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The pathos of things: on positive grief and living from absentia
Sadness too bears its own special kind of fruit.
Today the philosopher and post-activist Bayo Akomolafe posted the following spiel on his Facebook page:
In this world, regeneration fits into an economy of named things, of saved things, accommodated within our systems, proper only to the extent that it serves ‘us.’ But doesn’t loss have a hidden life, a secret fermenting in its body like a fungal parasitoid in the chest of an insect? At what point does grieving become the choreography of a strange joy?
My seeing this was well timed, given that I’m living out yet another episode of The Perpetual Sads. I would argue that most people I know have some degree of discomfort with emotions like grief and sadness, or experiences of loss and lack, and I bet you’ll rarely find someone who can associate these with “strange joy,” unless they’re a fan of Carolyn Elliott.
In The Mythic Body, a course I am taking led by Josh Schrei of The Emerald podcast, we are currently exploring the story of Percival (also known as Parsifal or Peredur), the knight who was tasked with the retrieval of the never-empty Holy Grail. Our poor Percy is a bastard child who manages to fulfill his dream of becoming a knight despite being sabotaged by his overbearing mother—only to be told by an Eldritch Horror that he has failed his true quest: pursuit of the grail and inquiring about the source of The Fisher King’s wound.
Josh summarised the symbology of this part of the story with words that continue to ring out from my memory like an auditory ghost:
Everything seems to be going great...but you know deep down inside that that's not what the calling was...the true calling was to dive through the wound and claim the cup of ever-flowing water.
There is something that many ancient wisdom practices seem to understand about grief that those of us still writhing in the clutches of modernity cannot seem to grasp. It is that the emptiness is full, and the fullness is empty.
My father, Black supremacist might he be, is understandably proud of the seamless blending of celebration and mourning that African diasporic funerals entail. The Japanese have a phrase, mono no aware (“the pathos of things”), for the sorrowful appreciation of transience. And, in keeping with the thread of Japanese cultural aesthetics, I saw the artful practise of kintsugi, or filling the cracks of a broken thing with gold in order to repair it, used as a metaphor for disability-inclusive therapy recently.
In these realms, there is permission to be human.
I have always had a fascination with broken, discarded, old, and aesthetically strange things, and have always leaned toward the melancholic in my disposition. As a child, plenty of adults caved into their own discomfort around grief and transience and made me wrong for this. As an adult, I can hardly blame them; is death anxiety not a social illness, rather than the fault of a single individual? There seems to be a culture-wide allergy to darkness—or at the very least, this allergy runs in my family.
I have been watching videos of the legendary dancer and co-founder of butoh, Tatsumi Hijikata, who originally referred to his grotesque avant-garde movement practise as “ankoku buyo,” or “the dance of darkness.” In a scene of the butoh documentary, aptly named The Dance of Darkness, Hijikata reflects on his relationship with death in the context of performance:
To make gestures of the dead, to die again, to make the dead reenact their deaths—this is what I want to experience. A dead person can die over and over again inside me. Although I’m not acquainted with death, death knows me…
The part of me that has been “properly” socialised finds these statements absolutely horrifying—but it is juxtaposed with a deeper creative ecstasy. The butoh dancer in me wants to, as practitioner Vangeline puts it, cradle empty space. It wants to laugh with the spirits that haunt my body, speak their names in remembrance, and let them guide my limbs and gaze.
A butoh dance does very much feel like movement guided from “absentia,” a term I use based on what Terrence Deacon refers to as “absential” phenomena. In his words, “absential” is used to denote that “there is something not-there there.” The emptiness is full, and the fullness is empty.
What would it be like for you to move from what is missing? To dive deeply into your wounds, to fill your cracks with gold?
What if we had an English word for "the pathos of things”? Would we be able to make peace with death enough to hunger for it, like Hijikata? Is that which is lost and lacking not the source of all creativity?
Creativity, after all, is to make something that did not exist before. I want to pour myself into the space between two sides of what is broken. Surely I will find something good there.