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Repetition and the Work of Hypertextual Mourning:
Ryman’s 253 and the NAMES Project AIDS Quilt

by Eric Sonstroem
© 2004

Healthy mourning for an individual undergoing grief is conventionally marked by teleology; one “goes through” mourning, but only as a finite process that reaches a definite end. When finished, one “moves on.” In Freudian terms, an individual’s mourning concludes when the libido has surrendered its attachment to the lost object, becoming free to form new attachments elsewhere. One moves, however painstakingly, from point A (attachment to the lost object) to point B (attachment to a new object). Healthy mourning risks becoming pathological melancholia when one is unable to make it to point B, when one cannot relinquish the lost object and continues to circle back to it. Therefore, tropes such as looping and repetition occupy a very suspect position in psychoanalytic theory about loss. Freud laid the groundwork for this distinction in his foundational essay “Morning and Melancholia.” Mourning is painful but fully above-board, a conscious process in which “respect for reality gains the day….When the work of mourning is completed the ego becomes free and uninhibited again.”1 Melancholia is a subconscious process in which the ego feels ambivalent about or hostile toward the lost object. The ego refuses to acknowledge the loss of the object, ingests the object into itself, and therefore comes to disparage itself. The subject experiencing melancholy becomes stuck in a cycle of narcissistic loathing, wholly unable to become “free and uninhibited”: “the result was not the normal one of a withdrawal of the libido from this [lost] object.…The free libido…was withdrawn into the ego.”2 This pathologizing of the closed, melancholic circle, this dark suspicion of looping and iteration continues to inform much psychoanalytic work on mourning and grief.3

In the 1990s however, some have challenged this implicit move to normalize one mode of grief at the expense of others, especially for disenfranchised populations, and even more especially in the face of crises that can have a devastating effect on such populations, like the AIDS epidemic.4 Could Freud’s demarcations between healthy and unhealthy grieving apply poorly to populations outside the normative group? Does “healthy” grieving change when it is experienced by marginalized groups that are excluded from the sanctioned public forms of persistent and repetitive mourning (like monuments and Memorial Days) that mainstream groups enjoy? Might the line between mourning and melancholia become less clear-cut, or less useful as a measure of “healthy” bereavement, when dealing with grief on a scale that transcends personal loss and threatens to become the loss of a whole community? José Muñoz thinks so, and he voices the concerns of such post-Freudian scholars when he writes that Freud’s work on mourning and melancholy “is, like most Freud, implicitly heterosexist, tantalizingly thought-provoking, and ultimately unsatisfying.”5 Muñoz sees his post-Freudian project as “depathologizing melancholia….For blacks and queers of any color, [melancholia] is not a pathology but an integral part of everyday lives.…part of our process of dealing with the catastrophes that occur in the lives of people of color, lesbians and gays.”6 This is not to say that melancholy exactly as Freud conceived it can be healthy for disenfranchised groups; after all, melancholy in its total original formulation is suicidal.7 Rather, I find Muñoz and other post-Freudian scholars of grief useful to the extent that they suggest the lines between unhealthy and healthy grieving might be fruitfully redrawn for different populations and different circumstances. For Muñoz and for others, this dissatisfaction stems from a suspicion that behaviors such as repetition, looping, and not letting go might be a sign of healthy mourning in some (perhaps extreme) circumstances and for some marginalized communities.

This should not be too surprising, for it is evident that non-marginalized communities frequently have public forms of looping and repetition which appear to aid, rather than hinder, an individual’s process of teleological mourning and “moving on,” especially in the face of mass crisis and group loss. These public forms of repetition are evident in recurring public holidays, and in permanent memorial statues that can be visited and revisited. Such public forms of seemingly repetitive grief can encourage healthy individual mourning by encapsulating and containing the sense of grief—relegating it to a certain date or a certain location, for example. As James E. Young has written, “the more memory comes to rest in its exteriorized forms, the less it is experienced internally.”8 By functioning this way, such memorials also publicly aid the process of memory formation that is a key step in the process of classic Freudian mourning. A melancholic’s withdrawal and denial of loss actually makes memory formation about the lost object impossible. Mourning, by contrast, enables healthy memory formation even as the object is released. Gregg Horowitz writes: “The mourner decathects the psychic traces of the lost object not to forget them, but to detach them from the lost object and thus render them memorable for the first time.…The lost object is permitted to go its way, the decathected memory traces theirs, and thus the joy in having suffered love is sustained.”9 Greg Forter comments on this process, pointing out that “mourning helps us to relinquish real objects by building psychic memorials to them—the memorials we call ‘memories.’”10 Although a public memorial or Memorial Day might seem like a form of repetition, it can function as a shortcut to healthy, teleological individual mourning, as I shall demonstrate below in my discussion of the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial. For marginalized groups, however, groups without a sanctioned memorial or Memorial Day, I will argue that repetition functions somewhat differently. Around the vexed issue of repetition as it relates to mourning, the lines have indeed been redrawn by new, hypertextual genres of mourning, memorial and commemoration. How might looping and repetition aid the process of healthy individual mourning in some circumstances? This paper examines two innovative, genre-breaking “texts” that I argue can function as laboratories for testing just this question, the NAMES Project AIDS Quilt and Geoff Ryman’s online hypertext novel 253.

