more underground men in montreal: dany laferrière’s famous first novel

The narrator of How to Make Love To A Negro (Without Getting Tired), a young Haitian man, rents a seedy apartment in the Montreal slums. His shut-in roommate, a Muslim named Bouba, is an obsessive jazz fan. The two men spend their days listening to jazz classics, drinking wine, reading, discussing Kant and Freud, the Koran and Allah, or else busy themselves pursuing sex with young Canadian women they nickname Miz Literature, Miz Sophisticated, Miz Piggy, etc. The narrator wanders through Montreal and works on his novel—a bildungsroman he hopes will bring him fame—and a degree of fortune—while exposing the absurdity of the ideas and behaviour of those around him.

How to Make Love to a Negro without Getting Tired

By Dany Laferrière

Coach House Press, 1987

(trans. David Homel)







The Nigger Narcissus

I CAN’T believe it, this is the fifth time Bouba’s played that Charlie Parker record. He’s crazy about jazz, and this must be his Parker period. Last week I had Coltrane for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Now it’s Parker’s turn.

There’s only one good thing about this place: you can play Parker or Miles Davis or even a noisier cat like Archie Shepp at three o’clock in the morning (with walls as thin as onionskin paper) Without some idiot telling you to turn it down.

We’re suffocating in the summer heat, jammed in between the Fontaine de Johannie (a roach-ridden restaurant frequented by small-time hoods) and a minuscule topless bar, at 3670 rue St-Denis, right across from Cherrier. An abject one-and-a-half that the landlord palmed off on poor Bouba as a two-and-a-half for $120 a mouth. We’re up on the third floor. A narrow room cut lengthwise by a horrible Japanese screen decorated with enormous stylized birds. A fridge in a constant state of palpitation, as if we were holed up above some railroad station. Playboy bunnies thumbtacked to the wall that we had to take down when we got here to avoid the suicidal tenden-cies those things inevitably cause. A stove with elements as cold as a witch’s tit at forty below. And, extra added attraction, the Cross of Mount Royal framed in the window.

I sleep on a filthy bed and Bouba made himself a nest Oil the plucked couch Cull Of mountains and valleys. Bouba inhabits it fully. He drinks, reads, eats, meditates and fucks on it. He has married the hills and dales of this cotton-stuffed whore.

When we came into possession of this meager pigsty, Bouba settled on the couch with the collected works of Freud, an old dictionary with the letters A through D and part of E missing, and a torn and tattered copy of the Koran.

Superficially, Bouba spends all day doing nothing. In reality, lie is purifying the universe.

Sleep cures us of all physical impurities, mental illness and moral perversion. Between pages of the Koran. Bouba engages in sleep cures that can last up to three days. The Koran, in its infinite wisdom, states: “Every soul shall taste death. You shall receive your rewards only on the Day of Resurrection. Whoever is spared the fire of Hell and is admitted to Paradise shall surely gain his end; for the life of this world is nothing but a fleeting vanity.” (Sura III, 182.) The world can blow itself up if it wants to; Bouba is sleeping.

Sometimes his sleep is a, strident as Miles Davis’s trumpet, Bouba becomes closed upon himself, his face impenetrable, his knees folded under his chin. Other times I find him on his back, his arms forming a cross, his mouth opening onto a black hole, his toes pointed towards the ceiling. The Koran in all its magnanimity says: “You cause the night to pass into the clay, and the day into the night; YOU bring forth the living from the dead and the dead from the living. You give without stint to Whom You Will.” (Sura II, 26.) And so Bouba is aiming for a place at the right hand of Allah (may his holy name be praised).

CHARLIE PARKER tears through the night. A heavy, humid, Tristes Tropiques kind of night. jazz always makes me think of New Orleans, and that makes a Negro nostalgic.

Bouba is crashed out on the couch ill his usual position (lying on his left side, facing Mecca), sipping Shanghai lea and perusing a volume of Freud. Since Bouba is totally jazz-crazy, and since he recognizes only one guru (Allah is great and Freud is his prophet), it did not take him long to concoct a complex and sophisticated theory the long and short of which is that Sigmund Freud invented jazz.

“In what volume, Bouba?”

Totem and Taboo, man,”

Man. He actually calls me man.

“If Freud played jazz, for Christ’s sake, we would have known about it,” Bouba breathes in a mighty lungful of air. Which is what he does every time he deals with a non-believer, a Cartesian, a rationalist, a head-shrinker. The Koran says: “Wait, then, as they themselves are waiting.”

“You know,” Bouba finally intones, “you know that SF lived in New York.”

“Of course he did.”

“He Could have learned to play trumpet from any tubercular musician in Harlem.”

It’s possible.”

“Do you know what jazz is at least?”

“I can’t describe it, but I’d know what it is if I heard it.”

“Good.” Bouba says after a lengthy period of meditation, “listen to this then.”

