A Game of Love
Freud and the child's mother (Freud's sister) both agree that the “long-drawn-out ‘o-o-o-o’” is the child’s verbalization of the German word fort which means “gone” in English.
On one occasion, Freud observes a variation of the game in which the child uses “a wooden reel with a piece of string tied round it” (9). In this variation the child holds
Da is German for “here.”
Freud reads the child’s game as an act of compensation for “allowing his mother to go away without protesting” (9). In response to the pain and discomfort the child experiences upon his mother’s departures (and when Freud observes the child playing this game), the child attempts to gain control of the situation by symbolizing his experience in enactments of the Fort/Da game in which he controls (rather than passively endures) the "departure" and "return" of the objects he plaintively sends away (fort, "o-o-o-o") and joyfully reels back (da).2
The game structurally resembles the child's mother's departure and her joyful return. One of the paradoxes is that the joyful return cannot be had without the painful departure.
The “sending away” and “reeling back” of the Fort/Da game many of us experience in relationships (of all sorts and from/on either end) are often attempts at coping with feelings of helplessness brought on by the departure of those we love, even as we wish we could joyously call those loved ones back. While playing such a “game” in a relationship may signal an attempt to deal with feelings of helplessness and love, as part of a larger strategy of establishing emotional satisfaction the Fort/Da game is often an ineffective mechanism that in fact undermines the possibility for future harmony. Still, the power of the “joyful ‘da’” should never be underestimated.3
By the time Saturn returned for me, I stopped being so interested in Fort/Da, though I recognize some people never tire of this game (despite predictable and spectacularly bad results).4