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).