Impossible Mourning: Melancholia and the Making of Modernism
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This dissertation examines Modernist literature as an aesthetic reaction to the endemic sense of loss in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Western culture. Focusing on the aesthetic, political, and ethical aspects of literary Modernism as it evolved from decadence in the 1890’s through to the “high Modernism” of the early 1920’s, I read the formal and stylistic innovations that define Modernist literature as attempts to narrate the complicated and paradoxical experience of Modernism—the hope and optimism for a liberal cosmopolitan social order and a profound sense of loss for the stable, idyllic past. The vacillation between these two positions becomes the “process” of Modernism; Modernist narrative literature can, therefore, be simultaneously read as both progressive and melancholic, defined as a persistent, unresolvable attitude of loss towards an object that may not have been in the subjects’ possession. While the Modernists eagerly ascribed to such values as egalitarianism, the rejection of authority, and the transformative power of art, they began to question the virtues of scientific advance, democracy, mass culture, and the possibility of absolute truth and individual freedom. I will argue that this perceived sense of loss, a pervasive feeling that the nature of individual existence has irrevocably changed, is the defining characteristic of literary Modernism. Melancholia, however, problematizes the process of memorialization and history-making, and what modernism presents as an historic loss, might also be understood as a creative absence. Any artistic attempt to make visible the greatness that we can conceive is insufficient—therefore, the affectation of the melancholic mode is painful, dejected, inconsolable. The object of loss in these cases typically inhabits some sort of “cultural archive”—that is, it is typically a lost ideal or abstraction, a value promoted by a cultural “metanarrative” that is perceived as having passed. Therefore, the ideal (and its metanarrative) may not be actually lost, but simply absent.
Mox, Kyle E. (2015). Impossible Mourning: Melancholia and the Making of Modernism. Doctoral dissertation, Texas A & M University. Available electronically from