Love and life are similar in that they both end. Nothing on this green earth lasts, but this is easy to forget in the comfortable embrace of the quotidian. One day, however, you stand in dumbfounded silence before the immobile remains of what once was, pain muddling the memories. All that’s left is mourning. In Specters of Marx, Derrida argues that mourning is a way of making present that which no longer is. It is an ontologizing, a giving the form of being, to an absence by locating it here at the place of mourning before this thing that was alive. Mourning is the need to know. To know that what you mourn is what was and that what is left of its essence is here and not somewhere else. In Derrida’s thinking, mourning, then, stages the problem of language. Specifically, the problem behind all semantics: the desire to know shapes meanings that language itself cannot make concrete. Language names things, feelings, and ideas that because of their temporal singularity cannot be properly contained by words, which could only define what was and not what is. The absolute anteriority of life to language does not, however, make life a privileged site of meaning for Derrida, for the dissolving power of time means that life is always in the process of transformation and is therefore never present to itself. Life appears here as a set of singularities forever absorbed into the flowing of time. Furthermore, words are incapable of defining one another so that any definition is simply the naming of equivalents or the giving of examples. To define words requires more words all of which require their own definitions, a process that leads to an endless play of signification. Meaning is the unstable effect of the passage of time and the circulation of language. It is what remains when our need to know confronts the absences created by the relentlessness of time and the instability of language.
The relationship between language and mourning is perhaps what draws me to heartbreak songs. In the best ones, loss becomes a frantic recounting of mistakes and recriminations. By describing the completeness of the grief—the heartbreak when someone stops loving you is total, rounded, and perfect—heartbreak songs attempt to bring to life dead relationships just long enough to draw some meaning or lesson from them, knowing full well the futility of that kind of necromancy. There are too many great examples of this but for some reason I keep thinking of Lola Beltran’s extraordinary version of “La noche de mi mal.” There is possibly no more beautiful rendition of the anger, pain, and self-loathing that accompanies the emptiness of someone walking away from you. But the sun rises everyday on new heartaches and music continues to be made for them. Keyshia Cole’s recent “Enough of No Love” is part of this tradition. Her voice sounds haunted, resigned, and determined—she mourns in order to get over it. But, as always, the convictions that accompany mourning are betrayed by the act itself, which grieves over the body in order to bring to life the spirit.