Latin America’s particular relation with death implies something even worse: the practice of disappearing people in connection with State terrorism. The disappearance of rituals, which has reached an unprecedented extent, further exacerbated in times of pandemic, only increases contemporary anxiety. In this context, the analyst’s role is to function less as archaeologists—as Freud imagined—than as forensic anthropologists.”
Mariano Horenstein has published three books (Psicoanálisis en lengua menor; The compass and the couch. The necessary strangeness of Psychoanalysis; and Funambulistas. Travesía adolescente y riesgo). He has received some awards, among them Lucian Freud, Ángel Garma, Elise Hayman and FEPAL. He has given seminars and conferences in institutions from Latin America, Europe, EEUU and Asia. Former chief editor of Calibán-Revista Latinoamericana de Psicoanálisis. Current Training Director of the Asociación Psicoanalítica de Córdoba.
I If we had to pick just two words as the focal points of an ellipse that might serve as an approach to comprehend the subjects comprising the human species—at least the human species as conceived by psychoanalysis—they would be sex and death. Not only are these words focal points in terms of two points equidistant from the center of the ellipse; they are also sources of illumination that shed light on a large part of the phenomena that psychoanalysis has always engaged with, those inherent to clinical practice, and to daily life.
The center of the ellipse can remain empty. There we can put Lack, Castration, and the hole that sex is insistent on refuting, only to encounter it again and again. There also can go death, almost a mute echo of that hole, an impossible representation of the only certainty that inhabits within us.
Although psychoanalysis has usually been identified with sex, almost to the point of caricature, death is no less present in its theoretical structure.
With his habitual insight regarding psychoanalysis, Woody Allen once said “There are only two important things in life. The first is sex and the second I don’t remember.” Of course he doesn’t remember the second one. And the artist himself offers a clue when he says “My relationship with death remains the same. I’m strongly against it.”
It’s well worth approaching the topic of death with humor, because there is nothing funny about what I’m going to discuss.
II Sex and death then: Psychoanalysis’ Two Crucial Themes
There is no place here for generalizations, because what matters from a psychoanalytical standpoint are the particularities—even more so in a project that emphasizes the value of a Geography of Psychoanalysis, like the one that Lorena Preta imagined—the place where enunciation occurs. Although I have the good fortune to work in different geographical contexts, I speak from one in particular: Latin America, a continent that has proven to be fertile ground for psychoanalysis.
Unfortunately, the same has shown to be true for death, to the point that we can consider Latin America to have a certain particularity in relation to death.
Here I do not refer to folklore of any kind or to how the Extreme West—as we have sometimes been named—may look through European eyes, from a perspective habitually tinged with a degree of ethnocentrism.
This has nothing to do, then, with the greater or lesser visual impact of Mexican culture’s festivities or with the extreme melancholy in some our tango or zamba music, or with sacrificial rituals or anthropophagy practiced by some of this land’s original inhabitants.
I want to talk about a particular contribution—if you will permit me a bit of irony—that Latin America’s recent history has made to the human species, showing that it is as capable of committing marvelous gestures as it is of committing abhorrent crimes. Here I am referring to something even worse than death: disappearance. Specifically, I mean the forced disappearance of people, which became a specialty of this continent and my country in particular during the dictatorships in the 1970s.
After briefly commenting on why I think this Latin American “contribution” of sorts is even worse than death, I hope to be able to infer several consequences that are important for psychoanalysis as a whole and for the position of the analyst, moving from specifics to generalities.
For any geography of psychoanalysis, the same should apply.
It isn’t that we Latin Americans are the ones to have invented disappearing people on our own accord. With different variants, Latin American dictators have looked upon the Nazi regime or at least the Prussian military tradition with admiration. It is no coincidence that many Nazi war criminals found refuge in Chile, Argentina, Brazil or Paraguay. The idea that it is possible to make an Other disappear without a trace is not ours. Thucydides had already testified to how Sparta, fearing an uprising, made the Helots disappear from the face of the earth.
Nor was torture, as the tempestuous prelude to disappearance that was turned into an administrative policy of the State, invented in this region of the world. Latin American military personnel were trained in these practices by their French and North American peers.
In a somewhat perverse strain of anthropophagy--a process that has allowed us to digest knowledge, make it our own and produce something original as a result—a similar procedure has taken place here with massacre technology.
That originality, Latin America’s barbarity, consists of disappearance as a messy State practice, imposing a sort of limbo that is even worse than death for thousands of victims, shutting them up inside an impossible space—as if they were condemned souls or zombies unable to die—the space of tragedy. As Lacan articulated in his studies, it is the place that Antigone demonstrates with her courage, while combating it at the same time.
