Absence - Annual Topic 2024
Introduction by Monika Pessler
ABSENCE can take many forms – it can mean the non-presence of a person or an object, or, in the figurative sense, a state of mental reverie or rapture. Although according to Freud we are denied complete and comprehensive insight into the inner affairs of our mental apparatus, it nevertheless makes sense to engage with the absent that so insistently acts on our being – and this is why the members of our scientific advisory board address ABSENCE in the following texts. More ...
Absence: the very word conjures an empty room, one from which a loved presence – a sentient other, a mother, a brother, a lover – has gone. Yet the subject is there to sense the disappearance, the loss. This brings with it a new vulnerability, a diminishment. In the wake of pandemics or wars, or, for the older amongst us, of every passing day, that ultimate absence of death is a palpable feature of daily life. It is one of the main constituents of our inner landscapes, sometimes lightly repressed into memory, at other times experienced in dreams or in a barely conscious atmosphere of waiting.
Freud first confronts this in his Beyond the Pleasure Principle, begun in the wake of the First World War. After talking about traumatic neurosis he segues into a game invented and repeatedly played by a little boy of one and a half. (The child is in fact his grandson, the son of his daughter Sophie soon herself to be lost to the flu epidemic.) Responding to his mother’s leaving him, as all carers must at some points, the little boy invents the fort/da game: he throws a reel with a bit of string tied round it out of his cot so that it is absent, uttering an expressive o-o-o-o or ‘fort’, ‘gone’, at its disappearance. As he brings the reel back again, he utters a joyful ‘da’, ‘here’! In so doing, and through repetition, he masters the distressing experience of his mother’s absence and overcomes his own passivity.
This compulsion to repeat takes Freud into a consideration of the death drive. Absence is inevitably tied up with our own eventual absence. We need others and sometimes the artistic games we invent to manage its inexorability.
This is what this early painting by Berlin-based artist Mathias Schauwecker makes me contemplate. The room is dark and empty of others, the table bare of conviviality. But in the distance, there is light and the promise of a peopled Paris.
Lisa Appignanesi OBE is a prize-winning writer, novelist, and cultural commentator. She was President of English PEN, Chair of the Freud Museum London, and until 2020 Chair of the Royal Society of Literature of which she is now a vice-president. She is a Visiting Professor at King’s College London. Her non-fiction books include Everyday Madness: On Grief, Anger, Loss and Love (2018), Trials of Passion: Crimes in the Name of Love and Madness (2014), All About Love: Anatomy of an Unruly Emotion (2011), the prize-winning Mad Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800 (2008); Freud’s Women (1992/2005, with John Forrester); a biographical portrait of Simone de Beauvoir (2005), amongst others. She is also the author of an acclaimed family memoir, Losing the Dead (1999) and nine novels, including The Memory Man (2004, which won a Holocaust Fiction Prize) and Paris Requiem (2001/2014).
Oleksandr Filts lives and works in Lviv (Ukraine) and is not able to write a statement at this time due to current demands under conditions of war.
Oleksandr Filts, Prof. Dr., is a psychiatrist and psychoanalytic psychotherapist who heads the Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy at the Faculty of Postgraduate Education of the National Medical University Danylo Halytsky Lviv. He is also a founding member and president of the Ukrainian Umbrella Association for Psychotherapy. In 1994, together with Austrian psychotherapists, he founded a training project for group psychotherapy, which he still directs together with Liudmyla Samsonova. From 2005 to 2007, Professor Filts was President of the European Association of Psychotherapy (EAP). Working with crises, traumatic experiences and their consequences is one of the many focal points of his work.
Rubén Gallo is the Walter S. Carpenter, Jr. Professor in Latin American Literature at Princeton University, where he has taught since 2002. He is the author of many books on Twentieth Century culture, including Mexican Modernity: The Avant-Garde and the Cultural Revolution (2006, MIT Press, winner of the MLA’s Katherine Singer Kovacs Prize), Freud’s Mexico: Into the Wilds of Psychoanalysis (2010, MIT, winner of the Gradiva Prize), Proust’s Latin Americans (2014, Hopkins). He is also a novelist and was published two books on Cuba: Teoría y práctica de la Habana (2017) and Muerte en La Habana (2021). His work has been translated into French, Spanish, Italian, Japanese and Chinese. In 2020 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
In Praise of Absence
Within Freudian metapsychology it is utterly impossible to develop a mind without the absence of the Other. The subjectivity that only becomes possible via the collective. A sense of the social, the encounter with ethics and ethical relations that become possibilities solely via the absence of the Other. We only begin to give up our primary narcissism through the recognition of the lack enforced by the absence of the Other, which invariably becomes an invitation to the outside world, to an investment towards an-other.
