Mourning and Celebration: Embracing Our Dear Departed

This is the second in a series of three posts occasioned by the death of Osama Bin Laden.  I dedicated the first post to the students in the undergraduate Existentialism class I am currently teaching.  Toward the same end of  rendering credit (or blame, as the case may be) where it is due, I dedicate today’s post, the second of the three, to the students in my current seminar, in the later writings of Heidegger.

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Mourning and Celebration:  Embracing Our Dear Departed

Which dead are mine, among all the dead?  Must I not first identify my dead, before I can properly mourn them?  And, once identified, do not my dead, in the proper mourning they require of me, not also require that even in my very mourning itself I never forget to celebrate the lives they lived, and sacrificed for me, that I might live in turn?  Do I not owe my dead such celebration in my mourning, owe it even to those among my dead who died too young, before having lived much at all—such as my cousin, youngest of my mother’s nephews and nieces, who died of leukemia when she was only 11, and I was near the same age?  Don’t even those of my dead who died before they’d been properly born at all–such as my father’s first son, who died in being born of his mother, my father’s first wife, who also died at the same time, at that same child’s childbirth—ordain such celebratory mourning and mournful celebration?

Which dead are truly mine?  And how am I to mourn them?

*  *  *

Those were the sorts of questions that were already on my mind on the recent morning of Monday, May 2, 2011, even before I opened that morning’s newspaper and found out that Osama Bin Laden was dead.  They were on my mind because of my having just the day before reread Jean-Paul Sartre’s play The Flies—written and first performed in Paris under the German occupation during World War II, and a ringing call for resistance against oppression.  I had been rereading that play–in preparation for teaching my first class of the coming week (as I explained in my preceding post), for which The Flies was the reading assignment.  One of the questions Sartre raises in the play is precisely that of whom we should mourn and how, and I was already planning to discuss those aspects of the play with my class.

In addition to the rereading of Sartre’s play having thus already reawakened my concern with the question of proper mourning, so that it was already on my mind the morning I learned of Bin Laden’s death, the day before I had also done something else that had an effect on how news of his death affected me when I opened the paper that morning.  In the evening of that same day before, my wife and I had watched a DVR recording of the 60 Minutes broadcast from a bit earlier that same evening.  In fact, it was precisely because we were watching that recorded program rather than live TV, which we might otherwise have been watching, that we did not come to know about Bin Laden’s death until the next day.  When news of that death was first being released by the White House and then quickly finding its way to circulation through the mass media, my wife and I were watching that recording of 60 Minutes, and then we went to bed for the night, not to learn that Bin Laden was dead till the next morning.

My wife and I had both been especially affected by one particular segment of 60 Minutes, which consisted of a lengthy interview with television journalist Laura Logan about her horrendous ordeal, on an earlier evening this same spring, when she was subjected to vicious and brutal sexual violence and violation at the hands–literally—of some in the crowd that filled the streets of downtown Cairo in wild celebration of the success of the popular uprising that had that very day succeeded in overthrowing Mubarak.  Laura Logan was with her camera crew in the midst of that wildly celebrating crowd when she was suddenly and repeatedly sexually assaulted and brutally raped by multiple perpetrators.  She had been able to survive the ordeal only thanks to the eventual intervention of some Arab women, who were almost completely veiled, in accordance with the Arab tradition to which they belonged.  Risking themselves regardless of any tradition, however, these women actively and directly intervened on Laura Logan’s behalf.  They literally reached out and took her into their own hands, taking her out of and away from the hands of her captors, rapists, and would-be murderers.   