Mourning relatives exist all over the world, but in Latin America, bodies nec nonine, buried—in the case that they were buried, many were thrown into the sea or the dark depths of man-made reservoirs—who knows where, are mourned. Latin America saw the advent of mothers who have passed decades asking to be informed of the whereabouts of their children; it was in Argentina and Chile that the Mothers of Grief would march in their endless circles in main squares, or would impotently search, digging in the desert, confronting the authors of the genocide, demanding to know where their disappeared children are. The mothers of the Bosnians massacred in Srebrenia under European safe haven came afterward.
As a result, our forensic anthropologists had the dubious privilege of becoming the world’s most experienced team in this field. They gained so much expertise in my country that people from all over the world called upon them to identify remains in mass graves.
And they taught us psychoanalysts that there is something worse than physical death: symbolic death, because symbolic death can also lead to biological death, but by being made impossible to name, it generates an anguish that is infinite. Death that cannot be named permits no jokes, nor does it leave any room for grief work, the particular manner that Freud chose to refer to the task that every human must undertake in the face of loss.
III On more than one occasion, Freud identified with Heinrich Schliemann, the man who discovered Troy, and assimilated the analyst’s task to that of the archaeologist. However, maybe we should admit instead that as psychoanalysts we work more like forensic anthropologists than archaeologists.
If we agree that a progressive loss of ritual exists in a large portion of the West, and that practices of mourning as collective ways of dealing with death are insidiously dissolving away, we must be aware that it cannot occur without bringing subjective consequences along with it.
French psychoanalyst Jean Allouch has studied the implications of this desritualization, allowing a glimpse of the extent to which the cases reaching psychoanalytical practice today have to do with this disappearance of rituals.
There are very few places that currently respect timeframes for the mourning process, the prescriptions all religions have developed in order to accompany those who have suffered a loss and which is the closest way we humans have to imagine our own deaths, always without a unconscious inscription.
Contemporary wakes are a formality; almost no one dresses in black, mirrors are not covered and lloronas (funeral wailers) are a thing of the past. Obituaries are very seldom published in the newspapers, and if they are, they are seldom read. Death has ceased to be a collective question and has gone on to be—just like everything else in the mass individualism we live in—a personal issue. It is an issue that each person has to manage as best they can, and the quicker the better. The less evidence there is of the fracture that the loss of a loved one causes in us, the better; the sooner that the utilitarian logic of capitalism is reestablished, the better.
Not to mention this era of the pandemic; on the one hand it has multiplied the scale of death, the number of bodies piling up in morgues and the never-ending digging of graves that never suffice, while contemporary society also suddenly finds itself practicing medieval forms of protection. On the other hand, the same virus that shows how fragile the human species is with minimalist simplicity also makes a hug impossible, the accompaniment owed to any survivor along with the rituals of paying last respects. The Other—even dead—has turned into a source of danger.
Here as well, the lack of rituals intensifies grief and diminishes the efficacy of the symbolic tools we have constructed over time in order to face horror.
If at least part of the contemporary angst and anguish, the existential void, widespread anxiety and profusion of addictions that currently reach our offices is an articulation of this desritualization of our lives and of the degradation of the symbolic that invades our selves, perhaps we should ask ourselves about what we are losing when we believe we are winning.
A few ancient verses from Ecclesiates, attributed to Salomon, are usually recited during Jewish funerals, when the deceased’s relatives tear apart a garment as a visible sign that something within them has been rent asunder:
All things have their season, and in their times all things pass under heaven.
A time to be born and a time to die.
A time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted.
A time to kill, and a time to heal.
A time to destroy, and a time to build.
A time to weep, and a time to laugh.
A time to mourn, and a time to dance.
A time to scatter stones, and a time to gather.
A time to embrace, and a time to be far from embraces.
A time to get, and a time to lose.
A time to keep, and a time to cast away.
A time to rend, and a time to sew.
A time to keep silence, and a time to speak.
A time of love, and a time of hatred.
A time of war, and a time of peace.
Any intent to shorten the time to weep has its consequences. The same is true for not paying due attention to having been advised that, almost like a premonition, there is “a time to be far from embraces”…
A psychoanalyst today offers patient, archaeological listening, but not that alone. We function as forensic anthropologists, unearthing pieces, helping those who come to us for consultation to reconstruct lost or impossible identities.
The invention and consolidation of analytical methods practically coincided with the degradation of an empire that used to give meaning to its inhabitants and with the disasters of a war that left those who survived it speechless, incapable of assembling an account of their experience, which had also been destroyed. Freud’s invention, then, was offering a space in order to restore that destroyed experience.
Without proposing to do so, Freud may well have invented a new secular ritual as well, one that remains valid even in an era that is determined to leave them behind.