The Cue for Passion:|
Grief and its Political Uses
by Gail Holst-Warhaft
Post Your Opinion
|Grief as Political Capital
by Patrick R. Burger
The response by the U.S. government to the 9-11 attacks was to harness the grief and rage at the deaths of the 4000 victims and hurl it toward Afghanistan. In the aftermath of the attacks, little attention was given to individual grief for individual victims; instead, the national character of the tragedy was repeatedly emphasized, and this became the justification for the deployment of American (and NATO) troops in central Asia.
It is with unnerving timeliness that Gail Holst-Warhaft's The Cue for Passion: Grief and its Political Uses appears. The tendency to allow one's reaction to 9-11, or any loss of life, to be controlled by the media and other established and unquestioned authorities, is arrested by this book. Holst-Warhaft opens our eyes to the political uses to which grief can be put, and how political leaders attempt to channel this grief. For a reader living in a culture whose response to death consists primarily of mild rituals that suppress grief and any true confrontation with mortality, Holst-Warhaft's work is a revelation about how essential and central the grieving of the dead is to living itself. With the assistance of Electra, Hamlet and a host of other grieving figures from literature, Holst-Warhaft echoes Hamlet's desire to "cleave the general ear" with the truth of how grief can empower individuals and communities to challenge those who would deny them essential freedoms¨including the right to grieve, and the right to object to the appropriation of that grief.
One of the touchstones of Holst-Warhaft's book is the universal human necessity to express grief and the concomitant necessity that such grief not overwhelm the community. Using rural Greek funerals as one of her many examples, she notes that, "Like an ancient Greek tragedy, a funeral in a modern Greek village is a choral composition"(p28). Not only does she demonstrate how human societies attempt to structure the response to a breach in the realm of the living, but she also underlines the fundamental impulse toward art when ordinary discourse can provide neither answers nor comfort. The importance of this structured "theatre of mourning" to counteract the danger of extreme grieving is revealed through the myth of Demeter's mourning for her lost daughter, Persephone. The resolution of the goddess's lethal grief through the mysterious Baubo highlights a once common aspect of mourning rituals, laughter. The effectiveness of this mythological example in making the point about the appropriateness of laughter in mourning hooks the aforementioned modern reader, into eagerly following Holst-Warhaft's in-depth investigations into the attempts to control the forms of grieving in Europe and elsewhere.
Although she writes with undeniable power and at times with lyrical beauty, Holst-Warhaft's prose sometimes falters and returns to a recurring refrain to find its way. This kind of repetition, where the same point is made several times within a short span of pages, allows Holst-Warhaft to re-centre herself in her argument. While this certainly emphasizes the importance of such points¨e.g. "Óthe funeral was a site where women exercised a traditional and unusual authority"(p64)¨it does not credit the reader with a concentration span adequate to follow the argument without repetition.
Holst-Warhaft does, however, use this technique brilliantly when she employs such refrains late in the book, observing, for instance, that the AIDS quilt represents, in part, a return to comedic and sexual responses to death once common in Europe, and surviving longest in Irish wake games (p194). Another form of repetition that interrupts the flow of Holst-Warhaft's work, excessive footnoting, is evident in chapter two. The genuinely fascinated reader dutifully follows the footnote links to the detriment of the text itself. Holst-Warhaft seems to recognize this failing, since the following chapter, "Bones", is sparsely footnoted and she is free to cast the spell of her beautiful prose. This chapter stands out as the work's strongest, and one in which Holst-Warhaft's writing rises to the level of poetry: "It appears that even in this society, where death is conceived of as a moment rather than a process, a discrete event marked on a screen by the cessation of bodily functions, there is a desire to see the last flicker on the graph, to hold the hands of the dead, to comprehend the most incomprehensible fact of life, its absence"(pp81-82).
