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Book Review: Discourses of Mourning in Dante, Petrarch, and Proust (2016)

]At my undergrad university, there was a joke among the philosophy students about the Philosophy of Death course: Not everyone takes the class, but everyone has to take the final.

I thought of this when reading Jennifer Rushworth’s study Discourses of Mourning in Dante, Petrarch, and Proust. Not everyone studies mourning, but it’s a task that all of us have set before us at some point in life. A full-time job, mourning has no particular length of employment and (as George W.S. Trow once said of life) the trouble is with the ongoingness of it. No one ever announces we are released from service. Even the thought of being finished with mourning feels inappropriate somehow, like an offense against the person we mourn.

Mourning has a rich literary history too, straight back to Gilgamesh’s grief over the loss of Enkidu. mourningRushworth has studied mourning in literature and specifically how different writers have understood grief in the medieval and modern eras. Her method brings together and opens a conversation of sorts between writers who were certainly influenced by one another, at least in terms of antecedents, but whose distance in time and space often prevents close comparisons from being drawn in academic studies. Freud is used to comment on Dante and Derrida to illuminate Proust. Literate in Latin, French, and Italian, Rushworth is able to open up avenues of comparison between thinkers who probably should be read together. It’s a fruitful method that perhaps is not used enough in academia.

The book is brief, but I’m not sure how long one would want a book on mourning to be exactly. In the first chapter, Dante’s Comedia is used to analyze “acedia”, that most difficult to translate or comprehend of the medieval vices. The usual translation as “sloth” misses the mark; acedia is more of a deep spiritual lassitude closely related to melancholy. It is ongoing and somehow inescapable. We are trapped by it. In Dante, those damned by acedia are forced to relive a moment of sin repeatedly, pushing them further from God.

Key to the experience in Dante is that acedia breaks down our use of language, makes it incomprehensible and unfeeling: Dante’s “Quest’inno si gorgoglian ne la strozza”- This hymn they gurgle in their throats. Those damned by acedia cannot sing the hymns that will prove their salvation. Rushworth cites Julia Kristeva who writes of the “asymbolia” of melancholy persons in ways that very much evoke Dante’s acedia- when deep in melancholy, our language is often “fragmented, broken, interrupted, and repetitive.” We hardly know what to say to convey the experience.

But, paradoxically, acedia can also be creatively fruitful. In the second chapter, Rushworth shows that Petrarch’s mourning the distant and unapproachable, and then deceased, Laura is “both a breakdown of speech and line after line of moving poetry.” The experience of mourning can be “an incitement to the creation of a new poetic language.” The reason we still find Petrarch’s poetry moving, not to mention terrible radio love songs, is because it seems to include us in a community of mourners, yet we need our own language to express our grief, since we feel it as unique.  As Rushworth puts it: “Writing about grief means inevitably to participate in a wider, more general discourse that may represent a betrayal of the uniqueness of the experience undergone, but which can offer its own form of slim comfort.”

Mourning also involves a sort of indifference; Roland Barthes calls it a “lack of investment”. Rushworth recalls Proust’s narrator who realizes he will never be a poet because nature evokes nothing in him. Petrarch envies Laura’s grave for holding her body, a morbid turning away from the world. Dante can only return to Beatrice by turning away from the world, and women, to God.

I think many of us would rather mourning be completed at some point. Rushworth makes much use of Freud, who saw the “work of mourning” as a withdrawal of the libido from a lost love object that ends in forgetting and replacement with a new love object. Freud contrasted this with melancholy, which is endless and pathological.

But the idea of a replacement love object is fairly unthinkable for most of us. With whom should we replace a lost parent, for instance? Or a beloved who has died young? Petrarch’s mourning is “faithful to the memory of Laura and a conscious refusal of any new amorous attachments.” Proust’s narrator, by contrast, paradoxically loves others “in memory of” the lost Albertine, something I think many of us can relate to in some way. I would never want to replace the distinctive memory of my former wife; nor would I want to mourn our marriage forever, as my father did.

