«A Dissertation by SARAH ELIZABETH HART Submitted to the Office of Graduate Studies of Texas A&M University in partial fulfillment of the requirements ...»
in light of thinkers as diverse as Freud and Levinas, it may appeal to the very structure of our humanity. As Clewell explains, Freud later described "the ego as" having "an elegiac formation," which Levinas echoes in his account of the trauma of the subject's responsibility to and for the other, responsibility that conditions the subject's existence as such (Clewell 64). In "Substitution," Levinas explains, that the subject is one who "is affected by the other," and therefore "is an anarchic trauma, or an inspiration of the one by the other" through her responsibility to and for the other (113).13 By appealing to our fundamental capacity to respond mournfully and ethically toward others, these poems may offer an indirect, ethical form of consolation that is not antithetical to grief. I aim to show how consolation and grief—along with a range of other emotions—may be mutually present. Recognizing the interconnectedness of these emotions may reconcile the apparent conflict between our sympathy with—and identification as—mourners and our concern for responding ethically to the loss of loved ones. In dialogue, we may respond ethically to the other in ways that sustain the "love" for lost others "that we do not want to relinquish" (Freud qtd. in Clewell 61-62). Past relationships may enduringly
13. In "Substitution," Levinas explains that the subject is responsible for the Other's responsibility; prior to all intention and action, the subject is "accused of what the others do or suffer, or responsible for what they do or suffer" (101). Because the subject is "under accusation by everyone," she "is a hostage" (Levinas, "Substitution" 101). Levinas describes the condition of being responsible for the other, of being a hostage to the other's responsibility, "the passivity of a trauma," which suggests that because a "subject is a hostage," she therefore abides in a condition of trauma ("Substitution" 100).
shape our present relationships, and I suggest that such ongoing dialogue, in which we respond ethically both to present and to past others, may afford ethical consolation, even in the midst of mourning.
Self as Loss of the Other Although Freud and Levinas offer very different accounts of loss, they both suggest that loss of the other defines and conditions the self. In psychological terms, Freud indicates, "During the early stage of human development, the infant negotiates the loss of or separation from a primary love object by identifying with the lost other" (Clewell 61). This loss precedes the separation of the id, ego, and superego, such that "[i]dentification thus becomes the condition for constituting the self..." (Clewell 61).
The lost other permanently ruptures the cohesive self through identification. This process of "ego formation" is also a "mourning" process, as Clewell recognizes, implying that subjectivity originates—and endures—in grief (64). As Clewell concludes, Freud demonstrates that "ambivalence" is "an effect of the very separation between self and other... the product of bereaved internalization" of the other through identification (65). This lasting ambivalence "creates and frustrates a desire for fusion or unity of selfhood," evoking a mournful attitude that exceeds any specific loss (Clewell 65).
Therefore, "the mourning subject may affirm the endurance of ambivalent bonds to...
loved and lost others as a condition of its own existence" (Clewell 65). The self retains an "elegiac formation," forever sundered by and oriented toward the other, for whom she indefinitely mourns (Clewell 64).
Levinas seems to provide ethical terms for a similarly sundered, mournful subjectivity permanently oriented toward the other. For Levinas, the potential loss of the other is implied by the self's very presence, which always risks lethally displacing the other. Levinas explains, "One has to speak, to say I, in order to be in the first person, precisely to be me..." but this saying I, already implies an audience, an other who "calls for me" ("Ethics" 83). Because my very presence risks lethally displacing this other, the other's "death calls me into question, as if... I had become the accomplice of the death to which the other... is exposed... as if I had to answer for the other's death even before being" ("Ethics" 83). The loss of the other thus conditions the self's very presence as a subject; the other's death makes the subject's presence possible because her death is never a valueless absence, but rather always valued as a loss even before the subject emerges. The threat that the self's very presence poses to the other makes the self responsible for the other "prior to any free commitment," intention, consciousness, or will (Levinas, "Substitution" 99). As Levinas emphasizes in "Substitution," such responsibility "goes against intentionality, such that responsibility for others could never mean altruistic will, instinct of 'natural benevolence,' or love" because the subject is responsible prior to her ability to intend, to act intentionally, or even to care (99, 101).
