Penthos

 

My aim within this written work was to personify grief, drawing on relevant studies concerning bereavement and photographic theory. Through personal experience, the work not only explores the effects of grief through association of varied sources, but also complements the topics covered in previous academic essays. Leaning towards the current phenomenon of writing about the subject of photography, in a style that is highly personalised, whilst being informed and influenced by critical texts, the work is a personal realisation and understanding of grief, and of the emotional consequences of loss. 

 

PENTHOS

Why do you fail to acknowledge me?

I have entered people’s minds either briefly, or at times, remaining indefinitely. Within shadow or light, my grasp is everywhere, in all you see and do, within the air you breathe, silently I wait, until unknowingly invited, at which point nothing can control or cure my presence. You persist in searching for that which has gone. In your frailty, I thrive. Are you unaware that your actions quench my thirst allowing me to prevent any normal existence, forcing you down into the depths of darkness, despair and pain, removing hope and future? I am relentless, the ruination of many, without remorse or mercy. There is no hope of vanquishing the suffering I purposely bestow; with unvoiced acquiescence, you allow me in. At my pleasure, I plague your very being. Fear is my home, the soul my playground; you - and you alone - fashion me, nurture without knowing my intent to drag your spirit. Feasting on man’s weakness, I will haunt you to the marrow; I am everything and everywhere, you cannot contain or rid of me. I shall ruin you and torture you, to satisfy and gratify myself.  

Who am I, you ask? 

You know of me. 

I am Penthos. I am Grief.

Persistently with diligence, I fill the barrel you scrape, overflowing its brim with pitiless penance. Tenaciously, I guide my desired quarry towards deprivation, the ledge of oblivion, into the sights of utter despair. Yet I still fail to achieve the status or receive the accolade, which I feel my efforts merit and, here, lies my gripe. You fail to recognise me, mistake my work as the result or consequence of others, belittling my presence, substituting it for what you call a darker power. This lack of affirmation only angers me more, pushing me to toil harder. The shadow I live beneath is perpetual. Everything I do, you seem to associate and place blame upon another - blame I want (At least then I would have a voice of sorts, I might feel some degree of respect).

And, who is this heroic individual who constantly claims my art as his own? Even now you cannot name him, for fear of the inevitable. It is Thanatos, Death, the Grim Reaper, or any other name you create, to further promote his presence. Can you not see that I am the one who finishes his work, carries it on? It is I who spreads what he begins, disseminates within the circles of relatives and friends. It is I who never stops, who incessantly tortures. 

It is I - not Death, but Grief.

Let me tell you, Death has a twin brother; his name Hypnos, which means sleep. Together they collaborate, making the process as gentle as possible. (Death doesn’t even work alone, unlike me who has to endure my thankless tasks unescorted; and gentle, I refuse to be). I must feel some pride though, in your attempts to identify me. I have been broken down into various elements, enhancing my quest to be an enigma of sorts.  Anger, denial, bargaining, depression, acceptance, these are what you suggest I consist of, however, of these I must confess, that the latter two are something you achieve: your own traits. I do not wish to be given credit for such weaknesses. My unsolicited embrace, extorts sentience until you feel anesthetised to emotion. On occasion you may well slip through my clasp, but never can you defeat me, I never retire. Death, may well be unavoidable, yet, I am inevitable and continual. Therefore equal, if not stronger than Thanatos. In proclaiming this, I am not being arrogant, merely trying to point out the obvious; Death’s work is complete within a moment. Once you’re dead - you’re dead. Death doesn’t prolong, return or repeat, that’s it finished, and he’s on with the next. Death is a state, whereas I like to consider myself more a process. It has been questioned as to whether I am a disease, due to the functional impairment experienced by my quarry. Disease can be cured, yet with me although a sense of remission is felt, very rarely is it complete. You could call me a virus, a form of herpes, finding solace deep inside, until I feel the urge to toy with your emotions once again. 

