valera, Irish nationalism, past, present and future, James Larkin, Irish tradition, Sean Keating, amateur writing, Catherine
Content: Finding oneself again through connectedness in "Where Have You Been?" by Joseph O'Connor (2012). Anne-Lise Perotto University of Savoie, France 0324 The European Conference on Arts & Humanities 2013 Official Conference Proceedings 2013 iafor The International Academic Forum
Finding oneself again through connectedness in "Where Have You Been?" by Joseph O'Connor (2012). Anne-Lise Perotto University of Savoie, France The question « Where have you been? », the title of a novella by Joseph O'Connor, is linked to identity and is addressed to Cian Hanahoe, the protagonist and focalizer of the story. The main body of the novella does indeed concern the transition from alienation to a recovered sense of identity and belonging for someone who had lost touch with himself and with the world around him. Cian needs to find connection in a temporary love affair in order to leave his isolation and reconnect with his personal and cultural identity, and thus be able to move on towards a stable relationship representative of his recovered stability of mind and identity. The character's progress is also linked to self-writing, which he is advised to undertake as therapy. After several failed attempts, he finally becomes a narrator, giving a funeral oration for his adoptive father, in which he relates the story of his family, closely inscribed in the history of Ireland. Though grieving for the loss of a loved one, he can feel whole again and know where and who he is, which in turn enables him to transform loss into art, the main part of the novella being reread as Cian's final literary production. Intertextuality links it to other works of art. Art becomes for the narrator a way to cope with chaos and find reconciliation through connectedness1. I- Cian's progress from alienation to connectedness The book begins when Cian Hanahoe is left emotionally devastated and is a patient in a mental hospital, in denial of the seriousness of his condition. His interpretation of what happened to him does not concur with the version of the psychiatrist, though the latter himself uses elliptical expressions like "an episode" (O'Connor 2012, p. 215) to refer to his alienation, which is never explicitly mentioned. He is, however, in a state of loss of identity, caused by the repression of his emotions and estrangement from his social circle2. He is severed from his past, from his inner self, hence his retreat into silence: "Cian Hanahoe had little to say. It didn't seem to matter. The season began to change." (O'Connor 2012, p. 215). The juxtaposition of disconnected sentences underlines the dislocation of the character, who observes passively the passing of time without trying to connect with the world around him. There is an unbridgeable gap between Cian and other people. He is at a loss how to communicate with his manager on his visits: "It was hard to know what to say, what to leave unsaid" (O'Connor 2012, p. 218). His embarrassment is not simply due to the fact that the manager is not family or friends. Cian no longer knows the codes of social interaction. Thus he cannot handle an invitation for a drink to the Merrion (O'Connor 2012, p. 222). When back to work, he cannot really communicate with his 1 The theme has also been explored recently by Irish songwriter Steafan Hanvey. (Hanvey, S. (2013, 21 June) Look behind you ! A father and son's Impressions of the Troubles in Northern Ireland Through Photograph and Song. Multimedia presentation and lecture. Simon Fraser University. Vancouver.) 2 See definition in the Oxford Dictionary of English. "Alienation: a state of depersonalization or loss of identity in which the self seems unreal, thought to be caused by difficulties in relating to society and the resulting prolonged inhibition of emotion."
