Can grief only be emotionally distressing or can it be redemptive and worthwhile or even vital? Philosopher Michael Cholbi examines the protagonist of Albert Camus’ existentialist novel The Stranger and brings him in dialogue with St. Augustine’s The Confessions, in order to examine the potential of ethical self-knowledge as a consequence of grief.
One curious feature of human psychology is that there are emotionally painful states that we consciously seek out and believe to be worthwhile despite, and to some extent because of, their painful character. Philosophers have long puzzled, for instance, over the “paradox of tragedy”: As the Scottish philosopher David Hume observed, “spectators of a well-written tragedy receive from sorrow, terror, anxiety, and other passions … in themselves disagreeable and uneasy” an “unaccountable pleasure” that grows in proportion to how much the spectators are “touched and affected” by these painful emotions. Moviegoers flocked to Old Yeller, Terms of Endearment, and The Fault in Our Stars not only knowing that these films elicit emotional states that are otherwise painful in ‘real life,’ but in part in anticipating these states. We are thus moved to experience aesthetic tragedy not merely despite the painful emotional states they evoke but because they evoke such states.
That we are drawn to aesthetic experiences involving emotional states that are otherwise painful or distressing cries out for explanation, and philosophers have proposed a number of solutions to this paradox. Yet there is another instance where we are drawn to emotionally painful experiences that has received far less philosophical attention and arguably poses even harder puzzles than the paradox of tragedy: the grief we typically feel upon the deaths of those we care about, depend upon, or admire.
On the one hand, even if some episodes of grief can be trying or even debilitating, grieving nevertheless does not seem like an experience we should wish to avoid. Grieving is popularly seen as a mark of good mental health and emotional maturity. Grieving experience should be encouraged, on this picture, and those who are drawn to grieve should be supported. We grieve, and should be glad for it, for there is something proper and desirable about grief. In contrast, a person who, in response to the deaths of those who mattered to her, met this fact with indifference, would understandably be seen either as coldhearted or ‘in denial’.
On the other hand, grieving feels bad. Stress researchers have concluded that of all of life’s traumatic events — divorce, unemployment, imprisonment, illness — the grief we feel at the deaths of those close to us is the most traumatic of all. Grief also powerfully illustrates the porousness of the boundary between body and psyche. For not only do grieving persons undergo psychological distress, that distress can manifest in the body as insomnia, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, and digestive difficulties. That grief is emotionally distressing should not be exaggerated. For one, grief is not only emotionally distressing. The process of bereavement can include many emotional states, some ‘negative’ (sadness, anger, guilt), some ‘positive’ (joyfulness, contentment). Moreover, contrary to a great deal of today’s conventional therapeutic ‘wisdom’ regarding grief, grief is rarely a permanent or indelible psychic wound and generally does not require prolonged and arduous “grief work” in order for it to abate or resolve. Still, that grief is near the pinnacle of human emotional suffering is undeniable.
Yet given that grief is so emotionally taxing, why should we suppose that there is something redemptive or worthwhile about it? Why should we not follow many of the ancient Stoics in seeing grief as a burden, an unfortunate byproduct of our sociability that should (at most) be tolerated and minimized but certainly not welcomed or valued?
We find our answer in a fictional narrative in which grief plays a central but unrecognized role: Albert Camus’ existentialist novel The Stranger. With its famous first lines — “Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure” — Camus betrays the alienation that defines his central character, Merusault. Meursault attends his mother’s funeral, but his actions merely amount to going through the motions of bereavement. He has none of the inner workings of a bereaved person: no anguish or turmoil, none of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ well-known “five stages” of grief. For Meursault, grieving is set of inconvenient public rituals from which is personally divested. It is of course not difficult to diagnose why Meursault does not grieve: Grieving presupposes the very attachments that Camus’ existential ‘protagonist’ lacks. He does not grieve maman because her death represents no loss to him. Indeed, one expects that Meursault’s response to the deaths of his neighbor Raymond or his girlfriend Marie would have been much the same, a mix of blasé irritation and puzzlement at the grief of others. (He grieves not one iota for the Arab he is later accused of murdering.) Grief requires interpersonal loyalties, where Meursault has only interpersonal entanglements. With Meursault, Camus gives us a model of someone who does not simply decline to grieve. Meursault is not ‘in denial,’ suppressing a grief that periodically wells up from the depths of his psyche. Rather, he is genuinely incapable of grieving.
