Virginia Konchan with Janice Lee

Janice Lee
Janice Lee

Psychoanalytic discourse (Winnicott’s “good enough” mother, the devouring mother, etc.) haunt the Western imaginary, wherein parodies of our socio-cultural schism (virgin/whore) are attenuated by iconic representations of gender (Madonna, Gaga). Here I explore with writer Janice Lee the fine line between these mythic representations, the work of mourning and lived generational narratives. We also consider contemporary memes, such as the “feral feminism” of The Hunger Games, eating disorders, infertility and other symptoms of cultural malaise, and the damaging myth of a woman who has (or does, as an extenuation of capitalist production values) it all. Rage on. —Virginia Konchan

My Mother Would Be a Falconress

My mother would be a falconress,
And I, her gay falcon treading her wrist,
would fly to bring back
from the blue of the sky to her, bleeding, a prize…

I tear at her wrist with my beak to draw blood,
and her eye holds me, anguisht, terrifying…

Yet it would have been beautiful, if she would have carried me,
always, in a little hood with the bells ringing,
at her wrist, and her riding
to the great falcon hunt, and me
flying up to the curb of my heart from her heart…

—Robert Duncan

Virginia Konchan: In your book, Daughter, rendering a judgment on the world, or even seeing what we are and experience, boils down to the problem of language, representation and reification; a symptom of being “unmothered” or losing the mother (how do we know we exist if the mother, in language acquisition and in the mirror stage, doesn’t speak to us, or act as a stable determinant or image from which we derive our own speech, self-image and, later, identity?).

The wonderful synesthesia of Daughter (as one reviewer put it: in Daughter, “splayed” is a color; “competence” is interchangeable with “space”) attenuates the tension—rather than attempting to resolve it—of the stigmatized, iconicized “mother,” both historical and real.

Mother and child become interchangeable and the narrator (mother/master signifier) is as malleable as the created subjects themselves. In Daughter, the choice to forget seems a more survivable fate than the pain of remembrance and lived trauma—of the mother’s abandonment, death, or our own societal scapegoating and sacrificial murder of the mother in order to have a voice, and survive.

I think, laughingly, of Freud and Kristeva, who saw repression and subject-formation as a process, and whose best metaphor was that of work. But for Freud, the work of mourning had less to with transcendence through language than finding adequate substitutes for the primary love-object, the mother, who is gone forever. The subject’s ego, decathected from the primary love-object, has two choices according to Freud: wait in a state of Proustian dread, anticipating the mother’s return, or reattach to another object/subject, repressing the memory of the love-object completely or fetishizing its material (photography), or immaterial (the voice) remains…

Can you speak to the trope of loss, and the choice (conscious or not) to forget or remember, repress or live out the mourning for what the mother (before necromantic capitalism and eco-devastation) signifies: comfort, security, unconditional love for/by the other?

Janice Lee: For me, it is loss that colors everything, even pervades and intensifies the cloud hovering over any illusion of choice at all. Forgetting and remembering become compulsive; repression becomes desire; dreaming becomes routine.

Perhaps there is an inherent cannibalism that, inevitably, like a cycle of eternal return, dictates the process of grief. The following, from Elissa Marder’s book, The Mother in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, resonates with me:

In “Mourning and Melancholia,” Freud argues that normal mourning is a form of psychic work in which the self detaches from the world and retreats into itself so that it can, slowly and painfully, disengage the energy it has invested in a love object that no longer exists in order to be able to reclaim that lost energy for itself. In melancholia, however, the psyche refuses to accept the reality of the loss and takes the lost object into the psyche instead. In another text entitled “Mourning or Melancholia: Introjection versus Incorporation,” Abraham and Török modify Freud’s description by suggesting that mourning always entails taking the lost object into the self in one way or another. For them, however, in successful mourning, the process they call “introjection,” the departed object is successfully consumed: it is fully “ingested,” “digested” and “metabolized” until it ultimately becomes assimilated into the self. The lost object is successfully mourned when it becomes an integral part of the “me” who mourns.

Whatever residue remains (photos, trinkets, ashes), these only speak to the pastness of the person (the mother in the past); a strange testimony that calls to attention the complications of what no longer exists, but now strangely dictates a new sort of future. I hold on to objects, not necessarily because I miss my mother, which is also true, but to continue to feel relevant as a daughter.

VK: Do you feel our grief for the mother to be laced with both our own mourning and loss, as well as our helplessness in global, cosmic and very local, in our own narratives and cities—watching women of all genders, races and classes struggle for human rights, dignity and survival—suffering?

JL: For me, the grief is innately personal. And, as the maternal function is so often seen as resisting codification and containment, so is the daughter’s. If there is another version of the mother that is her past, is there not also another version of the daughter, floating in the ether and haunting both physical mother and daughter, waiting for some imminent version of a release/arrival—not unlike her first entry into the world?

