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.

As such, it is a reaction that psychoanalysis is peculiarly placed to recognize. We are, Lear writes, “threatened with the loss of the special kind of meaning that is characteristic of human beings: mourning.” The gambit of Lear’s book, as intimated by its subtitle, is thus, in the first instance, to make the case for “mourning.” Yet in doing so, his study also aims to make mourning a paradigmatic act of valuing, and hence something like a new foundation for ethical life. As such, the term comes to be at once radically reconceptualized and expanded to cover an array of creative activities, institutions, and practices. The success of Lear’s argument will largely depend on how plausible, but also on how satisfactory, one finds this extraordinary emphasis.

Mourning as Play

Lear is not to first to link the question of whether or not to mourn to speculation about the nature of value. Here, he traces that connection to a 1915 essay by Sigmund Freud, “On Transience,” that marks a second, if still somehow cryptic, focus of Imagining the End. Freud begins his essay by recounting a conversation in the Alpine countryside with a “young poet” who startled him by refusing to take pleasure in the beauties of the landscape because, he said, they are fleeting. Freud responded with the equally extreme assertion that “transience” is the source of all value. By the close of the essay, however, writing from what he now reveals are the depths of a devastating world war, Freud has adopted a chastened view. Unlike the poet, in whom he found a fear of the pain of mourning so great that it barred all attachment, Freud’s hope now, transcending the earlier dichotomy, is that what war has destroyed may one day be rebuilt, not eternally, but “perhaps on more solid ground and more enduringly than before.”

The parallels with Lear’s own situation seem clear: For the “young poet” (considered by some scholars to have been Rainer Maria Rilke), read the “young academic”; for the beautiful Alpine countryside, read civilization (as well as, perhaps, the humanistic achievements that are for Lear its highest flourishing); for Freud’s horror, not just at the First World War, but at how it laid waste a naive belief in progress, read Lear’s dismay, not just at the prospect of civilizational or societal collapse, but at its correlate in the mood of cynicism and despair exhibited at the conference. (In this last, if not before, we see how, apocalypticism aside, these parallels frequently involve transposition into a lower key.) What, then, of Lear’s suggestion that Freud’s essay is not a work of pure theory, but, rather, an attempt at “working through” an anxiety it does not wholly recognize? Might there be, in his own text, something similarly unresolved?

What Lear perceives in the young academic’s remark is, in effect, a refusal to mourn. The response of the book is the same one he finds in his innovative reading of Freud: repetition. Not repetition in the stigmatized sense of being stuck in the grips of pathological compulsion, but that productive, reanimating form of “remembering, repeating, and working-through” that Freud made paradigmatic of the psychoanalytic process, and which Lear links in Imagining the End, not just to Freud’s otherwise-unelaborated theory of “mourning” but to the humanities as a cultural institution.

Lear forges this link by presenting mourning as a kind of play. Like play, mourning holds things in suspension: presence and absence, remembering and forgetting, reality and imagination. By letting us play with what we have lost, and thereby modulate its departure, mourning is a way of treasuring, of asserting value. What might have been a maudlin sentiment—that the humanities, insofar as they are oriented toward the past, are a form of mourning—thus finds itself finessed by the transfiguration of this central concept. Mourning as play is indeed more attractive than the refusal to mourn as joke.

The Appeal to the Kalon

For all that, there remains something peculiar about the centrality Lear assigns to mourning, which, if it relieves his work from the banality of the call to action, can nonetheless give it a muted air. To grasp what motivates this emphasis, we will have to take a detour through a second main strand of Lear’s argument: his revival of what he calls (after Aristotle) the kalon. It is central to Lear’s use of this Greek concept—an untranslated and perhaps untranslatable composite of the notions of the “noble,” the “beautiful,” and the “good”—that one does not know what it is. (“Using the kalon self-consciously as a signifier,” he writes, “not a fully developed concept, is a useful direction to proceed.”) But why lay such stress on the untranslatability of this concept of value?

This double maneuver, the appeal to the kalon as an ethical standard and the stress on its estrangement, points to a central concern of Imagining the End: the historical availability of concepts. The book shares this interest with an earlier work by Lear, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (2006). There, he examines a crisis of meaning that afflicted the Crow people of the Great Plains. His inquiry begins with an early-twentieth-century Crow elder’s report that, after a point in recent memory, “nothing happened.”

