Writing Anew

Writing a book is, in some ways, like performing a ritual. Most often, you’re trying to get something done, and fill a particular expanse with sense and transformative change. In tinkering with certain aspects of the world, generating affects, you proceed carefully, cautiously, sometimes with the air of an obsessive; you’re trying to get it right, lest the gods get offended and damage ensues. You might have a sense of what you wish to accomplish through the effort, but it can be unclear what effects the rites produce, what traces linger, or how the actions involved strike any perceivers. The engagements might release energies and forces which, in principle, can affect aspects of the world in remarkable ways. They can also work in terms that one never intended, or fall flat altogether. Ultimately, one faces a horizon of emptiness and unknowing.

It is with this abiding sense of uncertain effects that I receive these terrifically thoughtful reflections on Subject to Death. I read the texts with care, impressed with the generosity of thought and spirit at hand.

Karma Gyaltsen Lama’s “Insider’s Note” is a welcome and perceptive commentary on how the book might be read by someone from within the community which the book considers, namely Hyolmo people of northcentral Nepal. Karma and I have known each other since the late 1980s, when I was first conducting fieldwork among Hyolmo people. I met Karma at a critical moment. He helped me in highly important ways to understand the materials I had been collecting, and to translate and comprehend a number of Hyolmo songs, prayers, and ritual practices. Since that youthful time, we have worked as friends and colleagues on themes related to Hyolmo culture. Karma figures importantly in Subject to Death, as he has in my previous writings on Hyolmo lives – as an interlocutor, a subject of Hyolmo life and knowledge, and a critical reader of my efforts to understand. His commentary on Subject to Death touches on the way that a sustained dialogic engagement between different lifeworlds can lead to insight, reflection, and novel, unexpected thought – catalyzing the “happy traumatism” that Levinas and Derrida spoke of, when one encounters another and meets with “an angle different” from one’s own, as Karma himself puts it. Once again, I am struck with Karma’s perceptive take on the matter at hand, namely the presence and significance of death among the lives of the living. “Death is woven into the cultural fabric of life,” he notes. Perhaps because of this, he and other Hyolmo people find that death is a “familiar subject,” not to be shied away from. He thus finds the concerns conveyed by the author while writing the book, about having come to think too intensely about death, as somewhat odd, a pattern evident in a society where death, admittedly, is often pushed aside, or thrown out of everyday consciousness. In a sense, Karma’s reading of the book entails an astute anthropological reflection on the grounds of an anthropologist’s writings – an insider’s on words from the outside. In reading his observations I encounter, once again, a moment where a charge of difference – uneven, fruitful difference – comes to the fore in our engagements with one another.

Marsha Hurst offers another plane of dialogue and difference in her reflection, “Making Death: A Narrative Medicine Exploration.” For she reads the book primarily from the perspective of someone who teaches students in the Narrative Medicine program at Columbia University to comprehend the narrative dimensions of death in North America. Many of these students are, or will be soon, physicians, directly involved in the care of people at the end of their lives. In learning to regard death not solely in medical terms, but as a profoundly human experience of cessation, parting, and transformative passage, these physicians come to engage with dying and death beyond the procedures of technological intervention. This education in the arts of dying is a highly important and timely one. In drawing from her richly informed experience in such considerations, Marsha’s reading of the book traces out several affinities between Hyolmo ways of dying and end of life processes in a number of American settings – from the pressing search for a “good death” to the value of diminishing attachments and longing in one’s final days to the quiet sense of poiesis that can inform how people work to craft their deaths or the imminent passing of loved ones. Along with the affinities she notes, she also points out how Hyolmo ways of dying throw into relief the ways that death is often managed in highly medical contexts, where strangers try to sustain a frail body, and where, more generally, people do not talk or think much about how they would like to die. Again, it’s through an encounter with other ways of living – and dying – that certain understandings take form. It has been within the spirit of such an open-ended conversation that I have been visiting Marsha’s class on Narrative Dying for several years now, often with Karma present, when possible. Each time that class session is held on an autumn evening in Manhattan, and we’re sitting around a table, discussing passages of the present book, something new emerges – a novel thought or perspective, a new strand of affinity or difference. It’s through such engagements that certain attitudes toward processes of living and dying might alter, in time.