The AIDS Quilt was the brainchild of San Francisco AIDS activist Cleve Jones. Preparing for a demonstration in 1985 to commemorate the assassination of gay politician Harvey Milk, it came to Jones’ attention that over 1000 San Franciscans had already died of AIDS. Jones encouraged demonstrators to create placards commemorating those they had personally lost, and these placards were affixed to the walls of the San Francisco Federal Building in a patchwork-like pattern. The efficacy of this kind of repetitive visual memorial for consciousness-raising, community building, public mourning, and political awareness was immediately apparent. Jones wanted something more permanent that could continue to demonstrate the magnitude of the AIDS crisis, as well as its impact on single, individual lives. Thus the AIDS Quilt was born. It is composed of panels of cloth, each one exactly three feet by six feet in dimension, each created by a different person in commemoration of a loved one who had died of AIDS. Beyond the guidelines governing a panel’s size, there is a wide range of flexibility in peoples’ approaches to making panels. Some simply commemorate a person’s name. Others incorporate something belonging to the victim, stitching in favorite clothing or personal effects. Some panels contain a great deal of text—poetry, letters to the dead—others contain none. Some read like tombstone epitaphs, some like condolence cards, some like biographies, some like manifestos, some like portraits, and so on. When it was first displayed on the Mall in Washington D.C., it contained 1920 panels and covered the size of a football field. It has now expanded to over 44,000 panels, and the last time it was displayed in its entirety it covered the entire Mall.11

Geoff Ryman’s online hypertext novel is similarly sprawling, and similarly composed of discrete, democratically equal-sized units that are stitched together. It is composed primarily of 253 different blocks of text hyperlinked together in numerous ways, each of which contains 253 words. Each 253-word block paints a portrait of a single person riding on a seven-car London Tube train on the morning of January 11th, 1995. Unbeknownst to any of these people, the train is about to crash, and everyone left aboard is about to die. Not only are the text blocks regularized by word count, each person’s block presents a similar three-part snapshot of that person, a triptych which moves from a superficial appraisal into deeper, more intimate assessments. Ryman calls these sub-sections “outward appearance,” “inside information,” and “what he [or she] is doing or thinking,” and each represents a double-take, reiteration, or revisiting of that person’s story. The “action” of this novel takes place in seven and a half minutes, enough time for the train to leave Embarkment Station, make stops at Waterloo and Lambeth North, then fail to stop at Elephant and Castle (the end of the line) and crash. Each person’s 253-word block of text takes the reader through the same chunk of time; the novel starts over again at the beginning every time you read about a new character. Some make important decisions during these seven and a half minutes but many do not. Some of the passengers get off the train at one of the two stops, unwittingly saving themselves, but many do not. Like real passengers on any London train, these people come from all walks of life, are of all different sizes, races, ages, nationalities, genders, and sexual orientations.12 The only things they have in common are that they are all on a train that is about to crash, and that nobody is aware catastrophic mass death is so near. Ryman explains upfront that in the real world there was no disastrous train crash on January 11th, 1995, but he makes it clear that he does have a real-world referent for setting the novel on the day he does: “[It] is the day I learned my best friend was dying of AIDS.”13

Although these two works appear quite different and arise from very different contexts, it should already be clear that they nevertheless share much in common. My argument is that both explore a model of mourning that is grounded in repetition, looping, linking, celebration, and outrageous juxtapositions. Moreover, both texts narrate the experience of mourning explicitly as post-Freudian hypertextual narrative, a narrative whose shape is explicitly constructed by the viewer of the text rather than the author, constructed by linking information-rich units together in a pattern that has no explicit beginning, no middle, and no narrative climax of ending. One viewer’s experience of “the story” of the AIDS Quilt or of 253 will be radically different from that of another viewer, will even be radically different from one’s own previous and future visits to the text. But yet, because both these texts function as works of mourning, “the story” for both remains numbingly constant. Certainly individual building blocks may suggest any number of potential stories, can be linked in any number of ways. Certainly a viewer can get lost in the repetition of these blocks, endlessly looping through narrative without any kind of closure. But on a more basic level both works are thoroughly saturated with ending. For each individual block of text or fabric, the ending is painfully clear: He died. She died. Can the potentially limitless repetition of a hypertextual narrative explicitly about death function in a work of healthy mourning, or must such a work belong irretrievably to the domain of melancholy?