Then I’m sucked in and swallowed, absorbed, osmosed, drunk, digested and chewed up by a flow of wild words, fantastic hallucinations with paranoid pronunciation, jolted by jazz impulses to the rhythm of Sura incantations—then I realize that Bouba is performing a syncopated, staccato reading of the unsuspecting pages 68 and 69 of Totem and Taboo.

more on tom mccarthy and the international necronautical society

Symbolic Remainder

Tom McCarthy

Interviewed by Jeffrey Inaba

On behalf of the International Necronautical

Society, novelist Tom McCarthy and

philosopher Simon Critchley recently released

their ‘Interim Report on Recessional

Aesthetics’ to President Obama in the

pages of Harper’s Magazine. Among

their suggestions to the US leader was

to read the recession allegorically, as

‘the intimate space at the heart of all

economics, its muted truth’, and celebrate

it ‘as you would the revelation of godhead

itself ’. Volume spoke with McCarthy

about representing crisis and trauma –

whether assaults against the economy

or the body – and the death-driven

compulsion to repeat these moments of

intensity in seeking catharsis.

Jeffrey Inaba Can you explain the process of creating Remainder?

Tom McCarthy
Well, in a way the writing of the book

came about by happy accident. I was just passively looking

at a crack in the wall and had this moment of déjà vu

during which I remembered a similar room with a similar

crack. I remembered a building or I kind of half-remembered

– it was like the composite memory Proust describes

in which you can remember a staircase in a house that

never existed because you make a collage in your head from

other houses you’ve known – and I thought it would be

good to reconstruct this moment: to make the house and

to put the crack in the wall.

So that’s what happened in the book. The hero, or antihero,

starts by reconstructing a building he’s remembered.

And by making everyone – all of his neighbors who he’s

remembered – move to the rhythms he’s created as they

cook liver or play piano . Then he expands the parameters of
that reenactment zone until
he’s reenacting shoot-outs
in the street and bank heists.
By the end he’s making planes
fall out of the sky.

JI The hero/anti-hero of Remainder goes into a coma as a

result of an object falling from the sky and hitting him on

the head. How did you arrive at this device as a departure

point for the novel? Was it immediately apparent that this

was how the novel should start out?

No, initially I had to consider that if the hero’s going

to do all this stuff, he needs a lot of money to pay for it.

So he could win the lottery or inherit lots of money from

an uncle like the character Jean Des Esseintes in that

wonderful Huysmans novel Against Nature, which was

definitely an influence on Remainder, but I just wasn’t

convinced. Then I looked into compensation

culture, trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, and it perfectly

tarried with his whole reenactment

compulsion. For Freud, and for almost all psychologists,

trauma is always linked to repetition afterwards: the

reenactment and repetitive behavior. And so, yeah, it just

kind of made sense. The idea of something falling from

the sky is just straight Blanchot. One of the first things

he points out in The Writing of the Disaster is that

the word comes from ‘des astre’, literally, ‘from the stars’.

It’s the Fall. You can read that as the death of god, the

collapse of metaphysics or in a Newtonian way, in the

sense of gravity: things fall. And in Remainder you have

lots of things, not just airplane parts or bits of technology,

but also undisclosed matter and the share prices of stocks,

falling. He’s somehow reacting against this entropic

universe and trying to delay the inevitable, but of course

he ultimately fails.

He does get his memory back, but what’s lost is a sense of

authenticity. I conducted a long interview with someone

who’d been in a very serious accident resulting in motorneuron

damage and he had to relearn how to do everything

– from walking to lifting a glass.

And interestingly, he said ‘I can do it now, I can lift up

the glass and walk, but it seems fake. It seems like I’m

simulating.’ Warhol said the same thing after he was shot.

He said he felt like he was watching TV for the rest of

his life.

JI In this issue of Volume we think about how narratives of crisis are

told: what structures are employed to convey our experience of a world

in flux? It seems that Remainder is not about narrative per se, rather it’s

about constant confrontations with the elements of storytelling and in

particular the objects that percolate as confrontations within a larger

symbolic order.

Yeah, the character keeps on going on about a carrot

that won’t stay still. That’s a metonym for the whole

material world: this thing that cannot be controlled. And

I suppose, you know, objects are really important. They’re

always really important in Freud.

JI Remainder is about all of these encounters with

estranged objects. During moments of crisis, while we

might obsess over how we construct logical explanations

of the situation, it seems that crisis is really when

things can’t be explained. It’s when there’s a breakdown

of a given symbolic order. We question the relationship

between the things we experience in the world and the

way that the world is described. In that sense do you see

the post-traumatic reencountering of objects the protagonist

goes through as analogous to crisis moments?

Yes. He has to not only reprogram himself in

terms of kinetic stuff and movement, but it’s also about

movement and language. He has a large staff and he

keeps having them look up words in the dictionary and

text him the definitions. That informs his behavior.

By the end, he’s more or less killing people

because of dictionary definitions . So all of that is borne
out of crisis, out of catastrophe.
As he’s moving away
from the catastrophe he’s trying
to remaster the symbolic
order. But what for him is the
happy ending – the euphoric,
orgiastic ending – comes
not through resolution, but
through provoking an ultra
crisis. It’s when everything goes
wrong, spectacularly
wrong, when people are dying all
around him and planes
are crashing. At that moment,
everything comes together.
He’s at one with catastrophe.

Trauma studies report that only trauma is real. The trauma is

the moment-in-time. It’s always excluded from

Narratives and histories of time because it’s always censored:

the actual kernel of the disaster is always withheld

from consciousness or narratable memory. And yet it’s

the only moment which is true, which is real. Therefore

trauma victims often try to recover that moment, as if

it were some lost nirvana. The whole of Remainder is less

a movement away from – or resolution of – crisis than

it is an attempt to reenter crisis and retrigger it. In that respect

it’s successful. I mean, in the end, he gets

his disaster.

