On Absent Mothers
Hip hop, it is sometimes claimed, is born of an absent father. If this is true perhaps rock music is born of an absent mother. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Elvis, Jimmy Hendrix – to name just a few – all lost their mothers when they were young. As did Bono, lead singer of U2, whose description of the tragic events of his mother’s death quoted above form a prominent part of the subject matter of his band’s latest album, Songs of Innocence.
This article is less about him as it is about how psychoanalysis has conceived of the absence of the mother, or more precisely its effects. Nevertheless we will return to Bono’s testimony about the death of his mother when we look at some of the ways in which people can metabolise this absence, whether as loss or release.
To start, here are three of the most interesting themes that emerge in the psychoanalytic literature on this topic, and that we’ll explore in what follows:
1. That what appears at first like the abandonment by the mother is actually the abandonment of the mother;
2. If mourning involves a loss, and lack conditions loss, why this lack requires a support… and what happens when there is an absence of support for that lack;
3. What it is which links what Freud called the “work of mourning” and the process of artistic creation.
To quickly survey the psychoanalytic treatment of mothers is to see how they are always presented as a figure whose role needs to be subsumed, overtaken, or deposed by that of the father.
– For Freud – the mother relegated in favour of the father privileged in the Oedipus complex;
– For Lacan – the mother as the biggest Other, the ‘Thing’ (das Ding), her over-proximity forcing the subject to pose the question about her enigmatic desire. This is Lacan’s famous Che vuoi? which crowns the question mark-shaped third iteration of his Graph of Desire (Écrits, 815). The crisis thus resulting is resolved thanks to the salvation through the paternal metaphor – substitution of the mother’s desire for the Name of the Father… but at the price of eternal castration (a loss of jouissance which can only be reached again on the inverted ladder of the law of desire).
– For Klein – the mother as object of ambivalence. The ‘good’ and ‘bad’ objects that constitute the mother producing an oscillation between love and aggression that results in the depressive position.
The message seems to be: unless the relationship with the mother is relinquished or mastered in favour of the father, bad things will happen. Psychoanalysis knows no better warning of this fate than the myth of Oedipus. Even more recently, a problematic relation to the mother has been used in some psychoanalytic quarters to provide dubious accounts for autism (the so-called ‘Refrigerator mother theory’), which many French Lacanians have had to spend a large amount of time over the last couple of years distancing themselves from.
But what happens when the bond to the mother is severed in the wrong way, perhaps with her premature death?
To describe this using classical psychoanalytic terms, it’s not that death produces a sudden severing of libidinal attachments – these attachments remain strong, and the experience of pain comes from a slow reconciliation with the fact that the object is no longer there. Freud often describes these bonds in hydraulic terms: libido flows like water from object to object. This might sound very metaphorical but most people recognise this description from their everyday lives – with a breakup, for instance, there is often the ‘rebound’ guy or girl who ‘absorbs’ the intensity of affect and receives a massive over-investment of libidinal cathexis, which albeit is quickly exhausted.
Which then poses the question of why an exhaustion of cathexis is so difficult in the case of mourning, to the extent that this absence can sometimes never be overcome? If the psychical economy functions on this libidinal hydraulic model (a dynamic model), where there is a certain quota of libido shifted from object to object (an economic model), why do we have such trouble letting go of certain key figures in our lives?
Let’s look at probably the most famous and often-cited example of how to deal with the absent mother in the history of psychoanalysis.
Freud describes watching his young nephew play:
Freud sums up his interpretation of what his nephew was doing:
At the start of his career as a young psychiatrist, Lacan goes along with this idea – the infant masters the experience of the mother’s absence by repeating it on his own terms through an effort of symbolisation (see for example Family Complexes, p.18). But then in Seminar XI he proposes another, very different reading:
The child is symbolising through repetition for sure, says Lacan. But what is being repeated is not so much the disappearance/reappearance of the mother, but her disappearance/reappearance as the cause of the subject’s split. The repetition, is not to master absence but to establish presence – the presence it establishes being that of subject him- or herself.
