31 Days: Apocalypse, Now ~ Day 23 :: The Presence of Absence

metalorbburiedfernKCCExtNLNH29Sept2018Welcome to day 23 of 31 Days of Apocalypse, Now, a month of posts about apocalypse, revelation, uncovering what’s been hidden. Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may only peripherally seem related. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They’ll all be listed here, as they are posted.


Complete absence, total emptiness, is an aesthetic other than melancholy. Daunting, desolate, inhumane, a complete absence may instead enter into the sublime. It is the hint of presence which moves a scene, an image, into a melancholy state. The intimation of things being left, or having departed, opens the door into the realm of melancholy. Like fragments and ruins, leavings is the state of things no longer whole. The leftovers that persist, the remnants which endure, hint at other realms beyond the place of the present. As triggers for involuntary memory, leavings can sabotage the most innocent of gazes. When the eye rests upon an element in a scene, something out of place, out of time, a reverie opens out, a recollection, a recall of departure and loss. As Dylan Trigg explains, ‘The phenomenology of involuntary memory resounds with melancholic fascination as we encounter an object that, while still persisting in space and time, is displaced from its narrative context and so points to an elsewhere that is no longer.’  — Jacky Bowring, from Melancholy and the Landscape: Locating Sadness, Memory, and Reflection in the Landscape (2017)

This passage speaks eloquently to me of heterotopia: an object persists in time and space, but no longer in this place or in this time; subconsciously noticing this absence, this displacement, leads our mind to seek backwards and forwards, and away to other places, to find the object, to relocate it and restore the scene to wholeness. The object’s presence may in fact be heightened by its being absent. The object, not present and yet present; the scene, familiar, of a piece, and yet fragmented; these qualities of image and imagination that attend the presence of absence are dreams, visions, hallucinations, even hauntings — and in these ways, speak to me of apocalypse as well as heterotopia.



Something is revealed to us by what’s no longer there, by the space left behind, by what’s gone and how it remains. This is obvious in some concrete situations:

You’ve been working on your laptop in the café for a few hours and have decided to take a break. You step outside, leaving your laptop temporarily unattended on the table. After a few minutes, you walk back inside. Your eyes fall upon the table. The laptop is gone!

This experience has striking phenomenology. You do not infer that the laptop is missing through reasoning; you have an immediate impression of its absence. — in “Seeing absence,” a paper by Anna Farennikova, published online 1 Nov. 2012

We see the laptop present on the table, in our minds, and that mental image doesn’t match the physical one, the object missing from that spot on the table. In an instant, we have insight: my laptop is gone!

We’re also familiar with having stared at an image for 20 or 30 seconds and then looking away at a blank wall and seeing a negative or colour inverted trace of the image for a few moments, until it too disappears into thin air. I remember learning about this in a high school science class and thereafter reproducing the effect over and over, experimenting to learn which objects caused the strongest afterimages. This effect told me something of how the optical system works, something about the complementary nature of colours (wavelengths), and it reminded me that memory freely operates without consciousness; the past persists, though sometimes distorted.

(Can you see the deer, almost not there?)

Then there are those moments in time, some fleeting and some not, when we actually see, hear, feel a trace of the missing object, perhaps a nail hole on a wall, a slight movement of air behind a disappearing cat, the echoing of a musical note in our ear. Elisa Adami, writing at Mnemoscape about a “political and social history of absences,” usually associated with violence, begins with an assertion about the presence of absences, the “temporal threshold, the caesura between an ante-absence and an after-presence,” introducing her remarks with a quote by Jean Genet:

“The disappearance seems to be not only a vanishing
but also a need to fill the gap with something different,
perhaps the opposite of what is gone.” — Jean Genet

We know, a photograph taken off the wall leaves a mark behind: a white square on a white background. A person steps out the room and the half-opened door turns into the spatial marker of a temporal threshold, the caesura between an ante-absence and an after-presence. A page ripped off the book persists in the ragged paper filaments hanging on the bundle of sheets, in the stuttering gap interrupting the flow of words and the numerical sequence of folios.

