Mourning Isn't What it Used to Be

Death's Door: Modern Dying and the Ways We Grieve
By Sandra Gilbert
New York and London: Norton, 2006, 580 pp., $29.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Rebecca Steinitz

I have been lucky. All my grandparents died at appropriate ages from common causes. Although I have too many friends who died too young—of overdoses and AIDS, in accidents and avalanches—I have never lost anyone crucial to my everyday life. There is no one whose absence has haunted my days and profoundly reshaped my reality.

Sandra Gilbert has not been so lucky. Her reality was transformed on February 11, 1991, when her husband, literary critic Elliot Gilbert, died in the recovery room after what had been, up to that point, a routine operation.  I doubt she could have predicted, in the immediacy of her initial grief, that her work would be transformed as well, shifting its focus, almost completely, from women’s literature and feminist criticism to dying and death.

Before 1991, Gilbert was best known as coauthor, with Susan Gubar, of The Madwoman in the Attic (1979), perhaps the most famous work of American feminist literary criticism to that point, as well as coeditor, again with Gubar, of The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women (1985). Since 1991, her major works include Wrongful Death: A Memoir (1995); Ghost Volcano (1996), a collection of poems about her husband’s death; Inventions of Farewell: A Book of Elegies (2001), an anthology; and now Death’s Door, a sweeping personal, cultural, and literary account of contemporary attitudes toward death and mourning.

The shift was not wholly unheralded. Gilbert reveals, in Death’s Door, that at the beginning of her career she embarked on a project about death in nineteenth- and twentieth-century poetry, but, as she puts it, “within a few years history intervened, in the form of the second wave of feminism, utterly changing my critical focus.” Thus, for a reader like me, who knows her as one of the mothers of feminist criticism, it is striking—and a bit disturbing—to read a 460-page book in which she discusses many women writers and mourners, but hardly mentions gender.

Death’s Door is a major accomplishment, indeed, an almost daunting one.  Its sweep is dazzling, encompassing: in fifteen chapters with at least a half dozen subsections apiece, appear Tennyson and Thom Gunn, the Battle of the Somme and Sylvia Plath, the death of Gilbert’s three-day-old son in 1958 and the AIDS Memorial Quilt, not to mention virtual pet cemeteries, sati, and the awkward comments embarrassed friends make to the bereaved.

The central premise of Death’s Door is that our experience of death in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries differs from that of our predecessors. We encounter “ ‘modern death,’ death conceived as a bleak termination of life, rather than an expiration into a blessed hereafter.” Shaped by modern military and medical technologies, hinted at in the unconventional nineteenth-century poetics of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, coming into bleak bloom on the battlefields of World War I and fearful flower in mid-century concentration camps, “modern death” has transformed the way we mourn and, perhaps most importantly for Gilbert, the way we write about death and mourning.

In the first of the book’s three parts, “Arranging My Mourning: Five Meditations on the Psychology of Grief,” Gilbert returns repeatedly to the deaths of her son, father, and husband, as she explores how death becomes “a place” and the dead “presences,” as the bereaved struggle to comprehend the reality of their loss. Central to her argument in this section are the ways that, in the face of grief, the supposedly impermeable boundary between the dead and the living comes to seem distinctly permeable. Talking to the dead, worrying about how the dead feel, imagining the dead alive, believing in ghosts, feeling guilty for surviving, suing for malpractice: all these widespread, ordinary phenomena testify to this feeling of permeability and to the difficulty we have letting go of our dead.

But while the bereaved have always mourned, Gilbert argues that today they mourn in a fundamentally different context—which is the focus of the book’s second section, “History Makes Death: How the Twentieth Century Reshaped Dying and Mourning.”

Where once people took comfort in the idea of an afterlife that gave death meaning (death as “expiration”), in the wake of urbanization, industrialization, twentieth-century wars, and an over-reaching medical technology—that is, under the essential conditions of modernity and the nihilism it has bred—death is “termination.” It is simply an end, which wipes out meaning.

In this section Gilbert is perhaps less original than in the first—drawing heavily on well-known works such as Philippe Ariès The Hour of Our Death (1981) and Sherwin Nuland’s How We Die (1994)—but she is lucidly synthetic. One of the book’s weaknesses does become most apparent here: it is too often repetitive. (Perhaps it didn’t need to be quite so long.) Gilbert has a tendency to revisit, indeed, almost to harp upon, the same quotations and motifs, although she elaborates on them in different ways. These include Philip Larkin’s description of religion as a “vast moth-eaten musical brocade / Created to pretend we never die,” and the evils of medical technology (which are perhaps not quite so evil when the patient recovers). The chapter on photography, however, is marvelous: a powerful meditation on photography and video as vehicles for accessing both the dead and our feelings about them.

In the third section, “The Handbook of Heartbreak: Contemporary Elegy and Lamentation,” Gilbert finally arrives at her true passion: poetry. In the face of modern death, poetry becomes a means of bearing witness, rather than a vehicle of consolation. A well-known poet herself, Gilbert describes in the preface how she initially planned to write a book on the contemporary elegy that “addressed a central question in recent literary history, namely, how do poets mourn in an age of mounting theological and social confusion about death and dying?” She goes on to explain that her project became at once “more autobiographical” and “more ambitious in scope,” resulting in a book she calls in some sense experimental, mingling the techniques of different genres (autobiographical narrative, cultural studies, literary history) in an effort to ground my investigation of the poetics of grief in the complexity and richness of what, for want of a better word, I’ll name “the real.”

