The Absent One
1. Is absence a kind of movement? What kind of figure would it represent? Is it listening to music in a room while lying on my back, prone? Would it be best represented as sitting alone on a loveseat looking at the space next to me as if the other were there?
Absence seems less active. But is it passive? Perhaps it is neither. I have a hard time imagining absence being “gymnastic” or “choreographic”, but I could be wrong. I will have to participate in the tableau, either way. No other body but mine. Though it is not the body of a dancer or actress, it will have to do.
2. After someone is gone from your life, whether they have abandoned you or if they have died, there will emerge many imitations. People you would not have noticed otherwise, in any other context, come out of nowhere. All of them are similar enough to the other at first glance, but they are, heartbreakingly, not the other. It is kind of like grieving, when you swear you see the departed here and there in the world. These doppelgängers inspire a kind of madness. As it is when someone loses a sense, and then another sense intensifies to compensate. If we lose the other, or if the other is otherwise absent, we take notice.
A homeless man sitting in the park after I leave work, with X’s same beautiful dark hair, his dirty jacket splayed across the back of a chair.
A young man on the Q train sits next to me during my commute. He has X’s build, and has with him an amp and a keyboard instead of a guitar. He is dressed the way X would dress before a performance, in a suit jacket, button down shirt, all in the saturated colors X loves. I want to touch his hand. I want to make contact because it would seem like making contact with X.
I encounter X’s friend, who is inexplicably in my neighborhood. He is from the same country X is from, so he has a similar accent, similar wild brown eyes. It is raining. I feel the absence deepen.
But these are only manifestations, only pseudo-others.
Barthes: “I make the other’s absence responsible for my worldliness: I invoke the ot her’s protection, the other’s return: let the other appear, take me away, like a mother who comes looking for her child, from this worldly brilliance, from this social infatuation, let the other restore to me ‘the religious intimacy, the gravity’ of the lover’s world.”
I ask my ex-husband, a philosopher, what this phenomenon is. He responds precisely, as though possessed: “I thought of X, and then X appeared, so I caused X to appear by thinking about them.” Someone’s nose itches, and that means someone else is thinking about them, so the saying goes. The phenomenon is called Post hoc ergo propter hoc. I like the sound of it. I can hear it in his voice. I am filling holes with each of the five short, clipped Latin words that make up a single the phenomena.
3. In Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, the nymph, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) tries to fill the holes she could not fill. Though Jerôme (Shia LaBouef), her complicated lover and saboteur, has destroyed and humiliated her, the mere presence of his favorite pastry invokes this kind of gesture: “To serve it with a cake fork is irritatingly unmanly, not to say downright feminine...I also knew someone who consumed rugelach, every day, almost ritually, with a cake fork.” This “feminine”, rather unremarkable man, Jerôme, is Joe’s undoing. He is also the only character from Joe’s story she refers to by his full name.
“I’m ashamed of what I’ve become.” Joe masturbates on the train to different aspects of Jerôme in the random details of the other passengers. A man’s shoes, a watch, the “careless elegance” in a way of combing one’s hair or cutting ones nails.
4. Absence is a kind of pantomime of death: but whose? Mine or the other’s? As I am writing, I am filling these holes. I am waiting for something, but I am not sure what. I consider Barthes, as a child, waiting at the bus stop for his mother to appear, watching bus after bus pass by, none of which contain her. The first abandonment is our parents leaving us behind, and our fear that they will never return.
Today, I am watching a family of tourists in the rotunda on the third floor of the library. The father executes the most brutal move of parenting, pretending to leave a child behind so that the child rushes after. I watch this little child in a swarm of people, while her father says, “Bye!” and “See you later!” The family slowly moves toward the staircase. The child begins to cry. I think of Barthes as a child, waiting in the cold for his mother’s bus to arrive.
5. Anne Carson: “The Greek word eros denotes ‘want’, ‘lack’, ‘desire for what is missing.’ The lover wants what he does not have.”
