«A Dissertation by SARAH ELIZABETH HART Submitted to the Office of Graduate Studies of Texas A&M University in partial fulfillment of the requirements ...»
These elegiac constructions of personhood seem especially influential in shaping communal and national subjectivity when we consider how poetry functions in contemporary modes of mourning. Dinitia Smith from The New York Times emphasizes the significant role that poetry played in Americans' responses to 9/11, describing numerous poems and verses accompanying photos of victims at Ground Zero, in makeshift memorials around New York City, and even in emails among friends and family. Doss observes a similar prevalence of poems and verses left at the spontaneous memorials that sprang up around Columbine High School in the hours and weeks
following the shooting (299-300). Books about consoling poetry like Wider than the Sky:
Essays and Meditations on the Healing Power of Emily Dickinson and The Healing Spirit of Haiku further affirm poetry as a valuable resource for mourners at all stages of the grieving process. Because poetry seems to play a significant role in contemporary responses to loss—and because responses to loss help determine who is and is not valued as a person and a community member—we must situate poetry within the body of rhetorics of mourning, focusing on the connections between poetry and rhetoric. By re-orienting both rhetoric and poetry around their shared origins in mourning, we may recognize more diverse ways of mourning—and ways of consoling others and ourselves, and thereby approach more inclusive concepts of personhood and more inclusive communities.
Rhetoric itself may be characterized as a way of seeing that attends to loss. For example, according to Kenneth Burke, rhetorical identification arises from the loss or absence of connection between people, even just in our physical separation from one another. Rhetoric views the absence or loss of connection as the impetus for dialogue.
Poetry similarly aims for dialogue in that, as M. Jimmie Killingsworth explains, it appeals to—pleases and pleads with—audiences as much as rhetoric does. From a rhetorical viewpoint, we may recognize not only that loss constitutes a prominent theme in both poetry and philosophy, but also that loss structures the very form of both poetic and philosophical conversations. Various poetic forms like metaphor, rhythm, the sonnet, and the villanelle all turn on formal relations structured by loss and/or absence.
Similarly, the dialogic aims of philosophical discourse—a discourse motivated by a love for ever-elusive wisdom—may likewise be viewed in terms of absence and loss. But what counts as loss and as dialogue in these respective contexts? If rhetoric, poetry, and philosophy all recognize loss as an exigence for dialogue, then do our professional practices of reading, writing, and teaching perform modes of mourning?
This dissertation treats loss and dialogue not only as themes of lyric poetry and philosophical treatises, but also as heuristic lenses of rhetorical analysis. I aim first to account for ethical and ontological implications of personal losses expressed in lyric poetry, and second to relate these implications to our professional reading, writing, and teaching. Such considerations of loss promise to illuminate ethical values of dialogue itself. I want to account for how we come to terms with loss, how we speak of losing loved ones, and how we conceive of our own singular deaths. What kinds of personal and communal terms constitute our conversations about and reflections on death, loss, and absence?
Artistic and Constitutive Approaches to Rhetoric Because scholarly conversations about loss, absence, and death engage literary scholars and philosophers alike, two complementary approaches shape the scholarly conversation about rhetoric and loss: artistic rhetoric and constitutive rhetoric. Artistic rhetoricians emphasize specific tropes and/or styles in literary works. By clarifying how certain authors craft specific effects and evoke responses from their respective readers, artistic rhetoricians helpfully affirm the presence of persuasion in the artistic realm.
Constitutive rhetoricians, on the other hand, emphasize how rhetoric shapes and makes available certain acts and kinds of agency. By distinguishing between artistic and constitutive approaches, we may clarify the dialogic relationship between accounts of specific discourses of loss and accounts of broader issues like the nature of melancholy.
Through their dialogic relationship, however, artistic and constitutive rhetorics remain inseparable.