colleagues. There is an unease because of his nervous breakdown: "It became evident to him that colleagues were quietly organising the tasks that came his way so that they would not be overly taxing, would run with the things that interested him but it could not be acknowledged" (O'Connor 2012, p. 220). The use of the passive voice at the end of the sentence enhances the avoidance strategies of the character. The focalizer effaces himself from the sentence, not taking responsibility for his relationships. Yet he is ironically the one they solicit to write a speech to renew communication between people and the bank after the economic crack in Ireland. Because he is not the one to deliver the speech, he is not emotionally engaged. There is distance, all the more so as the speech is an exercise in political communication, devoid of sincerity. He obviously has the ability to master language: his inability to communicate is therefore clearly a symptom of a dislocated personality. When he resigns he is "congratulated on his `escape from the lunacy in here', his `flit from the madhouse', `the Bedlam'" (O'Connor 2012, p. 230). The repressed naming of what happened to him resurfaces through humour. He is out of mental hospital, but the bank itself is considered an asylum for the mad. The bank is a place where hypocrisy prevails, the land of illusion and alienation. In deciding to leave this alienated and alienating place, he takes a step towards a life in accordance with the aspirations he had left behind for material concerns. He breaks from the episode of madness in his life, and gives himself a chance to reconnect with himself and with the world around him. Catherine Dwyer, whom he meets some time before his resignation, declares that he does not "seem a typical man from the bank". (O'Connor 2012, p. 226). Cian is indeed atypical, for he intended to become a teacher. The bank is not his place. He needs to find again his vocation in order to be at peace with himself. In his progress, he confronts other figures of the outsider who offer a transition from alienation to integration. The psychiatrists at the hospital are for the first one a "slightly eccentric Ulsterman", then an American woman. They do not belong in Eire, neither does Catherine. She is a Londoner in Ireland. The two of them find common ground in their sense of not belonging: "He had the feeling she was lonely in Ireland (...). Perhaps she didn't get the codes of Irish professional camaraderie". (O'Connor 2012, p. 231). He feels comfortable with Catherine because he thinks he can repress the past with her -- "The sense grew in him that hiding your hurt was a thing she'd respect, a hardwon, important victory" (O'Connor 2012, p. 231) -- while at the same time she allows him to enter it again, but from a distance, with the filter of the outsider's point of view: "He showed her Wicklow: hidden lakes, the ruins of old mines, bog meadows, Raven's Glen, the waterfall at Powerscourt. She was a reason to visit again the places of his childhood Sundays, their names sounding beautiful in her London accent" (O'Connor 2012, p. 231) He has become an outsider in his own childhood landscape and needs to reconnect with these places, as with his inner self. Catherine acts as a mediator. They understand each other, so it seems, but she keeps putting barriers between them because she has her own hurts that she cannot acknowledge with him, "her neverending talk filling the space between them" (O'Connor 2012, p. 235). Distance is not bridged, it is filled, providing an illusion of contact, but creating a wall between them. "Their talk had been easy. There was a sort of freedom in the lateness and in sitting in a car, where you didn't have to look at each other face to face." (O'Connor 2012, p. 236). What she has to offer is a connection with himself, a freeing of his speech, rather than a connection with her. He finds in Catherine his alter ego. She leads him to
question his own avoidance strategies. If she talks about her hurts she tries to deal with them as if they were unimportant and belonged in the past (O'Connor 2012, p. 263). "It had been obvious to him for a while that how she dealt with difficult subjects was to avoid them or displace them by unsubtle attempts at irony. It had not been a problem. If anything he was glad. But he wondered to himself now (...) if he could ever know someone employing such strategies." (O'Connor 2012, p. 263). From then on, they slowly start to drift apart. When they go for a break in London, Cian does not know whose flat they are in. It belongs to a friend of hers, whose name remains unknown. It is an indefinite space, with no clear address. The basement flat is not so much a geographical place as a mental one where he can confront his fantasies. He plays at living with Catherine and realizes their relationship has no future. There, he dreams of Aifric, the wife he divorced and lost touch with. His wanderings lead him to places he had visited with her. The break takes place during Notting Hill Carnival. A carnival is a moment when what is usually repressed can express itself and when order, controlling strategies, can be subverted. Cian himself sees