Whither Death?

On 20 March 2017, Dr Helen Swift (Medieval and Modern Languages, University of Oxford) and Dr Jessica Goodman (Medieval and Modern Languages, University of Oxford) co-hosted a workshop on 'Whither Death?' Here is the report from the workshop: 

How does thinking about death influence our thinking about the limits of life more broadly (birth, exile, migration)? When attending to the dead, are we in fact giving more attention to the living? What is lost with the person who dies - individual identity or a way of living? And who determines what our death means, our posthumous legacy?  Just a few of the questions raised on 20th March, as members of the Sub-Faculty of French met around the table of the TORCH Seminar Room to address the question ‘Whither Death?’. The event was inspired by the realisation that the idea of death - whether as subject, metaphor or point of view on life - was central to ostensibly very different research being carried out by a large number of colleagues. The workshop, sponsored by the TORCH ‘Humanities and Identities’ Series, was conceived as a space to share ideas, vocabulary, bibliography and methodologies, in a rare cross-period setting. Eleven speakers ranged from postdocs to established professors, whilst thirteen further participants included a large number of postgraduate students. Ten-minute papers, providing variously overviews, introductions or case-studies, left ample time for the discussion that was the main focus of the afternoon.

The first panel examined different means and genres for ‘Writing Life or Death’. Marie-Chantal Killeen began by discussing autobiographies born out of family trauma, in which a history of traumatic death is reframed, not as a burden (the theory of ‘transgenerational haunting’), but as an impetus to live life well; an impulse for vitality. In this context, whilst death remains a limit, it is a productive one: a catalyst for both life and invention. Carole Bourne-Taylor’s examination of contemporary poetry outlined how death was the metaphor par excellence, since it could only ever be approached indirectly, or figuratively. Michel Deguy’s work attempted to deal with grief, both by a continual undoing (the repeated - prefix) and redoing (the re- prefix) of his own past and of the literary past, which paradoxically demanded to be fixed in words even as it slipped away. Ian Maclachlan also examined the relationship between death and the self, using experimental forms of twentieth-century autobiography to demonstrate how reflection on its own death throws the writing subject into disarray, raising questions about identity and agency. The panel concluded with Helen Swift taking very similar concerns more than 500 years back in time, to show how a medieval poem parodying contemporary post-mortem inventory practice turns out to be a reflection on who, where and what a dead individual actually is; how things and words replace and reshape bodies and lives, and who has the authority – or the ability – to read these traces.

Our second panel, ‘Revisiting the Dead’, had an early modern focus on the representation and posthumous treatment of ancient suicides, recently deceased relatives and an executed king. Jonathan Patterson considered Renaissance rewritings of the deaths of Anthony and Cleopatra, two suicides who were attractive to a period preoccupied with the idea of choosing to die well. He traced how different dramatists struggled with the practical and thematic challenges of representing onstage two deaths that were prolonged, complex, and threatened the honorable presentation of the two characters. Neil Kenny looked instead at those left behind, describing how the descendants of early modern writers found their illustrious forebears both a burden and an opportunity in political and personal terms: sometimes obliging them to take action or publish works to uphold family honour, but sometimes enabling them to capitalise on a family name to support their own, new political position, or justify their own status. Benjamin Thurston then explored representations of the execution of Louis XVI as sacrifice, suggesting that such vocabulary was a reassertion of hermeneutic control; an attempt to give the death of a king meaning in the narrative of the new, free France. He further showed, however, that the execution suffered from an inconsistent and incoherent presentation, and the disorder with which the carefully choreographed death was met, thus raising questions about the extent to which death’s meaning can be stabilised.

Finally, we considered ‘Dying and Living (On)’. Jennifer Rushworth used Proust’s concept of intermittence as a model for mourning, suggesting this would be particularly productive in verse: the body and poetry both have rhythm -- pulse and metre are interrupted to signify heartache, broken breathing, the physical pain of loss. Sara-Louise Cooper examined Patrick Chamoiseau’s narrative of the death of childhood, as signified by the death of a mother: an individual death that represents the death of a whole way of life. She explored his search for the beginning point of this ‘ending’, and the implication that literary art, alternately concealing and revealing the void of loss, might be a way to articulate this moment. Jessica Goodman returned to the late eighteenth century to discuss the commemoration of great authors of the past, and the tension this produces between the authority of that past, and that of the new writer, who appropriates and manipulates the words and image of his subject to suit his own ends. The afternoon’s presentations were drawn to a close by Emma Claussen, who sketched out a new project on what it meant to be alive for writers of the early modern period: how a ‘good’ life was viewed (morally, physically, biologically), and how its alternative was not only death, but also a form of non-living, which coincided with a lack of freedom.

Discussion ranged widely, and a concluding session attempted to identify several strands that linked the diverse papers. Some of the key areas of overlap were questions of place, space and time of death; the concept of (posthumous) identity, and how and by whom it is created; attempts to control death (from practical to hermeneutic perspectives); death’s presence in and impact upon life and creative art; ways of talking about death, from metaphors to commonplaces; bodies, objects, relics and remains, and individual and collective experiences of death. We identified, too, a number of areas that had been little broached, including ghosts and revenants, murder, and affective responses to death. There was great enthusiasm for further collaboration, which will begin with the creation of a joint bibliography. Further events already in preparation include a TORCH Book at Lunchtime session in October on Helen Swift’s Representing the Dead: Epitaph Fictions in Late Medieval France, and a contribution by Jessica and Helen to September’s Curiosity Carnival on death, identity and materiality.

With thanks to TORCH for funding our hospitality.