Fort-Da and Practicing Absence in the Third-Person

Last semester, I officially joined QC Voices with “Unpacking and Repacking Love to Find Home.” That piece borrowed elements from lyric essays to find some means of consolation. Writing that piece was the NyQuil of alleviations, it only relieved the symptoms. In a sense, this piece will be a part two, or the strengthened body that will confront that absence again. To do so, I will be applying Freudian psychoanalysis and experimenting with the form to better understand that absence.

In “Interpreting the Genre: The Elegy and the Work of Mourning,”  Peter M. Sacks states “oedipal resolution actually governs the child’s ‘entry’ into language, an entry that the work of mourning and the elegy replay”. Sigmund Freud’s fort-da observation demonstrates how the child compensates for their mother’s absence by utilizing a substitute object, a wooden reel, to recreate the absence and presence of their mother, vis-à-vis their first love-object. When the child throws the reel, they call out “fort” and when the reel returns, the child calls out “da.”

Sacks further elucidate upon the fort-da observation with the following: “Freud saw the reel as a surrogate for the mother, and he interpreted the syllables to mean approximately ‘gone’ (away) and ‘there’ or ‘here’ (in the sense of regained presence).” By writing in the third-person and applying the fort-da observation, I hope to achieve some form of distance, as well as, revelation on my foremost experiences with absence.

The subject fears any sign of return or the reappearance of thereel.” At first, signs are resurrected in the warming static of nostalgia that vibrates in idleness. It is best described by Freud as the uncanny—the fear of what seems to be familiar but is not. There is some familiarity with what the maternal is, though it is mainly through cultural evaluation rather than first-hand experience. This may be the cause of the uncanny. Recently, it appears that the absent love-object (i.e., the subject’s mother) has returned from a decade hiatus. 

The subject has performed the work of mourning and allowed the absence to gradually dissipate from the world of the living into a symbolic crypt. However, the subject’s loss does not only exist in a literal realm. Rather, there is the expectation of “family.” Particularly, how that incompleteness has been systematically fortified. In this context, it is the interpellation of the maternal—the implementation of that idea that arrives presupposed, but its assumed practices cannot be washed off as easily as the vernix does. 

The subject’s first fort-da game involves her father separating her from the rest of her family. She is four-years-old, the fourth child, and the youngest girl. The subject has made some claim that four is an unlucky number and therefore has played some part in her father’s selection for separation.  This division occurs on the weekends, though the subject is unable to remember when these weekly relocations ended. During provisional relocations from Point-A (home) to Point-B (house), she displaces the ebb and flow of grief in the car by watching the houses slump when leaving home, then rise in affirmation when returning home. She consoles herself with makeshift lullabies, assuring herself that togetherness will only manifest into meanness and bitterness like the biting geese who are always in collective on the lawn of Point-B (house). 

The subject’s second fort-da game at age six, involves telephone calls, expensive ones. At this time, the subject’s mother has been out of the country for about a year. Occasionally, the calls are scheduled between a liquid breakfast and the rewinding of cassette tapes borrowed from the library. The subject finds comfort in listening to Broadway soundtracks, though she has not expressed any desire to see any of the live performances. She refuses to acknowledge her mother in the conventional nomenclature. Instead, the subject refers to her mother as “the caller.” At age seven, the subject cannot conjure a single eye, nose, or ear; she is unable to find any visual synchronization to the voice at the other end. The subject claims that it was futile to even attempt to remember because the phone calls reached a cessation.

Decades of absence later, “the caller” returns in search of redemption—an attempt to settle some maternal debt. The subject claims that she is too old now, well into her adulthood. Still, she allows the caller to move in with her. She further articulates that the presence of “the caller” has uprooted her home through the plucking and pulling of sticks and shiny things that hewed its structure. 

After patiently explaining this to the subject of the fort-da game, she elucidates that after throwing the reel at age six, she hoped it would’ve rolled under the couch and never reappeared. Additionally, the subject quotes poet, Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” “The art of losing isn’t hard to master.” “One Art” evaluates absence through the practice of losing feeble, miniature objects to larger entities and presences.

The subject claims that it is not the absence, but rather the return that irks her. She experiences waves of nostalgia but lacks lucid memories. She is only able to contextualize this state through a childhood drawing of a dinner plate. The dinner plate seems to resemble some semblance of togetherness—alluding to a family dinner. Drawn on the plate are rounded mashed potatoes, dotted peas, and a chicken drumstick. She has never experienced eating a dinner like the one drawn, rather she has seen family dinners illustrated like so in children’s books. This seems to closely resemble the uncanny or as the subject describes it, the never-before and never-again that thrusts its rotted hand from the earth.

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