In an analog to the purported “end of history” in European-American thought, the elder meant that an end had come to anything that could count as an event in Crow culture. The cause was twofold: the extinction of the buffalo and, even more devastating, the completion of the United States’ conquest of the Great Plains—an extension of sovereignty that meant the prohibition of war making between the tribes of that territory. For the Crow, whose entire culture—whose entire way of making sense of the world—revolved around rituals and practices of mortal combat, the closure of this possibility brought meaning to an end.

This was not the end of the story, however. Instead, it fell to a great Crow leader, Plenty Coups, to find some way forward that would preserve the Crow as a people. The final chapter of Radical Hope relates the details of this achievement. There we learn how Plenty Coups succeeded in allying the Crow with the US government against their traditional enemy, the Sioux, and thereby negotiating for themselves the concession of the territory—greatly reduced, and removed from their traditional hunting grounds—they currently occupy in southern Montana. The Crow remain there to this day, pursuing projects in education and self-governance, and all the while maintaining their historical association with the US Army.

But these results of Plenty Coups’s efforts are not what make him a visionary hero; nor can they, without diminishing it, be equated with what Lear calls his “radical hope.” This idea—the equivalent, in the work of that title, of the untranslated kalon to which Lear would now have us repair—is identified, repeatedly, as something to which Plenty Coups clung, some promise of a future for his people, intimated in a dream and cherished as an abiding sense, yet whose content was unknown. It was unknown by definition, because it was not interpretable in any of the terms hitherto operative in Crow culture. Hence its radicalism. A similar transvaluation, or rather infusion of value, is clearly desired in Imagining the End—but what is it to entail?

When Lear tells us that “each of the possible translations of kalon into English”—that is, as “noble,” “beautiful,” or “fine”—“seems to me problematic,” he does not mean in an exegetical sense. Rather, each term is problematic in its political or (the frame Lear favors) ethical availability. “The society Aristotle inhabited was also unjust,” he tells us. “Therefore, one should suspect that his concept of the kalon was itself disfigured, with its connotation of ‘nobility’ in particular legitimizing an unjust social hierarchy in which he partook.” Describing his own outlook as “Platonic in spirit,” Lear suggests that a “glimpse” of the truth can nonetheless be gained, even if our concepts remain distorted because we are living in the cave.

It remains the case that in Mourning and Ethical Life Lear provides an Aristotle largely bled of content, and a kalon reduced, confessedly, to a signifier. Lear wishes to cultivate the esteem implicit in certain words, but so as to treat it not as an imposture but an incitement to believe that the sign’s referent or denoted idea may, even if currently unknown, someday be found. There is thus a crucial difference between Lear’s use of the kalon as “signifier” and how Aristotle will describe a concept as “roughly sketched in.” Whereas Aristotle assumes that such a concept will be elucidated through the use of reason, Lear to some degree awaits transformations at the level of history (albeit without, like Hegel, seeing in history itself the unfolding of reason). We do not yet know what certain words can mean because of the condition of our society, one that is—to adapt a language Lear does not use—perhaps trapped between dying and rebirth. Or, as he would more likely say, between losing and remembering.

I confess not to know quite what to make of Lear’s suggestion of mourning as a model for humanistic study, nor of his related suggestion, that “mourning is a realm in which humans can achieve excellence.” Pericles, in his funeral oration, declares that “I have paid the required tribute, in obedience to the law, making use of such fitting words as I had.” Even great heroes of mourning, such as Antigone, or the wife of Phocion in Plutarch, both of whom break the law to mourn their proscribed dead, act in fulfilment of obligations. Does not this emphasis on mourning, however reconfigured, seek to make excellent the merely requisite?

Lear might remind us, in response, that “gratitude,” a central element of his notion of mourning, is spontaneous, cannot be owed, and hence is not a duty—a stance consistent with his Aristotelian emphasis on virtue and flourishing. (One might add, an excellence that is distinctly human is not necessarily the highest human excellence—though Lear’s extension of “mourning” to the highest forms of art and thought comes close to making it such.) Yet much as with his earlier Radical Hope, I cannot but feel a disproportion between the promise and its accomplishment. Lear’s mourning, like his hope, is an affirmation of value that suspends the question of whatever it is that is being hoped for or mourned. There are risks as well as advantages in laying such stress upon the sheer act of valuing.