Death has no other purpose than to take (your assumption that I begin where he finishes annoys). I strive to deride his work. You consider me a response to Death, a result of what follows that ‘gentle’ departure, and so I found a way to precede Thanatos. In my search to cast shadows over vulnerable individuals, I found that you are weak, even when leading up to Death’s pathetic finale. Permanently stationed at the bedside of a dying companion, you attempt to console the irreversible trajectory toward Death’s arrival; focused, yet unaware of your own fate, you grow infirm, become susceptible, allowing me to creep in without immunity, beginning early what logic dictates should happen later. I enjoy this appetizer to the main event, it gives me time to loosen the soul from its roots, delight as its dependence grows towards me. Dependent; a word I never thought I would claim association to, but it seems that in some of you, I become a necessity: you crave continuance, seeing me as a replacement for the loss, a surrogate for Death, and in accepting his work as final, you consider a disloyalty toward the deceased. Complicated and normal grief, what are these unjustified characteristics you place on me? It cannot be determined or decided what you suffer. I choose and if you’re weak I flourish. If Elpis, my twisted sibling Hope, creeps in behind my back, then for me boredom ensues. Her pointless optimistic patter grinds my bones, I cannot stand to hear her soft voice, she can have you. But, still, it is I who decides. You have no choice.

My family is huge, so huge in fact I fail to remember who’s who, and what its purpose is within your world. Let us start from before the very beginning, before man, before gods; there was nothing but Chaos. This dark mass saw the emergence of the elements - Earth, Air, Sea - along with my grandfather Erebus god of darkness, and Nyx the goddess of night. Together they produced the first of the primordial gods, the dark gods of the underworld, Oizy, Geras, Momus, Nemisis, Lyssa, Hecate and - of course - Thanatos, who between them became the personifications of all you dread: old age, distress, vengeance, blame, worry and Death. The siblings were by all accounts very close, their deeds and intentions seemed to mirror each other, and all worked well together. As time moved on Nyx’s daughter Gaie produced many siblings, of them I eventually appeared, feeble, weak and slightly different. When I say ‘different’, I mean physically my form was unlike the others, and so I was mocked: a cripple, an outcast. I blame my mother for this. Her many relationships produced some interesting offspring, one being Kyclopes the orb eyed giants, who at birth were considered a threat by their father, and so were thrown into the darkest depths of the underworlds cavern Tartarus, only to be released in order to help over throw him, and then cast back, yet again by Cronus, father of Zeus. It’s no surprise then that after producing such varied species of siblings, I unfortunately inherited a few wrong genes, offering some explanation towards my disfigurement. Thanatos however, was perfect, one of the benevolent daimon’s originally seen in the guise of a hirsute man, altering his appearance later, to that of a young, handsome, un-bearded man, holding an upturned extinguished torch surrounded by a wreath of butterflies; butterflies, such a dolt! His brother, equally as handsome, never left his side; the two of them were indistinguishable. Everything about him - looks, his work, reputation annoys me. Yet he only deals with the gentle side of Death. I’m sure you all assumed he was responsible for everything? Let me tell you, his sisters the Keres, ruthless virulent, fanged women, dressed in bloodstained clothes did all the dirty work. Responsible for the violent deaths, battles, ravaging disease and so on; don’t expect to see the glorious Thanatos in these types of situations. I think he felt it below him, but ultimately it was merely vanity, a refusal to get his hands filthy. Proof of this lies in the fact he never actually delivered a soul to the underworld. It was Hermes, carrying them down: not Death, the indolent sloth.

