Modernism and Mourning

Modernism and Mourning

Modernism and Mourning

Modernism and Mourning

Synopsis

The essays in Modernism and Mourning examine the work of mourning in modernist literature, or more precisely, its propensity for resisting this work. Drawing from recent developments in the theory and cultural history of mourning, its contributors explore the various ways in which modernist writers repudiate Freud's famous injunction to mourners to work through their grief, endorsing instead a resistant, or melancholic mourning that shapes both their themes and their radical experiments with form. The emerging picture of the pervasive influence of melancholic mourning in modernist literature casts new light on longstanding critical arguments, especially those about the politics of modernism. It also makes clear the pertinence of this literature to the present day, in which the catastrophic losses of 9/11, of retaliatory war, of racially motivated genocide, of the AIDS epidemic, have made the work of mourning a subject of widespread interest and debate. Patricia Rae is Head of the Department of English at Queen's University.

Excerpt

Patricia Rae

Among the mourners who mourn, why should I among them be?

THE CATACLYSMIC AND GRIEF-PRODUCING WORLD EVENTS MARKING the last decades of the twentieth century and the turn to the twentyfirst—the AIDS epidemic, racially motivated genocide, terrorist attacks, retaliatory war, even the untimely death of a princess—have ignited widespread public and academic interest in how we mourn and in the question of whether there is social progress to be gained from experiences of loss. Though the point may seem counterintuitive, this recent and ongoing preoccupation with mourning provides a strong motive for revisiting the literature produced during and between the First and Second World Wars, because the “work of mourning,” or, more precisely, the “resistance” to this work, was central to this literature, shaping both its themes and its formal experiments. The essays in Modernism and Mourning explore the phenomenon of the resistance to mourning in literary modernism and ask what lessons we might glean from it for our time. Their analyses suggest that looking back through the lens of recent theoretical work on mourning, melancholia, and resistant mourning, and also in the light of recent, politically progressive responses to loss, will enable a significant reassessment of both the form and politics of modernist literature.

The insight that a refusal to mourn is a distinctive feature of modern literature isn’t new. A decade ago, Jahan Ramazani offered a wide and richly suggestive survey of the phenomenon in modern poetry, in his influential book The Poetry of Mourning: The Modern Elegy from Hardy to Heaney (1994). Like a number of scholars of the poetic genre of elegy before him, most notably Peter Sacks, Ramazani derives his understanding of what mourning, or the “work of mourning,” is, from Freud’s 1917 essay “Mourning and Melancholia,” which defines it as the painful, but ultimately healthy, process of severing the libidinal ties binding the mourner to the deceased. “Successful” mourning, in Freud’s sense, involves “working through” grief and thus freeing the . . .

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