Friday, August 07, 2009

De mortuis nil nisi...?

News of a person's death is spread very rapidly via the internets, and some recent cases have set me thinking about the tributes that are often posted in response. I'm not so interested in obituaries as such, if what is meant by an obituary is a considered and rounded attempt to sum up a life and a person. Obituaries can often be somewhat critical of the subject, even if they are generally couched in respectful terms. I'm interested instead in the kind of tributes and posts that say how much the recently deceased person meant, what they stood for, how much they will be missed and so on. These are generally, I'm sure, very sincere. But that seems to me to make it even more of a shame that the person concerned is not there to hear the esteem in which they are held. So why don't we tell people while they are still alive the sort of attitudes we have towards them as revealed in these tributes? (Academics, in particular, tend to be rather guarded in their personal praise towards people and colleagues in particular who are still alive but genuine and warm in the tributes to people when they have died.)

I don't think it matters that these tributes might, given time, often be tempered with qualification or matched with criticism of the person. It still seems interesting to me that we do have these genuine positive estimations of people but tend not to voice them or not to feel licensed or motivated to voice them until faced with the news of that person's absence.

Perhaps we think it best to wait until the end of a life before summing up its achievements and impact. The Solonic thought has its merits but, as Aristotle would no doubt point out, seems rather over-careful.

Perhaps we think if we really did disclose these positive attitudes to the person concerned they would somehow be damaged by them, made conceited, made embarrassed or otherwise compromised. I suppose this is in part true also but if so it seems to me to be unfortunate too.

Perhaps we ourselves would be embarrassed to disclose these affections to the person concerned. It would be a kind of opening up analogous to the risk involved in declaring romantic affections or sexual desire for another.

Then again, these tributes are a kind of public and communal activity. Posting a reminiscence on a website or sharing a story at a memorial is a shared practice of reinforcing certain positive traits we might like to encourage and aspire to ourselves.

What would it be like if we did tell people these things while they are still around to appreciate the high esteem with which they are held? (There are cases that are comparable -- awards of one kind or another, perhaps the tributes that appear in academic Festschriften, for example. But these are often couched in a kind of formulaic language that perhaps make them safer. If you come across anything too gushing in such a volume it does jar a little.)

4 comments:

Randall said...

James: I was particularly interested by your comment that "The Solonic thought has its merits but, as Aristotle would no doubt point out, seems rather over-careful."

Could you point a neophyte to some passages where Aristotle expresses that opinion?

RJR said...

Hmmmm. I am quite convinced that what we say about people when they die -- including the well-used "what s/he would have wanted" line -- is not so much to do with the dead person themselves as with the difficult thing of adjusting the mental image one has of a living person into that of a dead person in the past tense. Most of our relationships with people are largely based on models we make of them in our heads, and when they die we have to make a strange adjustment to that model. It's concluded; we have to draw a line underneath it, and total the sum. The tributes we make to them and the stories we tell of what they were like are how we go about making that uncomfortable change. That's why these things would be inappropriate if said to a living person. Probably sharing these thoughts is also a way of participating in communal grieving. But really it's all about ourselves. "It is Margaret you mourn for", etc.

I read a curiously negative tribute volume for a recently-deceased Anglo-Saxon historian the other day. With its frank enumeration of his faults, including an article by his ex-wife about how impossible he was to live with, it seemed very much a symptom of some sort of communal grieving over a life which had gone badly wrong. The things said were not things which would have been said to him while alive, but I do not think that that was due to hypocrisy; it was instead because things needed saying amongst the people who had known him now that the story had been completed.

Anyway, if you want to say spontaneously pleasant things to your colleagues I think that's rather nice! I would like very much to hear all about how it goes for you.

JIW said...

Randall: I was thinking of Nicomachean Ethics 1.10-11.

RJR: That Anglo-Saxon volume sounds excellent. You must be right that these tributes are a means for the living to sort out their thoughts but I think I want to disentangle two questions. The first is whether what is said in a tribute would be appropriate to say to someone still living. I agree that it seems not to be so but it is not clear to me why. The second is whether what is said in a tribute, if said sincerely, corresponds with what we already thought about the now deceased when they were alive. Perhaps it does not, and you have a good account of why.

As for saying spontaneously nice (and, I suppose, sincere?) things about my colleagues, I might give it a go but I fear it would be a bit weird for all concerned.

RJR said...

Could it also be to do with ownership, a bit? When I pay tribute to a deceased academic for whose work I have a lot of respect, and who was perhaps personally helpful to me, I'm sort of laying claim to them a bit, not in an inappropriate way. Whereas if you said the same things to someone alive it would be impertinent; it would be a way of asserting that your own opinion of them should be important and gratifying to them. For example I happen to know that someone who once taught me was not at all flattered by having another pupil's book fulsomely dedicated to them. (Ouch.)

Perhaps one difference is that if you say something to someone alive you are asking for a response, however hard you try to make it sound like you're not (like the way that it's immensely hard to say anything self-critical to anyone without sounding like you're a pathetic and neurotic fisher). It's easier to say nice things about the dead because you are clearly not expecting a thank-you or anything else from them in return.

Also, at the moment I have decided that words are anyway a poor substitute for an actual relationship with someone (I mean relationship in its absolutely broadest sense). Once someone's dead there's nothing we can do about our relationship with them except say things. While they're still alive relationships play out in a more sophisticated and satisfactory way. Enough of all this telling people what we think of them! Let's show it instead by actions! Unless we hate them, in which case it's probably better to repress both words and deeds.