In a significant essay entitled “Mourning and Melancholia,” Freud wrote of “the work of mourning,” meaning the psychic process whereby a cherished object is finally laid to rest, as it were buried in the unconscious, and the ego liberated from its grip. Until the work of mourning has been accomplished, Freud argued, new life, new loves, new engagement with the world are all difficult if not impossible. This is the explanation, as he saw it, of the state that used to be known as melancholia—a kind of willed helplessness in which the dead lie unburied on the surface of consciousness, greeting every bid for freedom with a blank, joyless stare.
I am not, in general, persuaded by Freudian psychology. But in this matter, it seems to me, Freud was on the right track. We lose many things in our lives. But some losses are existential losses. They take away some part of what we are. After such a loss we are in a new and unfamiliar world, wherein the support on which we had—perhaps unknowingly—depended is no longer available. The loss of a parent, especially during one’s early years, is a world-changing experience, and orphans are marked for life by this. The loss of a spouse is equally traumatic, as is the loss of children, who take with them into the void all the most tender feelings of their parents.
Nevertheless, however grievous the blow, mourning is a therapy that points toward survival. Through mourning we bury the dead. But we also raise them from the dead, not as living beings, but as purified images, washed clean of their faults and transfigured by our mutual forgiveness. They are revered as they could never have been revered in life, since only this will enable us to escape from our guilt. For the first outpouring of grief is also a reproach—of the dead person for dying, and of the mourner for having survived him. Gradually, mourning takes on the form of a dialogue, in which the grieving party both seeks and offers forgiveness: Let all those imperfections be forgotten, is the thought, and let us be at peace together.
But this dialogue is not easy: it involves a face-to-face encounter of a new kind, maybe after years of avoiding such a thing. There is, as psychotherapists have often pointed out, a period of anger, a bitter reproach toward the other who has let you down so completely. And this anger can take on an obsessive and exploratory character, seeking the ways in which the other’s death was a secret plan, a policy decision, a plot to cast you off as a burden, just at the moment when you needed him most. Sometimes you can lay the dead person to rest only after you have killed him for a second time, like Sylvia Plath in her great poem “Daddy”:
Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time——
Marble-heavy, a bag full of God . . .
Mourning is a ritual, and also, in certain circumstances, a duty, and these features illustrate the claims that the dead have on us. Mourning is something that we owe to the dead, since the process of mutual forgiveness must be pursued until our dead no longer haunt us. The Greeks took this matter very seriously. Thus, when Odysseus visits Hades, the spirit of Elpenor, who had fallen to his death from the roof of Circe’s palace, and whose body was left there in the haste to flee, appears to him first, addressing him in the following words:
I beseech you, by all those whom you left behind, by your wife and by the father who reared you as a child, and by Telemachus your only son whom you left within your halls, that you will, sailing from the kingdom of Hades, put in with your good ship at the isle of Aeaea. And there my lord I beseech you to remember me and not to leave me there unwept and unburied, lest I should become a cause of divine wrath against you. But burn me there with all my arms and raise a mound for me by the shore of the grey sea, in memory of an unfortunate man, so that those yet to be will know the place. Do this for me, and on my tomb plant the oar that I used to pull when I was living and rowing beside my companions.
Elpenor is asking for funeral rites. But he is also asking to be mourned. Do not leave me, he implores, unwept and unburied (Aklauton, athapton). In invoking Odysseus’s family, Elpenor conveys the sense that the duty toward him is an inextricable part of the fabric of honor and obligation by which the Greek hero conducted his life. The duty to shed tears, both personal tears and ritual tears, arises at the moment of death, and must be honored. Elpenor invokes the possibility of divine wrath; for this is a duty of piety, and until it is performed, the cosmos is shot through with a metaphysical fault.
That idea pervades the seminal play Antigone by Sophocles, which concerns (among so many other things!) the conflict between the duties of piety and the duties of government. Antigone obeys the call to bury her dead brother, Polyneices, whom her uncle Creon, king of Thebes, has condemned to lie unburied outside the walls of the city. Antigone’s obligation to mourn and to bury her brother is in her view absolute, and she proceeds inexorably to her death in fulfilling it. There is no suggestion in the play, or in Antigone’s speeches, that her brother will receive any other benefit from her action than lawful burial. Nevertheless, the obligation to pull the curtain across his life is absolute, and it falls on her. She owes it to him, and the world will be out of joint until she has accomplished it. It is possible that she entertains religious beliefs, according to which burial and ritual mourning are required by the soul of Polyneices, as they were required by the soul of Elpenor. But reference to those beliefs is no part of the plot. The important point, impressed on the audience by Sophocles, is that Antigone owes something to her dead brother, and that if she does not fulfill her obligation, it is she herself who suffers: She falls from the exalted condition of the free, heroic spirit into the pit of those contemptible beings for whom no obligation can trump the mere habit of staying alive.