As it turns out, Meursault gives an unconvincing grief performance. For ironically, the fact that he does not grieve (and not any material evidence linking him to murder of the Arab) ultimately seals his fate. At Meursault’s trial, witnesses damn him by recounting his lack of grief. They recount that Meursault was calm at his mother’s funeral, neither shedding tears nor lingering over her grave; that he later smoked and drank café au lait; that he engaged in “shameless orgies” with his girlfriend just days after maman’s death. Meursault’s lawyer is thereby compelled to ask whether he is on “trial for having buried his mother, or for killing a man.” The prosecutor makes it clear that it is the former:
then the Prosecutor sprang to his feet and, draping his gown round him, said he was amazed at his friend’s ingenuousness in failing to see that between these two elements of the case there was a vital link. They hung together psychologically, if he might put it so. “In short,” he concluded, speaking with great vehemence, “I accuse the prisoner of behaving at his mother’s funeral in a way that showed he was already a criminal at heart.”
It then dawns on Meursault that he will be found guilty, not (at heart) because of his murderous acts but because of his apparent contempt for grief.
Dismay at the judicial procedures that convict Meursault is entirely compatible with sharing the prosecution’s bafflement or unease at his lack of grief. He is immune to grief’s travails. In light of the pains and distress associated with grief, should we nevertheless think Merusault blessed to be so detached as to enjoy such immunity? Surely most of us would opt not to suffer through divorce, unemployment, or illness if we could. Why then are we more reluctant to imagine that living well could exclude grief?
As the case of Meursault illustrates, ‘grieflessness’ comes at a steep cost. Meursault’s life — bereft of any causes or relationships, preoccupied with petty annoyances —is not one most of us would wish upon for ourselves. Yes, he is spared grief (and much else) thanks to his detachment from others. But his alienation is, well, alien to nearly all but him. His inability to grieve does not perturb him, yet it can and should perturb us. Rather than envy Meursault for being shielded from grief, it seems more plausible to pity his aloof and loveless life.
Still, that Meursault evokes pity rather than admiration leaves a central philosophical question unaddressed: If Meursault’s inability to grieve renders him incapable of experiencing some good, what is that good?
We find hints of that good in a source stylistically and ethically opposed to The Stranger: The Confessions of St. Augustine, one of the world’s first autobiographies. Sometime in Augustine’s early twenties, he returns to his hometown of Tagaste in Algeria (not far, ironically enough, from Camus’ birthplace in Dréan) to teach. A dear friend of his falls ill, converts to Catholicism, and dies, leaving a devastated and disoriented Augustine.
My heart was black with grief. Whatever I looked upon had the air of death. My native place was a prison-house and my home a strange unhappiness. The things we had done together became sheer torment without him. My eyes were restless looking for him, but he was not there. I hated all places because he was not in them. … I had no delight but in tears, for tears had taken the place my friend had held in the love of my heart.
Remarkably, Augustine does not shrink from the more harrowing emotional dimensions of grief. Rather, he embraces his anguish, finding “no delight” but in his sorrows.
Augustine seems largely oblivious as to exactly why he seeks out opportunities to grieve. But his grief process echoes the common observation that, unlike most other emotional conditions, grief does not so much answer our questions as raise them. In Augustine’s case, he puzzles over the source of his grief. “I became a great enigma to myself,” he wrote, “and I was forever asking my soul why it was sad, and why it disquieted me sorely. And my soul knew not what to answer me.”
Augustine, I suggest, inadvertently stumbled onto an understanding of what is good in grief. He does not put it quite this way, but his grief looks like a search for self-knowledge. The ‘self-knowledge’ here is not the kind of ‘trivial’ self-knowledge that fascinates some epistemologists, knowledge of his own mental states or stream of consciousness. Augustine is instead pursuing ethical self-knowledge, knowledge of whatever concerns or values he has that serve to explain why his grief was so intense or arduous. Augustine, like many bereaved persons, wants to know what has happened (or what is happening) to him. His search is not a quest for grief’s causes, but for its object — what his grief is directed at such that he was motivated to seek out the pains of grief.
