restricted access Fictional Death and the Modernist Enterprise (review)
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Reviewed by
Alan Warren Friedman. Fictional Death and the Modernist Enterprise. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995. 339 pp.

Four premises form the underpinning of this well-researched (590 entries in the bibliography), well-documented (572 footnotes), current (68 bibliographical entries since 1990), and nicely written book: one, that the way we treat and look at death stems from “a complex of historically specific and materially determined events,” because death is a [End Page 234] “culture-specific construct” that changes with place and time; two, that our handling of death has passed through several definable historical watersheds and that we are crossing one now; three, that we can learn about these paradigms of death from a variety of disciplines—including anthropology, history, physics, medicine, theology, literary criticism, philosophy, and psychology; and finally, that to understand the semiotics of these paradigms is to understand ourselves, because “[t]he manner in which people die reflects more than any other fact the value of a society.”

Although primarily interested in the periods we call Victorian, modern, and postmodern, the book first looks back to antiquity—from the “problematic” deaths of Christ and Socrates, through the thirteenth-century’s “clericalization of death” and medieval “deathbed rituals,” to Shakespeare’s “good death,” and sixteenth- and seventeenth-century efforts to “meditate on death.”

By the Victorian time, Friedman asserts, the paradigm of death had assumed a distinctive form. For the Victorians, death was “culturally central,” “openly acknowledged,” and considered in spiritual terms. It was to them, “explained” or “self-explanatory.” Undertaking was established as a profession early in this century. “Opulent” funerals were the “norm.” And deathbed scenes, although treated differently for women and for men, were “climatic” events.

Death as a “modernist enterprise,” as the title would suggest, constitutes the heart of the book’s concern. During this time, the teleology and semiotics of the paradigm about death were disrupted and destabilized. Marx, Darwin, and Nietzsche began this change with the damage they did to our view of God. Technology (and the First World War it brought) continued our disillusionment. And then classical physics, which saw events as “explicable in terms of things,” gave way to a new view of the world which held that “the visible world is neither matter nor spirit” but instead, perhaps an “invisible organization or energy.” As a result, categories of reality collapsed: science/ religion, self/other, wave/particle, and death/life.

These changes forced revisions in our handling of death. Because we came to question an afterlife, death became “final rather than an opening to salvation.” Funerals lost their “traditional meaning” and “put nothing in its place.” “Formalized mourning,” went into “decline.” Artifices of death—wills and testaments, death certificates, burial sites, [End Page 235] corpses, tombs, and monuments—were done differently. And “good death” was replaced by “dirty death”—death became “nauseating,” “disgusting,” “terrible.”

Literature and its narratives, seeking to order, shape, regularize, and comprehend this experience, likewise had to change. Its characters—alienated, anonymous, dehumanized, and impotent—came to be depicted as “posthumous,” as “walking dead” (notably in Conrad, Eliot, James, and Joyce).

Four chapters of the book consider four writers of this time: E. M. Forster (who “usually” represents death as “a consequence of failed erotic love”), Virginia Woolf (whose works are “replete with death and its aftershocks” although “lacking deathbed and funeral”), Graham Greene (for whom “thanatophobia and thanatophilia vie for precedence and ultimately become inextricable”), and Lawrence Durrell (who regards eros and thanatos as “interchangeable” and who sees death as “initiatory rather than terminal”).

The final chapter of the book considers first the literature and then the culture of postmodernism. Its literature reasons that if history is “surreal,” then fiction, too, must “devise strategies for keeping pace.” For example, “[c]haracters . . . need never die, or their deaths need not be final.” The works of Pynchon, Spark, Roth, Morrison, Swift, D. M. Thomas, and Vonnegut, so Friedman asserts, bring death “out of the closet” to “articulate a transcendence of death,” even to the point of giving “death a voice itself.”

Our postmodern culture, too “has entered a new phase” both in “creating life and confronting death.” Doctors, for example, are learning to see death...