Conference Report – Historical Perspectives on Loss, Grief and Pain

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Historical Perspectives on Loss, Grief and Pain

University of Edinburgh
School of History, Classics and Archaeology
Friday 23 May 2014, 9.00 – 5.00pm, Meadows Lecture Theatre,
Doorway 4, Old Medical School, Teviot Place, EH8 9AG

Today’s one-day workshop on Historical Perspectives on Loss, Grief and Pain constitutes one of a number of recent conferences, publications and projects which seek to interrogate historical manifestations of emotion. Like many such projects, a significant proportion of the papers presented as part of Historical Perspectives specifically dealt with the relation of that emotion to material culture. In the wake of last year’s provocative conference Emotional Objects: Touching Emotions in Europe, 1600-1900as well as the recent Ashgate edited collection on Women and the Material Culture of Death (eds. Maureen Daly Goggin & Beth Fowkes Tobin), this workshop similarly championed an approach to the ‘social life of things’ in which an object’s emotional qualities are treated as paramount. The conference aimed to broach the various departments encompassed by the University of Edinburgh’s school of History, Classics and Archaeology (HCA), bringing together scholars from a number of disciplines including history, history of art, English literature, classical art, and archaeology.

The first panel, which addressed themes of ‘Wartime Loss’, was chaired by Dr. Anna Groundwater of the University of Edinburgh’s History department and began with Dr. Thomas Dixon’s (QMUL) paper on “The Incontinence of Arthur Koestler: Warfare, Death and Tears in the Twentieth Century“. Dixon, who has worked extensively on the culture of tears as an intellectual, social and historical complex took his paper from a forthcoming project entitled ‘Weeping Britannia: Portrait of a Nation in Tears’, which examines crying in Britain from the fifteenth century to the present day. In his paper, Dixon described the birth of the stereotypical British emotional response, the ‘stiff upper-lip’, locating this within the intellectual contexts of the post-war period. The celebration of this stoical response could be traced back to Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals of 1872, in which Darwin set out what Dixon called ‘a heirarchy of weepiness’, which emphasised the propensity for weeping shared by monkeys, infants, women and the insane. Significantly, it was Darwin’s dictum of ‘English men rarely cry’ that seems to epitomise the position adopted towards weeping through the following century, which witnessed the flourishing of stoical emotional response in the face of the two World Wars. As Dixon noted, indulging in crying became increasingly identified with the German enemy, with newspaper reports carrying stories of weeping German soldiers, and news of Hitler’s own propensity for displays of emotion, a position that contrasted starkly with the British tendency towards the ‘stiff upper-lip’. Women were also encouraged to adopt a markedly stoic approach to loss during this period, and figures like Edith Cavell – a nurse arrested and executed by the German army for her role in the escape of over 200 Allied soldiers – were championed for their emotional strength in the face of adversity. However, Dixon argued that perhaps tears weren’t repressed during this period, but simply relocated to more appropriate venues, such as the cinema. Citing a number of charming responses to a 1950’s Mass Observation survey, Dixon noted that around 40% of men and 50% of women admitted to crying in the cinema in the post-war years, and highlighted the prominent role of ‘weepy’ movies such as Mrs. Miniver (1942) in the popular imagination of this time.


Still from Mrs. Miniver (1942), featuring Teresa Wright with Greer Garson

Nevertheless, public displays of emotion were still frowned upon, with crying sometimes equated with the state of incontinence – viewed as another shameful, involuntary leaking of bodily fluid. Dixon argued that this equivalency colluded with the attitude of the ‘stiff upper-lip’ to suggest that there was something deeply embarrassing, or even disgusting, with crying in public. This point of view was adopted by the writer Arthur Koestler, who like Darwin, categorised tears with examples which reflected his not only his contempt for weeping, but his latent misogyny.

The second paper of the panel, “Loss and Grief in Wartime Britain: ‘Unruly Emotions’ in the People’s War, 1939-1945“, was presented by Dr. Lucy Noakes of the University of Brighton’s History department. Like Dixon’s paper, Noakes focused on the appropriateness and legitimacy of tears during the war period, here examining civilian responses to wartime loss. In her evocative paper, Noakes recounted the story of a funeral of children and teachers from a school bombed during the Second World War, in reaction to which there was an intensive collective outpouring of emotion. Contemporary media outlets reported both mothers trying to jump into the graves to be with their children, as well as their subsequent sedation by on-hand medical staff. Whilst such heartbreak was widely experienced in wartime Britain, Noakes noted that it was rarely reported, as a stoical response to the tragedies of war was seen as central to the success of the war effort. Noakes also identified the legislation brought in to regulate funerals around this time – limiting ostentation, discouraging the use of horse-drawn carriages and encouraging the hearse to take the most direct route to the venue – as central examples of this adoption of outward stoicism in the support of the war. Most provocatively however, Noakes highlighted the issues with locating emotions historically, asking do we as historians have access to authentic emotions, and which sources – mass observance versus contemporary theorists – are more useful in writing its history?

The final paper of this panel, “Staging the Grieving Process: An analysis of Pina Bausch’s 1980: Ein Stück von Pina Bausch” was presented by Lucy Weir of the University of Glasgow’s History of Art department. Unlike the contexts discussed by the previous papers, 1980 constitutes the celebration of unrestrained emotional expression, and was the first piece choreographed by Bausch following the death of her husband. Weir argued that through certain proscenium devices, such as Bausch’s signature use of organic materials, the audience of 1980 was confronted with a shared emotional experience which reflected Bausch’s personal grief as well as the the idea of loss as performed by the dancers, a heightened emotional state in which the viewer also participates. Weir suggested that through the sensorial experience encouraged by Bausch’s use of natural elements such as freshly cut grass, carnations and compacted peat, the fourth wall between performance and audience was broken, facilitating complicit emotional exchange and the creation of a shared commemorative space.


