In Memoriam By Alfred Lord Tennyson And Camera Lucida By Roland Barthes: An Issue Of The Impact Of Absence On Meaning

How does ‘absence’ affect meaning? In order to answer this question, we must look closely at the relationship between vision and absence. Vision is determined by the presence of an object being viewed and the physical distance of the viewed from the viewer. When an object is too far, it lies beyond the line of sight. On the contrary, when an object is too close to one’s eye, it cannot be captured wholly. Thus, an object can only be seen when it is placed in a certain spatial range. What happens when the object that is the subject of discourse is absent? Is the relationship between physical absence and vision analogous to the relationship between ‘absence’ and meaning? In other words, is the construction of meaning (and its expression) affected by ‘absence’ of that which is being talked about? Moreover, how does vision — which is directly affected by absence — affect meaning? This paper aims at answering the above questions while looking at Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam and Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida.

When I say analogous, I mean, just as a physical object is not seen when it is out of the line of sight, the meaning of a subject is not grasped when it remains ‘absent’. We never ‘see’ the subject, but visions of the subject through the eyes of the poet/author. In Memoriam deals with the catalytic event of the death of Arthur Hallam. How does Tennyson and the poem deal with Hallam’s absence? While Tennyson is determined not to be the “fool of loss”, the poem is straddled with a certain crisis of language. This inadequacy of language to articulate both, his love and grief is what marks the nature of absence. Barthes’ Camera Lucida discusses at length the Winter Garden Photograph, in an attempt at (re)discovering his dead mother. He only recognizes her “in fragments, which is to say that he missed her being, and therefore he missed her altogether. ” The process of understanding what constitutes the thread that draws him to photography is how he pieces together absence. Absence has in it, the trace of a presence. The irreducibility of that presence is what marks the poignance of its absence. From Tennyson’s expression of Hallam’s absence, it seems as though his desire to fill that absence stems from the longing to ‘see’ Hallam. Though vision is obstructed by the distance between Tennyson and Hallam, he manages to (en)vision him through a “use in measured language”. He acknowledges the fact that “knowledge is of things we see” but goes on to imagine the wonderful life they might have had together. Resorting to mental conjuring as a response to Hallam’s absence, he says, “I make a picture in the brain/I hear the sentence that he speaks”. In the next few lines, he balances these simulations of presence by recognizing that their “lives are so far apart they cannot hear each other speak”. They are “far apart” not just in terms of literal physical distance but placed at a symbolic distance that persists. This distance prevents not just their (re)union but any possibility of Tennyson feeling a sense of wholeness. Barthes’ obsession with “finding” his mother arises from a similar shattering of what was once a whole. But how does one locate presence? Or locate absence? While looking at old photographs, Barthes acknowledges that there is something misplaced in this idea of identification, for it is never ‘quite’ his mother he sees. In the literal sense, he holds the flat rectangular piece of paper in his hands, but views depths of meaning in it. What do these surfaces reflect, and how do they make depth invisible? He goes on to say, “it was not she, and yet it was no one else. ” How does one bridge the distance that absence creates, and fabricate meaning from fragments one encounters?

To think about the ways in which Tennyson resorts to constructing meaning from fragments, it would be useful to draw on Barthes’ use of dreams. Barthes struggles to find a “just” image of his mother, as his grief wanted to achieve the impossible science of the unique being. He looks for an essence of a photograph that would do justice in “finding” his mother, thus performing the laborious task of striving towards an essence of her identity. He says, “I often dream about her (I dream only about her)” (Barthes, 66). He only ends up dreaming about her, and not ‘her’. The almost that he reaches while identifying her, stating “that’s almost the way she was!” posits a certain incompletion. Dreams are employed to complete this almost, but paradoxically end up being the dream’s disappointing status. In an attempt at consolidating an almost, we reach only an almost — almost resembling the structure of language. The order of language operates as an unending chain of signifiers. A signifier does its job of pointing to another signifier; failing to reach a signified. He knew it is she yet could not see her. Tennyson’s commentary is interspersed with sleep, dreams and trance-like interruptions. One who is alive cannot possibly know what lies after death, and the dead have no tangible access to the living. Dreams are canvassed as a possible way of entering this realm of the unknown quality of death. At first, Tennyson yields with little reluctance to “shadowy thoroughfares of thought”. Then, perhaps owing to his growing consciousness to the agony of dreams but the space that they provide to complete the almost(s), he calls sleep “kinsman…to death and trance” and celebrates it as an authentic mode of vision. The most intense moment of vision takes place in the climax of section ninety-five, by Hallam’s return from the dead. Tennyson enters a “trance” while rereading Hallam’s letters, characteristically engendered by “silent-speaking words”. The trance is broken by “vague words” and Tennyson’s language collapses in abstraction as he tries expressing the inexpressible. The heart’s “I have felt” makes it clear that “truth in closest words shall fail”. Though he finds some relief in dreams, the ‘imagined’ touch of Hallam’s hand provides no real satisfaction and his urge for “knowledge” persists. But in dreams, does one see, or does one know? Much like Barthes’ Winter Garden Photograph, Tennyson too presents us an image that is “partially true, and therefore totally false. ”