Summar Saad’s valuable reflection underscores the idea that an anthropology of death and dying can tell us a great deal about what it means to be alive more generally – that an anthropology of death speaks to so much more than direct considerations of funeral rites and concepts of death. I think Summar is right to tease out the functionalist flavor in my attempts to articulate the ways that death rituals among Hyolmo people work to transform the bodies, consciousnesses, and karmic statuses of the dead and the living. It could be that anthropologists face a kind of “interpretive imperative” when attending to the work of rituals, for there is often a compulsion to try to make sense of the rites and explain their presumed purposes and effects. With that said, I can only respond with uncertainty and hesitation to Summar’s pressing question, “between thought and ritual, where and how does the transformation of grief emerge?” It’s unclear to me, and to the Hyolmo people with whom I’ve worked, how the rites might actually transform grief, if they do at all. For one, the rituals are largely understood to serve the needs of the recently deceased, who must move on from their recently ended life and seek a rebirth or enlightenment altogether; any effects or affects for the living are seen as secondary, at best, to the main purposes of the rites. At the same time, the myriad actions and effects of the rituals are so diverse, and so fleeting and transient, that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to develop a sustained sense of how any transformations in emotion and cognition might actually occur. One can only chart the pathways entailed in the ritual processes, and conceptualize, in tentative ways, through a sketch of ritual movement, any possible transformations involved.

Each of the commentators has engaged with the book through the contexts and prisms of their own circumstances in life, from intensive care wards in American hospitals to the damaging earthquake in Nepal in April 2015 to killings and protests in Baltimore and elsewhere. In his astute reflection, Anand Pandian reads the book in the aftermath of the demise of his grandfather, the life of whom we learn of in Pandian’s fine, co-authored book, Ayya’s Account (Pandian and Mariappan, 2014). I have read this book of a life on several occasions, with admiration and respect and fondness for the book’s main subject, whom I never met, though I feel I’ve come to know this person in some imagined, empathic fashion. In reading Anand’s poignant words on his last meeting with his grandfather, in January 2014, my own life touches on this good man’s passing, while knowing of the rich generativity he brought to the world. The writing, the ledger, recurs. Anand also relates my own text to the terrible, impossible violence he and others have faced in the United States in recent months. He finds within the present book a language that speaks not only to the pathways of a good death but, as well, “the possibilities of a good life imagined anew.” In death there is life, anew.

“Whose voice is it?” asks Anand of the clusters of sentences that begin each section of Subject to Death. He rightly alludes to the Tibetan Bardo Thedol, the so-called “Tibetan Book of the Dead,” for it is indeed from the second-person linguistics of that sacred text that the current book draws, in part. In the Bardo Thedol an unnamed narrator speaks to the reader or anyone listening to the oral recitation of the text; for example:

Do not be afraid! All phenomenal existence is now arising as luminosities and buddha-bodies. By recognizing all the present visionary experiences to be the natural luminosity of your own intrinsic awareness, manifesting as lights and buddha-bodies, you will dissolve inseparably within the lights and buddha-bodies, and buddhahood will be attained (Dorje 2005:267).

Subject to Death likewise invokes a second-voice language, directed at the reader, from an underdetermined narrative position, as if the words might guide the reader or make clear what is at stake in the unfolding story of life and death:

Reduce attachment, desire, and cravings when dying. Help the dying in this. Satiate a dead person’s longings for this world. If need be, create a fiction to appease a restless mind (Desjarlais 2016:48).

