The long-awaited translation of L'Homme devant la mort (1977), one of those brilliant but unmanageable...



The long-awaited translation of L'Homme devant la mort (1977), one of those brilliant but unmanageable books-that-must-be-reckoned-with, by the author of the epochal Centuries of Childhood. Writing the history of death, even largely within the confines of French Christian culture, is such a mind-boggling enterprise that only a maverick like Ariès would have tried it. Apart from the erudition required (Ariès spent almost 20 years reading wills, studying the iconography of funerary monuments, observing the minutiae of liturgical services for the dead, etc.), a historical ""thanatopsis"" like this calls for heroic generalizations--which Ariès doesn't hesitate to make. He breaks down the Western way of death into five at least partially overlapping periods. There is ""the tame death,"" beginning in the early Middle Ages and continuing, if only for peasants, till the 19th century; here death is a simple fact of life, accepted calmly and experienced publicly. The ""death of the self,"" originating in the 11th century and limited at first to a rich and powerful elite, marks the rise of a heightened individual consciousness and a consequent ""pathos and nostalgia."" Around the end of the 16th century ""remote and imminent death"" appears, an almost-modern stage where death is seen as frightful rather than familiar and evokes a quasi-sexual fascination. Then the Romantic movement ushers in the ""death of the other,"" where the fear of annihilation is transferred from the self to the loved one. Finally, contemporary society has witnessed the emergence of ""invisible death,"" which denies and flees from the reality of dying. Across the warp of these five phases, Ariès runs a woof of four major themes: degrees of self-awareness, the community's fear of death (and sex) as a ""breach in the defense system"" set up to thwart savage nature, attitudes toward the afterlife, and conceptions of evil. Historians will quarrel--already have quarreled--with Ariès on numerous points, such as his chronology of individualism, but this (perhaps) ultimate effort in the study of mentalitÉ is greater than its many, many parts. Subtle, allusive, astonishingly rich, yet accessible to the courageous layman--an extraordinary achievement.

Pub Date: Feb. 16, 1980


Page Count: -

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 1980