Refusal to Mourn

Despair will always hold a certain allure. There will always be those who, like the male protagonist of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 film Breathless, declare that “grief is stupid. I choose nothingness. It isn’t better, but grief is a compromise. You have to go all or nothing.” I am more concerned, however, that making mourning the central value risks too easy a reconciliation, not with injustice (on this point Lear is clear, and stringent), but with loss—and, in particular, with defeat. That Lear fears some such possibility is intimated by a significant revision to his own position late in Imagining the End, when he considers the “refusal to mourn” as a potentially legitimate response to what, following the philosopher Cora Diamond, he now calls the “difficulty of reality.” Lear’s belated defense of such refusal differs from that of his initial interlocutor: Where she identified herself with a kind of justice, Lear now states that there are times when one “experiences the utter inadequacy of the concepts justice and injustice to encompass reality.” Yet of what is this not true, if not the end of the world?

What one can’t help wondering, finally, is whether Lear (ironically, given his interest in the intermediary stage of play) assumes too much of an excluded middle between “hope” and “despair”—a logic that may claim the warrant of etymology but does not exhaust the repertoire of human responses to the direst circumstances. No need here to adopt Thomas Hardy’s notion of one who “waits in unhope,” an image of stoic endurance befitting late-nineteenth-century sufferers from the “Crisis of Faith” that still somehow ripples beneath these recent discussions. (It informs, for instance, the belief that human value is a mere “projection” onto the world, which Lear rightly dismisses as an irrelevancy.) Yet might we not also come to feel that the almost programmatic incomprehensibility of Lear’s hope, his kalon, is simply too convenient, that it functions too much as a kind of argumentative escape hatch, and hence gives too little protection against being deluded by hope’s false manifestations?

The Canadian American poet A.F. Moritz has written recently of one particular form of contemporary unhope, that afforded by what he calls “scientific technology: it gives powerful results which justify themselves by their effectiveness and benefits, and it belittles human beings, removing grandeur and hope, other than that of surviving as long as possible, or rather, as long as viable. But,” he adds, “an era which takes that for hope no longer has any hope and is itself a belittlement of the human.”

Moritz’s remarks (in an essay recounting a stint in the hospital recovering from heart surgery—a circumstance that should immunize him against accusations of the more trivial forms of antitechnologism) have some resonance with Lear’s. It seems implicit in them that if we are not to be subjugated by our desire for infinite life of whatever quality, we must learn finitude, resignation; we must mourn ourselves in anticipation; we must learn to give things up (and, in doing so, affirm their value). But note, as well, a difference in tone. Is there not, in Moritz’s desire for “grandeur” and rejection of “belittlement,” something, if not alien to the kalon as Lear describes it, at least verging on those rejected senses of the “beautiful” and “noble”? Moritz would not, I think, want to literalize these as social forms any more than Lear does. In invoking them, he does, however, suggest a range of aspiration, including but distinct from “hope,” that Lear, at least in Imagining the End (unlike in his writings on the formerly warlike Crow), does not permit himself.

Surely among the proper responses to despair is something more like disdain, contempt, loathing, a refusal to stoop—in short, a refusal to surrender? Today, talk of the Anthropocene seems almost quaint. War, both present and threatened, usurps the mind. Meanwhile, so-called artificial intelligence and related forms of “transhumanism,” exploiting the “hope-shaped void” at the heart of our narratives of scientific progress (or at least those most fervid hopes of a return on investment), promise to extinguish all hope forever—to the point where one might be forgiven for almost wishing the end would come sooner. Amid such threats and lures, a certain proud refusal of hope can be an inoculation. What is true of hope the symmetry of Lear’s treatment makes true of mourning, which (in Freud) classically seeks reattachment. To value by mourning is to leave oneself open to the risk of the false replacement; there are also assertions of value that keep the wound raw.

No doubt this is to suggest something rather alien to Lear’s temperament, which here as in his other writing exemplifies the duality of firm but gentle. Imagining the End is a work of probity and playfulness. It is also deadly serious: Lear wants us to make a choice. Hence his suggestion that we place Freud’s diagnostic contrast between “mourning and melancholia” in an existential context, as a decision between alternatives, turning an “and” into an “or.” An admirable proposal—if one has already narrowed the options to two. Those of us unpersuaded by our defeat, and hence unwilling to be consoled, could do worse than hold on to our pride. Mourning seems too faint an excellence.