Today I have had the strangest realization. Something is wrong and I struggle to find the words for it. To another’s eyes I appear to be living my life. Every day I choose to get out of bed and into the day. I wear colorful dresses. I talk to other people. I am reminded of the opening lines of a Bob Dylan song: She’s got everything she needs, she’s an artist, she don’t look back. And it’s true: I am an artist. I am alive. The thing is: it is not my life. I do feel certain about this. This life, this house, these people – they are all very nice, but they are not mine. This person who is dressing in my clothes and dining at my table is not I.
I turn to Fernando Pessoa, the Portuguese writer. He should understand. Fernando Pessoa was Ricardo Reis was Álvaro de Campos was Bernando Soares was many others. Pessoa is the inventor of the heteronym; an alternative personality that writes and thinks for itself, a pseudonym who has his own biography, character, references and techniques. Fernando Pessoa, or rather Bernando Soares, writes in The Book of Disquiet about a sense of detachment from other people. I feel closer ties and more intimate bonds with certain characters in books, with certain images I’ve seen in engravings, than with many supposedly real people, with that metaphysical absurdity known as ‘flesh and blood’. A true story for the introvert and shy. We get to know our favorite fiction characters so much better then we get to know ‘real’ others or, I would add, our ‘real’ selves.
Franz Kafka had something to say about self-knowledge. How pathetically scanty my self-knowledge is compared with, say, my knowledge of my room. There is no such thing as observation of the inner world, as there is of the outer world. Following his lead, I start comparing my knowledge of myself with my knowledge of my room. There are things I know about myself. From facts (I am a woman, I am 28 years old) to vague hunches (I feel too much and simultaneously nothing at all). There are things I neither know nor understand about myself (Why did I just do that? What could make me feel better?). Whereas in my room I can find the light-switch in the dark, I can make it warm or cold, I can see it, I can use it and I am in control.
In my first encounters with the writings of the French philosopher Jacques Lacan I came across terms such as: ‘the I Function’ and ‘the Formation of the I’. He writes about the capacity of young children to recognize themselves in the mirror and realize “that is I”. This is said to happen between the age of six months and eighteen months. The child identifies with the reflected image, but the image does not match the real vulnerability and underdeveloped state of the infant child and is therefore an ideal image – ‘ideal-I’ – to which the child will strive throughout its life. This self is fictional, a fantasy. In this theory Lacan gives me a possible cause for the peculiar ‘this is not I’-state that I am currently in. Though I must say, I struggle to believe that it is all due to something I experienced as an infant. If so, would I not have felt this way all my life? Fortunately, that was not the case for me.
Recently I have also been reading a paper by Melanie Klein, an Austrian-British psychoanalyst, on the subject of mourning. Like Lacan, she relates to Freudian theory. An essential part of the work of mourning, according to both Freud and Klein, is the testing of reality. Reality passes its verdict – that the object no longer exists – upon each single one of the memories and hopes through which the libido was attached to the lost object, she writes. She gives the example of ‘Mrs. A’ who has lost her son and takes a walk through familiar streets after a few weeks of mourning. She suddenly realized that the number of people in the street seemed overwhelming, the houses strange and the sunshine artificial and unreal. This sensation I recognize all too well. I have lost my father to illness, pain and euthanasia. I have lost the man I love to unfulfilled desires and the passing of time. Who am I without these men? Artificial, unreal?
Perhaps there is a flaw in my identification with the Bob Dylan lines that I quoted at the beginning of this text. She’s got everything she needs, she’s an artist, she don’t look back. This string of words appealed to me so much - I played and replayed different versions of the song just to fix this mantra in my mind. It sounded so strong, confident and appropriate. And yet. Everything she needs? When does one have everything one needs? Who has that? I certainly don’t. There are quite a few gaps and shortages in my life, I might as well admit it. Not looking back? It is true that I am avoiding, even denying, chunks of the past. The question is, should I? After reading two novels by the contemporary South Korean writer Han Kang I read an interview with her and found some words of hers that urge people to do the opposite. I believe that trauma is something to be embraced rather than healed or recovered from. I believe that grief is something which situates the place/space of the dead within the living: and that, through repeatedly visiting that place, through our pained and silent embrace of it over the course of a whole life, life is, perhaps paradoxically, made possible. Today, I feel more inclined to listen to Han Kang as opposed to Bob Dylan. The only words in his line that still truly fit me are: She’s an artist. Perhaps those are the ones I should hold on to, after all.
Bob Dylan, She Belongs to Me, from the record Bringing It All Back Home, released 1968 by Columbia Records
Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, published in 1991 by Serpent’s Tail
Franz Kafka, Diaries, published in 1948 by Secker & Warburg
Jacques Lacan, The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience, read originally at the Sixteenth International Congress of Psychoanalysis, 1949
Melanie Klein, Mourning and Its Relation to Manic-Depressive States, read originally before the Fifteenth International Psycho-Analytical Congress, Paris, 1938
The White Review, Sarah Shin, Interview with Han Kang, March 2016,