Death: “Forgetting would be nothingness, the end, dying a second time”

This article is from the magazine Les Indispensables de Sciences et Avenir n°211 dated October/December 2022.

Sciences et Avenir: What do you hear when you write “the dead want to be remembered” ?

Vinciane Despret: If I chose this particular formulation, it is so as not to give the priority of action either to the dead or to the living: it is the dead who want it, it is the living who say it and do it. There is a back and forth, the desire for memory is shared. Forgetting would mean nothingness, the end, dying a second time. The question of the memory of the dead works for us. Remembrance is our way of thinking that our presence on Earth will have changed something. The rite, the practices of activating the memory, these are ways of keeping the dead among us.

In the stories you have collected, the bereaved resist the injunction of “to mourn”

I never use the term “mourning”, because I have observed that they do not recognize themselves in it: they feel that the story is not over. They would rather say like Roland Barthes in the book written after his mother’s death: “I am not in mourning. I grieve.” They resist this attempt to domesticate the psyche, because they have the feeling of a presence or of the need to continue doing things to prolong the vitality of those who are said to be no more. For example, a woman in a dream welcomes her father’s request not to sell his house, a man prepares his favorite dish for his deceased wife’s birthday every birthday, a woman goes to climb the Himalayan peaks with her father’s urn in order to to contemplate with him splendid sunrises.

These mourners welcome the presence of the dead, exchange through signs, dreams, rituals… Isn’t death nothingness?

In these stories, there is no polarization between what would be, on the one hand, rational and on the other, supernatural. One explanation does not preclude the other, the signs remain open to the possibility of being understood differently: the smile of a man on his deathbed is both a movement of muscles and a supernatural communication. This ambiguity enchanted me. These stories offer; they are puzzles that open up new avenues of thought. They testify to so much intelligence, inventiveness on the part of people who are not writers but who have succeeded by intuition, by imagination, in working the language in such a way that their story can carry several versions at the same time. , several interpretations.

Have you ever doubted the “reality” of these stories?

I wrote this book following the death of my sister in 2003 in a car accident. I took care of her children a lot, I talked to them a lot about their mother. I had an incredible sense of my sister’s presence, and I kept activating it. And I ended up asking myself: but the other bereaved, how do they do it? Do they also experience these feelings of presence, which are almost commonplace in other cultures, in Iceland or Mexico, for example?

Throughout this period, I remained in a particular disposition, a porosity with regard to what I was told. I took things literally, I didn’t ask myself any questions. I had a particular sensitivity then, such that what beckoned for people beckoned for me too.

To know more : Vinciane Despret, To the happiness of the dead. Tales of those left behind, The Discovery, 2015.

Death: “Forgetting would be nothingness, the end, dying a second time” – Sciences et Avenir