Final Acts

Traversing the Fantasy in the Modern Memoir

By Tom Ratekin

Subjects: Psychoanalysis, Death And Dying, Autobiography, Biography And Memoir
Series: SUNY series in Psychoanalysis and Culture
Paperback : 9781438427300, 175 pages, July 2010
Hardcover : 9781438427294, 175 pages, August 2009

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Table of contents

1. Finite and Infi nite Games: Terminal Illness and the Genre of the Literary Memoir
2. The Critical Process of Symptom to Sinthome: Allon White’s “Too Close to the Bone”
3. Working through the Four Discourses: Gillian Rose and the Products of Love’s Work
4. Harold Brodkey’s Traversal of Fiction: This Wild Darkness as La Passe

5. Modern Frame for the Postmodern Image: Reclaiming the Gaze in Derek Jarman’s Modern Nature and Blue
Conclusion: The Genre of the Unconscious
Works Cited

Analyzes contemporary memoirs of terminal illness from a psychoanalytic perspective.


Writers facing death offer a rare glimpse into human mortality—they have the unusual opportunity to craft the closing chapter of their life stories. Final Acts explores memoirs of terminal illness, and shows a paradoxical pattern where the diagnosis of terminal illness evokes not despair, but a new freedom and richness in life. The memoirs analyzed—by Allon White, Harold Brodkey, Gillian Rose, and Derek Jarman—provide insight into the experience of radical contingency that an awareness of mortality brings. Tom Ratekin engages the concept of "traversing the fantasy," elaborated by Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Žižek, to argue that the new richness in life each of these memoirists' experiences arises from the abandonment of a particular fantasy that guided his or her earlier work—a fantasy that both protected and inhibited the memoirist. Freed from convention, these writers, while close to death, can reinterpret the stories presented in their earlier work, and gain new perspectives on their worlds and existence.

Tom Ratekin teaches English at Barnard College.


"A few pages into the text and it is easy to understand that Final Acts: Traversing the Fantasy in the Modern Memoir by Tom Ratekin will interest a large radius of writers, psychologists and specialists involved in the area of terminal care. It presents new and interesting territory relating to the twentieth century memoir boom and the work of writer patients facing death. " — M/C Reviews