Book Review: Subject to Death: Life and Loss in a Buddhist World

Subject to Death: Life and Loss in a Buddhist World. Robert Desjarlais, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016, 295 pp.

The book starts out with a conundrum—a classical anthropological ploy. Attending a New Year’s gathering with Hyolmo Tibetan friends in Queens, New York, the author witnesses one of the men goading a young child to take notice that his mother has just left the room to go down the hall. “Khoi?,” he asks, which means “Where?” or “What’s happened to?” The man is quite insistent and keeps repeating the question. And soon the boy starts to fret, leaving his happy play in search of his mother.

What to make of such a drama—a man taunting a child, or instructing him in some moral lesson? The answer, as Robert Desjarlais comes to understand it, is the work of the book: unraveling the technologies with which Hyolmo deal with the cessation and transformation of the living and recently dead. That life is suspended between presence and absence, attachment and detachment, is something children learn early on, instructed in a grammar of uncertainty that demands cultivating methods for endurance in turn. For the highly relational Hyolmo, loss of loved ones provokes a dissolution of the self. Practicing and playing with this dissolution is what Hyolmo do, both in everyday practice (such as toying with khoi?) and ritualistically (as in making and then eventually burning effigies and name cards of the deceased). This involves a process Desjarlais calls poesis (borrowing from Greek philosophy and its reworking by more contemporary scholars): generating something from, and beyond, the loss of people and life to which we are deeply attached. A making or doing beyond the purely practical, this is a creative activity that weaves life sometimes from death.

Desjarlais brings decades of research with Hyolmo Tibetan Buddhists to bear on the project. Starting in the 1990s with more casual conversations about dying and death, he began systemic ethnography in 2001 and continued between 2009 and 2011, in both Nepal and New York. As Desjarlais states at the end of Subject to Death, this was not an easy book to write, for “Grief, like love, opens us, often in terribly vulnerable ways. … Loss marks us. It defines who we are” (p. 241). Being an “unpower,” that “tears at the self” (p. 29), “death, like the sun, cannot be looked at steadily” (p. 29, citing La Rochefoucauld, p. 240). Into this “charnel ground,” Desjarlais treads warily, tracking something a bit other and beyond: less the ways in which Hyolmo mark death itself (as when speaking of it, which they do quite flatly, with unadorned prose) and more the way death is lived by making the unmaking more bearable and also something other than (mere) cessation itself. “Creative subtraction” through a series of rites that symbolically/materially mimic, repeat, and gradually dissolve the earthly presence of the deceased, as Desjarlais argues, is a technology that brings forth poesis (p. 161). This is a method for him and also a theory: What he calls both theorizing and anthropologizing death. And it is doubled here—what the Hyolmo do and what Desjarlais himself does in his ethnographic and theoretical contribution to the field: treating death in a dynamic, continuous interplay with life rather than as its binary opposite or linear endpoint. “Curious are the ways of poesis: a book on death has turned into a book on life” (p. 243), Desjarlais concludes at the end.

Bookended by a prelude and postscript, Subject to Death has five parts: “The Impermanence of Life,” “Passing from the Body,” “Dissolution,” “Transmutations,” and “After Life.” Centering on a few cases with which the author—and the reader—become intimately involved, the ethnography is slow and close-up: proceeding through the various stages of dying, tending to the corpse, cremation, and mourning—which itself is ritualized through a series of substitutions that ease the transition, and transference, of the living to the dead. As Desjarlais is clear to lay out, it is the dead, too, who need to come to terms with their existential transmutation. Unsure at first where they are, the deceased depend on the living to guide and even “feed” them in gestures of what Desjarlais considers to be both ethics and care. There is longing and anguish on both sides in the dissolution of subjectivity called death, but the process is gradual. It jags unevenly between materiality and soul. The inert matter of the corpse is at once immediate and excessively real, but consciousness hovers longer, eased out—in both the memory of the living and the pathway of the deceased to the stage beyond—through the rituals performed.

As the Hyolmo tell Desjarlais, the chief purpose of these rites is to help transmit the souls of the deceased to the Buddha field—and to a good rebirth after that. But, as he shows so astutely throughout, this involves a craft as profound as it is pragmatic: making a video of a dying father to share with his son distanced by thousands of miles, repeating the viscerality of the death through making an effigy not of the living being but of her dead corpse with face blanked out (a “theatre of emptiness”), “hooking the consciousness” of the dead with a bone culled from their ashes to accompany burnt offerings and a bundle of their clothes. Mixing real with symbolic remains that rekindle, then rejiggle, one’s attachment to the subject who died. Over time—and through the active practice of making the unmaking—the memory becomes more subtle. But it is never overcome, unlike the process of mourning as theorized by Freud, where one’s attachment to a dead loved one is eventually gone beyond.

This is a powerful point—of living with rather than bracketing death—and one that punctuates the text rather than (merely) concludes it as the final argument at the end. What I take to be the most significant scholarly contribution in Subject to Death is the scrutiny with which Desjarlais examines this poesis of cessation: Showing how it works in the particular case of Hyolmo Buddhists and then pointing to the applicability this has to the very existential condition of life itself by referencing a range of scholarship beyond Buddhism. In his treatment of the latter Desjarlais is exemplary, bringing an intellectual vigor to the topic that is sharp edged and beautifully interwoven with his material from the field. He is similarly masterful in his ethnography, tending with ethics and care the fashioning of death practiced by Hyolmo. The book is a major accomplishment: forceful, intimate, thought provoking.

I do have three minor criticisms. One is the pacing of the ethnographic story-telling, which, to me at least, was not always as effective as possible. Too much detail at times bogged down the flow, and the rhythms of the text seemed to be somewhat uneven—showing the need for better editing perhaps. Second, I was also not entirely satisfied with the manner in which Desjarlais concludes his argument in Part IV. Rightly resisting a single explanation to the original question of the epistemology of khoi?, he instead offers 14 points that constitute a “bundle” of different interpretive models that restate points he has made throughout the text. While useful, I found this awkward and inelegant—a somewhat flat way to end what has been such a powerful book. Third, the conceptual argument about the dissolution and reconstitution of subjectivity around death struck me as limited in the end. If selves are unmade in death, what work—and for what and for whom precisely—is the “making” of this unmaking through poesis? Desjarlais treats the deceased as holding onto (a form of) consciousness even past death and of the bereaved struggling to keep the self together after losing loved ones to whom they are still deeply attached. But what model of selfhood, subjectivity, and consciousness is operating here? Aren’t there any examples of selves who fail to manage the work of poesis, and isn’t there the possibility of a post-subject subject—a different iteration of, or beyond, subjectivity altogether? Having Desjarlais, with his ethnographic and intellectual sensibilities on the issue, push further on the subject of subjectivity would have been illuminating.

Yet the book is magnificent as is. It would be good for teaching in any number of classes (anthropology, anthropology of religion, Nepal and Tibetan Studies, anthropology of life and death, ethics and care), undergraduate and graduate. Reading the book is profoundly moving. I recommend it to everyone.

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