Artistic rhetoricians focus on specific writer-reader connections when analyzing loss in literary works. These scholars emphasize how specific affects (anxiety, melancholy, etc.) mediate writer-reader connections—and how discourses of loss include certain audiences but exclude others. Gail L. Mortimer analyzes the rhetoric of loss in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, clarifying ontological implications of Faulkner's tropes that convey the anxiety of human experience "so essentially" fraught with "loss" (250). In her article "A Story Beside(s) Itself: The Language of Loss in Djuna Barnes Nightwood," Victoria L. Smith more recently explains how Barnes's rhetoric challenges the elite status of the "discourse of melancholia" and thereby makes this discourse accessible to "marginalized" members of society excluded from this affect (V. Smith 202). Similarly, in her article "The Rhetoric of Embodied Memory in 'In the City of Slaughter,'" Sara R. Horowitz focuses on how rhetorical tropes in Bialik's poem re-orient the reader in relationship to gender and time, challenging conventional expectations of gender and history. These analyses of artistic rhetoric show how literary writers and readers negotiate relationships with texts and with each other based on persuasion and its attendant effects and emotions. Such artistic rhetorical approaches, however, do not interrogate the nature or limits of rhetoric's agency nor do they address constitutive consequences of rhetoric.
Constitutive rhetoricians emphasize broader issues like the nature of rhetoric and how rhetoric constitutes various kinds of experiences and identities/personhoods. For example, Andrea Brady and Philippe-Joseph Salazar consider how rhetoric constitutes specific experiences of loss. In her book English Funerary Elegy in the Seventeenth Century: Laws in Mourning, Brady "reads funerary elegies as ritualized utterances in order to understand how they are affected by context, time and expectation," thereby illuminating rhetorical contours of poetry and their connections to experiences of mourning rituals (1). From a rhetorical perspective, Brady considers how ritualistic elegies help "mak[e] the obligatory desirable," how elegies help make our obligations to grieve the deaths of loved ones and to come to terms with our own deaths more "desirable" (2). Yet Brady focuses more on the nature of seventeenth-century mourning than on how rhetoric performs such processes of directing desire at the conceptual level and with ontological consequences.
Other constitutive rhetoricians speak to the nature of melancholy and mourning in general. Philippe-Joseph Salazar argues in his article "Rhetoric on the Bleachers, or, the Rhetorician as Melancholic" that Thomas B. Farrell "deplored... the absence of norms of rhetorical culture," and that "[t]his deploration is, in essence, melancholic" (358). By using Farrell as a representative of an attitude essential to the contemporary rhetorician's perspective, Salazar demonstrates that the contemporary rhetorician mourns the loss of a critical culture. Salazar's argument hinges on a specific loss, however, while I suggest that the attitude of loss is an essential structure of the rhetorician's perspective.
Brady and Salazar portray rhetoric and poetry as reflecting various kinds of mourning processes and thereby constructing certain conceptions of selves and others. These contemporary accounts of melancholy take mourning and melancholia to be attitudes directed toward specific events or processes (rhetoric in Salazar's case, funerals in Brady's case). This account of melancholia differs, however, from Freud's understanding of melancholia—an attitude that overshadows one's entire outlook.
Peter Sacks offers one of the most prominent accounts of the psychological, Freudian contours of the elegy. Sacks claims that healthy mourning aims for resolution, which may be achieved through reading and/or writing elegies. Tammy Clewell suggests, however, that mourning may be a never-ending process whereby a person continually comes to terms with the losses that define her as much as her achievements.
In her essay, "Mourning Beyond Melancholia," mourning seems to be a way of life, even exceeding Freud's sense of melancholic depression. When we view mourning as a neverending process, we expand possibilities for recognizing continuities between mourning and other emotions, attitudes, and affects including anger, aggression (as Clewell emphasizes), fear, desire, nostalgia, hope, and aesthetic appreciation. For example, "the aesthetic pleasure" afforded by Keats's haunting poem "This Living Hand" is "inseparable from aesthetic pain," as Brooke Hopkins argues from a Freudian view (38).
Keats's poem pleases the reader by reminding her of her own death and thereby relieving her repression of and alienation from that inevitable event (B. Hopkins 38). Continuities among diverse emotions, like the one Hopkins's identifies between aesthetic pain and pleasure, become clearer when we account for the ways that myriad emotions respond to loss, which I discuss in Chapter III: The Many Faces of Loss.