Grieving, I propose, is a powerful opportunity for, and motivator of, this ethical self-knowledge. For much of our lives, our outlook on the world proceeds more or less automatically. We have a set of aspirations and concerns around which we build day-to-day life. Our identities come to be focused around these aspirations and concerns, and the habits that incorporate these aspirations and concerns become normalized. Even though we ‘know’ that so much of what our aspirations and concerns rest on realities that can in principle be destroyed or disappear at almost any time, we engage in choice and action against what we largely assume to be stable realities. Among those realities? Other people, whose continued existence we often assume as we go about managing our daily affairs. Indeed, we can easily become complacent in assuming that those that matter to how we organize our lives — our spouses, friends, family, co-workers, role models, and the like — will serve as fixed points to guide our present and future actions.
But when such persons die, their deaths remind us not only of the contingency of human existence but the contingency of the various facts on which our values and aspirations rest. And despite our capacity to remind ourselves of such contingencies and ready ourselves for their realization, we are nearly always less than fully prepared for the deaths of others and the challenges their deaths present to continuing to live just as we have before. Grief can often manifest itself as a kind of normative amputation, with bereaved persons reporting a loss of self or of identity, of feeling estranged from oneself. As Augustine had it, he had become an “enigma” to himself. And just as one cannot function just as before when one loses a limb, so too cannot function just as before when someone else — a person around whom we have built our values and expectations — is lost. In part, grief is our effort to figure out to continue forth anyway, to identify who we are so that we are better positioned to fashion a self-understanding that we can endorse. In more formal terms, in day to day life, we rarely have occasion to question the premises on which much of our practical activity rests. Grief is a shock to the metaphysical presuppositions on which those premises often rest, and as such, amounts to an opportunity to reconsider those premises in light of those presuppositions no longer holding entirely true.
For his part, Augustine displays this very sense of longing and questioning. On its face, the object of his search is rooted in the past: his deceased friend, and the exact source of his sadness. But we can see in his self-interrogation an incipient forward looking project as well. In trying to understand why he felt so pained, he hopes to overcome the self-estrangement brought on by his friend’s death. The desired result of his efforts will presumably be a renewed sense of being at home with himself, shaped by but no longer tethered to the realities that defined his past. The self-knowledge he seeks is thus not reducible to knowledge of what he was. The self knowledge of which is motivated and made available by grief is not a static or timeless entity. Augustine will not succeed in grieving simply by coming to know what his friend meant to him. His self-interrogation starts in the past but concludes in the present and in his outlook toward his future. He will have figured out to his own reasoned satisfaction how his life shall proceed given that it cannot proceed just as before. His self-knowledge is thus concurrent with self-reform.
Augustine’s plight thus represents how grief both motivates and enables self-knowledge. Grief instills, to varying degrees, an identity crisis, as our existing commitments are brought into sharp relief by the death of someone on whose continued existence we had depended. It thus motivates us to establish a new, stable autobiography. Simultaneously, through its emotional panoply — suffering yes, but also confusion, anger, guilt, joy, and many others — grief reveals us to ourselves in our evaluative complexity. We can learn from grief what we fear, what causes us shame, what we take pride in, and so on. Grief can operate like the emotional equivalent of a data dump, one that brings into the open and makes available for scrutiny our commitments and hopes.
Of course, Meursault neither does nor can undergo any sort of identity crisis prompted by maman’s death. Self-knowledge of the kind catalyzed by grief is not possible for Meursault, but not because he lacks the intellectual virtues needed to access or create self-knowledge. Rather, such self-knowledge is not possible in his case because he lacks the very concerns, commitments, or aspirations that could serve as the object of such knowledge. Existence precedes essence, the existentialists taught us. In Meursault’s case, his alienation is a symptom of a person with no essence. Grief cannot strike him because to grieve is to be brought into confrontation with the all too human hopes that Meursault lacks.
Augustine clearly suffers from his grief, but that Meursault does not grieve does not entail that he is spared from grieving. Those of us not bereft of commitments or hopes should not think him fortunate. His not grieving is not good fortune but a symptom of a man who, sadly, has become immune to fortune altogether.
When others die, we are brought face to face with the chilling reality that, as Ernest Becker put it, each of us “is a small trembling animal who will someday decay and die.” But so long as we survive, the grief that others’ deaths produce need not be seen as an unmitigated bad. Despite being haunted by his grief, Augustine is at least able to be invested in another such that another’s death can count as a loss to him. Like him, we ought to take grief as an opportunity afforded to socially interdependent, practically committed beings like ourselves.