The Call of the Redwing Blackbird: How symbols help us grieve


Using Sigmund Freud’s description of mourning, melancholia and mania, I outlined in my previous papers a comparable theory; many members of global society are suffering from an unresolved, overlapping, arrested kind of “environmental melancholia.”  The melancholia, and the resulting symptoms of mania, is rooted in an inability to properly mourn the ecological deaths around the planet. My last paper drew direct correlation between how investigating the ways in which the human brain deals with melancholic ambivalence (defensive feelings of splitting, detachment and denial of reality) could help foster reparation in those individuals who suffering from environmental melancholia.

In this paper I will address how overcoming environmental melancholia can be achieved by transforming these un-mourned ecological losses by using symbolism as a transformative act. In so doing, the ambivalence is addressed and emotions are transformed into reparation. Furthermore, I believe that the artist, who is versed in symbolism, can play a substantial role in fostering the healing of others by encouraging symbolic, transformative grieving through the artist’s work. In this paper, I will show how my own work intentionally explores this idea by addressing the only grief I could possibly fully comprehend: my own.

Renee Lertzman pointed out that psychology is a useful tool to analyze how the human brain processes distressful information, often resulting in disassociation and splitting (3). She goes on to say that human beings are capable of profound reparation if they can acknowledge feelings of ambivalence surrounding grief and loss. If the object of loss is intangible (like a melting glacier one has never seen, or a distant rainforest frog who is losing its habitat to logging), the loss is abstracted.  Naturally, feelings of ambivalence arise because of wanting to help, feeling helpless, feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of loss, and feeling ineffectual. The space to mourn the situation or object (or frog) does not exist. However, in psychology, if an individual creates a symbol of the lost object, or performs a symbolic act, then even an intangible object and the ambivalent feelings surrounding its loss can be addresses, and one could begin to move through stages of grief (7).

Creative formation of symbols to elaborate a loss is the mind attempting to healthfully psychologically process the intangible loss. It not only acknowledges the ambivalence, it also provides an emotional bridge for one to step over into healing and reparation. As psychologist Hanna Segal wrote in her groundbreaking work, A Psycho Analytical Approach to Aesthetics, “…symbol formation is the outcome of a loss; it is a creative act involving the pain and the whole work of mourning” (7). She also points out that the very essence of art is the use of symbols (7).

Proust is a perfect example of touching his grief. As he continuously lost his family and friends later in life, he began to write them into stories as a conscious way of recapturing them, and rendering them eternal through his work (3). Proust reveals what Segal referred to as an “acute awareness” to what is inherent in all artists, and that is the desire to recreate a once loved but now ruined or lost object, a “ruined internal world and self” (3). The love for the object exists in the self, and the artist addresses the ambivalence successfully, unconsciously pulling together the fragments of memory of the object and expressing it in a creative work. This applies to music, poetry, sculpture, visual arts, performance, etc. The artist re-assembles and re-creates his or her loss, which is healthy.[1] “It is only when the loss has been acknowledged and the mourning experienced that the re-creation can take place,” according to Segal (2).

The “ruined internal world and self,” quoted in the paragraph above, is an important statement.  A few psychologists have studied the relationship between two unlikely types of people: neurotic/psychotic patients, and artists. Normal individuals, artists and neurotics can all experience profound feelings of ambivalence towards a variety of life factors. What psychologists find interesting is that, although artists and neurotics can experience the same “difficulties of unresolved depression, the collapse of his internal world” (Segal 7), the artist possesses (over the neurotic) a high, inherent tolerance for anxiety and depression. Put another way, while the neurotic patients defaulted to “manic defenses leading to a denial of psychic reality”[2] (7), artists were acutely aware of both their inner reality which they outwardly express, and the external reality of the materials in which the expressing happens. Segal regards artist as having an acute sense of reality (7), despite the common misconception that artists are out of touch, or flakey.  More importantly, their ability to step into fantasy allows the artist to communicate his fantasies to others. This is done with symbols.

Psychologist Carl Jung was a contemporary of Sigmund Freud. Both men were interested in psychology of the unconscious, and shared many similar viewpoints. They agreed that neurosis/psychosis and artistic expression were closely related, but Freud believed that complexes[3] (Berk 19) were often derivative of one important drive: the sexual drive. Furthermore, any symbols in dreams or divulged in therapeutic sessions were repressed subliminal desires derived from the libido’s sexual drive.