his being out of his usual environment as an opportunity to "free something he needed freed" (O'Connor 2012, p. 273). If he does not break free, at least in London he accepts that he is burdened by his past and needs to face it. He comes to terms with his emotions in a regressive space, below ground, that provides a gestation: a transition to adult acceptance of oneself and one's responsibilities. Aifric then resurfaces through a chance encounter in a Dublin street and offers reconciliation. He is reluctant at first -- "He felts doors opening inside him and he didn't want to enter them." (O'Connor 2012, p. 283)-- and he lies to his former wife about his future with Catherine. However they go over their past quarrels. It is upsetting but appeasing at the same time. Cian was paradoxically a prisoner of his past because he did not want to enter it. Catherine provided a temporary anchor to help him find himself. When he is on his way to recovery, he thinks: "they were unmooring one another" (O'Connor 2012, p. 291). She is cast away from his final narrative, discarded as "a London girl only passing through Ireland for work. Where she is now," he says, "I wouldn't even know" (O'Connor 2012, p. 319). She is forever an outsider, someone who could not bring a sense of place. Nevertheless, Catherine is the one who makes the transition to wholeness possible by awakening long forgotten emotions in Cian and, when they drift apart, by introducing Angela, who will become the mother of his child. II- Connecting past, present and future in "Requiem" Angela, a "Kerry mother" (O'Connor 2012, p. 319), offers an inscription in genealogy and a cultural identity, a coming home after being estranged and after a literal enactment of this exile from the self in London. Her Irishness and identity as a competent mother are thus put to the fore as something reassuring, providing anchorage. During the funeral oration he gives for his adoptive father and which constitutes the last chapter, Cian tells people that "A couple of months previously, [they] had learned that Angela was carrying [their] baby, a child who will be born in [his] grandparents' city, [his] daughter, a sister to Sarah." (O'Connor 2012, p. 320). The ties are thus both those of biology and adoption. There are ancestors he can connect with. He can finally belong in a family, giving roots and connections to his offspring. He relates that his father had immediately taken to Angela and her young daughter, who saw in him "a kindred spirit" (O'Connor 2012, p. 319). Though
strangers, they felt the ties of kindred. They form a natural family away from previous divides and fragmentation or impossible relationships. Thanks to Angela, Cian is able to relate past, present and future in all aspects of his life and form a coherent self again, be it composed of many parts. She introduces continuity where there had been discontinuity and brings reconciliation. The first-person narrative in "Requiem" is an appropriation of chronology and an inscription in history, family and community. It begins thus: "My name is Cian Hanahoe. Colm was my father. It would have meant a great deal to him, seeing so many of you here this morning." (O'Connor 2012, p. 307) Cian makes a speech, now sharing his emotions with other people and showing his progress from a self-centred perspective focused on the present only to an inscription in a social circle and place. Indeed, the beginning of "Requiem" echoes one of his former attempts at presenting himself: "My name is Cian Hanahoe. I'm living in Dublin. I'm a Property Loans Manager with an Irish investment bank." (O'Connor 2012, p. 216) In this passage, the words meant to introduce Cian gave his name, his profession, but when it came to his place of residence, he said "I'm living in Dublin", thereby suggesting that Dublin was not a defining element in his identity. There was also the suggestion of a lack of permanence and stability in this formulation. He did not seem to belong there. Frederic Regard in Mapping the Self (2003, p. 16) argues that "when it comes to selfwriting, the question is not so much `Who am I' as `where am I'?" and indeed the title of the novella invites the reader to consider it as such. Cian appeared rootless. There was something wrong, an impossibility to relate to a place and therefore to the past or future. At the end, on the contrary, a sense of belonging, of being a Dubliner, is introduced. The narrator uses the anaphora "it was here" (O'Connor 2012, p. 307) at the beginning of chapter eight. The displacement he felt is solved in the inscription in the Dublin of his adoptive family. Cian, who had vehemently rejected the idea of family therapy suggested by his psychiatrists (O'Connor 2012, pp. 281-282), finds therapy at last in his family. The relationship with his father also brings continuity in that Colm provides a crucial allegiance to family bonds. He maintains at all costs the family nucleus: "And still he worked, up and down the roads of Ireland, through its vast estates and its factories in the hinterlands, often driving many hours at the end of the day so that a ritual we had could be honoured. Of such observances is fatherhood made. He