Forgive and Die

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On forgiveness Sunday, we might need to remember that forgiveness is deadly, but that without it, human relationships are impossible.


A human being is wandering along the edge of emptiness at the core of herself. Loss of self and emptiness in the place where there supposed to be the subject are prior to the emergence of the subject. Our identity and our life narrative are a substitute fantasy, an attempt to fill this original constitutive void, which, however, can never be substantively filled. The subject begins with nothingness and never essentially becomes someone, she is an eternal nothingness at the base of any of her “somethingess”. When the substitute fantasy ceases to work we get in touch with our primordial loss. This hurts, it is felt negatively as trauma, melancholy, anxiety, or even as suicidal thoughts. To completely coincide with one’s core means to cease existing, to become void. From time to time we fall into our empty core, and if we’re lucky we make our way back to the surface, clinging to the ground of faith in the coherency of identities and meaningfulness of life events.


Since the subject exists as a void only covered by fantasy, it means that genuine relationships between subjects are occurring in the dimension of nothingness. In our everyday perception we tend to see relationships as a positive project, that is, as, ideally, a harmonious non-conflict compliance that excludes suffering. In contrast to this comprehension, the psychoanalytic-existential perspective allows recognizing voids and ruptures as constitutive to relationships. Social bonds and love are not positively constituted, but rather negatively. Relationships are only complimented by the fantasy that there are no ruptures and constitutive emptiness to them. Even in the most seemingly harmonious relationships, the background of emptiness sometimes glimmers through fantasy, making the latter transparent. This happens during quarrels and arguments when harmony is exposed as an illusion.


Genuine love and relationships are not relationships at the level of fantasy that cover the constitutive emptiness, but at the level of emptiness itself. Such relationships are not based on positive fantasy, they are fundamentally opposite to the idea of harmonious merging.


According to Duane Rousselle, real love does not cover up original loss and does not seek to fill it in. Instead, it is akin to this loss itself [1]. Thus, it directly coincides with the fundamental deficiency of being. Emptiness is the original substance of love, when we are in a love relationship, we essentially have nothing to share except loss, the primordial wound of existence.


By virtue of affinity with emptiness, real love is able to hold the other as such, in the instance where the other genuinely exists – in her constitutive emptiness. Real love is not in a confrontation with emptiness but allows it to exist, gives it space. It embraces the emptiness, which is the real substance of the other. Such love means acceptance and respect in the instance of confusion concerning who we are.


Love is akin to tragedy, evil, death, and trauma. Just like the complete coincidence with the negative essence of oneself is experienced as psychological trauma and destroys a subject, complete coincidence with the genuine, that is, the negative core of love is even more destructive. It entails the annihilation of love itself and of all those involved in it. What common sense considers an acceptable form of love, in reality, is suicide and mutual destruction merely covered up with a fantasy of harmony and unity.


It is not fashionable now to argue in favour of forgiveness. Forgiveness is considered a relic of Christian ethics that promotes resignation and inaction. Theframework of cancel culture requires the opposite moral position – not to forgive, not to forget, publicly expose. Cancel culture aims to expel from society instead of including in it. Although this trend may seem negative (due to its focus on exclusion), it is positive at its core. It embodies the fantasy of a possible harmonious society. Those who are considered unfit are expelled in order to form a perfectly harmonious society of those who fit. The problem is that potentially everyone is excluded. Such positive projects were always necessarily present in the history of society since they helped it to function. However, they also ultimately fail because they are based on an illusion of possible absolute harmony and integrity. The positive project of Christianity offered the harmonious reunification of people in heaven; the utopian fantasy of communism is the idea of ​​a harmonious egalitarian and just society; the positive fantasy of a psychologized society offers a project of trauma-free coexistence of psychologically healthy people. Each of these fantasies embodies a way of disregarding the negative side of human relationships. To put it differently, these projects are ways of ignoring evil as a structural part of human existence, they locate evil in a certain phenomenon, group of people, historical event or disorder, cherishing the hope that evil can be conquered once its source is destroyed. Evil in such a perspective is not structural and absolute, but something originally foreign to a human being, which means that it can be alienated, removed from humanity – by excluding the wrong people, purifying a person from sin, surpassing capitalism, or curing psychological disorders.


A negative alternative to positive fantasy as a way of maintaining human relationships is forgiveness. Fantasy presupposes belief in the possibility of harmonious and non-traumatic relationships. It does not recognize their traumatic essence and their constitutive negative side. Forgiveness, on the other hand, is the opposite of fantasy. It is akin to ruptures that constitute relationships.


