The Philosophy of Mourning

‘Imagining the End’
Jonathan Lear (Erielle Bakkum)

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.

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.

For Lear, acts of mourning are attempts to turn loss into gain by imaginative alchemy. This makes it clear that mourning is not, for him, properly directed at states of affairs about which there is nothing good to be thought or said. He recognizes that there are such states of affairs, but he does not believe they are mournable. They do not respond to imaginative alchemy. The sharpest and most interesting chapter of the book, “The Difficulty of Reality and a Revolt Against Mourning,” enters this territory.

In that chapter, Lear discusses, with the philosopher Cora Diamond’s help, Ted Hughes’s poem “Six Young Men.” That poem is about a photograph of six young men, smiling and cocky and vivid, taken in 1914. Six months after the photograph was taken they were all dead, slaughtered on Europe’s bloodfields. Lear’s discussion follows Diamond in taking the photograph and Hughes’s poem to witness not only to the difficulty of comprehending and transmuting such states of affairs by mourning them (that would be a psychological reading of the problem), but also to reality’s active and actual difficulty, to wounds (flaws, lacks, absences, rifts) internal to reality itself, however we might respond to it. Not only do these difficulties resist our comprehension; they belong to a reality that exceeds our concerns with it, whose difficulties obtain no matter how we respond to them. We cannot, on Lear’s understanding, mourn states of affairs like this because “mourning has internal to it the idea of eventually restoring our proper balance in the relation of the living to the dead,” and these difficulties—difficulties internal and proper to reality—preclude any such balance.

 

Lear is right, I think, to affirm that there are difficulties, of the human condition in particular and of reality in general, that elude mourning’s repair. We have a good word for the characteristic human response to horrors of this kind: lament, the howl of agony in the face of the incomprehensible. Lament is far from what Lear means by mourning, and it is a word that occurs, so far as I can tell, nowhere in his book.

Lament’s absence from Lear’s book is a sign of what seems to me a significant misstep. It is not that he is wrong about the reparative work that mourning does, or that he is blind to states of affairs that resist mourning and instead invite what I would call lament. It is rather that he shows a strong, dualistic tendency to separate the one from the other. If a state of affairs is mournable, then it is, for him, not lamentable—and vice-versa.

We have a good word for the characteristic human response to horrors of this kind: lament, the howl of agony in the face of the incomprehensible.

This bright-lined separation in Lear’s thought is matched and perhaps required by another: between human lives that resonate to some degree with the good, the Aristotelean kalon (a favored term of art for Lear), and those that fail to do so and are therefore wasted. That separation is clean and clear in his lovely and fascinating, but surely wrong, chapter “Good Mourning in Gettysburg and Hollywood” on our failure to properly mourn the Confederate dead of Gettysburg. (Hollywood is the place in Virginia where those Confederate dead, or most of them, were eventually buried.) Lear is right that we have failed at that necessary act of mourning, and his description of how and why is to me persuasive. What is not persuasive, however, is his consistent claim that the Confederate lives that ended on that battlefield were ordered entirely around an error—believing chattel slavery to be a good—which excludes the kalon. The result, Lear says, is that their whole lives were “failed attempts at the kalon,” which “has no room for such terrible error.” They were wasted lives. He is explicit about that. This distinction, between lives that get some way toward living in accord with the good and those that fail utterly to do so, mirrors the distinction between what is mournable and what is lamentable. Neither distinction can be sustained.

It is possible to do better. The first step would be to renounce the sharp distinction between reparable mournables and irreparable lamentables, and to replace it with an acknowledgment that all the horrors with which we are faced are woven with threads of both, and therefore require both mourning and lament. My father died suddenly and unexpectedly many years ago, when he was forty-five and I was nineteen. I have mourned him since, off and on, with many of the healing effects Lear so clearly describes. But there is that in his death which, as Lear would put it, resists mourning or, as I would prefer to put it, requires the howl and dirge of lamentation. It is one and the same event, though; and not to see that it both requires and resists mourning is to fail to see it for what it is.

There is a second step. It is not that there are some human lives wasted by being closed to the kalon, and others open to it, however imperfectly and incompletely. There are no armies of light and no armies of darkness. It is a Manichaean mistake to think so, and always a violent one. Lear’s treatment of the Confederate dead of Gettysburg involves this mistake, and I doubt that it is coherent even on its own terms. He advocates, rightly, mourning the Confederate dead without memorializing or valorizing them. But according to his argument, for a life to be mournable there must be good in it—it must not have been completely wasted—so the lives of the Confederate dead cannot have been as separate from the kalon as he seems to take them to be. He could have written that all human lives are malformed, oriented in part to the good that gives life and in part to the blankly lamentable absence that is evil. As the Augustinian adage has it: everything is good to the extent that it is, which entails that everything is evil to the extent that it is not. All human lives are alike in this, and any response to them that denies or obscures this is itself blankly lamentable and always violent, usually in the distinctively American mode of self-righteousness. The lives of the Confederate dead of Gettysburg were not wasted, as Lear says; those men were slaughtered for a cause that included chattel slavery, which is beyond defense; but none of them, not a one, is reducible to that cause. Each of them, every one, was a human creature whose battlefield death shares the features of all such deaths: participation in evil’s absence as well as in good’s presence.

Lear’s two dualisms are both evidence of a single uneasiness. It is an uneasiness about mixing—not being able to say that there were good men among the Confederate dead is of a piece with not being able to say that there are properly mournable events that also call for lament at their inaccessibility to mourning. But we must say both things. Saying the first permits us to look at and describe what was good in the social, economic, and political life of the Antebellum South, while being clear about what was evil in that life. Saying the second permits us to observe and shudder at the lamentable horrors beyond all mourning entwined with everything, everywhere, always. Lear’s refusals tend to exile the lamentable and the evil into the elsewhere, placing them anywhere but here. He does not quite do that; he does recognize that there are states of affairs, even here and now, that resist mourning. But the tone of much of his writing about mourning shows that he is on the way toward affirming the Manichaean separation.

I have been critical. But I am also glad to have read this book, and grateful to Lear for having written it. His work has been a companion to me these past three decades or so, and I have never failed to be edified and instructed by it. That is true for this book as well. There are excellent things in it I have not touched on in this short review, including an analysis of gratitude in its relation to mourning, and of the practices of the humanities in the same context. Anyone interested in mourning—and since we are all mourners, that leaves no one out—should read this book.

Imagining the End
Mourning and Ethical Life

Jonathan Lear 
Harvard University Press
$29.95 | 176 pp.

Published in the January 2023 issue: 

Paul J. Griffiths is a longtime contributor to Commonweal and the author of many books, most recently Regret: A Theology (University of Notre Dame Press) and Why Read Pascal? (Catholic University of America Press).

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