«Aber ein Wesen, welches über einen so natürlichen Vorgang wie den des Todes anderer Organismen untröstlich sein kann, ist in ganz anderer Weise ...»
Fragme nt s of a Consolato ry Dis c o ur s e:
Lite rat u re and the Fiction of Comfo rt 1
Aber ein Wesen, welches über einen so natürlichen Vorgang
wie den des Todes anderer Organismen untröstlich sein
kann, ist in ganz anderer Weise mit der Trostbedürftigkeit
bis an den Grenzwert der Untröstlichkeit augestattet.
T he main title of this essay will no doubt to a great extent be selfexplanatory. As readers of this journal will have guessed, the reference is to Fragments d’un discours amoureux, Roland Barthes’ famous 1977 book on what Richard Howard in his translation of 1978 has called ‘a lover’s discourse’: the book of his of which Barthes prophesied (wrongly, as it turned out) that it would become the most read of his works and the one that would be forgotten the soonest.3 In this contribution, I won’t be talking about the discourse of lovers, but about another cultural mode of speech, another doxa if you want, one of which I think it is possible to say that, in a number of important ways, it functions on the basis of principles that seem quite opposite to those underlying the discours amoureux as Barthes conceived of it, even though it is no doubt equally fragmented. The discourse or mode of speech that I will be dealing with is the discourse of what in English is called ‘comfort’, ‘consolation’, ‘solace’, or even ‘consolement’. The language of Shakespeare seems to have at least four different, though in the latter three cases etymologically related, words for the type of speech that I will be talking about: the language that we use whenever we want to offer consolation to somebody who we think will benefit from the soothing effect ideally resulting from that language and from the specific mode of address that accompanies it – ‘lenient of grief and anxious thought’, as Milton puts it in a passage from Samson Agonistes that deals with the function and the effect of consolatory writings;4 it is the sort of language that we ourselves want to hear when we are in need of what Barthes Studies 1 (2015), 123-47.
Jürgen Pieters Samuel Johnson in his Dictionary of the English Language described as ‘the alleviation of misery’ – his definition of what consolation is, a ‘partial remedy’ as he hastens to add;5 it is the language whose rare occurrence and unique success the Scottish poet Don Paterson, in a beautiful poem that is entitled ‘Solace’ (and that is, in fact, a translation of poem number seventeen of the second half of Rilke’s Sonette an Orpheus), has compared to ‘rare, superb fruits that you stumble upon / in the trampled meadow of your loss’.6 Paterson’s wonderful image reflects on the fact that many are those who want to offer consolation to friends or strangers, but very few those who are really successful, while it also says something about the accidental nature of comfort – often, it is there when one least expects it.
To be clear, my plan is not simply to try and imitate that quite inimitable project of Barthes’ Fragments d’un discours amoureux, although I have drawn an amount of inspiration from it that goes well beyond the phrasing of my title. What I will be presenting in this essay comes out of the preparations of a book-project that I have been working on for some time now and that in what, nevertheless, still seem to be the early stages of the book’s inception I would describe as a series of chapters in the interlocking histories of the Western concepts of ‘literature’ and of ‘consolation’. What I’m aiming for in that book-in-(very-slow)-progress is a double Begriffsgeschichte: a conceptual history of consolation and one of literature. More precisely (because describing it as such makes it sound like an impossibly vast undertaking), I want to focus on specific moments in which the historical trajectories of those two concepts intersect. I’m interested in how those moments of intersection teach us something about the development of the two concepts, considered in isolation: the moments and the texts that I want to focus on teach us something about what literature is and can do, and they are also meant to teach us something about what consolation is and can do – or, rather, what literature and consolation were and what they could do.
