How History Got Its End Away

I left this comment on the article by Roy Foster in today’s Irish Times, which is titled State visit seals the end of an era for Ireland, in which the historian discerns that the ‘two countries finally see each other as indeed separate but equal, in a mutually fulfilling relationship. Nearly as good as sex.’

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There is a kind of neat echo, in the Professor’s climactic ejaculation here that the relations between Britain and Ireland are now ‘nearly as good as sex’, of Michael O’Leary’s crude joke last week in front of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, about having sex with the Queen, which provoked revulsion among those assembled.

A British politician once described Ryanair as displaying the ‘unacceptable face of capitalism’. If political relations under capitalism are comparable to sex, as Roy Foster contends, perhaps the problem is that Ryanair have no sense of romance, no sense of foreplay. Official Britain and official Ireland are fine about Michael O’Leary and company destroying the environment, attacking the rights of workers, launching venomous attacks on public services and social protections, and humiliating their own staff, including female workers in particular. Where O’Leary crosses the line is when, in polite company, he disrupts the delicate sense of decorum and reveals the phantasmatic support of this whole exercise: a business leader copulating with the Head of State.

Since Roy Foster has brought sex and psychology into it, we might recall French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s declaration that “there is no sexual relationship”. What I think he meant was that the representation of sexual difference between men and women is an act of imagination; there are not really any complementary elements at work. Mutatis mutandis, we can apply this to the idea expressed here that Britain and Ireland are ‘separate but equal’. Roy Foster writes of ‘the Irish’ as if there was a homogeneous body of people subject to identical psychological mechanisms, and undisturbed by any kind of class tension. This is a fantasy. And, just as there is no ‘the Irish’, there is no ‘the British’ either, and of course, there is no relation between the two. It is a fantasy that the lives of the tens of millions of people classified as ‘Irish’ -or ‘British’, for that matter- could ever be properly accounted for through reference to the machinations of monarchs, politicians and bureaucrats, or through the performances of artistic figures among cultural elites. But such coiffured fantasies oil the gears of power and wealth, while helping History get its End away.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “How History Got Its End Away

  1. paul

    Seems a little disingenuous not to mention that the “sex” line was a call back to an Elisabeth Bowen comment cited earlier in the piece: “the two countries regarded each other with ‘a mixture of showing off and suspicion, nearly as bad as sex'”. I’d also contend that Foster was talking far more about the Irish and British states, which I think we can all agree are two concrete entities, and a general mood prevalent among both of their populaces, as opposed to attempting to make a crass generalisation about shared individual thoughts of 4.6 million people. Still, any excuse to shoehorn in a Jacques Lacan reference…

    • I suppose you’re right that I should have mentioned it was a reference to Bowen but I’m not sure what new light it casts on the conclusion, other than a shared perspective with Bowen in this regard.

      And right enough, we can talk about the British and Irish States as concrete entities, but what kind of concrete entities are they? In large part they are social relations, relations of power – institutions, established protocols, political obedience. Perhaps Foster is talking more about the administrative bodies, but he isn’t talking about them in isolation; rather there is a confusion of ‘the Irish’ with official Ireland (which is in keeping with media coverage of this event on the whole).

      As for the Lacan reference, I reckon I have a Lacan shoehorning reference of about 0.2% on this blog so I need to do something every now and again so I can look myself in the mirror. But besides that, it’s more the matter of Foster addressing the illusions and fantasies he attributes to others, whilst conjuring up those of his own, that interests me. But the point is that they are not just his own: I think his account of things expresses the collective unconscious of elite Ireland -political, financial, cultural- so well. Whereas the politically contentious past was animated by psychological hangups and generalised Anglophobia on the part of ‘the Irish’, the harmonious present is marked by a coming-to-terms of mature reflection, brought about by the innovations of enlightened administrators.

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