–from Volume Magazine

the philosophy of boredom: the boredom of philosopy

boredom as a philosophical problem

Svendsen’s conclusion: “Boredom is life’s own gravity."

As a philosopher, from time to time one must attempt to address big questions. If one fails to do so, one loses sight of what led one to study philosophy in the first place. In my opinion, boredom is one such big question, and an analysis of boredom ought to say something important about the conditions under which we live. We ought not – and are actually unable to – avoid considering our attitude towards the question of being from time to time. There may be many initial reasons for reflecting on one’s life, but the special thing about fundamental existential experiences is that they inevitably lead one to question one’s own existence. Profound boredom is one fundamental existential experience. As Jon Hellesnes has asked: ‘What can possibly be more existentially disturbing than boredom?’

The big questions are not necessarily the eternal questions, for boredom has only been a central cultural phenomenon for a couple of centuries. It is of course impossible to determine precisely
when boredom arose, and naturally it has its precursors. But it stands out as being a typical phenomenon of modernity. On the whole, the precursors were restricted to small groups, such as the nobility and the clergy, whereas the boredom of modernity is wide-ranging in its effect and can be said to be a relevant phenomenon today for practically everyone in the Western world.

Boredom is usually considered as something random in relation to the nature of man, but this is based on highly dubious assumptions regarding human nature. One could just as well claim that boredom is embodied in human nature, but that would also presuppose that there is anything at all that can be called ‘human nature’ – a presupposition that seems problematic to me. Postulating a given nature has a tendency to put an end to all further discussion. For, as Aristotle points out, we direct our attention first and foremost to that which is capable of change.
By postulating a nature we are claiming that it cannot be changed. It can also be tempting to postulate a completely neutral human nature, where man has just as great a potential to experience sadness as happiness, enthusiasm as boredom. In that case, the explanation of boredom is exclusively to be found in the individual’s social environment. I do not believe, however, that a clear distinction can be made between psychological and social aspects when dealing with a phenomenon such as boredom, and a reductive sociologism is just as untenable as a psychologism. So I choose to approach the matter from a different angle, adopting a perspective based partly on the history of ideas and partly on phenomenology. Nietzsche pointed out that the ‘hereditary fault of all philosophers’ is to base themselves on man at a particular period of time and then turn this into an eternal truth. So I will make do with stating that boredom is a very serious phenomenon that affects many people. Aristotle insisted that virtue is not natural, but that it is not unnatural either. The same applies to boredom. Moreover, an investigation of boredom can be carried out without presupposing any anthropological constants, i.e., anything given independently of a specifically social and historical space. We are dealing here with an investigation of man in a particular historical situation. It is us I am writing about, living in the shadow of Romanticism, as inveterate Romantics without the hyperbolic faith of Romanticism in the ability of the imagination to transform the world.

Even though all good philosophy ought to contain an important element of self-knowledge, it does not necessarily have to take the form of a confession modelled on Augustine’s
Confessions. Many people have asked me if I undertook this project because I suffered from boredom, but what I personally feel ought not to be of any interest to readers. I do not conceive philosophy as being a confessional activity, rather one that labours to gain clarity – a clarity that is admittedly never more than temporary – in the hope that the small area one feels one has shed light on will also be of relevance to others. From a philosophical point of view, my private conditions are irrelevant, even though they are naturally important to me.

I carried out a small, unscientific survey among colleagues, students, friends and acquaintances that revealed that they were on the whole unable to say whether they were
bored or not, although some answered in the affirmative or the negative – and one person even claimed that he had never been bored. To those readers who have possibly never been bored I can say by way of comparison that deep boredom is related, phenomenologically speaking, to insomnia, where the I loses its identity in the dark, caught in an apparently infinite void. One tries to fall asleep, takes perhaps a few faltering steps, but does not gain sleep, ending up in a no man’s land between a waking state and sleep. In Book of Disquiet Fernando Pessoa wrote:

Certain sensations are slumbers that fill up our mind like a fog and prevent us from thinking, from acting, from clearly and simply being. As if we hadn’t slept, something of our undreamed dreams lingers in us, and the torpor of the new day’s sun warms the stagnant surface of our senses. We’re drunk on not being anything, and our will is a bucket poured out onto the yard by the listless movement of a passing foot.

Pessoa’s boredom is obvious – it is distinct in all its formlessness. It is, however, in the nature of things that very few people indeed can come up with an unequivocal answer as to whether they are bored or not. First, moods, generally speaking, are seldom intentional subjects as far as we are concerned – they are precisely something one finds oneself
in, not something one consciously looks at. And second, boredom is a mood that is typified by a lack of quality that makes it more elusive than most other moods. Georges Bernanos’s village priest provides us with a fine description of the imperceptibly destructive nature of boredom in The Diary of a Country Priest:

So I said to myself that people are consumed by boredom. Naturally, one has to ponder for a while to realise this – one does not see it immediately. It is a like some sort of dust. One comes and goes without seeing it, one breathes it in, one eats it, one drinks it, and it is so fine that it doesn’t even scrunch between one’s teeth. But if one stops up for a moment, it settles like a blanket over the face and hands. One has to constantly shake this ash-rain off one. That is why people are so restless.

