When Roland Barthes announced the death of the author, I think it is safe to assume that thanatography (death-writing, or writing about the process of one’s own dying) was not quite what he had in mind. It is perhaps ironic that the theoretical implications of his statement find one of their greatest challenges in narratives of terminal illness. Theory itself — a word that means ‘way of seeing’ — with its attendant implications of the distance, objectivity and perspective that will enable us to see things clearly, clashes with life and death with their intimacy, their messy contingency and their nonetheless urgent significance. Life/death and theory seem inappropriate partners in some ways because of what Paul de Man, writing of autobiography, has called life’s ‘incompatibility with the monumental dignity of aesthetic values’ (de Man 1984, 68). Autobiography traditionally makes sense of life, aestheticizes it and organizes it, explains it: but in giving a life something of the ‘monumental dignity’ of aesthetic value, it also turns into A Life.
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