Commanded to Mourn

Adam Phillips

  • Kaddish by Leon Wieseltier
    Knopf, 585 pp, US $27.50, September 1998, ISBN 0 375 40389 2

Other people’s mourning – like other people’s sexuality and other people’s religions – is something one has to have a special reason to be interested in. So to write a book, as Leon Wieseltier has done, about the mourning of his father is asking a lot (and to write a book of 585 pages is asking even more). One of the ironies of the so-called mourning process is that it tends to make people even more self-absorbed than they usually are; in need of accomplices, but baffled about what they want from them. In actuality what the mourner wants from other people is so obscure, so confounded that religions are usually still needed to formulate it. Even secular therapies – which are all, one way or another, forms of bereavement counselling – are keen to offer us guidelines about how to do it, and how to know if it isn’t going well. Because mourning can make fundamentalists of us all; because grief (like sexuality) can seem like a cult that could kidnap us, there is always a great deal of social pressure on the grief-stricken to conform, to observe the protocols, to believe in the process (and that it is a process). And so recover sooner rather than later. But what would recovery be, what would have been recovered?

If grief doesn’t have a shareable story, if there is no convincing account of what happens to people when someone they know dies, grief will always be singular and secluding: as close as we can get to a private experience without it sounding nonsensical. When someone dies something is communicated to us that we cannot communicate. Hence the urgency that goes into making death a communal experience. The fact that all cultures have been so determined to ritualise this experience reflects just how socially divisive, how maddening the experience of death is considered to be. The only taboo, where grief is concerned, is on not experiencing it: not feeling it and performing it appropriately. There are no grief scandals in the way that there are sex scandals; there are only scandalous absences of grieving.

‘What death really says is: THINK,’ Wieseltier writes in one of the many arresting sentences in this book. The problem, as he well knows, is that death says nothing to us except what we make it say. And ‘we’, in this context, are the people (in our various cultural traditions) who have gone before us in dealing with this unusually common experience. When his own father died Wieseltier found himself returning to the religion of his forefathers, which involved the observance of a year’s mourning and a complementary enquiry into the provenance and meaning of the Jewish prayer known as the mourner’s Kaddish. This book is at once a journal of that year and a kind of theological meditation on Judaism and grief. So it inevitably raises the question whether it is still possible to write an inspirational classic – a curiously nostalgic ambition in itself – without sounding like pastiche Kierkegaard, or indeed Woody Allen’s Death Notebooks.

‘One of the most dreaded eventualities in a man’s life has overtaken me,’ Wieseltier writes, ‘and what do I do? I plunge into books! I can see that this is bizarre. It is also Jewish. Anyway, it’s what I know how to do.’ And what the books do, among other things, is tell you that this is the most dreaded eventuality in a man’s life. The books tell you to open the books so that you can find out beforehand what will be the most significant events in your life. Above all, they confirm for Wieseltier the value of the books; and the books he writes commentaries on, at some length, are mostly works of Biblical or Talmudic exegesis. So the exclamation-mark here is either self-delightedly smug or genuinely puzzled by these old-fashioned reflexes. That he finds himself, at this most unsettling moment of his life, doing exactly what the books would want him to do is both reassuring and an inspiration. The problem is the pragmatic shrug: ‘Anyway, it’s what I know how to do.’ He knows how to study these books, but he doesn’t know how to miss his father. He doesn’t know what to do with a death. And what he wants from the books becomes inextricable from what he wants out of the death. In the interesting twist that provides the drama of Kaddish, Wieseltier’s natural naivety about the effect of his father’s death gets displaced onto his religious tradition. He is suddenly confronted with his ignorance about the mourner’s prayer. ‘I was struck almost immediately by the poverty of my knowledge about the ritual that I was performing with such unexpected fidelity ... A season of sorrow became a season of soul renovation, for which I was not prepared.’ His father’s death makes him enact something that he then needs to know about. Kaddish is about the importance such knowledge came to have for Wieseltier. Not how or why it worked – his chosen texts are not treated as sophisticated self-help books – but the fact that his father’s death made a certain kind of enquiry into the past imperative. It is not, of course, uncomplicated that such deaths are often renovations.

