Thanatographies: Stories of Loss and Grief

IWMPost Article

During the latter half of the 20th century, numerous thinkers voiced the opinion that death had been made into a taboo by European society and projected into violent art genres. Thanatographies, on the other hand, present a more complex example of works of art concerned with death and mourning—a positive trend of Europe’s society opening up to both.

Around the 1970s, several French thinkers came to the conclusion, based on research in different areas, that there was something strange in modern European society’s relationship to death. In La Mort, published in 1966, Vladimir Jankélévitch tried to grasp death as something radically other and intangible, a tragedy we forgot; Philippe Ariés claimed in his Essais sur l’histoire de la mort en Occident, written in 1975, that death had been medicalized and pushed out of sight; and Jean Baudrillard, in L’Échange symbolique et la mort, published a year later, saw late-stage capitalism, which had made death into the opposite of life rather than its complement, as the culprit.

In 1967, Cicely Saunders founded St. Christopher’s, the first modern hospice in southwest London, which was soon imitated all over the world.

In late 1971, Maria Handke decided to end her life. A couple of months later, Peter Handke, her son, published one of the seminal thanatographies, Wunschloses Unglück, which was later quoted by many Central European authors—such as Peter Esterházy, Friederike Mayröcker, and Josef Winkler—as a source of relief as well as of inspiration for their own grief writing.

These three different developments give us the contours of a panorama of thinking about death and mourning, which always go hand in hand, in the period. They also marked a turn in the way European societies deal with death. All the authors above share concerns with how death and the dying are treated symbolically as well as practically. They remind us that we tend to abject death and the dying because they threaten our happiness, comfort, and symbolic systems, and their work has a specific context. To what did they react?

Rather than give a synthetic account in this essay, I just want to mention two works that might help us understand how death and mourning were perceived in Europe after the Second World War. In a notorious essay, The Pornography of Death, Geoffrey Gorer, writing in 1955, suggested that death became a taboo in postwar England. The reason was the discrepancy between the war experience, in which death was excessive, and everyday life, in which it became less and less common to encounter death within a household. Death became an obscenity and a taboo, and it was often consumed in the form of genre literature. This was especially the case for the younger generation. “If we make death unmentionable in polite society—‘not before the children’—we almost ensure the continuation of the ‘horror comic’,” reads Gorer’s warning at the end of the essay. It may sound far-fetched from today’s perspective, but it does clarify a certain trend and its perception.

A decade later, Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich, a couple of German psychoanalysts, came to a similar conclusion from a different perspective in their book Die Unfähigkeit zu trauern. They explain the suppression of grief in mainly West Germany as an act of self-preservation. Rather than falling into melancholic slumber, the country focused on economic productivity, becoming a Wirtschaftswunder rather than a Mitleidswunder along the way.

Today, we might be still experiencing what Tony Walter, in 1994, called the revival of death. People begin ever more openly to deal with such practicalities as the form their body will take after they die. Natural burial is becoming widespread, while the scattering of ashes at football stadiums is being banned. Yet we still watch detailed, hyper-realistic generated shots of dead bodies in crime, thriller, and horror films. I am tempted to say—in the postmodern manner of my upbringing—that this is okay. But I will abstain from assessing popular culture and turn to the core of my text instead. Among different cultural artefacts that take death and mourning as their topic, thanatographies, or writing about death and mourning, approach death in the most complex and sensitive manner.

Peter Handke’s Wunschloses Unglück—published in English as A Sorrow Beyond Dreams in 1975—is an important text for several reasons. He narrates the life of his mother as one of patriarchal oppression and deep depression. Thus, it seamlessly fits the theory of Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich, in which an insensitive society forces individuals to repress their emotional needs instead of working with them. Men might be the victims of the battlefield, but women are the victims of the household. Moreover, Handke’s text revolves around a trope that is typical for modern thinking about death. Whereas in antiquity and the Middle Ages death was personified and had its own realm (for example, Hades and the underworld, or the dances of the dead and Christian last things, respectively), in modernity death and consequent grief is deemed something beyond words and imagination.

The central tension in Handke’s thanatographical novella is between the urge to confess and the notion that an individual experience is indescribable: “I need the feeling that what I am going through is incomprehensible and incommunicable; only then does the horror seem meaningful and real.” Yet the author writes, and he writes to tell a story reaching far beyond the tiny note in the newspapers announcing that “a housewife, aged 51, committed suicide on Friday night by taking an overdose of sleeping pills.” Yet again, he wants to present this as an “exemplary case.” He needs to choose a genre in order to be able to write something. The result is a biography in quotation marks: “I compare, sentence by sentence, the stock of formulas applicable to the biography of a woman with my mother’s particular life.” The portrait of Maria Handke that makes up most of the text is indeed rather abstract and distant; it is the portrait of a woman.


This is what I had been concerned with during my stay at IWM from October to December 2023. On December 21, I was on my way home from Vienna to Prague and I watched “live” the shooting on the fourth floor of the Faculty of Arts of Charles University, where I had spent many years during my studies. The attacker murdered 14 people. There was a deep hum in my head the whole journey and it was not the noise of wheels on rails.

Ever since I started to think seriously about pursuing a PhD with a project focused on grief writing, months before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, I have challenged my research with utmost scepticism. Do I just seek arousal from other people’s despair? Do I do this because death and mourning are moving topics, and therefore potentially easy to monetize in academia? Do I want to keep explaining what I do at lunches? Is it pretentious to work theoretically on such topics if you have not lost a parent, a wife, a child?

Immediately after the Prague shooting, the reflections became even weightier. I was unable to read for a couple of weeks, because I was irritated by most of the texts I was dealing with. I was irritated by words. What is the point of literature, I asked. After some time, I caught myself working on my project again, in an aloof, cold manner, like a surgeon, dissecting sentences charged with well-crafted pathos.

But it took me about four months to gather energy and read Antoine Leiris’s book You will not have my hate, written after Hélène Muyal-Leiris was murdered in a terrorist attack in the Bataclan club in November 2015 (an event that for me is not a simile of the Prague shooting but a metonymy). She was his wife and the mother of a 17-months old boy. The scholar as well as the naive reader in me were moved. As banal as it sounds, my scepticism was surmounted by the conclusion that it is important to write these stories, and that it is crucial to read them. They might not heal, and they definitely do not bring back anyone to life, but they do help us get through such messes. At least for me it worked. I am not sure if it worked for Leiris though. He became a totem, a measure of grief.

As a kid, I laughed at experts’ opinions that children should not consume violent culture. Today, I do not think it is about the children. “I’m sure some filmmakers are already making notes to turn this thing into a movie. Based on a true story,” a friend told me in a fit of anger several weeks after the Prague shooting. I hope this does not turn out to be true. Death should not be the climax of a story. Death is flat.

Jan Musil is PhD student in comparative literature at Charles University, Prague. He was Jan Patočka Junior Visiting Fellow at the IWM in 2023.