Two books, possibly unlike in their readership yet singularly spectacular in their arguments about mourning, have come out within two years of one another. Henry Staten’s Eros in Mourning is an extraordinarily erudite and moving book that traces major loci of mourning in the Western tradition and addresses paradoxes in the relations between eros and death. Mortality, all around us, is also the most repressed factor in our lives: personally repressed because we do not deal with death until it faces us, and culturally repressed through a variety of rituals that turn death into something other than what it is. Literature, in the relations it traces between eros and death, becomes a force of acknowledgement.
Staten’s book traces, both culturally and counterculturally, along the length of Western literary and critical traditions, significant moments when eros and death intersect with one another in unexpected ways. In this way he follows Freud’s problematization of the relations between eros and thanatos in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, and Laplanche’s explicit formulation of Freud’s problem: that death is constitutive of eros, that there is no love without death.
At the same time, the Western tradition moves along the lines of a transcendentalizing impulse, in Staten’s view, as if this impulse could occlude the sheer traumatic force of mortality traversing eros at every moment. Staten is eloquent and provocative in the questions he poses: “Is it really unthinkable, as the idealizing-transcendentalizing tradition insists, to pour out all one’s being toward merely mortal objects precisely as mortal, with no thought of transcendence of any sort beyond that which is mortal love itself, of love for what is mortal precisely as mortal and because it is mortal?”(xii). The force of Staten’s book comes from his elegant and painstaking account of the ways in which literature, philosophy and psychoanalysis activate the very force of mourning—of mortal love deprived of the fiction of transcendence—and of the consequences of living in mourning before loss has taken place, of always being in a position, as Wallace Stevens says, of “saying farewell.” The tragic and the elegiac merge here, and part of the power of Staten’s book lies in its astute and subtle readings of these tensions between the transcendence of death and the erotic and flesh-bound mortality that resists and denies transcendence. His readings are complex and sophisticated exfoliations of just this tension between the impulse to move beyond mortality and the acknowledgement of mortality as an obligato that generates inevitable mourning, [End Page 980] so that the very moment of joy becomes traversed by the recognition of its unalterable vanishing.
One of the remarkable energies in Staten’s readings is the way in which philosophy and literature appear to move in opposite paths, though often with the same aims. The philosophical tradition that aims at transcendence is brought up short by a literary tradition in which transcendence is the problematic element that finds its most telling focus in loss and mourning. A literary tradition that does not relinquish loss, that does not accomodate itself to the palliative of an afterlife, is a tradition bent on tragedy and elegy, and therefore on an ongoing mourning that, pace Freud, does not become melancholia but persists in the lamentation of its loss. Staten is astute in beginning with Homer’s Iliad and ending with Lacan. These texts span a literary and psychoanalytic tradition in which mourning is in excess of its potential transcendence, and in which the imagination of loss is loss itself.
Staten’s essay on Homer’s Iliad, in its moving account of Hektor’s conversation with Andromache just before his fatal battle, traces Hektor’s contemplation of impending death, but also his contemplation and his need for Antromache’s anticipated mourning over his disappearance. To the extent that so many Western texts—beginning with The Iliad—are played out...