Death: A Cross-Cultural Perspective
Annual Review of Anthropology
Vol. 13: 385-417 (Volume publication date October 1984)
P Palgi, and H Abramovitch
In lieu of an abstract, the publisher reproduces the first page of the article. (Link)

Proof (Movie) reviewed at Anthropology TimesIn “Proof (2005),” Robert, a brilliant mathematician, dies after extended mental illness.  On the morning following the funeral, Catherine, his daughter, directs his assistant Hal to a mathematical proof locked in a drawer in her father’s desk.  Did the father author this proof during the lucid moments intermixed with his madness or did Catherine, a promising mathematician in her own right?  Given that I continue to digest “Death: A Cross-Cultural Perspective,” I was fascinated by the movie’s commentary on death.  What might someone think about how Americans view death when watching this movie?  Robert’s illness and death is heavily present in the movie, but does seeing him in flashback and talking to Catherine in living color from beyond the grave obfuscate this presence? The fact that reviews of the movie make only passing mention of the father’s death, suggests that the answer to that last question is, “Yes!”  The movie “Proof” manages to delve deeply into many aspects of death in American culture while simultaneously presenting a tense thriller about trust, truth and academia.

Palgi and Abramovitch note the following:

Glaser and Strauss commented on the paradox that Americans read daily about death in the newspapers yet are reluctant to face “the process of dying.”  Gerbner goes further and suggest that portrayals of death and dying by the mass media serve symbolic functions of social typing and control and tend on the whole to conceal the reality and inevitability of the event.

Proof” does much to “conceal the reality and inevitability” of the father’s death and death generally.  We hear that Robert died due to a brain aneurysm; we do not see his death.  While we do see his funeral, we do not see his corpse.  Some movies show the typical American funeral with the “…restored image of the deceased as peacefully sleeping (Palgi and Abramovitch).”  In “Proof,” the space that might have been occupied by the coffin, is instead taken up by a string quartet.  So we don’t get a death scene or a coffin.  What we do get is a reaffirmation of Robert’s immortality.  Palgi and Abramovitch direct us to Lifton who writes that one of the ways that society expresses immortality is through work, “…the mode of creativity; one’s human influences, great or humble, which will live on.”  After listing highlights of Robert’s accomplishments as a mathematician, a eulogists says, “We will miss the man intensely, but the work will endure.”

I wonder whether the movie speaks subtly of a possible decline of what Lifton calls the “most fundamental and universal of all modes” of immortality, the biological one, as there is a running commentary on the belief that life is downhill after the early twenties as many mathematicians have produced their best work by this time; many people have not even had children and are only just beginning to cement their adult biosocial connections during their early twenties.  Also, Robert dies from a brain aneurysm, the death of his mind, his ability to do math, whereas in the play on which the movie is based, Robert dies of a heart attack, the seat of feeling, love, family.   Running counter to this possible subtle nod is the fact that Robert’s funeral takes place on Catherine’s birthday which would tend to affirm biological immortality.  Furthermore, on the night of the funeral Robert’s former assistant Hal reminds Catherine that they haven’t had a chance to celebrate her birthday just prior to kissing her, an act which serves as prelude to Catherine disrobing from her funeral frock.  If the viewer were weighted down with a sense that Catherine and Claire had just lost their father, might the rest of the movie seem trite and disrespectful seeing that Robert’s body was barely in the ground before the viewer was pulled into the controversy as to whether the proof found in the desk drawer was written by the father or the daughter.  Birthday sex appears to serve as a shortcut from death-ville.

And speaking of sex and death, Palgi and Abramovitch quote Ariès who writes that the eroticism of death began between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries:

It often took on the character of a fearful and violent event similar to the perception of sex at that time.  In general, death themes became eroticized as seen in motifs in art and literature.  For instance, the new iconography of the sixteenth century showed how “death raped the living.”

With the above in mind, let’s return to the scene in Catherine’s bedroom.  She and Hal are on the bed kissing when they stop for the following exchange:

Catherine: Oh, I feel like I’m gonna crack open like…
Hal: Like what?
Catherine: An egg…or one of those really smelly French cheeses that ooze out everywhere when you cut them.
Hal: Nice. (They go back to kissing.)