We were all born to the underworld, in time each gained his/her place amongst the shadows of Hades’ palace. Hades favoured the spirits who brought him souls and, therefore, Thanatos, his sisters and brother Charon (the ferryman, responsible for delivering souls across the river Styx) sat quite highly in his estimations. Each travelled freely from this world to the next, apart from Charon, who was required to uphold a permanent posting, giving them presence, an identity, seen by Hades, and recognized for their work. As for me, during the delegation of personifications, my limp, causing me to arrive late, left only the paltry role of Grief. Attempting to appear obliged, gratefully I accepted, without comprehension, hobbling back down to the underworld. On arrival Charon refused to ferry me across the Styx, no longer was I needed amongst the dead souls. I was destined, instead, to exist in the company of the living. Conceited and arrogant, Thanatos watched on, as I made my sullen march to the surface. And, this is how I ended up amid your sorry masses. 

The order of things is that Thanatos, the Keres and even Hermes come to the surface only when needed. Work completed, they return; whereas I am now stuck, forced to remain. It feels empty, wandering, searching and waiting for something to do, and so I devised an alternative approach. From being amongst you for so many years, I have come to understand that every life story is a potential grief story, if not at first, then later. If married, I wait for one or the other, if lucky I get both. Yet waiting for these tragedies becomes mundane, and so analysing your routines, I noticed another weakness within your disposition, of which advantage could be taken. Youth is something that leaves all of us (well unless you’re Thanatos) as do opportunities and, of course, functional abilities as age creeps in. When the gods were immortalised, huge white statues were erected, towering visual reminders of the heavens. You however have a new invention, a box, that to my knowledge, transfers what’s seen in front of it onto paper: an eikon. Stupidly, you fail to see what’s really there; claiming the stillness and silence of this resemblance are metaphors for Death himself. Infuriatingly, the process has also been referred to as Thanatology, highlighting your ignorance, again paying homage to Thanatos. Keeping these representations, as Hades hoards souls, you treasure the memories and depictions, not only of loved ones, but also of yourself. Maintaining the process has links to death, suggesting the moment has been scraped from the living world into another time, erasing its future. I can assure you, we have no cavern of such moments down below, no prison keeping these memories captive. They do not stroll the idyllic fields of Elysium, having drunk from the Lethe so as to forget all their troubles. Death is the Eidos of this process, what you see; your claim not mine; the eikon preserves the memory of a dead moment, dead relatives. But, my mere mortals, you are all so very wrong and blind.

You make comparisons to the mirror, claiming the stillness of the eikon, reveals more faithfully the ageing process, as opposed to reflection, which portrays change in appearance daily, unnoticed. How foolish, if you stare into a mirror long enough, you will see Thanatos at work, you will eventually end. And, although it pains me to say as much, it is his work not mine. However, to claim some reward, it seems I must educate you. Those eikons, held so dearly to your breast, memories of the departed, of youth, which have been snatched from time, do not contain Death, you cannot see Death; neither touch it nor preserve it. What you see when you gaze upon these spectres, is not actually visual, but emotional, what you see is predominantly felt, and that which you feel is me, Penthos. You cannot see, or feel, the death of time; you grieve for it as memory, yearning and longing for its return. Even when the image is of the dead, it is still Grief you see - a desire to retrieve, that which has gone. 

All of this is I, Penthos, expanding my reach to fill the days, to torture, even when Death has no involvement, to outsmart and outshine Thanatos. 

Eikons have provided me over the years, a new point of entry into your consciousness. As I mentioned, my sibling Elpis, has at times interrupted what I create; her soothing caress calms the madness, restricting my access to cause further harm, and for no other reason than she cares. Yet I have found new ways to pierce your thoughts, dragging up the torment where I left off as if nothing had changed. You have been clever enough to identify the crevice from which I leap, but not sufficiently astute to recognize me. With dexterity, unlike Thanatos, I award each of you a personal, individual experience, not once replicated. And it’s through these representations of the past that I conceal my gift - an arrow of misery, my punctum; visible only, by you. With pride, I observe my carefully disguised dory as it leaps from the page, burrowing deep inside your mind, gouging irremediable wounds, long forgotten scars, placed on previous visits. You see, these eikons do not kill time, do not hold Death. They hold me, sustain my work, preserve my incisions. They embrace my torment tease my return; and, all personally for you. Thanatos, has no such finesse or consideration. 

