devastation baby


Rational and Revolutionary Grief

Two new books help illuminate the politics of mourning
by Alex Dodt

If, as Alfred North Whitehead said, all of European philosophy is “a series of footnotes to Plato,” then grief was already a footnote in Plato. In the Phaedo, Socrates drinks from the cup of hemlock that will kill him and his friends begin weeping. Socrates is annoyed. “What is this, you strange fellows?” he scolds and they rush to conceal their grief. Throughout his appearances in Plato’s dialogues, the founding father of Western philosophy is dismissive of grief. In the Republic, Socrates insists that “We must not hug the hurt part in us,” and European philosophers since have tended to follow suit, maligning or marginalizing grief, leaving its portrayal to artists who have depicted it powerfully but not always in a positive light—Achilles in the Iliad pouring ashes over his head or Ophelia in King Lear driven so mad by grief she ends up drowned.

Today, the personal memoir is the medium through which grief is most commonly explored, dominating best-seller lists and non-fiction award nominations. Classics like C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking have become exemplars of the narrative arc of grief, from emotional bewilderment toward a surprising, reluctant acceptance. Outside philosophy, academics continue to shape popular beliefs about loss. Trauma studies have gone mainstream—Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score has been a New York Times best-seller for 175 weeks. Psychological models, like Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief, have become common reference, shaping our vocabulary and expectations for recovery. However, while these narrative and academic depictions have rescued grief from its philosophical exile, this literature has not defended grief against the charge that led to its ostracism.

If grief is a painful experience that makes us act erratically, shouldn’t we avoid it as much as possible? Plato said yes. Much of the contemporary literature agrees or doesn’t address the question. Most academic models of grief avoid prescriptive answers—"should" being verbum non grata in a therapist’s office. The five stages of grief are a tool for mapping loss, but they are mute on the places worth visiting. Grief narratives are free to make claims about whether, or how, we should grieve, but their answers are idiosyncratic. Memoirs like The Year of Magical Thinking offer tender consolation to the reader who identifies with the author but leave open the possible reading that grief is an unwelcome terror. The redemptive power of Didion’s grief is indelibly tied to her artful rendering. What then for the mourner unable to fashion their loss into a similarly beautiful object?

In this prescriptive gap between the science and aesthetics of grief, two new books offer accounts of grief’s real value. In Grief: A Philosophical Guide, Michael Cholbi, a professor of philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, argues that grief is good for us and a reasonable response to loss, not the irrational behavior Western philosophers have believed it to be. In In the Eye of the Wild, Nastassja Martin, a French anthropologist, narrates her recovery from a near-fatal bear attack and envisions a grief that pushes beyond Western rationality toward a more expansive view of the self.

What emerges from these divergent explorations is a grief that is essential, that is good in the sense that good is not only about what we want but also what wants us. While these two accounts answer definitively the question of grief’s value, they also reveal and begin to sketch an answer to a different and more difficult question. Grief is typically seen as private and personal, but what if it was public? What if grief was political?

In Grief: A Philosophical Guide, Cholbi traces grief’s philosophical exile to the ancient view of emotion as an obstacle to thinking. Using too simple a distinction between reason and emotion, philosophers accused grief of irrationality on two counts: it is an unreasonable reaction to the inevitability of loss and it makes us behave illogically, hurting ourselves and others in the process. Grief, Plato said, forestalls our ability to engage in rational deliberation, “the very thing we most need in such circumstances.” Before scolding his friends for weeping in the Phaedo, Socrates debates immortality and the nature of the soul with them for hours. Their sorrow is an irritating distraction from the good, contemplative life.