Epistemic distance arises in reader because we know little of Hallam, like we know little of Barthes’ mother. Taking off from where we left about the unknown quality of death, Tennyson credits death with filling his present in a peculiar way. Death matures Tennyson’s love for Hallam, all at once. Love that would’ve grown gradually if Hallam were alive, reaches “sudden” “ripeness”. This admission comes forth in a concealed manner. What is in death (which is ideally a loss), that makes Tennyson feel like he has gained something? How does death contain this loss while simultaneously becoming a positive entity? The poet says he has profited from his friend’s death, for it has thrusted him into an intense love that his previous self would be incapable of feeling. Death’s ability of compressing and gathering of experiences is addressed in section eighty-one. This unexplored potency to arouse emotions that were unthinkable during the living is how “Death returns an answer sweet”. Death thus, becomes a positive entity, or one that aids in extracting a positive meaning. This meaning being a higher understanding of love as a concept and humans as vessels containing the potential to harness this immense love. This serves to be an appropriate example of how absence creates meaning. Hallam’s death gives Tennyson a truer meaning of love; or a fuller meaning of it. He is able to comprehend love better after suffering this loss. Our investment in anything reveals something about who we are. Barthes’ investment in going through his mother’s photographs after her death makes us question who he is without her? What is it that he is tied to? What is in his attachment to his mother that is part of what composes him? Submitting to a transformation that death brings about, Barthes realizes that Death is the punctum that drives him to write Camera Lucida. While looking at the Winter Garden Photograph, he says, “I gave myself up to the Image”.

If the photograph of his mother as a child bears the trace of her subsequent death, it is certainly because, at the time in which Barthes finds and views it, she is dead. He can only view this photograph through the lens of this death. He then notices, that depth becomes a property of the image and invisibility becomes essential to the way we conceive depth. If the image ‘contains’ the self that he looks for (an essence of his mother), it also projects the self to a surface. This anxiety of projection of the self onto a surface is what prevents Barthes from reproducing the Winter Garden Photograph for us. It consists of a depth that remains invisible to the reader for it is a punctum only to Barthes. For us, it shall remain “ordinary”. This photograph leads him to read his death not only in relation to that of his mother, but in relation to the death that is announced in every photograph. Death thus, brings about Barthes’ understanding of the “originality of suffering” and makes him experience ‘reading’ a photograph of the dead and reading death in a photograph. When looking at what gives life to both these texts of death, we are pointed to one answer — memories. There is something special about a telling of a memory. It is a retelling that plunges one into a past experience, making it a lived reality. How is the teller’s/reader’s experience then categorized?

By looking at experience as a concept, it tends our thought to move towards understanding experience as having a kind of structural wholeness or unity. However, this leads us to assessing experience through the lens of completion and incompletion. The affective is imbibed with a force that is brought to the forefront by memories. Memories are affective in their pursuit of locating the cause of affect. This shaping of memories with haphazard drawing of boundaries accompanies feelings of possession and loss, presence and absence at the same instant. Memory first provides a certain satisfaction through its effect on the poet’s imagination, while simultaneously making him overly self-conscious about his art. This makes Tennyson lament his inability to verbalize the visions that are evoked in him and the failure of “fitting aptest words to things”. He doubts the capability of language to truly communicate at all and fears that words are somehow out of his control. In Memoriam thus, mimics the nature of words of “half revealing and half concealing”. The poem, we might as well say, is as much an elegy for language as for Hallam, as Tennyson’s faith in language reaches its lowest ebb. Memories and meaning are “given in outline and no more”. We view a text as giving meaning to the reader through the channeling of information through words. This is a way of thinking that develops a binary relationship between the assemblage of words and the experience of the reader. While binaries assume distance through their polarity, this binary conflates the two ends. Tennyson’s anxiety in words propagates the same anxiety in his reader regarding both, his words and the ‘word’ in general. For Barthes, memory is more intrinsically related to the functioning of the punctum and not always the photograph as a whole. The punctum is “what I add to the photograph and what is nonetheless already there. ” This causes temporal dissymmetry between what “is”, or more precisely “was” already there. Sometimes a punctum is revealed only in the memory of a photograph, at a time when it no longer is in front of you. One may also ‘remember’ a photograph more than a photograph than one is currently looking at. How is memory shaping meaning here? For Barthes, the photograph, in essence, is never a memory. “It actually blocks memory, quickly becomes a counter-memory. ”

By this, we come to understand how counter-memory thwarts our comprehension of experience as a structural whole. For example, when grandparents tell us stories of our childhood and support their stories with photographs, they bring to surface no real memories, but only an outline. When no punctum strikes out to the viewer, meaning resides outside the photographfootnoteRef:4 and that of memory. Another manner in which memory works for Barthes in the fragmentary nature of his attempts at “recognizing” his mother. He says, “I recognized a region of her face, a certain relation of nose and forehead”. He deduces the above from memories of his mother, though nothing of it really exists in the photo. What he relates to, is something from a shared past (of him and his mother) applied to a past that he has no access to. This fallibility of ‘meaning’ in relation to memories seems inevitable. Meaning thus lies somewhere beyond language for Tennyson, and beyond the Image for Barthes. Like the punctum By studying the little girl in the Winter Garden Photograph, Barthes rediscovers his mother (thus forming meaning) but in a fashion that lies outside the photograph. The distinctness of her face in the photograph comes from that which is experienced by Barthes when she was alive — not something that is inherent in the photograph itself. Language is the false hope that leads to the deceptive impossibility of Tennyson’s quest for Hallam. Though he attempts to express his grief through the “poor flower of poesy” he remains unable to do so. The question remains, “did I recognize”?

Both Tennyson and Barthes tussle with recognizing the wave of emotions that the absence of a loved one brings. The relationship between the viewer and the viewed hinges on physical distance but also a distance in “knowledge” and complete “realization”. Text and photographs become a promise of something that is not necessarily fulfilled yet remain full of potential. Meaning is kept at bay, outside the line of sight, but at the back of one’s mind. What lies beyond meaning? Meaning remains absent and absence creates meaning. The (dys)function of meaning is precisely its function.

15 Jun 2020
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