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Poetic Thinking, Thinking Death

A Symposium with Cathy Caruth and Shoshana Felman

Friday, April 19, 2013, 1:00pm

Bridgewater Lounge, Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center

Poetic Thinking, Thinking Death

A Symposium with Cathy Caruth and Shoshana Felman
Friday, April 19, 1 – 5 pm
Bridgewater Lounge, Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center

1 pm: Cathy Caruth, “After the End: Psychoanalysis in the Ashes of History”

Abstract: In an essay of 1907, Sigmund Freud analyzes Wilhelm Jensen’s novella Gradiva as a story exemplifying the principles of psychoanalysis. In Jensen’s story, a young archaeologist becomes obsessed with the figure of a walking woman on a bas-relief he has seen on a trip to Italy. Convinced by a dream that the woman died in Pompeii during the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79, he travels to the ruined city in order to search for the singular traces of her toe-prints in the ash. In a later reading of Freud’s text, the philosopher Jacques Derrida, in his book Archive Fever (Mal d’Archive), discovers, inside Freud’s figure of the archaeological dig, what Derrida calls an “archival” drive, a pain, and a suffering (mal) that bears witness to the suffering, and evil, of a unique twentieth-century history. I will argue that the texts of Freud and Derrida, read together, ultimately enable a rethinking of the very nature of history around the possibility of its erasure. Moving beyond what Derrida explicitly suggests, I will also argue that these insights about history can ultimately be understood only from within the literary story of the archaeologist in Jensen’s novella, and in particular the story of his dream.

2:30 pm: Coffee break

3 pm: Shoshana Felman, “Writing in the Face of Death: Barbara Johnson’s Last Work (‘Mary Shelley and her Circle’)”

Abstract: In the very last months of her life, Barbara Johnson, under terribly difficult conditions (sick and incapacitated by terminal disease), was writing her last book, entitled “Mary Shelley and her Circle,” a manuscript she managed to heroically complete only several weeks before her death. My lecture will address the question, what, specifically, is Johnson’s vision in this book, and what is the significance, the affirmation, of Johnson’s literary recapitulation of the life of Mary Shelley in the margin–at the ultimate frontier–of her own life?

Following Professor Felman’s lecture: Concluding Discussion

Cathy Caruth is Frank H. T. Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters at Cornell University with appointments in the departments of English and Comparative Literature. She taught previously at Yale and at Emory University. She is the author of Empirical Truths and Critical Fictions: Locke, Wordsworth, Kant, Freud(Johns Hopkins UP, 1991) and Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History (Johns Hopkins UP, 1996); she is also editor of Trauma: Explorations in Memory (Johns Hopkins UP, 1995) and with Deborash Esch of Critical Encounters: Reference and Responsibility in Deconstructive Writing (Rutgers University Press, 1995). She is widely regarded as a leading thinker at the intersection of literature, psychoanalysis, and trauma studies.

Shoshana Felman, Woodruff Professor of Comparative Literature and French at Emory University, is among the most celebrated literary scholars of her generation. She was on the faculty of Yale University from 1970 to 2004. She specializes in 19th and 20th century French literature, psychoanalysis, trauma and testimony, and law and literature. Felman has been influential in the fields of psychoanalytic literary criticism, feminism, Holocaust testimony, as well as other areas. She applies heterogeneous philosophical, psychological, semiotic and linguistic theories to the interpretation of literature and cultural events. She is the author of six books, some translated into multiple languages, and has co-authored another one.

The symposium is funded largely by the College Arts & Humanities Institute, with additional funding from the Departments of English and Germanic Studies.