Abject Horror in the 21st Century


picassoThe term abject is often defined as a particularly low state of being, misery or disillusionment. But it is also used in a philosophical context to describe the discord which exists between self and other, whereby the other can be ‘other self’.

Bulgarian/French philosopher and feminist Julia Kristeva explored the concept at length, whereby,

” the abject marks a “primal order” that escapes signification in the symbolic order; the term is used to refer to the human reaction (horror, vomit) to a threatened breakdown in meaning caused by the loss of the distinction between subject and object, or between the self and the other.”

So, what does it actually mean, and how do you laugh in the face of it?


I first came across the concept of ‘abject horror’ while studying Samuel Beckett’s one act play “Krapp’s Last Tape”. The central character makes a series of tape recordings throughout his life, and is then faced with listening back to a younger self. The younger Krapp is filled with ideas, dreams and resolutions that seem at times absurd and repulsive to Krapp, and at others poignant and eternal. These mixed responses invoke in Krapp the eternal love/hate binary of self, in which we become both parent and child unto ourselves.


The play is complex, stark and uneasy and yet the central concept is simple. How to we view aspects of ourselves once we have ‘cast them off?’

Things that were once part of us, can become almost instantly repulsive once we are disconnected from them. Parts of our physical body for example, a fingernail, skin, hair, blood. Once warm and safe in the cradle of our being, these are now almost unrecognisable as part of us, shunned, and sent away. So too our creative or emotional expressions. Words, brushstrokes, sounds, and images of ourselves.

The other day I was doing some voice recordings for my personal work with children’s literature. I spoke my story and it felt ok, nice even. Then I played it back and heard it. I cringed, shuddered and closed my eyes. I crept away like a coward. Then blasted it with bravado and told it I was in no way connected to it. Eventually, I transformed it with a voice recording app so it no longer sounded like me.

Chastising myself for my precious ego, I was yet pleased with my escape. Later that day I asked my daughter to record a poem. Happily, she grabbed the recorder and took off, returning a few moments later excited to hear her work. But as I played it back her face fell. She scowled and grabbed the recorder.

“Turn it off Mum. I sound so horrible. It doesn’t sound like me.”

I cuddled her. I buoyed her . I reassured, cajoled and … then I showed her how to turn it into a chipmunk voice on the app. We laughed together, relieved to have been saved from the abject horror of discarded self.

Social Media and Self

PilgrimsThe indisputable impact of social media on individual identity is much discussed, but has yet to be measured. With the advent of regular externalising of self, through posting images, opinions, and passing moods, the self is working hard to keep up with itself. The ever fragile, porous and malleable force that is ego, faces new frontiers in the journey of self. And while many pilgrims elect to travel together, with a like-minded group , family or tribe, still the journey must be taken alone.

When Lost Selves are Beautiful

It is no secret that anxiety is the fastest growing medical phenomena around and unlikely that the two are not related. Yet this is the topic for a deeper discussion. Yet the beginning point of that anxiety, the  fracturing of self that occurs when we express ourselves and commit to an idea, feeling or point of view in a passing moment. And to ask the question, why do we ultimately, reject ourselves?

It is unlikely we will ever see our own cast off fragments as truly beautiful. It is a beauty we could only ever glimpse, from the perspective of self.

And this is why we have loved ones to glimpse them for us, and tell us they’re ok. We need that stuff. That stuff is great.

As the performance of ‘self’ in the public arena is only just getting warmed up, we have much to learn about how to safely navigate it all and plenty to teach our children.

When I look back at things I have written, images of my self or comments I have ventured and cringe and recoil as though looking down at my own sawn off ear, I remember Beckett. And I remember the alarming and wonderful discovery I have made in recent years.

LaughterWhen a loved one dies, there is one profound resonance that remains for me. It is not so much the look of them or even memories shared. It is the sound of them. Mostly their laugh. I can remember the way they laughed. I can hear it so clearly, high above the dross of all the detail, pure and eternal, rolling out across the heavens as though they are literally sitting up there blasting away the darkness with a never-ending chuckle.

Whatever comes, we must always remember to laugh at ourselves. Let the sound of our laughter immortalise our former selves.


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