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From a symposium on the topic of loss, which was published in the Spring 2023 issue of The Threepenny Review.

The cult of loss has many enthusiastic members. And as with any cult, critics tend to be demonized or ignored, if only for using the word “cult” about a group of committed, like-minded people. Emerson was never celebrated, or even really engaged with, for writing, after his son’s death, “The only thing grief has taught me is to know how shallow it is.”

It can seem astoundingly callous not to take seriously the scale of loss. It is as though transience and deprivation define us, and so anyone challenging our being bewitched by the idea of loss, our wish to apply it everywhere, our wish to use it to explain everything (aging as the loss of youth, illness as the loss of health, madness as the loss of sanity, evil as the absence of good, and so on), is likely to be deemed merely out of touch with reality, or needlessly provocative. Mourning seems to be our universal religion.

But if we are essentially elegiac creatures—obsessed only with what we have lost, or can or will lose—we should note that no other animal seems to be similarly stricken. Clearly animals feel loss: we witness something happening to them when they are sick, or when a fellow creature dies. But they seem to live as though survival is their thing, rather than loss.

It is language, acculturation, that has given us loss and its elaboration. Just to use a word is to acknowledge the absence of its referent, as though language itself makes loss our theme and medium. Words are always a mourning, however blithe, for what they represent. And by the same token, language as our second nature makes it difficult to work out what loss may be a way of thinking about—other, that is, than loss itself. It is not obvious what we are using the idea and the experience of loss to do for ourselves, and whether this essential perplexity gets us the lives we want. What else could a good or viable life be preoccupied with? What might we be interested in, if we were not so interested in loss? Can loss be redescribed in any genuinely useful way, or is it simply our fate as mortal, dependent, and occasionally rational animals to see everything we do as somehow organized around loss, or the anticipation of it?

When Robert Hass began his great poem “Meditation at Lagunitas” with the lines “All the new thinking is about loss. / In this it resembles all the old thinking,” it seemed at once incontestable but also strangely dismaying. All experiment and curiosity and unpredictability and improvisation and complexity collapse in the wake of loss. This, we might think, is essentialism at its most extreme. This is what it is like to be the emperor of one idea. This is what it is like to live in a cult.

Childhood, for Freud, was primarily, if not exclusively, an initiation into loss. What is called development is what we can make out of loss. So when Freud famously described, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, what became known as the fort/da game of his grandson—in which the child threw a wooden toy on a string away from himself and then retrieved it, uttering as he did so infantile versions of “Fort!” (gone) and “Da!” (there)—Freud took it that the game was a way of mastering his mother’s absences, by repeating the traumatic experience symbolically. What he has had to suffer passively, he made into a game that he could actively control. This, Freud suggested, is what we all do. This is even how culture works for us, what culture is for—to master loss. Whether or not the child is mastering loss, he has certainly redescribed his experience of his mother’s inevitable intermittent absences. Is it now a loss or a game?

Loss may be the very thing we need to find ways of transforming, to prompt our inventiveness. We might become less terrorized by it, and so less obsessed and impressed by it. We might then be able to understand and use Picasso’s wonderful boast, “I do not seek, I find.” Finding would be the point, and not losing. Loss would no longer be, as it were, an end in itself. When loss is not catastrophic loss, it is a form of stage fright.

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