It is perfectly possible to be bored without being aware of the fact. And it is possible to be bored without being able to offer any reason or cause for this boredom. Those who claimed in my small survey that they were deeply bored were as a rule unable to state accurately
why they were bored; it wasn’t this or that that plagued them, rather a nameless, shapeless, object-less boredom. This is reminiscent of what Freud said about melancholy, where he began by stressing a similarity between melancholy and grief, since both contain an awareness of loss. But whereas the person who grieves always has a distinct object of loss, the melancholic does not precisely know what he has lost.

Introspection is a method that has obvious limitations when investigating boredom, so I decided to look critically at a number of texts of a philosophical and literary nature. I regard literature as excellent source-material for philosophical studies, and for the philosophy of culture it is just as indispensable as scientific works are for the philosophy of science. As a rule, literature is a great deal more illuminative than quantitative sociological or psychological studies. This applies not least to our subject, where much research has focused on how the deficiency or surplus of sensory stimuli cause boredom without this always being particularly illuminative when considering such a complex phenomenon as boredom.
As Adam Phillips, a psychoanalyst, has expressed it: ‘Clearly, we should speak not of boredom, but of boredoms, because the notion itself includes a multiplicity of moods and feelings that resist analysis.’

Lars Svendsen, A Philosophy of Boredom (1999)

“we never experience an affect for the first time; every affect contains within it an archive of its previous objects.”


Is dwelling on loss not necessarily depressing?  Jonathan Flatley argues that embracing melancholy can be a road back to connecting with others and enable you to productively remap your relationship to the world. Aesthetic activity can give one the means to comprehend and change one’s relation to loss.

Flatley’s argument shares with Freud an interest in understanding the depressing effects of difficult loss and with Walter Benjamin the hope that loss itself can become a means of connection and the basis for social transformation. The affective maps artists like Henry James produce can make possible the conversion of a depressive melancholia into a way to be interested in the world (cribbed from Flatley’s publisher).

Affective Mapping


The decisively new ferment that enters the taedium vitae and turns it into spleen is self-estrangement.


—Walter Benjamin, Central Park


In his influential 1960 book The Image of the City, Kevin Lynch explored the ways residents internalize maps of their cities. These cogninitive maps give one a sense of location and direction, and enable one to make decisions about where one wants to go and how to get there.1 A later scholar helpfully defined cognitive mapping as “a process composed of a series of psychological transformations by which an individual acquires, stores, recalls and decodes information about the relative locations and attributes of the phenomena in his everyday spatial environment.”2 Lynch studied three different cities—Boston, Los Angeles, and Jersey City—and found that some cities are more “legible” to their residents than others. That is, “the ease with which [the city’s] parts can be recognized and can be organized into a coherent pattern” varies from city to city.3 In a nongrid city like Boston, with notable points of reference like the Charles River, Boston Common, and Boston Harbor, residents were quite able to assemble usable cognitive maps of the city through repetitive experience of it. Jersey City, on the other hand, organized by an incomplete grid, was found to be more undifferentiated and thus less legible. Many of its residents, Lynch found, had only fragmented or partial images of the city. Since an image of the total system in which one is located is of course a crucial element in establishing one’s confidence in one’s ability to live in the world—see friends, get to the hospital, buy groceries, go out to dinner, arrive at the train station on time—the lack of such an ability can produce a sense of anxiety and alienation.


In his essay “Cognitive Mapping,” Fredric Jameson expanded the use of the term to suggest that just as one needs a cognitive map of city space in order to have a sense of agency there, one requires a cognitive map of social space for a sense of agency in the world more generally.4 Such a map’s function is “to enable a situational representation on the part of the individual subject to that vaster and properly unrepresentable totality which is the ensemble of society’s structures as a whole.”5 In other words, in its negotiation of the gap between local subjective experience and a vision of an overall environment, the cognitive map is an apt figure for one of the functions of ideology, which is, in Althusser’s now classic formulation, “the representation of the subject’s imaginary relationship to his or her real conditions of existence.”6 We all need such representations, no matter how imaginary, in order to make sense and move through our everyday lives. By the same token, “the incapacity to map socially is as crippling to political experience as the analogous incapacity to map spatially is for urban experience.”7


The difference with the social map is that where the totality of Boston is quite representable, the “totality which is the ensemble of society’s structures as a whole,” conversely, is not. And the socioeconomic systems we all must negotiate on a daily basis are becoming ever less representable.8  Increasingly, Jameson argues, the distance between the structures that order everyday life and the phenomenology and datum of that life itself have become unbridgeable.9 Cognitive mapping in this context would be an essential part of “a pedagogical political culture which seeks to endow the individual subject with some new heightened sense of its place in the global system.”10 Without such a picture insights remain partial and fragmented; we remain mired in the logic of the system as it exists.




So then what is this thing I have been calling affective mapping? In the context of geography and environmental psychology, the term affective mapping has been used to indicate the affective aspects of the maps that guide us, in conjunction with our cognitive maps, through our spatial environment.11 That is, we develop our sense of our environments through purposive activity in the world, and we always bring with us a range of intentions, beliefs, desires, moods, and affective attachments to this activity. Hence our spatial environments are inevitably imbued with the feelings we have about the places we are going, the things that happen to us along the way, and the people we meet, and these emotional valences, of course, affect how we create itineraries. For instance, I live in downtown Detroit, and when I am in the suburbs around Detroit, I often get the sense that some people in the suburbs who have not crossed over the city limits for years carry around with them a map on which Detroit is a large, hazily defined space, but a space clearly marked by some mixture of fear, anxiety, sorrow, and nostalgia. They avoid Detroit not because of poor urban planning or a lack of landmarks but because of the emotions they have associated with the city space of Detroit.