Within these eikons, you cannot experience that which is lost, yet desperately you attempt to retrieve emotionally, to seek what lies beyond the visual. The primordial displacement of the look forces you to replace this absence with what cannot be seen; that which you failed to capture within the boundaries of the eikon. It has been written by some that absence of what you desire, the restriction of visual satisfaction, reveals a fetish, and I’d like to associate myself with particular fascination.  The reality you failed to capture outside of the eikon’s boundaries may not be visual, but still exists; albeit, through the guise of emotion. That which is not captured, you say will never be heard or seen again, foolishly identifying, as yet another Death. But, it still remains, if only out of sight. Death hasn’t claimed this moment of time, it’s just no longer visual. It’s a memory you crave, and in my generosity I offer my sorrow. Your fetish is nothing more than Grief.

Do not for one minute think you can just turn these eikons face down; if you attempt to block my access I will only appear by other means. My wrath is omnipresent. I exist infinitely without invitation, without warning. Does Death warrant this acclaim? Your minds, so very primitive conceal events, unconsciously hidden from thought, repressed memories as a means to forget, whilst consciously suppressing others you actively mean to avoid.  This is no defense against me, even on the brightest of days, I can appear, piercing your mind. Within archeology, you constantly attempt to unearth, and disturb my origins; I return this intrusion with angst. Your minds are merely stratas yielding memories and associations, concealed like treasure. Once I unearth these gems, pull from the depths of your unconsciousness, again I begin my torment. The source of my pain lies in everything: places you remember, objects of meaningless value, the mundanity of your existence. This is my strength, you cannot decide where I surface, bolt your doors, and, still, I move in closer. I do not need keys or permission, I simply appear. Death, only wishes he had my access, his invitation always follows one of his sibling’s initial work.

I do not ask for recognition, I demand it. I seethe, becoming enraged with fury, at the continual ignorance you show. Everything you associate with loss, you associate with Death. Anything that goes astray or slips from view, you give to Thanatos. Yet he doesn’t care for you as I do, doesn’t push his task further to award you more than you ask. I give my all, allowing you to suffer, for as long as I feel you need; enable memories to appear unexpectedly, test your strength and emotions for pleasure. Through me you are forced to search, your desires grow. I marvel as I watch the so-called mediums, dragging muslin from their nostrils, claiming to have reached your deceased. These are the rare occasions I smile. It’s all a hoax, a Trojan Horse, planted to gain access inside your head. Yet I make you believe. I remove clear thought allowing imagination to replace truth. When you mistake a stranger’s physiognomy for that of the dead, they are merely arrows, punctums I place around you; apparitions of which, only Grief allows you to see.

A story, of which you all know, is that of Orpheus, the most famous poet and musician to have ever lived. On losing his wife Eurydice to a serpent’s venom, Thanatos quickly pounced; instantly he took her to Hermes, who hurried her down to Charon. Grief stricken, and with an indescribable longing to be reunited with his love, Orpheus fell into a state of despair. Furtively I decided to offer a little assistance, concentrating my efforts on the mind of Orpheus, causing immense desires to find his wife so that he ventured down to the depths of the underworld where no living soul had ever dared travel. In truth, I felt this might offer for me, a little vengeance against Thanatos, for his lack of respect. On arrival, Orpheus charmed all in his path, Charon, Cerebus (the savage mutt, guardian to the gates of the underworld), the three judges and finally Hades himself. Reunited with Eurydice, Orpheus was granted permission to take her back to the living world on the premise that he avoided her glance, until both had left the underworld. I had undone Death’s work, defeated him. But, foolishly Orpheus, all to eager to look into Eurydice’s eyes, glanced before instructed and she was swallowed back into Hades’ grasp. Thanatos, for a brief moment, was belittled, yet Orpheus’ failure was a consequence of my own error. It was I who tormented Orpheus so acutely that he craved to search deeper than any living soul had ever dared. It was I who gnawed so intensely at his reasoning, making all in his path appear unimportant. And, it was I whose intense longing, planted deep inside his head, caused him to glance round before time.