The “da” (there) rolling down on the edge of language via the “Fort” (gone), magnificently encapsulated in the game of Fort/Da played by Freud’s little grandson. The disturbing absence that is the road to possibilities of becoming, of the recognition of difference, and of limitations. Of dreams… This crucial hiding that will allow possibilities of seeking and being found, for it is via this hiding that I will begin to find you, re-find you, invariably intertwined with the risky likelihood of finding myself.
Such disappearance is part and parcel of magic, through the giving up of magical thinking and infantile omnipotence. Ah, where is the object? And where has she gone? What was lacking in me that led to such an agonizing departure? And even more palpable, with whom has she left? Here is the inauguration of Oedipus, of triangulation, of the little researcher forever in search of the answer to the question: where do babies come from?
Absence of the Other is our only possible ticket to the reality principle and that of pleasure, to developing language, to entering the symbolic order, to developing antidotes towards psychosis and the black hole of melancholia. Granted all such antidotes are shaky, there is certainly a repetitive back and forth. For we know through Freud that rebellion against the constraints of the reality principle, in favor of a belief in infantile omnipotence, appears as a feature of all neurotic misery.
Without being disturbed by the Other’s absence we will be denied the prospect of encountering the haunting appearance of the Other. Without absence we will be forever doomed, imprisoned in the swamp of “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”, having been denied the risqué chance of passionately discovering the Other, and all the kaleidoscopic triumphs and laments of entering ethical relations.
Said another way: In the absence of the absence of the Other - we will witness nothing but the death of the subject.
Gohar Homayounpour is a psychoanalyst and Gradiva award-winning author. She is a member of the International Psychoanalytic Association (IPA), the American Psychoanalytic Association (APsaA), the Italian Psychoanalytical Society (SPI), and the National Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis (NAAP). She is a Training and Supervising psychoanalyst of the Freudian Group of Tehran, of which she is also founder and immediate past president. She is also a member of the IPA group Geographies of Psychoanalysis. Homayounpour has published various psychoanalytic articles, including in the International and Canadian Journals of Psychoanalysis. Her first book, Doing Psychoanalysis in Tehran (2012, MIT) won the Gradiva award and has been translated into languages including French, German, Italian, Turkish and Spanish. Her latest book is titled Persian Blues, Psychoanalysis and Mourning (2022, Routledge). Other recent publications and book chapters include “The Dislocated Subject” (2019) and “Islamic Psychoanalysis and Psychoanalytic Islam” (2019).
Absence, translated literally into English, as a lack of sense, translates into German as a lack of “beingness”. Indeed, absence hovers between these two connotations, since often no meaning can be made of an absence, and one’s sense of being can be put at risk during a profound experience of absence. Absence lingers in the gaps, the fractures, the silences and shadows of one’s life, its experience is not to be confused with an individual’s acute pain of loss about an object. Freud alluded to this when he famously wrote in Mourning and Melancholia (1915/1917), “The shadow of the ego fell upon the object.” It is in the dark rays, in the in -between world between the ego and its lost objects, that absence finds its place and casts its shadows.
Sam Gerson (2018) captures this distinction most poignantly when he writes that “the quest for the second and third generation of Shoa artists was no longer so much directed at the remembrance and recording of the past, but at the necessity of creating something where there had been nothing, a hole, an empty core at the middle of the psyche. Instead of a loss that has been transmitted, it was now an absence that was being passed on … absences create a never-ending necessity of contending with unrepresented experience and sensibility.” (p. 18) When absence cannot be symbolized into a loss, it risks to remain an unending and enduring tragedy.
Jeanne Wolff Bernstein, Ph.D. is the past president, and supervising and personal analyst at the Psychoanalytic Institute of Northern California (PINC), San Francisco. She is on the faculty at PINC and at the NYU Post-Doctoral Program for Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. She was the 2008 Fulbright-Freud Visiting Scholar of Psychoanalysis at the Sigmund Freud Museum, Vienna. She is a member and on the Board of the Wiener Arbeitskreis für Psychoanalyse and works now as a psychoanalyst in Vienna. She has published numerous articles on the interfaces between psychoanalysis, the visual arts and film. She is currently working on her book on Edouard Manet, Enframing The Gaze.
