Confronting Death in Michael Haneke's "The White Ribbon"

The moment at which you recognize that your own death lies in wait somewhere within your body. — Ron Silliman, "You"

I'm interested in our first confrontations with death--usually when we are young and a relative or family friend dies--and how these confrontations affect our lives in profound ways. Take, for instance, a scene in Michael Haneke's masterful film, The White Ribbon, in which a little boy learns about death for the first time. He struggles to grasp the concept and asks his sister the same questions over and over. The long, repetitive style of the scene illustrates how incomprehensible death is, how we lack the tools to make sense of it.

The sister comforts the boy with his youth, insisting that death will happen at a later, unspecified date. She shows how death is part of the unknown; it is something that can be postponed but not prevented. She does not want her brother to think about death, but once we are introduced to the fact that we are going to die we cannot forget it no matter how much we would like to.

In another scene from The White Ribbon, a different boy stands in a room by a dead body whose face is shrouded. He lifts the shroud out of curiosity. Rarely can we look away from death even though it horrifies us.

The boy's reaction to the dead body is understated. What is he thinking? Is he frightened? We don't completely know and perhaps we project our own memories onto this scene and think about our first confrontation with a dead body; I know I certainly do. The boy is touching someone who cannot feel or breathe, a person who no longer exists. All that the boy is--all that the living are--is all that the dead body is not; it is just nothingness, a vacant skin. When you look at death, nothing looks back.

Grief Language

Grief is my obsession; it consumes me. When my father died, I was destined to always know grief.  For a short period of time after his death I could not read or write. The things that had once comforted me in life were useless, but I found my way back to them. I've come to the realization that my life's mission is to write his death--write the grief, write the aching, write the horror, write the trauma. I can't have him so I write. I can't live so I write. I can't stop fearing death so I write.

I am always writing my grief even when what I am writing is not explicitly about grief. What interests me is the way grief has altered my mind and my language. The way I write--the fragments, the unfinished thoughts, the sentence structure--is constructed by grief. The rawness, the honesty, the personal details, the exposure, the confession, the flaws--it is all shaped by his death and what the loss of him did to me, how it destroyed me and forced me to remake myself with less material than I had before. Sometimes, ideas don't cohere; I read the same passages multiple times in a book and fail to understand them or I want to write and have no conception of how my thoughts should be organized or connected. Sometimes, the words themselves make no sense, and I feel like I've never read a book in my life or written one word before. Those are the worst times.

My central desire is to craft my own grief language. I will do this by reading how other people write about grief, how they grapple with unspeakable loss through the written word. Over the course of 2013, I will share what I discover here on this blog. I will review books about grief because I need to go as deep as I can into this wound that I carry with me; I need to know how other people survived it and what they did with it.

 At my father's funeral, I gave no eulogy; I said nothing, the words abandoned me. For the rest of my life I will try to rectify that mistake and either find the words I could not find then--a language of grief and mourning unavailable to me at the time--or I will accept that only silence can hold his death and that silence itself is a language that must be listened to and lived with.


So many of my thoughts come on the bus. A moving vehicle has always been an inspiring place for me. I like watching the world without being watched by it. I like knowing I am going somewhere but that someone else is taking me there; I don't have to feel responsible, I don't have to make any decisions, I don't even have to think, but I do.

I think of the people who live in the houses I pass by. During the day, people sometimes sit on the porches or hang their laundry on clotheslines or little kids play basketball in a front yard. A few houses are already dotted with Christmas lights. At night, the windows glow, people gather outside together, cigarettes dangling from their mouths, their hands expressive, alive.

I accept my distance. I do not go closer. To me, they are blurs; I see them for a moment and then the bus passes them and motion makes them unreal, far away, a memory.

Maybe these moments are the reason I reach for the small notebook tucked in my purse at all times. I try to write while the bus is moving, but the vibration of the engine makes it difficult for me to form the words; my handwriting ends up looking like black wisps and webs, an unintelligible language. Even so, I cannot turn off the thoughts or wait for the bus to stop; the words have their own flow and rhythm, they flood me, I submit to them even though, hours later, when I read them in my bedroom, their magic is gone because their context is gone, the life of the moment is gone, the sounds of the people and the engine, the scent of the grass in the air, the sun in my eyes--all of it has disappeared.

When I am writing in that notebook on the bus, I feel I am living a secret life, that as the world around me teems and expands, I am both there and somewhere else, part of it and separate from it, existing in a place beyond time. I've never felt completely real or solid. I still live mostly in my mind.  I still cannot believe that what people see--my body, my skin, my face--is not me because me is inside, me is language. I am the words, the thoughts, the memories, and if I do not write them down then people will never truly see the me that I want to show them; the me I want to make visible before I am gone.

How the Years Vanish

I think I am living more in the moment than I ever have before. I savor things because the knowledge of their transience has finally sunk into me. It's as though I finally see life for what it is and, though the ache for the past is never gone, I want to be alive now.

How the years vanish, how time dissolves and leaves so little for us to love. I have to keep loving in my own way. I need to keep living for the moments of happiness, the afternoons of reading, the nights when I breathe the winter air and feel connected to life and to other people.

I need to keep writing, which is why I created this blog. Words take me where I need to go, into the abyss and into the light. It is not until I write that I realize what I have seen, known, and felt. Nothing touches my life, my being, my anguish, nothing fully captures my experiences, but I need to stop letting my life vanish.