Obligations of that kind are less and less acknowledged in modern societies. We are far more likely to be interested in what the deceased person owes to us by way of a legacy than what we owe to him or her in the way of mourning. Of course, we still offer funerals to our dead, though we expect them to budget for this while still alive. And we grieve for them as we must. But it is increasingly rare to raise a monument, or even to lay our dead to rest in a grave that we might subsequently visit. The habit of cremating the dead and then scattering their ashes reflects our post-religious conception of what they become by dying, namely nothing. We briefly snatch at their nothingness and then watch them fade from our empty hands. At the back of our minds is the thought that all duty ends with the life to which it was owed. The funeral rituals that surround the practice of cremation are therefore especially prone to Disneyfication, as Evelyn Waugh maliciously and hilariously shows in The Loved One. Since the obligation is unreal, its fulfillment becomes a kind of ritualized pretense, an opportunity for displays of kitsch emotion. And that too is therapeutic, since it casts a light back across the life that has been lost, and reshapes it as a fake. This life and this love, it tells us, were no more real than the feelings displayed at the end of it, so let’s make a pretty display of them and move on.
In behaving in that way, however, we are denying something. Those who have been truly close to us in life cannot in fact be scattered as their ashes can. They remain brooding within us, as Freud saw, waiting for the rest that we alone can offer them. This is one reason why, even in the age of cremation, we ritualize our mourning, so as to endow it with the character of an objective and public event, an imperative that falls on us all and which lifts the dead person to a new place in the community—a place of safety from which he has no will to escape. However Disneyfied, the ritual remains a moral necessity; without it we shall be haunted, as Odysseus was haunted by the ghost of Elpenor.
But ritual is not enough. We also need to mourn, and this is the difficult part, for it obliges us to tend the grave within, to revisit what we have lost and to rehearse an attachment rooted in things that cannot be changed. It requires us to come to terms with the loss, incorporating it into our future, so that what we are and what we were belong to a single continuum. By mourning we take responsibility for our loss, acknowledge it as ours, a debt to be redeemed. Not to mourn is to live at a lower level, detached from our real attachments, denying the past and the identity that grew in it. It involves, for us as much as for Antigone, a refusal to be called to account, a stepping down from interpersonal being into the world of carnal appetite. And all this is implied in the sympathy that we feel for those who mourn, who are raised like Antigone to the highest spiritual plane. Blessed are those that mourn, for they shall be comforted: so it is said in the Sermon on the Mount. Those who mourn leave the world of animal appetite behind, and reach to the realm of the gods.
Religion enables people to bear their losses, not necessarily because it promises the hope of reversing them, but rather because it encases them, surrounds them with a protective seal of ritual, as the oyster grows a pearl around the grain of sand. Whether or not religion offers consoling doctrines of the afterlife (and those of the Greeks were far from consoling), it offers us a direct way of dealing with loss, as a rite of passage in which the whole community takes part. The loss of religious belief thereby leads to an even greater loss of other and necessary states of mind—beliefs about what we owe to the dead, and about our own status as their survivors.
Loss is fundamental to the human condition. But civilizations differ in their way of accommodating it. The Upanishads exhort us to free ourselves of all attachments, to rise to that blissful state in which we can lose nothing because we possess nothing. And flowing from that exhortation is an art and a philosophy that make light of human suffering, and scorn the losses that oppress us in this world.
By contrast, Western civilization has dwelt upon loss and made it the principal theme of its art and literature. Scenes of mourning and sorrow abound in medieval painting and sculpture; our drama is rooted in tragedy and our lyric poetry takes the loss of love and the vanishing of its object as its principal theme. It is not Christianity that gave us this outlook. Virgil’s Aeneid, ostensibly an expression of Aeneas’s hope as he is god-guided to his world-transforming goal in Italy, is composed of losses. The terrible sack of Troy, the loss of his wife, the awful tale of Dido, the death of Anchises, the visit to the underworld, the ruinous conflict with Turnus—all these explore the parameters of loss, and show us that our highest hopes and loyalties lead of their own accord to tragedy.
For all that, the Aeneid is just as much a religious text as the Upanishads. The world of Aeneas is a world of rites and rituals, of sacred places and holy times. And Aeneas is judged by the gods, sometimes hounded by them, sometimes sustained, but at every moment accountable to them and aware of their real presence in the empirical world. It is for this reason that Aeneas can look his many losses in the face and also set them at the distance that enables him to gain from them. They come to him not as inexplicable accidents but as trials, ordeals, and judgments. He wrestles with them and overcomes them as you might overcome an opponent. And each loss adds to his inner strength, without hardening his heart.