It is perhaps a much more existential crisis. As a daughter, I remain tethered to an excavatory trauma of being born as someone already with and without a past, already anticipating the trauma of my mother’s death. That is, the umbilical cord is more than just a metaphor, and the past is more than just history.

The Korean poet, Kim Hyesoon, writes:

Yes, poems are ways of saying you clearly remember the day of your death and your tomb. When I am writing poetry, I relive my days when a woman inside me dies many times. My body is full of graves. A sepulcher is dug up, and a young girl comes out of it with her dusty hands in tears. A lady who is a young girl and an old girl at the same time feels the presence of the young girl. I feel that the 15-year-old me and the 50-year-old me come out of the sepulcher through an illegal excavation. Time is not a straight line, but just a flat hell, like a desert. I am a tomb robber who is robbing my own tomb. Things from my tomb are exhibited under the radiant sun. Every time it happens I feel crude.

The crisis is one of narrative, too. How to proceed outwards from one center, one relationship, one vortex that also sucks inwards, which erases as it simultaneously creates.

VK: I’m struck by how discussions of the mother are, perhaps, the only psychoanalytic or narrative trope wherein sense can only be made in reference to the personal and personal grief; from Barthes’ Camera Lucida to Meghan O’Rourke’s The Long Goodbye and other writers’ grief memoirs; our relationship to our own mothers, ourselves, socially: in terms of biological determinism, limited opportunities to enter political representation and positions of power and influence, despite rhetoric to the contrary, as discussed recently in The Atlantic and documentaries such as Miss Representation and forums such as VIDA’s The Count) and, more intimately, identity. How do we differentiate from the mother while acknowledging our need for nurturing and love?

The metaphor of genealogical and personal excavation is so apt (and the effort to see the body—ours or our mothers’—as serving more than a reproductive function or a sexual commodity; to inhabit the body, ours and that of the other). Without trying to sound retrograde, I often wonder whether the architecture of our buildings, landscapes, stories and poems (the serially experienced lyric line, the Aristotelian arc, the epiphanic finale, and the modernist skyscraper and other phallic monstrosities) aren’t the key to the “bigger better faster” disease of capitalist, post-Fordist production; an inability to be satiated or entertain the legitimacy of an Eastern (occupying the present moment) or traditionally feminine (interpolated by, and sensitive to, one’s co-constitution with the other) perspective. I wonder if our inability to know what is “enough”—that is, the illimitable disease of the free market, or the corporate state whose government is in the pocket of corporations, producing skirted environmental protocols, tax shelters, Wall-Street bail-outs—is related to our experience of rejection by the mother, or lack of satiation in our formative years (the root of our sense of security, and ability to acquire what we need and sense of deservingness to survive).

What do you think of the “meet your meat” trope that informs Carol Adams’ work about feminism and Western meat production, and/or the reduction of the female (and male!) subject to body parts rather than a syncretic whole, or person? I’m thinking of Ariana Reines’ sublime The Cow, in which the mother is both the lost signifier and a murdered lump of meat—here from the book jacket: “The cow is a body in the way that texts are bodied—’Are you so intelligent your body doesn’t have you in it’—but not in the way that allows the text to become desensitized, depersonalized, sterilized. Instead this text is filthy and fertilized, filling and emptying, atrocious and politic with meaning. The Cow is a mother, a lover, and a murdered lump of meat.”

JL: A memory: When my mother was disconnected and officially pronounced dead, my dad had a psychogenic non-epileptic seizure, collapsed on the ground and started kicking and smashing his head on the floor. I was sent down with my dad to the emergency room. When I was able to return upstairs, what I remember is that one of my mom’s friends handed me a bag. “Your mother’s purse.” As everyone slowly shuffled out through the double doors, I lingered behind. I had been sent down to ER so quickly, I hadn’t had a chance to really say goodbye. I wanted to see her face again. But in those moments I had been downstairs, everything had changed. Her face had already turned a light shade of yellow, darkness starting to permeate around her eyes. She looked dead, and that was a strange realization, to see that on a face.

VK: The Athenian state instituted a “ban on memory” after civil war had concluded, taking a collective oath “not to recall misfortunes of the past.” The form of forgetting practiced by the Athenian citizens in author Nicole Loraux’s account had a name: Alaston penthos—a mourning that refuses to be carried out, a memory devoted to not forgetting. In the Odyssey eklesis, the “call to forget,” scores Greek drama and Greek tragedy, whose purpose was to set a memorial (textual) boundary between the enemies of Greek polis and the Greek citizens.

