Mourning is important to every human life that gets as far as adulthood. That is because every such life is framed and inflected by the unpreventable and irretrievable loss of everything that contributes to its flourishing: love, health, meaning, happiness, accomplishment, wealth, beauty, and eventually itself. Pascal writes that the last act is bloody no matter how fine the rest of the play, and that the end is always the same: the grave. The situation is made worse by the fact that the grave opens not only for you but also for everyone and everything you have ever loved. Christians, and some others, have the consolation of hope. But the losses are nevertheless unavoidable, and mourning is one of the few things we can do in the face of them—perhaps the only thing we can do that does face them.
But what, exactly, is mourning, and how does doing it well contribute to a fully human life? These are good questions, addressed too rarely. In Imagining the End, Jonathan Lear takes them on with his usual learning, verve, and lucidity. Lear, who has taught at the University of Chicago since the 1990s, has written prolifically on various fundamental aspects of human life—including hope, love, illness, and irony, with Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, Freud, Kierkegaard, and Wittgenstein among his most frequent interlocutors. He is always concerned with the texture of human life: how it is woven, how it can become unwoven, what its principal virtues are. He wants to know how we should live, and on that question he is among our most intelligent guides.
Lear has addressed mourning before, in Happiness, Death, and the Remainder of Life (2000), and more tangentially in A Case for Irony (2011) and Wisdom Won from Illness (2017). But Imagining the End is by far his fullest treatment, and even though its chapters were first given as lectures or published as essays on disparate occasions during the past decade, they have been turned into a unified, non-repetitive book. Mourning appears here prismatically, seen from a number of angles and through the lens of a number of cases; but the focus is consistent and tight, and the payoff considerable.
Lear understands mourning as evidence of health, human well-being, and a life well lived. Mourning shows that we have attachments, or loves: we mourn when they are taken from us as a way of accommodating that loss. One of mourning’s modes is reverie, directed reparatively and reconstructively toward the lost as they were and are for the mourner, in a context where mourning is free and unchallenged in the way that a child at play is absorbed with a toy. Not to have played and not to be able to play is to fail to be human; so also with mourning. It is a “play-like activity of imagination and memory in which the loved one is remembered,” and as such it both contributes to and is evidence of human health. It shows that the mourner recalls and accommodates the good that was lost, incorporating it into a life that continues. This element of mourning is largely therapeutic: it is focused upon a lost good. It has little to do with the kind of response that can only howl with anguish at what has been lost.
Lear understands mourning to be repetitive, a repeated response to what is given and taken that has no end. He is concerned here with differentiating a positive understanding of repetition—nonidentical repetition, we might call it—from the overwhelmingly negative one evident in the work of Freud and his successors. The repetition of mourning is not about being stuck in the mud of neurosis or shackled to a Sisyphean labor. Rather, it is evidence of hope: of the possibilities evident in thinking again of that loss, imagining again the place of the lost in this life now being lived, of doing the same thing again and again (as in the liturgy) as a person now different from the one who did it before because of that prior mourning. “The unity and novelty of repetition lends unity and novelty to a life,” Lear writes, and this applies especially to repeated mourning.