For the duration

John McManners

  • The Oxford Book of Death edited by D.J. Enright
    Oxford, 351 pp, £9.50, April 1983, ISBN 0 19 214129 5
  • Idéologies et Mentalités by Michel Vovelle
    Maspéro, 264 pp, £7.15, May 1982, ISBN 2 7071 1289 5

I must begin by declaring an interest. I am quoted twice in The Oxford Book of Death. This gives me a sort of literary immortality, like the poets I had to read – or, on occasion, copy for punishment – in Palgrave’s Golden Treasury when I was a schoolboy. Now I am alongside Shakespeare, Dante, Goethe and Dostoevsky. As a cleric of the established Church, I am ranking high. St Augustine, Bede, Jeremy Taylor, Parson Woodforde and Kierkegaard get only one mention each (and strictly speaking, the gloomy Dane was a frondeur on the fringes of establishment piety and ought not to count). Bossuet, Bunyan and George Herbert equal me, but again, only Herbert comes into precise comparison, Popish prelates and Dissenters not qualifying. Robert Herrick has three mentions, but his poetic genius is too lofty to arouse envy: one can but read with haunted admiration the deceptively innocent lyrical outpourings from his Devonshire vicarage. John Donne, the greatest of the deans of St Paul’s, inevitably ranks first in the list of Anglican clergy (he has seven mentions), but he was dedicated to the theme of death and slept in his coffin – besides, he wrote poetry, a genre which is given an unfair advantage in this Oxford collection.

To follow up another personal comparison, there are two other historians in this volume. Philippe Ariès rates four mentions, justly, for he was the inventor of the theme of death in modern historiography. (None of the four extracts actually reflects Ariès’s contribution to historical knowledge, however.) The other contemporary historian is Richard Cobb. For once, I am one up on him, for he rates only a single entry. Admittedly, it is a marvellous passage, his reflections on the suicides recorded in Box D4U17 in the Archives de la Seine, the dossiers of the morgue in the old Châtelet of Paris from 1795 to 1801. ‘No death can ever be described as banal,’ he insists. It is one of his favourite themes. In another book he tells the story of an academic at Princeton asking him how it was possible for the historian to ascribe contemporary significance to individual tragedies in the past. Cobb admits that he did not know what to reply: ‘I assumed that the death from hunger even of a poor woman two hundred years ago is in itself important.’

By contrast, I must concede that one of my references is there merely to provide a summary of two dim 18th-century authors who produced laborious, literal accounts of the geography of Heaven and Hell. I suppose it is mildy amusing to know that a pedestrian author thought the centre of the earth too small to accommodate the damned, and that ‘the sun seemed more appropriate, both in size and temperature, to provide an adequate Hell for the foreseeable future.’

Comparisons, even facetious ones, are invidious, but the fact that in this case they are so absurd may serve as an introduction to reflection on the principles of anthologising. A book of comic verse is ‘legitimate’, as the comic is a necessary category in literature. A book of homosexual verse (now we have one) is not, since homosexuality is not a category in literature, but only in life, and then only for specific purposes. We do not ordinarily go round dividing people into heterosexuals and homosexuals, and we prefer not to have to do so. An anthology of erotic poetry or of poetry about death is ‘legitimate’, because love and death are universal themes of poetic inspiration. Yet an Oxford Book of Death – death wherever and however it is mentioned – is an embarrassing concept. Authors are quoted in it for very different reasons, because of their literary or philosophical merit, because they retail (say) textbook facts of a medical, psychological or demographical nature, because they tell an anecdote, or merely because they happen to pass on an isolated fragment of curious information. What we have is a combination of a literary anthology with a mini-encyclopedia and a joke book, a spicilegium of the kind the erudite wits of the 17th century kept as a hobby. The non-Christian religions and primitive legends come badly out of the jackdaw collection of oddities concerning them. Somewhere in Muslim lore there must be more elevated reflections to offer than the final hope of sitting ‘with bashful dark-eyed virgins, as chaste as the sheltered eggs of ostriches’.

Having complained of the incongruity of content, I must add that Mr Enright’s wide reading and sophisticated interests ensure that the greater proportion of the entries have literary merit – on a rough count, 520 out of 760. Of these five hundred or so, 370 are poetry, and of the three hundred more memorable pieces, 61 come from the 17th century, 29 from the 18th, 67 from the 19th, 111 from the 20th. (All this categorisation is highly subjective, of course, even to the drawing of the boundary between poetry and prose: what is mine hostess’s account of the death of Falstaff but pure poetry? Under what heading should we put Keats’s fever-ridden, hopeless letter regretting that death was claiming him before hehad seized the fulfilment of passion?) Whatever doubts arise about the composition of this anthology, a spicilegium is full of interest. If we are prepared to treat death as a subject for browsing, we are amused, surprised, moved or terrorised in detail. According to mood, we can turn to sections on deathbeds, suicide, mourning, burials, tombs and epitaphs, the after-life, war and disease, tragedies of love and – almost too harrowing to contemplate – the deaths of children.