Though undergoing the interview was obviously very difficult for her, given the trauma she had experienced still so very recently, Laura Logan courageously revealed her deep personal woundedness, as she told, in clear, linear, narrative fashion, and in all its deeply disturbing details, the story of what had happened to her.  In the process she explained why she had decided to do the interview itself, despite how difficult it was for her to do so.  She had agreed to do the interview, she clearly and emphatically claimed, explained, and insisted, for the sake of all female journalists everywhere, who are constantly put at risk of suffering the same sort of abuse she suffered, for the simple reason that they are women, and who, compounding the abuse, are almost never granted a forum for articulating and protesting their situation.  Precisely because she had herself actually and publicly endured the devastating, degrading abuse she had endured, however, Laura Logan had been placed in a unique position.  That position allowed her—and her own responsibility demanded of her—to give her voice at last to all those otherwise still voiceless women.  All those women spoke with one voice in her deeply wounded, often breaking, singular voice—a voice that carried the unquestionable power and authority given it by all the bitterness, profundity, pain, and horror of the agony she was made to undergo at the hands of her assailants among the crowd at Cairo that night of the celebration of the toppling of Mubarak.

With regard to that last, Logan also went out of her way in the interview to insist that the Egyptians who crowded into the streets of Cairo to celebrate the newfound freedom they had won in their triumph over Mubarak and all his vestiges of coercive power were by all means right to celebrate.  What they had done for and by themselves deserved to be celebrated, she insisted, and nothing in or about her own horrendous ordeal said anything to the contrary.  Indeed, as she also indicated herself, all around the world men and women of any decency celebrated with and for Egypt and the Egyptian people that night.  She did so herself, and still felt the same way, as she strongly affirmed in the interview.

Immanuel Kant said much the same thing about the French Revolution.  Kant remarked that, despite all its excesses, which he and other decent persons should reject and bemoan, nevertheless what lay at the very heart of the French Revolution deserved universal approbation.  That was the unqualified or unreserved assertion and affirmation of universal human freedom, universal human equality, and universal human solidarity.  All human hearts still capable of beating at all had to beat a bit more quickly when the French Revolution happened to them—that is, when news of it reached their ears.  Every human heart had to beat a bit more quickly at that news –as Kant says his own heart did—in joyful celebration.

Both Immanuel Kant and Laura Logan are indisputably right in what they say.  There is a corollary, however, that neither Kant nor Logan expressly states.   That may be simply because it is so obvious to them both that neither ever thought to state it explicitly.  At any rate, the corollary is that the same human heart that beats a little faster in celebration when it first hears about the French Revolution is also necessarily a heart that also beats a little faster once more again, each time it hears yet again of that same Revolution, however many times it may have heard of it before:  No matter how many times it may have heard of that Revolution before, each time the still-human heart hears of it again, that heart leaps again in celebration.  That is true, at least, so long as the heart does not grow jaded, so that it can no longer hear what it is being told, when it is told yet again of the French Revolution.  Indeed, that leap of joy is rekindled yet again, however faintly, but still truly, even—perhaps especially (there are certain reasons for thinking so, at any rate)—when it is the heart itself that reminds itself of that Revolution, calling it back to mind, remembering it.

In that sense, which I would say is the single most important sense, whenever anyone anywhere recalls the French Revolution–reminds herself or himself of it, remembers it–then the French Revolution happens again, in and as the very leap of the heart in celebration at the merest memory of that glorious event.  Then once again, yet literally re-newed, made new again—so that no matter how many times it happens, every time it happens again it happens again for the very first time—the French Revolution happens.  In that same sense, “1789” is not a year that, though it may once have been, is no longer, and with each “new” year retreats by yet one more year more distantly into the distant past.

Not only may, but also in a certain crucial sense must, the future be “now.”  So must the past.  And in the past that is still now–that past that, as William Faulkner famously said, isn’t over yet, it’s not even past—“1789” is not a year that was.  Rather, this year—the very “calendar year” 2011– is still “1789.”  The time of such events, the real events of a real history–all that finally counts once all the counting and recounting is finally over–does not fly by with the ticks of the clock, like the dead time when nothing ever really happens and there is never anything new under the sun.  Rather, in the real time of real history, all years are simultaneous, and every year is every other.  That is the time “it is” eternally– eternal time, when, regardless of what year the chronically still-born clock of the calendar may say it is, it is always really still “1789,” but also no less “1776,” and “1812,” and “1848,” and “1914,” and “December the 7th, 1941” (that “day that will live in infamy”), and “May 1968” (in Paris, in the spring), and, for that matter, “September 11, 2001.”

