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Death's Door: Modern Dying and the Way We Grieveby Sandra M. Gilbert
Synopses & Reviews
Prominent critic, poet, and memoirist Sandra M. Gilbert explores our relationship to death though literature, history, poetry, and societal practices. Does death change;and if it does, how has it changed in the last century? And how have our experiences and expressions of grief changed? Did the traumas of Hiroshima and the Holocaust transform our thinking about mortality? More recently, did the catastrophe of 9/11 alter our modes of mourning? And are there at the same time aspects of grief that barely change from age to age? Seneca wrote, "Anyone can stop a man's life but no one his death; a thousand doors open on to it." This inevitability has left varying marks on all human cultures. Exploring expressions of faith, burial customs, photographs, poems, and memoirs, acclaimed author Sandra M. Gilbert brings to the topic of death the critical skill that won her fame for and other books, as she examines both the changelessness of grief and the changing customs that mark contemporary mourning.
"Many readers will relate to Gilbert's grief following the unexpected loss of her husband in 1991: 'death suddenly seemed... urgently close, as if the walls between this world and the 'other' had indeed become transparent.' In the process of mourning, the acclaimed coauthor of Madwoman in the Attic returned to a project she had abandoned in the early 1970s and invested it with the candor of recent loss. The resulting mlange of literary criticism, anthropology and memoir looks at death across time and culture: in the Nazi concentration camps, 9/11, and the 21st-century 'hospital spaceship,' as well as through photographs, paintings and poetry. 'Like the sun, death can't be looked at steadily,' wrote La Rochefoucauld, heralding the modern view of the matter. (The medievals, in contrast, thought the process of dying was much scarier than death itself.) For Gilbert, the passage from a Christian theology of 'expiration' to a modern '(anti)theology of 'termination' ' is best embodied in the poems of Whitman and Dickinson. Her close readings of our cultural history will entrance anyone interested in an intelligent analysis of the ways we grieve." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Was there ever a time and place so vexed by death as millennial America? As news, as entertainment or as something in between, images of mortal catastrophe besiege us. In a sense, they hold us hostage, for mourn as we may the victims of tsunami or hurricane, or the hapless wedding guests blasted by a suicide's bomb, we can, at least at the moment, do nothing for them. We cannot put our arm around... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) the widow's shoulder to share the burden of grief, or cover the face of the dead child and help bear him gently to the grave. But what of the more immediate, personal death, the death in the family, the loss we can, indeed must, address directly? As Sandra M. Gilbert amply illustrates in her comprehensive new study of how death is encountered in the modern era, even then our natural urge to grieve may be stonewalled by silence. 'We live in a culture where grief is frequently experienced as at the least an embarrassment and sometimes even as a sort of illness,' Gilbert writes, recalling the moment in 1991 when the surgeon who had 'successfully' operated on her husband's prostate informed her of his subsequent death. A representative of the hospital's Office of Decedent Services handed her a Bereavement Packet. 'Lacking traditional strategies for solace,' she observes, 'we're so dumbfounded by death that we'd rather leave the pain to professionals.' An emeritus literature professor at the University of California at Davis, Gilbert has a gift for shining a bright light into the cultural shadows. Her groundbreaking 1979 study of 19th-century female writers, 'The Madwoman in the Attic' (co-authored with Susan Gubar), opened up the field of feminist literary criticism. She turned her attention to the universally relevant but deeply distressing topic of death after her husband died. The tension between the intimate, individual experience of grief and the vast public spectacles of death that have haunted the last, and bloodiest, century energize her long, erudite meditation. 'History makes death just as surely as death makes history,' Gilbert reminds us. The disintegration of redemptive religious faith, the traumatic experience of global warfare, the medicalization of dying, the effects of film and video, and the evolution of burial customs have conspired, she argues, to undermine traditional communal avenues of mourning and compel the poet, now deprived of the consolations of traditional elegy and lament, to devise new terms of expression. This study is an ambitious undertaking, one that may put the reader in mind of those manic late-night TV advertisements — 'But wait, there's more!' And anyone impatient with the insistent contrariety and self-referential tendencies of postmodern criticism will at times grow restless. But Gilbert's wide-ranging approach turns up unexpected insights. Could the recent upwelling of interest in animal rights, for instance, which asserts animals' consciousness of suffering, represent a last-ditch effort to revive the belief that humans have eternal souls by bestowing them first on animals? Or consider the invention of the stethoscope. How profoundly altered was the doctor-patient relationship when the caregiver no longer needed to place head to chest to hear a heart beat? But while 'Death's Door' will be extremely useful to cultural analysts, it is above all a work of profound literary scholarship. Here are Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, their verses revealing and embodying 'our literary culture's passage from a traditional Christian theology of "expiration" to a modern, post-Christian (anti) theology of "termination."' Here Wallace Stevens tentatively proposes what he called a 'mythology of modern death' in which death 'is absolute and without memorial.' And Sylvia Plath makes an extended appearance, emitting a 'long hiss of distress' at the 'great abeyance' of mortality. Herself a poet, Gilbert never strays far from the specific. Her exploration begins by examining her own experience of her husband's death and her struggle to 'signify my grief' before the censure of public squeamishness. It concludes by considering the ways that recent poets, in verses that document unflinchingly, sometimes almost unbearably, the physical details of death, have constructed 'a defiant poetics of grief that insists on meticulously documenting loss and sorrow.' 'Contemporary verse resists the repression of death as determinedly as the great modernists resisted the repression of sex,' she finds. For what is left to us now but to bear witness? Web sites serve as digital funeral urns. Spontaneous shrines spring up at the sites of traffic accidents. In the 'new order of industrialized violence,' Gilbert writes, 'only an act of witnessing ... can constitute a properly elegiac tribute to the slaughtered multitudes.'" Reviewed by Rachel S. Cox, a free-lance writer who last wrote for The Post on the home funeral-care movement, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"The most comprehensive multidisciplinary contemplation of mortality we are likely to get." -Thomas Lynch,
About the Author
Sandra M. Gilbertis the author of seven books of poetry and co-editor of The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women. A professor of English at the University of California, Davis, she lives in Berkeley.
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