Grief and mourning, by way of Barthes

June 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

It’s June 12 — what would have been my father’s birthday if he were still alive. This isn’t the first time in the twelve years since his death that I think about the cognitive dissonance in remembering a birthday for someone who has died, but I suppose this is the first time that I have a blog on which to write about it. Somehow I imagine that the act of writing for someone will provide a shape for grief. It’s not that I miss him more on his birthday than on any other day; it’s just that grief settles in comfortably, for the long haul, where the ladders start in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.  When the grief was fresh it was impossible to write about it. But now that the grief is a permanent fixture in life just like that dull ache in your back from having spent a lifetime sitting hunched over computers, it’s harder to write about what was absolutely life-changing without reducing it to the sum of its parts: anger, tears, pain, abandonment; without succumbing to the ever-present clichés.

It’s like I keep forgetting how I remember him, or I forget how I want to remember him, and I imagine the dark-brown skin and those strange green-hazel eyes never before seen on a Tamil-Ceylonese person (as family myth/lore will have it) and the words start intruding, pushing their way in, and reducing what was flesh and blood to a simple phrase – “He was an attractive man, if not in the conventional sense.” Or, “He was a good father, if not in the conventional sense.” Or the lesser-said words, “There was his drinking problem, but…”

I’ve been circling the topic of his death for twelve years. What I need is a shelf. A feelings-shelf. Place rage on the top shelf, place regret on the bottom, and somewhere in the middle the warm living mass of hurt and despair and joy and pride and love that will enable me to reach in and pull out the appropriate one when I finally say, “Here, I am going to write the story of my father.”

Feeling-shelves have to be built from scratch.

The problem with writing is that you write about the living as if they’re already dead, and the dead die all over again.


I read Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary some months back, and I’m a coward all over again – I gave up on building feeling-shelves. I allow Barthes to build it for me. Did Barthes imagine that his scribbled words on index cards would be published one day, giving shape to his grief and that of others who read him? Was he conscious of his attempts to build a feelings-shelf or did he just have to eliminate the words getting in the way? “Depression comes when, in the depths of despair, I cannot manage to save myself by my attachment to writing,” Barthes writes.

Yet one saves others.

As an example, something deep inside me flickers in recognition when I read this:

As soon as someone dies, frenzied construction of the furniture (shifting furniture, etc.): futuromania.

And I’m reminded of how we busied ourselves moving the as-old-as-I-am bamboo-sofa out of the living room in order to fit in a brand-new, gleaming casket, my mother avoiding the casket and focusing on the sofa, “Should we throw it out? Do we keep it? We need new furniture.” Futuromania.

Now, from time to time, there unexpectedly rises within me, like a bursting bubble: the realisation that she no longer exists, she no longer exists, totally and forever. This is a flat condition, utterly unadjectival – dizzying because meaningless (without any possible interpretation).

A new pain.

The non-existence of a person, formerly so present, whose very existence was threaded, linked, with your own. How do you build an interpretation of an existence turned non-existent? There is none.

I had thought maman’s death would make me someone “strong,” acceding as I might to worldly indifference. But it has been quite the contrary: I am even more fragile (unsurprisingly: for no reason, a state of abandon).

And a few pages later, Barthes continues:

It is said (according to Mme Panzera) that Time soothes mourning – No, Time makes nothing happen; it merely makes the emotivity of mourning pass.

Recently, talking to someone about my father – the strangeness of it, because it’s been twelve years and I don’t talk about him to most people who never knew him, or didn’t know me from then. It’s been twelve years. But – and here comes the cliché – it could have just as well been yesterday. There is no bravery involved in grieving. It’s a wound, you take care of it so you don’t bleed all over the place and repulse people and you carry on. This person says, “Well, at least it must be okay for you now – it’s been awhile.” That statement bore no malice, and the sentiment was sincere, but inside my heart of hearts some tiny anguished animal let out a roar.

Seeing the swallows flying through the summer evening air, I tell myself, thinking painfully of maman: how barbarous not to believe in souls – in the immortality of souls! the idiotic truth of materialism!

After my father’s death, I could no longer believe in my atheism in good faith. I’m well-aware that one level of it is wishful – the belief in life after death, or the eternity of a soul, as a means of keeping a dead loved one alive. Beyond that, there are dreams, old scents and smells returning for a visit, memories, and the foolishness of the immediate. The “idiotic truth of materialism”.

I’m not sure why I’m writing this. Circling, circling again – never coming close. Mainly to suggest that Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary is a gift for anyone in mourning. (And we all will be, at some point.)

But mainly to wish you, pappa, a happy birthday. Today we received news of the death of an old family friend, your old friend, a “brother to you” as you’d like to tell us before things went wrong and you never spoke to each other again; him never seeing you for years until he showed up at your funeral. I imagine you and him together now, maybe, grievances put aside? Maybe you’re sharing a pint in a pub in Brighton, where you said you had some of your happiest and most miserable moments of your life as a young man in the 1960s. And then I imagine you back in Jaffna for the home you’ve missed all the years you lived in Malaysia in order to give us – as clichés would have it (being right) – a better life.

Every birthday is the start of death. “Henceforth and forever I am my own mother,” writes Barthes, and I suspect you’ll laugh, pappa, if I tell you that being my own father is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. And then you’ll tell me to stop indulging in self-pity and get on with it, your face serious, those hazel-green eyes smiling.

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