What remains: mourning left loss in Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens (2013) and Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Document (2006)

Rowcroft, Andrew (2016) What remains: mourning left loss in Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens (2013) and Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Document (2006). In: What Happens Now: 21st Century Writing in English, 27th June 2016, University of Lincoln.

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Item Type:Conference or Workshop contribution (Paper)
Item Status:Live Archive


This paper is concerned with the correlative process by which 21st century texts recognise, respond, and work through the political and intellectual losses of Marxism. As such, I aim to juxtapose, and place into dialogue, key thematic strands from Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens (2013), Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Document (2006), and selected theoretical accounts of loss, left mourning, and twenty-first century praxis. Exhibiting a suggestive dialectical relation, these two fictional texts are remarkable for the sheer extent to which they demonstrate, and self-reflexively dwell upon, the successive waves of radical left loss that have occurred across the last half-century.

The paper is split into two sections. The first reads Lethem’s novel in the context of Freud’s ‘Mourning and Melancholy’ (1917). With a close focus on the character of ‘communist matriarch’ Rose Zimmer, I argue that Rose’s disruption of the normal and psychopathological aspects of mourning offers a new sensitivity to communist praxis. As a synecdoche for the failures of the European and American left, Rose’s working through of these ‘intimate wounds’ offers a symbolic efficacy that stages new and open relations with lost objects and ideals.

In part two, I align Eat the Document with the work of Walter Benjamin. I argue Benjamin’s rendering of melancholy as the renunciation of revolutionary efforts (intellectual compromise, adaption to the market, and the betrayal of the workers movement), opens up possibilities for reconceiving loss as a critical product. While Benjamin’s left melancholic is the one who gives in to ‘complacency and fatalism’, Eat the Document stages both a powerful registration of the new vectors of political intention animating the contemporary moment (terrorism, hacktivism, challenging corporatization, new ecological visions,), and, in one key episode, the sublimation of left ideals to the constitution of the capitalist market. Weaving in Benjamin’s reflections, I propose that in working against such instances, we can come to orientate ourselves, politically, in the present.

Keywords:Marxism and literature, Sigmund Freud, mourning and narrative
Subjects:T Eastern, Asiatic, African, American and Australasian Languages, Literature and related subjects > T700 American studies
Divisions:College of Arts > School of English & Journalism > School of English & Journalism (English)
ID Code:22286
Deposited On:13 Feb 2016 22:29

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