In James Lasdun’s novel, The Horned Man (Vintage, 2003), the protagonist, a professor of gender studies sinks into paranoia via a series of vividly drawn spatial scenarios: the railway station where he witnesses a colleague’s attentions to a student; his office which he suspects is being occupied at night; outside his therapist’s apartment where he sees her inappropriately dressed; the basement of a boarded-up synagogue where he is confronted by his nemesis, and finally the interior of a small wooden booth in an abandoned fairground which he first saw from the window of a passing train. All this, he decides, is understood via a process of hypercathected reality – ‘the way people under certain kinds of pressure perceive the world: its forms and textures impinging with unnatural forcefulness.’
In Mourning and Melancholia (1915), Freud considers the processing and acceptance of death. He describes hypercathexis as part of the process of mourning where the subject transfers an excessive investment of mental or emotional energy onto an object or idea – investing in one emotion in order to facilitate the repression of another. Through hypercathexis the lost object can be re-invested with the new reality of its absence and the ego can find consolation in a substitute for the lost. The goal of mourning is to restore psychological balance and hence to be able to engage in another experience which involves love (and potential loss) (Karyth Cara).
According to cultural theorist Catherine Belsey (citing Lacan), the appeal of cultural objects – what draws us to art, literature or theatre – is their allusion to loss. In their indication of the lack which characterises the human condition, they evoke desire – ‘we long to fill the gap made by the lack of access to the real with something that would reunite us with the world’. Whilst the signifier offers a way to specify our wishes, it also detaches us from ‘the real’ (our organic continuity with the world from which we have been cut off by language). In naming something in its absence, the signifier takes its place.
Buildings, for example, according to Belsey, ‘are a way of enclosing vacancy, their … surfaces fencing off the absence they both produce and surround …. putting on display … the fact of loss itself.’ Hence, architecture ‘makes emptiness’ by carving ‘out of the continuity of the real a substance that surrounds a lack: where there was previously an organic continuity there is now a material object with nothing at its centre’.
James Lasdun (whose poetry also concerns desire and loss, for example in The Revenant) is the son of Denys Lasdun, architect of the National Theatre, South Bank which has been described as a combination of social commitment and reinforced concrete.
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The Iranian photographer Azadeh Akhlagi restages historical events in Iran and photographs them, drawing on theatrical or cinematic techniques. In particular, she has ‘restaged’ the killings of political activists, intellectuals and artists in Iran during the 1960s and 1970s in the period leading up to the Iranian revolution. The deaths of those ‘who lived peacefully and passed bitterly’ went unnoticed and un-photographed and Akhlagi painstakingly assembles confidential documents, witness reports and newspaper articles in her reconstruction of the moment.
Akhlagi’s narrative techniques are borrowed from cinema (previously she worked as an assistant director to Abbas Kiarostami) and 19th Russian literature ‘particularly scenes involving crowds’. Drawing on the mise-en-scene of Renaissance and Baroque painting and through a close reading of certain scenes in Dostoevsky for example, she applies these insights to her work. Alongside actors, she herself appears in every photograph as the missing ‘eye witness’ – staring at the victim, running towards them or helping them up.
By an Eyewitness (2009-13) is a series of seventeen photographs which depict the deaths of their subjects, which ‘although the exact nature of their deaths can never be known’, Akhlagi spent a long time with the characters ‘in her head’, reading about them and researching their deaths, finding out the weather conditions when they died and other details of the circumstances of their deaths. On exhibiting the work she remarked that ‘people would hug’ her or start crying: ‘it was as if people had never had the chance to mourn these deaths and now, this project and the images in front of them had given them the time and the instrument to release their agony and pain.’ (art radar journal).
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Cathexis, some say is a neologism invented by Freud’s translators for Bestezung (investment) and may be construed as the way in which we invest something with an amplified presence. In Give me Everything You Have (2017), an account of harassment by an ex-student who was writing a novel about the effects on the Iranian revolution on one family, Lasdun reflects on the (initial) vicarious connection he felt to her by way of his father who had a collection of Persian models of buildings and fragments of architecture he had gathered in Iran in the 1960s. Whilst on a train journey to visit the ranch where D.H Lawrence’s lived in New Mexico, Lasdun contemplates his own worth compared to his father (‘At my age he was designing Britain’s National Theatre’).
The narrative shifts to his observations of the man next to him, talking into his mobile phone in ‘Egyptian Arabic, presumably’. Later that night they are woken by ‘federal agents with long, black flashlights’ who demand their IDs – ‘someone in our compartment must have alerted the guard to the presence of suspicious Middle Easterners’.
In Freudian terms, the process of hypercathexis is one of detachment which is brought about through its opposite – the attachment to something else. (In a poem Lasdun had been writing since his father’s death ‘in one way or another airing my grief…’, he likens an invasive red-berried vine in his vegetable garden to his father’s red cheeks). In Lasdun’s book, everything becomes linked in a series of curious recurrences. Like the experience of being stalked where something malign attaches itself to you, threads of attachments (personal, cultural, political, historical) create the fabric of this memoir. But the book also asks if there is something more deeply malign about that ‘solicitously associative manner mimicked so cleverly by online shopping sites … (since you looked at that you may also be interested in this)’ that Lasdun observes – that apparently benign connections ultimately lead to more devastating implications?