Theological Variations   /   Summer 2023   /    Essays

The Need for Mourning

Refusing to be persuaded by defeat.

Paul Franz

Grieving Women (detail), 1944, by Robert Colquhoun (1914–1962); private collection/Bridgeman Images; photo © Peter Naum at the Leicester Galleries, London; © estate of Robert Colquhoun. All rights reserved.

It begins with a joke. Attending a conference on the Anthropocene—the proposed name for our current geologic era, in which, it is argued, human activity has finally displaced nature, with potentially catastrophic effects—philosopher Jonathan Lear observed something striking: “At the end of the talk, there was a discussion period. At one point, a young academic stood up and said simply: ‘Let me tell you something: We will not be missed.’ She then sat down. There was laughter throughout the audience.”

“It was over in a moment,” Lear tells us, but that moment has haunted him ever since. For Lear (a practicing psychoanalyst and author of a study of Freud), the joke depends on a “split in the ego” that lets us occupy two positions simultaneously. Asserting that “we will not be missed because we do not deserve to be missed,” it lets us “project ourselves forward” to enjoy the imaginary satisfaction of being “on the punishing rather than on the receiving end of the punishment.” A typical human desire, perhaps, to have things both ways; yet for Lear, this gallows humor is the sign of a deeper despair. He devotes much of his characteristically rich and suggestive latest book, Imagining the End: Mourning and Ethical Life, to laying bare, so as to deplete, the sources of its strength.

Already at the outset, however, we get a sense of something overdetermined in Lear’s response. This comes in his suggestion—which corresponds to nothing in the young academic’s actual utterance—that “the joke also picks up on a culturally shared anxiety about the end of democracy.” Punning on the two senses of “end,” Lear explains, with a strangely impersonal locution, that “there is a fear of democracy coming to an end because of the loss of our shared sense of its purpose or end.” The link appears to be humanistic study itself. What does it say about the prospects for liberal democracy when a “young academic”—that is, someone entrusted with our intellectual future—expresses such nihilistic indifference about the fate of those beings with whom the humanities are concerned?

Reading Lear’s account of a “split in the ego” that allows teller and audience to occupy two positions at once, I recalled a remark by D.H. Lawrence (himself no stranger to fantasies of the end of humanity) on American Prohibition. “Every man voting prohibition for his neighbor voted it for himself, of course,” Lawrence wrote. “But somewhere he made a mental reservation. He intended, himself, to have his little drink still, if he wanted it. Since he, good citizen, knew better than to abuse himself.” For that adept diagnostician of hypocrisy, such double-dealing showed not so much the breakdown of American democracy as its all-but-inevitable way of functioning: an empowered citizenry, stirred by its ideals, legislates for itself—collectively, but somehow not individually.

The end of the world, though, is a special case. Turning on its head the anticipated objection that humans merely “project” their own values onto the world, Lear observes that the effort to make poetic justice, a kind of meaning, out of human extinction overlooks the fact that such extinction means the loss of meaning as such. To mock the loss of “the very capacity to miss”—in a radical sense, the loss of loss itself—thus comes to look peculiarly defensive.

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