Wednesday, 4 October 2006

how far do our intellectual pursuits inform our character?

I was having a drink with a friend who asked me what I'd been up to. Oh, you know, work, going to the archive, actually I spent today in the cemetery looking at tombstones. My friend looked at me blankly. You spent the day doing what?

Well I'm beginning to write an article on mourning and commemoration of WWI dead in Rome, looking at national, local and personal levels of activity and the ways in which they interact. Do Roman families feel most connected to national monuments and ceremonies, to those set up by schools or trade unions, to local district or neighbourhood events or to individual family-based forms of commemoration? and how do these multiple layers of memory and identity intersect?

So I went to the Cimitero del Verano, Rome's main cemetery since 1835, to look for WWI tomb inscriptions. There are plenty. Soldiers who died at the front were not, in the main, repatriated - unles they had a very wealthy and influential family, and a dose of luck. But those who died at home on leave or convalescing or in a military hospital might be released back to their family for burial and so can be found in the Verano cemetery, along with the inscriptions and decorations selected by their family (usualy their parents). And it struck me that taking a look at some of these might be very interesting and fruitful. And no-one's done it yet. For instance, how often to patriotic slogans or symbols appear on these tombs? what about religious iconography? do the tombs seek to emphasise the military service of the individual or his civilian existence? are these soldiers buried in distinct tombs or, following the standard italian practice, in shared family tombs?

See, hanging around in cemeteries (to paraphrase Buffy) is a perfectly legitimate avenue of scholarly enquiry and in no way the pastime of a slightly demented freak. Was it not a bit... well... depressing, asked my friend? In all honesty it wasn't, as soon as I was focused on my work then I was just interested and busy and finding all sorts of interesting stuff. In fact I have to go back & spend another day there, there's so much to look at.

Is it odd to be able to detach in this way? it's certainly essential: many of the stories that any military historian reads in their day to day existence are traumatic, distressing, shocking, horrifying, painful. If you burst into tears every time you'd never get anywhere. Academic and intellectual detachment are vital not only to ensure the quality of your work - as obviously they are - but your continuing sanity.

But does this ability extend into other areas of life - or at least, is there the risk? Is it good for us, psychologically speaking, to be able to shut down our emotional reactions to death and trauma when we're dealing with them 'professionally'? Doctors, for instance, have to do something analagous - but for rather different reasons, such that whilst 'disengaging' onthe one hand they are sort of 're-engaging' on the other, through their intervention.

Leaving the specifics aside, does spending a lot of time thinking about a particular set of issues indelibly mark you in some way? I know some people find my work a bit morbid, does it increase my tendency to depression, or does the emotional detachment make me cold & detached in other areas? obviously I don't think so but the lines between professional and personal interests grow thin when it comes to academia and I wonder if there's a knock-on effect...


* (asterisk) said...

Interesting post, and a point akin to the supposed desensitization that comes with watching violent films, pornography etc. I think the old mantra "everything in moderation" plays well here. If your not totally immersing yourself in graveyards, autopsies of soldiers, and the like 24/7, then there probably won't be a significant effect. I mean, that's all we can hope for, isn't it?

I rarely visit graveyards, to be honest, but they are fascinating from a historical standpoint, and Italian ones more so than those in the UK. The family units are kind of cool, but since most are locked you don't get the same sense of investigation that you feel looking at those in the condomini or those in the earth. And the photos really help you see these people and get a sense of who they were.

De Vertalerin said...

ll'ombra de' cipressi e dentro l'urne
confortate di pianto è forse il sonno
della morte men duro? Ove piú il Sole
per me alla terra non fecondi questa
bella d'erbe famiglia e d'animali,
e quando vaghe di lusinghe innanzi
a me non danzeran l'ore future,
né da te, dolce amico, udrò piú il verso
e la mesta armonia che lo governa,
né piú nel cor mi parlerà lo spirto
delle vergini Muse e dell'amore,
unico spirto a mia vita raminga,
qual fia ristoro a' dí perduti un sasso
che distingua le mie dalle infinite
ossa che in terra e in mar semina morte?

De Vertalerin said...

Ugo Foscolo, "Dei Sepolcri". It goes on for a lot longer. I've been meaning to point you at it for ages.

ginkers said...

I work as a journalist (somebody has to, scum of the earth, etc.) and I think you develop a very dark sense of humour in order to deal with some of the terrible stories you have to write. However, I think that as long as you always realise that it is a coping mechanism and not the way you truly view the world then it's not too dangerous. Or is that just a cop out?

A propos of tombstones, my great-grandfather was a poet and raging socialist who wrote his own epitaph. He wanted it to read "Here we all rot together, long live the house of equality!" (whatever that is in Italian). It was changed to "dormiamo" (sleep) by the church. Don't know what you historical people make of that one...