Chapter 15 Contested Legacies of Modernist Memorialization: The May 4 Memorial

In: Grief, Identity, and the Arts
Tammy Clewell
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Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927) participates in the creation of a new way of memorializing loss, one that refuses consolation and cutting ties with the dead. In rendering Lily Briscoe’s struggles to paint a tribute to the lost mother figure as an extended metaphor of Woolf’s own difficulties in writing the novel, To the Lighthouse grounds a practice of anti-consolatory mourning in the failure of her artist to derive recompense from the work of art. Just as Lily refuses to regard her painting as an aesthetic substitute for the lost mother, Woolf’s modernist text distances the reader from the recuperative function of literature itself. In the place of any consoling figuration, Woolf’s novel offers a detailed portrayal of the difficult process that Lily faces in the effort to memorialize Mrs. Ramsay, a process that is complicated by Mrs. Ramsay’s restrictive ideas about gender—her inability, that is, to see women beyond their role as wives and mothers. This attention to the process of memorialization generates a discourse of loss with implications for social reform in the present. This refusal of consolation has persisted in some of the most moving memorials dedicated since the early 20th century, including the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (1982), the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (2005), and the 9/11 Memorial (2011), all of which ask us to sustain relations with the dead and embrace legacies of their lives and loss. As spatial structures, however, these memorials do not provide us with a record of the process of memorialization such as Woolf’s novel affords. Memorials—even anti-consolatory ones—do not help us remember the conflicts, disputes, difficulties, and contested visions over memorialization that went into their making, as was the case, for example, with the placement of the American flag at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the inclusion of unidentified human remains of victims of the 9/11 attacks at the 9/11 Memorial Museum.

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Grief, Identity, and the Arts

A Multidisciplinary Perspective on Expressions of Grief

Series:  Death in History, Culture, and Society, Volume: 1


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