Even in my failure I affect minds, causing torment, despair, desperation and longing. Poor judgment, lack of morals, maladjusted behavior is all, as a result of my touch not Death’s, not Thanatos’.

I despise his swiftness, abhor his soft approach, it is I who should be identified, commended and remembered in one’s agony. It is I, far more powerful, ever more present and constant. 

It is I, Grief.   

Why, then, do you fail to recognize me, Penthos?   

 

  

 

 

Bibliography /Annotated Bibliography

  • Alighieri, D. (2006). The Divine Comedy. 13th ed. Translation Kirkpatrick, R. Great Britain: Penguin Classics.
  • Barnes, J. (2013) ‘Levels of Life’ 1st ed. Great Britain: Vintage. 

Julian Barnes ‘Levels of Life’ a mix of both essay and memoir, explores not only the pain felt following the death of a loved one, but also focuses on the continual suffering which follows. Barnes reveals grief, not as an analytical discussion, but from a personal, rather everyday mundane view. Reminders and memories of his wife lie in the most inanimate of objects; friends and family with their kindhearted gestures unearth other reminders, adding to the continual suffering of which he endures. Barnes succeeds in identifying how grief is uncontrollable, incomprehensible, perpetual and yet very personal. In writing the following "The fact that someone is dead may mean that they are not alive, but doesn't mean that they do not exist." (Barnes, 2013:102) Barnes attempts to soothe his grief through a denial and re- evaluation of what it means to lose somebody close.

  • Barthes, R (1980). Camera Lucida. 4th ed. Great Britain: vintage. 

The overall thread within Camera Lucida seems to be a determination in identifying a refreshed visual awareness by means of photography. Its permeating influence is presence, absence and mortality, investigative into the very essence of photography, human consciousness and the search for true meaning. Not an attempt to explain photography as a whole, but identify what it means within itself. The book attaches itself to the emotion and subjectivity felt through this medium. Barthes continuing sorrow is evident throughout as he searches for conclusions, which seem to elude his reach forcing him to seek deeper for what he desires. ‘In order to see a photograph well, it is best to look away or close your eyes ‘(Barthes 1980:53) highlights the ambiguity of imagery, asking us to look beyond the visual in order to locate and identify an images true intent. Death appears to be Barthes quarry yet it is grief that he unknowingly identifies.

  • Benjamin, W. (1999) ‘Little History of Photography’ In: Totuusradio.fi Vol.2. 1927-1934 [online] At: http://www.totuusradio.fi/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/benjamin-little-history-of-photography.pdf (Accessed on 01.07.15)  
  • Benjamin, W (1932) ‘Excavation of Memory’ In: Selected Writings (1931-1934) ”Ibizan Sequence”, 1932, ed. by Marcus Paul Bullock, Michael William Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith, Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005 (paper), p. 576 

 

  • Boag, S (2010) Repression, Suppression, And Conscious Awareness. In: Psychoanalytic Psychology Vol.27. No. 2 164-181 [Online]At: https://www.academia.edu/1526503/Repression suppression and conscious awareness (Accessed on: 18.06.15)
  • Cloutier, C (2005) ‘Mumlers Ghosts’ In: Cheroux, C. Fischer, A. Apraxine, P. Canguilhem, D. Schmit, S. The Perfect Medium-Photography and The Occult. Paris: Yale University Press. pp 20-29

William Howard Mumler (1832-1884) in 1861 produced a wet plate image, which appeared to depict the apparition of a young girl, and although knowingly aware that it was a result of a double exposure he kept his mistake to himself. This image subsequently published, claiming to be the first photograph to have captured a spirit, altered social beliefs towards the afterlife. During photography’s’ infancy few doubted the cameras ability to record reality far more precisely than the human eye, and this new technology quickly became affiliated with the spiritualist movement of the nineteenth century as a means to substantiate visually the existence of the dead. 