would read to me a while before I slept." (O'Connor 2012, p. 316). The ritual brings stability and trust in the future. The requiem is thus an act of remembrance that brings rest to Cian because he too can feel re-membered in the process, find a sense of belonging and trust in the road he has taken with Angela: "the path that brought me to Angela was strange and unexpected. (...) Dad said so what? He was a great believer in Providence" (O'Connor 2012, p. 319). Colm gives roots and the ability to imagine new, non-conformist, alternative routes for the self. He encourages Cian in his relationship with his new partner and prompts him to take his life into his own hands. Colm says about life: "The cloth is unrolled and you cut it." (O'Connor 2012, p. 321) No wonder he should get on so well with Angela, a costume designer. Moreover, the father weaves his family history into a cultural one. His story is steeped in history: "Dad was born in Hanover Street in the South Dock of Dublin, maybe the city's oldest neighbourhood, a place of fierce autonomies. (...) Only twenty years before his birth it had borne into history the last British garrison ever to guard Ireland's capital. The river that once brought them had taken them away, under the conquering gaze of Michael Collins." (O'Connor 2012, p. 308). His father's life and that of the new nation are inextricably linked. The place where the father was born is
a place of memory haunted by historical figures of Irish nationalism: Robert Emmet, James Larkin, Eamon de Valera, and Colm's progress parallels that of his country's development. Through him, Cian finds an identity as an Irishman, beyond the divides of his country, because Colm does hesitate to cross borders. The conflicts riddling Ireland are evoked in this requiem, but also their being overcome, suggesting tradition, continuity and unity. Richard Kearney (1997, p. 108) explains that "Most contemporary nations and states evoke indigenous myths which provide a sense of `original identity' for their `people'. The symbolic or ritualistic reiteration of these myths is thought to redeem the fractures of the present by appealing to some foundational acts which happened at the beginning of time and harbour a sense of timeless unity. Such mythic origins are frequently connected to the figure of motherland (or fatherland)--potent symbols for reanimating the power of `dead generations' and restoring a conviction of unbroken continuity with one's tradition." The Irish tradition is fundamental to Cian's construction of identity. Cian's father had his sons' portraits done by Sean Keating, an Irish artist: there is therefore a strong cultural inscription of identity. Moreover having portraits done by an artist was an unusual thing to do in the working-class, as pointed out by Catherine. A great reader and an amateur in art, Cian's father provides him not only with material conditions to grow up, but with a connection with the Art History of his country and that of English speaking countries. No wonder then Cian should have degrees in history and literature: they are his anchorage in the world and his chance to find his place. III- Self-writing and intertextuality. By leaving the bank Cian had taken a step towards recovering his identity. By taking on writing, he can at last connect past, present and future. The narrative mentions several failed attempts at self-writing, which he has been incited to undertake as therapy. At first, he finds it "difficult to know what to write" (O'Connor 2012, p. 216). More importantly, he cannot write about himself because he is divorced from his own self: "He would walk the paths and groves of the hospital grounds, trying to enter the past" (O'Connor 2012, p. 216). He destroys several pieces of writing (218). Yet he is seen as talented by the chief executive for whom he wrote a speech. Cian has a gift for writing, but he needs to evolve from disengaged and impersonal writing to an expression of the self, be it through auto/biography or fiction. For indeed, he subverts the medical prescription by turning to fiction: "Perhaps he should try fiction, maybe an attempt at a play. He had sketched out beginnings of scenes. But nothing now would come. (...) Waste of fucking time and energy" (O'Connor 2012, p. 237). He undergoes the trials and frustrations of the aspiring writer. Fiction does not satisfy him at first, but he persists, devoting himself to the writing of short stories. Cian progressively leaves amateur writing to acquire more professional skills: "Many paragraphs felt gruesomely obvious, any sort of subtlety had eluded him, but to have found a shape for some of the stories appeased him. There was piece in particular he felt might take its chances. It placated the mathematician in him, the sense that it was what it was, that it didn't contain any lie. (...) Sixty pages of text, imperfect certainly, but it was work that had required purpose, a seeing down roads, and the doing of it came to seem its own reward." (O'Connor 2012, pp. 293-294). The stories are fictional but truthful. He becomes an earnest writer, not trying to evade the engagement writing needs. After submitting a story for publication, he receives a rejection letter from a magazine, but he is given advice and encouragement. He is on
