The Fraenkel Gallery recently closed an exhibit by French visual artist Sophie Calle called “My mother, my cat, my father, in that order,” a title that glibly sums up a sequence of deaths in her given and made families. Within the exhibit the artist threads connections to her mother by pulling from her diary. Calle writes:
On December 27, 1986, my mother wrote in
Her diary: ‘My mother died today.’
On March 15, 2006, in turn, I wrote in mine:
‘My mother died today.’
No one will say this about me.
Just like that intergenerational trauma is collapsed into six sentences whose single repeated phrase echoes the famous opening line of Albert Camus’s L’Étranger: “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte,” spoken by a son who has just learned of his mother’s passing. To this day translators still debate the proper translation of Camus’s sentence. They try to puzzle out meaning from its inflection and syntax in futile attempts to bridge the chasm of meaning that gets lost in the translation of language and thought. A conclusion to that decades-old debate seems unlikely, chiefly because grief has a certain ineffability; it remains both elusive and pervasive within the human experience.
It is often said grief has seven stages: shock, denial, anger, bargaining, guilt, depression, acceptance. But anyone who has ever lost someone, who has experienced a presence becoming an absence, will tell you that these stages are not emotional silos but rather constantly overlapping layers. On this reading list, a collection of very talented women writers attempt to piece together their thoughts about the way death bisected their lives into the moments their loved ones were alive, and the moment they weren’t. Their accounts of reckoning with loss share similarities, like the always-painful confrontation of their own mortality, and the messiness of their recovery timelines, which are dotted with attempts to move through grief which is a fog of time and of feeling.