But what if it were rational to weep? This question strikes against the heart of Western philosophy’s common assumptions about human behavior and is Cholbi’s starting point. Armed with a more nuanced understanding of the role of emotions in cognition and a reformer’s desire to restore grief to its rightful place in the pages of Western thought, Cholbi defends grief as a foundational piece of that rational deliberation Socrates so valorized. Socrates taught his followers to “Know thyself,” but grief’s unmatched emotional discombobulation can be “a powerful source and motivator of substantial self-knowledge,” of a profound new understanding of ourselves and our relationships, of our values and commitments. It is not the irrational paroxysm depicted in Plato. Socratic deliberation aims at universality, and so it is detached, unemotional, unable to motivate our self-understanding as well as the subjective emotional turmoil of grief does.

While Cholbi works against the grain of academic depictions by making claims about how and why we should grieve, Martin is an outlier among grief narratives. In the Eye of the Wild is not about a deceased loved one or the author struggling to reintegrate their new, healed self into the world. Martin’s story begins instead with her lying at the foot of a Siberian volcano disfigured and nearly dead, a brown bear scrambling back into the forest with her ice ax lodged in his thigh. Through her recovery, Martin inverts the conventional narrative arc, attempting to integrate the alienated world into her new self, open wounds and all.

In hospital beds from the Far East to Western Europe, Martin tells her family and doctors about her dreams and premonitions of the attack and what these psychic flashes say about the possibility of communion between humans and nonhuman animals, about the alienation of people from the planet, about the delusional notion of a unitary self. She grieves for her own condition but also for the bear’s and for the estrangement of all living things that she felt acutely growing up in the West and that she had come to Siberia to escape. Listening to Martin’s tales of mingling spirits with the bear, her family and doctors nod their heads dutifully, secretly “hoping that [she’ll] soon see reason.”

But Martin is not interested in rationalizing grief and her story highlights the dangers of doing so. An anthropologist by training, she lived for years in isolated, animist communities in Alaska and Russia, staying long past the demands of scholarship. She was so attuned to the dialogue between living things in the forest that before her encounter with the bear, the local Even people had already taken to calling her matukha, or “she-bear.” In the wild and in her book, Martin explores the spaces between worlds, “where you risk being changed, from which it is difficult to return.” She finds the Western rationality in which she was trained and her family wished she would see again soon has alienated her from the world outside her skull. The value of her grief is the chance to renegotiate that relationship.

During her time in Siberia, Martin kept two notebooks, one colorful and filled with detailed notes and transcriptions to be organized later and published for academic review, the other, her “black book,” overflowing with lyrical fragments, her untamed dreams and visions. In the Eye of the Wild is built from a dialectic between the two notebooks, as Martin moves between the two modes: dreamer and academic, anthropologist and poet. She says the conversation between her notebooks represents the duality of her soul, torn between her European roots and the animist communities she called home, but it can also be reimagined as a dialogue between academic and narrative depictions of grief, between Cholbi and Martin, between rational and borderless grief.

“Most of the philosophical tradition thus seems to fear grief for what it might say about us human beings,” Cholbi says. It is a fear “that our finitude, vulnerability, and interdependence neither can be nor should be fully overcome.” By defending grief, Cholbi affirms the value of embracing vulnerability and interdependence. It is important to understand that when we return to the restaurant where we first met our deceased loved one or we push play again on the song that reminds us of them, we are not lost in the mists of an alien mental state, rather we are immersed in a reasonable grieving process. But, for Cholbi, grief’s goodness is still explained in terms of its rationality, the same assumption held by the philosophers who have footnoted grief, and as a result leaves untouched the greater question: if grief and vulnerability and interdependence have been abused and exiled by Western thinkers, is rationality the best framework for the rescue?

Back in France, Martin is overwhelmed by people’s attempts to reconcile her grief with reason. They insist that she submit to further surgeries, that she never return to Siberia or the wild, that she recognize the psychological sources of the wanderlust that led her to the bear. Martin resists and aims instead for madness, madness being “a moment, short or long, during which the borders between ourselves and the outside world dissolve, little by little.” In the Eye of the Wild veers more and more toward Martin’s lyrical and poetic fragments as she strays further from the rational route. Others try still to corral her grief. When a therapist says her obsession with the bear is a manifestation of unresolved anger from her childhood, Martin is annoyed. “What is going on here,” she asks, “for all the other souls around us to be reduced to mere reflections of our own states of mind?”