This responsibility is a capacity so prior to consciousness that "[i]t is the passivity of trauma... the passivity of being persecuted," such that "[a] subject is a hostage" ("Substitution" 100-101). As Jeannine Thyreen-Mizingou observes, "For Lévinas, only the suffering servant is the true human" (81). Levinas views his account of subjectivity as challenging "the whole history of Western philosophy['s]" privileging of ontology as grounded in humanity's knowledge and consciousness, and as assuming the priority of the self (her consciousness, knowledge, experience) such that relationships with others follow from the self's initial presence ("Ethics" 77). Levinas inverts this conventional priority of the self by arguing that the other precedes the self. In this sense, one's responsibility for the other seems to imply the loss of the kind of self that philosophy has historically prioritized, a loss of the fundamental consciousness and intentional rationality that Western philosophy grants the subject (Levinas, "Substitution" 89). Levinas, however, does not view this priority of the other as a loss of the self; for him, one's inability to "evade" one's capacity for responsibility is precisely the origin of one's "uniqueness" ("Substitution" 101). Levinas seems to concur with Freud that the subject retains an elegiac formation in which mourning conditions her very presence. In "Martin Buber and the Theory of Knowledge," Levinas claims, "Responsibility, in the etymological sense of the term... is what is meant by dialogue" (67). Together, Freud and Levinas affirm the subject's mournful structure, which, for Levinas, defines her ethical—responsible and dialogic—nature.
In Counter-Statement, Burke defines "a capacity to function in a certain way" as "an obligation so to function," even "a command to act in a certain way" (155, 142).
Burke's definition suggests that the Levinasian capacity for responsibility obliges us "to function" or to act responsibly (Counter-Statement 155). This obligatory aspect of Levinasian responsibility is evident in its extreme "passivity"—responsibility is "prior to the passivity-activity alternative," and, because the self "does not evade it," she is "persecuted" and held "a hostage for the others," whom her presence threatens to displace ("Substitution" 110, 101, 100, 116). Although such a passive capacity precedes action, it nonetheless shapes action; Burke explains, "if a dog lacks a bone, he will gnaw at a block of wood; not that he is hungry—for he may have his fill of meat—but his teeth, in their fitness to endure the strain of gnawing, feel the need of enduring that strain" (Counter-Statement 142). We might infer, however, that when a dog does "gnaw" at "meat" to satisfy his hunger, this gnawing fulfills his capacity for gnawing more fully (Burke, Counter-Statement 142). Burke compares this example to the "formal aspects of art in that they exercise formal potentialities of the reader. They enable the mind to follow processes amendable to it" (Counter-Statement 142-143). Art and poetry "exercise" or actualize some of our "potentialities" or capacities, including our capacity for responsible dialogue (Counter-Statement 142-43).
There may be any number of ways of actualizing our capacity for responsibility—some of them may even be immoral at the level of action or politics— but all our actions may be constrained or affected by this capacity in some way. Keats's "This Living Hand" represents one way in which a speaker invokes an immoral relationship with his listener by demanding that the listener exchange her life for his.
Although this demand may well seem distasteful if not altogether immoral to us, I hope to show how even such gruesome requests can engage our capacity for responsibility.
Despite the speaker's immoral demand of his listener, according to Levinas's account of ethics, the speaker's subjectivity would still be conditioned by his ethical relationship to the other—he would still retain a capacity for responsibility, even if he failed to actualize that capacity by acting immorally toward his listener. The pleasure of actualizing our capacity for responsibility, however, may increase depending on the degree to which such actualization is responsible, ethical.