Kaddish is not the record of somebody’s attempt to get over something. Wieseltier is not trying to find a way out, or even a way through, but a way into what has happened and is happening to him, through the tradition he was born into. Every death is a crisis of continuity; and Wieseltier’s father’s death is superimposed on family deaths in the Holocaust. So the people who are burying their dead are, at the same time, people who have been unable to bury their other dead. Kaddish is knowingly haunted by those who were deprived of their rightful death. In writing of these things, it is a notable difficulty to avoid the sanctimoniousness that is always a loophole for the soul; or the kitsch inner superiority of those who are deeply moved by the sensitivity of their own response. Atrocity doesn’t bring out the best in people because, faced with it, people no longer know what the best in people is. One of the things our traditions are there to do is to remind us what the best things about us are.

In search of the history of the mourner’s Kaddish – of ways the Jews have observed their deaths and the invocations and hopes buried in their prayers – Wieseltier kept a journal which, like many such ‘journals’, must have always half-wanted to be a real book. That is, to be read by people Wieseltier doesn’t know. ‘I recorded the ancient, medieval and modern sources that I found, and the speculations that they provoked. This volume is that journal. It is not exactly a work of scholarship.’ But it is exacting partly because the scholar is so obviously Wieseltier’s kind of hero. Not exactly a work of scholarship is certainly a nod to those scholars for whom nothing could be inexactly scholarly. Kaddish is straight-faced about scholarship – though not quite strait-laced: it sometimes sounds like a Jewish Anatomy of Melancholy but clearly dreads turning into a Jewish Rabelais – because it is essentially a tradition of scholarship that Wieseltier is after. But the unembarrassed ways in which he flaunts his piety, his being so staunchly undaunted by the antic disposition of his readers, sometimes makes Kaddish, with its devoted and devotional scholarship and its harsh critique of contemporary life, seem the blithest of provocations. It is a solemn book that asks to be read in exactly the spirit in which it is written. Or, to put it another way, Wieseltier is artful in creating the illusion that he would be the best reader of this book, which is best read, I think, as an occasionally remarkable philosophical meditation, often poignant in its belatedness; and as a letter to Philip Roth.

‘The history of Jewish literacy: now there is a delicate subject!’ Wieseltier exclaims. ‘It turns out that rabbis have been complaining for centuries that the book has often been closed to the people of the book.’ It might seem a bit offhand in this context to say that now books might just be for the people who like them (there will be no people of the video); or to speak up for the Golden Calf side of the tradition; or even to suggest that Kaddish would have been a better book – a more hospitable book, less proud of its restrictiveness – if Jewish literacy had been considered to be a more indelicate subject. Wieseltier is on the side of the rabbis and is not keen to countenance the ironies that attend the wholehearted promotion of virtue. To promote virtue, of whatever kind, forces people to be more of a piece, to be more consistent, than they can bear to be. For Wieseltier it is the great boon of the tradition that it effectively tells its members who they are. ‘For ancient Jews and medieval Jews,’ he writes, ‘there was no escape from Jewishness, and this was their happiness. Can modern Jews understand such happiness?’ Could those ancient and medieval Jews understand it? Did they understand it as happiness exactly? Was that always (often?) their word for it?

It is perhaps not entirely surprising that Wieseltier is unimpressed by revolutions. ‘The voluntarism of modern Jewish identity,’ he writes, ‘was one of the great revolutions of Jewish history. Like all revolutions, however, it exaggerated. It made foolish Nietzschean demands of ordinary men and women. But most people do not invent themselves. Most of them choose to be what they already are. This is a kind of honour, too.’ So-called ordinary people are always the fodder for these kinds of views, which can only be made to seem sensible, and even kind, by obfuscating the whole notion of choice. The fact that some things in life are unchosen doesn’t mean that nothing can be chosen or that a lot of people aren’t keen to make choices, and aren’t happily enlivened by doing so. I can choose to go to bed, but not to go to sleep; I can’t choose to fall in love but I can choose to make a pass; I can’t choose not to be Jewish, but I can choose to go to synagogue, and so on. There is revolution when what is deemed to be ordinary is put into question, when what is considered to be beyond the realm of choice is discovered not to be. One may think, as one reads Wieseltier’s book, that what people are capable of doing, or indeed should do, to improve their lives has already been decided. So Kaddish is often driven by an exhausted realism, a seeing-through modern life which is presented as the rediscovered wisdom of a tradition, rather than the sadness of a bereft son.

