JUNE 6, 2017
IN THE FIFTH CHAPTER of her debut polemic, The Last Word: Reviving the Dying Art of Eulogy, Julia Cooper quotes from Roland Barthes’s Mourning Diary: “In taking these notes, I’m trusting myself to the banality that is in me.” Her response is one of an even-keeled, caustic wit: “What Barthes understands is that grief is boring.” Death is often spoken of as the universal equalizer. Its living twin, grief, works in the same way: it’s utterly predictable, which makes the messy, interior business of mourning the life of a loved one perhaps the most human of activities. Death is for amateurs, and thus the eulogy is an amateur’s art.
For such a slim book, in which Cooper crafts a critical appraisal of the state of the modern eulogy, one of the most remarkable things is its defiance of easy categorization. Integrating elements of memoir alongside ruminations on the societal avatars we use to grieve, Cooper cuts through the swathe of emotional failings in our contemporary cultural landscape, taking to task clichés from the 2003 film Love Actually, Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind 1997,” and the casual nature of a “RIP” .gif tweet, but with an exceedingly compassionate eye. She excels in parsing, say, Cher’s candid eulogy for her ex-husband, Sonny Bono, in relation to Jacques Derrida’s for his peer, Louis Althusser, and Cheryl Strayed’s elegiac Wild. But her personal stories of loss, stemming from her mother’s death when she was 19, enrich her critical argument with a humanity that viscerally serves her investigation.
In addition to The Globe and Mail, to which she regularly contributes film reviews, Cooper has written for Hazlitt, The National Post, and The Hairpin. I recently Skyped with her from my apartment in Brooklyn to hers in Toronto.
COLLEEN KELSEY: You have devoted a lot of your work to the process of grief. What drew you to the subject initially?
JULIA COOPER: As I say in the book, I stumbled into doing this grief scholarship as a way of avoiding the actual emotional work. I think it was partly conscious, even from the age of 19, going back to school and having to write literature essays and not thinking any of it was really worth it, until I was reading Lucretius and he talks about death and dying. Then I read Beowulf and was really interested in the funeral rites. It was the texts that drew me in, because I just so starved for any discussion of grief. Academia has a wealth of it. But finding the more modern translation in my life was impossible. So I just stayed with the books.
And then moved into writing about it yourself. Do you see this work as a bookend to the themes that you’ve explored academically, or is it more of a beginning, or a catharsis?
I don’t think I’ll know the answer to that for a while. It’s hard for me to say if this is a stepping stone, or if it’s finishing up the work I’ve been doing for the last 10 years. What I can say is that it feels like a more honest translation [of that academic work]. I kind of panicked when I was finishing my dissertation, for lots of logistical reasons. [Laughs.] But also emotionally because I was really terrified of the idea of, “Okay, now, I have to start living this theoretical practice.” Now I have to walk the walk instead of just talk the talk. It was very cathartic to write this book, because it allowed me to take a much more personal tone. But that was a hard choice too — and it was a very conscious choice. I didn’t pitch the book as in any way personal. I pitched it as a cultural history of the eulogy, and let’s look at film, let’s look at poetry, and let’s talk more broadly about the way that we deny death and grief at every chance. But then in the process of writing, I started to slip some anecdotes in. I had to take some time and reflect on whether I wanted my personal story to be part of it. But then once I decided I did, I tried to go into it with as open a heart as I could manage.
You mention that, as opposed to academic texts, you found modern translations of grief lacking. An objective of this book was to rehabilitate the art form. What are some of the works you hold as a standard of excellence in the genre?
Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is one of the most profound-to-me expressions of mourning and its quiet, meandering work. The way Woolf encases the novel’s most melancholy insights with square brackets, as though the image of Mr. Ramsay, arms outstretched for his newly dead wife, or of Prue Ramsay dying of childbirth, require the gentle hug of extra punctuation. That was one of the first works of art that helped me to understand how one might bear witness to loss — even when that loss changes everything, even when it alters the way time passes. Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, too. That’s a book that captures the significance of fantasy in mourning. Whereas, for me, Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking was too calculated and pert, even though “magical thinking” is another way of talking about fantasy. But Housekeeping’s cold, black lake and its orphaned daughters and its ghosts illustrate how eulogizing the dead is, in fact, an art.
As you suggest in the book, the “modern” eulogy can be so isolating to the giver or the spectator. I always wonder if the ritual of the eulogy is less about paying proper tribute, and more about providing comfort to the rest of us.
That’s such an interesting complexity in the genre — who is it for? Is it for the dead, who can’t hear it anymore? Which I think is one of the common understandings, right, in that in some way you are speaking to the dead. But also it’s for the living, of course, because those are the people who are affected by grief. So it is this weird genre where no one really knows who the audience is. One of the things that I’m getting at in the book is we spend all this time tying up the loose ends of an estate, or planning for where our material wealth will go, but do we talk to our families about who we want to give our eulogy? I think that’s where we should spend a bit more of our time, instead of just writing a will. Maybe actually preparing for the really tough emotional work that’s going to come, whether we want it to or not.
What was your criteria for the cultural texts you brought into the discussion?
