Loss as Part of Life

Many depressions are the effect of a wounding shock to the soul. The soul may seem to recover—like the body does after a bruise—but it is only like a bruise which slowly deepens into a terrible ache. As the writer, D. H. Lawrence puts it: ‘When we think we have recovered and forgotten, it is then that the terrible side effects have to be encountered at their worst. ‘Time does not heal these wounds unless they are, as Lawrence says’encountered.’ The South African writer, Doris Lessing, captured this recently when she spoke of her latest book, ‘Alfred and Emily’, a memoir and fictional account of her parents, in particular her father’s terrible depression, and her mother’s breakdown.

Now, nearing 90, Lessing admitted: ‘Here I still am, trying to get out from under that monstrous legacy, trying to get free.’ This is the space of therapy, a space that recognizes that most depressions are expressions of emotional reactions once withheld and remaining latent. It is important to know that there is a choice; we can stay depressed, that is, frozen with what or who it is we’ve lost – the wound that has produced the illness – or we find a way to keep the lost person alive, without dying with them. We will identify with the lost loved one, invariably a parent, but will it be partially or totally? This is the dilemma Lessing writes of, and Freud raises, in his landmark essay, ‘Mourning and Melancholia’. If we try to keep the lost one alive, by identifying totally with them, depression follows; if we let them go, identifying with their traits only, we mourn, and recover. The first and worst choice sees the ego blighted by loss. This is depression, in which we punish the lost one in effigy, turning an object loss into an ego loss.

It is also how character is formed; we are made up of the left over traces of lost relationships, the experience of loss and the registration of loss. Which is why writers are so interested in family. They know that you are not what you eat, but what you have loved. We become what we could not bear to give up.

This is the insight of psychoanalysis, and art, and it has a lot to do with the ambivalence that goes along with love. Ambivalence is at the heart of all forms of mourning, which can be seen as derivatives of melancholia. The child’s hatred of the mother, heightened by the early disappointments, can swamp their love, and they can find themselves unable to either wholly hate or wholly love her. This impasse would be felt as a profound helplessness.

You would think we would know this, or at least remember it well enough to wise up. But not so; as Freud famously discovered, we not only bury the pain but these repressed memories return, unconsciously, as the software of our lives, making robots of us all. It happens every day, but through a glass darkly, so we are usually not aware. We need to wake up. It is my contention that this can happen through what art and literature can teach us about loss.

But before I go into that, let me give you an example of how we forget and how the trauma derails memory. This comes from a new book by the English psychoanalyst and writer, Darian Leader. It is called ‘The New Black’, and in it, Leader takes the case of Marianne Ellenbogen, a young Jewish woman who amazingly survived the Holocaust inside Germany. Interviewed later in life, Ellenbogen told a different story to the one she recorded in her journals at the time, just as both of these sources sometimes conflicted with external accounts. As her biographer, Mark Roseman, studied the material a pattern became clear; ‘Where moments of separation were so traumatic as to be unbearable for Marianne, they would be rewritten using the memories of other people.’

Rather than false memory syndrome, Leader thinks of this as borrowed mourning. ‘She was able to make something from how other people had represented their own grief.’ This is a dialogue of mourning, a tool in symbolizing and thus processing loss. Words, Leader says, converge at the point that is most unbearable for us. But words also show us, not just loss but how something can be created from it. It is not a matter of getting over loss, and getting on with it—the ubiquitous ‘Get a Life’—but finding a way to make loss a part of existence. Living with loss is what counts and, Leader advises, writers and artists show us the many different ways in which this can be done.

The fact is we not only identify with works of art, but also their creators, in the sense that they have made something out of an inferred experience of loss. Could it be that the arts exist to allow us to access our grief, and to do it by demonstrating how creation can emerge from the turbulence of a human life?

The point here is to put the past into the past, but not forget it. Popular culture is no help, as it is designed to erase all memory, save that of the sound-bite.

Rather than this sort of forgetting, art, literature, and psychoanalysis, suggest that we need to remember, not just to know who we are, but to grab hold of it and turn it into a creation, a representation of the experience of loss. Leader gives the example of French artist Sophie Calle whose text, Exquisite Pain, was forged from a failed relationship. When her relationship ended in her beingabandoned, rather than just weep, which she did as well, she sat down and wrote exhaustively about the loss, exploring every nook and cranny of it inside her. It was a matter of ripping something down to create something new. As she demonstrated, it had to be original, from her, something blue, certainly, but not borrowed. Otherwise there is no creation, just imitation.

Melanie Klein spoke of the necessity to re-create the whole of one’s internal world with each loss. Leader gives the example of the German artist, Thomas Demand, who takes photographs of scenes he has reconstructed through meticulous life size cardboard models. He will often choose a site linked to loss and grief that can’t be readily symbolized and then rebuild it is a completely artificial way before photographing it. Critics say the work is pointless—why not photograph the original space—but this misses the point.

As Leader says, confronted with the unsymbolizable nature of the tragedy, the symbolic dimension itself has to be mobilized, and hence the emphasis will be on the register of the artificial…Demand is showing us how the artificial has a vital function. Even if the space looks the same it isn’t because it has been artificially created. Leader likens this to Freud’s case of Little Hans, the five year-old boy who had a phobia about horses. To help him over the problem, Freud created an artificial beast on paper; then crumpled it up, an appeal, Leader says, to the symbolic dimension. The writer, W. G. Sebald, who was described by one psychiatrist as an anti anti-depressant, offers another example. Sebald’s books focus on apparently random, contingent details, such as an old photograph, which he explores. In so doing, Leader says, ‘he brings into focus not simply the individual life behind the photo…but the impossibility of encompassing all the lives behind all those details that make up human culture.’ If one photo can lead to a real story of loss, all photos might potentially do the same. This makes human civilization an immense hole, an abyss. ‘It is,’ Leader says, ‘exactly this unthinkable hole that his work circumscribes.’

Freud thought that the work of mourning involved a declaration that the lost object is dead, whereas, Melanie Klein believed it was about demonstrating that we have not killed the dead. According to Leader, the important thing is the symbolic death, which puts to rest our need to keep the dead with us. He draws upon Lacan to emphasize that we can only mourn when we have already lost something; mourning involves a process of constitution of the object, registering of empty space. For mourning to occur, the object, and the object’s place must be built up. This construction is never a given, as Freud knew when he differentiated between whom we have lost and what we have lost in them. Mourning is not about giving up an object, but restoring one’s links to it as lost. As Lacan says, we can only mourn someone of whom we can say, I was their lack, that is, they loved me.