Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The coming out of Lady Gregory and the path of this page

To the wonderfully deft hand of Colm Tóibín, Lecturer now in Irish Studies at Princeton and the author of the most widely admired contemporary Irish fiction in English, can be traced a restoration to our gaze of the indefatigable female engine behind the Irish Renaissance, Augusta Gregory, as the heroine of an authentic coming out, with all its classic flowerings of creativity and progressive arousal. 

Such an achievement must be counted as something of an excuse for this blog to fold its tent, as much as presenting a model for its continuance, to portray in bits and pieces and anonymity (in the Irish novelist Bernard MacLaverty's phrase), how the germ of affection breaks the impacted terrain of its planting seemingly haphazardly, toward the coherency of its completed image.

In Tóibín's short story, Silence, the first in his collection published last year under the title, The Empty Family, we find the recently, repressively married Lady Gregory reflecting on the illuminating extra-marital love of her life - with the poet, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt - whose residues in memory would be released into the Irish literary bloodstream in nourishings both anonymous and attributable through the rest of her life. Famously, Blunt, himself, published her sonnets at her request as "from a Woman," when she was able to write, herein lies the smart, that grief for you no longer grieves my heart.  

At the core of this great fount was a comprehensively fulfilling sexual relationship, despite its conduct in secrecy. The simplicity and sufficiency of that unalloyed causation simply can not be reinterpreted. We find, in Tóibín's sympathetic telling, the inner workings in her heart of the breakdown of that secrecy, whose tortured maintenance had nevertheless shaped a vision of longing and remembrance into a keen literary implement. As an unbitter, sweet and spontaneously convincing glimpse of that inner process, Tóibín's telling manages, itself, to capture that release of generosity which is the sine qua non of sexual fulfillment, its most universal venue.

That the manifestation of this spirit in an energised political awareness adopted its classic form in Lady Gregory's life, from an original aristocratic contempt for Gladstone's Home Rule Bill to a flowering of empathy for Ireland's ferociously abused farming tenants, and ultimately to leadership in the revival of the Irish stage, is nothing less than the model of American gay people's long and unbroken support of the human rights movements of every wave of classes and ethnicities to break through their exploitation by the nation's power structures. 

The immortal phrase invented to disparage this correlation in the racial desegregation struggle, commie-pinko-faggot, lives on in the American Right's teasing, to this day, of gay people with little trinkets of their human rights, against a backdrop of flagrantly sadistic political manipulation. By no means is discrimination in employment likely to be relinquished by the Right, before the sectarian monopoly of marriage is undone, which underscores how Lady Gregory's seizure on humane sexuality as the essential progressive instrument, is so comprehensively radical.

In his final motion picture, it was John Huston's imaginative stroke to interlineate a character given the name, Mr Grace, into his adaptation of Joyce's The Dead, for the sole function of presenting Lady Gregory's translation of the 8th Century ballad on the exploitively broken heart, Donal Og. She was cardinally aware, that political intransigence is better shattered by sexual candour than by charades of passing as British, passing as male, passing as bourgeois, passing as assimilated. It was generosity, again, for Huston and his son to direct the recital of this poem for the full impact of its unanswerable praise of love.

As Lady Gregory demonstrated even in her anonymous publications, a consciousness is more important than a name. Released in 1987 at the raging height of the gay men's health crisis, a film which conflated her insight into humane sexuality with James Joyce's was therefore utterly legitimate. Huston's movie will always be recalled in the minds of its contemporaries as one of the rare balsams of that withering era, by summoning her experience. More to point, that lady speaks directly through to our time, still all but unnamed.

Colm Tóibín
The Empty Family
Scribner, 2011©

James Joyce
Penguin Books, 1976©

Mary Lou Kohfeldt
Lady Gregory
  The Woman behind the
  Irish Renaissance
Atheneum, 1985©

John Huston, director
Tony Huston, script
Frank Patterson, tenor
The Dead
Channel 4 Films, 1987©

This entry originally appeared March 28.

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