- Mourning Time
R. Clifton Spargo begins The Ethics of Mourning: Grief and Responsibility in Elegiac Literature with a poignant discussion of Ruth Behar’s 1996 retelling of an Isabel Allende story: a story about a relationship between a girl dying beneath the rubble of an avalanche and the reporter who struggles as he watches her there. The poignancy of this scene, for Behar, depends on the tension the reporter feels between his professional obligation to narrate her story and his human obligation to ease her suffering.
Such a scene of suffering, on a first reading, refers to a “time of mourning” crucial to Spargo’s book. As his reading of Behar illustrates, the time of mourning occurs when a witness confronts the loss of another. More importantly, this sense of time is also definitively “ethical.” For Spargo, “there is an ethical crux to all mourning, according to which the injustice potentially perpetrated by the mourner against the dead as a failure of memory stands for the injustice that may be done to the living at any given moment” (4). When phrased in this way, “ethics” here is not only concerned to recognize injustice, but, more crucially, to remember the dead adequately.
But Spargo’s book also seems invested in another kind of time, when the grieving survivor comes to mourn time itself. Spargo’s understated second interest is about what it means to mourn the measured time that offers comfort and stability during moments of need; in other words, the book is equally about the kind of linear time in which we have all come to organize our lives, but have, despite ourselves, lost in this historical moment. Although he does briefly write in his chapter on Hamlet about a “time of mourning” (77), the theorization of mourning’s time that runs throughout the book in these terms is perhaps too implicit, and I could wish for a broader or more explicit theorization of the intersection between time and mourning. Specifically, I would call for a theory of mourning indebted to the time of the trauma, which Spargo sometimes invokes as analogous to mourning while seeing the two modes of psychic unpleasure as distinct in their social and literary implications. For Spargo, although he doesn’t quite phrase it this way, part of the value of literature lies in its potential to represent the traumatic time of the loss of a loved one in a way that straightforward, journalistic accounts fail to do. Literature can move the reader-as-witness because it functions like the unconscious mind: absolutely refusing the imposition of linear time in those moments that come too soon to be processed in a neat and linear fashion that cultural codes prescribe.
One way literature invests the reader in the mourning process is through its reliance on what Spargo calls “elegiac address” (25–26, 188–89, 192–94). Otherwise known as “apostrophe,” the potential for literature to address an other is typically associated with elegies in the most traditional sense. Spargo’s reading of the literary, indeed, of “elegiac literature,” does not focus on traditional elegies, but on literature that invokes prosopopeia in order to call upon the reader as ethical witness (25). Drawing on a subtle and informed understanding of prosopopeia, Spargo’s theory of elegy explicitly refuses the trope of the personification of the dead and instead emphasizes the dimension of relationality created by literary texts—specifically, literature’s potential to render an alterity in space and time that signifies as responsibility. For example, Spargo claims that “mourning promotes a temporal confusion whereby the question of memory is treated as though the remembered dead stood within range of an imminent threat of violence to a living person” (4). Spargo posits Freud’s famous theorization of the dream of the burning child as an exemplary case of this temporal confusion. In The Interpretation of Dreams Freud recounts the story of a dead child who appears in the dream of a grieving father, a father who falls asleep as the child’s body lies...