After all, how can absence itself be represented? How do you represent something that isn’t there? The classical Lacanian answer would be through an appeal to the signifier to stand in the place of an absence – the child’s fort and da, here and gone. Signifiers are capable of indexing an absence in the same way that a missing book on a library shelf still has a place by virtue of the classmark assigned to it. The book may not be there, but its place is. Fort and Da are thus a minimal binary signifying system for the child.
But Lacan goes on to say that just assigning a signifier to represent this absence – to be the Reprasentanz of the Vorstellung, to use Freud’s German – isn’t enough. A simple fort or da can’t bridge the gap of the lost object.
And this is where the reel that the child plays with comes in. Psychoanalytic theory offers several names for an object like this – Winnicott uses the term ‘transitional’ object; Zizek uses the term ‘biceptor’. As for Lacan, he calls the reel the ‘object a’ (Seminar XI, p.62 and p.239).
The object a is a remnant of the process of separation from the mother. It is a partial object not just in the sense that it is linked to a ‘partial’ drive – oral, anal, scopic, invocatory – or to the ‘part’ of the body that this drive corresponds – mouth, anus, gaze, voice – but partial also in the sense of belonging neither to the subject nor to its object – neither to the child nor its mother. It is in between the two, “the excluded intersection of the two sets”, as Zizek calls it (The Puppet and The Dwarf, p.59). This is another shade to Lacan’s notion of ‘extimacy’ – something that’s both external and intimate at the same time. Shortly after Lacan first used these ideas, psychoanalyst Otto Isakower offered a model for how the superego is formed through the introjection of invocatory commands by way of a comparison to how small crustacea would insert foreign objects into their shells – something both external and intimate at the same time (for more, see this great paper).
Although this may just sound like fanciful theorising, we find a very concrete example of this ‘foreignness’ in how people describe the experience of mourning a loss. ‘A part of me has died’, people often say, or ‘It felt like I lost an arm’, ‘I am nothing without him’. And accompanying a loss is a sense of emptiness that disrupts the experience not just of one’s identity, but of one’s own body. The mourning process is often accompanied by a complete loss of appetite, for instance.
So we have in the case of Freud’s nephew a situation in which the absence of the mother affords the child the chance to establish his place as a subject. And through playing with the reel we see he needs not just this lack (the absence of the mother), but the support of a lack (the reel). Speaking about the child’s game in Seminar X, Lacan tells us in no uncertain terms what happens when we are faced with the absence of a support of the lack: anxiety.
Lacan’s idea here is very radical – the “possibility of absence is what gives presence its security” does not imply that we value presence only when we know absence, but that we can bear presence only when we have the possibility of absence. What the child masters in the fort/da game is not the absence but the overwhelming presence of the mother. The reel is the object that enables the child to get some distance from her, to prise an independent space for its own desire.
Of course, the child still needs the mother to fulfill its basic needs. But the mother is not simply the giver of the breast or bottle – she is the one who gives “the sign of signifying articulation” (Seminar V, 19th November 1958) not just through words but through games like hide-and-seek or peek-a-boo. These are instrumental in providing the child with a way to establish the notions of presence and absence not just in bodily terms but in symbolic terms. Peak-a-boo, hide-and-seek, and fort/da are games, after all, a second order from actual presence and absence. Through this symbolic inscription – a minimal signifying binary such as fort and da or peek and boo – the child gains the means to move past its mother.
But all this seems very far away from the experience of mourning. After all, lack is not the same as loss. It might however offer us a clue to the way that the work of mourning can be better undertaken.
Contrary to the psychoanalytic tradition of ‘metaphorising’ the mother for the father, in Bono we find someone for whom the two are closely intertwined under very tragic circumstances: his mother collapsed at the funeral of her own father and never regained consciousness:
Iris Hewson died 40 years ago to the day that Songs of Innocence was released, a fact the U2 singer claims to have found out only later, but which is not without psychoanalytic significance. (See Corfield and Leader, Why Do People Get Ill?, p.69-93). His writing about her death spans the almost 40 years of his life as a singer and on this album a short essay in the liner notes (quoted from above), and a song that shares her name – Iris– continue what Freud aptly calls the “work” of mourning (SE XIV, 245).