Absences are present. We can feel, perceive, sense them quite distinctively. We may say that absences have a phenomenology of their own, usually manifesting in an inventory of traces, in the shape of a negative mirroring, or in the sudden disturbance of a perception of continuity by the discontinuous irruption of a removal. Yet, their elusive status makes of them an object difficult to pin-down, define or represent. In the end, are they even objects, or just the empty spots left behind by the objects’ withdrawal, the wounds of a lack? Every time we try to determine them ontologically, or to express them in words, we need to recur to the grammatical mode of the negative and the rhetorical device of comparison. Absences are not just what there is not, but rather what was there and now is not any longer, or what should be there and yet is not – these connotations adding the importance of a temporal fluctuation or immoral omission.

spooky vision from train in North Carolina


An “immoral omission.”
The “discontinuous irruption of a removal.”
The “wounds of a lack.”

Images of landscapes where trees have been removed, and stumps or meadows stand in testament. Driving past the house I lived in as a teenager, where someone else now lives, and seeing my (now deceased) mother at the door, the (long-deceased) dog on the front step, the imposing space of the vanished copper beech. Houses my friends lived in, where I spent hours of my own life, never imagining their absence. Wounds of a lack. The vegetable garden, cleared today of weeds and pepper and basil plants now that frost has killed them, drawing me back to July’s fecundity and speeding me toward next May’s planting. Considering next May’s plantings and whether I will live here and if not, will I haunt this place, my absence a presence among new homeowners (why, they will wonder, are these hollies planted in the vegetable garden?), among neighbours and friends, among the birds I’ve fed and watered, among the butterflies and other insects for whom I planted flowers and created habitat? The discontinuous irruption of a removal. The flash of the mind backward and forward. The piecing together of the fragments and ruins.

A friend’s house, without her

What’s uncovered by a leaving, by an absence; what do we see in the presence of an absence? An expectation of what should be present? An assumption of what makes a scene whole? A lack among the remaining elements? A loss far beyond the removal of that one object, perhaps the destruction of the integrity of the whole once the pieces fail to rearrange? A desire for the missing object, or, as Jean Genet says, for the opposite of the missing object? A memory of what was there or of what wasn’t there? A silence, an emptiness, a fullness, the wounds?



Dylan Trigg’s words, quoted above– “melancholic fascination as we encounter an object that, while still persisting in space and time, is displaced from its narrative context and so points to an elsewhere that is no longer” — expresses my feeling on a train, looking out the smeared window, the unfocused colour that represents landscape moving before and beyond me, in a kind of dream state, passively absorbing what’s hidden and revealed by time and movement, by distance and circumstance. Sudden objects: a ferry boat full of people, a backyard dog, a small town theatre, a man on a tractor — momentarily present and yet even then also displaced, then lingeringly absent, in an elsewhere that’s no longer.  Nothing seen from the moving train window is whole longer than a second.


The fascination of a train journey … lies in the remoteness of the country outside, and in the realisation that it is so close. At any station one may break the spell of the train and set foot on the earth. But as long as one stays in the train, the outside is a dream country. A dream country. — Inspector Roderick Alleyn in Vintage Murder, 1937, by Ngaio Marsh

As long as one stays in the train — itself “a temporal threshold, the caesura between an ante-absence and an after-presence — everything disappears, suddenly and steadily, into that dream country, leaving “fragments and ruins,” leftovers that persist, remnants that endure, faint intimations of a bygone elsewhere, concealed again by its departure, by my departure, all of us hurtling backward and forward in time and space.

‘Leavings’ are melancholy doubled. First, leavings are poignant actions: departures, abandonments, desertions. And second, leavings are those things which are left, the remnants of something previously whole: detritus, residue. Each has their own sense of desolation, and in some cases both the action and the remainder are intertwined in a narrative of displacement. This is implied in the residue -– whether it be a note, a trace, an object now lost -– … Ruptures and cleavings are the subplots of leavings. The departure of things, of wholes, of lives, of loves, leaves the pain of residual stains, of that which remains. The melancholy tracing of things inhere in dust, and in sediments. Like the ‘residues of the day’ which, according to Freud, infuse our dreams, leavings are fragmentary and incomplete. Yet within these debris inhere melancholic imaginings, or as Joseph Cornell wrote of the ‘sweepings’ that he gathered up from his studio floor, they contain those things that fly under the radar, ‘the rich crosscurrents, ramifications, etc., that go into the boxes but which are not apparent in the final result’. — Jacky Bowring, from Melancholy and the Landscape: Locating Sadness, Memory, and Reflection in the Landscape (2017)


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