Alexander EtkindWarped Mourning: Stories of the Undead in the Land of the Unburied

Stanford University Press, 2013

by Anna Fishzon on July 26, 2015

Alexander Etkind

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Theoretical and historical accounts of postcatastrophic societies often discuss melancholia and trauma at length but leave processes of mourning underexplored.  In Warped Mourning: Stories of the Undead in the Land of the Unburied (Stanford UP, 2013), Alexander Etkind shows why mourning is more conducive to cultural analysis.  Where trauma is unsymbolized and melancholia is contained within the self, mourning is often an address to the other.  Mourning might entail attempts to remember, creatively work through, and make manifest losses in poetry, memorials, histories, painting, and other art forms.  Without access to the unconscious, cultural historians can only engage what has already been represented and written — that which has materiality and symbolic richness.  Individual and mutigenerational testaments and rituals of mourning — warped, haunted, and incomplete — are all that scholars have available.

Warped Mourning is about how three generations spanning the Soviet and post-Soviet periods have mourned the millions who perished in the Terror, the Stalinist political repressions of the 1930s.  Etkind peruses a broad array of writings and artifacts, offering interpretations inflected by insights from psychoanalysis and critical theory.  Autobiographies, fiction, film, visual art, academic writings, and sites of memory like monuments contribute to a complex rendering of the work and evolution of mourning: from the mimetic and demetaphorized (potentially deadly) performative acts in the 1950s by those who directly experienced the gulag, to the still traumatized and politicized mourning by their children in the 1960s and 1970s, and, finally, to the more estranged or distanced remembrances of the post-Soviet years and today.  Etkind argues that the killings and torture of the Soviet period were not fully worked through for a number of reasons: the gulag was state violence (and the state controlled public mourning), the division between perpetrators and victims was far from clear, and mourning the persecuted eventually became entwined with mourning the ideas of communism.  Unfinished mourning and consequent improper burial and recognition of purge victims produced a culture replete with specters and uncanny monsters.  The unpaid debt to the dead also created a strange temporality.  Until recently, perhaps, Russia's present has been flooded by the past.  In the absence of proper monuments or sufficient memory making, history haunts Russia, propelling its politics and shaping its narratives with an immediacy and force unknown in the West.

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