Consolation's Afterlife: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Illusion in Facing Death
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CitationCampbell, Austin. 2018. Consolation's Afterlife: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Illusion in Facing Death. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
AbstractWhat might constitute an attitudinal excellence for anticipating one’s own death? That is the guiding question of this study. In pursuing this question, though, several others arise, suggesting a nested sequence of problems: pull one apart and the next awaits, ever closer to the core of the issue. The first arises from contemporary moral vocabularies for facing death, which often center around a binary opposition of acceptance (good) versus denial (bad). Should we think about this differently? I argue that we should, but a second problem to arise is whether we could. The binary actually grows from a more deep-seated critique of consolation before death as an illusory avoidance of difficult realities, and without going to those roots, alternative proposals may be short lived. So, third, what motivates the critique of consolation as illusion? I show how it trades upon a notion of illusion as a kind of veil, under which we hide from hard truths, and how this notion has been co-defined with religion in prominent strands of critical thought—religion as illusion as consolation. So, fourth, could we think about consolation differently, to conceive it as a kind of excellence for living with our mortality? Could we do that while preserving important insights from critical theory of religion, to think about consolation before death after the death of God, a consolation that does not rely upon once-standard notions of afterlife?
My method for pursuing these questions is a mix of historical, philosophical, and literary analysis—historical analysis to contextualize the issue and show its contingency; philosophical analysis to assess rival concepts of consolation and explore their implications; literary analysis to discover sources of alternative imagination and consider how the excellence of consolation may actually be cultivated. After an introductory chapter that surveys a variety of voices critical of consolation, subsequent chapters perform close readings of a few poets and critical theorists, paired together, whose work is especially pertinent to these questions: Wallace Stevens and Friedrich Nietzsche, Rainer Maria Rilke and Sigmund Freud, Geoffrey Hill and Theodor Adorno.
This study finds that contrary to common scholarly opinion, consolation has had an afterlife in modern religious thought and poetry by, as it were, passing through death by critique. Illusion is not always simple avoidance of reality; it may also be a reframing of reality through capable imagination, pressing back upon the merely given to make for ourselves a habitable world. Such illusion can support an earthier sense of afterlife rooted in identification with one’s beloveds, a process through which those who pass on continue in us, as us. This may transform one’s own anticipation from an imagined blank, a brute cessation, to a vision of continuity. This may not be consoling in the sense of “feeling better” about mortality, but it can support a sense of flourishing, a sense of continuing to live until we don’t, in face of anticipated ends. For what we most require in face of death may be a state of mind that supports the integrity of love.
Citable link to this pagehttp://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:41129194
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