Thus, by way of analogy, I would suggest that social maps are also marked with various affective values. To return to the example regarding the suburban resident who avoids Detroit, this is an affective map of social space as well, in a way that parallels ideology. For in all likelihood the person from the suburbs of whom I write is white, and Detroit is largely African American, and this split is of course overwritten by a class divide, so emotions about Detroit as a space are, for these suburban residents, inevitably also emotions about class and “race” and racism. In short, it is not just ideologies or cognitive maps that shape our behavior and practices in the world but also the affects we have about the relevant social structures of our world. The term affective map in this sense is meant to indicate the pictures we all carry around with us on which are recorded the affective values of the various sites and situations that constitute our social worlds.


I should perhaps reemphasize here that “map” is meant in a particular, metaphorical sense, a metaphorics that I hope does not too seriously limit the concept. The affective map, like Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizomatic map, is neither fixed nor stable: “The rhizome refers to a map that must be produced or constructed, is always detachable, connectable, reversable, and modifiable, with multiple entrances and exits, with its lines of flight. The tracings are what must be transferred onto the maps and not the reverse.”12 Such maps must be able to incorporate new information as one has new experiences in new environments; but this does not mean they are entirely self-invented. Rather the maps are cobbled together in processes of accretion and palimpsestic rewriting from other persons’ maps, first of all those defined in infancy by one’s parents, and later the maps that come to one by way of one’s historical context and the social formations one lives in. 

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in which I create in another workplace contretemps—and emerge even further ahead!

last week i distributed in a meeting what I thought was a well-reasoned argument for engaging in more quantitative, metrics-based evaluation of fund managers, as well as some qualitative researched informed by the academic discipline known as “depth psychology.” (none of that dr. phil crap for us. we’re serious over here). It seemed to me that bernie madoff provides the perfect example of the highly-driven portfolio manager with whom we should be investing over the short-term – in other words, a manager for the investor looking for the quick “in-and-out” market opportunity.  Much of my analysis was based on recent allegations made against madoff regarding his person and his character. remember – we’re here to make money, so one’s own ethical reservations should be held in check.

i began the meeting by reading statements made by madoff’s former mistress, sheryl weinstein, in her recent book, intriguingly entitled madoff’s other secret, which contains much crucial material, salacious though it may seem to those not as market-minded as me,  about her alleged affair with the ponzi-scheming madoff. mrs weinstein’s words, courtesy of the n.y. daily news, as read aloud in my own beautiful irish tenor voice (although I see know I should have attempted to mimic weinstein’s “new yawker” timbre):


this man was not well-endowed… bernie had a very small penis. not only was it on the short side, it was small in circumference. that he was now pointing it out to me was telling. it clearly caused him great angst. i wanted to be careful how i responded. men and their penises have a strange and unique relationship…  liked this man and didn’t want to emasculate him. his tiny penis hadn’t prevented me from climaxing… when we made love, i was on fire…


incredibly, no one in the room could realize the brilliance of what I was proposing! i guess they were all tired from watching so you think you can dance or whatever shit they do at night.

i explained in laborious detail that all we had to do was assign an investigator to research the private lives of some of our prospective portfolio managers, interview their ex-girlfriends, ex-wives, even their mothers … maybe offer the manager’s g.p. or urologist a small cash honorarium for divulging a couple of facts about said manager’s anatomy, and soon we would be in a position assemble a roster of highly motivated managers adept at the art of the quick turn-around, the so-called “in-and-out” market manager.


remember, i told my slow-on-the-uptake colleagues, in freud’s world, everybody is always compensating for something


based on the venerable english legal maxim that “silence implies consent,” i figured that i had the go-ahead to begin getting quotes from private investigators and corporate security firms. i mean, i am dealing with people who think that the quality of street musicians or attractiveness of waitresses in mid-priced restaurants are reliable economic indicators… who think that mutual fund fees are reasonable!


alas, long story short, my boss approached me with the news that this initiative of mine was considered “a non-starter – some senior people think it is at odds with our brand values of ethics and professionalism… but surprisingly a number of the folks in design liked it.”  she then broached the idea of a “working vacation — and the company will pay for it! there’s a conference in ibiza we’d like you to attend. take a friend and stay a few extra days. take your dog if you want.”

freud on melancholia and hamlet


If my cigar was that small I wouldn’t let
people take pictures of it!


In Freud’s great essay “Mourning and Melancholia,” he makes a sustained comparison between normal sadness (associated with grieving for the loss of a loved one) and the disturbed self of dispirited mood states and self-hatred (which he associates with the clinical condition of melancholia). By introducing the concepts of object-relations theory, projective identification and introjection, Freud’s theoretical constructs in this essay informed most psychoanalytic thought on melancholia and depression in the twentieth century. Whereas previous thinkers had considered melancholia to be a state of imbalance or a mood of despondency, Freud recasts it as a frame of mind characterized by the loss of something. Indeed, melancholia is properly characterized by loss of an object of which its subject may be unconscious. In this respect it seems to mimic the earlier characterizations of melancholy as a nebulous mood state of fear and sadness without cause. And by choosing the character of Hamlet as an exemplar, and admitting that the melancholic “has a keener eye for the truth than others who are not melancholic,” Freud seems to allow that melancholia may have a glamorous aspect. Despite his scientific ambitions, Freud concedes that the categories of melancholy and melancholia elude formal definition: “the definition of melancholia is uncertain; it takes on various clinical forms . . . that do not seem definitely to warrant reduction to a unity.” 


