Human Remains: Medicine, Death, and Desire in Nineteenth-Century Paris

By Jonathan Strauss | Go to book overview

EIGHT
What Abjection Means

When you feel yourself borne along by a pure and white idea, you can cross
through the mire without getting soiled, like the swan that cleaves the water
without dampening its feathers.

—ALPHONSE ESQUIROS1

Death changed in early nineteenth-century Paris, and Paris, as a result, did too. I have documented those changes as a way to establish the role of irrational, desiring forces in them and to describe the fantasmatic logics that organized that desire. The mythical city of the fantasm was, I argued, a place of reason and indeed of truth, an axiomatic space that attempted to resolve primary ontological and epistemological problems, to give them form and some sort of resolution, as temporary or illusory as it may be. In this respect, the city was an instrument—in the scientific and artistic senses of the word—for representing, grasping, and potentially resolving questions about time, memory, death, meaning, and interpersonal difference. For various reasons, however, including anxieties and the search for means to express them, these questions were often dissimulated in other issues, which tended to frame matters of desire in terms of utility. I will now, in ending, analyze the role of meaning in that fantasmatic structure of desire, refining my description of the imaginary power of material death by framing it in terms of language and subjectivity. For the question of the “meaning of meaning,” to borrow

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