Barthes argues that it is both: “(but isn’t desire always the same, whether the object is present or absent? Isn’t the object always absent?—This isn’t the same languor: there are two words: Pothos, desire for the absent being, and Himéros, the more burning desire for the present being.)”
Executing my gesture of post hoc ergo propter hoc, my mind attempts to fill the holes. But am I really just talking to myself? Since there is no one there to talk to, I create a kind of companion out of language. A spool doll that I toss and pick up again, as Barthes mentions in an invocation of psychologist D.W. Winnicott: “the child has made himself a doll out of a spool, throws it away and picks it up again, miming the mother’s departure and return” or, like a lonely sea captain’s wife, am I secreting a “he’s-at-home”, a wax dildo I keep in a chimney “to keep warm”. Am I simply pantomiming abandonment and filling holes?
6. It might be true that I’ve created a narrative of abandonment for myself, a spool doll in the image of the other. If I toss the spool doll and pick it up again, is it even the same image as it was before? Or am I re-enacting abandonment because it feels familiar, or somehow more true?
“See you later!”
7. Barthes’ other, his X, once told him that “love had protected him against worldliness: coteries, ambitions, advancements, interferences, alliances, secessions, roles, powers: love had made him into a social catastrophe, to his delight.” I felt a tenderness for Barthes’ X at this moment. Imagine the only ambition in one’s life being love, not understanding. Or am I seeking the same thing? Am I just talking to myself?
8. “I am just waiting for a moment to be alone!” X tells me over the phone, exasperated. This both broke my heart and made me deeply envious of X, always desired by someone, never desiring. Always, emphatically, moving through the world, on his way somewhere, to do something. I try to imagine desiring a moment to be alone. Maybe absence is choreographic after all: one constantly moving at a distance from another.
atopos / atopos
1. There are things that I can easily identify as things I love about X: (commitment to their art form above all else, emotional capacity, enthusiasm for beauty in the world), or on a more visceral level, (their smell, their hair in certain light). There are things I can identify as traits I dislike about X: (their immaturity, their lack of regard for the emotions of others, how irrational they are when they argue). But these are shallow sensations, and ones that exist on opposite poles. I can easily catalogue and organize them into their respective categories. I become an archivist of observances. I submit to the system that binds me to X.
Each of these qualities could manifest in anyone, really, and so I could go about finding a new lover who is similar enough to X, a lover that fits into the “type”. But I do not, of course, because there is something unique in X that Barthes calls “atopos”: it is a quality totally unique to the other, and it exists because the lover recognizes it. Barthes: “The other whom I love and who fascinates me is atopos. I cannot classify the other, for the other is, precisely, Unique”. It is something like truth, but not quite truth.
2. Barthes’ X had a look of “certain tremendous innocence: the other knows nothing of the harm he or she has done me—or, to put it less rhetorically, of the harm he or she has given me.” At this moment, the other is beyond discourse. Atopia refuses discourse: it both petrifies and jolts us into a state of aliveness, it is one of the only truly collaborative things that the lover and the beloved do together. It is a chemical reaction, but the kind that happens in the brain when a song is being written or a poem is being made. Who else but I to recognize the atopia of the other? It is unique because it can only exist in X and be recognized by me. Someone had to paint Mona Lisa’s smile. There is beauty and the hand that points to the beauty.
I think I recognized X’s atopia one day when we met at an Italian restaurant in Bed-Stuy. I arrived first, of course, (isn’t it always the lover who waits?) and looked up to see X crossing the street, untying his hair and then putting it up again. There was a sense of naturalness about the fluid motion of this gesture as he stepped across the street towards me. I felt I was bearing witness to a human being who existed in the world, passionately engaged in the act of living. There was a freedom to his movements, a similar freedom that I would assume Barthes read on his X’s face as innocence. It is a freedom from concern for the lover, a sort of lightness of movement or gesture. But on that street corner on a spring evening in Brooklyn, I recognized it.