In her anthology The Nature of Melancholy: From Aristotle to Kristeva (2000), Jennifer Radden highlights the technical contents of Freud’s great essay as follows:


Three aspects of “Mourning and Melancholia” distinguish it from earlier writing: the theme of loss, the emphasis on self-accusation and self-loathing in melancholic subjectivity, and the elaborate theory of narcissism, identification, and introjection it introduces. Melancholia represents loss of the “object,” that is, the beloved parent whose love has been perceived to be withdrawn. Self-accusation and self-hatred, which Freud describes as central characteristics of the melancholic patient, are a form of rage redirected from the loved object to the self.


Such redirected rage can occur because the self is deeply identified with the other. (This identification is so strong that Freud speaks of the other person as incorporated by the self. Introjection is Freud’s term for this process of incorporation.) In developmental terms, the infant’s love energy is at first directed exclusively upon the ego; later it turns to the other, a loved person with whom the infant is intimately identified. That identification allows the fantasy that the ego has incorporated the mother, or “object.” In those suffering from melancholia, some adult sorrow or slight reignites those infantile experiences. Now with the characteristic ambivalence of the oral phase, the ego attacks the loved, introjected “object” in self-accusations whose curious quality of indifference, Freud believes, proves their true object to be not the self but the incorporated other. (282)



Sigmund Freud, “Mourning and Melancholy” (1917) 


Now that dreams have proved of service to us as the normal prototypes of narcissistic mental disorders, we propose to try whether a comparison with the normal emotion of grief, and its expression in mourning, will not throw some light on the nature of melancholia. This time, however, we must make a certain prefatory warning against too great expectations of the result. Even in descriptive psychiatry the definition of melancholia is uncertain; it takes on various clinical forms (some of them suggesting somatic rather than psychogenic affections) that do not seem definitely to warrant reduction to a unity. Apart from those impressions which every observer may gather, our material here is limited to a small number of cases the psychogenic nature of which was indisputable. Any claim to general validity for our conclusions shall be forgone at the outset, therefore, and we will console ourselves by reflecting that, with the means of investigation at our disposal to-day, we could hardly discover anything that was not typical, at least of a small group if not of a whole class of disorders.


A correlation of melancholia and mourning seems justified by the general picture of the two conditions.1 Moreover, wherever it is possible to discern the external influences in life which have brought each of them about, this exciting cause proves to be the same in both. Mourning is regularly the reaction to the loss of a loved person, or to the loss of some abstraction which has taken the place of one, such as fatherland, liberty, an ideal, and so on. As an effect of the same influences, melancholia instead of a state of grief develops in some people, whom we consequently suspect of a morbid pathological disposition. It is also well worth notice that, although grief involves grave departures from the normal attitude to life, it never occurs to us to regard it as a morbid condition and hand the mourner over to medical treatment. We rest assured that after a lapse of time it will be overcome, and we look upon any interference with it as inadvisable or even harmful.


The distinguishing mental features of melancholia are a profoundly painful dejection, abrogation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love, inhibition of all activity, and a lowering of the self-regarding feelings to a degree that finds utterance in self-reproaches and self-revilings, and culminates in a delusional expectation of punishment. This picture becomes a little more intelligible when we consider that, with one exception, the same traits are met with in grief. The fall in self-esteem is absent in grief; but otherwise the features are the same. Profound mourning, the reaction to the loss of a loved person, contains the same feeling of pain, loss of interest in the outside world—in so far as it does not recall the dead one—loss of capacity to adopt any new object of love, which would mean a replacing of the one mourned, the same turningfrom every active effort that is not connected with thoughts of the dead. It is easy to see that this inhibition and circumscription in the ego is the expression of an exclusive devotion to its mourning, which leaves nothing over for other purposes or other interests. It is really only because we know so well how to explain it that this attitude does not seem to us pathological.


We should regard it as a just comparison, too, to call the temper of grief “painful.” The justification for this comparison will probably prove illuminating when we are in a position to define pain in terms of the economics of the mind.2


Now in what consists the work which mourning performs? I do not think there is anything far-fetched in the following representation of it. The testing of reality, having shown that the loved object no longer exists, requires forthwith that all the libido shall be withdrawn from its attachments to this object. Against this demand a struggle of course arises—it may be universally observed that man never willingly abandons a libido-position, not even when a substitute is already beckoning to him. This struggle can be so intense that a turning away from reality ensues, the object being clung to through the medium of a hallucinatory wish-psychosis. The normal outcome is that deference for reality gains the day. Nevertheless its behest cannot be at once obeyed. The task is now carried through bit by bit, under great expense of time and cathectic energy, while all the time the existence of the lost object is continued in the mind. Each single one of the memories and hopes which bound the libido to the object is brought up and hyper-cathected, and the detachment of the libido from it accomplished. Why this process of carrying out the behest of reality bit by bit, which is in the nature of a compromise, should be so extraordinarily, painful is not at all easy to explain in terms of mental economics. It is worth noting that this pain3 seems natural to us. The fact is, however, that when the work of mourning is completed the ego becomes free and uninhibited again.