Our actualizations of our capacities may bring us pleasure in part because they turn on imitation or mimesis. As Aristotle explains in his "Poetics," "it is an instinct of human beings... to engage in mimesis... and equally natural that everyone enjoys mimetic objects," suggesting that imitation has a universal appeal (37). Actualizing a capacity like responsibility may bring us pleasure simply because our actions imitate that capacity; our actions repeat or reflect our "formal potentialities," even as our actions exceed mere form (Burke, Counter-Statement 142). Our actions may even teach us something about these potentialities, of which we may remain unaware until our actions bring them to our attention. In this respect, the pleasure we find in our actions' imitations of our capacities may also coincide with the pleasure of learning. Aristotle characterizes imitation as a heuristic, observing that we develop our "earliest understanding" through mimesis or imitation ("Poetics" 37).
I suggest that the more closely our actions imitate our capacity for responsibility, the greater pleasure we may take in them. For example, although an ethics of care is not radical enough for the kind of responsibility that Levinas positions prior to care and emotion, an ethics of care may seem especially appealing in part because it aligns so closely with our capacity to respond protectively, caringly to the other. Responsibility and imitation reflect the essentially relational—responsive—nature of personhood. In Levinas's words, "The other is in me and in the midst of my very identification," in the trauma that the other's potential death inflicts on my very presence, such that "from the start, the other affects us despite ourselves" ("Substitution" 114, 118). Poetry, especially elegiac poetry, may bring this relational nature of personhood to our attention—may remind us of our capacity for responsibility—and, perhaps, thereby increases our abilities both to care and to enjoy.
Anti-elegiac Attenuations of Loss Donne, Keats, and Rossetti all seem to challenge conventional conceptions of elegiac grief. Donne's "Valediction" prohibits grief as the speaker persuades the listener that they share a cerebral, spiritual connection that will endure temporary physical separation. Keats's speaker seems to curse his listener, threatening to "haunt" her after his death until she wishes she too were dead so that her "conscience" would be "calmed" (4, 7). Like Donne, Rossetti also offers "an accomplished and justly famous valediction forbidding mourning," as Jan Marsh recognizes in the speaker's request that the listener "Remember" her after death—unless remembering makes him "sad," in which case it would be "[b]etter" that he "forget and smile" (Marsh 100; Rossetti 1, 14, 13). All three poems seem to argue against mourning, although Donne's and Rossetti's speakers refuse to let their listeners mourn for them while Keats's speaker refuses to mourn for his listener.
We may associate these prohibitions of mourning and premature grieving for one's own death with Spargo's criteria of "anti-elegiac resistance to the idealist norms of the traditional elegy..." (Ethics 129). For example, Spargo deems "belatedness... a mourning that begins after other survivors have already mourned" and includes a mourner whose "noncooperation... mark[s] him as someone who is, if only accidentally, out of step with the rhythm of his society and its forgetful flow toward the future," not unlike Dickinson's and Frost's isolated speakers (Ethics 129). Donne's and Rossetti's prohibitions against mourning also seem to resist conventional elegiac grief, reflecting their speakers' "noncooperation... with society" and its conventions of mourning (Spargo, Ethics 129). So too does Keats's speaker's anxiety about his own death and his malicious threat to the listener "mark him as someone who is... out of step with..." norms of grief (Spargo, Ethics 129). These poems likewise reflect Spargo's last two anti-elegiac criteria—"the remembrance of failed intimacy... and the ambivalent wish for reciprocity..." (Ethics 129). For example, Avi Erlich and Margaret Reynolds read Donne's "Forbidding Mourning" and Rossetti's "Remember" respectively against the grain. Erlich emphasizes Donne's "ambivalent feeling, concluding that "he both loves and hates the woman to whom he is speaking" (361-62). Reynolds offers a "subversive" interpretation of Rossetti's poem, demonstrating the speaker's dissatisfaction with her oppressively "dominant" listener (34). From Reynolds's perspective, Rossetti's speaker seems to mourn her "failed intimacy" with her listener, and, given the "curse-" like message of this interpretation, the speaker may express an "ambivalent" or even malicious "wish for reciprocity" with her listener, much like Keats (Spargo, Ethics 129; Reynolds 34). On closer examination, these poems seem both to fulfill and to extend Spargo's anti-elegiac criteria, challenging conventional elegiac grief.