The difference of natural talents in different men, is, in reality, much less than we are aware of; and the very different genius which appears to distinguish men of different professions, when grown up to maturity, is not upon many occasions so much the cause, as the effect of the division of labour. The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature, as from habit, custom, and education. When they came in to the world, and for the first six or eight years of their existence, they were, perhaps, very much alike, and neither their parents nor play-fellows could perceive any remarkable difference. About that age, or soon after, they come to be employed in very different occupations. The difference of talents comes then to be taken notice of, and widens by degrees, till at last the vanity of the philosopher is willing to acknowledge scarce any resemblance.
—Adam Smith (An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, p. 18)
It is hard to know what to make of the grief memoir (or, indeed, its relative, the death memoir).1 Whatever it does, it does not make sense of grief, because grief contains very little sense – it doesn’t contain anything much except absence, a phantom pain, the fullness of absence.2 Grief (or mourning) is not good or bad, not a matter of morality at all – it simply is, in the same way clouds are, or the wind, or the rain, or the sun beating down and blinding one; in the same way as a bruise, or the dry socket of an extracted tooth. One can describe these things, certainly, quantify them, trace their outlines, break them down into their component parts – but that does not (cannot) necessarily make sense of them.3
These memoirs, then, end up being about something else, something beyond grief, something that can anchor it in the world as it is. Sometimes they explore the minutiae of caregiving, as in Lynne Tillman’s Mothercare (link is to an excerpt). Sometimes they explore the boundaries of the relationship that has been lost, as in Michelle Zauner’s Crying in H-Mart (link is to an excerpt), or Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, or Roland Barthes’s Mourning Diary (link is to a review/contextualization). Sometimes they seem written primarily to inform the author’s pastoral care (e.g., Steve Leder’s The Beauty of What Remains or Liz Tichenor’s The Night Lake). Sometimes they grapple, successfully or not, with much larger societal issues, such as femicide, as in Cristina Rivera Garza’s Liliana’s Invincible Summer; or systemic racism, as in Christina Sharpe’s Ordinary Notes (link is to an excerpt). They all have their purposes and their virtues (and vices). They can be hard to read – not simply because grief is as uncomfortable to witness as it is experience, but because they are so individual, so private. One wants to avert one’s gaze. But they have been published, appear before the public draped in their paper gown, and one wants to make sense of that, too.
- Which is of course even more closely related to the illness memoir, which is tied to the birthing/pregnancy memoir, and there you are, memoirs all the way from grave to cradle, crying the whole time. [↩]
- Though I suppose as a feeling, it is ‘sensible’, but that is hardly any help. [↩]
- Or perhaps I mean cope with them – a distinction perhaps with little difference. [↩]