Potential Space

by Suzanne Stambaugh, Psy.D., Impulse Staff Writer


Existential terror generally makes a poor subject for casual conversation. I have started at least one argument (and silenced a brunch) by pondering how, from a certain perspective, the best you can hope for in life is to meet your true love, spend your lives together, then one of you dies, and the other waits for death alone. Recently, however, I heard a comedian deliver a two-minute speech on exactly that subject, and he had a whole room full of people laughing about it.

Much has been said in the psychoanalytic literature on the function of humor. Humor has been said to transform unconscious affective meaning while symmetrizing social encounters, such as the analyst-patient relationship. It can help transform the powerlessness and isolation of the paranoid-schizoid position into the welcome ambivalence of the depressive position. It is an adult entrance into a Winnicottian realm of play, and of course it helps us to face the knowledge of our own mortality without being overwhelmed.

Similarly, intimacy and love have been discussed in the literature as a means through which we create existential meaning and seek to transcend the terror of mortality. At the same time, love brings into sharp focus the problem of loss and mourning. (Stephen Mitchell gave a beautiful description of how this problem is solved through Nietzsche's metaphor of sandcastles). When you can embody the tragic position, in which you neither are destroyed by the loss of love nor refuse to love because you know it will be lost in the end, you can participate fully in life, loving, and relinquishing as each season demands.  

So what is the emergent meaning that arises from the representational space created through this triangulation of mortality, love, and humor? Perhaps this fanciful and woefully incomplete script of life, which has the power to both disturb and provoke humorous recognition, can be seen as an illustration of the Lacanian Orders: Mortality is ultimately unimaginable and therefore representative of the Real, while love contains all the illusions of duality and similarity suggestive of the Imaginary. And finally, humor depends upon a shared linguistic structure of meaning, marking it as the Symbolic. In truth, the assignment of the individual elements is debatable, possibly fluid, but perhaps even that is at is should be; to strive for love, to strive for knowledge, and to be content, even amused, with the imperfect results.