Academic journal article New Formations

Imaginary Intimacies: Death and New Temporalities in the Work of Denise Riley and Nicholas Royle

Academic journal article New Formations

Imaginary Intimacies: Death and New Temporalities in the Work of Denise Riley and Nicholas Royle

Article excerpt

In 1998, Julia Kristeva curated an exhibit for the Louvre titled 'Capital Visions'. The exhibition formed part of the gallery's parti pris, or 'biased view' series. In The Severed Head: Capital Visions (2014), the book that emerged from her exhibition, Kristeva understands there to be two forms of relation to death in contemporary culture. There is the 'imaginary intimacy with death, which transforms melancholy or desire into representation and thought'. (1) Such imaginary intimacy is opposed in Kristeva's work to 'the rational realisation' of the act of capital punishment, the former epitomising 'vision' in contrast to the 'action' of the latter. This essay positions Kristeva's idea of an imaginary intimacy with death in relation to two contemporary literary responses to experiencing the death of a loved one: Denise Riley's essay Time Lived, Without Its Flow (2012) and her recent volume of poetry Say Something Back (2016), and Nicholas Royle's experimental novel, Quilt (2010). Riley's works and Royle's work share a meditation on the impossibility of representing death within conventional narrative form. Both too offer insights into new temporalities that emerge in writing about death. By the term 'experimental writing', I refer to writing that disrupts conventional relations between word and referent and thereby obstructs conventional meaning. This essay argues that experimental writing has a unique capacity to inscribe death and create the textual conditions for the attendant non-linear temporalities that accompany the experience of bereavement.

The vital question of the representation of death has been at the forefront of a number of studies. (2) For Kristeva death is the 'fundamental invisible' (Severed Head, p4). She compares modern painting, which copies objects from the external world in acts of representation with the Byzantine icon, which 'inscribes the presence of a religious experience'. An icon, Kristeva argues, does not represent, rather 'it is taken in, it is absorbed, it is experienced: it translates an invisible world into its visible lines' (p41-2). In his 1984 book Death Sentence: Styles of Dying in British Fiction, Garrett Stewart takes up the paradox that writers meet when attempting to render the experience of death in language and literature. For Stewart, death is 'treacherous, excessive, the occasion of terror' but 'without being a renderable object of it'. This denotative absence inherent to death is such that 'the notion in the name of death, waiting untamed beyond any representation, remains, for all its attendant anxiety, unthinkable; for all its tenacity, in the root sense untenable--refusing containment either of content or by form--becoming in itself just a form or figure of speech'. (3) Death brings an intractable absence to literature for Stewart: 'it is the intransigent abstraction death that persists across literary history as a semantically unoccupied zone of utterance, at once linguistic horizon and void' (Death Sentence, p4-5). In his rigorous work on the representation of death and absence in modern French poetry, Richard Stamelman calls attention to the relation between writing and loss. Citing Robert Hass he states: 'a word is an elegy to what it signifies'. (4) The dispossession at the core of representation, in Stamelman's view, 'makes possible the creation of images, and, negatively as embodied in absence, death and loss animate the quest of writing and other forms of figuration'(Lost Beyond Telling, p21). This essay explores the ways in which Riley's work, in its engagement with a-temporality and abstraction, and Royle's work, in its engagement with deep time and etymological layering, offer new forms of figuration of death through experimental textual practice. Experimental writing is able to represent denotative absence and the 'dispossession at the core of representation' of which Stamelman writes.

Denise Riley's essay Time Lived, Without its Flow, and her collection of poetry Say Something Back are works written after the death of her son. …

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