grief and madness
August 28, 2009, 1:59 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , , ,

A beloved senator has died, for me like a father figure and I have been thinking about mourning.  Everyone knows we don’t do it properly — but we continue on in our repressed state, celebrating his life instead of raging against the ugliness of death.  Barbara Ehrenreich has a new book coming in October, Bright-Sided – a take down of the perpetually up.  Take some time, mourn.

Here is a quotation from Gardaphe’s From Wise Guys to Wise Men, a description of a chapter from Mario Puzo’s The Fortunate Pilgrim, 1965.  It shows two extremes, an Old World Italian one of unrestrained grief, that can lead to madness.  The other is the New World American suppression of grief.  Gardaphe way over emphasizes mourning leading to madness and the necessity of conforming to American emotional repression.  But the commentary is revealing of the two cultures and gives the evidence we need to begin again to properly express our helplessness and fear and loathing in the face of death.

For Lucia Santa, the death of her son Vincenzo, Larry’s younger brother is unbearable.  At Vincenzo’s wake, Larry helps the doctor anesthetize his mother to spare her the physical expression of her grief.  This is a grief expressed twice earlier, after the death of her two husbands, so the stifling of it this time is particularly telling:  “Dr. Barbato was holding a needle in the air.  Larry was gripping his mother with all his strength to keep her from bucking up and down with convulsions.”  Lucia Santa is sedated to keep her from feeling the full effects of her grief – in essence to keep her from mourning.  This is the American response to grief.  The Italian response is unrestrained, and it can lead to madness when not expressed appropriately through ritualistic mourning.

This expression of grief that leads to madness is presented in the shortest chapter of the book.  Chapter 25, just one page long, is dedicated to Teresa Coccalitti, whose three sons are killed in World War II.  Coccalitti wanders the streets, calling out “‘Aiuta mi!  Aiuta mi!’  Screaming for help against the ghosts of her three dead sons, Teresina Coccalitti ran along the edge of the sidewalk, her body tilted strangely, her black clothes flapping in the morning breeze.”


This penultimate chapter sets up a stark contrast between the Old World and the New.  In America, the natural feelings of mourning are not allowed to escape.  They are curtailed, stifled, repressed, drugged and kept from surfacing.  When grief is not stifled, yet allowed to get out of hand rather than performed in a proper traditional way, it leads to madness, a madness connected to the evils of the world.  The bottom line for the immigrant is “Americanize or go crazy.”

-From Wise Guys to Wise Men: the Gangster and Italian American Masculinities, Fred L. Gardaphe.