Now let us apply to melancholia what we have learnt about grief. In one class of cases it is evident that melancholia too may be the reaction to the loss of a loved object; where this is not theexciting cause one can perceive that there is a loss of a more ideal kind. The object has not perhaps actually died, but has become lost as an object of love (e.g. the case of a deserted bride). In yet other cases one feels justified in concluding that a loss of the kind has been experienced, but one cannot see clearly what has been lost, and may the more readily suppose that the patient too cannot consciously perceive what it is he has lost. This, indeed, might be so even when the patient was aware of the loss giving rise to the melancholia, that is, when he knows whom he has lost but not what it is he has lost in them. This would suggest that melancholia is in some way related to an unconscious loss of a love-object, in contradistinction to mourning, in which there is nothing unconscious about the loss.


In grief we found that the ego’s inhibited condition and loss of interest was fully accounted for by the absorbing work of mourning. The unknown loss in melancholia would also result in an inner labour of the same kind and hence would be responsible for the melancholic inhibition. Only, the inhibition of the melancholiac seems puzzling to us because we cannot see what it is that absorbs him so entirely. Now the melancholiac displays something else which is lacking in grief—an extraordinary fall in his self-esteem, an impoverishment of his ego in a grand scale. In grief the world becomes poor and empty; in melancholia it is the ego itself. The patient represents his ego to us as worthless, incapable of any effort and morally despicable; he reproaches himself, vilifies himself and expects to be cast out and chastised. He abases himself before everyone and commiserates his own relatives for being connected with someone so unworthy. He does not realize that any change has taken place in him, but extends his self-criticism back over the past and declares that he was never any better. This picture of delusional belittling—which is predominantly moral—is completed by sleeplessness and refusal of nourishment, and by an overthrow, psychologically very remarkable, of that instinct which constrains every living thing to cling to life.


Both scientifically and therapeutically it would be fruitless to contradict the patient who brings these accusations against himself. He must surely be right in some way and be describing something that corresponds to what he thinks. Some of his statements, indeed, we are at once obliged to confirm without reservation. He really is as lacking in interest, as incapable of love and of any achievement as he says. But that, as we know, is secondary, the effect of the inner travail consuming his ego, of which we know nothing but which we compare with the work of mourning. In certain other self-accusations he also seems to us justified, only that he has a keener eye for the truth than others who are not melancholic. When in his exacerbation of self-criticism he describes himself as petty, egoistic, dishonest, lacking in independence, one whose sole aim has been to hide the weaknesses of his own nature, for all we know it may be that he has come very near to self-knowledge; we only wonder why a man must become ill before he can discover truth of this kind. For there can be no doubt that whoever holds and expresses to others such an opinion of himself—one that Hamlet harboured of himself and all men—that man is ill, whether he speaks the truth or is more or less unfair to himself. Nor is it difficult to see that there is no correspondence, so far as we can judge, between the degree to self-abasement and its real justification. A good, capable, conscientious woman will speak no better of herself after she develops melancholia than one who is actually worthless; indeed, the first is more likely to fall ill of the disease than the other, of whom we too should have nothing good to say. Finally, it must strike us that after all the melancholiac’s behaviour is not in every way the same as that of one who is normally devoured by remorse and self-reproach. Shame before others, which would characterize this condition above everything, is lacking in him, or at least there is little sign of it. One could almost say that the opposite trait of insistent talking about himself and pleasure in the consequent exposure of himself predominates in the melancholiac.

The essential thing, therefore, is not whether the melancholiac’s distressing self-abasement is justified in the opinion of others. The point must be rather that he is correctly describing his psychological situation in his lamentations. He has lost his self-respect and must have some good reason for having done so. It is true that we are then faced with a contradiction which presents a very difficult problem. From the analogy with grief we should have to conclude that the loss suffered by the melancholiac is that of an object; according to what he says the loss is one in himself.



1. “Abraham, to whom we owe the most important of the few analytic studies on this subject, also took this comparison to his starting point. (Zentralblatt, Bd. II., 1912.)”


2. “The words ‘painful’ and ‘pain’ in this paragraph represent the German Schmerz  i.e., the ordinary connotation of pain in English) and not Unlust, the mental antithesis of pleasure, also technically translated as ‘pain’.—Trans.”


3. “The German here is Schmerzunlust, a combination of the two words for pain.—Trans.” 

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robbe-grillet on film: “reality… is problematic. we run up against it as against a wall of fog”


The history of cinema is still rather short, yet it is already characterized by discontinuities and reversals. The majority of contemporary films that now pass for masterpieces would have been rejected by Eisenstein and rightly so as altogether worthless, as the very negation of all art.


We should reread today the famous manifesto Eisenstein and Pudovkin wrote in the 1920s on the sound film. At a time when, in Moscow, a brand new American invention was being announced that would permit the actors on the screen to speak, this prophetic text warned vigorously and with extraordinary clarity of vision against the fatal abyss into which cinema was in danger of sliding: Since the illusion of realism would be considerably strengthened by giving the characters a voice, cinema could let itself be led down the cowardly path of glib superficiality (a temptation that never stops menacing us) and from then on, the better to please the multitudes, could remain content with an allegedly faithful reproduction of reality. It would thus surrender all claims to the creation of genuine artworks works in which that reality would be challenged by the very structures of the cinematic narrative.


