«A Dissertation by SARAH ELIZABETH HART Submitted to the Office of Graduate Studies of Texas A&M University in partial fulfillment of the requirements ...»
Loss structures the boundary between the presence and absence of subjectivity in that, as I argue in Chapter II: "Death: What Loss Implies," loss of all kinds reminds us of and brings us into relation with our own deaths. For Levinas, all suffering, including loss, confronts us with our own inevitable deaths. Death terrifies us not because it signifies temporal finitude, but because it signifies the absence of our ability "to be able"—our ability to create relationships, including connections with other people and with ourselves, as Levinas explains in "Time and the Other" (hereafter cited as "Time") (42). In Gerard Manley Hopkins's "Spring and Fall," Margaret's mourning for Goldengrove implies a narcissistic concern with her own mortality; Hopkins suggests that all grieving is at least in part a grieving for oneself. Such apparently narcissistic grief, however, may still mourn for our own deaths as a loss of connection with others.
In this Levinasian sense, my own death is itself a kind of loss of the other. To the extent that I am only an ethical subject insofar as I am responsible for the other, subjectivity is a life that is always already a "dying for" the other—the act that, as Levinas suggests, performs meaning through the death that undermines it ("Dying For" 215).
Robert Frost similarly recognizes that all presence implies its own death/absence in "Nothing Gold Can Stay," suggesting that attitudes of loss—like those that Levinas locates at the heart of subjectivity itself—attend to presence as implicit absence. The appeal of absence affects the way we experience presences; as Frost argues, all "Gold" or precious things, including life itself, do not "stay" or endure eternally. If, as Tammy Clewell suggests, the self's very presence is constituted as much by her "losses" as by her achievements, then we may be invited to ask how we make ourselves present to— and connected with—others and ourselves through our responses to absence (Clewell 60).
Death haunts human presence in that, as I argue in Chapter III: "The Many Faces of Loss," loss motivates a wide range of emotions and attitudes such that our own deaths shadow experiences of melancholy, desire, aggression, and, perhaps above all, fear. For example, in Richard Wilbur's poem "Boy at the Window," the boy "weeps" for the loss of connection and comfort he projects onto the snowman "standing all alone" amidst a "night of gnashing and enormous moan" (lines 1, 4). The personified snowman responds empathetically by "melt[ing] enough to drop... a tear/For the child at the bright pane surrounded by/Such warmth, such light, such love, and so much fear" (Wilbur 13-16).
The snowman and the reader mourn the boy's grief so that sadness becomes a common ground of connection between the poem and its reader. The repetition in Wilbur's closing line emphasizes continuity among the affective elements of "warmth," "light," "love," and "fear" (16). Such continuity among apparently diverse emotions invites readers to attend to the interconnections among love, fear, and loss. I suggest that loss and its implications of death may underlie both the overwhelming presence and utter absence of emotions by comparing Dickinson's "After great pain" with Frost's "Desert Places" and Wilbur's "Boy at the Window." Loss's pervasive presence in poems about emotional experiences suggests that poetry itself expresses the ethical agency that is, for Levinas, our means of overcoming death's absence of meaning.
In Chapter IV: "Elegiac Responsibilities: Consolation in Dialogue," I address the debate about the ethics of consolation. While consolation, for Sacks, is the healthy end for which mourning aims, scholars like Tammy Clewell, Jahan Ramazani, and Eleanor DesPrez fear that such terminal mourning endangers the other, even after her death. Such "compensatory" mourning, perpetuated in literature whereby the mourner establishes a substitute for the lost other, uses the other's death as aesthetic capital (Ramazani 3). In The Ethics of Mourning, Spargo identifies an anti-elegiac "strain" within the elegiac tradition that resists the risks presented by conventional elegies and "foresees no end to mourning" (13). I argue, however, that anti-elegiac conventions may contribute to the elegy's dialogic effects—effects which evoke an ethical kind of consolation that is not antithetical to grief. Such consolation seems especially valuable to mourners like the writers in Wider than the Sky and even Americans after 9/11, who were "consoling themselves—and one another—with poetry in an almost unprecedented way," according to Dinitia Smith of The New York Times. In this chapter, I analyze three poems—John Donne's "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning," John Keats's "This Living Hand," and Christina Rossetti's "Remember"—that, through both elegiac and anti-elegiac means, appeal to readers' value of dialogic connections with others. These poems' anti-elegiac conventions stage speaker-listener dialogues that, in turn, allow the reader to engage dialogically with the poem itself. These poems allow for contrasting emotions to coexist, offering readers a sense of consolation even in the midst of mourning.
