May 15, 1997
Vol. 16, No. 17

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    Coming to terms with past: Conference to explore mourning

    Since the end of World War II, a growing number of scholars in the humanities and social sciences have engaged in the complex process of understanding how people come to terms with the past. Traditional societies have solved this problem by linking such phenomena as loss, mourning and the creation of monuments. Scholars today have found that such issues are far more complex in modern industrial societies.

    Peter Homans, Professor in the Divinity School, will host a conference to explore these issues in the company of scholars from such diverse fields as history, literature, religion, architecture and psychology. The conference, "Mourning, Monuments and the Experience of Loss: Coming to Terms with the Past at Century's End," will be held from Friday, May 16, through Sunday, May 18, at Swissotel Chicago and at the Art Institute of Chicago.

    Since scholars addressing this subject are often from very different fields, they tend to be isolated from each other, Homans said. "This conference provides these scholars with an opportunity to share their work with each other and to consolidate some basic knowledge about this relatively new and growing field."

    Until recently, even personal losses were mourned in a public way. People wore "widow's weeds" and black armbands on their coats to let others know they were in mourning. But now, Homans said, "more and more people appear to be embarrassed by displays of mourning, especially in public places. If this is so, how are we to understand what is happening when segments of an entire culture mourn, as is the case of postwar Germans?

    "Public mourning is the experience of people together -- a group, a cohort, a generation, even a culture -- who have lost shared and cherished values, or symbols, or persons or material objects. The lost or now-dead objects could be a belief in human freedom, crushed by authoritarianism or fascism. It could be the political creed one loves but which is no longer accepted by one's culture. Or it could be a personal relationship to the sacred, the divine, to God."

    Homans said that cultures deep in the terrible pain of mourning often react in one of two ways: the event and the need to mourn it are denied and then slowly forgotten, or ways are found to engage the loss and then come to terms with it, for example, by erecting monuments or even by creating a new system of cultural meanings. Homan's most recent book, The Ability to Mourn: Disillusionment and the Social Origins of Psychoanalysis, argues that Freud and his followers were uprooted men disenchanted with their past who clustered together and created a new system of meanings. Homans said that he encountered this view of mourning in his search for the origins of depth psychology.

    Like Homans, many scholars who study public mourning use theories grounded in psychology, specifically psychoanalysis, but other scholars focus on the history of the way cultural forms, such as art and film, have come to serve as memorials and expressions of shared loss and regret. One of the conference participants, James Young, studies Holocaust monuments. "There are traditional monuments, like the Lincoln Memorial, that try to organize public memory and evoke public commitment to the past," Homans said. "But very recently, and especially in Germany, we see what are called counter-monuments. These are structures that challenge the function of traditional monuments. Instead of idealizing the past, counter-monuments attempt to de-idealize it. James Young discusses counter-monuments and what he sees as 'the end of monuments,' or the end of the idealization of the past."

    But if people don't always want to idealize the past, they do seem to want -- and need -- to come to terms with it. Homans noted that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., is an emotional center for those trying to do just that. "When the memorial was first proposed, there was a tremendous public response. People loved it or hated it. They argued back and forth. But now the wall is there, and people often trace the names with their fingers. Sometimes they stand in front of the wall and cry openly. They are struggling with memories, and it is difficult.

    "I think that Americans often feel that they have a country without a past, and so they do not want to have a past," he added. "But where there is a loss of some magnitude -- when the illusion of American safety is shattered by a terrorist bomb in Oklahoma, for instance -- then Americans need to mourn. Loss has always been a taken-for-granted part of the structure of life. But today it needs to be understood if life is to be lived."

    The conference is open to all students, faculty and staff of the University community who have a special interest in the subject. For more information, call 702-7170.

    -- Jennifer Vanasco