This attitude to loss reflects the questioning and self-critical spirit of Western civilization. The Western response to loss is not to remove yourself from the world. It is to bear it as a loss, to mourn it, and to strive to overcome it by seeing it as a form of consecrated suffering. Religion lies at the root of that attitude. Religion enables us to bear our losses not, primarily, because it promises to offset them with some compensating gain, but because it sees them from a transcendental perspective. Judged from that perspective they appear not as meaningless afflictions but as sacrifices. Loss, conceived as sacrifice, becomes consecrated to something higher than itself: and in this it follows a pattern explored by René Girard in his bold theory of the violent origins of the human disposition to recognize sacred things. I think that is how people can cope with the loss of children—to recognize in this loss a supreme example of the transition to another realm. Your dead child was a sacrificial offering, and is now an angel beckoning from that other sphere, sanctifying the life that you still lead in the material world. This thought is of course very crudely captured by my words. Fortunately, however, three great works of art exist that convey it completely—the medieval poem of Pearl from the Gawain manuscript, Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, and Britten’s church parable Curlew River.
In our civilization, therefore, religion is the force that has enabled us to bear our losses and so to face them as truly ours. The loss of religion makes real loss difficult to bear; hence people begin to flee from loss, to make light of it with Disneyfying ornaments, or to expel from themselves the feelings that make it inevitable. They do not do this in the way of the Upanishads, which exhort us to an immense spiritual labor, whereby we free ourselves from the weight of Dharma and slowly ascend to the blessed state of Brahman. The path of renunciation presupposes, after all, that there is something to renounce. Modern people use drugs, instant excitements, and commodified sex in order to forestall both love and mourning, to arrive at the condition where renunciation is pointless since there is nothing to renounce. Renunciation of love is possible only when you have learned to love. This is why, in a society without religion, we see emerging a kind of contagious hardness of heart, an assumption on every side that there is no tragedy, no grief, no mourning, for there is nothing to mourn. There is neither love nor happiness—only fun. The loss of religion, one might suggest, is the loss of loss.
We should not let the matter rest on that pessimistic note. Western civilization has provided us with another resource, through which our losses can be understood and accepted. This resource is art. The features of Western civilization which have made loss such a central feature of our experience, have also placed tragedy at the center of our literature. Our greatest works of art are meditations on loss—every kind of loss, including that of Paradise, including that of God himself. These works of art convey in imaginative form the concept that more fortunate people were able to acquire through the elementary forms of the religious life—the concept of the sacred. This is what Nietzsche had in mind, I suspect, when he wrote—shortly before going mad—that “we have art so that we may not perish of the truth.” The scientist may have seen through to the truth of our condition, but it is only one part of the truth. The rest of the truth—the truth of the moral life, of the human form divine and the abiding need for sacrament—must be recovered in another way. And that, I believe, is why poets like Rilke and Eliot are so important for us. They offer us spiritual exercises through which those old concepts of the transcendental and the sacred can be rescued from their withered state and made flexible and vital, the true tendons of the inner life. And so, even in an age without faith, we can rediscover the experience of sacred things, and attain to
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
The Christian reference of those final lines of Four Quartets is an echo only—a hearkening back to experiences that demand not belief, but only imagination, in order to confer their moral gift. But they express the condition of a soul that has ceased to mourn, not because it has fled from the work of mourning, but because it has accomplished it, and emerged in a condition of freedom, free again to love.
It is fair to say that, in the wake of the First World War, we lived in an elegiac culture. An elegy is a way of accepting the loss of some precious thing. It rejoices in the fact that the precious thing was given. If it is sad, it is with an accepting sadness. An elegy says: This we were given, and it is gone, but we should be grateful for it, and try to live up to its memory.
We in England are very familiar with elegiac art. The First World War took away the social order, the pastoral way of life, and the noble aspirations of the English, and dumped us suddenly and brutally into the modern world. Much of our modern art and music is an invocation of things of which we are bereft. The paintings of the Nash brothers and Stanley Spencer, for example, works like the above-quoted Four Quartets of T. S. Eliot, the cello concerto of Elgar, the fifth symphony of Vaughan Williams, and the concerto for double string orchestra by Tippett: Such works invoke our lost pastoral homeland in a spirit of tender regret. They offer us a manageable sadness, which is also an encouragement. Something of all that remains, they say: something to live up to, material to reforge and recast in a renewed attempt at living rightly. I hear this in the later works of Vaughan Williams, and especially in his Pilgrim’s Progress. By mourning what we have lost, we also regain it, in another and transmuted form. So the elegy tells us.
