(The second half of this title was borrowed from P. Vermeulen’s article “Greenblatt’s Melancholy Fetish: Literary Criticism and the Desire for Loss”)
Last Friday, as we were discussing the Sherman and Iser articles and our motivations to read, we inevitably came to Stephen Greenblatt’s, which “began with a desire to speak with the dead” (Sherman 59). This sparked obvious and necessary questions: as contemporary readers can we speak speak with the dead? is it possible to understand what the dead are saying to us? We know a lot writers worked towards posterity of their work, but what kind of posterity?
This candid longing to connect with great minds of the past, or a particular period we have studied is not new, and I daresay not alien to any of us either. But what about the emotional study for the past, which goes beyond a scholarly interest? I want to close read Susan Hill’s chapter “Who’s Afraid,” where Hill details her life-long interest in Virginia Woolf. I believe this to be a good starting point to begin a discussion about why this desire to recover and preserve the past is intrinsically linked to each of our own identities as readers.
From the outset, Hill is sincere about her obsession; her collection of 113 books “by or about” Virginia Woolf (127) is nothing short of impressive. She came to know Woolf in a time where she wished to assert her identity as a writer: “I was hungry for something that would not only teach me how to write novels but would tell me how to be a writer” (Hill 128). Hill gets her wish: Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary serves as a bedside table companion and spiritual nourishment. A Writer’s Diary is not just a much-beloved book, though. It becomes a sort of talisman over the years, when Hill opens it at random and finds that Woolf had “just [come] back from staying with Vita at Long Barn” (Hill 182) the name which, coincidentally, Hill was contemplating for her publishing venture. Hill seeks to engulf the essence of Woolf and the Bloomsbury circle, and she truly believes her desire is fulfilled. She affirms that the more one reads Woolf “the more one discovers what made her tick, how she thought, what she stood for, why she wrote as she did, why her life was what it was.” It is clear that Hill knows her esteem of Woolf goes beyond an intellectual interest; it is a deeply affective relationship. Hill even goes as far as saying that American scholarship are responsible for a “fair old load of rubbish, too, about her state of mind and even her unconscious” (132).
Now, I do not wish to say that Hill’s longing to restore Woolf mirrors the motivations behind Greenblatt’s brilliant studies into the Renaissance, or Nicholas Watson’s “Desire for the Past.” But I make the comparison because these examples all speak of a phenomenon that has gone largely unexplored in our discussions in class. To what extent are our research interests, and the theoretical frames through which we explore them, motivated by emotion? We may be tempted to dismiss Hill’s take on Woolf precisely because it is so emotionally-charged. But has this empathy not played a key role in the intellectual formation of Hill? I think looking at affective commitments we may have towards an author may inform our educational history, but may also help answer the question of whether we can have conversations with the dead: when we see our emotions and thoughts reflected in a text we read it may be, as Watson puts it “haunted by echoes of a past that finds ghostly ways of speaking through [us] whether we like it or not, curiously shaping the desires we express” (161).
Watson, Nicholas. “Desire for the Past.” Maistresse of My Wit: Medieval Women, Modern Scholars, ed. Louise D’Arcens and Juanita Feros Ruys. Turhout: Brepols P, 2004. Print.