Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

The Poetry of Dementia: Art, Ethics and Alzheimer's Disease in Tony Harrison's Black Daisies for the Bride

Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

The Poetry of Dementia: Art, Ethics and Alzheimer's Disease in Tony Harrison's Black Daisies for the Bride

Article excerpt

The essay considers some of the ethical issues at stake in the transposition of the experience of Alzheimer's disease into poetic form. Paying close attention to the complex relationship between ethical and aesthetic spectatorship, it argues that Tony Harrison's film poem Black Daisies for the Bride raises important and difficult questions about the dynamics of 'looking' upon those dying from Alzheimer's. It considers Harrison's exploration of the role of poetry as a form that salvages and creates meaning out of the 'unknowable' experience of profound cognitive loss, examining his engagement with the 'poetry of dementia,' in the context of ethical arguments around personhood and relational identity in recent dementia studies.


How do we look upon the dying, particularly those dying of a disease such as Alzheimer's, and what is at stake in the transposition of this gaze into poetic discourse? We might put this question another way and ask how poetry might speak to a form of 'unthinkable' and 'unknowable' cognitive impairment, and to the ethical problems at stake in such an encounter. Elizabeth Bronfen's discussion of Ferdinand Hodler's paintings of his dying lover, Valentine Gode-Darel, considers the tensions between an ethical and an aesthetic response to the artistic representation of dying. Bronfen's aim is to explore "the violence inherent in any aesthetic transformation of the experience of death" (44). In so doing, she discusses two conflicting responses to Hodler's works: one by a young male art historian and another by a female photographer who had been required to reproduce the images from the exhibition catalogue. For the former, the issue of the 'non-symbolic' real-on which Hodler's representations of the dying and dead Valentine are predicated-is of secondary importance to the question of their aesthetic value: "For him," Bronfen notes, "these sketches and paintings were 'beautiful,' 'skillfully made'" (44). To this degree, the ethical implications of the portrayal of a real death merited no further exploration: "because he insisted that there was nothing violent about these paintings, he also rejected the validity of analysing them from this theoretical perspective" (Bronfen 44). The response of the female photographer was in direct contrast to Hodler's disinterestedness. She described the job as "horrible" and expressed her pity "for the poor woman" (Bronfen 44).

Bronfen points out that what the photographer meant by "horrible" is difficult to determine-possibly referring to the images themselves, that which was represented, the way Valentine died, or the fact Hodler chose to paint her in such a condition. However, as she concludes, "this position is ... informed by a diffuse identification with the pain of the model, a response that comes about through the exclusion of an aesthetic spectatorship" (Bronfen 44). She argues that these opposing responses to the representation of Valentine pose important questions about the ways we position ourselves as spectators in relation to images of death and dying:

Should one assume the position of a morally involved spectator, treating the represented body as though it were the same as the material body it refers to ... Or should one assume the position of the aesthetically involved spectator, distanced, disinterested, treating the representation of a dying body only as a signifier pointing to many other signifiers? Can we formulate a position of spectatorship that could encompass both moments? (Bronfen 45)

This problem takes on particular complexities in relation to the representation of those with late-stage Alzheimer's disease, owing to the ethical consequences of using subjects who can neither agree nor refuse to participate in such an aesthetic project. In attempting to work through this problem, one must ask what it would mean not to represent those with the disease, to shy away from the 'representation' of those at the limits of life on the grounds of their inability to give or withhold consent. …

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