- Signifying Loss: Toward a Poetics of Narrative Mourning
In his influential 1990 study of mourning strategies in postwar Germany, Stranded Objects, Eric Santner made the following remark about Paul de Man’s collaborationist journalism, which had recently been discovered: “The error of Paul de Man [was] that he sought to displace and disperse the [End Page 590] particular, historical tasks of mourning which for him, as is now known, were substantial and complex, with what might be called structural mourning, that is mourning for those ‘catastrophes’ that are inseparable from being-in-language” (29). Nouri Gana claims these lines as an inspiration in a coda to his book, and indeed, the greatest virtue of Signifying Loss is that it aims to restore a political and historical dimension to discussions of twentieth-century texts about mourning without thereby losing sight of their overall poetic dimension, their “being-in-language.” To this end, Gana brings a dazzling array of theoretical sources from the psychoanalytic, deconstructive, and postcolonial traditions to bear on narrative texts by James Joyce (Dubliners), Jamaica Kincaid (The Autobiography of My Mother, My Brother), Tahar Ben Jelloun (The Last Friend), and Elias Khoury (City Gates).
Gana’s goal is to outline a tropological theory of trauma in which three central concepts of psychological damage and healing are each aligned with a corresponding rhetorical term: mourning with prosopopoeia (the poetic conceit by which an absent agent is represented as speaking), melancholia with catachresis (the application of a term to a thing to which it doesn’t properly refer), and trauma with chiasmus (an inverted syntactical parallelism). After the introductory chapter, which is largely devoted to Freud’s 1917 essay “Mourning and Melancholia,” the book thus breaks into three separate parts, with chapters 2 and 3 (on Joyce) primarily devoted to mourning, chapters 4 and 5 (on Kincaid and Ben Jelloun) to melancholia, and chapter 6 (on Khoury) to trauma. Since the alignment of Dubliners with mourning rather than melancholia and of My Brother with melancholia rather than mourning may initially seem counterintuitive, it needs to be stressed that Gana rightly rejects the simplistic reading of Freud’s essay that would regard the two psychic processes as antithetical to one another. Mourning, for him, is a larger process that encompasses melancholia all the while it attempts to work through trauma by means of compulsive repetition.
Gana brings original approaches to bear on all the texts that he examines, but the most successful, because most daring, of his six chapters seems to me to be the one on Elias Khoury. Gana reads Khoury’s 1981 novel City Gates as a chiastic engagement with the trauma of the Lebanese civil war. Trauma, on this model, becomes the search for objective distance in the face of an excess of signification; healing, by inversion, is predicated on the inscription of this excess in a new and more experimental kind of narrative discourse. In contrast to many more traditional strains of trauma theory, Gana thus does not read fragmentariness and repetition simply as expressions of psychic scarring, but rather as successful attempts to work through the attendant pain by, paradoxically, making an unrepresentable experience the basis of [End Page 591] literary representation. We thus come to grasp Khoury’s literary experiments as a potent strategy for overcoming political violence, and this insight in turn promises to change our understanding of literary postmodernism as a whole. In recent years, it has become a bit of a critical commonplace (witnessed, for instance, in reviews of David Eggers’s 2007 work What Is the What) to say that contemporary American fiction has moved beyond postmodernism by using metafictional techniques to articulate social and political critiques. Gana suggests that the potential for such critiques was inherent to post-modernism all along and can clearly be seen by any critic willing to move beyond a myopic concentration on the Western world.
If the chapter on City Gates represents the culmination of Gana’s analysis, the point at which his prior meditations on mourning and melancholia...