Is it me or did she say–my womb is cracked open, so cut me with your knife because I’m ready to ooze? There’s a mix of violent, moldy decay with sex and rebirth.  The bed covering is a patchwork of sweater-like material, pockets visible, reminiscent of Catherine’s attire while taking care of her dying father.  On the night of the funeral, the death bed is transformed into the sex bed.

Apart from the flashbacks and ghostly appearances, and birthday sex, the movie creates distance from Robert’s death by presenting the notion that Robert had been dead for much longer than it appeared.  Catherine is angry when people begin to speak of her father in past tense while he is still alive.  When her university professor, speaking in comforting tones, says of her father, “He was a great man,”  Catherine retorts, “He still is.”  The movie mentions repetitively that Robert was no longer able to work and that he became dependent on Catherine for basic care.  During the funeral Catherine addresses the attendees asking, “Where have you all been for the last five years?  I guess to you guys he was already dead, right?”  The attendees, Catherine’s sister especially, appear distressed and dismayed as Catherine continues, giving details of her father’s abnormal behaviors during the last years.  Palgi and Abramovitch write that Glaser and Strauss question whether people can die socially before they die biologically.  “Proof” says, “Yes, they can.”  Catherine’s resistance to the reality of the social death is presented as an aberration.

Catherine’s views on death are shown to be aberrant in other ways, notably, her beliefs about how her father’s care prior to his death should be handled.  Palgi and Abramovitch discuss the work of Philippe Ariès who examines the changing attitudes toward death in Western history.  While in previous  stages referenced earlier, death becomes eroticized, In the last stage of this history, death has become “invisible:”

Death is no longer seen as natural or beautiful or as socially significant.  On the contrary, it has become dirty and medicalized.  The dying person is expected to die “out of sight” in a hospital where death is brought under full control with the discipline and anonymity of the medical order.  Basically, modern society views death as a “massive admission of defeat.”

In “Proof“, the above is the view of the older sister Claire and it appears to be the view of other characters as well.  On the other hand, Catherine was adamant about the importance of her father dying in the comfort of his home being cared for by family.  She drops out of school and provides that care for five years.  Her sister and others appear to view this as a sign of either weakness or selfish sentimentality.  Catherine’s sister suggests that both her dying father and Catherine may have been better off if he had been cared for in a medical facility.  Catherine’s “aberrant” handling of her father’s illness and death could be seen as a throwback to earlier ideals of death being revitalized in the hospice movement about which Palgi and Abramovitch write the following:

The modern hospice revolves around the old concept of “a good death,” and by awareness of the patient’s feelings and pain level it aims to help him live to the limit of his potential in physical strength, mental and emotional capacity, and in social relationships.  These ideals do not require the erection of costly edifices; on the contrary, they can be activated in a home-care service, provided the philosophy is adopted.

Could the other characters’ lack of approval for Catherine’s handling of her father’s illness be indicative of a backlash toward this hospice movement?  Catherine’s strongest support comes from the dying man through one his last bits of coherent writing a year before his death:

“Her refusal to let me be institutionalized, caring for me herself, has certainly saved my life.  Made writing this possible.  Made it possible to imagine doing math again.  Where does her strength come from?  I can never repay her.  Today is her birthday.  She is 24. I’m taking her to dinner.”

How are we to weight the words of the dying man?  Does the movie serve to affirm the views of the majority of its characters, that since Robert was “socially” dead, he should be placed out of sight in a hospital to meet his biological death, or does the movie condemn such thinking?  Is it possible that the “message?” of the movie is more in line with Palgi and Abramovitch’s assessment of Blauner:

Blauner guides us along to his conclusion that modern American death, characteristically taking place in a hospital, and most times being that of a person regarded by himself and others as no longer useful, is the epitome of the “dying alone” symbolic theme of existentialism as well as the essence of social inappropriateness (emphasis added).

Not everyone is in the position to care for a dying parent in the manner that Catherine did, but should the personal care that she provided be the ideal?  Claire says that maybe Robert would have been better cared for in a medical facility, yet she worked “14-hour days” to pay off the mortgage and other bills that allowed Catherine and their dying father to stay in the family home.  Perhaps the hospice movement has reinvigorated this tension in  American culture.  Maybe the medicalized death is what we want for others because it provides a distance between us and the dead person and the bereaved;  but when we contemplate out own deaths, our hopes are more in line with the sentiment expressed by Robert and desire for personal care.  The words of the dying man are the words we should all be so lucky to speak.