Sarah Pinto also gives thought to the readerly effects provoked by the second-person sentences, in her insightful and moving reflection. “The tone is softly instructional. The very tense is command. But the fact, underlying the directive, is that these sentences are for you.” She finds the second-person commands “initially a surprise, later a comfort.” That phrasing reminds me of a set of exchanges Sarah and I once had on the language of the book. As I remember it, I once showed a set of draft versions of the opening sections to Sarah, in the summer of 2010, when we were both living in the Cambridge-Somerville area of Massachusetts and helping each other with the books we were working on (for her own recent work, see Pinto 2014). I asked Sarah what she thought of these second-person statements that began each section. “They’re interesting,” she answered (to paraphrase). “They’re very direct. They speak right to the reader, to the ‘you’ of the reader.” Our conversation moved on to other subjects, and I took in mind what she said. At some point during that season of writing I decided to take out all of those second-person statements, which Sarah noticed when she read a revised version of the book manuscript.

“I see that you took out those second-person paragraphs,” said Sarah, as I recall.

“Yes, I did,” I said. “It seemed that the voice there was too strong, too direct toward the reader, too much of a command, an assertion. And you were finding as much when you were reading the earlier versions.”

“But I liked that voice, too. It was intriguing, different.”

Sarah encouraged me to consider putting those statements back into the text. I did just that, after giving the language further thought. In a subsequent reading, seasons later, Sarah finds the text implies “anthropology as impermanence”; ethnographic knowing through uncertainty. Sarah sees this in the language itself, in ways that I wasn’t so consciously aware when writing. I can say though that I wrote with care, in a spirit of intersubjective responsibility, in trying to convey certain forms of living and relating. Personally, professionally, I am committed to the idea that anthropologists need to work toward new modes of writing and expression, to articulate syntaxes of life that might help us to encounter the world in attentively dynamic ways, which can offer new forms of perception, awareness, and potential action. A novel poetics of language and life needs to be cultivated. Write imaginatively, imagine anew.

And so a book comes to be written from the engaged voices of others, through countless perceptions, encounters, reflections, torsions. Sarah herself recalls some words I once sent along to her, in the spirit of a ritual grounding, to help her find comfort and reassurance, a momentary sense of HERE when it was proving difficult to find any presence and contact in the dislocations of a foreign land. Reading her recollection of this exchange brought back the memory of it in vivid ways, including the cafe in Northampton, Massachusetts, where I wrote the words one summer afternoon. This, in itself, reminds me that anthropology is so much more than the production and reception of scholarly treatises or the latest epistemological turn. It’s a way of proceeding in the world, of relating and connecting to others, learning from them, learning anew from friends, colleagues, and students, exchanging ideas and forms of life, tracing affinities and difference, be it in Nepal, New York, Baltimore, Detroit, or New England, in a spirit of care and relational support. This is the “radical and open-ended kinship” that Anand speaks of. We write, ultimately, for one another, and for the world at large. As such, I receive the gift of these reflections.

I write these words in Paris, France, while seated on the terrace of a brasserie in the 10th Arrondissement, close to Canal St. Martin, not far from where some of the bloody attacks took place the night of 13 November, 2015. The memory of the deaths and terrible damage here is ever-present, as if a shadow cast from the ground. Within this same expanse of space and time one hears sounds of vital language, music, friendship, lives ongoing. Any reflection on death is, within the same breath, a reflection on life.



Desjarlais, R. (2016). Subject to Death: Life and Loss in a Buddhist World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Dorje, G., trans., Graham Coleman with Thupten Jinpa, eds. (2005). The Tibetan Book of the Dead: First Complete Translation. New York: Penguin.

Pandian, A. and M.P. Mariappan. (2014). Ayya’s Accounts: A Ledger of Hope. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Pinto, S. (2014). Daughters of Parvati: Women and Madness in Contemporary India. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.


Robert Desjarlais is Professor of Anthropology at Sarah Lawrence College.

One Response to Writing Anew

  1. Pingback: Book Forum––Robert Desjarlais’ Subject to Death: Life and Loss in a Buddhist World by Todd Meyers - Bioethics Research Library

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