To “mourn” means to keep the dead alive in memory.  That does not in the least mean to keep little pictures of our “dear departed” in lockets on chains worn around our necks, or in family photo albums, or in supposed memory-images in our supposed minds or our demonstrably convoluted brains.  Not that there is anything wrong with such things, with lockets, and albums, and images, and engrams, or the like.  But to cling to such images, as though to lose them would be to lose our memory of the dead themselves, is one sure way to bury our dead beyond recall, substituting an idol for the holy, an illusion for reality.  If we so treasure our images of the dead that we lapse into such a substitution, then what we are doing is not mourning at all, we are avoiding mourning, like the father in the story such as Freud often liked to tell about his patients, the father who shows no signs of grief when his wife dies, but who later breaks down sobbing helplessly when the pet hamster to which he has devoted himself to avoid having to face his real loss gives up the ghost.

The verb mourn derives, according to my dictionary, from the Middle English mournen, which itself derives from the Old English murnan.  That latter, my dictionary further informs me, is akin to the Gothic moúrnan, which means to be anxious, and itself derives from the hypothetical Indo-European base (s)mer-, meaning to remember, think of, whence comes, for example, the Sanskrit smárati, (he) remembers, or the Latin memor, mindful of.  That etymology just reinforces the reality of what the verb mourn still says today, if we just let ourselves have the ears we’ve been given to hear it:  To mourn is no more and no less than—because it is the same as—to stay mindful of whatever and/or whomever we have lost, that is, to stay mindful of our dead.

Properly to mourn our dead, then, is ever to remember them, to be ever mindful of them, never to forget them.  That is the mourning we owe the dead, and that they demand of us:  That we never forget them.  Thus are we told never to forget those who died in “Auschwitz”—that is, the Jewish victims of the Nazi “final solution.”  So we are told, too, each September, when bumper stickers and window-decals remind us we should “never forget” those who died on “September 11, 2001.  Thus does even the psalmist sing in Psalm 137 (136), verses 6-7 (Grail translation), adding notes and tones that underscore both the seriousness of our responsibility to remember, and what we will deserve if we don’t:

O how could we sing

the song of the Lord

on alien soil?

If I forget you, Jerusalem,

let my right hand wither!

O let my tongue

Cleave to my mouth

If I remember you not,

if I prize not Jerusalem

above all my joys!

To mourn truly—that is, fully and deeply and with full propriety, as only accords with the heavy debt of mourning we owe to our dead—is to keep ourselves ever mindful of them.  That, however, means that we owe it to our dead to keep the wound of our pain at the loss of them to death open, keeping ourselves vulnerable to that pain and that wounding.  That is the mourning the dead require of us, and not the cherishing of any images or other idols we are tempted to make of them.

To mourn our dead is to hold to our ongoing pain at our loss of them to death, to hold to that pain as what itself holds us to them, by a bond unbreakable even by death itself.  To mourn our dead is to refuse to be “reconciled” to their absence, to “get over it,” as we are told we inevitably will by all the well-intentioned folk who keep telling us so.  They tell us that we will, with time, be “consoled,” and will then find ourselves again able to get on with our lives “despite” our presently shattering pain at our loss and our present bereavements.   “Time,” we are reminded, “heals all wounds.”

Our mourning itself knows better.  What it dreads and eschews as the worst thing that could possibly happen is to be deprived of the sharpness of our pain at the death of those to whom we are bound, so tightly that even the grave cannot unbind us.  Like love, of which it is really a modality, our mourning is stronger than death, and reaches beyond the grave.  It recognizes that even to want to “get over” our pain at our loss is already to betray the dead, not to honor them.  It is to let them fall our of memory and be forgotten, rather than cherishing the memory of them and  never forgetting them, not even if we forget their names—and even our own.  Mourning refuses such betrayal of the dead, and insists upon remaining un-consoled and un-consolable.  Mourning recognizes time, that time that would tempt us into “healing” of our wounds, rather than holding to them, as the dead indebt us to do—that dead, chronic time of the clock, of Chronos, who devours its own children—as its greatest enemy; and it rejects scornfully any suggestion of eventual “reconciliation.”

