The Obsolescence of Mourning

As Kate mentioned regarding vampires, it may be that a need for mourning has become “culturally irrelevant” these days. Along those lines, I was actually thinking of W. G. Sebald’s essay “Campo Santo,” which discusses mourning practices in Corsica: “The doors and shutters of the house afflicted by misfortune were closed, and sometimes the whole façade was painted black. The corpse, washed and freshly dressed, or in the not uncommon case of a violent death left in its bloodstained condition, was laid out in the parlor, which was usually less a room intended for the use of the living than the domain of dead members of the family, who were known was the antichi or antinati. This was where, after the introduction of photography, which in essence, after all, is nothing but a way of making ghostly apparitions materialize by means of a very dubious magical art, the living hung pictures of their parents, grandparents, and relations either close or more distant, who although or even because they were no longer alive were regarded as the true heads of the family.” In cataloging these archaic rituals of mourning, Sebald subtly links that work to photography, suggesting that the photograph has replaced the corpse in our lives, and the act of looking at photographs (or being looked at by them) has replaced the act of mourning. He thus concludes his essay with a paraphrase of Pierre Bertraux: “To remember, to retain and to preserve, Pierre Betraux wrote of the mutation of mankind even thirty years ago, was vitally important only when population density was low, we manufactured few items, and nothing but space was present in abundance. You could not do without anyone then, even after death. In the urban societies of the late twentieth century, on the other hand, where everyone is instantly replaceable and is really superfluous from birth, we have to keep throwing ballast overboard, forgetting everything that we might otherwise remember: youth, childhood, our origins, our forebears and ancestors.”

So, then, perhaps we don’t need mourning in the way we once did, but in this regard Jonathan Shay’s “Achilles in Vietnam” becomes vitally interesting: in it Shay (a psychiatrist who works with vets and PTSD) argues that the major components of PTSD come from a lack of ritual that was once associated with war. Turning to “The Iliad” he traces the way in which soldiers were openly mourned by their comrades (for example, Achilles’ funeral games for Patroclus), and suggests that modern military training has suppressed this need for mourning into a “berserker rage,” such that when one’s comrades are killed, one is encouraged not to weep or mourn for them but to turn on the enemy that much more savagely, substituting bloody revenge for a loss. Shay calls for a recognition of the importance of mourning and the need to incorporate it into the military as a means of healing psychological wounds among those subjected to combat.

Certainly of all those in our society that we fail to mourn the loss of, none is more acute than veterans, who are given treacly tributes and nonsensical platitudes by politicians and newscasters before being swept under the rug. And to continue on Sebald’s theme of linking mourning with photography, we as a culture were even (and most pointedly) denied the images of the returning dead—as if to say, there’s no corpse here whatsoever, you can have war without the dead body, without even its ghostly resonance in the photograph.

Joe Dante’s 2005 film “Homecoming” remains to me, in this light, one of the best ideas and biggest missed opportunities along this theme: in it the Iraq war dead come back to life as zombies and plague the United States. They don’t want to eat brains; they only want to vote. The movie too quickly devolves into cheap shots which, while cathartic (the Karl Rove stand-in having his head devoured by zombies is priceless), miss I think a larger anxiety about the way in which we as a culture produce dead bodies in search of abstract symbols, and what to do with those bodies once mourning has been foreclosed to us. It may be that they’re still coming back as vampires and zombies, and that we’ve come full circle once more.

Dead Soldiers Returning from Iraq

Dead Soldiers Returning from Iraq


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