When the coryphaeus implores Electra to forget her anger against her mother and stepfather for the murder of her father, Agamemnon, she refuses, responding “ou lathe m’orga” (“I do not forget my anger,” and “my anger does not forget me”). “Tragedy borrows the notion from the most ancient poetic tradition, and particularly from epic, which from the first word of the Iliad names this active affect [anger as mourning] menis,” says Loraux. “If it were not for Achilles…I would say that we have here a female figure of memory, which the cities try to confine within anti- (or ante-) politics.” I am driven to (re)member (recall, praise, piece together and invent) the mother, such as in this poem, while also knowing the drive to Lethe-ean oblivion is not just personal but aesthetic; the call to waken signaling self-consciousness, technological futurity, culture.

Of Thee I Sing

Take your musicality. I knew nothing of your musicality.
Take your mutilation, which came before your mutilation
of yourself. You were dragged to the underworld, Dantean,

Miltonesque, to remember who I really was—brutish,
degenerate. How you did not flinch. How you were,
in all your ways, from waking to sleeping, like a man.

Trapeze artist, Crazy Jane: did you even exist outside
of my metaphoric definition of you? A separate identity—
treason. I called you killer. If you lay down with Father,

I did not want to know. How your body was found face
down in the snow, or in the lake, face up, glowering,
a wasted corpse. White Goddess. Queen Bee.

You were born to serve, to die a sparrow’s death.
Take your place, mother, in the martyr’s order
of things. Do not ask me to remember your name.

The importance placed on mastery of loss (and our culture’s trend of refusing mastery, and the mother) has roots deep in psychoanalytic theory, specifically in the work of Freud, Melanie Klein and Lacan. It is at the site and through the event of this primary loss that the subject is constituted, for Freud, who describes the loss of the object as a two-step process: First, the breast is lost, followed by the primary love object, the mother herself. In Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, Freud explains that the breast becomes a lost object just at the time when the child is able to form a total idea of the person to whom the organ giving him satisfaction belongs.

Modernism rejects the illusion of mastery. For the Greeks, locating the golden ratio between form and appearance (pure objectivity, in logic, or pure objecthood, in art) was key.

How can we remember the mother and the feminine (in Eastern religion in the image of time, as circular and labyrinthine) while recognizing the desire to master ourselves, our bodies and our chosen fields, as the opposing tide to being without striving (creating, with intentionality)?

JL: “The novel started out as a kernel of an idea. I knew I wanted to do something about the lack of an archetype for the ‘daughter’ figure.”

This was my response to an interview question that asked me about my initial intentions for writing Daughter. Daughter was released shortly after the death of my mother, and I was asked often about the connection. In reality, the entire book was composed before my mother’s death, during a period of good health. But it’s also a lie to say that the book had nothing to do with my mother’s death.

Jacques Derrida writes:

The trauma remains traumatizing and incurable because it comes from the future. For the virtual can also traumatize. Trauma takes place when one is wounded by a wound that has not yet taken place, in an effective fashion, in a way other than by the sign of its announcement. Its temporalization proceeds from the to-come.

This might allude to an actual traumatic event that is yet to come, a cord that connects one’s birth to another’s death, or rather, to a series of to-come realizations that instead cohere an ongoing and simultaneous process.

How do we reconcile and understand a relationship that is erected at the moment at which we rip and spill out of her body, the violence behind the arrival, manifested in the screams of pain and then the cries of joy and relief, the violence that dictates a new sort of identity for the mother? She is no longer the person she used to be, but is something utterly out of the reach of memory and articulation for the daughter who has entered the world for the first time, and comes to know her mother only as this person, with no recollection of any other version.

[I]f I’m a ghost, but believe I’m speaking with my own voice, it’s precisely because I believe it’s my own voice that I allow it to be taken over by another’s voice. Not just any other voice, but that of my own ghosts. So ghosts do exist. And it’s the ghosts who will answer you. Perhaps they already have. 

Jacques Derrida (Ghost Dance, Film dir. by Ken McMullen, 1983)

Is this a strange way of repeating the process of parasitism that begins before birth in the womb? Derrida goes further:

I speak of mourning as the attempt, always doomed to fail…to incorporate, interiorize, introject, subjectivize the other in me. Even before the death of the other, the inscription in me of her…mortality constitutes me. I mourn, therefore, I am, I am—dead with the death of the other, my relation to myself is first of all plunged into mourning, a mourning that is moreover impossible.

It is my insistence that keeps the relationship intact in any form at all. In a dream, she protests to my family: We never eat together anymore. I think of this as her own denial that she is dead—an insistence on being in our lives the way that she used to. But these are my dreams and not hers. This then becomes a languid conversation, a merging of that space and this one, an atmosphere that is all at once too familiar and impossible to make out. Freud’s vision of the unheimlich is most relevant in that space between birth and death. As certain memories are destabilized, the way I recall an identity changes—like looking through a hole in the wall from a particular angle, moving away and coming back, looking through the opening again and seeing something else, something different, but all too familiar as it has already seeped into my brain.


Janice Lee is the author of Kerotakis, Daughter and Damnation (a book-length meditation on the films of Béla Tarr). She currently teaches at CalArts and can be found online here.

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