So, to continue my journey through England and Ireland, I have come about 1/3 of the way through The Gathering. I’m spending less time putting notes on the pages and more time actually reading, which is a good change for me. As much as I want to be the diligent student who puts notes all the way through the book, sometimes I drop off and just read. To me, you lose the entire story of the book if you spend the entire time making notes about the little details. I know that I should be commenting on everything to make it easier to write my essay, but somehow it feel right to just read it.
The premise of the story is to show the life of a family after one of its members has committed suicide. Although this a problem almost everyone will have to deal with, people hate talking about death. In the Western culture, there is a stigma to those who focus on death. Yet, the existentialism inside me feels differently. I have a soft spot in my heart for the existential side of philosophy and most people have no clue what it actually means.
Existentialism isn’t some bourgeois hobby for the rich or a struggling artist’s way of life. It is the most applicable form of philosophy. In essence, it helps you to realize what life could possibly be worth and how to achieve the life you want. I took an existential philosophy class junior year of my undergraduate education. It was paired with psychology, but the subjects were intermingled.
The first day of class, one of the most important subjects of existentialism was addressed. Death? Why do we need it? Should we fear it? And what happens after it? All of these questions are ones that existential philosophy attempts to answer. What does this have to do with The Gathering? EVERYTHING! Although it may not occur to some readers to think about philosophy while reading this book, it stood out immediately to me. For me, as a student of philosophy, how people handle death is one of the most fascinating subjects. It happens in so many different ways that the experience is hard to ignore. So, when I began reading of the family’s reaction to Liam’s death, I began to wonder.
The simplicity of the mother’s horror, the obligation of his sister’s finances, and lastly the alteration of life after someone has died. Now the idea of death is heightened in this scenario because the death wasn’t timely or of natural causes. Liam killed himself by walking into the sea and drowning himself. Now I’m sure there are more details I will learn later, but this scene reminded me of the existential novel, The Stranger by Albert Camus. It also deals with the Western culture’s view of death.
The main character, Meursault, deals with his mother’s death in an unconventional, but familiar way. The familiar part lies in the fact that he was changed the moment his mother died. While he also had to take care of the funeral arrangements, his mother’s death allowed him to truly begin living. It wasn’t because she was holding him back physically so to speak, but the change in his life spurred a more important inner reflection that changed his life forever. Instead of tearing his life apart like it is doing to Veronica. Both responses are normal for humans to make. However, many cultures including Western will insist that they are abnormal and the behavior must stop after an appropriate amount of time. You get two days off work, if you’re lucky, and the grieving process must end after oh maybe two or three weeks.
But is that realistic to force a person to suppress feelings of grief, depression, or relief after a death? The existentialist would say no. The natural course of grief must be allowed to flow on its own or it will forever bar that person from returning to their equilibrium or becoming something better. For Veronica, her grief has only begun, but it is having drastic effects on her marriage and her family. It is possible she may never recover from the death of her brother. It may change her to the point where she must get divorced and do something completely different.
But what’s wrong with that? To me, death transforms us to a life without that person. Although death is a normal and vital part of reality, it should not be feared. It is something that happens. It needs to be handled with care. Not coddled or babied, but understood. If a person grieving needs weeks, months or years…then they should have it. That’s the way of life. When life ends it affects the living in a way we will never truly understand. You must be able to let that energy go.
For Meursault, he reacted in a way most people say a psychopath would. He was alive again. He responded in the opposite custom of the area and changed his life for the better. It was what he needed to find himself. People frowned upon Meursault for not caring enough about his mother. The existential would say that Meursault understood the nature of death and didn’t feel that he should react negatively. In some cultures death is celebrated with parties around the graves of the recently deceased. It is even ingrained in Western culture, which demands seriousness when referring to death. We gather together, eat food, and discuss the memories of the one past. In a way, all humans know that death is an inevitable end to all of us. To the ones who are conscious of it and celebrate, more power to you! In the end, the person who realizes that death is coming no matter what, can free themselves from the fear of not living and finally live the way they want.
Check out The Stranger by Albert Camus, it is a terrific read!