Against Infinite Grief: Mourning and Speculative Invention in Postbellum American Literature
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This dissertation analyzes a contemporary disorder of mourning that began to take shape in the aftermath of the American Civil War, a time in which profound changes to material practices associated with death affected the religious structure of beliefs pertaining to consolation and the afterlife. In a short term historical context, these changes reflected the accelerated conditions of modernization that unprecedented conditions of combat brought about, but these same conditions also exacerbated and exposed a longer-scale deterioration in the metaphysical constitution of death and infinitude associated with the philosophical problem of the bad infinity. Hegel, Lacan, and Freud theoretically demonstrate how this bad infinity can be understood in terms of a melancholic endless mourning or “infinite grief” in which mourning is compromised by an insistence on a finitude that disallows any connection to a ‘larger’ transindividual dimension of meaning . Three diverse postbellum authors — Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Ambrose Bierce and William James— not only bear witness to this problem of infinite grief but actively analyze and attempt to invent solutions to it through their writing. Phelps’ afterlife fictions linked the ravages of grief on postwar women to the toxic doctrine of sacrificial asceticism in Northern Protestantism and attempted to rectify it with original depictions of the afterlife as a place of mourning and compensatory consolation. During the Gilded Age, Bierce’s war stories countered the mythologizing revisionism of the Civil War battles in which he himself took part through a novel approach to fictionalized testimony and retroactive memorialization. William James struggled with the personal dimension and implications of infinite grief as a kenotic experience of melancholic despair that matched a very similar experience of his father, Henry James Sr., then, in his philosophy attempts to formulate the role of this experience as formative to a process of re-inventing foundational belief. Ultimately, these literary solutions do not necessarily overcome “infinite grief” as they illuminate its tragic implications and in the process offer possible avenues toward the theoretical reconstitution of mourning. The elements of such reconstitution include the surplus enjoyment of consolation in the fantasy of the afterlife (Phelps), the symbolic punctuation of the monument (Bierce) and the idea that inheritance constitutes the re-invention of one’s antecedents (James).