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what’s a punctum?

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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. 

  original photo, click to enlarge

    my excerpt

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


9 responses »

  1. Great post — thanks for sharing.

    • glad you found it of interest. please come again. i read your latest post; it reminded me of other sanitized words used in the funeral business: family remembrance centre came to mind, for ‘chapel;’ also interment for ‘burying;’ funeral director for undertaker. peter

  2. hello dear p, it seems to me that what i read here – what you write here – resonates so strongly with me, perhaps because so much of what you share is in alignment with my own journey.

    thank you for the tenderness of these pictures, the glory of 64 years together sitting alone with just memories to sustain it. indeed. what will i or any of us leave behind?

    • what indeed, nancy. the psychiatrist Irvin Yalom writes that it’ll take till 40-50 years after his death, when no one is alive who once knew him, that he’ll be truly dead.

      ps: i came close to your island a while ago, when we had to go from Victoria via Galiano to get to Mayne. See photo at

  3. Thankyou for this, Peter. It reminds me how we can be triggered by something or someone, apparently outside our own intimate lives, to experience our own grief. Indeed this image does that for me.

  4. Pingback: The Good Funeral Guide – The aloneness of the bereaved

  5. your blog brought tears to my eyes.
    going on alone and going on with others.
    a universe full of beings wanting the light.


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