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Daphne Merkin

Everyday detrius

Musing about death and the self

Contemporary life, ever thrusting forward, straining for the next new thing, seems to leave little room for the backward momentum of grief. Historically, cultures the world over have fashioned rituals to contain the emotions of bereavement and loss, from elaborate Native American ceremonies such as painting a dead person’s face red – the colour of life – or washing the body with yucca before burial, to the Orthodox Jewish customs of covering mirrors and “sitting shiva” for a week. Queen Victoria, who entered a forty-year period of mourning after the demise of Prince Albert, wearing widow’s weeds until the end of her life, may well be the last example of a public figure who displayed grief on a theatrical scale, eliciting both admiration and derision. These days, black is worn as a symbol of mourning only at funerals, if then, and our preoccupation with the newly dead is a subject for the therapist’s office and a few nostalgic (or, as it may be, relieved or enraged) asides to people we are close to. It’s small wonder if we give short shrift to the complex process of mourning given that death itself has been shoved mostly out of sight – referred to euphemistically as “passing”, as though that might mitigate its power.

Lisa Appignanesi, a prolific writer of both fiction and non-fiction, all of it suffused with a deep psychological awareness, has in Everyday Madness turned her attention to her own grief at the death from lymphoma of her husband, the historian and philosopher John Forrester. Written in brief chapters and divided into sections called “Grieving”, “Losing” and “Loving”, bracketed with a Prelude and a Coda, the book reads like a series of musings on the persistent demands of everyday life – and, especially, the persistence of feelings of ambivalence – in the “aftershock of death”. One gets the feeling that Appignanesi has written out of both a personal urgency and a more distanced reflectiveness, starting with the close-at-hand and then gradually widening the scope of the book to make a larger statement about the ways in which we are shaped from early life by ­feelings of attachment, rage and loss...

Times Literary Supplement | October 30, 2018


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