* * *

If we loop back and return briefly to Freud, we find that individual mourning as well as melancholia can be marked by some repetition. The difference seems to be in the sheer quantity of repetition; repetition in mourning has a discernable teleological end, whereas repetition in melancholia threatens to devolve into a kind of infinite loop. At times Freud’s language in this seminal essay seems to reveal more about his simple impatience with the verbal repetitions that he must endure from his grieving patients. “In analysis,” he writes, “it often becomes evident that first one and then another memory is activated, and that the laments which always sound the same and are wearisome in their monotony nevertheless take their rise each time in some different unconscious source.”14 Freud makes it clear that weariness of the analyst can take place in “either mourning or melancholia,” but that in mourning the analyst (although usually not the analysand) is able to discern a progression in the monotonous circling, a teleological “path.” He writes “in melancholia countless separate struggles are carried on over the object….In mourning, too, the efforts to detach the libido are made in this same system; but in it nothing hinders these processes from proceeding along the normal path….This path is blocked for the work of melancholia.”15 Repetition and looping are not so much the problem, it would seem, as is straying irretrievably from the valorized narrative path.

The suggestion I am trying to raise is that Freud’s theory of mourning and repetition is underwritten by genre expectations that are particular to conventional novelistic narrative—narrative that wends its way, perhaps though numerous repetitions and complications, toward narrative closure at the end of the novel. It becomes the reader’s or the analyst’s job to discern this forward motion along the narrative path; if a patient exhibits narrative progression in their thicket of repetitions, their grief is healthy mourning; if no discernable move towards narrative closure is evident, the patient’s grief is pathological. In a somewhat circular fashion, the novelistic assumptions that underlie Freud’s work are largely what make his notions of repetition and teleology work so well for literary criticism of the novel.

Peter Brooks explores these connections in Reading for the Plot. He uses Freudian thought on repetition and teleology, especially as it is put forth in “Mourning and Melancholia” and Beyond the Pleasure Principle, to map out a “masterplot” that applies to all narrative, at least as it occurs in the genre of the conventional novel which is Brooks’ material. Freud begins Beyond the Pleasure Principle with the problem of melancholic circular repetition, and concludes that there is a “compulsion to repeat…[that] seems more primitive, more elementary, more instinctual than the pleasure principle which it over-rides.”16 For both Freud and Brooks, this repetition is pressed into the service of narrative teleology and the maintenance of narrative tension. In Freud, repetition serves as a kind of detour or deviation, preventing the subject from reaching his or her death too quickly. Similarly, Brooks uses this balance between repetition and teleology as a model for how narrative prevents a novel’s plot from foreclosing too quickly: “narrative must tend toward its end, seek illumination in its own death. Yet this must be the right death….Deviance, detour…these are characteristics of the narratable….Plot is a kind of arabesque or squiggle toward the end.”17 Brooks demonstrates very well that Freud’s implicit plot, the “normal path” that mourners follow but melancolics lose, can be used as a “masterplot” to understand repetition in (conventional novelistic) textual narrative. I suspect, however, that this is mostly because Freud’s theories are grounded in the narrative assumptions that are particular to conventional, printed textual novels. In the realm of hypertextual narrative, we might expect Freud’s theories to break down, or at least present opportunities for revisitation. N. Katherine Hayles has pointed out that the differences presented by hypertext narrative structures make us acutely aware of how much “theory and criticism are shot through with assumptions specific to print.”18 Let us attempt to tease those assumptions out of Freud’s theories.

Already underneath Freud’s argument lies the notion that judgments about the proper amount and function of repetition in grieving depend as much on the clever discernment of the analyst (if not indeed on the patience of the analyst who has to sit through the wearisome monotony of someone else’s grief) as it does on the analysand. I mention this because it seems to already slyly invite a kind of hypertextual reformulation, a reformulation that is consciously aware of the viewer’s (or analyst’s) active participation in creating narrative (rather than discerning narrative) out of a multivalent world of text. Rich hypertexts exhibit “closure” not as a built-in structural feature, but as a function of the viewer’s experience. Certainly such hypertexts are full of Brooks’ “arabesque and squiggle,” but there is no determined end, no built-in narrative closure, no “right death.” One wanders through the 44,000 panels of the AIDS Quilt, but never in the same order. There is no prescribed sequence, no last panel that brings closure to the others. Similarly, one follows a path through 253 by following links from passenger to passenger, often revisiting the same passengers again and again and missing others entirely, until one gets tired of doing so. How might we expect mourning to operate in a hypertextual narrative that offers no teleology, no narrative closure?

Or, to put the question another way, how might we expect mourning to become healthy in a genre that is heavily marked by, if not defined by, a propensity to reiterate and loop back upon itself? Michael Joyce finds looping the definitive characteristic of hypertextual narrative as a genre: “Hypertext is the confirmation of the visual kinetic of rereading.”19 It is not what and how we read, but what and how we reread that is important, and strategies of hypertextual rereading operate very differently from strategies of textual reading. While an analyst might read a conventional narrative to discern the healthy forward motion of its plot amongst its distracting repetitions, we reread repetitions of hypertext with an eye to how our understanding of that text becomes richer and deeper with each reiterative pass. In hypertext, iterations do not lead to death, silence, or stultifying weariness; they are what animate the text, offering a continual source of renewal to the reader. Jane Yellowlees Douglas argues that reiteration or looping in one’s reading experience of hypertext “breathes life into a narrative of possibilities….[By the] third or fourth encounter with the same place, the immediate encounter remains the same as the first, [but] what changes is [our] understanding.”20 Joyce characterizes this as “narrative origami…not so much telling an old story with new twists, as twisting story into something new in the kinetic alternation of ricorso, flashback, renewal.”21 This re-tooling of repetition makes hypertext fundamentally different from conventional narrative, and it opens up possibilities that are simply not an option in the world of conventional narrative. Perhaps hypertextual narrative opens new ways to understand repetition and looping as a process of healthy renewal in hypertextual mourning and commemoration as well, ways of understanding that would not have been available to Freud who was limited by conventional narrative structures.

