Mourning in America


Sex and the dead, William Butler Yeats wrote to Olivia Shakespear nearly 80 years ago, are the only two topics that “can be of the least interest to a serious and studious mind.” Sandra M. Gilbert got close to the first topic more than 25 years ago in her groundbreaking study of the feminist literary tradition, “The Madwoman in the Attic” (written with Susan Gubar), which began by asking, “Is a pen a metaphorical penis?” In her new book, “Death’s Door,” she gets us close to the second, giving us the most comprehensive multidisciplinary contemplation of mortality we are likely to get in this generation.

Truth told, we humans approach sex pretty much as other creatures do. The signature of our species — what separates us from other living, dying beings — is that the dead matter to us. As the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman writes in an epigraph to Gilbert’s book: “No form of human life . . . has been found that failed to pattern the treatment of the deceased bodies and their posthumous presence in the memory of the descendants. Indeed, the patterning has been found so universal that discovery of graves and cemeteries is generally accepted by the explorers of prehistory as the proof that a humanoid strain whose life was never observed directly had passed the threshold of humanhood.” Add to this the 77 million baby boomers slouching toward mortality, and it is perhaps inevitable that books by “the young in one another’s arms” will in time give way to books by the heartsore on their losses.

Still, for every “Sailing to Byzantium” or “Year of Magical Thinking,” there are a hundred sad and forgettable texts that are more “healing” to the writer than instructive to the reader. Like writing about sex, writing about death draws greater scrutiny because when it comes to dying — and here the numbers are convincing — everybody’s doing it. But Gilbert knows the territory as well as anyone. Since the death of her husband in February 1991 after routine prostate surgery, she has written a memoir on the medical misadventures that led to his death (a lawsuit was settled out of court), edited an anthology of elegies and collected three volumes of her poems, many of them haunted by her own losses. Like Joan Didion in “The Year of Magical Thinking,” Gilbert rejects self-pity, plumbing her own grief for what links it to the larger human predicament of death and mourning. Unlike Didion, who wrote that the literature of grief is “remarkably spare,” Gilbert finds the library packed with Books of the Dead.

It is the rich harvest of her bookish habits that makes “Death’s Door” such a superb achievement. The reader gets not only an explication of Emily Dickinson’s poetry, but a place in the little cortege, walking the poet’s body in its white coffin across fields of flowers for burial in Amherst. Whitman’s “Song of Myself” is considered in relation to his spectacular obsequies in Camden, N.J., in 1892. We get Blake’s engraving of “Death’s Door” upon which Whitman based the design for his own mausoleum, his concerns over the care of his body linked to the horrors he had witnessed through the Civil War: “The dead, the dead, the dead . . . somewhere they crawl’d to die, alone, in bushes, low gullies, or on the sides of hills — (there, in secluded spots, their skeletons, bleach’d bones, tufts of hair, buttons, fragments of clothing, are occasionally found yet) — our young men once so handsome and so joyous, taken from us.”

As Gilbert writes of her wide-ranging methods, “The book you’re reading now is in some sense experimental, mingling the techniques of different genres (autobiographical narrative, cultural studies, literary history) in an effort to ground my investigation of the poetics of grief in the complexity and richness of what, for want of a better word, I’ll name ‘the real.’ ” This pursuit of the real — not only the idea of the thing but the thing itself (to borrow Wallace Stevens’s phrase) — is what makes Gilbert so reliable a guide. Her examination of the “unspeakable emergency” of Sept. 11 is representative: “The phenomenon with which the inhabitants of New York City lived for months after 9/11 — inhaling it, ingesting it, their eyes smarting with it, their throats raw with it — was the appalling pall of the Real, a smoke that signaled the ancient but nevertheless true cliché of ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust.’ ” Death involves not only concepts but corpses, not only memories but what “remains.”

Gilbert is sensibly wary of the various “therapies” our culture provides in place of the actual experience of dealing with our dead. “Grief ‘therapy,’ ” she writes, “most of it designed to ensure that the bereaved will healthily ‘recover,’ is now so widely practiced that although its efficacy is dubious, it’s become a lucrative industry. . . . Peculiarly cheerful do-it-yourself memorial services focus on ‘celebrations of the life’ of the ‘departed’ rather than the pain that his departure caused, while ‘New Age’ activities, from channeling to past life therapy, retool Victorian spiritualism with 21st-century technology.”

The “changing mythologies of extinction,” which are increasingly distanced from our ethnic, religious and community ties, have left us very often ritually adrift, metaphorically impoverished and existentially vexed, approving of the good laugh but embarrassed by the good cry. The postmodern memorial event is too often an exercise in absence rather than presence, avoidance rather than confrontation, the “virtual” instead of the “real.” Everyone is welcome but the corpse, which has been disappeared, replaced by a memorial collage or DVD, consigned to a commemorative Web site or turned into a kind of mortuary knickknack. Stuff replaces substance; essentials give way to accessories; the sacred texts and metaphors are replaced by Hallmark sentiments and smarmy marketing. The dead are no longer considered as Methodists or Muslims or secular humanists, but as golfers, gardeners, bowlers and bikers — fellow hobbyists rather than fellow pilgrims. Gilbert discusses a Chicago company that will turn a loved one’s ashes into a synthetic diamond. No one has to carry or bury or build a fire, or go the difficult distance with the dead to the tomb or grave or pyre. The finger food is good, the talk uplifting, the music and eulogies “life affirming,” and someone can be counted on to declare “closure,” usually just before the Merlot runs out.

Gilbert is properly doubtful of the “closure” notion. She knows death’s door is always ajar. And whether it opens on the heavenly hosts or on ground zero, whether we behold a somethingness or a nothingness, remains to be seen. The apocalypse — from the Greek apo-kalypto, to unveil or reveal — is “a rending of the veil between us and the naked truth of history,” with such “visions of ‘last things’ more often than not succeeded by hopeful fantasies of rehabilitated first things.” Gilbert’s book instructs and inspires, ennobles and emboldens. Undertakers and anthropologists, the reverend clergy and good doctors, hospice workers and the recently bereaved, poets and common readers of uncommon books are hereby encouraged to have a look.

February 26,2006
The New York Times