The Work of the Dead

K10535Marina Warner at the LRB:

Yet, entertaining as all this is, in a macabre key, the dead are hard to think about – and, in many ways, to read about. Unlike animals, which Lévi-Strauss declared were not only good to eat but bon à penser, too, I found that I averted my eyes, so to speak, several times as I was reading this book. Not because of the infinite and irreversible sadness of mortality, or because of the grue, the fetor, the decay, the pervasive morbidity – though Laqueur’s gallows humour about scientific successes in the calcination of corpses can be a bit strong – but because the dead present an enigma that can’t be grasped: they are always there in mind, they come back in dreams, live in memory, and if they don’t, if they’re forgotten as so many millions of them must be, that is even more disturbing, somehow reprehensible. The disappeared are the unquietest ghosts. Simone Weil writes that the Iliad is a poem that shows how ‘force … turns man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him.’ But Laqueur is surely right to inquire why that thing, the ‘disenchanted corpse … bereft, vulnerable, abject’, is a very different kind of thing from the cushion I am sitting on or even my iPad (which keeps giving signs of a mind of its own). I have always liked Mme du Deffand’s comment, when asked if she believed in ghosts. A philosopher and a free thinker, she even so replied: ‘Non, mais j’en ai peur.’ (‘No, but I am frightened of them.’)

The book keeps returning to the conundrum perfectly set by Diogenes, when he said that after his death, his body should be tossed over a wall for dogs to eat. This is logical, rational, perhaps even ecological (Laqueur discusses many suggestions about using mortal remains for compost and fertiliser), but no society has taken the Cynic philosopher’s advice (the Parsee towers are a place apart), and when the dead are left in the street, the sight – the neglect – rightly inspires horror and shame in all who know of it.

more here.