* * *

The NAMES Project AIDS Quilt, especially displayed on the National Mall, invites comparisons to another national symbol of collective mourning that can be found in Washington D.C.: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, otherwise known as “The Wall.” Both memorials voice grief in the same manner, by reiterating the names of those who have been lost. Like the Quilt’s potentially numbing sublimity of panel after panel, bearing name after name after name, the Wall’s visual rhetoric derives much of its force from the sheer number of names engraved on its polished black marble surface. There are about 58000 names in all, listing chronologically all those killed or missing in action from 1959 until 1975. With both the Quilt and the Wall, the visual sublime produced by the sheer numerousness of those who have been lost is enhanced and offset by the parallel perception that these were each unique individuals. Names can do what statistics and body counts cannot; they can make loss more personal, less abstract. This sense of the personal is enhanced by the way mourners at the Wall have used that austere structure since it has been built. Peter Hawkins reports that mourners “leave behind them (at the base of one of the walls or wedged into a seam) flowers, letters, women’s underpants, teddy bears, model cars, photographs.”22 He concludes “I find it impossible not to think of one memorial as a successor to the other, impossible not to find the origin of the Quilt’s panels in the intimate tableaux that mourners continue to create within the interstices of the VVM.”23

Despite its postmodern minimalist aesthetic, I believe the Wall’s narrative structure is ultimately more conventional than hypertextual, its use of repetition more in line with conventional, teleological Freudian interpretations of mourning. It will be worth our while to notice how the Wall differs from the Quilt in its uses of repetition, since this contrast will highlight the specifically hypertextual nature of the Quilt. First notice that Maya Lin, the Wall’s designer, chose to list the veteran’s names chronologically, giving the implicit narrative of the structure a distinct beginning, and a distinct end. The “plot” that emerges is linear and chronological, even if it is excessively minimalist. Indeed, Lin presented her choice to organize the names in this way as an explicit nod toward classical narrative form: “The wall, she said, would read like a Greek epic.”24 Contrast this to the organization, or lack thereof, in the Quilt’s display. Quilt panels are linked together without any discernable method of organization. As Hawkins reports, there is “no hierarchy, subordination, or ranking; no ‘metanarrative’ that tells a single story or even settles on a particular tone.”25 Stories (plural) emerge from the experience of viewing the Quilt, but they emerge spontaneously, through interaction. As one Quilt volunteer put it, “‘the quilt helps [viewers] to start putting a story together. People do not generally get a story when they are taught about AIDS; they just get the statistics. But the quilt brings out the stories.’”26 Spatially as well, the Wall’s structure invites a viewer to move their physical body like a conventional narrative, walking from point A to point B, one end of the wall to the other. Mina Lin reports “I didn’t want a static object that people would just look at, but something they could relate to as a journey, or passage, that would bring each to his own conclusions.”27 “Passage” connotes a certain kind of journey, from which one emerges stronger or wiser, and is exactly the kind of teleological “path” Freud had in mind in his model of healthy mourning. While viewers of the Quilt will certainly each reach their own conclusions too, there is nothing about the amorphous, grid-like way the Quilt is displayed to suggest a single direction of passage or journey. Instead, it invites wandering, looping, arabesque and squiggle. It is more like Joyce’s notion of “narrative origami,” opening up space after space in which it is possible to become lost.28

Furthermore, Maya Lin has stated that her inspiration for the design of the Wall was born from a response to two simple questions: “‘How are all these people going to overcome the pain of losing something? How do you really overcome death?’”29 You will notice that Lin’s questions are embedded in the teleological Freudian narrative of mourning, a mourning that is characterized by overcoming, moving on, and freeing the libido from painful connections to lost objects. Cleve Jones saw the Quilt as an answer to a very different set of questions. Faced with one thousand San Franciscans dead from AIDS, Jones feared their deaths would go unmarked, unnoticed even. Christopher Capozzola writes that “for Cleve Jones, this retreat into silence was dangerous. ‘I felt that we lived in this little ghetto on the West Coast which would be destroyed without anyone in the rest of the world even noticing.’”30 Rather than overcoming or letting go, Jones was far more interested in crafting a kind of mourning that worked by retaining, repeating, giving voice. Freud’s analyst might lose patience with such vocal, public, and repetitive grief, quickly pathologizing it as melancholic. Indeed, Freud notes that:

…feelings of shame in front of other people … are lacking in the melancholic…. One might emphasize the presence in him of an almost opposite trait of insistent communicativeness which finds satisfaction in self-exposure…. [Melancholics] make the greatest nuisance of themselves, and always seem as though they felt slighted and had been treated with great injustice.31

Fortunately, nobody working on the AIDS Quilt stopped to worry about Freud’s discomfort with the self-exposure of grief. As the bumper stickers say, in the face of AIDS “Silence = Death.” As Capozzola notes, AIDS hit “social groups that often found existing cultural forms of mourning unable—or unwilling—to represent the emerging crisis. In turn, communities responded to AIDS by developing new cultural products that could accommodate the urge to memorialize and mourn.”32 If Freudian models of mourning, based on process and letting go, were failing the community, it was time to invent something new. Melissa Zeiger proposes in her study of AIDS elegies that this something new was a “refusal of consolation, maintained along with [a] refusal to dismiss the dead.”33 How can such a stance become a part of healthy mourning?