Even when she is immersed in “the real,” as in the book’s first section on the actual experience of bereavement, Gilbert seems incapable of not turning to poetry and literature: in the first chapter alone she references D.H. Lawrence, George Eliot, W.G. Sebald, William Butler Yeats, Sylvia Plath, Thomas Hardy, Shakespeare, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edgar Allan Poe, Toni Morrison, and the Song of Songs. When she finally turns her attention fully to poetry, she is dazzling, especially in the chapter on Sylvia Plath, in an extended meditation on Plath’s poem “Berck-Plage,” in which “[a]n old man is vanishing” in the sunny beach resort, and “[t]here is no hope, it is given up.” Gilbert brilliantly repositions Plath “as our most highly sensitized and representative poet not, as is often asserted, of suicidal ‘extremism’ but rather of later-twentieth-century mourning.”

Strikingly, however, the Plath chapter hardly mentions gender. Even more striking is the following chapter, “Was the Nineteenth Century Different?” which explores how, in the eccentricity of their poetics and theologies, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson hint toward modernist attitudes about death (which helps to explain why their poetic progeny have so preferred them to their sentimental peers). Gilbert considers gender in only a single paragraph, essentially raising it to put it aside: But obviously if we compare Whitman’s ambivalent obsession with Mother Death to Dickinson’s ambivalent terror of Death the Lover, we have to think about the different ways in which nineteenth-century America’s most richly influential male and female poets engendered visions of death and dying…For it’s surely meaningful that both these radically innovative poets often depicted dying as an encounter with a magically powerful member of the opposite sex. Perhaps it’s equally meaningful, though, that Whitman’s imaginings were frequently different—and luckier—than Dickinson’s. You might infer, from the subsequent few sentences of analysis, that the female poet is at once more percipient in and debilitated by her understanding of death, but Gilbert doesn’t go there.  Instead she quickly ends both the paragraph and the section, with the funerals of Dickinson and Whitman.

In the next chapter, “‘Rats’ Alley’ and the Death of the Pastoral,” she repeatedly references the No Man’s Land of World War I as the place where the horrors of modern warfare killed the pastoral elegy, but she makes no reference to her own No Man’s Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century (1987, 1989, 1994).  Perhaps she sees no reason to include women writers in a discussion of the poetry of the trenches, but the earlier work nonetheless haunts this one, especially given Gilbert’s own linguistic precision, visible in both her impeccable prose and her obsession with etymologies.

You could argue that Gilbert, like much of the academy, feminist and otherwise, has moved on from “feminist criticism” to “cultural studies.” You could also point out that she has explored the implications of gender in the works of writers like Plath and Dickinson at great length elsewhere, and it is therefore perfectly reasonable for her, in a book about death and mourning, simply to address death and mourning. Yet I am not quite comfortable with the implication that feminism is thus, essentially, over, or that the categories of feminism and gender are not useful for thinking about, say, death and mourning.

One of the goals of cultural studies was to integrate the insights of recent work on gender, race, and class into a broader understanding of the operations of culture, high and low alike.  But despite Gilbert’s forays into the Internet and Princess Diana’s death, she remains resolutely highbrow (she notes in an aside that “Stravinsky towers over MTV, Virginia Woolf over Fay Weldon”). And she shows little interest in integrating the first half of her career with the second.

Cultural studies also offered the possibility of bridging the divide between academia and the general reader, and writers like bell hooks, Cornel West, and Michael Bérubé have achieved that possibility in thoughtful and accessible studies of gender, race, film, politics, and disability.  I often wondered, however, as I read Gilbert’s insightful and engaging book, who else would be reading it. With its sixty pages of footnotes and twenty of bibliography, its insistent focus on poetry (and fairly canonical poetry, at that), and its length and repetitiveness, Death’s Door comes to seem, despite Gilbert’s embrace of the “experimental” and the universality of her topic, a fundamentally academic book.

I am, in a sense, accusing Gilbert of offenses she does not commit, for she nowhere claims not to be writing an academic book, nor does she repudiate feminism or identify herself as a popular writer (I have not accused her of ignoring non-Western traditions and thus overusing the proverbial “we,” because she explicitly identifies the book’s context as “Western culture, especially the United States and other Anglophone societies.”) Yet it is precisely because Death’s Door offers such thoughtful insights into our current condition that I wish it were tighter, more accessible, and less attached to literary criticism.

Ultimately, though, literary criticism is what Gilbert does best—and by that I mean not only that it is her strongest skill, but also that she is one of the best. Despite decades of critical controversy and revision, The Madwoman in the Attic remains fundamental to the understanding of nineteenth-century literature because of its incisive combination of meticulous literary analysis and political passion. Time will tell whether Death’s Door becomes as fundamental to our understanding of the modern elegy, but it is already a passionate brief for the power of poetry, even—or perhaps especially—in the face of irredeemable loss.

Rebecca Steinitz is a writer, editor, and director of High School Programs at the Lesley University School of Education. In a previous incarnation, she taught Victorian literature and feminist literary theory.

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