The art of absence

Pierre is not here. This does not mean that I discover his absence in some precise spot in the establishment. In fact Pierre is absent from the whole cafe; his absence fixes the cafe in its evanescence; the cafe remains ground; it persists in offering itself as an undifferentiated totality to my only marginal attention; it slips into the background; it pursues its nihilation. Only it makes itself ground for a determined figure; it carries the figure everywhere in front of it, presents the figure everywhere to me. This figure which slips constantly between my look and the solid, real objects of the cafe is precisely a perpetual disappearance; it is Pierre raising himself as nothingness on the ground of the nihilation of the cafe. ( Sartre – Being and Nothingness)

What I’m thinking about today is characters defined not by their existence in the narrative, but rather by their absence in the narrative itself. When a hole where a character is creates a negative space, becomes an invisible elephant in the room. The ghost of their being, the hole made by their lack of being, can illuminate a text, or create anxiety in a text, or can create mystery or a philosophical discussion.


  • Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room is entirely about creating a character who is absent, yet, every word, every breath is about him. And in this space the character who never appears is the most concrete fleshed out character in the narrative.
  • In her other book, The Waves, Percival is spoken for but never exists internally in the text like the other characters. The absence of his internal monologue defines him.
  • In Hitchcock’s film Rope David’s absence is the tension, the anxiety, that fuels the narrative. Interesting side note- his physical absence is always there, always a presence, laying heavy in the room, yet his being is gone, is missing. The absence is not physical per se then, but of the being itself.  His murder starts the movie, and his corpse ends the movie. The movie is framed by his death, is about his presence, his being in the world, yet it is always missing. The annihilation of his existence fuels every frame, making the whole work an in depth portrayal of existential anxiety and crises.
  • Sartre often talks about the look which many people have applied directly to the male gaze, but really all genders have this power. When someone views you, you become an object in your own mind, something that is viewed, reflected, judged. Now, the absence of characters, instead of removing this weight of object-judgement instead increases it in all narratives. By removing the viewer the look still remains, and it spirals outward, turns inward. Increases. The lack of being does not remove the look, but instead intensifies it.
  • Of course I don’t even need to mention Waiting for Godot, do I? The whole purpose of this is to create anxiety by lack of being.

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