Unlike the blank austerity of the Wall, the Quilt operates much more fully like hypertext, presenting participants with an overabundance of linked information, which can be navigated and connected as the individual viewer chooses. Like any rich hypertext, the Quilt is marked by extreme polyvalence; it seems to insist upon multiple reactions, and it pokes fun of anyone who would try to make the Quilt tell just one story. Elinor Fuchs remarks how the playful, even farcical, nature of the Quilt makes any serious interpretation difficult, and seems to point to a new model of mourning:

With all the suffering it represents, the Quilt playfully sends up the solemnity, the rigidity, of mourning…. The Quilt is cemetery as All Fool’s Day, a carnival of the sacred, the homely, the joyous, and the downright tacky, resisting, even in extremis, the solemnity of mourning.34

In a similar vein, Hawkins notices that next to the solemn and serious Quilt panels “was a memorial to George Kelly, Jr., whose appliquéd T-shirt, stitched onto the panel, even now pulls no punches: ‘Fuck Art. Let’s Dance.’ Juxtapositions like these, repeated hundreds of times over, prevent any clear or conventional response.”35 Juxtapositions, contradictions, iterations by the thousands, flexibility, renewal: One critic has called the AIDS Quilt “the Moby-Dick of quilts” but I would argue that not even Moby-Dick is baggy or bulky enough to accurately represent the Quilt’s sprawling textuality. If the AIDS Quilt is a novel, it is a hypertextual one.36

* * *

By the same token, if the AIDS quilt is a hypertext then 253 is a vast, virtual patchwork quilt, its equal-sized rectangles of text stitched together by innumerable hyperlinks.37 Whether it is covertly also a virtual AIDS Quilt is difficult to say, due to its polyvalent nature, and its own farcical playfulness. Certainly, as we have seen, Ryman explicitly stages this novel of catastrophe and mass death on the day he learned his best friend was dying of AIDS. Structurally, it bears a strong resemblance to the Quilt too. Like many of the Quilt’s panels, Ryman’s textual building blocks begin with each passenger’s name in the biggest <h1> font. Like the Quilt, links between passengers in 253 can bring out outrageous juxtapositions, and poignant similarities. Furthermore, Hawkins notes that many of the Quilt’s panels invoke a kind of voyeuristic intimacy with the subject of the panel. “Intimacies are everywhere confided to strangers. The panels betray a delight in the telling of tales.”38 The same can be said for Ryman’s intimate character descriptions. Ryman asks, “Do you sometimes wonder who the strangers around you are? This novel will give you the illusion that you can know.”39

More subtly, many of the passengers act like Quilt panel makers themselves, concerned with how to express a series of individuals’ stories within a limited, constrained format. For example, Keith Olewaio is a cab driver who obsessively takes Polaroid pictures of his passengers.40 Mr. Allan Marjoram worries about the inadequacy of the telegraphic language of personals ads.41 Harold Pottluk is a demographer taking what he comes to realize are inadequate notes on the passengers around him. His thoughts reveal that he confronts a problem similar to the one that inspired Cleve Jones. Harold sees the other passengers “sitting inside their fates like eggs in cartons, there through an inexorable logic of age, gender, genes, character, their time in history, luck. He sees their faces like insulation wrapped around boilers. Their stories wheedle out them like escaping steam. Mostly unheard.”42

253 is also deeply a work about the double-take (and the double-click), encouraging its readers to resist easy first impressions. Numerous passengers appear one way in their “outward appearance” section, but are revealed as somebody entirely different in “inside information” or “what s/he is doing or thinking.” A reader’s looping through the same passenger’s three sub-sections can be like opening a nested set of Russian dolls and finding something very different inside each one. Consider Mr. Justin Holmes, who despite his name appears outwardly to be homeless.43 When we loop back and look closer, we learn that he is actually a freelance journalist posing as a homeless person to research a story. When we loop back and look a third time, we learn that, ironically, he is now actually homeless; his girlfriend fought with him about doing this story and has changed the locks on their apartment. He is now stranded on the train without money, identification, or any resources. Surprise, surprise! Given such strong reminders not to jump to conclusions, I am therefore hesitant to make any pat assumptions about Ryman’s intentions in this novel.

