American Mourning

Given the frequency with which murder takes place in the United States, the killing of Laci Peterson is not an extraordinary event; except in the sense in which any murder of a human being is an extraordinary event. But in the current United States of America there has occurred a profound inversion of values in which the sacred is trivialized and the trivial is exalted. A country that can speak so casually of the infinite value of life, of the dignity of the individual, of the majesty of human existence, can quite literally destroy life without consideration and reveal thereby the deep corrosion of its ideology, by which I do not mean the “world view” shared by the population, but the mystification that destroys the possibility of understanding the actual nature of human life and purpose.

What is most extraordinary about the Laci Peterson situation, though it is a common occurrence in America, is the fact that it has become a national melodrama and on the occasion of what would have been her 28th birthday “drew mourners from across Northern California.” (San Francisco Chronicle, 5/5/03) Why are we not surprised to learn that the ceremony included a “video tribute” while the song “I Will Remember You” was played. So I do not use the word “melodrama” lightly or disrespectfully. It is a profound requirement of contemporary American life to inhabit the realms of the melodramatic and the histrionic.

The Reverend Donna Arno, who presided over the ceremony noted that the event was as much for the community as for the family. “The family realized the effect this has had on the town and even on the nation.” Over 800 years ago in Western Europe death was a “collective” affair in which the dying person initiated the procedure of leaving this world and departing for some relation with God in the next. The site of death became a public place in which others came and went at ease. It was not, however, so much the death of a distinct individual, an irreplaceable person, as a member of a species who was marked for death. But that event was the opposite of melodramatic; it was, instead, ordinary and commonplace, what Philip Aires has called “tamed death.” For us, everything has changed.

When Leona Ortiz Ramirez was asked by her 11 year old daughter, Bianca, why she was going to make the drive to the ceremony “for someone I don’t even know,” she explained that when she “first heard Laci Peterson described on television, “she sounded like me.” The American way of mourning embraces vicariously, through the other, what one cannot confront in one’s self, the necessity of death and the anguish thereof. And those who, “casually dressed in jeans or shorts brought their families to say farewell to a woman they only knew from stories they read or pictures they saw,” were enacting what has been a prototypical American sublimation of the grief of mourning. That other for whom one mourns is not a person one has known through one’s lived relationship, but one who essentially “represents” the construction of an artificial sentiment as constituted by the media elaboration of needs deeply denied and vicariously manifested.

Three years earlier at the funeral of her grandmother Laci spoke of her wish for her own funeral. As her brother noted; “She said, ‘I don’t want people to be sad. I don’t want them to be missing me. I want them to be happy.” How does one learn to sacrifice the vital meaning of one’s life for the sake of a murderous creed of abstract anonymity? What Laci lived through, what she deeply believed, we will of course never know, despite the media pretense that we are transparent and readily summarized. But what leads a human being to come to believe in the great virtue of serving the masses in their quest for happiness, of offering herself up in a ritual of common hedonic service. Happiness is, of course, the great American religion, and woe unto him or her who disturbs its majestic equilibrium, its all-comforting assurance. Should the face of happiness be rent, should the suffering that lies beneath its fiercely controlled exterior be revealed, everything is threatened at once; the entire mystification of American life hangs in the balance, the great American Dream is revealed in its fragile betrayal, dangling precariously from the fraying thread of blasted hope. Should we be surprised that in the earlier pictures of Laci on her wedding day or later when pregnant, her husband is not to be seen? Was this the life that brought her happiness and the need to display it?

In front of the stage on the day of the ceremony, behind the huge choir dressed in white, was placed a “photo portrait of Laci, featuring the broad smile that people throughout the country had seen in the months since her disappearance.” “Bright sprays of flowers….along with a small stuffed rhinoceros” graced the stage. “Laci Peters was eulogized as someone who was bubbly, vivacious and the life of every party.” It is essential that we not identify the lived meaning of Laci Peterson’s life with the public construction of that meaning. Her funeral was clearly for those who need to draw comfort from it. But how ghastly that the vicarious mourners should choose as the quintessence of her existence, that vivacious presence as the “life of the party.” And beyond the obvious pathos of this death resonates the defining symbolism of another life curtailed, the aborted promise of further human fulfillment.

Who confronts happiness in America has broken the ultimate imperative of denial. And what can more undeceive us than death, wherein we are forced to confront the limitations, failures and broken hopes that our social world has first raised to the status of certain fulfillment, and then slowly brought down in grief. This is not what we learn form the presentations of mass media, which thrives on escape and mystification; but it is the cry that resonates, as in the well known painting of Ensor, within every meaningful work of literature and serious reflection in the 20th century. In the world of manipulated, voracious consuming images and those ghostly human phantoms who pursue and ingest them, we learn the secret of it all. These figures are not themselves merely happy; they are so far beyond happiness that they reveal themselves in their mania and their manic defense, against …….time, and change, metabolism, the failure of satiation, and finally, aging and death.

Americans are simply forbidden to weep powerfully, passionately, uncontrollably at the conclusion of life, for it carries the burden of too much life unlived. “One only has the right to cry if no one else can see or hear,” Aires noted, or if the crying has been made into a public ceremony with carefully planned protocols and rituals that honors “the life of the party.” As American sexuality is so often sublimated, once again through media stereotypes, so mourning becomes shameful, “like a sort of masturbation.” as Geoffry Gorer noted. It is not that death, as sexuality, has been denied access to the world, but that both of them have been eviscerated and replaced by malleable and secure substitutes.

So, it should come as no ultimate surprise that America can splatter death around the world and not stop to count the corpses. Those others we have killed are unrecognized or soon forgotten. We claim for ourselves the melodrama of war, the pretense of honoring life amidst our compulsion to destroy; it is the pornography of unjustifiable murder and meaningless death that we embrace for ourselves, while the other generally goes unmarked. Yet, there have been occasions when even that other has been invited into our histrionic embrace – that child screaming in her terror on the railroad tracks in Nanking or the girl consumed by napalm and flaming inward toward her unbearable suffering on the road in Vietman, seeking salvation in her abandon. (And why is it so often children we sentimentalize?) We install death in the world with indifferent casualness and insinuate calamity in self-righteous certitude, visiting oblivion on others and ourselves, a sacramental sacrifice to the god of capital accumulation, so seductive in its abstract certainty and dead anonymity. Those who would peer under the surface of official happiness to note the blighted lives, the love of death, the sense of purpose and identity grown corpulent with greed, serving no purpose so much as staving off anxiety, they will be marked for stigma and despair.

So we mourn in our hollow ritual for the woman, we are told, who wanted nothing so much as to be the life of the party. Mourn for her and the party she will not attend.; and for the party of sorts we will live more and more as this insane nation rampages through blighted lands and conducts its terror in the world. Do not be deceived by the practiced joy of simulated war, the president dismounting from his trusty steed in the age of mechanical reproduction. This is only an apparent respite amidst the actual murders. Better to remember Auden’s poem:

Epitaph on a Tyrant

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

RICHARD LICHTMAN is the author of “The Production of Desire,” “Essays in Critical Social Theory,” and most recently, “Dying in America,” which among other aspects, includes a memoir of the death of his father. He can be reached at: