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...