Barbara’s Signature
Shoshana Felman
It is unusual for a person to write her own memorial. However, this is what
Barbara Johnson did in June 2009, when she communicated to her mother,
two months before her death, her plan for her memorial: which music she
would like to have played and which literary quotes she wanted to include
in her posthumous commemoration.1 She was not sentimental. She was prac-
tical. The grief, the heartbreak, the surprise were ours. As always, Barbara
was ahead of us. She simply told us how she wished to be remembered. The
meaning of her choices, right then in June, remained obscure to me. All I
could see was the tragic heroism, the existential pathos of this last creative act.
Only later— when she was no longer with us— did I start to ponder and
refl ect on the meaning of these quotes with which she wished to sign her life,
to read this message she was sending us ahead of time, across her own mortal-
ity, in the immortal literary words of others, into which she secretly injected
her own voice: her understated, yet semantically authoritative signature. In
what follows, I share my testimonial (factual and imaginative) reading of this
fi nal signifying gesture.
In the last year of her life, Barbara was rereading Proust— and writing (on
his model) her own autobiography. Proust was inspiring because he, too,
was writing from his sickbed. Like Proust, Barbara was resuscitating and
recording her early childhood reminiscences. But in June 2009 she knew she
was running out of time, and thus she interrupted the writing of her memoirs
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