States of Desire: Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, and the Irish Experiment

Synopsis

This book is an intimate study of the three giants in Irish literary history: Oscar Wilde, William Butler Yeats, and James Joyce. In addition to constructing a narrative of Irelands political and literary past, Vicki Mahaffey interweaves the lives and writing of the authors into a portrait of national imagination, shaped not only by a vast cultural and mythic heritage, but also by the hard fact of English political domination. States of Desire argues that what people desire is fundamentally connected to how they write and read. Not only do language and narrative shape desire (and vice versa), but because these processes are socially conditioned, some political circumstances, such as those present in Ireland at the turn of the century, foster experimental desire more successfully than others. Mahaffey's contribution to the critical discourse on literary modernism is to assign a political motive to the art of modernist wordplay; in doing so, she offers a more compelling and socially driven version of the oft-told tale of literary modernism. Irish writers, she argues, sought to disrupt the rigidity of political thinking and social control by turning language into a weapon; by opening up infinite new possibilities of meaning and association, linguistic play makes it impossible for thought to be monopolized by the state or any other institutional power. In this light, the text becomes a prism of political, cultural, and erotic desires: a fountain of conscious and unconscious linguistic suggestion. Defying semantic control and refuting societal repression, Wilde, Yeats, and Joyce literally fought, in their lives and in their work, for a freedom of expression which--as was painfully evidenced in the case of Wilde--was not to be had for the asking.