In September 2022, for the first time, it seemed as though I felt absence for real. I came to the University Department where I had worked for more than twenty years, and instead of my friends and colleagues, I found holes. The space around me seemed eaten away. At that moment I recollected Stephen King’s Langoliers; I felt with all my senses absence, holes in space and time. All of a sudden, my dear friends had disappeared. It was not the absence of the language capacity of humans. It was not Derridean absence as what is repressed by the metaphysics of presence. It was not the negativity of psychoanalysis in the epoch of wild positivism. It was not a Lacanian lack giving possibility to breath. No. It was pain and despair in the face of the uncanny unbearable absence, as if a helpless child had lost his hope for mother to return.
Victor Mazin, Ph.D., is a practicing psychoanalyst. He is the founder of Freud's Dream Museum in St. Petersburg (1999) and an honorary member of The Museum of Jurassic Technology (Los Angeles). He is the head of the department of theoretical psychoanalysis at the East-European Institute of Psychoanalysis (St. Petersburg), and associate professor at The Department of Liberal Arts and Sciences of St. Petersburg State University, honorary professor of the Institute of Depth Psychology (Kiev). He is also a translator from English and French into Russian, and was editor-in-chief of the Kabinet journal and member of the editorial boards of the journals Psychoanalysis (Kiev), European Journal of Psychoanalysis (Rome), Transmission (Sheffield), Journal for Lacanian Studies (London). He has published numerous articles and books on psychoanalysis, deconstruction, cinema and visual arts.
When the Marbles Cried
Over the centuries, many a traveler is said to have cried at the magnificent beauty of the Parthenon. Some travelers have also cried because of the tragic ruin and horrible dismemberment of the Parthenon. A symbol of Ancient Greek democracy and Western civilization, it was the first temple built on the Acropolis. The experience is one of awe as you ascend the Acropolis, walk through the Propylaia (entrance), and witness Greece’s national symbol. The Parthenon featured a large number of sublime sculptures. These sculptures were primarily part of the decorative friezes and metopes that adorned the exterior of the temple. The sculptures, like the entire Parthenon and the other Acropolis temples, were created using the white marble from the nearby Penteli mountain.
The Parthenon Marbles, which depicted various scenes from Greek mythology and religious ceremonies, were especially elaborate. They were painted in vibrant colors. The total number of sculptures, including those on the pediments, metopes, and friezes, is estimated to be in the range of several hundred. Many have been lost or damaged over the centuries. However, most have been looted, and they reside in the British Museum of London. The Parthenon Marbles are prominently displayed in the museum’s great Duveen Gallery. The gallery is named after Joseph Duveen, a rich donor and unscrupulous art dealer in the 1930s. The gallery houses 15 metopes, 17 pediment figures and 247ft (75m) of the original frieze. The museum is reported to hold close to 8,000 pieces of Greek art which it does not display.
The two and a half millennia old Parthenon Marbles are objects of immense symbolic meaning. They represent a celebration of Athena, the patron deity of Athens, and they depict the Greeks overcoming the forces of disorder and irrationality. For the Greeks, sublime art was an expression of proportion and harmony, and thus related to truth. Their art existed as an integrated whole. The theme of the west pediment was the contest of Athena and Poseidon for the possession of Attica: the few figures that survive include some the most beautiful representations of the human body ever produced in Antiquity. The east pediment depicted the miraculous birth of Athena, fully armed, from the head of Zeus and the festivities this inspired. The east pediment is about an entire city state paying tribute to the patron goddess Athena.
The forced removal of the Parthenon Marbles (aka the Elgin Marbles) was initiated and directed by Thomas Bruce, seventh Earl of Elgin, between 1801 and 1804, when Greece was still under Ottoman occupation. At the time, Elgin was the British ambassador to the Ottoman Sultan in Constantinople. Elgin was a predatory collector and removed the priceless marbles to his home in Britain. Eventually, he sold the marbles to the British government in 1811 because he was bankrupt. The British House of Commons approved the purchase of the collection for the nation after debate. During the debate its members expressed concern over the fact that Elgin had taken improper advantage of his position as ambassador to obtain his documents from Constantinople. Englishmen of the day, such as the philhellene poet Lord Byron, had no patience with the deeds of Elgin and even ridiculed him. Byron denounced Elgin’s activities as “the last poor plunder from a bleeding land.” While the presence of the marbles in Britain has never been uncontroversial, the absence of the marbles from Greece has been experienced as an amputation that has affected the “soul” of its people.
Kostas Gavrás: Parthenon
Since the Parthenon Marbles were put on view to the public at the British Museum in 1817, officials have made two major claims for why the sculptures should remain in London. First, the British state that they are the rightful owners, even though Elgin was never able to provide any documentation. This is still the case today. Britain claims legal title. The second claim is that, even if the Parthenon Marbles were returned to Greece, the Greeks would not know how to properly preserve them.
