Bumper Book of Death

Frank Kermode

This book is a history of the collective consciousness of the ‘Latin West’ (with this country and New England included by association or out of courtesy) during the last thousand years; its focus is death, or changing attitudes towards death, but it is part of the argument that such attitudes must be related to our feelings about many other matters.

Ariès is a researcher of genius, and I shall be saying later that his gifts are sometimes the cause of certain faults or excesses. As in Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, of which this work is a modern avatar, there is an armature of theory which is almost lost under the vast quantity of illustrative material. Much of this is unfamiliar, for Ariès has looked in unusual places – wills, journals, epitaphs and the like – in an attempt to avoid the more formal literary and iconographical kinds of evidence, though he uses that evidence whenever he needs to. What he wants to do is to get behind the standard theological, liturgical and rhetorical formulas, and touch some common imaginative deep structure from which we generate our changing attitudes to death.

The thesis maintains that there have been, in the millennium under consideration, five distinct historical phases. The first, and longest, was the phase of what he calls the Tame Death: at this time death was not feared but thought of merely as repose. The manner of suffering it, its effect on survivors, their ways of representing it, of disposing of the corpse and remembering the departed, all reflected this calm acceptance. The Tame Death was as devoid of terror as it was of medical attendance; when possible, it was public and ceremonious. The worst fate that could befall one was sudden and unexpected death: it is a measure of the changes that have occurred between the early and the late years of the period that nowadays it is on the whole thought a benefit to die without knowing it – for example, in sleep.

The second phase is that of the Death of the Self. The individual begins to conceive of his death as personal, and as preceding an intimate accounting with God. Elaborate wills, giving among other things detailed instructions for the disposal of the body, for masses, tombs and epitaphs, accompanied a new anxiety about Judgment and the afterlife generally. Anonymous burial, the normal lot of all but the rich and powerful, gave way to the desire of more ordinary persons to have some memorial. Death was well on the way to becoming ‘untamed’, and in the third phase the melancholy appropriate to the death of the self gave way to the more fantastic responses of the Baroque; death even grew erotic. There followed, in the Romantic period, the age of the Beautiful Death. The loved one might now be identified with nature, and a cult of the dead, indeed of death itself, might co-exist, as in Wuthering Heights, with exotic Gothic terrors. Last comes our own Invisible Death.

Such, in brief, is the historical scheme. Ariès admits that it can’t really accommodate all the facts he has collected, or all the ideas they have given him, and he urges us to look out for the obiter dicta, the less schematic speculations, that he comes up with in the course of the work. These are undoubtedly interesting, and make the work even more like Burton’s: but most readers, I think, will come away, not with a handful of ideas, but with a mass of strange, often gruesome information.

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