Unlike the contemporary historians of the macabre, who seem to have a blind spot here, Mr Enright has also included a section on animals, sadly revealing and disturbing. It is a pity Keith Thomas’s Man and the Natural World has appeared too late to allow a quotation from him concerning epitaphs, elegies and tombs for pets. As it is, what strikes us most here is our harshness to brute creation, so that we almost applaud the rearing, prancing horses that pull the hearse in Martin Chuzzlewit. ‘They ... ill-treat, abuse and maim us for their pleasure – but they die, Hurrah, they die!’

There are many things to remember here, especially in the verse (how little Freud and Wittgenstein have to say in comparison with the poets). There are opportunities to renew acquaintance with half-forgotten authors. What are we to think of Emily Dickinson hiding even from the restricted society of Amherst, New England, in love for ever with a man she had met twice, drawn to Christ only by his grief, and sombrely aware that Time reduces sorrow to routine but never heals: ‘After great pain a formal feeling comes.’ She was aware, too, that dying is disappointingly ordinary: ‘I heard a fly buzz – when I died.’ I wish that I had not been reminded of this poem. And, alas for my austere principles, the things I remember best from this anthology are the wisecracks: ‘Death is just nature’s way of telling us to slow down’; or Woody Allen’s. ‘I’m not afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens!’

If it is unreasonable to complain of the disparate nature of a spicilegium, my excuse would be that I dislike loose ends, uninterpreted fragments and isolated curiosities since, as a historian, I am caught up in the quest for a coherent and comprehensive explanation of our changing attitudes to death. A new stage in this quest is – apparently – about to begin, inevitably in France, which is the centre of the historiography of death. The study of popular attitudes to death, together with attitudes to sex, the family, children, religion, folklore and sociability, constitutes, in France, a branch of what has become the histoire des mentalités. After remarkable successes (in the field of death, with the monographs of Lebrun on Anjou, Vovelle on Provence, Chaunu on Paris and Favre on literature generally – all concentrating on the 17th and 18th centuries), the exponents of the histoire des mentalités are attempting to give their discipline a systematic methodology. The problem is how to graft the new approach onto the older genres of historical study so that all grow together in mutual enrichment.

On one side is the well-established ‘history of ideas’, which for 18th-century France is represented by, among others, remarkable studies of the idea of ‘happiness’ by Mauzi, and of ‘nature’ by Erhard. What interaction is there between the rarefied, sophisticated speculations and soul-searchings of the élite and the mental processes of the rank and file? Bruno Neveu, the director of the Maison Française at Oxford – himself a historian in the fields of 17th and 18th-century literature, theology, scholarship and diplomacy – proposes to hold an Anglo-French colloque in September on the very subject, attempting to find a ‘third term’ between the aristocratic history of ideas and the plebeian history of mental attitudes. On the other side, there is the question of the relationship between the formal history of economic and social structure and the histoire des mentalités. Michel Vovelle has just published some incisive and original reflections on the methodologial assumptions involved in this problem in his Idéologies et Mentalités, a collection of lectures delivered and essays published in the last seven years.

As a Marxist, Vovelle declares that ‘the mode of production’ illuminates and gives specific weight to ‘all the forms of existence which are derived from it’. After this, we hear no more of the mode of production. Perhaps, like sunspots and the mines of Peru, it is so comprehensive an explanation of everything that it is not worth citing as the explanation of anything. Borrowing a phrase from Le Roy Ladurie, Vovelle then declares that the historian must move ‘de la cave au grenier’, from the cellar of social and economic structure to the attic of the history of ideas and human mental processes (to which he accords a substantial autonomy).

The way to proceed is to study long periods of time: as Braudel in his famous article of 1958 on ‘la longue durée’ argued, historians should cease to be obsessed with the ‘explosive event’ whose smoke blinds them to the slow, almost imperceptible process of change in collective mental attitudes. Labrousse contributed seven years later with his definition of the history of mentalities as ‘the history of resistance to change’. In any case, our sources for the study of popular attitudes often are of a kind that can only be utilised on a long-term scale: the statistics of demography, grain prices, the formulae and legacies in wills, marriage contracts, ex-voto plaques in churches, the dedications of altars, artists’ impressions of purgatory. Some of these cannot be treated in strict quantitative terms: even so, they provide ‘une histoire sérielles’; successive images from the same indicator, giving pointers towards the direction of change.