The therapist’s response is an expression of the Western instinct to replace the windows of the soul with mirrors. Rationality executes this trick well—all we can know definitively is the private self and so everything must be explained by reference to it. Socrates could not square public, shared grief with reason. Today, reason is most commonly a cudgel in economics, where the synonymity of rationality and self-interested is taken to be a universal law and the premise of our social relations. It is no surprise then rationality leads Cholbi to conclude that the ultimate value of grief is self-knowledge. In this view, the disorienting experience of losing someone else is understood for how it affects the self. What remains unexplained is why Western rationality is so emaciated, shackled to a strict view of the self as an atomized, self-regarding individual and how this framework widens the gulf between ourselves and others. Rationality, Cholbi says, helps explain “why we typically grieve our siblings and spouses but not our postal carriers or periodontists.” But why is it irrational to weep for strangers? And why are they strange?

Large public disasters, from earthquakes to terrorist attacks, often reveal existing social relations to be the greater disaster, leading people on the ground to begin organizing themselves into enclaves of generosity and mutual aid. Sociologists have long established this fact, but our collective memory is shaped instead by media coverage which spotlights rare acts of vigilantism and violence. For the people in disaster areas, life is driven out of doors and loss becomes public. This experience is the catalyst for political action, for an explicit rebuke to the social order which has alienated them from one another. But it is not only our large public disasters that contain this potential.

Recovery is always political, even when it is personal. Whose life is worth grieving? Whose grief do we share? How we mend ourselves and each other always makes claims about causes and conditions, about what the future should look like. Martin had to choose between the recommendations of French and Russian doctors, between recovering in Parisian hospitals or indigenous Siberian communities, but the politics of her recovery lies in her rejection of rational, self-regarding answers and the commensurately modest grief that accompanies them. Her desire for madness is not a desire for irrationality but for liminality, poetry, the soul spilling out of its container.

If we extend this borderless grief beyond Martin and her bear, we can glimpse its radical political potential. Along with the privatization of our workplaces, our politics, and our planet has come what Rebecca Solnit calls “the privatization of desire and imagination,” through which we are encouraged to relate to one another primarily in economic terms, in which one person’s loss is always another’s gain. Grief that defies these terms then is a strike against this privatized, egocentric self. If grief is an expression of the deep ties between us, then in a society that pushes us more every day toward our own private corners, loud, public, communal grief for planets, postal carriers, and total strangers is a revolutionary act.

There is hope this may be happening already. Psychologists have begun talking of “climate grief,” a condition ideally embraced not merely as a series of symptoms to be managed privately but as a framework for public action. In the past two years, tens of millions of people have mourned the loss of a loved one to Covid-19, but their grief has been given little space in public. Displays that communicate the enormity of this loss, like Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg’s white flag memorial on the National Mall, are one step toward making this grief more our grief. “My body is a revolution,” Martin says after returning, still disfigured, to live among the bears and “knowingly amid the wreckage.” Public mourning in the hands of politicians is typically in service of war and further privatization, but the mourning Martin directs us toward is the opposite; it is bottom-up, a metamorphosis, the genesis of a new social order.

Near the end of In the Eye of the Wild, Martin’s poetic, dream-filled black book starts to seep into the academic writing of her colored notebooks. Soon, the notebooks will merge, she says, and “There will be one single story, speaking with many voices, the one we are weaving together, they and I, about all that moves through us and that makes us what we are.”

If we want a new story, borderless, communal grief could be its opening. In this story, we are not primarily consumers, or even citizens, but mourners. And we are mad with grief.

Alex is a high school philosophy teacher in Phoenix. He is also the founder of The Grief Commune which produces a zine and does community work centered around the belief in grief as a radical political force.