Mourning may affect us enduringly by changing the way we experience not just grief, but also hope, joy, and consolation, recasting them as responses, more or less direct, to loss. Mourning endures not simply as depression or unending grief, but also beyond the grieving process, in the ways that it changes mourners and their communities. Some theorists also take mourning's infinitude to affect the way we interpret aesthetic expressions of grief. For example, Charity Scribner not only agrees with Clewell's sense that mourning lacks "finitude or "any consummation," but Scribner even shows that "real loss" resists aestheticization (317, 321). In light of Jacques Lacan's contributions, mourning appears to be bounded only by "the impossibility of aestheticizing grief" (321). By resisting aesthetic representation, grief seems to lack communicability, thereby possibly undermining dialogue between mourners. Scribner reads grief's lack of finitude, however, as "the potential to sustain the work of collective memory"—where a singular attempt to mourn aesthetically fails, the threshold to affirm "collective memory" and collective modes of mourning arises (317). We may infer that grief's resistance of aesthetic representation thus inspires dialogue. Scribner's account of grief complicates the genre of the elegy, which seems to be situated at an intersection between personal, aesthetic, and public/collective modes of mourning. If the elegy is a work of mourning as Sacks affirms, does this genre aim for an impossible, ever-elusive end? If the elegy thus perpetuates absence, how might such absences motivate dialogues with others and with oneself?
The difficulty of representing grief also seems to have ethical consequences.
Infinite mourning processes signify an "irremissible ethical meaning" for R. Clifton Spargo, as he explains in his book The Ethics of Mourning: Grief and Responsibility in Elegiac Literature (hereafter cited as Ethics). For Spargo, the elegy "figure[es] the ethical imagination as" motivated by "a mission of impossible protectiveness" of the other (Ethics 13). Spargo's "mission of impossible protectiveness" follows from Emmanuel Levinas's ethical theory. In his essay "Martin Buber and the Theory of Knowledge" (hereafter cited as "Martin Buber"), Levinas characterizes subjectivity as radically responsive to and responsible for the other's singularity. Such responsibility, Levinas explains, "is what is meant by dialogue" ("Martin Buber" 67). Spargo suggests that elegiac literature portrays the "ethical imagination" of such a responsible, dialogic subject (13). Spargo thus invites us to view the elegy as inseparable from dialogue. In light of Spargo and Scribner, the elegy seems to aim for two impossible ends—the aestheticization of grief and the protection of the other's singularity. By aiming for these impossible ends, however, the elegy apparently orients itself toward dialogue.
The elegy's aim to protect the other produces what Spargo calls anti-elegiac "tendencies" within the genre (Ethics 129). These tendencies resist resolving mourning in a literary work that purports to express and preserve the other—an aim that unethically denies the other's differences (Spargo 67). Jahan Ramazani and Eleanor DesPrez also fear that aesthetic projects may fall short of conveying genuine mourning, and even risk violating the other by attempting to "[redeem] loss as poetic gain" (Ramazani 7). Thus, they favor anti-elegiac works that do not substitute poetic pleasure for genuine grief, but rather engage "incomplete mourning" in their readers—mourning that "ethical[ly] acknowledge[s]... the radical alterity of the other whom one mourns" (Spargo, Ethics 13). For these critics, consolation, especially aesthetic consolation, may injure the other's difference or elide her altogether in the process of aestheticizing her.
Their critiques of consolation seem potentially dangerous to me, however, because they seem to appreciate the kind of unending grief that characterizes clinical depression and psychological paralysis, as if insisting that grievers should dwell in
depression and crippling melancholia forever. In Ch. IV: Elegiac Responsibilities:
Consolation in Dialogue, I synthesize our ethical concerns for both the bereaved and for the lost loved ones, suggesting that consolation does not have to erase the other's alterity, which may endure in memories and in other emotions and actions—including consolation. Literary works, especially lyric poems, can evoke ethical consolation in readers by staging speaker-listener dialogues that, in turn, allow the reader to engage dialogically with the work itself. These consoling, dialogic effects arise in part from the dialogic tension between elegiac and anti-elegiac conventions—both of which define "the elegiac genre," according to Spargo (Ethics 129).