Regarding the claim of ownership, David Rudenstein, former dean of the Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University, published a lengthy, critically acclaimed legal argument titled “Trophies for the Empire: The Epic Dispute Between Greece and England over the Parthenon Sculptures in the British Museum.” He concludes that there is no credible evidence to Elgin’s claim that he received some kind of document from the Ottomans permitting the removal of the marbles. His research demonstrates that it was likely that Elgin’s artisans received permission to draw, paint, measure, mold, and search for buried sculptures. But there was a “stunning” lack of evidence for any written authorization for the removal of the sculptures. Similarly, European legal scholar Catherine Titi, author of the 2023 study The Parthenon Marbles and International Law argues that the British government and the British Museum are engaged in slick and self-serving narratives about the ownership. She finds the British case for possession of the marbles and for their retention to rely on shaky international law. Rudenstein and Titi’s detailed investigations conclude that ownership was never with Elgin and the British.
The second historical claim has been that the Greeks are incapable of caring for their Marbles. While it was partially true, it was insulting. The air pollution and acid rain in Athens would have been corrosive for any marbles left on the monument itself. Moreover, the old Acropolis Museum, located near the temples, was quite small and inadequate. Ironically, in the 1990s it was uncovered that decades earlier, the British Museum had used wire brushes to clean the Marbles. One Greek official called these actions “torturing the Marbles.” By 2009, the Greek government had built a thrilling new Acropolis Museum about 300 meters from the Parthenon. It’s third floor Parthenon Gallery was designed to feature the Marbles that the Greeks still possess. The missing Marbles are represented conspicuously and tastefully by casts.
Recently and to their credit, the Trustees of the British Museum have dropped their second claim. What they now argue, however, is that theirs is a “universal” or “encyclopedic” museum and as such is a proper institution for the preservation and study of world treasures. In an unfortunate development in late 2023, the British Museum revealed that close to 2,000 objects dating from antiquity to the 19th century had disappeared from its vast storerooms and that the curator in charge of Greek antiquities was a prime suspect.
The absence of the ancient Parthenon Marbles from Greece is a moral wrong that the British government and the British Museum have been engaged in for over 200 years. To the Greeks it means a tremendous amount in that the dispute in itself is a recurring cultural trauma with intense emotional dimensions. The traumatizing realities were the Ottoman occupation of Greece for over 400 years and the imperial rule of the British Empire over many parts of Greece in the 19th and 20th centuries. If contemporary psychoanalysis teaches us anything, it is that culture and society saturate individual and collective psyches. Further, that recognition and acknowledgment can restore a sense of a lawful and just world, thereby reducing cultural and national feelings of harm and destruction.
What motivates the British? What motivates the Greeks to plead for their Marbles for 200 years? On the surface level, the British are engaged in the usual dynamics of a former colonial power trying to hold on to its past relevance and privilege. For the Greeks it’s a matter of justice, a rightful claim for cultural heritage and identity. Unconsciously, we witness repeated enactments of envy, greed and destruction of the marble objects which represent Athena Parthenos, the Virgin Goddess. In our post-colonial century, the absence of the Parthenon Marbles is a continued symbolic cannibalization by the post-Brexit UK. For Greece, their restitution might be a way to regain its ancestry and sense of efficacy in today’s cultural and political arenas.
Lastly, the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Athens can be viewed as assertion of the importance of context to artworks. Absent from home, that is their context, location and adjoining fragments, the marbles are orphaned. Even in our post-Google and AI era, memory does not age in Modern Greece. It’s time for the reunification and reintegration of the Parthenon Marbles with their siblings. The American poet and Athens resident Alicia Stallings believes that their return would be a “magnificent gesture” on the part of the British. It would go a long way to repair the damages and ruptures which the Marbles have undergone for so many centuries.
Spyros D. Orfanos, PhD, ABPP, is Director of the New York University Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis. A Fellow of the American Psychological Association (APA), he is past president of the Society of Psychoanalysis and Psychoanalytic Psychology (SPPP) of the APA, and the International Association of Relational Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. He is on the Advisory Board of the Sigmund Freud Museum of Vienna. In 2016, he was co-editor with Eliot Jurist of the special supplement of Psychoanalytic Psychology (APA) on “Psychoanalysis and the Humanities.” In 2017, he founded the NYU Human Rights Work Group. In 2023, year he received the SPPS Award for International Activism for Social Justice. He practices psychoanalysis and psychotherapy and runs creativity study groups.