‘The ideal of epiphany,’ Wieseltier writes, ‘the thirst for what Americans call “peak experiences”: all this is a little cowardly, an attempt to escape the consequences of living in time ... The peak experience will peak. And there will occur, in the most quotidian way, an experience of eschatological disappointment.’ These Americans, like those ordinary men and women, just don’t know what’s good for them. But what is it that Wieseltier is trying to secure for himself and his fellow Americans? Perhaps they should have eschatological disappointment counselling; after all, not being able to bear disappointment is hardly a good reason to avoid, or contemptuously dismiss, peak experiences. The unremitting fact of his father’s death and the unthinkable fact of the Holocaust are then pretexts, licences for another contemporary jeremiad. And, like most jeremiads, this one has no misgivings about its own genre. ‘In the company of death,’ Wieseltier writes with that astringent clarity that is the best voice in the book, ‘subjectivity is wild. So subjectivity must be tamed. The taming of subjectivity is the work of the Kaddish.’ One sign that subjectivity is wild is when it starts speaking with too much conviction, on behalf of too many people.

‘It is almost impossible,’ Wieseltier writes, ‘to think unsentimentally about continuity.’ Sentimentality is one risk, but stridency is another. Imposing a pattern or form on experience over long stretches of time tends to make people very impatient because the material is always so recalcitrant. Continuity is always at war with circumstance, and the contingency of events. If a religion wants to be more than a refuge it has to develop, but if it adapts too eagerly it runs the risk of dissolving. At what point do you stop calling it Judaism and start calling it something else (literature, politics, obsessional neurosis)? It is the threats to continuity, the attempted re-descriptions, that make people despondent or violent or write books like this one. The death of a parent is bound to leave one to wonder, one way or another, about parenting; about who, if anyone, one belongs to or wants to belong to; and where, if anywhere, one needs to imagine oneself coming from. For Wieseltier it is the notion of a Jewish tradition that holds it all together. That parents all the parents. And it is about the notion of tradition – and custom and ritual and observance – that he is at his most engaged, if not always at his most engaging. In so far as more and more people now believe in history but not in character – or at least find it easier to describe a person’s history than who they are – Kaddish is very much of its time. As it is in its rather gleeful acceptance of its chosen determinism. What is more alarming is Wieseltier’s wish that people should be, as it were, buried alive in their traditions.

‘The right response to tradition is vertigo,’ Wieseltier writes in knowing combat with the Existentialist’s vertigo of freedom. For Wieseltier, it is the dizzying release from choice that engenders vertigo. Tradition is like the stern parent everyone needs to deal with the unbounded ecstasies of pain (and pleasure). ‘Since death is final, grief is final. Since death will never end, mourning will never end. That is why the tradition must intervene to end it.’ If tradition is the great punctuator that saves us from ourselves it also usefully cuts us down to size, reminding us that we’re not that special, that our supposed uniqueness is trivial in the grand scheme of things. ‘Tradition is the opposite of identity,’ Wieseltier writes, relishing what he has been chosen to speak up for: ‘Identity is an accident. There is no need to ready yourself for your identity, because it is your inheritance. And that is its scandal.’ The portentousness of this final flourish could be exhilarating were it not for the snarl-ups along the way. Tradition must be the opposite of accident (whatever that might be: presumably design by God). But your identity, which is an accident, is in fact your inheritance (your tradition), which is not. Leaving aside what it might mean to ready oneself for one’s identity – it’s fortunate one doesn’t need to do this because it isn’t obvious how one would go about it – this does seem a misleading way of putting it all.