My conclusion, "Elegiac Response," considers how we could practice an ethics of empathy based on Levinas's ethical responsibility. How do the ways we read, select/edit, and teach anthology poems affect our relationships with other scholars, with our students, and with the public at large? Such questions turn on a willingness to synthesize—to sympathize with—both poetic and philosophical viewpoints. Elegiac lyrics rhetorically put their readers in a position to account for the mournfulness of our responsibilities on which ethical, dialogic subjectivity seems to depend.
Personhood and Loss In her article "Spontaneous Memorials and Contemporary Modes of Mourning in America," Erika Doss argues that communal expressions of mourning, including public memorials, determine who does—and does not—count as a person whose death is worth grieving, and, by implication, whose life was valuable (295). For example, in the aftermath of the shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, in which two high school students killed twelve of their peers and a teacher and wounded twenty-three more, local residents mourned by creating various memorials for the lost lives (Doss 296). Greg Zanis, a carpenter from Illinois, was so moved by the tragedy that he erected fifteen wooden crosses—one for each of the thirteen victims and the two suicidal perpetrators who died—on a hill near Columbine High School (Doss 311). Despite Zanis's motive to "'help heal people,'" his crosses evoked a violent public dispute between people mourning the thirteen victims and those mourning the perpetrators (Lowe qtd. in Doss 311; Doss 311). After two days, the two crosses commemorating the perpetrators were discarded by Brian Rohrbough, the father of one of the murdered students (Doss 311). While Zanis viewed the killers as "'victims of society'" worthy of commemoration like the people they killed, Rohrbough and other mourners characterized the killers as "undeserving of any form of commemoration or consideration"—as if through their brutal actions the shooters had divested themselves of personhood worthy of mourning (Gray qtd. in Doss 311; Doss 311-312). Who or what counts as lost personhood or subjectivity deserving of grief is constructed and in part projected onto individuals by their companions and communities, Doss demonstrates.
Personhood is projected and constructed in part through mourning and grief; as Doss concludes: "Grief is thus a form of claiming" and "an insistence on belonging, too" as mourners claim lost loved ones as family, friends, and above all, human beings (315).
By identifying lost loved ones as persons belonging to familial, political, and other kinds of communities, mourners affirm who does—and does not—belong to these communities. In doing so, mourners also identify themselves as members of those same communities, including the community of humanity. Although Doss does not address ways in which mourners construct and project personhood onto themselves through their expressions of grief, Emmanuel Levinas does. Personhood, for Levinas, is constructed through one's actualization of one's capacity for responsibility through mournful, ethical attitudes and actions. Levinas's theory of ethical subjectivity complements Doss's emphasis on how we project personhood onto others—Levinas and Doss describe different sides of a two-fold process through which personhood is constructed and projected. Not only do we project personhood onto others, but also the ways in which we do so reflexively construct our own personhood. Both ways of constructing personhood are tied to mourning and loss in Doss's and Levinas's accounts of subjectivity. Levinas seems to explain how and why we project personhood onto others in his theory of responsibility. Levinas's account of ethical, responsible subjectivity is discernible in elegiac poems like Gerard Manley Hopkins's "Spring and Fall: To a Young Child" and Robert Frost's "Nothing Gold Can Stay." When we read these poems in light of Levinas's theory, they seem to demonstrate how responsible personhood may be rhetorically projected onto selves and others through lyric poetry.