I once wrote a book entitled England: An Elegy. I was aware when writing it that I was emphasizing the good, not the evil, that my country had stood for. But I felt entitled to do so, not merely because the good in my view outweighed the evil, but also because I was embarking on a legitimate work of mourning, just as Elgar had embarked on such a work in his cello concerto. Elegies are attempts at reconciliation and redemption, works of mourning in the sense intended by Freud. Mourning, as I have described it, is a process of reconciliation, in which the dead are retrospectively granted the right to die. Hence all funeral rites and all elegies for the dead are designed to highlight the virtues and to minimize the vices of the departed person. But what if the dead cannot be forgiven? What if their vices are an immovable obstacle to all attempts to accept them? Then mourning becomes impossible.
Germans after the Second World War felt this about their country. The Germany that we know from art, music, and literature—the Germany of the Gothic cathedrals and the gingerbread cities, of Dürer and Grünewald, of Luther’s Bible, of Goethe, Schiller, Kant, and Hegel, the Germany of the Romantic poets and of the greatest continuous musical tradition that the world will ever know—that Germany had been poisoned in people’s thoughts by Hitler. It would have been easier to deal with the memory of the Hitler years, if they had been imposed on Germany by some alien power which had sought to obliterate this great nation, as the Mongols obliterated the civilization centered on Baghdad, or as the Chinese are at this moment obliterating Tibet. But it was not like that. The Nazis proclaimed themselves heirs to German civilization. Hitler was not just a madman: he was an aesthete and an intellectual, like Stalin and Mao; he emphasized in all his speeches the history and achievements of the German people; he invoked the art, music, and philosophy of Germany as justifications for his cause and objects of his pride. And the Germans followed him on his path of conquest, sharing his triumphs and forced very soon to share his disastrous defeat. Although their music was not destroyed by the war, their cities—the greatest cities in Europe—were reduced to rubble, their civilian population exposed to the horrors of blanket bombing and the rapine of the Soviet Army, and the noses of the survivors rubbed in the unspeakable reality of the Holocaust. Their country was destroyed, but it was impossible to mourn it.
Two psychoanalysts, the husband-and-wife pair Margarete Nielsen and Alexander Mitscherlich, reflected on this situation in a book published in 1967: Die Unfähigkeit zu trauern—The Inability to Mourn. The Germans could not grieve for their dead and at the same time accept the guilt that their dead had incurred. Even the heroic self-sacrifice of the German armies on the Russian front could not be given as a proof of virtue. All were guilty—guilty not only for the insane destruction of their country, but also for the crimes against humanity and civilization that had been unleashed by the Nazis. The world insisted that the Germans accept their guilt. Hence the world denied them the relief of mourning. Their dead lay unburied in their conscience, like Polyneices outside the walls of Thebes. As in the Antigone of Sophocles, piety called for mourning while politics forbade it.
Subsequent history illustrates what is lost when we cannot mourn. The Germans, unable to bury the corpses that lie scattered in every recess of their culture, cannot redeem their guilt. They can neither confront the past nor turn away from it. The “work of mourning” has therefore not been collectively undertaken, and as a result the Germans suffer a kind of national paralysis, a collective melancholia. Much that happens in contemporary German culture stems from this. The refusal of the churches to speak out against Islam; the propaganda of the architectural modernists against those patriots who seek to rebuild Berlin as once it was; the nihilistic musical life of Darmstadt and Donaueschingen; the fanatical commitment to the European Union, which offers transnational citizenship in the place of a purely national allegiance; and in all this the complete absence of elegiac works of art—nothing to counter the self-advertising guilt of Anselm Kiefer, the desolation of Günter Grass, or the pretentious claptrap of Stockhausen. Germany itself has been hidden away, and can be reborn only on one condition: that mourning should begin. But mourning has been forbidden, and a deep discomfort remains.
From the same source, it seems to me, sprang the decision of Angela Merkel, accepted by a substantial number of the German people, to open the borders to refugees, in full knowledge that those refugees will not, in the foreseeable feature, either integrate into German society or in any way share the open and democratic way of life that the Germans have wished to achieve. The vast cost—administrative, social, economic and political—of this gesture derives from guilt. But it will not assuage that guilt. However admirable the impulse that led to this gesture, it will not give the people what they really need, which is the belief in Germany’s right to take its place in the community of nations. Until the work of mourning has taken its course, that place will be no more than a dream. And meanwhile the unpurged guilt of Germany remains.
Roger Scruton (d. 2020) was a writer and philosopher. This essay was written for a collection that will be published this year as The Meaning of Mourning: Perspectives on Death, Loss and Grief, edited by Mikołaj Sławkowski-Rode.