The dead man speaks a lot in this movie.  He speaks to Catherine who seems to be the only character who expresses the emotions generally associated with death and grieving.  She is tearful and sad and angry.  Palgi and Abramovitch write that “according to the psychiatric literature, prolonged but concealed mourning is apparently so widespread today that it is not an individual problem but a social issue.”  While Catherine grieves, Claire gets on quickly and efficiently with handling the business of death.  She makes the funeral arrangements; she arranges the sale of the family house; she packs away the contents of the house; she makes arrangements for her sister’s new housing.  Claire doesn’t grieve; she doesn’t skip a beat.  She takes care of this dying business in the middle of planning her wedding.  In the movie, Catherine’s normal expressions of grief seem cause for her to question her sanity where maybe it should be the other way around.  The other characters’ lack of visible grieving should be cause for them to question their sanity.

But, Catherine speaks to and sees her dead father. Is that normal?  Isn’t that crazy?  Speaking on speaking to dead people, Palgi and Abramovitch write the following:

In this respect, Rosenblatt et al support Blauner’s thesis that while death is less disruptive to modern society, its consequences are more disturbing for the bereaved individual.  They write: “to admit to having a conversation with a deceased person or to having seen a supposedly buried person sitting in one’s living room is very risky in American society.”  Consequently, many bereaved persons may be unable to talk with others about this area of experience and potential anxiety.  Furthermore, many may be led to doubt their own sanity by experiences of ghost cognitions, which only adds to the burden of their loss.

Palgi and Abramovitch point to several sources who affirm that ghost cognition has been replaced in modern society by a sense of feeling the presence of the dead person leading me to wonder whether viewers would tend to interpret Catherine talking to and “seeing” her father as her having a strong sense of his presence.  Regardless of interpretation, whether ghost cognition or feeling the presence, according to Palgi and Abramovitch, this type of experience forms part of the normal mechanisms for dealing with grief in other cultures and with past cultures.

While reviewers gave short coverage of Robert’s death, most did acknowledge Catherine’s grief in sympathetic terms.  A notable exception was Manohla Dargis, the reviewer for the New York Times, who seems, like the other characters in the movie, either unaware or unimpressed by notions of grief and the grieving person:

A martyr to her own choices, Catherine… demands our pity, our attention, our indulgence, our love, while giving little in return but her narcissism.

These demands wouldn’t seem so egregious if Catherine wanted our love because she was lonely or understandably depressed. But we are not supposed to fall for this unpleasant creature because of her human qualities; we are meant to fall for her because she may be a genius and therefore not as human as we are. (link)

Dargis appears fully immersed in the age of the efficient, radicalized death, and champions Claire’s efficient handling of that whole dirty business thus providing a telling example of just the attitude of which the movie appears to be critical.

Proof” is based on the Tony and Pulitzer award-winning play of the same name from writer David Auburn.  Auburn and Rebecca Miller wrote the screenplay for the movie.  I listened to an audio recording of the play available for download at my local public library.  While the movie does give more obvious attention to Robert’s death, many of the elements discussed here are present in the play as well.    The movie is directed by John Madden.

Other Review

  • Marcus du Sautoy, mathematician, on Proof — review lists five myths about mathematicians as portrayed in the movie.
  • Roger Ebert’s review — “It is a rare movie that gets the tone of a university campus exactly right, and at the same time communicates so easily that you don’t need to know the slightest thing about math to understand it.”
  • Philip French’s review — quite the opposite of Dargis from the New York Times in that French is sympathetic to Catherine and views Claire as a control freak.
  • Manohla Dargis’ review — from the New York Times (quoted above).
  • Ty Burrs review — also makes note of the line, “I feel like I could crack open, like an egg, or one of those really smelly French cheeses that ooze when you cut them”

The Movie
Proof (Movie) reviewed at Anthropology Times

Catherine: Gwyneth Paltrow
Robert: Anthony Hopkins
Claire: Hope Davis
Hal: Jake Gyllenhaal