In such defiance of all messages of consolation, and revolt against any movement toward reconciliation, mourning knows with clear, unshakeable certainty that it is our very pain itself that is our memory of our dead, our holdoing on to those to whom we owe it never to forget them, as we have vowed never to do.  Mourning insists upon keeping the wound of the death of our dead open, the pain intense, because anything less or other than that would be blasphemy against the dead, the uttering of which would enact our own final, irrevocable self-condemnation.

Our bereft pain and its irrevocable rejection of all reconciliation with the brutality of the death of our dead is itself what keeps our connection to our dead, binding us forever to them, keeping the memory of them always alive in our hearts.  It is our very pain, our always still-open wound, that unites us with all our dead.  For that very reason, mourning as such—and not just sometimes or in some cases–is itself, without ever ceasing to be anything but pure mourning, is celebratory:  All mourning is, as mourning, already celebration.

My dictionary also tells me about that word, too.  It tells me that celebrate comes from Middle English celebraten, from the Latin celebratus, the past participle of the verb celebrare, which means to frequent, go in great numbers, honor, and is itself derived from celeber, meaning frequented, or populous.  Keeping that derivation in mind, we may say that “celebrating” is joining with others in honoring what’s honorable—what deserves to be honored.  In short, celebrating is joining the crowd at the celebration.  Furthermore, the greater the honor due what is honorable, the larger grows the community of those who should render it honor—the greater, that is, grows the crowd.

All mourning, whatever form it may take, from dancing a jig at a drunken Irish wake, to gnashing one’s teeth and tearing one’s hair in the agony of one’s loss, is celebration.  That is because in mourning—all mourning—we join the crowd.  We join, in fact, the crowd of crowds, that crowd than which no greater crowd can be, nor even be conceived, because it is a crowd literally without end, a crowd the number of which is beyond all counting.  In mourning we join, by our pain itself, that pain which is our very bond, our very ligature or junction to those for whom we mourn, the throng that travels ceaselessly along the most frequented, most densely populated road of all—the only road along which absolutely all human beings without exception must travel together, even and especially because each must travel altogether alone.  That is the road of death, of our mortality.

In mourning, all mourning of whatever kind, we join the largest crowd of all, and therefore join into the celebration of all celebrations:  the crowd of all the living, and the dead—living and dead both named and unnamed, known and unknown, but always all alike in the final, inexorable, holy anonymity of the grave itself.  In mourning, the soul swoons in celebration, in adoration.

At the end of “The Dead,” the long story with which he, in turn, ends Dubliners, James Joyce describes the experience of his character Gabriel Conroy, the narrative center of the story, as Gabriel sits looking out the window of the Dublin hotel room where his wife is already asleep in the bed beside his chair.  It is Christmas Eve, the end of a day and a night during which Gabriel has had his own solitude and mortality unexpectedly revealed to him in what would pass by all regular accounts as some thoroughly commonplace, trivial events of that day, but the accumulation of which finally shatters Gabriel and his complacency completely.   As he sits in the darkness and the silence beside his sleeping wife, Gabriel gazes out the window of their hotel room at the snow gently falling outside.  Joyce brings “The Dead,” and with it the entirety of Dubliners, the collection of stories wherein he tells “the moral history of his community,” to an end by writing:  “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

In mourning our own dead properly, we, too, let our own souls swoon, as we join that same community—the one and only universal human community of “all the living and the dead.”

As for just what all this has to do with the death of Osama Bin Laden, I will try to answer that question at the start of my next and final post in this series of three occasioned by his death.

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