The psychoanalyst and author Darian Leader writes about accessing grief through art, and the public dimension to mourning.
In an article developing Melanie Klein’s ideas about aesthetics, the Kleinian analyst Hanna Segal makes a very simple but also barely noticed point about our experience of works of art. Although at some level we might believe that we “identify” with the protagonists, there is also a process of identification with the creator, in the sense of someone who could make something out of an inferred experience of loss. As Segal puts it, they have created something “out of chaos and destruction.” Reading a James Bond novel, we might think that we are identifying with the glamorous spy, but in fact, strange as it may seem, at a deeper level we are identifying with Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming.
This may seem rather counter-intuitive, and we might certainly disagree with Segal’s explanations, but at some level it rings true. The key here lies in the importance of exposure to the manifest mourning process of someone else. Segal goes on to argue that it is through “identifying with the artist” that a successful mourning can be achieved, implying perhaps a more transitory experience of catharsis than the drawn-out work of mourning described by Freud. However, if we follow her approach and see all creative works as being products of the same mechanisms, the place of the arts in a culture takes on a new sense: as a set of instruments to help us to mourn. The arts exist to allow us to access grief, and they do this by showing publicly how creation can emerge from the turbulence of a human life. In our unconscious use of the arts, we have to go outside ourselves to get back inside.
This was already a motif in Plato’s Republic, where we can read how “poets gratify and indulge the natural desire to weep and lament to our heart’s content, which in our private misfortune we forcibly restrain.” When critics argue today about the social function of art and how it has been lost, they miss this crucial point. The true social function of art, perhaps, is to present models of creation. And that is why the diversity of each artistic act is so crucial.
This fact alone can encourage each of us to create for ourselves, in however modest a way. When today’s schoolchildren are taught emotional literacy, the idea is to help them to express their emotions. They are taught a language to articulate what they are feeling and what others are feeling. This well-intentioned practice is sadly tantamount to brainwashing, in the sense that it imposes a language on the individual and coerces them to use it in place of their own unique ways of expressing themselves. The casualties here are the subjects of literature, drama, and art for a very precise reason. These do not force a pre-set language on children but expose them to a variety of ways of creating. Children are thus confronted with the ways that individuals have responded in their own unique fashion to the experience of frustration, sadness, and loss. And, as we have seen with the idea of the dialogue of mournings, it might be this very fact that will encourage them to find their own solutions to the difficulties they are facing.
As the psychoanalyst Ginette Raimbault observed, the work of writers, artists, poets, and musicians is very important to help bring out the universal nature of what a mourner feels, but not in the sense that they will all feel the same thing. On the contrary, “What no one can understand about my pain, someone can express it in such a way that I can recognise myself in what I cannot share.”
We can find no better example of this dialogue of mournings than in the work of the artist Sophie Calle. Her project Exquisite Pain is in one sense a perfect illustration of the work of mourning as described by Freud. Arriving at the Imperial Hotel in New Delhi to meet her lover after a ninety-two-day journey, she receives a telegram informing her that he is in a hospital in France. It turns out that his minor ailment is an excuse to break off the relationship, and Calle is left in the bleak hotel room alone with her grief. Exquisite Pain consists of ninety-nine different descriptions of what happened that night: the telegram, her call to France, her realisation that it had ended, the details of the room. Each description goes over these details in a different way, as if to mimic the Freudian process of accessing the object in all its different representations. Each description is a memory from which the libido must be progressively detached.
But this isn’t all. Calle arranges each of her descriptions on the left-hand side of the page. On the right are ninety-nine texts, all giving answers to the question “When did you suffer most?” posed to both friends and strangers. The beauty of the work lies in this clarification of the mourning process. Each of her own descriptions is in dialogue with the description of someone else. It’s as if Calle needs other people’s stories to process her own, or even to be able to see her own as a story. Towards the end of the series, comments start to emerge in her descriptions, such as “nothing special,” “not a lot,” “it’s the same story,” and “an ordinary story.” The events are losing their libidinal charge, as if the strength of her attachments is being progressively weakened. Now they just appear as any other sad story that she could be hearing about from someone else.
Calle’s project brings to mind the well-known Buddhist story of a woman grieving the death of her first and only child. She wears him strapped to her chest and travels from place to place searching for a treatment to cure him. Eventually a holy man receives her and tells her to bring him some mustard seeds from a house where no one has died. She starts to visit homes, and wherever she goes she ends up listening to stories of death and loss. No house is exempt. As she realises that she is not alone in her grief, she can at last put her child’s body to rest.
Calle’s work illustrates the bridge between the private model of mourning described by Freud, in which representations of the lost loved one are run through to the point of exhaustion, and the intersubjective, public dimension we have been discussing. But what kind of mechanism is at play here? How exactly does the process work? In some ways it is reminiscent of what Freud termed “hysterical identification.” This type of identification is different from others in that it doesn’t suppose an emotional or erotic tie to the person we identify with. When we looked at the identifications with the dead person that take place after a loss, these are clearly linked to our relationship with the departed. But hysterical identification does not rely on a close bond: all that matters is the idea that we share something with someone else, that we are in or aspire to be in the same situation as them.
Imagine a coughing epidemic at a boarding school. It starts when one girl receives a letter from her lover, perhaps signalling the end of the relationship. Her response is a coughing fit. Soon, all the girls in her class are coughing. But not because they have any particular interest in her as an individual. Rather, they are interested in her relation with the boy, that is, in her situation. They are not attached to her, but to her attachment. Their symptoms indicate that they are in the same situation as she is, both in the sense of having a lover and, perhaps more profoundly, of being disappointed. The coughing forms a bridge between them, resting on the notion of a shared lack, a common unconscious feeling of disappointment.
Perhaps this is how the dialogue of mournings works. Public outcries of grief, indeed, require no connection at all between those mourning and the celebrity or public figure who has died. What they rely on is putting oneself in the same situation as others who have experienced a loss. The relation of the mourner to their loss is mediated through the relation of another mourner to their own loss. In this way, analysts would say, lack becomes an object. We can note how the process of comparison here has not necessarily resulted in new symptoms. The dialogue of mournings has not pushed Calle, for example, into an identification with her interlocuters, but allowed her to process and work through her own pain and distress. If there is a new symptom here, it is perhaps the creation of the work Exquisite Pain itself.
Darian Leader is a psychoanalyst working in London and a member of the Centre for Freudian Analysis and Research. His books include What is Madness?, Hands, Why Can’t We Sleep?, and Jouissance.
"Exquisite Pain" first appeared in Darian Leader's The New Black: Mourning, Melancholia, and Depression, published by Graywolf Press in 2009. It has been republished here with the kind permission of the author.