A couple of weeks ago, something real bubbled up through the CPA Google Forum and I found myself caught up in the emotion of the exchanges. A link had been posted to an article in the Guardian newspaper with the title “Suicides indicate wave of ‘doomerism’ over escalating climate crisis.”
The post arrived early on a Saturday morning and I noted its title but didn’t immediately click the link. I read the paper every day, but I hadn’t noticed this article and it might have passed by unnoticed had it not been underlined in this simple way through CPA. I was glad to know about it, and put it aside to read later.
Within about half an hour, a reply arrived on the Forum with what seemed to me like a mild rebuke. The person replying had read the article already and found it disturbing and was requesting some more words from the Forum to help to process the distress that reading the article had caused. Very quickly, some other emails arrived responding to this in various ways. There was a small flurry of messages but no one was saying anything more about the content of the article.
I found myself getting agitated – you can’t protect yourself from the news. On and on it went, round and round in my mind. But why was I so agitated? The more I yelled (in my head), the worse my feelings of agitation became! Far from getting satisfaction from the truth, things were getting worse. I had to admit it, I too needed a space to process something real that had arrived via words from the CPA forum.
It wasn’t until I sat down much later that day and wrote a reply that I found not only the satisfaction that I needed but also the kernel of my personal truth that seemed to have got caught up in the question. It was by writing to the CPA Google Forum that I discovered something worth saying about the truth at stake in the newspaper article.
The article was provoked by Wynn Bruce’s death. He was a 50-year-old photographer who lived in Boulder, Colorado. He had set fire to himself on the steps of US Supreme Court, Washington DC, on 22 April 2022 – a date that has marked Earth Day since 1970. His father and his friends insist that this (nearly) silent, violent act was an attempt to give everything he had in the service of repairing the damage of climate change. They said that he had made a sacrifice and that now it was more urgent than ever that the rest of us should use his act to respond to the impending destruction resulting from the way we live now.
As I sat silently chewing my supper and ruminating on the emails at the end of that day, I found myself thinking about train drivers. Then I gravitated towards my computer and prepared myself to write a reply.
I followed my associations: I had found myself thinking about train drivers, tube-train drivers, bus drivers, people who might find themselves suddenly implicated in – or who witness – other people’s suicides. There had been mention in the article of the two police officers who were close at hand when Wynn Bruce set fire to himself – what an ordeal. They tried to douse the fire with water from a nearby fountain. They failed. These are the people, I thought, who might have good cause to ask for a few words to prepare them for the shock of what was coming, or at least a proper space to help them deal with that shock in the aftermath.
As I typed these words into my email to the CPA Forum – literally in the process of addressing the Other via the Google Forum – I quite suddenly realised that this had something to do with me.
My grandfather, Jesse Clough, was a bus driver in London during the Second World War. His daughter, my mother, often told me that ‘a drunk Dutch sailor stepped in front of his bus during the blackout’… and was killed. According to my mother, her father never recovered from his part in this unexpected, unannounced, unwelcome, unplanned tragedy. Nor did he enjoy much in the way of words or spaces to help him process the shock afterwards. He took to his bed and was dead within the year.
It’s a tragedy, though not of the same kind, of course. I want to put some words into the silence that he left.
I think about Thích Quảng Đức. He was the Buddhist monk consumed by fire in Saigon, June 1963. Đức’s act was enmeshed in a structure of knowledge and a tradition of practice. His colleagues were present, ready and willing to support him through the act and they were present afterwards to continue to try to ensure that it retained value in their struggle in its aftermath. It’s what people can do for each other.
I am not a Buddhist monk, and I would definitely not advocate eradicating the subject in favour of an object. As a psychoanalyst, I am on the side of speech. I would underline that we are trying to catch the real that is in the silence of a tragedy in order to redeem its value with new words. We can but put the silence into a place which would cause our desire to produce some kind of future work.
So, thank you to everyone who makes up this Forum. Somehow, we shaped a bit of the unruly real and sparked a conversation. It provoked me to do some work. I am happy for the opportunity to think anew about my grandfather, who had to try to find a way to deal with something real but who had neither enough words nor the right interlocutor nor a safe place available to help him. Today we are taking turns to make the various parts of a discourse operate. If you are reading this essay, you are taking up the function of the Other, and I’m very grateful for that. It helps me to write, and to cope with the horrifying truth that the Other would not otherwise exist.
Janet Rachel is a practising psychoanalyst and a member of the London Society of the New Lacanian School and the World Association of Psychoanalysis. She has published, edited, translated and proofread hundreds of texts within the World Association of Psychoanalysis. In a previous life, she was a sociologist of science and technology.
Image © Robert Montgomery www.robertmontgomery.org/fire-poem