Holst-Warhaft also achieves stunning rhetorical effects through the organization of her text, as when she juxtaposes her discussion of the political manipulation of the grief over missing soldiers in Vietnam by successive U.S. administrations with the "disappearing" of opponents by the Argentinean military junta in the 70s and early 80s. She brings the book's subtitle into sharp focus as she analyzes the potency of the political weapon created out of the grief attendant on having no physical confirmation of a loved one's death. The moving account of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who wrested that weapon from the Argentinean junta and turned it against them, is one of the book's high points and, as such, is appropriately referred to by Manuel Zambrana's jacket photograph. In the course of this discussion Holst-Warhaft also makes illuminating use of her running theme of such age-old human reactions to grief being mirrored in literature:
These women inspired by the passion of grief to defy a regime remind us of the heroines of Greek tragedy. In the tragic theater, the grief of an Antigone or Electra begets disorder. Death follows death in a cycle that threatens to overturn the state. The grief of mothers and widows of the disappeared of Argentina is no less threatening. (p123)
The surprising reversal effected by the Mothers underlines the optimistic tone and trajectory of Holst-Warhaft's book. While private grief may be appropriated by governments and put to political uses, as with the heroic memorials erected to the slaughtered soldiers of the Great War, the trend has been to reclaim grief from the state.
Holst-Warhaft traces this tendency by first establishing how the Western nation-states were able to decisively deflect questioning of their legitimacy after the senseless slaughter of millions of young men from 1914 to 1918. These governments accomplished this through the channeling of all displays of grief into selected sites and ceremonies that elevated those who died in misery and terror into heroes. These rituals demanded of family and surivivors that they uphold this heroic memory as a sacred duty: "The pomp and ceremony, the constant reminders of a higher purpose, not only enabled a country to call for further sacrifices in the future; they also enabled the personal grief of widows, siblings, orphans to be sublimated and ultimately put to one side" (pp166-167). Again, Holst-Warhaft enriches our understanding of literature by revealing the extent of the social context into whose face Wilfred Owen threw a poem like, "Dulce et Decorum Est"(p169). The breakdown in this successful state appropriation of grief began with the end of the Second World War. New headings and new lists of names were often added to Great War memorials, and Holst-Warhaft highlights the political indecision reflected in such editing. The state's inability to promote heroism and patriotism after the unprecedented slaughter of civilians in World War II is further reflected in the paradoxical preservation of Holocaust concentration camps. In perhaps the most painfully poignant moment of her work, Holst-Warhaft quotes the chilling comments of Greek writer Iakovos Kambanellis, a survivor of Mauthausen, who predicts mere days after liberation that the camp will become a tourist attraction (p176).
Holst-Warhaft fails to effect a similar highpoint in her discussion of AIDS and the unique mode of grieving that arose from it. Her evocation of the grief attendant on AIDS tugs painfully at the heart, and yet she seems handcuffed by the titles of her last insightful chapters, and so feels compelled to interrupt her discussion of AIDS with her analysis of the memorials to World Wars I and II and Vietnam. The dissatisfaction that arises from the structuring of these chapters is not dispelled by her conclusion. It is far too brief, and the subsequent "Afterthoughts" seem to be an acknowledgment of this. In this ultimate section she does, however, offer us another well-executed refrain by bringing Hamlet and Electra back onto the stage to contrast their responses to grief and their respective ends.
In a sense, these two characters are emblematic of the whole work and of its importance. Like Electra aiding Orestes in The Libation Bearers to ensure that their grief lead to successful political action, Holst-Warhaft's book attempts to put a world that had been reclaiming grief on its guard against renewed attempts to appropriate or deny grief. When the reader finishes the last page of The Cue for Passion: Grief and its Political Uses and considers the vortex we have recently been drawn into in the wake of 9-11, the reader realizes with a chill that the power of this politically-harnessed grief obscured nagging questions surrounding the event (e.g. U.S. troops training in Uzbekistan before 9-11) and glossed over its geo-political implications (Russia's long-standing influence in the region diminished and the U.S. in control of a potentially lucrative oil pipeline route through Afghanistan to China). With this book Holst-Warhaft offers us a choice: will we be Electra, unwilling to have our grief sublimated and appropriated and thus ready to act against injustice, or will we be Hamlet, indecisive in our grief and ultimately self-destructive? ˛
Patrick Burger's book, The Political Unconscious of the Fantasy Sub-Genre of Romance (Mellen Press) is now available.