Having said this, Vovelle makes a qualification. Within the long-range, slow-moving processes of change, the événement, the decisive happening, needs to be rehabilitated: there is such a thing as ‘historical traumatism’. Geographical boundaries between religion and irreligion, between right and left in politics, for example, so often go back to the traumatic intervention of the French Revolution. Crises can bring about ‘brusque mutations’, ‘transfers of sacrality’ and ‘transfers of legitimacy’. The most interesting of all the tasks of the historian is to explain them. As an example, Vovelle offers a study of cultural indicators in France in the second half of the 18th century which suggests that a ‘mutation’ or ‘crisis of values’ was taking place.

What is particularly interesting, however, is Vovelle’s announcement and summary of his new book, La Mort et l’Occident de 1300 à nos jours, in which he proposes to demonstrate how his programme for the histoire des mentalités will operate in a specific important instance. Here, to be sure, is the longue durée – seven centuries – and here, too, he argues, are the traumatic moments, les périodes où la sensibilité collective se crispe sur la mort’. These were successively: the waning of the Middle Ages; the age of the Baroque from 1580 to 1660; the twilight of the Enlightenment, 1760-1800; and the Belle Epoque, the period of the Symbolists and Decadents at the end of the 19th century. In our own day, there has been such another tremor of collective sensibility concerning death, its vibrations strongest from about 1960 to 1965, but still continuing, a reaction against the taboo on death which characterised the previous generation. These obsessive moments are to be explained by a wide range of arguments and insights: the accumulation of statistics from various indicators, the sharp illumination of individual case-histories, iconography (for example, Koselleck’s recent study of the changing typology of war memorials), the role of intermediaries between the literate and the generality (doctors, schoolmasters, clergy, upper-class agitators going down, self-educated proletarians rising, utopian dreamers, militant sansculottes), the breaking-down of class solidarity carrying away ingrained prejudices, the emergence of hidden constants in human nature – Braudel’s ‘mythèmes’ and ‘gustèmes’.

One thing is sure: Vovelle rejects Ariès’s reckless generalisations about two thousand years of changing attitudes to death. Ariès, he says, ignores the details of demographical analysis, the incidence of epidemics, the vast documentation concerning social and economic structure, the patterns of transmission of ideas, even the distinction between the outlook of Catholics, Protestants and Freethinkers, and relies on a single universal explanation – the collective unconscious, l’inconscient collectif. Mysterious and undefined, it has its inherent dynamism which absolves the historian from the necessity of demonstrating how the ideas of the élite are projected onto the masses. ‘C’est le moyen court de faire oraison,’ says Vovelle unkindly.

Maybe this is a too ruthlessly schematic critique. Ariès wrote impressionistic history, cheerfully generalising from a few dozen examples scattered over a century or two, but he was pioneering a way before detailed monographs were available for guidance. Even so, Vovelle has unerringly pointed to the problem which bedevils the histoire des mentalités: patterns of custom and popular attitudes are vividly recorded, but explanations of differences and changes are rarely conclusive. For my part, I accept this as inevitable, even though agreeing that we can keep on doing better. Often, the historian can do no more than reflect the life of a vanished world, hoping to reach a point when his readers’ imaginations are encompassing the ‘feel’ of the past, so that they soon get over their initial surprise at unusual happenings. ‘It was always on the cards,’ they will say: ‘I can see how it was possible.’ Only rarely can anything be shown as having been necessary.

I look forward to Vovelle’s promised explanation of the changing reactions to death in modern Europe. One aspect of his mind and method has been revealed in two remarkable contributions to statistical history (Religion et Révolution: La Déchristianisation de l’An II, 1976, and Piété Baroque et Déchristianisation: Les Attitudes devant la Mort en Provence au XVIIIe Siècle, 1978). He now engages to plunge into literature and psychological analysis: to tell us, for example, why – of the great painters – Delacroix was obsessed with death by crimson violence, while Ingres refused to contemplate it, and why (apart from an early picture by Manet) the Impressionists averted their gaze. To illustrate the various levels on which our minds work, he cites Mme de Genlis’s account of the death of M. de Puiseu. The revelation of his hair shirt and his charities roused Christian admiration; from the breaking of the thread spun by the Fates on the allegorical clock Louis XV had given him, superstitious inferences were drawn; while another aspect of human preoccupations was revealed when the physician Tronchin clinically and cynically admitted enjoying observing the last rictus on the face of the dying man. There are many ways of looking at death, hence the interest of the Oxford anthology; much has been said by the historians, and no doubt much more is to come. Yet, so far as each of us individually is concerned, all we can say is summed up by John Donne: death ‘comes equally to us all, and makes us all equal when it comes’.