As might be evident from this review, the book’s chain of references can be a bit off-putting at times. Nevertheless, the study is a very useful reminder of the role that literature plays in speaking to the most painful experiences of life and making sense of the harder work of being human.

I found most interesting Derrida’s “demi-deuil”, a “blending of fidelity and infidelity” that seeks to both remember and forget the lost loved one. Proust’s “intermittences of the heart”, a title considered for the Recherche, is a useful and related concept here – most of us experience mourning, after a time, as involuntary but mercifully brief flashes of memory. In a sense, mourning is something that we learn to live with. Proust’s epic of memory, selfhood, and the eternalizing aspect of writing is a wonderful place to end, as a reminder that, when we grieve, we grieve ourselves, a work that never really ends.

[Publishers are invited to send copies of their recent books for review to Rufus F. care of the masthead]

Discourses of Mourning available from Oxford University Press

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Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does a bunch of other stuff.

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7 thoughts on “Book Review: Discourses of Mourning in Dante, Petrarch, and Proust (2016)

  1. Sounds like a positively ridiculous discussion of the subject.
    If someone doesn’t want to write a book about people mourning the loss of Carnegie Deli, well, that’s fine.
    But to hold out that you’ve honestly discussed mourning… well, I don’t think you’ve really scratched the surface.

    Mourning is a distillation of our own fear of death, projected onto other things and creatures. We mourn no less strongly for a lost thing than for a lost person. (The sharpness of mourning — the sudden remembrance, the need to tell someone who is lost — that is a different quality altogether).

    To accept that you will die, truly, is to free yourself from many chains and much silliness. I regret that I have not achieved this.


  2. I haven’t read Petrarch or Proust, or the book being reviewed. But I can make a couple of comments about acedia. It’s a spiritual laziness, an attitude that further advancement toward God’s will is impossible. It can leave one mired in sin, or stagnant with regard to virtue. It’s not inescapable, except in the sense that in the Inferno everything is inescapable. You could argue that Dante depicts himself in a state of acedia at the beginning of the Comedy, meandering and unfocused. The character’s journey shakes him out of it.

    You’re right that “sloth” falls short of a good description of it. Acedia can be seen in ordinary laziness, but it also acts out as extreme activity. The internet is great for making a person think he’s accomplishing something. “Activity suggests a life filled with purpose”, according to Captain von Trapp. The constant is a lack of accomplishment driven by an underlying lack of belief in its possibility.

    Acedia isn’t fruitful, spiritually or artistically. Maybe mourning can be, but not acedia.


  3. Honestly, acedia sounds to me like depression, or perhaps post-traumatic stress disorder. To the unknowing, they can seem a lot like sloth. Someone stuck in trauma can very much experience the world, other people, and even themselves as fragmented, because of their dissociation.

    The description of “unable to sing the hymns that would prove their salvation” really evokes it. And the frequent inclination of outsiders to impute it as a moral failing is also familiar.

    But it’s hard to say if that’s actually what Dante had in mind.

    Freud’s melancholy is almost certainly depression and trauma, though.


    • Good points. And the unnecessary activity kind of acedia is similar to anxious depression. The question is the underlying cause, I think. Was Tony Soprano depressed primarily because he led a pointless existence, or was it biochemical, or his awful upbringing? Assign what percentages you’d like to each cause – they’re going to be meaningless. But it’s true that he was someone who didn’t believe in becoming a better person.


      • Not to comment on the Sopranos analogy (because I saw only a couple episodes and therefore don’t know enough), but maybe we can look at acedia as “a disease one chooses to have” whereas clinical depression is something one doesn’t choose?

        Perhaps, however, that framing too neatly distinguishes things that become confusing in edge cases, like sub-clinical depression.

        Just my thoughts. I’m in no way an expert on acedia or mental health.


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