his way to finding his own voice, which he does when he becomes the narrator at the end. The last chapter thus introduces continuity in terms of family history, but discontinuity in the novella, for the change from third-person to first-person forces the reader to reconsider everything he had read up to "Requiem". It had seemed at first that the narrator was extradiegetic, but the reader is told that Cian makes attempts at writing his story, some of which in the third person. In the last chapter the incident of the stolen shilling is told, and the reader knows that Cian received praise for "the scene where the boy steals the shilling from the church" (O'Connor 2012, p. 294) in the rejection letter. "Requiem" could be a reworking of an imperfect story following the advice from the newspaper. In this case, the reader should consider that Cian is in fact the hidden narrator of the whole novella. Hence the literary references that pervade the text, since the letter also invited him "to read a lot more" (O'Connor 2012, p. 294). There are many references to major authors in the history of Literature in English. Some are related to Irish identity and to the relationships between the English and the Irish. Others highlight the feelings of the characters. Intertextuality, however, is not simply illustrative. It helps build a progression from ironical distance to -- at least partial -- acceptance of feelings after many evasions. When Cian playfully calls his chief executive "The Artful Dodger" (O'Connor 2012, p. 220), a reference to Oliver Twist, the reader should be aware that this is a definition of Cian himself at this point in the narrative. Cian is indeed someone with avoidance strategies, an artful one in the sense that he is skilled and that he uses art. He hides behind the main text, speaks about himself in the third person, a symptom of his alienation. His psychiatrist warns him that what happens with "certain kinds of depression" is that people "[see] themselves in the third person, like someone in a story" (O'Connor 2012, p. 282). The novella is ironical in its self-reflexivity and in its use of literature. There is the surface literal story, but also another one running beneath it, like in a palimpsest: the main story, up to "Requiem", is an ironic remake of Wuthering Heights. Catherine Dwyer is a troubled self who roams the hills of Wicklow looking for shooting locations of a TV adaptation of Wuthering Heights. Cian, the wild orphan child who connects with no one, provides her with a painting she had been looking for: "scenes from a hurricane" by Keating and takes her to these Irish moors. There is a great emphasis on wilderness. Catherine is Cian's doppлlganger, his dark side. Through her, he can cast out his own demons. She is a projection of Cian in his controlling text and he can reject her at the end. However, Catherine and Cian are not quite Catherine and Heathcliff. They are much less romantic and much more mundane, having lost their ideals. The parodic nature of the text, from the first hinted at with the bombastic and artificial introduction of Yeats's "We are no petty people"3 in the speech for the bank, is a way to put disquieting emotions at a distance for a time. It is an ironic disengagement, an escape4. At the end, there is a sudden change from third-person to first person narration, but also a shift from irony to pathos. With the pathetic there is an emphasis on those emotions Cian had shunned. Pathos also brings about the compassion of the reader. It seems there can be no irony or parody in a requiem. Troubled selves become unified selves. At the end, the reference to Dickens is renewed, but with a difference: "Dickens, the sentimentalist, believed in the possibility of redemption, even to the 3 Yeats, W. B. (1925, 11 June) Speech in the Irish Senate. 4 See Brian McHale (1987, p. 38).
most twisted and crippled of men." (O'Connor 2012, p. 321) It introduces hope. Yet Dickens is called a "sentimentalist", someone carried away by emotions. At the same time as the quotation claims that redemption is possible for the emotional cripple, the negative connotation of the word "sentimentalist" implies that Dickens may have been mistaken. The text offers a resolution, but it is not quite conclusive. Cian's stepdaughter takes part in a school play adapted from Oliver Twist. It is a parody of poverty, Sarah finding poverty entertaining. The novella remains ambivalent. Thus, Cian at the end still evades the subject of his biological mother. Has he really accepted himself? The reader cannot even be sure that "Requiem" should be taken literally. Is the father really dead? Cian understands from the rejection letter that he should "murder [his] darlings" (O'Connor 2012, p. 294). Then a literary reference casts doubt on the authenticity of the last chapter: "it never happened at all" (O'Connor 2012, p. 258) the characters keep repeating regarding the plot of the Playboy of the Western world in which Charlie claims to have killed his father. Reread in the light of Cian being the narrator, the main text places "Requiem" "sous rature", to