Death's Door (Modern Dying and the Ways We Grieve)
By Sandra M. Gilbert
W.W. Norton, 580 pp (incl. notes, index, and illustrations), $29.95
Reviewed by Jerome Richard
What is behind death's door? Speculation has been endless, expectant, despairing, questioning, and sometimes poetic. Those who think they know may well be better off than realists who are not so sure, but however hopeful we might be, we mourn the passing of a loved one often more than we dread our own final exit.
Sandra M. Gilbert's father died after a long illness when he was fifty-seven. She was in her mid-twenties, not long out of graduate school. Six years earlier, her premature baby died. And in 1991, her husband Elliot, sixty-years-old, died as the result of a botched hospital procedure. All gone before what we would think of as their time, and therefore their deaths seem not just sad, but wrong.
She wrote about her husband in Wrongful Death (Norton, 1995) and five years ago she edited an anthology of elegies titled Inventions of Farewell (Norton, 2001). Now she has produced Death's Door (Norton, 2006), a book that combines memoir and meditation with social and literary criticism.
Describing herself as "A humbler mourner, a lamenting widow and an end-of-the-skeptical-twentieth-century memoirist," (p.91) she quotes Elizabeth Barrett Browning on protesting slavery: "THIS is the curse. Write!" It is in a section of the book called "Writing Wrong," though she knows very well that writing about these wrongs will not right them.
When my own son died at twenty-seven, Ms. Gilbert advised my wife and me to "follow the rituals." It was good advice. It doesn't alleviate the hurt, but it imposes a sense of order on one's suddenly disordered universe. She describes her own mourning as "the untellable sorrow out of which I strive to bring some order, some meaning." (p.99).
The book is divided into three parts: "Five Meditations on the Psychology of Grief," "How the Twentieth Century Reshaped Dying and Mourning," and "Contemporary Elegy and Lamentation." The first section recounts her reactions to the tragedies she suffered, as well as the ways that some poets and religions, particularly Judaism and Catholicism, attempt to deal with death. Poignantly for us today, she wonders if there might not be some meeting ground in that mysterious realm we call cyberspace, and thus she imagines writing e-mails to her dead husband.
In the second section she makes a useful distinction between expiration, the notion that one's soul survives the body, and termination, the more modern and pessimistic belief that death ends it all. Who, contemplating a loved one gone, has not wished that the departed might be saying with Walt Whitman, "Who knows, for all the distance, but I am as good as looking at you now, for all you cannot see me?" (p.73), or spoken words of mourning to the deceased.
It was the horrors of World War I that wore down people's faith. Millions of young men killed in a war of unfathomable stupidity stunned the western mind and overwhelmed whatever rosy thoughts of death as expiration people once held. "Where…the great elegists of the English language trusted for centuries in the radiant reality of a transcendent realm into which the souls of those they mourned might expire, most poets mourning 'modern' deaths have sought to cope with the intransigent blankness of terminations that lead nowhere and promise nothing." (p.109)
She deals also with the modern way of dying, in hospital or hospice rather than at home, and how this has made death more impersonal. One passes now through swinging doors rather than a familiar front door.
Termination, however, seems to me more of an intellectual notion; expiration is still the emotional one, as witness the flowers left at the grave of people we love. Some people even attempt communication with people they never knew. And appropriately, it seems, there are now "virtual" cemeteries. Posted on the World Wide Cemetery site, for example, are notes from complete strangers ("Rest in Peace. Greetings from Iceland.")
The third section contemplates Walt Whitman's enigmatic assertion that "to die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier." Was it a reflection of the nineteenth century's sense of optimism, or a comment on finality? Perhaps it was a sardonic comment on life. Gilbert points out that despite his poetic declaration in "Song of Myself" that "I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love," he had a large tomb built for himself so he could be buried above ground. There is even a picture of the tomb. (p. 362)
In this section, Gilbert also provides an extended explication of Sylvia Plath's poem "Berck-Plage." It could have been a separate study, and some readers will wish it were, but it is not so much besides the point as it is beyond it. She went to the beach (plage means beach in French) that inspired Plath's poem because all of the book, even what appears to be the most formal literary criticism, represents her personal response to the writings of the community of mourners.
After a talk in Kyoto, Japan, Gilbert was asked what consolation Whitman and Emily Dickinson have to offer. She does not have an answer. Later, she considers that the act of making an elegy might provide some solace for the poet, and, reading it, for the mourner too.
At times, Death's Door comes across finally as an attempt to trap death, to understand it, to make it listen to us, not only to comprehend it but as if to make it comprehend us, what it does to us, not only those it takes but especially those it (temporarily) leaves behind. In that sense, it is a brave book, dazzling in its scope and erudition. Gilbert seems to lead an army of poets and writers singing with John Donne: "Death be not proud."
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