‘Insofar as civilisation is a communion with the past,’ Wieseltier writes, ‘and regards an absence as a presence, it is mysticism.’ But it is rather important – as Burke, among too many others, unwittingly showed – to sort out the mysticism from the mystification. Real mysticism never seeks to convert others, real mystification always does. The trading in absences as presences is something to be vigilant about. And pragmatism, which has always been usefully attentive to such metaphysical conceits, is almost for this very reason anathema to Wieseltier. ‘Pragmatism is such a puny theory,’ he writes. ‘There are so many questions for which the pragmatists have no answers. Human transformation is not a “practice”. There are changes for which we have no rules and conventions. That is why we fear them and honour them; they are accomplishments for which experience cannot have been a guide.’ Wieseltier’s grief for his father is never proffered in this honourable book as a device for the abrogation of serious argument – rather the opposite, in fact. But, like many of Wieseltier’s pronouncements about the even vaguely modern, his remarks about pragmatism are more prejudicial than anything else; righteous indignation that produces more righteous indignation. Human transformation may not always be a practice, but to assert that it never is, or can be, is to replace politics with mysticism.

Wieseltier is particularly alert to other people’s failures of rigour. Mourning brings one up against the question of what it is to do things properly; and why doing things properly might matter. What, if anything, does one owe a dead parent, and how is it to be given? If one’s life as a child is at least in part organised around what one imagines the parent wants of (and from) oneself, then the death of the parent might leave one stranded with unmet obligations. Wieseltier is averse to anything that smacks of modern psychological explanation – for him, not unreasonably perhaps, psychology is what happens when the tradition becomes decadent – but one of the book’s consistent laments is that people, most often himself, are never doing enough. They are never sufficiently thorough, or penetrating, or committed, unlike the Jewish theologians he prizes. (‘Why,’ he asks, ‘is egalitarianism so often accompanied by a general slackening?’) It is the sly evasions, the falling short that is so pernicious. And so, like the many Jewish prophets who turned their competition with God into a speaking on His behalf, this slack Golden Calf mentality, which seems to be everywhere, makes him want to lay down the law; or rather rule the roost. ‘Whenever I read Kafka,’ he writes, ‘I wonder: what sort of dejection is this, that leaves one the strength to write, and write, and write? If you can write about the wreckage the wreckage is not complete. You are intact. Here is a rule: the despairing writer is never the most despairing person in the world.’ Was Kafka lying, or even worse, boasting? Kafka may have lost the despair competition, may not have gone the whole way, but what is the game Wieseltier’s rule lets us play? Given Kaddish’s Talmudic urgings, it would be churlish not to quibble.

It is a book in which doors keep slamming in the reader’s face. ‘When Nietzsche lost his faith, he concluded that God is dead. This is not critical thinking. This is narcissism.’ This is not critical thinking either. And that in itself doesn’t matter – a lot of so-called critical thinking is Dunciad material – if the sentences work (work something up), and the author doesn’t humourlessly and endlessly advocate the necessary virtues of such thinking. ‘The tradition,’ Wieseltier writes, ‘reveals an admirable indifference to psychology.’ But the problem with ‘the tradition’ as presented (and represented) by him is that it seems self-admiringly indifferent to anything that might make it think otherwise. The mourning of his father that might have made him wonder about the tradition and his place in it told him what his mourning was: ‘You do not mourn only because he died. You mourn also because you are commanded to mourn. There is your heart, and there is the Torah.’

Kaddish makes one wonder whether it is as much the function of a ‘tradition’ to distract the mourner from his grief – by talking him into a specific version of it, or by not allowing for its absence – as to console him. It is possible that we have no idea what secular grief is; what grief unsanctioned by an apparendy coherent symbolic system would feel like. It may, for example, be possible to miss people when they die without feeling that there is anything to be sad about. ‘When you mourn for your father you serve things larger than him,’ Wieseltier writes. The interesting question is why we think we need things larger than ‘him’. It is a mystery why we should still be so daunted by our insignificance. Why we can’t find the right size to be in the universe. In Wieselder’s tradition the will-to-meaning too often does the work of the imagination. If this is what Wieseltier calls the ‘charisma of learning’, we should forget it.