In her book Au Bonheur des morts. Récits de ceux qui restent Vinciane Despret presents the initial findings of her exploration into how the dead enter the lives of the living and, indeed, make the living do particular things. Not yet another book about Death, nor about grief and the work of mourning, she looks at concrete instances of inventiveness at work between the dead and the living, in the relations they have. The diverse ethnographic, narrative, literary, sociological and philosophical material has entered the text in a very particular way. As Despret explains, when she talked to people about the idea at the beginning of her research, she quickly noticed that the subject evoked a particular kind of intelligence and this intelligence found expression in two forms: either through narratives (often personal stories, experiences) or advice (you should see this film, read that book etc.). Despret decided to transform this observation into her method: for the period of a year she would write down as many stories as possible and note each piece of advice, pledging to herself to follow all of the advice given and so obey the intelligence she sensed present in her interlocutors.
Another observation reinforced her decision to work in this very particular way: there seemed to be a gap between the concrete stories those still alive would tell about their concrete relationships with their concrete dead and the historical, sociological and psychological discourse about death and the dead, a gap Despret decided to investigate. Whether historians who reduce the retrievable events witnessing exchanges between the living and the dead to be mere proof of the vivid irrational human imagination of the past, whether sociologists who claim that death and the dead have disappeared from our contemporary societies, or whether psychologists who consider contact with the deceased to be part of the work of mourning and thus should come to a conclusion after a certain time – taken together they have produced a discourse that, as Despret puts it, constitutes an “unsound environment/milieu” for the dead. Instead of cultivating and refining milieus so that they enable fragile beings to “keep up”, these disciplines reveal an alarming tendency to dismember and impoverish them with their theoretical explications and obsession with clear-cut distinctions between fact and imagination, knowledge and belief, the dead and the living. Following Maurice Bloch’s intuition that even modern humans have, in defiance of the establishment of a discourse of disenchantment, never ceased to tear “breaches into the opposition between being and non-being”, Despret explores and narrates innumerable cases of such breaches. While this does not necessarily mean that relations with the dead are untroubled, it does mean – as she puts it – that they are cultivated.