Still from 1980

Calling 1980 a “memorial dance of death”, Weir also focused on the gestural indicators of emotion as performed as part of the piece, including the ritualised daubing of the dancer’s eyes, which she related to physical manifestations of schizophrenia.

The second panel of the day dealt with themes of ‘Familial Loss’, and included contributions from academics working in archaeology, history and English literature. Maureen Carroll’s (University of Sheffield) paper, “Responses to child death in the Roman Empire“, which discussed the material responses to the death of infants and young children within the Roman Empire. Citing the example of Pliny, who criticised the ‘parade’ of grief exhibited by a mourning father, as typical of the idea that the Romans did not mourn their children, Carroll noted that the material record tells a very different story, and examined objects such as sarcophagi, coins, and even the contents of excavated tombs, as supporting evidence. For example, the fact that parents commissioned expensive tombstones for their children suggests a certain amount care towards the deceased, whilst the contents of a number of burial sites indicates that infants had defined and important identities, even at such a young age. As such, Carroll’s paper constituted an important refutation of Plutarch’s claim that Roman law forbade citizens to mourn their infants, as established through consultation with a wide variety of material cultural sources.

The second paper of the panel was given by the University of St. Andrew’s Anindya Raychauduri, and was entitled “‘my other mother’: Narratives of the 1947 Indian/Pakistani partition, Separated Families and Mourning as Agency“. Raychauduri’s paper examined narratives of familial separation and loss as a result of the new geographical boundaries established by partition. Specifically, Raychauduri examined instances of women who remarried and moved between the countries, changing religion and often losing contact with the families they left behind. Of particular interest was what Raychauduri described as the appropriation of such trauma by the nation state, in which women became deified symbols of nationalised loss.

The final paper of the panel was given by Gian Marco Vidor, of the Center for the History of Emotions at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin. Entitled “The departure of an angel. Writing abut the loss of a child in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Italy‘, the paper examined what Vidor termed ‘In Memoriam’ publications, a collection of texts comprised of short biographies, obituaries and funerary information that were typically produced for upper-class men in late nineteenth Italy. Described by Vidor as ‘written monuments’ to the deceased, the Memoriam publications featured common hagiographic narratives recapitulated to describe the life of the lost child. According to Vidor, this subscription to a standard, highly sentimentalised model of death, perhaps reflects an attempt to make those deaths more palatable to the communities of which the deceased had been a part.

The third panel of the day addressed the relationship between loss and material culture, and examined a range of objects and ideas including Roman sarcophagi, butter dishes and the complex relationships between hoarders and their possessions. The first paper, given by Glenys Davies (University of Edinburgh), asked “How important was the expression of loss in the iconography of Roman sarcophagi?“, and subjected an array of sculptural objects to an in-depth visual and iconographical analysis in order to answer that same question. Davies highlighted the significance of a number of myths, such as the Rape of Persephone or the Death of Patroclus, to the designs of such sarcophagi. At this stage of the proceedings, I was struck by just how comfortable all the classicists who spoke were in using forms of material culture as historical evidence. Whilst I realise that this reliance on objects often arises due to a gap in the textual record, it was still impressive to see scholars so wholeheartedly embracing material culture as a way of locating and reconstructing historical perspectives on grief and loss.

The second paper of the panel was given by Jo Croft of Liverpool John Moores University, whose paper, entitled “‘The Dilapidation of the Box was Poignant’ (Denton Welch): Narratives of Accumulation and Loss (or what Hoarders can tell us about Feelings“, discussed contemporary conceptions of hoarders against the narratives constructed around emotional objects created by the British writer and painter, Denton Welch. Pinpointing a tragic event in Welch’s life, his cycling accident, as a turning point in his relationship with objects, Croft suggested that much of the artist’s work after this period was ‘a sensual retracting of his youth’, in which material culture figured prominently. Croft reads Welch’s letters describing the loss of the family silver, which was melted and destroyed, as synecdochic of the loss of his mother, noting how objects become the agents of his feelings in such narratives.

The final paper of this session, and unfortunately the last I was able to attend, was Megan Roberts’ (Bowdoin College) “Laclos’s Objects of Affection: Love, Loss and Material Culture in Revolutionary France“. Laclos, the author of the infamous Dangerous Liaisons, had been imprisoned during the French Revolution thanks to his aristocratic connections. Roberts’ paper reflected on this period of imprisonment, particularly focusing on how Laclos used objects in order to maintain affective ties with his wife and members of his family. Embracing the prototypical role of the man of feeling, Laclos embraced the objects sent to him by his children and wife as a way to combat his acute loneliness and isolation. In a particularly evocative example, Roberts cited Laclos’s loquacious response to receiving a pot of butter from his family, which prompted lengthy epistolary descriptions of how the butter helped Laclos to imagine he was eating with his family once more.

Ultimately, Roberts’ paper suggested that in times of desperation, people invest great potency in everyday objects or rituals, a sentiment that echoed many of the papers included within the workshop. Perhaps the most pressing issues raised by the collection of papers were the question of where do we locate historical emotion, and what sources should we use to access it; public versus private expressions of grief; the construction of pain as performative; and the importance of interdisciplinarity in historical practice.

Unfortunately I missed the final session of the day, however podcasts of the event will be available on the University of Edinburgh HCA website soon.


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