Before we go into specifics, we can note a few things worthy of psychoanalytic comment, no more than lines of enquiry, but which offer us some insight into how the loss of the mother has been negotiated in his case.
1. The use of the proper name
Bono uses his mother’s proper name, Iris, both to title a song and when writing about her in his essay in the liner notes:
As it’s odd for a son to refer to his mother by her proper name, what’s the significance of doing so here? Why not just write a song called ‘Mother’?
Firstly, using the proper name rather than ‘Mother’ indicates a change in – or loss of – her symbolic status, a move from the woman as ‘mother’ to the woman as ‘Iris’. The work of mourning here involves a kind of re-making of the object, a reintegration of the object into the subject’s psychical economy to enable a new relationship to be possible.
Secondly, in referring to his mother by her first name, it is almost as if Bono was writing from someone else’s perspective, describing a woman known to someone in a way other than as a mother. The status of the son, as much of the mother, is therefore here in question, and it’s perhaps no accident that this album, Songs of Innocence, contains that very signifier. This is even highlighted in the album’s cover artwork. The gap between letters cannot be accidental:
Thirdly, the use of the proper name shows a fidelity to the absolute singularity, the un-exchangeability, of the object. Freud comments on this function of naming in Totem and Taboo (SE XIII, 56-58). We could say that what animates the artistic process – the writing of a song, or successive songs, about the death of a mother, for instance – is a permanent memorial to the singularity of the object denoted by the proper name: that this loss cannot be metaphorised, it can only be exchanged for the person herself. As psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche put it, “All the limitations of the dead person can be reworked: but his name is untouchable, impossible to metabolise.” (Laplanche, Essays on Otherness, p.244). If we were to paraphrase Freud’s comments in Analysis Terminable and Interminable, the proper name is a kind of ‘rock of mourning’ (SE XXV, 252).
2. The gaze
Taking it less as a proper name however, the signifier ‘Iris’ also links the mother to the scopic register. In Lacanian terms, we talk about the gaze as the partial object of this scopic drive. Telling the story of his mother’s death in the liner notes to Songs of Innocence, Bono employs the same scopic terms, demonstrating an associative link between the gaze and death:
Bono is, of course, a man famous for permanently shielding his own eyes by wearing shades, so we might wonder what significance this has given the way he describes death as a “staring match that death always wins”.
The duality of the gaze as something both comforting and threatening illustrates nicely how, as an indicator of desire, it can be a double-edged sword. Several times in the early sixties Lacan provides an efficient little apologue to describe this effect, which he borrows from Maurice Blanchot’s first novel, Thomas l’Obscur (as Lacan references in Seminar IX, 27th June, 1962).
Imagine, he says, you are in front of a female praying mantis, known for biting off the heads of their partners after sex. You are wearing a mask of another praying mantis, but the catch is you don’t know whether it’s the mask of a male or a female. As such, you don’t know whether you’re going to be eaten or not, because you don’t know how the creature in front of you – this ultimate Other – sees you (Seminar IX, 4th April 1962; Seminar X, 14th November 1962).
The story contains at least two Lacanian lessons. First, that I am constituted by the Other’s gaze. Who I am, my experience of myself, is suspended on the way I interpret the desire of the Other, as manifested in the story through its gaze. When I am not certain who I am because I am not certain of how I am seen, anxiety results.
Secondly, that the relation to the object, even the mother, is never so simply one of unconditional love. As Klein’s work emphasises more than any other psychoanalyst’s, love is never a purity. It is always refracted through a prism of ambivalence, dread, anxiety, and aggression. Lacanian psychoanalyst Darian Leader, writing about Britain’s most prolific serial killer Harold Shipman, notes that immediately after the death of his mother Shipman went on a ten mile run around his home city of Nottingham in the pouring rain. Tempting though it may be to assume this was a desperate attempt to escape the situation, it could also indicate a new-found vigour, a new sense of life, following the death of the mother (Leader, What Is Madness?, p.282).