Is the Freud Museum a place where absence is staged, visualized and – paradoxically – made present? The answer may well be: yes and no. Freud’s own most memorable interpretation of a scene of staging absence is probably the one that concerns his grandson’s game with the wooden reel tied to a string. A play of throwing away till the reel disappears, and pulling it back in order to make it reappear. Gone and back again – fort and da. It is a pleasurable compensation, Freud writes, for the repeated absences of the mother, that is, of the pleasures her presence provides. How is this possible? It is because the little child’s mother is neither continuously present nor definitively lost. What is absent is not lost and can be made present again. And what is continuously present does not need to be compensated by the pleasure of playing, of creatively staging and visualizing both absence and presence. It is this game that, although no longer witnessed by Freud himself, is endlessly repeated in this museum. What is absent should not be lost, it should be staged over and over again.
Herman Westerink is Endowed Professor and Associate Professor for philosophy of religion at the Center for Contemporary European Philosophy, Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands. He did his PhD at the University of Groningen and wrote his professorial dissertation (Habilitation) at the University of Vienna. He has published many books and articles on Freudian psychoanalysis, sexuality, subjectivity and religion. Amongst others he published a monograph on Freud’s theories of the sense of guilt (2009), a monograph on and text editions of the first edition of Freud's Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (2016, 2021, with Philippe Van Haute). Also, he published a monograph on Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality (2019). Recently he published a monograph on Freud’s metaphysics of trauma (2022, with Philippe Van Haute). He is co-editor of the book series “Sigmund Freuds Werke: Wiener Interdisziplinäre Kommentare” (Vienna UP) and of the book series “Figures of the Unconscious” (Leuven University Press). He is member of the International Society for Psychoanalysis and Philosophy (ISPP/SIPP) and its Freud Research Group.
ABSENCE can take many forms – it can mean the non-presence of a person or an object, or, in the figurative sense, a state of mental reverie or rapture. It is well known that the physical presence of a person does not guarantee their being there in their minds. But the imaginary, too, ultimately requires a material manifestation to be discernible: perceptible impulses that are recorded by the sensory organs and lead to psychological sensations, answering to the external influences like an inner echo – and sometimes generating corresponding oscillations for a certain time, an exchange sustained by feelings.
It is first and foremost this ability to establish mental-emotional links between the outside and inner worlds that shapes the individual as a social being and helps it find its place in its world. Taking a closer look, this capacity also encompasses the possibility to link past events to present ones, to remember, or to retrace the experience of others.
This power of the human psyche also was an essential premise in the reconception of the Sigmund Freud Museum in 2020: fully in line with the guiding principle “envisioning in order to see”, we exposed wall paintings in the exhibition rooms, placed historical photographs, and consciously flagged empty spaces that bear witness to the family’s fleeing from the Nazis in 1938. These curatorial and architectural interventions literally dis-cover the remains of a past world that, over time, had disappeared or been painted over, and which now, reconstructed in our imagination as pure representation, claims our heedfulness and attention.
However, the marginality of the relics not only motivates us to complete them before our mind’s eye; above all, it moves into focus what is no longer present, what is lost. Yet the staged visibility of absent people and things neither obscures nor conceals – on the contrary, it allows us to see past events and fates more clearly that even today are felt as individual and collective experiences of loss.
Thus, the not (or no longer) present is immanent to the genius loci of the place Freud used to work at, the Berggasse in Vienna, just as it is to the science of psychoanalysis: it is here that its founder dedicated himself to this science for nearly half a century, aiming to study the realities of the unconscious that mostly escape reason and, if at all, only surface incompletely.
Although according to Freud we are denied complete and comprehensive insight into the inner affairs of our mental apparatus, it nevertheless makes sense to engage with the absent that so insistently acts on our being – and this is why the members of our scientific advisory board address ABSENCE in the following texts. For their beautiful and interesting text and image contributions that approach this year’s annual focus in so many facets we would like to express our gratitude to the following people:
Jeanne Wolff Bernstein (Wiener Arbeitskreis für Psychoanalyse), Herman Westerink (Radboud University Nijmegen), Lisa Appignanesi (King's College London), Oleksandr Filts (Danylo Halytsky Lviv National Medical University), Rubén Gallo (Princeton University), Gohar Homayounpour (Freudian Group of Tehran), Victor Mazin (East-European Institute of Psychoanalysis St. Petersburg), and Spyros D. Orfanos (New York University).
Sigmund Freud Museum Vienna