The criteria for choosing was whim. I chose books and scenes from movies and characters that had been ambling around in my mind for a while, and it felt luxurious to make the links between them based on my feelings and instinct rather than on historical period or some other more rational categorization.
The Princess Diana model that you have in the book is so effective, because it begins with the personal anecdote and then segues into your analysis of emotional performativity. Right before I logged on to call you, I was thinking about celebrity deaths that have been especially affecting. Princess Diana’s, for one, which you dissect (indicting Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind 1997” reboot-as-eulogy totally lazy) — but I’d love to hear your thoughts on more honest forms of public grieving. Michael Jackson comes to mind, with his enormous, live broadcasted memorial and 10 eulogies.
I don’t think spectacle is inherently bad. I don’t think performance is some evil thing. [Laughs.] I’m actually really interested in the way that people sincerely mourn celebrities. I used Princess Diana because she was just so embedded in my own memory, and it was such a pop culture moment. It felt, at the time, like everyone in the world was mourning her, across generations. Including my mom. I could have included a chapter to Michael Jackson, because I think he was the next huge loss. I think I say briefly in the book, right, it kind of feels like Diana, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston. But you can chart that as this new way that we’re mourning — publicly — that is tied to technology too, of course.
There is an element of criticism here, though, as to what the mechanism is for public grief, whether it’s televised vigils, in the case of Diana, or a pithy social media post, in the case of Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, or Prince.
Totally. And it is easier to untangle with Diana than I think it is with Michael Jackson, I will say, because he was such a fraught character for white and black America. To try to untangle how he was mourned, honestly, would be a book in itself. He’s just so much more complicated. With Diana, and this does tie into internet mourning now, is that I think what happens with spectacles like that is people test out a kind of mourning. The stakes are so low for them. This kind of performative grief can feel very real, and it can seem like you’re processing hard emotions, but at the end of the day, Diana didn’t know who the fuck you were.
The thing that really irks me about public grief, and this isn’t even in its modern incarnation, is that this kind of outpouring has always been a reflection of whose lives we deem worthy of mourning and whose we don’t.
We’re not as close to these celebrities as pop culture leads us to think. The songs of Bowie led us to believe that we were in this intimate relationship. But at the end of the day, he was mortal. And we weren’t his kin. So, what I think happens with this spectacle of public grieving is that we pat ourselves on the back for being so emotionally open and processing our feelings. That becomes a kind of insidious blueprint for how we should then mourn our personal losses which are worlds apart from the public kind. It’s a lot easier to mourn Michael Jackson than it is your own dad or mom.
You discuss the greater narrative of self-help and the standards for emotional health in Western society. Depression may not be demonized exactly — but it is still largely taboo, in terms of being a productive member of society. I don’t know if there is a solution to absolve oneself of the grieving process. I don’t think there is one. It’s something you just have to do.
And I wouldn’t want us to try to get out of grieving. I think it’s so crucial to our human experience. To expunge it for the sake of our comfort would just be horrifying. Because we don’t live forever is why we bother loving at all, through the hard times and the good, because if we had forever to care about people or to work out disputes, would we really get around to either one? It’s because death puts this timeline on the task of relationality that it’s worth our while to engage with other people meaningfully. The difficulty of grief’s not the problem; the problem is our unwillingness to take on the ugly work that lies ahead. This is totally tied to late-stage capitalism and the ways in which being sad for too long is anathema to making money and to an efficient and smooth-running society. Grief fucks that up. Anytime you fuck up capitalism, you get punished. You gotta stay in line.
It’s interesting to hear that you did not propose the book as anything relating to your own life. As someone who has written and published as a critic, decidedly not as a personal essayist, what was it like to begin to work in a genre that was new territory for you?
I wouldn’t have done it without my editor. I’m very aware of that. I wouldn’t have dared to try, because I knew I needed someone I really trusted, professionally, to tell me if the book was working or not. I think a lot of first-person writing feels like divulging for the sake of extra clicks. I’d never done it before because I think it’s a hard thing to do well. Once I decided to tell my story, it was exhausting. Just physically exhausting. My husband would come home at the end of that day and I would just be lying with my eyes open, comatose on the couch from a day of grieving, basically, and going back into parts of memory that I really had not dared to open. Grieving is very physical work. It doesn’t just happen in your mind. It has an effect on the surface of your body. But also the process of writing did change my relationship to my own grief. I’m really grateful to have a publisher and editor who let me do that. We all kind of took a leap of faith — I’m thankful I was surrounded by people who were encouraging and gentle with me as I worked.
Was it difficult to remain lucid and strategic — as a writer and critic — when unpacking such intimate, emotionally loaded subject matter?
I didn’t and still don’t, really, have any objectivity when it comes to the first-person parts of this book. After finishing a chapter, I would press “send” and then close both my eyes and my laptop. I knew I had no capacity to gauge the quality of this kind of writing, and so I trusted my editor to be my barometer. We had an understanding that if something didn’t feel right — or she didn’t think it was ready — we would leave it out altogether. I kept an eye on that escape hatch, but I think it let me write more freely.