I can say however that like the AIDS Quilt, 253 is a polyvalent hypertext that is obsessively interested in the uses of repetition, and is often concerned with mourning, memorial, grief, and celebration. There are three obvious types of looping that occur simultaneously in this text. The first is temporal, as each of the 253 passengers recounts the same seven and a half minutes. The second has to do with the reader’s incrementally enhanced perspective; each of the three sub-sections that comprise every passenger’s description is a revisitation of that passenger, a kind of double-take. The third form of looping is narrative. Passengers are hyperlinked together by common bonds. If passengers know each other, they are linked. If they think about or do the same thing, they are linked. If they interact or even glance at each other, they are linked. These links fill the hypertext with intersecting narrative loops, some large, some small, like ripples on a pond during the rain. For example, Mr. Tristan Sawyer is holding the Financial Times.44 If you click his FT link, you come to Major Edwin Grives, who is trying to read his copy of the same paper. Click his FT link and you reach Miss Caroline Roffey. Click her FT link, and you are back to Tristan Sawyer. Most passengers are a part of several narrative loops, making it quite possible to get lost as you read from passenger to passenger, jumping from loop to loop. But you are just as likely to loop back to somewhere you have been before, affording ample opportunity for what Joyce calls hypertextual rereading. We often learn additional information about a passenger from the way another passenger is seeing them or thinking about them, so when we return to the original passenger we reread with a changed understanding.45

Embedded all this looping, Ryman places numerous passengers who are concerned with or actively engaged in mourning, loss, and commemoration. This affords Ryman a laboratory for exploring the different ways grief, mourning, and repetition can intersect. Some of the grieving passengers seem locked into repetition in an unhealthy way, much like traditional melancholia. Like Ryman himself, Mr. Tristan Sawyer also has learned that his best friend is dying of AIDS.46 Unbeknownst to Sawyer, this friend, Richard, is also riding the train, and we learn from Richard’s section that the disease is much further advanced than Sawyer is aware of. In fact Richard “has just enough strength left to walk from the tube, and draw the curtains and listen to Mozart and let the pneumonia blossom.”47 Sawyer is in denial; he has not dealt properly with his grief, and therefore is forced into a classically unhealthy pattern of repetition. Immediately after consciously dismissing his friend, “Tristan suddenly sees Richard's face as it was in Essex, happy, bold, smiling, beautiful. He tries to dismiss it, and can't.” Similarly, Ms. Diana Diamant’s best friend has recently died after a long, protracted hospital stay.48 Diana’s incessant mourning, we come to understand, is destroying her children. Coming back from seeing Peter Pan, her young son intones a quiet mantra: “Everybody's dead. The Lost Boys are dead. Peter Pan's dead. Tinkerbell is dead.” Perhaps tellingly, Diana is one of the handful of unlinked passengers, not connected by a narrative loop to anybody else on the train. Her grief is like an AIDS Quilt panel locked up at home in a trunk, not linked into the larger hypertext of communal memorial. On her own, as isolated text rather than linked hypertext, the repetitions of her grief take on the narcissistic tinge of classic Freudian melancholia.

Many of the mourners on the train, however, find healthier uses of repetition, are able to color mourning with celebration through hypertextual looping. Kendo Kawahara, for example, commemorates the death of Elvis in a manner that is entirely contraindicated by Freud’s theory.49 Instead of letting go and moving on, Kendo behaves like a classic melancholic and ingests the lost object into his own ego. That is to say, he has remade himself as “Tupelo Sushi,” a successful Japanese Elvis impersonator. More specifically, he does not cover Elvis songs, but “releases records of material the King would have recorded if he had lived.” Even better, Kendo believes that an undead Elvis would release commemorative albums to aid people in communal mourning. He is currently working on an album to commemorate the 1991 Gulf War, and Kendo imagines how Elvis might have sung Tom Waits’ “Soldier’s Things.” “A friend lists all a dead soldiers things at a garage sale,” we are told. “Waits sings the song in a dry rasp. Kendo will sing it as Elvis would have done, as a tribute, with a lovely tremolo of emotion and a soaring operatic conclusion.” Kendo is also thinking ahead to the next Tupelo Sushi album: Elvis’s AIDS album. Repetition as public performance seems, at least in this case, to turn Freud’s model on its head. Grieving practices that Freud would classify as melancholic become, in this context, a method of performing healthy mourning as public celebration. This specific juxtaposition, mourning with the performance of celebration, is exactly what Fuchs found initially uncanny about the AIDS Quilt. “Its plan is inspired by the modern cemetery,” Fuchs notices, but “Wait now! This is not Woodlawn, but its symbolic double, its parody even, or better still, its performance. And a road show at that.”50

The last passenger on the train, passenger 253, is also one of the most interesting: “She is Anne Frank, the famous diarist.”51 She is aware that she is on a train, but she believes she is still on the train to Auschwitz. Ghostlike, she has wandered Europe for 50 years, locked in this moment of time, and she will continue to do so even after the train has crashed and she has been killed again: “Sandwiched between metal, Anne seeps. Her arm pops back into its socket, her fingers flow back together. From between the torn sheets of metal, she pulls herself out of the car.”52 After the crash she pulls the list of notes from the dead hand of Harold Pottluk, the demographer who had been cataloging the types of people who ride the London Tube train. “Anne knows such lists,” we are told. “She knows all the names, the millions of names….Anne is murmuring the kaddish now, for the dead. She wanders and bears witness. She cannot forget them, nor can she die.”

