Saturday, June 18, 2011

A shadow-talk with Roland Barthes on mourning

Roland Barthes, Mourning Diary, translated by Richard Howard.

RB's mother died 10/25/1977, which was my mother's 60th birthday. I found his mourning diary at Bridge Street Books today. Many entries do not resonate for me, but some do quite profoundly. He wrote his notes on index cards; they were only published in 2009 in France, and in 2010 in the US. I want to talk back (the belated talking to, when one party is unable to speak in the present) to him about many of his notes.

So, RB like this, SMS like this. We're at a cafe somewhere, calling and responding.

--I don't want to talk about it, for fear of making literature out of it--or without being sure of not doing so--although as a matter of fact literature originates within these truths. 10/31

The strange phrase here is "without being sure of not doing so," but more so because the full sentence turns on that pivot between the fear of literature and acknowledgment that this is what it's made of. Why the fear of literature in the face of death? Or is it the too-sudden emergence of literature, before the mourning period makes it somehow appropriate? When I began my blog, I had no idea it would record her death in some near-present tense; had I thought toward the moment . . .

--A strange new acuity, seeing (in the street) people's ugliness or their beauty. 10/31

This rhymes with my experience, though usually without the suffix of "ugliness or beauty." I simply notice them more, when I notice something other than my thoughts--not distractions, except when I'm driving (or riding my bike). Altered states are not states so much as wobbles, the inside of a balloon as the air comes in and then exits, quickly. Pfffft.

--What's remarkable about these notes is a devastated subject being the victim of presence of mind. 11/2

Again, I don't think that the word "victim" sings to me, but the rest of the sentence does. During her last hour, her hand seemed to be melting, mottles into skin, skin into nails, fingers into fingers. When my urgency was not to save her, but to send her on as well as I could.

--henceforth and forever I am my own mother. 11/4 (which was the day of my father's death in 1992)

And henceforth this writing about my mother will be writing about me. And that is some of what makes me feel nervous, awkward. Until now, I was not the story, the story was my mother's dementia, that of her colleagues at the Alzheimer's home, the story of care, of pain, of memory jostled, necessary, in the face of forgetfulness. To what extent can writing about grief be about the person who is gone? Or are we now left with ourselves as subject, object, verb? During dementia, there were losses but there was not Loss. Grief is official now. But whose is it? Hers, mine, that of the cloud in which our information is stored?

--Struck by the abstract nature of absence . . . Which allows me to understand abstraction somewhat better; it is absence and pain, the pain of absence--perhaps therefore love? 11/10

Abstraction used to feel like a place of refuge. Like the place you could go when the kapu was broken, and you'd be safe. Now it is not only a spirit (instead of material person) but a spirit that is moving away. Not public transport, nor private, but transport nonetheless, and not (necessarily) solitary. I must follow the track of the Tibetan Book. I lost it on Tuesday. Bard, bardo. A soul in search of her next incarnation. One hopes she's not in northern Virginia's traffic pattern, blocked arteries on a Saturday afternoon.

--Mourning: a cruel country where I am no longer afraid. 11/17

The mind softens, the Buddhists say. Every blow makes us more pliable, more liable to adjust, not to duck but to face forward, absorb punishment as something more loving than that. When Barthes writes of not being afraid, he means that he has suffered until he knows how. It's not alleviation of suffering, at least not at first, but the promise it will at once go and be our guide. In the middle of the woods and all that.

and especially:

--[Status confusion]. For months, I have been her mother. It is as if I had lost my daughter (a greater grief than that? It had never occurred to me.) 11/19

She was neither mother nor daughter at the end. I have a daughter, who is not powerless, says what she means to say. But she was not my mother, either, except as the living memory of her. The body is memory, even after the mind checks out (extended stay is not home). She was like the spirit in Beloved, at once a person and a ghost. But those who stop visiting Alzheimer's patients think ghost, not person. Person is there to be seen.

--What I find utterly terrifying is mourning's discontinuous character.

In my stupor today I watched golf on television. There is a new golfer; he's Irish. He was wearing a baby blue shirt, an ad on his white cap. But to watch golf is not to know where you are in time or place. It's not on a field you can take in, the players all in the same space, time. Instead, the game discontinues, from hole to hole, frontwards and then back. It's grief without the affect, merely the motion of grieving, the arcs that are not yet circles, the holes that have not yet been filled with flags (mom died on Flag Day at the home). It's important to die at home, they told me.

After that point, Barthes' entries replay themselves, a circling that fails--that does not try--to close. Love for mother becomes love for grieving over her (perhaps). He's not reached mourning; he's at the many stations of melancholia. At some point in late 1978, when he is still taking these notes, I attended one of his talks at the Sorbonne. I remember nothing of it, except a solitary man sitting in front of our semi-circle of seats, audience rapt in its devotion for him.

1 comment:

Deborah A. Miranda said...

Thank you, Susan, for posting these notes and this conversation. I am still mourning my mother, as her ten year yarzeit approaches; all other griefs in my life were preparation for that grief, and all future mourning is refracted in the mirror of this mourning. Your words resonate and hearten me. Curious that it is grief that makes us most compassionate towards human beings and human spirit. Ourselves. Thank you, and take care of your dear self.