Friday 6 May 2016

'The Work of the Dead' by Thomas W. Laqueur (Princeton University Press £27.95)

“The past is very present to me and has been for a very long time. I first became aware of this quite intensely when I was a teenager, because of the First World War. You see, I think that the dead are with us.”

Berger’s father, Stanley, served as an infantry major in the trenches during the 1914-18 war and was awarded the Military Cross. He remained in the army for a further four years until 1922, organising war graves for the British dead. It was Berger’s mother, Miriam, a working-class woman from ­Bermondsey, London, who helped him to return to civilian life.

“What I’m talking about now is a very ancient part of human awareness. It may even be what defines the human – although it [was] largely forgotten in the second half of the 20th century. The dead are not abandoned. They are kept near physically. They are a presence. What you think you’re looking at on that long road to the past is actually beside you where you stand.”

“I think the dead are with us”:John Berger at 88 – Philip Maughan, New Statesman  11 June 2015

Weighing in at just under three pounds Thomas W. Laqueur’s latest book is a serious and hefty piece of scholarship.  Its sheer bulk forced me to read it slowly and carefully being far too heavy to lug around on public transport and read on the journey to and from work. In fact the Berkeley professor may well be the least London Underground friendly authors ever. His previous magnum opus ‘Solitary Sex – A Cultural History of Masturbation’ probably ranks with ‘The Nigger of the Narcissus’ as one the titles you would least want fellow commuters to spot you perusing on the Central Line. But every cloud has a silver lining and being forced to consume ‘The Work of the Dead’ at a stately and contemplative pace is no bad thing.  Its 550 densely packed pages survey the culture of mortal remains from the 17th century to the present day. Some have criticised Laqueur’s overly narrow focus; the book concentrates on Europe and the USA and even within those narrow parameters London and Paris come in for the lion’s share of attention.  For me Laqueur succeeds brilliantly at what he sets out to do. In his Introduction he tells us that:

“The history of the work of the dead is a history of how they dwell in us – individually and communally. It is a history of how we imagine them to be, how they give meaning to our lives, how they structure public spaces, politics, and time. It is a history of the imagination, a history of how we invest the dead – again, I will be speaking primarily of the dead body – with meaning. It is really the greatest possible history of the imagination.”
He starts his explorations of the meaning of mortuary culture with an account of when “almost two and a half millennia ago, the outrageous Diogenes (ca. 412-323 B.C.E) told his students that when he died he wanted his body to be tossed over the wall where it would be devoured by beasts.” To the famous (or infamous) Cynic  a corpse was an empty vessel, a worthless shell to be discarded with the rubbish or treated as carrion (when Alexander the Great met the philosopher he found him contemplating a pile of human bones. “I was looking for the bones of your father,” Diogenes told the Macedonian “but I am having trouble distinguishing them from the bones of his slaves.”) “This book is about how and why Diogenes was right,” Laqueur says, “but also existentially wrong, wrong in a way that defies all cultural logic. It is about why the dead body matters.”  

The book takes us from the transformation of the parish churchyard from the recipient of the anonymous parish dead (for centuries churchyards had few or no permanent grave markers) in the late 17th century to a place where the dead were commemorated with every more elaborate memorials.  It guides through the revolutionary years of the enlightenment and the new thinking about life, death and immortality that marked the birth of the modern world. There are innumerable fascinating disquisitions, none more so for than the controversies surrounding the deaths of the atheistical philosophers Hume and Voltaire. We look at the development of the cemetery,  the rise of the cremation movement, and the 20th obsession with naming and memorialising the dead (after the Great War, the Holocaust and Vietnam).  In a book packed with detail and containing hundreds of narratives  Laqueur handles his material deftly and somehow contrives a coherent structure to hold it all together and tell a story which is larger than the sum of its parts. A wonderful book; highly recommended.

The tomb of Diogenes of Sinope

PS.  Diogenes cynical students and followers failed to follow the master’s precepts and far from throwing his body over the city walls for the jackals to devour they built him an elaborate tomb at Corinth. A pillar of Parian marble was placed over his grave with the image of a dog carved on it. The dog is a visual pun (the genitive form kynos of the word for dog suggests cynic) and a chthonic symbol, a dog being the Greek guardian of the underworld.  It is relatively easy to view our own dead bodies as little more than rubbish but much more difficult to adopt the same attitude to the bodies of the people we care about, even for a cynic.            

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