Theories of Elegy
Traditional theorists of elegy have spent a great deal of effort coming to terms with this and trying to theorise how elegy can even exist. Eric Smith defines the genre of elegy, in his book By Mourning Tongues: Studies in English Elegy, in terms of what all elegies should have: a lost beloved, a process of mourning, consolation, and a monument. One might add into this Ellen Zetzel Lambert’s sense of the importance of the pastoral which provides a place to mourn,[i] and Peter Sacks’ psychoanalytical sense of the origins of elegy within funeral rights and vegetation myths and their use of the “trope.”[ii] The “trope,” or replacement for the lost beloved—a wreath, their name repeated over their grave, an inscription, or a full elegy—speaks of the paradox of mourning which Smith also notes.[iii] The sign given in place of the lost beloved which actually, the theorists note, causes the loss to be doubled and doubly confirmed. The failure of the “trope” is predicated on the radical inexpressibility of death and loss. It fails to console because the possibility of a process of mourning which brings back the lost beloved is non-existent. However, the possible limited success of the trope, which might console the living in relation to the dead, has the effect of killing the lost beloved again: if one gets over one’s loss, one loses one’s loss.
These traits—loss, mourning, consolation, the monument, the place of mourning, and the paradox of the trope—are elegy’s “genre markers,” and are unique within the study of genre. The mark of an elegy is like the mark of something after it has been rubbed out, further, the actual marks of an elegy, the words and lines of the poem on the page, owe their positive presence to the negativity of radical absence. As Derrida has noted there can, therefore, be no such thing as successful mourning.[iv] It is not possible to deal successfully with the impossible, as to give accurately the presence of absence is to remove from it its phenomenological base: that it doesn’t exist. It would seem clear to anyone who has ever studied the elegy that this is, in a sense, not its aim.
Generally elegies are about presence, using the lost beloved as an occasion for considerations of presence.[v] There is no better way of throwing the issues of presence into stark relief than when one is confronted with the impenetrable darkness of unknowable absence. And yet elegies exist; poets continue to write them knowing full well they will never succeed. If they are successful in turning melancholia into mourning, they negate the irreducibility of the loss. If they console, they kill the lost beloved all over again. If the monument or trope is accepted in place of the loss, the loss is fetishised and the vibrant entity of the living beloved becomes a mockery, a mannequin for their own selfish love. The pastoral place of mourning is a beautiful place but, Freud suggests, one cannot live there. And so, let us say one argues by negation that for elegy to succeed one merely has to loiter in the environs of its endless failure, the question remains how long can one remain sick with love before that sickness kills you also. Melancholia is a gloriously moribund and romantic landscape, but one cannot live there either, one can only experience death there.
And what is elegiac language? Kristeva suggests that it takes the form of the abject, or what she calls in her groundbreaking revision of Freudian conceptions of depression Black Sun, dejecta. In Black Sun she reformulates the Freudian melancholic not just as someone who loves others as versions of themselves, and thus within melancholia endlessly mourns their loss of themselves, but rather as someone who also mourns the loss of a kind of undifferentiated and totalising pre-symbolic thing:
The depressed narcissist mourns not an Object but the Thing. Let me posit the “Thing” as the real that does not lend itself to signification, the centre of attraction and repulsion, seat of the sexuality from which the object of desire will become separated...the thing is an imagined sun, bright and black at the same time... The Thing falls from me along the outposts of significance where the Word is not yet my Being. A mere nothing, which is a cause but at the same time a fall, before being an Other, the Thing is recipient that contains my dejecta and everything that results from cadere [Latin: to fall]—it is a waste with which, in my sadness, I merge. (Kristeva, Black Sun 13-15)
The Thing is presence before absence. Presence as we experience it as completed yet mutilated subjects of uncertainty is, therefore, predicated on an impossible relation to death as we mourn something that we never actually had. Note, however, beyond this, the bit by bit progress, “the Thing falls from me along the outposts of significance,” and further how this relates to the concept of abjection. I want to argue that this is the essence of elegiac language: the marks left over, the waste expelled, the trace of evacuated meaning after the bit by bit passage of rational forms of expression. One cannot exist without the other and this is the edge of elegy in poetry. Nonrational poetic expression is that which is expelled or put to one side in order that the rational might live, and all rational utterance occurs beside this shadow.
Similarly, the nonrational shares a permanent relation to the rational; it is after all the mark of its absence like a ruined landscape after the deluge has passed; the wave of meaning subsided. Freud sees the movement to the edge of loss as a bit by bit, in/out motion; a staggered, jerky, wavic surface. Kristeva, rather, sees this articulation of presence through absence as a single, ongoing motion in which lack and reality testing work simultaneously, not one preceding or superseding the other. In her reformulation of Freud, the “wave” is always and at the same time coming in and out, and the edge becomes blurred, much harder to perceive. It becomes impossible to say whether you are involved in the passage of sense through and from the world, or whether you have been left behind, cast out, put to one side. As a subject one is caught somewhere on the edge, midway through a process of self-laceration and mutilation which is the darkest sense of what the edge is.
[i] She notes: “The pastoral elegy, I would suggest, proposes no one solution to the questions raised by death but rather a setting in which those questions may be posed, or better, “placed”. It offers us a landscape...This landscape itself varies from one poet and one subject to the next. But, and this is the important point, it remains a concrete, palpable world, a world in which the elegist can place diffuse, intangible feelings of grief and thereby win his release from suffering” (Lambert, XIII).
[ii] Talking about the origin of the funereal wreath in terms of ancient vegetation myths Sacks concludes: “...moving from nature to artifice, requires both a cutting off and a refashioning of the cut fragment...Consolation thus depends on a trope that remains at an essential remove from what it replaces” (Sacks 6).
[iii] Smith reveals the crux of the matter when he states: “grief remains an important and perhaps never convincingly defeated element in elegy, being in some sense a guarantee and replica of love” (Smith, 5). This paradox should be investigated in relation to the idea of a “possible mourning” that could allow the grieving subject to be held in a process of grieving for the lost beloved without becoming ill with melancholia.
[iv] A point he makes in his book Memoires for Paul de Man when he looks at how one could preserve the lost beloved by retaining them within oneself. He finds, predictably, that this could never be successful in preserving the dead friend for three reasons. 1) It would not be the real de Man but the mask of de Man which all naming imposes, a point de Man himself investigates at length in his Allegories of Reading. 2) That the radical presence of absence within the mourning subject effectively kills the subject as a monadic, self-coincident subject of certainty. 3) That this death in life/life in death paradox would then infect backwards into the “living” de Man, meaning he was already dead even when he was alive. Derrida’s solution, too complex to go into here, is very much like the state of happy melancholia that we find in the New York School, to celebrate and occupy the nonpassage rather than seek to negate the power of negativity artificially through traditional elegiac strategies.
[v] This refers to the age old point that elegies are never really about the lost beloved, but about the mourning subject, never really about the themes of death but of life. This is a truism, and while it does still pertain to my reworking of elegy here one must never lose sight of the fact that elegies are about loss, come about because of loss, and if they do spend more time dealing with presence than absence surely this is understandable as this is how one mourns. Besides, one cannot speak the impossible anymore than one can think it, and elegy is valuable if only because it is the genre that comes closest to attempting to breach the limits of conceptual thinking.