Like Freud’s melancholic, Ryman’s Anne Frank refuses to relinquish her lost object, in this case her own life and the lives of those who died with her in the holocaust, becoming mired in excessive repetition instead. But, like the AIDS crisis, the holocaust threatened a whole culture with extinction; surely healthy mourning in such a case might look different from mourning a merely personal loss. Philip Novak has studied the grief evidenced in Toni Morrison’s Sula, a mourning for a passing culture that is similarly marked by excessive repetition and other markers of Freudian melancholia. Novak concludes that Freud’s model cannot do justice to grief on this scale: “Because African American culture is still at risk, getting done with grieving might well constitute a surrender,” he writes. “Morrison’s efforts to transform mourning into melancholia are paradoxically therapeutic.”53

Ryman’s Anne Frank proves equally therapeutic for passengers around her. Though her mourning is apparently infinite repetition, in the hypertextual context her repetitions cease being a sign of only bereavement, and begin to pointing toward celebration and healing as well. George Kelly Jr.’s appliquéd T-shirt advises amidst the mournful repetitions of the AIDS Quilt: “Fuck Art. Let’s dance.” Anne Frank advises much the same thing. Believing they are on the train to Auschwitz, knowing they will all soon die, she wants to make people happy one last time by celebrating what life they have left. Rising from her seat, and asks the other passengers to dance with her. She begins singing: “If that's all there is my friends, then let's keep dancing.” The other passengers are reluctant, but they soon join her, and the car suddenly becomes a campy, impromptu party. Certainly Anne Frank’s grief has many of the characteristics of solipsistic Freudian melancholia, but as Novak argues about grief in Sula, it “is neither nihilistic nor narcissistic. Indeed, such solipsism … is the condition of possibility for engagement with others.”54 Indeed, Anne’s performance of mourning aids other passengers who are themselves grieving. For example, Emily Jenkins is stuck, trying to write a Get Well card for a sister who will not get well because she is dying.55 She holds hastily purchased dying flowers, thinking of the things she wishes she could say, but cannot. Then she gets caught up in the impromptu dance, misses her stop, and her grief is miraculously healed: “Somehow Emily goes past Waterloo. She gets out at Lambeth North, laughing....She looks at the flowers. And they're fresh.”

* * *

The NAMES Project AIDS Quilt and 253 demonstrate a post-Freudian model for understanding healthy mourning that is based on the looping repetitions of hypertext rather than the conventional, teleological narrative plot. As we have seen, such a model might be more useful in understanding the psychological response to large-scale loss that operates on a cultural as well as personal level. Perhaps this model might also be applied to personal loss in an age of hypertext. Hypertext author Shelley Jackson playfully reexamines the notion that people are authors of their own lives, writing that much as we try to live our life as though it followed a conventional narrative plot, our actual lived experience is much more likely to resemble the twists and repetitions of hypertextual narrative: “We are nearly all of us bad or disorderly writers; despite ourselves we are redundant, looped, entangled; our transitions are awkward, our conclusions unsubstantiated.”56 Is it any wonder that our mourning might resemble this structure as well?

Eric Sonstroem is an assistant professor in the English Department at the University of the Pacific. His research interests include Romanticism, cultural studies of science and technology, and pedagogy. Professor Sonstroem is co-author of FrankenMOO, an interactive electronic environment based on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and hosted on the Romantic Circleswebsite at the University of Maryland ( Professor Sonstroem can be reached at

