In Camera Lucida (1980) Roland Barthes, the French social and literary critic, uses the Latin term punctum, meaning puncture or wound, “to describe how he feels touched by certain photographs, because of incidental details which trigger emotionally charged personal associations, unrelated to the meaning of photographs as culturally determined.” In one example, he’s moved by a photo of a woman’s necklace which reminds him of one worn by his aunt, and since her death kept in a family box.
I’ve noticed a similar dynamic in everyday occurrences — an event in the street or in nature, a comment someone makes in conversation, a smell or sound that triggers an emotion, or a scene in a text. Have you ever wept watching a movie, attending a wedding, witnessing a traumatic incident? Been moved by looking at a painting? Struck by the sound of a piece of music? What is it that tugs at our heart-strings, touches us deeply? Unless we pay attention — turn inwards to listen — such moments come and go, may get covered up or brushed aside. Each holds the key to a chamber of our compassionate heart, points to a door of our authentic being.
What brought this up? Yesterday’s news from Germany tells of the funeral service for the wife of a former prime minister. Prominent figures from politics and culture mingled with ordinary citizen as the eulogists spoke of their 64-year marriage and the many ways she’d contributed to society. All the while, her husband sat weeping. One photo shows his solitary figure (holding a walking stick) as he follows the procession; to his right another old man, a poet and long-time friend, also in a wheelchair, looks on, hand-in-hand with his wife.
In an instant I saw and felt the aloneness of the bereaved, the heart-rendering shock of losing a life-long companion, the prospect of going on without the beloved. My heart opened to people I’ve met at hospice and to others I knew who’re coping with illness right now. I thought of the people I’d leave behind and how they’d go on without me.
credit: Funeral of Loki Schmidt, wife of former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt. photo: SPIEGEL