We don’t know enough about Bono’s family history, and he himself claims to have only a few remaining memories of his mother. But a few are contained in the song Iris, and echoed in the liner notes to the album, which give us a starting point from where something of significance might follow.
For a psychoanalytically attuned ear, the reference to burial here is the most likely to tickle the attention. But rather than focussing exclusively on that we can connect the scene on the sand in an associative chain to another event concurrent with the death of his mother. In his short essay in the album’s liner notes, immediately after writing about the death of his mother, Bono remembers meeting his future wife Ali when he was 14, the same age as when his mother died:
Leaving aside the reference to a crime scene in the last line – which we can connect to the ‘Innocence’ of the album’s title; and the protestation in the last lines of Iris quoted above that he is not responsible for his mother’s death – it is the associative link between the sand dunes of Dublin, the mother, and meeting his future wife, that provide a more interesting line of enquiry.
We know from published interviews with Bono that these are the same sand dunes he describes in the memory of his mother from the lyrics quoted above. The Hewson family would visit there frequently for short breaks, a point we’ll return to. So we have a proximity between the sand dunes, his mother, and Ali, his future wife, established on three levels:
– Temporal proximity – He and Ali meet the same year his mother dies.
– Geographical proximity – The first date with Ali taking place on sand dunes “as unknowable as any great beauty”, as he describes them.
– Ideational proximity – Without making any bold analytic interpretation we can at least recognise an associative chain that connects the burial of the mother; the sand he describes being buried in by his mother, as recounted in the lyrics above; and the same sands where he takes his later wife on their first date.
Questioned in 2003 by the journalist Michka Assayas about his childhood memory of his mother’s funeral, it is fascinating therefore that of all the topics Bono could have associated in connection with the tragedy of his mother’s death, it is a scene on the same sand dunes of the Dublin coast that he turns to:
Assayas: Each time you discuss your childhood it seems like things only come out in a kind of haze. For obvious reasons, the strongest memory seems to be your mother’s funeral…
Bono: Yeah, I’m just trying to think. I have some strong memories about that railway carriage my grandad had, out in a place called Rush, on a beach.
Assayas: Oh yes, you told me that story.
Bono: I remember the strand and the sand dunes, and wandering around. (Michka Assayas, Bono on Bono, p.244).
Later in the interview Assayas elicits more about this memory:
Assayas: I once read that as a child, you spent your family vacations in a trailer on a wasteland by the sea. Then the property was developed, and you weren’t allowed to stay there anymore?
Bono: There was a railway carriage that belonged to my grandfather, in the sand dunes, on a beach in the north of Dublin. There was an extraordinary moment in my childhood when we arrived. The farmer who had sold the land to my grandfather had died. When his son was looking for the contract that my grandfather didn’t have – it was just a cash transaction – he had told him he had to get off. My grandfather wouldn’t get off, and he bulldozed this train carriage, just smashed it. It was an extraordinary moment I remember as a child. I remember throwing rocks at his glass houses. I was very angry about it” (Assayas, ibid, 140-141).
Although we don’t have enough material here to speculate further, it is at least interesting to note in this memory a further associative connection, this time between the sand dunes and the grandfather. Whether this is the maternal grandfather at whose graveside Bono’s mother collapsed is not clear, but the connection to the death of a father is duplicated in this story – the farmer’s father’s death being the catalyst for the scene of destruction on the sand dunes.
Without more to go on, we can’t speculate further. But what we can at least see is how a significant event in a person’s life – the death of the mother, for example – is knitted to a series of associations that reappear in their creative work, even without their conscious knowledge, and which it would be the job of a psychoanalysis to pursue.
There are stories to tell that are not songs.
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