Category Archives: of the body

On leaning on an absent Other

Today [July 9, 2019]] is one of these exceptional days in Aumage with almost steady rain, interspaced with rumbling thunder and sometimes a patch of blue sky. There are always two or three of those among the many bright dry summer days that are what one expects of the region. So, this exceptional is normal.

What is missing for me this summer is the Other to whom I addressed, for 47 years, statements of the obvious: “isn’t the ray of sunshine beautiful,” “look at the sheets of rain across the valley, they are coming for us,” “well maybe it will stay over there,” “it’s raining harder now,” “I hope it’s finished by tomorrow because I have a big wash to do,” “of course it will be over! And it will be much cooler.” Nothing of this carried much information. It ranged from the obvious, to the cliche, to the repetitive. And yet this “no-thing” was most salient as some, mysterious, perhaps indicible, Thing on wich I leaned—mostly without noticing it.

What is now missing, technically, is what is called “phatic talk”—a horrible word usually associated with beginnings of communicational sequences (phone calls, e-mail messages) when two parties establish that they are indeed in communication, and that they have now made a “community” of sorts, however briefly. The phatic phase is usually presented in the literature on communication as a brief moment in the movement towards saying or doing “why” the sequence was started in the first place.

But phatic talk (I do need a better word for this!) between long married husband and wife (I am sure this is true of many other relationships) is something else altogether. It still has the property of being actually about “nothing” in that no new information is being passed, and nothing specific gets done. Which may be why it is a kind of talk that is easy to miss … until it is not possible to do it, when the other, in her absence, truly stands out as the most “significant” Other she was for so long. Like what I have read about lost limbs that one still feels, the absent person remains a presence one keeps noticing at the times when one finds oneself leaning on the person, when one turns to her to state the obvious, a fleeting thought to externalize, a commentary on something that just happened.

What does one do, next, when the absence of such very particular, and very significant, Other is noticed, again?

I now understand why some visit the tomb of their now absent Other to tell her, perhaps aloud, of one’s day, of what so and so said or did, of the wonders or horrors in the latest news. This may appear saner than “talking to oneself” (in such a way as to being noticed by others, less significant others, that might become significant if they decide to sanction what they noticed). I know I will be told to find another other with whom to say nothings comfortably. Some will advise me to find concrete things to do (hobbies, bricolage) that will cancel the urge to phatic talk: spending 2 hours getting IIS to work on my Windows computer did work that way. I am likely to follow that advice.

But the dulling the pain, or layering it over, does not negate the reality of the movement of a whole body towards an Other who will never again be there, in the other room, surfing the web, reading theology, compiling shopping lists, calling family members on the phone. This movement may be an old habit (though its exact form changed a lot over 47 years), a “psychological” event for he who is doing it.  But I insist that the movement also reveals the external reality of the other as irreducible presence standing actively and resisting any “social construction” of this Other. Such others (and that there are many who may be more or less significant) are not a figment of the imagination, a social construct imposed by “my culture” (whatever that would be!!). Others who make such a difference that they are missed like severed limbs are both “subject” and “object” of action (“agents”?). They cannot be reduced to psychological shadows or to the historical properties of the “body” (community, polity) that two Others-to-each-Other did construct over their history together.

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