Jennifer Rushworth’s imaginative journey through ‘a few diverse melancholic moments in the history of literature’ (p. 5) reconfirms the illuminating value of comparative encounters among authors and texts from very different times and places. The lucidly written Introduction guides us through key definitions, like the titular Barthesian ‘discourses’, indicating both an exploratory ‘movement between theories and texts’ and the fertile ‘creation of pluri-linguistic textual dialogues’ (p. 2). The theoretical discussion of mourning begins with Freud’s early differentiation between melancholia — ‘endless and pathological’ — and the ‘work of mourning’ — a healthier ‘finite experience’ (p. 5), resulting in the replacement of the love object. Kristeva agrees on the need for acceptance of loss, but nuances this condemnation of melancholia, proposing that its language can be a source of creativity. Critical of the Freudian model, Derrida rejects the unethical value of forgetfulness and proposes, instead, ‘demi-deuil’ as a way of ‘perpetuating, intermittently, one’s relationship to the lost love object’ (p. 8). Through ‘interpolation’ of modern and medieval texts (the ‘modieval’), the book relies on a ‘two-layered textual triangulation’ — and reciprocal elucidation — of Dante, Petrarch, and Proust via Freud, Kristeva, and Derrida, while Barthes sits at the ‘intermittent heart’ of the project (p. 4). Chapter 1 starts with an intuitive reading of Dante’s infernal accidiosi ’s ‘impeded speech’ via Kristevan linguistic effects of melancholia. More widely, the sinners’ obsession with the past also reflects Kristeva’s idea of a ‘temporalité décentrée’, imprisoning the melancholic. A Barthesian interpolation moves the argument forward, especially in the suggestion that writing itself can offer a way out of acedian apathy, just like liturgical chanting in Dante’s Purgatorio. Differently from Freud’s ‘work of mourning’, however, the purifying progression through Purgatorio entails reaching the ultimate love object: God. This leads to Paradiso, where human desire can exist without grief and co-exist with the love for God. Chapter 2 perceptively contends that this Dantean solution is irreconcilable with Petrarch’s Canzoniere, here interpreted via Kristeva ‘as an exercise in melancholic language’ (p. 54). In fact, in Petrarch’s work ‘God is in danger of being eclipsed by Laura’ (p. 81). In Chapter 3 Proust’s intermittent involuntary memory is cogently investigated alongside Derridean ‘demi-deuil’ as an ethical alternative to Freud’s ‘work of mourning’. This is akin to Barthes’s views, but so is their awareness of the impossibility of a unique language of mourning. Instead, apparent literary echoes permeate all the texts here analysed. As in a multi-voiced musical piece, in the epilogue the different strands of Rushworth’s argument return — now enriched with new evidence — to propel us towards a rewarding final reflection on literary form. Texts such as Dante’s Vita nuova, Proust’s Recherche, and Barthes’s unfinished Vita nova are ethical both on account of their resistance to forgetfulness and their structural open-endedness: a ‘promise of writing’. This ethical resistance to closure also characterizes Petrarch’s Canzoniere, which is caught up in a series of irresolvable tensions. In turn, the promise of new critical horizons makes Rushworth’s book much more than a very insightful literary study: it is itself a deeply ethical undertaking. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for French Studies. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
French Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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