Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Subjectivity as Alterity in Seamus Heaney's Poetry

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Subjectivity as Alterity in Seamus Heaney's Poetry

Article excerpt

In Seamus Heaney's poetry, the subject challenges and dissociates himself from the Other in order to create his own self. He becomes a stranger to society and is exiled. The distance paves the way for creating the self and affirming his identity as an independent subject.

I am a born antinomian. I am one of those who are made for exceptions, not for laws.

--Oscar Wilde, De Profundis

In Seamus Heaney's poetry the "I," rather than representing the poet, is only one of the constituents of the subject. The subject is a textual entity not to be confused with either the poet or the speaker. Although the three concepts are closely related and sometimes overlap, the subject, omnipresent and similar to a person, is yet not an ontological individual, not the poet, but a plural creature, an entity that is represented through language (Benveniste 259).* 1 The ego, as the subject's most visible constituent falsely presumed to be the subject, is the unreal and perceptible image a subject adopts and projects as the self. Jacques Lacan believed that the ego is a copy composed of imaginary images of the self, provided to the subject by the "big Other" (Fink 37). In Heaney's poetry these images, along with other signifiers representing the subject, manifest through different literary and linguistic elements. The "I," the subject of the enounced, the subject of the enunciation, deictics, pronouns, grammatical marks, masks, and tropes are some of the signifiers that reveal the subject's identity.

This study of Heaney's poetry reveals a subject characterized by a desire to create the self by identifying the false images of the ego and examining its relationship with alterity. To achieve this, the subject embarks on a process of deconstruction to scrutinize the personal and collective unconscious. He is confronted with the big Other, the symbolic order, which stands for any power or ideology that threatens his identity. Lacan distinguished between the "small other" and the "big Other": "Il y a deux autres a distinguer, au moins deux--un autre avec un A majuscule, et un autre avec un petit a, qui est le moi. L'Autre, c'est de lui qu'il s'agit dans la fonction de la parole" (276, emph. Lacan's). (2) The Other dominates the problematic space where Heaney's subject lives, requiring him to conform to its norms. Nevertheless, he explores and deconstructs history, tradition, and myth as constituents of the "Other" and distances himself from the community.

It is only through contrast that the subject can create his self. (3) During the complex process of subjectivation, Heaney's subject dissociates himself from the Other, exploits the latter's constituents, uses them as the elements of his art, and creates his self. He examines the "other" (the ego), questions the hegemony of the "Other," and contests its authority. He refuses to conform to the prescribed framework of dominant discourses, sheds light on the flaws of his country, and separates himself from the common trend. These are indispensable steps toward self-creation; as an artist with alternative convictions, he contests the conventions and rites of assimilation. His detachment borders on non-serviam, a stance that necessarily separates and alienates him from the space. By challenging the Other, he becomes a stranger and an outcast. Through subjectivation, he creates a distinct identity, marks his own signature on language, and reshapes the symbolic by his own mark. Nevertheless, challenging the Other through dissociation does not lead to total separation. He uses and exploits the signifiers acquired from the same Other to conceive new images that create the self and mark its difference from the collective identity. Paradoxically, it is this contrast that transforms him into an outsider.

The subject's dissociation from the Other commences in the opening poem of Death of a Naturalist, "Digging," which can be considered as the very beginning of the construction of Heaney's subject. …

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