Jung, however, believed that this view of Freud’s was short sighted. He believed there were many drives, including a creative drive that had nothing to do with sexual repression (20) Also, subconscious symbols were, to him, a result of not only the personal subconscious, but also the “collective unconscious” (13). He deduced that symbols had been stamped in our evolved human subconscious over time. Also, he thought that the unconscious mind was not repression, as Freud believed, but rather a “constantly renewed origin of consciousness (…) that we can return to (…) especially when we ourselves are involved in a creative process” (29).

In other words, the symbols were driven by millions of years of ingrained archetypes, accessed and made part of a culture’s mythology, and were the driving inspiring force of inspiration behind science, philosophy, art, and religion.

So an artist accesses symbols by harnessing and using fantasy thinking, but there is an important clarification to make between a symbol and a sign. A sign is bound to a code, it is explained in only one way. A symbol, on the other hand, is unconsciously picked by an individual’s psyche to represent something else, particularly something lost.

In my experience, I did not choose the symbols. Rather, the symbols chose me. My father gave me a coffee cup last summer. At the time, I found to be a kind of chatchki item, not to my taste at all. I almost threw it away. Two and a half weeks ago, my father died unexpectedly. That object now has come to represent a symbol of connection with him on a daily basis. The loss of his physical presence in my life had, without my conscious intention, transformed itself into a tangible object that I could touch every day. In so doing, I could once again feel connected to him. My ambivalence was transformed, and my grief focused into an actual object.

I will present another example. The day my father died, my brother and I were on a walk, four miles from the hospital. Our conversation was interrupted by the sudden presence of redwing blackbirds calling to us on power lines above our heads. I remember the color of the sky, the sound of the birds, and the strangeness of their insistent call. Moments later my phone rang and my uncle told me my father’s heart had stopped beating. Somewhere in my acutely aware internal world, always poised on the verge of collapse, experiencing a sudden loss and ruin, those red-wing black birds became symbols of my father’s soul calling to me from four miles away in his hospital bed as he departed this earth. I could never run as fast as those birds could fly.

The experience of recognizing personal symbolism from my father’s untimely death has provided me with insight into my own artwork. After years of begrudgingly resisting the idea of didacticism in my work, I finally understand the correlation between symbols, signs, didacticism, and layered artwork. Signs (images, quickly associated documentation of things that have come to signify destruction and habitat loss) are didactic. In the viewer they lead to a conclusion, and in the case of challenging ecologically collapsing themes, they can put the viewer on the defensive and lead to a classic defensive response: emotional shut-down or avoidance. Symbols, however, are a softened (but not overly) conceptual approach.

In my own work, the adoption of symbols is like a language I have begun to write, with characters I follow. Some have free associations that could be universal, like the freedom of birds. Some could have the literal association of my political views, like my materials of plastic. However, I have come to realize that it’s the true and authentic connection behind the personal symbols that matters more in communicating an attempted reconciliation of personal grief, than to have an obvious, didactic artwork. If the artwork is personal, and executed with both an inner grasp of reality and an outer grasp of materials, then any general emotions of grief, loss, and ambivalence could be conveyed with ease to an audience.

As Sigmund Freud said, “What the artist aims at is to awaken in us the same mental constellation as that which in him produced the impetus to create” (Segal 8).  Artists are always, in some way, representing what he or she sees, feels, thinks about, experiences, or loses. The need to reclaim and resurrect what he or she was inspired (or confounded) by is to address his or her ambivalence. This honest, authentic, creative practice is something that both psychologists and ecologists could benefit from. These strengths of the courageous artist, versed in symbolic transformation to process loss and grief, could aide in addressing the global epidemic of environmental melancholia.


Works Cited

Lertzman, Renee A. Environmental Melancholia: Psychoanalytic Dimensions of Engagement. Routledge, 2016.

Segal, Hanah. “A Psycho-Analytical Approach to Aesthetics.” The International Journal of Psychoanalysis 33 (1952): 196-207. Web.

Van den Berk, Tjeu. Jung on Art : The Autonomy of the Creative Drive. Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 2012. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 9 April 2015.


[1] Segal gives examples of artists who were inhibited in their ability to make work because of the inability to work through depressive anxieties, which can lead to a full stop of creative production or the production of an unsuccessful product (Segal 3).
[2] This mirrors the same manic defenses listed in previous papers regarding defense mechanisms due to unresolved environmental melancholia.
[3] Tjeu van den Berk describes a complex as a collection of images and ideas that are clustered around an unconscious drive (17).


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