Fantasy and the challenge of mourning


Recently I had a dream in which I was in a room full of people, but there were two, a man and a woman in the foreground. Seeing them, I realised with a rush that the expected arrival of someone else would be very problematic because of complicated relationships with people already there. In the dream my words came out in a rush as I pointed this out. The two people I spoke to looked at each other and said, coldly, that everything would be fine. The way I described it wasn’t the way that it would be, they would handle it. It was clear this meant avoiding all the drama that I had given voice to and maintaining a pretence that the encounter was perfectly unproblematic.

Next, I was lying on my stomach on the grass outside the building feeling shut out and although there was no sense that what I had expressed had been inaccurate, there was shame for “recklessly” expressing my feelings without first testing the water, filtering or tempering what I had to say in order to comply with the reality presented.

Since having the dream I’ve started reading Chris Erskine’s thesis looking at Jacques Lacan’s ideas of lack, fantasy and hysteria, and was struck by the argument that

…that which is considered and treated as being reality is simply a construction of fantasy, which is continually being fuelled by the surrounding symbolic universe comprising the various opportunities of identity formation, i.e. language, symbols, narratives etc.

I also re-read Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés’ analysis of the story of The Red Shoes and ‘trap’ of “cringing before the collective” that she warns against, arguing that:

The nature of negative complexes and cultures is to pounce upon any discrepancy between the consensus about what is acceptable behaviour and the individual’s differing impulse.

While there have been many times that I have been aware of this, I don’t think I’ve experienced being so out of step with the norm as much as during the two years that I was intensely grieving. During a lot of that time what was happening to me was so forceful that I knew cultural norms couldn’t control it. In many ways I did feel like I ‘took to the hills’ to live out an experience so intense it took me out of ‘normal’ ways of being. Although I’m of

Although I’m fortunate not to have friends who imposed their views about how I should be “coping” on me, many times I’ve felt I just don’t fit. I still look in wonder at how people’s lives continue in a kind of perpetual motion as I try to piece together an idea of what a new life might look like.

Dr. Estés writes that a “woman’s life-giving and life-thriving mark on a crazy world” is defined as “scandalous, insane, and out of control”. Sometimes, the only alternative to a “parched” culture determined to press her into more dryness is to “commit an act drenched in courage” she adds. Such acts don’t have to be of an “earthshaking variety” nor just a one-off, as it’s the “continuation” of those acts of heart that really make a difference, she concludes. What are the acts “drenched in courage” that would challenge the fantasy that Erskine labels “turbo capitalism”?

A painting by Nicolas Poussin, Landscape with the Ashes of Phocion, shows his wife outside the city in defiance of the prohibition against mourning the Athenian general, touches on an aspect of being a widow that I haven’t really grasped. Perhaps because I don’t want to. The shattering of loss themselves contribute to the sense that you are not part of ‘normality’, but is there also something in our culture that resists grief because it doesn’t fit with the fantasy? At times recently when I’ve been in cafes and witnessed a couple acting out the fantasy of the perfect brunch again, I’ve entertained myself with the idea of whispering ‘people die’ as I walk past.

One of my abiding memories after Mark’s death was reading books about grief that offered a helpful roadmap through the biggest existential event of my life only to realise that the promised “new life” that was conjured up was the imagination of our current consumer-driven culture. Surveying the devastation of my particular corner of the world it was desperately dissatisfying to be offered just another version of the old, with perhaps some new or rearranged furniture.

As I’ve said, the significance of widowhood and mourning, or rather, the censure it provokes, is something I feel very reluctant to look at. Perhaps it is precisely because it expresses a reality that people can’t or don’t want to accept, and holding onto your truth when the culture around you closes against it does, as Dr. Estés points out, take courage.