Now, what Eisenstein demanded, with his customary vehemence, was that sound be used to create, on the contrary, new shocks: To the shocks between sequences created by montage (which links, according to relations of harmonic resonance or of opposition, the sequences to one another) should be added the shocks between the various elements of the sound track and still others between sounds and simultaneously projected images. As one may have expected, good Marxist-Leninist that he was, he called upon the sacrosanct "dialectic" in order to support this thesis.


But Communist ideology alas! could not save the Soviet cinema (which today is one of the worst in the world) from falling into the snares of glibness. In fact, good old "bourgeois realism" triumphed everywhere in the West as well as the East, where they simply rebaptized it "socialist." Eisenstein and his friends were rapidly subjected to the new universal norm: The montage of the visual sequences of their films (¡Que viva México! for example) was redone by the right-thinking bureaucracy, and all the sounds were made to follow obediently the recorded images.


Even in France, it was a theoretician of the extreme Left, André Bazin, who, merrily letting the dialectic go by the board, became the spokesman of illusionist realism, going so far as to write that the ideal film would entail no montage whatsoever, "since in the natural reality of the world there is no montage"! Thus, the numerous and fascinating forms of expression created in Russia and elsewhere during the silent era were summarily repudiated as if they were nothing but childish stammerings born of a merely rudimentary technique. Sound, wide screens, deep focus, color, long-duration reels all of these have allowed us to transform cinema today into a simple reproduction of the world, which, in the final analysis, is tantamount to forcing cinema as an art to disappear.


If today we want to restore its life, its former power, and its ability to give us veritable artworks, worthy of vying with fiction or painting of the modern era, then we must bring back to film work the ambitiousness and prominence that characterized it in the days of silent film. And so, as Eisenstein urges, we need to take advantage of every new technical invention, not in order to subject ourselves even further to the ideology of realism but, quite the opposite, to increase the possibilities of dialectical confrontation within film, thereby intensifying the "release of energy" that is just what such internal shocks and tensions allow for.


From this point of view, the alleged realism of contemporary commercial films, whether they be signed by Truffaut or by Altman, appears as a flawless totalitarian system, founded on hackneyed, stereotyped redundancy. The least detail in every shot, the connections between sequences, all the elements of the sound track, everything, absolutely everything must concur with the same sense and meaning, with a single sense and meaning, and with good old common sense. The immense potential richness that is concealed in this stuff of dreams these discontinuous, sonorous images must be utterly reduced, subjected to the laws of normative consciousness, to the status quo, so that, at any cost, meaning may be prevented from deviating, swarming, bifurcating, going off in several directions at once, or else getting completely lost. The technicians on the set or in the various recording studios are there precisely to see to it that no imperfections and divergences ever occur.


But what is the significance of this will-to-reduction? What it all means, in the final analysis, is that reality and a living reality at that is reduced to a reassuring, homogeneous, unilinear story line, a reconciled and compromised, entirely rational story line from which any disturbing roughness has been purged. Plainly put, realism is by no means the expression of the real, of what is real. But rather, the opposite. Reality is always ambiguous, uncertain, moving, enigmatic, and endlessly intersected by contradictory currents and ruptures. In a word, it is ”incomprehensible." Without a doubt, it is also unacceptable whereas the first and foremost function of realism is to make us accept reality. Realism, therefore, has a pressing obligation not only to make sense but to make one and only one sense, always the same, which it must buttress tirelessly with all the technical means, all the artifices and conventions, that can possibly serve its ends.


Thus, for example, prevailing film criticism may blame a certain detective film for lack of realism, ostensibly because the murderer’s motives are not clear enough, or because there are contradictions in the scenario, or because there remain lacunae in the causal chain of events. And yet, what do we actually know about nonfictional attempts to solve real crimes? Precisely that uncertainties at times essential ones always persist until the end, as do unsettling absences, "mistakes" in the protagonist’s behavior, useless and supernumerary characters, diverging proofs, a piece or two too many in the puzzle that the preliminary investigation in vain tries to complete.


Reality, then, is problematic. We run up against it as against a wall of fog. Meanwhile, our relation to the world becomes still more complicated because, at every moment, the world of realism presents itself to us as if it were familiar. We become so used to it that we hardly see it: It is our habitat, our cocoon. Yet, actually, we stumble against what’s real with a violence we never get used to a violence that no amount of previous experience can ever assuage so that reality remains for us irremediably foreign and strange. The German words heimlich and unheimlich, which both Freud and Heidegger have used, though in different but here overlapping contexts, give indeed an idea of this lived opposition fundamental because it is inescapable between the strange and the familiar. Both the psychoanalyst and the philosopher insist that the familiarity we think we have with the world is misleading (i.e., ideological, socialized). To acknowledge and explore (even to the point of anguish) the world’s strangeness constitutes the necessary starting point for creating a consciousness that is free. And one of the essential functions of art is precisely that it assumes this role of revealing the world to us. This explains why art does not attempt to make the world more bearable (which undoubtedly is what realism does), but less so: because its ultimate ambition is not to make us accept reality but to change it.


the iconic imagery of Last Year at Marienbad

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