  1. Sigmund Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Ed. James Strachey. (London: Hogarth Press, 1953-74) vol. 14, 244-5.
  2. Ibid, 249.
  3. Greg Forter remarks, “Since at least the late 1960s, scholars seeking to understand experiences of social or collective bereavement have drawn on Freud’s influential distinction between mourning and melancholy” in Greg Fortner, “Against Melancholia: Contemporary Mourning Theory, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and the Politics of Unfinished Grief,” differences 14, no. 2 (2003): 134.
  4. See, for example, Michael Moon, “Memorial Rags.” Professions of Desire: Lesbian and Gay Studies in Literature. Ed. George E. Haggerty and Bonnie Zimmerman. (New York: Modern Language Association, 1995): 233–40; Marianne Hirsh, “Surviving Images: Holocaust Photographs and the Work of Postmemory,” The Yale Journal of Criticism 14 (2001): 5–37; Philip Novak, “‘Circles and Circles of Sorrow’: In the Wake of Morrison’s Sula,” PMLA 114 (1999): 184–93; José E. Muñoz, “Photographies of Mourning: Melancholia and Ambivalence in Van Der Zee, Mapplethorpe, and Looking for Langston.” Race and the Subject of Masculinities, Ed. Harry Stecopoulos and Michael Uebel. (Durham: Duke UP, 1997): 337–58; Melissa F. Zeiger, Beyond Consolation: Death, Sexuality, and the Changing Shapes of Elegy (Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1997).
  5. Muñoz, 344.
  6. Ibid, 355.
  7. Forter’s presents a prudent cautionary argument against those, like Muñoz, Moon and Novak, that he sees embracing Freud’s melancholia uncritically as a political tool. Forter warns “I have reservations about this recent embrace of melancholia…Freud is interested in this condition because it is characterized by numbed disconnection and a self-loathing whose logical conclusion is suicide. To make this condition a basis for political solidarity is to substitute elegant theorizing for actual, lived experience”(139). Forter’s caution is sensible, but it treats as sacrosanct Freud’s original taxonomic classification of behaviors into these two species of grieving; if you want to recoup any specific element of melancholia, Forter warns that you must perforce take the suicide too. But what if there are other ways of mapping the territory between healthy and unhealthy mourning? I am not as eager to foreclose on this question as Forter is.
  8. James E. Young. The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning (New Haven: Yale, 1993), 3-4.
  9. Quoted in Forter, 138-139.
  10. Forter, 139.
  11. See the NAMES Project AIDS Quilt’s official website,, for the continuing history of this artifact.
  12. Even different species. Passenger number 121, who is “Plump, all in grey. Restless, chooses not to stay in his seat, but walks up and down in the doorway area, head cocked sideways in a open, friendly, but somewhat vacant manner,” is in fact a pigeon. (
  13. Due to its popularity on the internet, St. Martin’s press issued a “print remix” of 253 in conventional, bound, ink-and-paper format. The text of the 253 word blocks is the same as the online novel, except for occasional invisible corrections, but there are significant additions to the front- and back-matter. For example, here Ryman notes that “11th January, 1995 is the day I learned my best friend not only had AIDS, but would die within days.” He dedicates the book “for Bryan,” a dedication that appears nowhere on the website. Geoff Ryman, 253: The Print Remix (New York: St. Martin’s, 1998), 354.
  14. Freud, 256, emphasis added.
  15. Ibid, 256-7.
  16. Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Ed. James Strachey. (London: Hogarth Press, 1953-74) vol. 18, 23.
  17. Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative (New York: Knopf, 1984), 103-4.
  18. N. Katherine Hayles, “The Transformation of Narrative and the Materiality of Hypertext,” Narrative 9 (January 2001): 21.
  19. Michael Joyce, “Nonce Upon Some Times: Rereading Hypertext Fiction,” Modern Fiction Studies 43 (1997): 580.
  20. Quoted in Joyce, 581.
  21. Joyce, 583.
  22. Peter S. Hawkins, “Naming Names: The Art of Memory and the NAMES Project AIDS Quilt,” Critical Inquiry 19 (1993): 755.
  23. Ibid, 756.
  24. Quoted in Hawkins, 754.
  25. Hawkins, 764.
  26. Quoted in Christopher Capozzola “A Very American Epidemic: Memory Politics and Identity Politics in the AIDS Memorial Quilt, 1985–1993”, Radical History Review 82 (2002): 96.
  27. Quoted in John H. Harvey, Embracing Their Memory: Loss and the Social Psychology of Storytelling (Needham Heights, MA: Simon and Schuster, 1996), 5.
  28. Lawrence Howe reports that when the Quilt is displayed in a gallery space, covering the walls and floor and hanging from the ceiling, “one cannot but feel that one is inside the Quilt.” Perhaps it is interesting to note that one can feel as though one is “inside” the Wall as well; the polished black marble of its surface acts like a mirror, allowing the viewer to see their own face ghosted behind the names. This experience seems very different from the one Howe describes, however. In Howe’s account, one loses one’s self, feels merged with the memorial environment one is embedded in. At the Wall, one experiences something perhaps more akin to a reiteration of Lacan’s “mirror stage,” the point at which one’s identity becomes separate from one’s environment. Lawrence Howe, “The AIDS Quilt and its Traditions,” College Literature 24 (1997): 111.
  29. Quoted in Hawkins, 753.
  30. Capozzola, 92.
  31. Freud, “Mourning,” 247-8.
  32. Capozzola, 92.
  33. Zeiger, 108.
  34. Elinor Fuchs, The Death of Character: Perspectives on Theater after Modernism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), 195.
  35. Hawkins, 764.
  36. Howe, 109.
  37. Actually, they are not innumerable: there are exactly 1363 hyperlinks that connect the 253 passengers, which averages out to 5.39 links per passenger (although some have many more than this, and a handful of isolatos have none except the “next passenger” and “previous passenger” links that are common to everyone). For these statistics I am indebted to my student, Jeff Heckey, who ran a statistical analysis of this novel the last time I taught it. Thanks Jeff!
  38. Hawkins, 770.
  45. A fine example of this is Mr. Kevin Potter (, who wonders “with hurt bafflement why his career has stalled. Colleagues avoid him; salesmen cancel appointments. His PA keeps her window always wide open.” It is only after reading the thoughts of those sitting next to him that we realize he has a terrible smell, of which he is unaware.
  50. Fuchs, 194.
  53. Novak, 191.
  54. Ibid, 189.
  56. Quoted in Joyce, 596.