Making Mourning Work
- Christian Riegel (Editor)
Response to Death: The Literary Work of Mourning. University of Alberta Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Elizabeth Hodgson
This collection of essays, published simultaneously as a book and as an issue of the Canadian Review of Comparative Literature, encounters in a variety of contexts what its editor calls “the literary work of mourning.” In studies of English, French, Canadian, American, New Zealand and Indian authors, the essays have in common an interest in the ethical force of literary texts addressing mourning and loss. Tending toward psychoanalytic readings, the collection sees grief in literature as part of a developmental process. Reading texts ranging from medieval plays to contemporary poets, the collection addresses the utility of literary grief for readers, writers, and critics.
Because the literary subjects here range from the York mystery plays through Shakespeare to George Eliot and Arundhati Roy, it is difficult to imagine an area- or genre-based readership. These essays do share a commitment to reading literary texts according to their ethical value, be it for the individual’s psychological growth or for the health of sociopolitical systems. Almost every essay wishes to claim for its authors the “healing,” the “growth,” the “reform” of the self or the social body through corrective mourning. Note these examples: “George Eliot understood that engaging in idealization . . . might actually, in circumstances such as Adam’s, be both healthy and productive. If we do not allow such a process to take its natural course, . . . then we may well block or at worst disrupt the work of sorrow.” “Perhaps if men and women themselves were to come to believe in the truth of the embodied experiences of women, including maternal mourning . . . then perhaps (but this is too naïve to hope for, don’t you think?), perhaps then people would be much more reluctant to sacrifice those children . . . to . . . brutal and grotesque myths of nation.”
Increasingly, as the collection moves from past to present, the essays invite this identification of the critic with the fictional character and the author under discussion. Several essays make claims about the “pain,” the “denial,” the “bitterness,” or the “repression” in which both characters and authors are engaged. Barbara Hudspith promises that “the connection between the author’s mourning and that of her protagonist will be explored” because “the contributions of contemporary grief counsellors about the nature of healthy grief . . . speak directly to Adam’s ‘case’.” Garry Sherbert’s study of the character Nora in Barnes’ Nightwood argues that “if Nora’s hieroglyphic figure . . . cannot find the right words to express her pain, then neither Nora’s, nor Barnes’s, nor the reader’s mourning work is finished.” She goes on to say that “The reader or critic who attempts . . . to explain the significance of the grandmother suffers a similar wound.”
Todd F. Davis and Kenneth Womack’s “Reading the Ethics of Mourning in the Poetry of Donald Hall” states this paradigm most explicitly. Davis and Womack read Hall’s collection Without (written about the death of his wife) as a form of narrative therapy which plays a “significant role in the grieving process for both the writer and his audience.” The essay both argues for and enacts what it calls “an ethics of mourning”: “as an act of literary interpretation, an ethics of mourning cultivates empathy in the reader. Without the ability to assume the role of the characters who grieve within the confines of the story or poem, the reader will not be transformed.” The go on to compare an ethics of mourning to the suspension of disbelief that “draws us into the circle of grief so we may shed tears that are at once our own and not our own.” The suspension of disbelief is a performative convention with no particular ethical weight and a chequered past, not really analogous to this project of compelling readers to empathize with grieving characters. Hall and Womack also imply that readers need the “transformation” of this chosen medicine. I find this a problematic line of reasoning, both as literary theory and as an ethical judgement of readers and reading.
Certainly this model allows (requires) these critics to consult with Hall himself and invites assessments of Hall’s personal life: “In their marriage, Hall and Kenyon truly cleaved to one another; their love . . . binds them with an irreplaceable intimacy.” This statement would be moving if verifiable. If there is no accessible evidence for such a claim, though, what distinguishes it from a wish? If this is a fantasy, could there not also be a self-analytical turn, in which the authors examine their own motivations and positions? This would at least indicate that the authors have the courage of their convictions.
Perhaps none of this matters if Response to Death can yield sensitive literary readings of texts addressing grief and mourning. Many of the articles do. Heather Dubrow’s article on Shakespeare’s “The Rape of Lucrece” compares the active and passive grief of the poem’s male characters; Stephen C. Behrendt provides a fascinating study of the public mourning for two royal princesses. Ernest Smith incisively reads Berryman’s and Plath’s attempts to “figure the father”; Lloyd Edward Kermode thoughtfully analyzes Paul Monette’s AIDS elegy as a new disease-elegy. Several essays provide very helpful historical contexts for their arguments, and the theorists cited, from Derrida and Kristeva to Freud and Klein, supply rich texture to the collection. If these highly empathetic approaches can be framed and articulated within such shared intellectual paradigms, or treated as exploratory, speculative, and self-analytical when not, they certainly have the potential to generate good literary work, whether in response to death or otherwise.
- Poetics for Politics? by Tracy Wyman-Marchand
Books reviewed: Duncan Campbell Scott: Addresses, Essays, and Reviews by Leslie Ritchie
- From Colony to Nation? Canada Revised by Andrea Cabajsky
Books reviewed: Worrying the Nation: Imagining a National Literature in English Canada by Jonathan Kertzer, Practising Femininity: Domestic Realism and the Performance of Gender in Early Canadian Fiction by Misao Dean, and Imperial Canada: 1867-1917 by Colin M. Coates
- A Shout Out to Marsh by E. Hamilton
Books reviewed: Marshall McLuhan: Escape into Understanding by Terence W. Gordon and Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger by Philip Marchand
- Nothings Safe by Charles Barbour
Books reviewed: Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation by Brian Massumi, Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction by Christopher Butler, Poststructuralism: A Very Short Introduction by Catherine Besley, and Reading Simulacra: Fatal Theories for Postmodernity by M.W. Smith
- Worlds of Difference by John Xiros Cooper
Books reviewed: Alternative Modernities by Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar and Antimodernism and Artistic Experience: Policing the Boundaries of Modernity by Lynda Jessup
MLA: Hodgson, Elizabeth. Making Mourning Work. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 13 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #188 (Spring 2006). (pg. 184 - 185)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.