“The New Historicism and the Work of Mourning”

Citation: “The New Historicism and the Work of Mourning.” Studies in Romanticism 35 (1996): 553-62.

[Special issue of Studies in Romanticism entitled “Essays in Honor of Geoffrey H. Hartman.” Guest editor Helen Regueiro Elam.]

Excerpt from beginning of essay (pages 553-54)

Imagine that a creature—let us leave it nameless, ageless, even specieless—drowns. The rope it had been clinging to slips away as the creature begins its slow descent to the tidal shelf twelve fathoms down. Here, on the pale bottom sands, the rough sea is only a massive but gentle surge. The body rocks back and forth on the sands, one arm half raised and adrift. Planking rains down nearby, one iron-bound section pinning the arm to the sand. Time passes and the soft parts of the body lose their definition, swell and break open bloodlessly against the planking and sand. The body becomes no longer quite a body; it is a body/plank/sand assemblage. Fish pick at the flesh and graze the algae on the plank. They become fish/body/algae assemblages. Shellfish, small crabs, other bottomfeeders join the ensemble. Microorganisms are at work, too, churning the mass’s internal structure and chemistry, fusing certain tissues more tightly, disassembling others and offering their elements up to the seawater as a subtle scent.

. . . history considered universally is loss. History, as it were, is the perpetuation or retention of the process of loss. Thus listen to the distinctively elegiac note that sounds the largest theses of history in romantic New Historicism: “All discourse may well be about loss,” Levinson says. . . . (p. 559)At the end of six weeks, the body lies cradled in an encrusted, rooted, intricate matrix linked by thin trails of atoms (borne along tidal currents and fish migration paths) to a host of static and motile assemblages elsewhere—the total aggregate gradually propagating outward like a network of veins across the larger body that is the ocean.

Nothing of the original creature has been lost: not an atom.

But we know how to fathom this point of view because we recognize in it the makings of our modernity—or, more accurately, postmodernity. . . .

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