The Perfect Medium explores the occult through a non-opinionated approach, neither suggesting fraud nor truth, showing how this new technology merged effortlessly linking itself alongside our obsession with death. It highlights how we all to easily attach belief into that of which we cannot prove, or refuse to dismiss for fear of losing hope. 

  • Freud, S (1987) A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis. Great Britain: Wordsworth Editions Ltd
  • Graves, R (1955). The Greek Myths. 5th ed. Great Britain: Penguin. 

Robert Graves (1895-1985) Novelist, poet, historian, and critic compiles a definitive compendium of Greek Mythology, which has been regarded as one of the foremost prominent collections published for over fifty years. Graves gives not only the Myths from Greek scripture but includes variants detailed interpretations and full commentaries, further enhancing understanding. His approach lucid and direct enables along with the additional information assimilation within a topic that is fraught with disparity and similarities to other cultures. In particular the Orpheus section provides a clear insight into the origins of the myth, the journey and conclusion of his search for Eurydice and finally the fate that fell upon him. The Myth of Orpheus describes grief and the human primordial instinct to delve deeper into the unknown in search of what one desires. Metaphorically the finale tells of the continual torment in being unable to achieve the impossible, showing how grief and desire can become all encompassing forcing the individual to lose sight of reality.

 

Christian Metz’s (1931-1993) essay suggests strong similarities between photography and the Freudian notion of the fetishism, in that the lack of presence becomes an imaginarily castration of object. He explains that in Freud’s example a young child seeing his mother’s genitalia for the first time becomes anxious towards the realization that not all humans possess the same organs. In covering the absence the mother promotes within the child a primordial displacement of the look, replacing absence with an assumed presence.  Metz suggests that within the medium of photography, the out of frame content relates closely to this example, in that the photographs frame covers the absence, assimilating the images content into both the conscious and unconscious mind.

Metz explores also the photographs relation to death, claiming an image has the capabilities to sustain the notion of past and present, suppressing the appearance of life while all around changes, the image itself has been scraped from time, preserved never to change, where as the outside frame will never be seen or heard, suggesting as, another form of death.  

Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) retells the myth of Orpheus set within the contemporary backdrop of 1950’s Paris. Following the death of his wife, Orpheus enters into the underworld in search of her, however we discover that deaths character has taken Eurydice so that she is able to keep Orpheus solely for herself. The film loosely follows the original Myth, but identifies man’s fascination to death, and also deaths fascination with us; ultimately destined to be united as one. As Orpheus grieves for his wife, he is torn in deciding what it is he desires ‘Is it Eurydice you want to see or Death’ (Orphee: 1950) Failing to answer, eventually it is lack of memory for him and punishment for Death that dissolves their passion.  

Cocteau’s depiction of death, grief, and obsession reveal how the human mind can quickly become socially inept, and detached from reality when caught within the throws of the unknown and emotional turmoil. Mirrors that provide a gateway into an alternative reality cleverly show how near yet predominantly out of reach, that of which we crave answers for actually is.

  • Cocteau, J (1972) ‘Three Screenplays’ Translation Sperry, C. New York: Viking Press.
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  • Pettersson,M (2011)’Depictive Traces: On the Phenomenology of Photography’ In: Academia.edu 69(2)[online] At: https://www.academia.edu/245627/Depictive Traces On the Phenomenology of Photography: (Accessed on : 14.06.15) 
  • Unknown (2009) “Mythology’ At: http://mythology.wikia.com. (Accessed on: 22/05/15)
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  • Unknown (2012) ‘Greek Myths’ At: http://www.ancientmilitary.com/spartan-weapons.htm (Accessed on: 24/05/15)