Let me give one immediate example of such a moment of intersection, one which might as well become the starting point of the book. In the past few years, it has struck me on several occasions that, both in reviews of books and in everyday conversations with both specialist and ‘amateur’ readers, the suggestion that a book can and does offer consolation occurs with surprising and increasing regularity. More often than not, the suggestion serves not just as a signal of the specific effect that books can have on readers and on reviewers, but also as a signal of the quality of these books. Just to give one recent example: in a recent survey article on ‘the rise of the medical humanities’,7 Belinda 124 Jürgen Pieters Jack, in arguing for what she sees as a ‘less obvious role’ for poetry to play in the disciplinary field, refers to the power of poems to ‘console, teach, amuse, enlighten, mimic, disconcert and so much more’. What strikes me in Jack’s list of poetry’s tasks is not so much the presence of that first verb, but the fact that it is put there first, as the indication of poetry’s prime goal, so to speak, one that comes before the double Horatian imperative of teaching and amusement, of docere and delectare, the classical mixture of what is useful with what is pleasant. In the same paragraph, Jack further elaborates on what she sees as the specific consolatory function of poems. She does so primarily (and not entirely unexpectedly) by referring to the public use of poems at funeral services, where they serve as individual and collective occasions for all of those present, where, in Jack’s words, ‘[e]ach of us can ponder what the poem conjures for us, bringing something felt into clearer and thus more comforting focus. Often the poem will be one that allows us to reconsider the absolute nature of death.’ In other words: the comfort that the poem brings resides in the fact (‘thus’ being the signal of that specific causality) that the poem’s language and formal make-up allows us to see and understand more clearly something that we have been knowing and feeling all along (the absolute and inevitable nature of mortality), something that marks us as individuals, but which at the same time binds us together, collectively. The poet Don Paterson, to whom I referred earlier, in his preface to the Picador Book of Funeral Poems that he edited, describes the consolation provided by this type of poems in strikingly similar terms and he also singles out the specific consolatory function of some poems as their prime goal. This is how he puts it: ‘In our deepest grief we turn instinctively to poetry – to comfort and solace us, or to reflect our grief, give it proper public expression, or help us feel less alone in our experience of it. These poems, drawn from many different ages and cultures, remind us that the experience of parting is a timelessly human one: however lonely the loss of someone close might leave us, our mourning is also something that deeply unites us.’8 In the international realm of literary criticism, the recurrence of the consolatory function of literary writings can also be related to the return of the idea of ‘bibliotherapy’ – a topic that I am sure Barthes would have had much to say about.9 The notion is of course a polysemous one, but I want to use it here in the specific sense of the reading practice or experience that is exemplified (and prescribed) in Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin’s The Novel Cure, a book that has now been translated into several international languages.10 In the brief preface 125 Jürgen Pieters to their book, one and a half pages long, in which the authors try to explain that the ‘cure’ of the book’s title is obviously not a real medicinal remedy,11 the word ‘consolation’ is also invoked – not surprisingly, of course. It is mentioned in a paragraph in which Berthoud and Elderkin describe the effects of the literary prescriptions that the book as a whole lists: ‘Whatever your ailment’, they assure us, in the parlance of real doctors, ‘our prescriptions are simple: a novel (or two), to be read at regular intervals. Some treatments will lead to a complete cure. Others will simply offer solace, showing you that you are not alone. All will offer the temporary relief of your symptoms due to the power of literature to distract and transport.’12 The logic of the passage is quite straightforward: the fact that literature ‘simply’ provides comfort and the sort of comfort that it provides are coupled to its power ‘to distract and transport’ us, not to confront us with an absolute and threatening reality. Judging by several of the literary prescriptions that The Novel Cure offers, it would not be a farfetched idea to suggest that the literary solace that Berthoud and Elderkin are thinking of can be seen as a form of escapism, one which, however, procures the same effect as the funeral poems that both Belinda Jack and Don Paterson write about – the solace is a shared one, it results in the comforting thought ‘that you are not alone’.
The function of objects of art to console is also conspicuously present in Art as Therapy by John Armstrong and Alain de Botton, in the context of whose School of Thought the editors of The Novel Cure give actual sessions in bibliotherapy. In their introduction to the co-authored book, Armstrong and De Botton write: ‘This book proposes that art (a category that includes works of design, architecture and craft) is a therapeutic medium that can help guide, exhort and console its viewers, enabling them to become better versions of themselves.’13 What I’m interested in, in the book that I hope to be able to finish one day, are questions that seem of lesser concern to the authors of Art as Therapy and The Novel Cure and that probe issues that seem to be taken as selfevident by them: what is it, exactly, that we mean if we say – as they do, like many other readers, reviewers, authors and critics nowadays – that art consoles? What is this consolation by a work of art or by a fictional character? How is that we allow ourselves to be comforted by fictional characters when in real life we find it hard to be consoled by the words and deeds of those surrounding us? In what does this fictional consolation consist precisely and what is it exactly in these works that consoles us? Does the beauty of the work of art, its formal shape, have anything to do with this, and if so, to what extent and on the basis of 126 Jürgen Pieters which textual and affective mechanisms? How, to come back to the sentence that I just quoted from Armstrong and De Botton, is a consoled person a better version of himself, especially a person who allows him- or herself to be consoled by a work of art?