use Brian McHale's Term (1987, p. 103). "Requiem" is a construct seemingly bringing unity. McHale also mentions a device meant to make the reader mistake "nested representations for `realities'. Among the simplest is the device of the missing end-frame: dropping down to an embedded narrative level without returning to the primary diegesis at the end" (1987, p. 117). This device is used by O'Connor. In this case, is the novella a reassuring artefact of the acceptance of identity and emotions? It may all be a lie, but Cian asserts there is no lie in his stories despite their being fictional. The mask of fiction may be an indirect route to the truth of his emotions or the novella may be a bedtime story Cian writes for himself to solve his problems of sleeplessness. He may thus fictionalize the self rather than connect with it. Yet, I would argue the narrator is found in his writing and projects his anxieties in his text, thus confronting them. He drapes the self in a literary cloth, but the self is there. Authorship provides authority, a hold on his life that he had lost, a satisfaction of his desire of control, until he can speak for himself in the first person and accept his past and his emotions. O'Connor in Star of the Sea had his narrator say that "every image committed to paper contains the ghost of the author who fashioned it. Outside the frame, beyond the border, is often the space where the subject is standing. A shifting and elusive presence, certainly, but a palpable one for its camouflages" (2002, p. 405). Art, be it escapist or seen as conveying truths behind several masks, is a way to cope with chaos, to make sense of life, to bring unity by tying threads together. In this sense, it is vital for Cian. Indirect revelation may be the only possible way of coping with his torments. The construct is needed for the self to recover coherence. Conclusion: Cian's story as allegory for the nation Cian is in quest of connectedness, of finding order again after chaos and he achieves this through the connection with his father and through writing. The story is also about a quest for identity that is shared by a whole nation. Linda Hutcheon states: "As Foucault and others have suggested, linked to [the] contesting of the unified and coherent subject is a more general questioning of any totalizing or homogenizing system. Provisionality and heterogeneity contaminate any neat attempts at unifying coherence (formal or thematic). (...) The centre no longer completely holds. And, from the decentred perspective, the `marginal' and what I will be calling the `excentric' (...) take on a new significance in the light of the implied recognition that our
culture is not really the homogeneous monolith (...) we might have assumed." (2000 (1988), pp. 11-12). Cian's story starts with the depression of the country and shows the need to find again a cultural identity after the loss of values of the Celtic Tiger years and the depression. Ireland is like Cian, divorced from itself. Literature is therefore seen as way out of the crisis, a way to connect with the past without nostalgia, to relate past, present and future, and create a productive myth providing collective rootedness and identity.5 Bibliography Genette, G. (1982) Palimpsestes, la littйrature au second degrй, Paris: Seuil. Hanvey, S. (2013, 21 June) Look behind you ! A Father and Son's Impressions of the Troubles in Northern Ireland Through Photograph and Song. Multimedia presentation and lecture. Simon Fraser University. Vancouver. Hutcheon, L. (1988) A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York and London: Routledge, 2000. Kearney, R. (1997) Post-Nationalist Ireland. Politics, Culture, Philosophy. New York and London: Routledge. McHale, B. (1987) Postmodernist Fiction. [Kindle edition] New York and London: Routledge. O'Connor, J. (2002) Star of the Sea, London: London: Harvill Secker. O'Connor, J. (2012) Where Have You Been? London: Harvill Secker. Regard, F. (ed.) (2003) Mapping the Self: Self, Identity, Discourse in British Auto/Biography. St Etienne: Publications de l'Universitй de St Etienne. 5 Richard Kearney notes that "Myth is a two-way street. It can lead to perversion (bigotry, racism, fascism) or to liberation (the reactivation of a genuine social imagery open to universal horizons). If we need to demythologize, we also need to remythologize. (...) That is why it is necessary to see how myth emancipates and how it incarcerates, how it operates as an empowering symbol of identity and how it degenerates into a reactionary idol. (...) Without mythology, our memories are homeless; we capitulate to the mindless conformism of fact. But if revered as ideological dogma, and divorced from the summons of reality, myth becomes another kind of conformism, another kind of death. That is why we must never cease to keep mythological images in dialogue with history. And that is why each society, each community, each nation, needs to go on telling stories, inventing and reinventing its mythic imagery, until it brings history home to itself." (1997: 121)
Susan Grider Montgomery, HEALTH COMES FIRST!!!, USA

J O'Connor

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