3. Often, as the lover, I feel as if the other could care less for me, and often I think of disappearing altogether: leaving the city without a trace, dying, obliterating myself in some way, or disappearing from X’s life, fully exorcised of any relation. Yet, I persist, I stay, I wait. Even if X and I never speak again, never see one another again, I saw that remarkable sense of being in the world. True, it could have been anyone who witnessed how subtle that gesture had been and it could have been anyone who saw a beautiful man crossing the street, untying and putting up his unruly, dark hair, but that person happened to be me on that occasion.
It bothers me that John Keats wrote a line like “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all ye need to know on earth, and all ye need to know” and it is replicated over and over until it becomes hollow. Fitting, maybe, for a Grecian urn, replicated on paper coffee cups from every bodega in the city. We all play our roles, but some of us remain forever a certain way. Crossing the street, putting up our hair, utterly free. It may be my greatest error that I froze this moment in language, that now, after X and I are both gone, he will be forever crossing at the corner of Halsey and Lewis, and I will be waiting.
cases / pigeonholed
1. Children’s games are so often cruel. Even when I was a child, I never enjoyed playing them. I avoided four square and red rover, and dreaded P.E. class. Except for the days we got to play with the parachute, when we filled the rainbow sailcloth with air and rushed to sit quickly in our own tent of color. It was these rare communal activities I loved best, but most other games favored strong, bold, brash children and their ability to break through a line of children linking arms, or shove other children out of the way. Those who cared about being first or best, with all eyes on them, excelled in these games. These games favored children willing to humiliate and harm other children to win. Why did it seem so important to be first? Now, I understand it to be a desire to have a place, any place. You weren’t alone and nameless if you were the winner.
Barthes mentions the game of musical chairs to describe the lover adrift: “there were as many chairs as children, minus one; while the children marched around, a lady pounded on a piano; when she shopped, everyone dashed for a chair and sat down, except the clumsiest, the least brutal, or the unluckiest, who remained standing, stupid, de trop: the lover.” I, who was often the child left standing when all the other children had found their seat, their place, feel this tableau in my body. The lover’s body feels somehow wretched because it has no place, while others have their own roles to play, seats to fill, jobs to do.
2. One winter, my first in New York, I developed the habit of looking up into the lighted windows of the brownstones on my way to and from the train. I would admire light fixtures or furniture, but sometimes I would see people living their lives: a mother and child dancing around the living room, a couple making dinner, a man stooped over a keyboard. I was unemployed and newly divorced, and I felt that same hard shame of being left standing. All these people had a place. They had furniture and light fixtures and jobs to do and people to cook for. I was alone on the street, neither home nor anywhere else I wanted to be. There was no going home, because there was no other home to get to. There was no one waiting for me when I arrived.
We all want holes filled. We all want to feel completed, to be claimed. But the void is never satiated, is it?
3. That same winter, I began writing poems with a recurring theme of wanting to be “cared for”. I wanted nothing more than to be confined to a bed and fed soup and tea all day, as if I were gravely ill. I was ill, but my illness required me to venture out into the snow and wind and pretend that I was not ill, that I didn’t feel myself inwardly shatter morning after morning. My lack of a place manifested in my apparent desire to stay in bed, cared for like a sick child (by whom?). This desire eclipsed any need for a lover, or perhaps it was only a manifestation of the void the child becomes when they stand outside the circle of chairs, all of which are occupied. It seemed there was no more room in the world.
Denise Jarrott is the author of a collection of poems called NYMPH (vegetarian alcoholic press) and a chapbook, Nine Elegies (dancing girl press). Her work has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Bombay Gin, The Volta, Poor Claudia, and elsewhere. She was nominated for a 2018 Pushcart Prize and is currently at work on a series of essays in conversation with Roland Barthes' A Lover's Discourse. She lives in Brooklyn.