By coinciding with rupture and nullity forgiveness presupposes a sincere acceptance of what is unacceptable in the other. Forgiveness does not resort to justifying fantasy. It comes from the clear recognition of the horror that the other and the relationships with them are. It does not serve as a shelter fantasy to hide from the other and their evil. It is a way to accept the other, to accept in her nullity, her rupture, her non-coincidence with herself, and not in a positive fantasy about her, which is really a way of not seeing her and by this tolerating her.


Forgiveness does not destroy or banish the other by bringing in the defence fantasy that there are good people and bad people (which must be cancelled), or that there are good qualities in people and bad ones (which must be corrected or tolerated). Forgiveness refrains from revenge, it does not aim to eliminate a person, assuming that evil resides in this particular person and their elimination or exclusion from society will resolve evil. Unlike forgiveness, revenge is a positive hopeful project that aims to eliminate evil along with its source assigned by fantasy: a certain person or a certain phenomenon. Forgiveness disrupts this positive process.


Being akin to the negative essence of love, forgiveness involves destruction, however, in a different way than a positive project. Forgiveness destroys gently, not aggressively. Revenge and forgiveness are different modes of destruction. Revenge annihilates, while forgiveness substitutes the actual murder of the other with an in-life mutual dying. Forgiveness is the art of enduring the devastating nothingness of the other and oneself. It is in that space — of mutual and self-destruction — where we genuinely meet the other. The destructiveness of forgiveness entails the coincidence of one’s own nullity with the nullity of another.


We call evil something that is incomprehensible and therefore unacceptable in the other. It denotes a rupture in our understanding and ability to accept them. The other who is found to be evil no longer corresponds to our comforting fantasy about her and does not coincide with the way we believed her to be. This is a situation where we could not imagine that one is capable of such a deed, when one wants to ask “how could you?”. To forgive means to accept evil, to acceptthe other in her rupture with herself, in her emptiness, and incomprehensibility. To accept the real her – dangerous and evil.


People confronted with accusations of being evil, no matter the evidence, tend to defend themselves by denying the accusations. This is annoying, it seems they are deliberately lying, but in reality, they may sincerely not recognize that they did something wrong. Denial is a defensive reaction that the psyche resorts to when an important other is disappointed in their positive fantasy about the accused. If this fantasy is an exhaustive foundation of a relationship, admitting that the other does not correspond to it is fatal to the relationship as well as to the one who is exposed to be evil.


Forgiveness allows acceptance of the other at the level of her empty core, her essential negativity that precedes any positive fantasy. Forgiveness helps to accept the other in the emptiness of her evilness and makes her repentance possible – it creates an empty space that does not require justifications and conditions, a space for accepting oneself in one’s insignificance, in one’s non-coincidence with oneself. Forgiveness means accepting the other in her genuineness, that is, in her nullity. It involves an immersion into a space where she will not be rejected in her coincides with the emptiness of herself.


Forgiveness does not improve either the one who forgives or the one who is forgiven or the relationship between them. Forgiveness does not allow the forgiven person to start afresh and does not resurrect dead relationships to new life. It rather accepts the other and relationships in their tragic essence – as the living dead. It does not make us more alive, and our relationships stronger, it makes us even more fragile in their deadness. At the same time, there is nothing that could sustain, or rather withstand a relationship, except forgiveness. Forgiveness is not a way to reconnect with the other and yourself, but rather a way to embrace the void between the mismatched pieces. Forgiveness resigns oneself to the wound that others inflict. We do not heal this wound with forgiveness, but accept it as our own, identify ourselves with this wound, and continue to exist in the form of this painful wound.


Kristeva speaks about forgiveness as a timeless space that exists outside of the coherency of events, “Forgiveness is ahistorical. It breaks the concatenation of causes and effects, crimes and punishment, it stays the time of actions. A strange space opens up in a timelessness that is not one of the primitive unconscious, desiring and murderous, but its counterpart — its sublimation with full knowledge of the facts, a loving harmony that is aware of its violence but accommodates them, elsewhere. Confronted with that stay of time and actions within the timelessness of forgiving, we understand those who believe that God alone can forgive” [2].


The hollow space of forgiveness allows us to notice and recognize human sorrow and suffering, it does not cover them with comforting or justifying fantasy. Having mastered the art of forgiveness, that is, having learned to endure our own emptiness and suffering, we turn into an expanding black hole that is capable of containing not only our own suffering and evil but also the suffering and evil of others. We learn to die not only our own but also someone else’s death. This does not mean the ability to accept others in your heart, but rather the ability to embrace them with your emptiness, with the insignificance of yourself the insignificance of others.

[1] Rousselle, Duane. 2021. Real Love: Essays on Psychoanalysis, Religion, Society by Duane Rousselle, Atropos Press.

[2] Kristeva, Julia. 1992. Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia. Trans. L. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, P. 200