Rhetorics and Ethics of Loss In order to be a human subject, according to Levinas in "Ethics as First Philosophy" (hereafter cited as "Ethics), "[o]ne has to speak, to say I, to be in the first person, precisely to be me" (82). This saying "I" implies the presence of an audience, an other who "calls for me," which suggests that subjectivity or personhood is inherently responsive, is achieved through one's response to the other who precedes her ("Ethics" 83). The subject not only responds to the other, Levinas explains, but is also ethically responsible to and for the other, who the self's presence may lethally displace ("Ethics" 83). This lethal threat posed by the self, prior to her consciousness or intention of posing such a threat, makes the self responsible for the other, who "calls" the self's presence "into question" and requires her to justify her presence, as if the self "had to answer for the other's death even before being" (Levinas, "Ethics" 83). Responsibility for the other conditions subjectivity, and in doing so, grounds subjectivity in loss.
The subject is one who fears the loss of the other, on whom her own subjectivity depends; the subject "fear[s] injustice more than death," fears harming the other more than her own death (Levinas, "Ethics" 85). One's own death is certainly a defining mark of subjectivity in Levinas's account since he observes that the fear of one's own death underlies "[a]ll affectivity" and emotion, which "is always emotion for something moving you, but also emotion for oneself" ("Ethics" 84). Overcoming one's fear for one's own death in acting responsibly toward the other is the human subject's ethical attitude.
The "human" as Levinas explains in "Dying For..." is one "in which worry over the death of the other comes before care for self" (216). This ethical worry about the other implies a loss of the self; responsibility is primary and inescapable for the human subject, who "is a hostage" in her responsibility for the other, which is "the trauma of persecution" (Levinas, "Substitution" 101). Human subjectivity, for Levinas, thus emerges in one's willingness to lose or sacrifice oneself in order to prevent the loss of the other. Subjectivity's response to and responsibility for loss lends it a mournful, elegiac quality to Levinas's account. As R. Clifton Spargo observes, "mourning... functions throughout Levinas's canon as an internal rhetoric of his discourse as well as a sign of rhetorical imperatives denoting and inflecting his descriptions of ethics" (Vigilant Memory 32). Levinas portrays subjectivity itself as mournful and elegiac due to its origins in loss and responsibility, and, as Spargo suggests, this elegiac quality is tied to the "rhetorical imperatives" that also seem to condition responsible subjectivity (Vigilant Memory 32).
The self's initial address to the other in saying "I," an address that functions as a response to the other, who "calls for" the self, occurs in a rhetorical situation—a situation in which a speaker addresses an audience and persuades that audience to recognize her as the person she is, as a person (Levinas, "Ethics" 83). To recognize someone (either another or oneself) as a person, especially in light of Doss's example of how fine the line may be between who is and is not recognized as a person, and of the intense emotional stakes of such distinctions, seems like an action that alters reality in the way that Lloyd F. Bitzer argues all rhetorical discourse does (3-4). In this sense that saying "I" invokes one's responsibility for the other and one's subjectivity, this address is "value-laden" and "evocative," which aligns with Richard E. Vatz's critique and expansion of Bitzer's rhetorical situation (157). Indeed, Vatz's account of the rhetor's "responsibility for the salience he has created" seems to coincide with Levinas's account of how the subject's saying "I" conveys her responsibility to and for the other (Vatz 158).
The subject's response creates salience and felt presence, as Vatz explains in citing Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca: "It is not enough indeed that a thing should exist for a person to feel its presence;" rather the speaker's selection of and attention to certain elements in her speech "endows these elements with a presence" that can be felt by the audience (Vatz 157; Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca 117, 116). Speaking and expressing oneself in other ways—including gestures of mourning—creates presences, including, as Doss affirms, the presence of personhood. Responses to loss—and the ways in which they make personhood present—thus seem to function rhetorically, especially in the ways in which they "cause... meaning" by creating personhood (Vatz 160).