by JL Wall

Sharon Astyk lights on something rather interesting in her attack on the near-constant Michael Jackson memorializing:

The explanation is this – we love grief itself. It is so much fun to feel bad, to mourn, to grieve. I can still remember the death of a student in my high school, and the waves of grief that poured out – suddenly everyone had been her best friend, everyone had known and loved her best, everyone was awash with grand passion, eyes red, enjoying (here I obviously except her genuine friends and her family) the sensation of participating in spectacle. It is so exciting to feel something, particularly something that costs us nothing. [...]

And of course, we have an endless sack of grief to call upon. We are, of course, not permitted to mourn dramatically for things actually worth grieving over [...]Instead, our grief is channeled into spectacles [...]

She has an answer ready to the “Why?” of the matter of spectacle — “Anything so that we don’t have to think about the world as it actually is. [...] Anything to give us outlet for our emotions so that they may be expelled pointlessly on things that do not matter. Anything to let us feel passion for things that are totally harmless, conveniently distracting, and, bluntly, make us dumber just for being near them.” — that does not, on the surface, seem implausible. “Bread and circuses,” and all that. But she leaves that opening statement, the true attention-getter of the post, “we love grief itself,” alone.

First, I want to amend that. We don’t love “grief itself.” We love the sense of grief — an emotionally tolerable approximation. There is a difference between the tearful fans and the tearful daughter; the former have lost something that had meaning for them (an association with a period or moment in their lives, a particular song that touched or moved them), but the Michael Jackson whom they mourn is Michael Jackson the pop star, the celebrity, the voice — Michael Jackson the symbol, constructed, be it collectively or individually, by others. They may mourn his passing, but grief outright would require that they mourn for Jackson the man, whom they never knew as such.* The latter, the daughter, has lost a father: someone who had meaning for her. I don’t find pictures of fans difficult to look at. I do find pictures of his family, including the one of his daughter that news sites were splashing everywhere yesterday and this morning, hard to bear, because I know (or suppose) they are the ones grieving.

Grief outright, as anyone who has lost a close family member or friend can testify, is difficult, painful, and, at times, protracted. The same is not true of the sense of grief, though it is not necessarily devoid of genuine sorrow. It is easier than grief. The struggle is absent; the pain, if present, is shallower.

So why pretend to grief outright rather than stay merely sorrowful? That’s the question, isn’t it? Maybe it is simply because of the spectacle, of wanting to be a part of something large, of the collective (what would be called “communal”) emotion. But let’s go back down to a smaller scale for a moment: Sharon’s high school classmate, or the student who drowned himself here this fall. There were, of course, those who were grieving, but the student was “Missing” for several weeks before the matter was resolved; in being “Missing” he became, for lack of a better term, something of a celebrity in the community: his face and name were everywhere, and inescapable. I believe that had something to do with the number of people who had never met him who, like the classmates Sharon mentions, joined in the public mourning a little too enthusiastically and pretended to grief. But those in her story have the benefit of being more likely to have at least been aware of the deceased’s existence beforehand.

It wasn’t because such actions are requisite of “community.” Sorrow, sympathy, empathy, kindness, caring: those are characteristic of the wider community acting as such. But community is also defined by manners of deference and propriety. There are categories and roles within the community, even in times of sorrow. (The Jewish customs come to my mind, of course, and may serve as a good basic example: though they may, on the page, appear prescriptive and rote, in practice, they simply happen without thought.)

The sense of grief does not do away with the customary practices and roles, but it does witness those toward the periphery pushing in, toward the role of the mourner.** In so doing, it treats that role as one which one opts into, grief as something one may choose to experience.

Grief is painful, and a struggle, and anything but an easy matter. This, I imagine, is not something that will be much disputed or a declaration that presently needs more elaboration from me. So why choose to attempt to experience it (or, at least, to approximate its experience)? The language alone would seem to point to a connection with the conception of experience-as-commodity (or, perhaps “experience-as-Pokemon”: Gotta catch ‘em all!).

The aim (generally) cannot simply be to experience grief as such: the experience being approximated is a painful one: the pleasure must lie after its end. That is, the sense of grief is experienced not as an end alone but (also) as means to some other end. Painful, struggle, difficult, prolonged, chastening: electing to experience the sense of grief treats grief itself as an elective spiritual quest, from which flames one rises, hardier, wiser, sturdier. It is not merely momentous (which death and grief are), but exceptional and unnatural.

As a collective experience, perhaps especially appropriate to the case of Michael Jackson, the spectacle of public “grieving” and the desire to join in its performance are certainly important; perhaps the more important of these two. But on the individual level, the connection the idea of all experience as elective — of all of life as infinitely personalizable selections from an experiential smorgasbord — can’t be understated, and, though I’m by no means the first to mention the matter, with a particularly worrisome effect on the relationship to one’s own mortality.

By treating grief as an elective (which the sense of grief and its requisite approximations do), we take a step away from recognizing the inevitability of death. It is momentous, shocking, painful, and worth both our sorrow and — when appropriate — our grief. But it is also (regardless of what else one’s religious or philosophical traditions may have to say about it) regular and inevitable. Even if it is to be abolished the World-to-Come, it is still an active force in the World-That-Is. And if death is the inevitable end to human life, then our relationship with and understanding of death must profoundly affect our understanding of life.

*Perhaps Jackson is not the best example of this, given the objectification and spectacle of his life. But I would make the same claim even about the ways in which the Kennedys, or King, or Reagan were mourned by the greater populace: we never knew them as individual men, not because we would not, but because we could not. And so we could not mourn them in the same way as those who did.

**I’m risking confusion here by associating “mourner” (n.) more closely with “grief”/”grieving” than with “to mourn” (v.), probably because I’m used to a very particular religious meaning being the terms “in mourning” and “mourner” (in Judaism, the immediate family only; for my purposes, somewhat broader) — but not with “to mourn.” Just bear with me and accept apologies for any confusion caused.