On Freud's "Mourning and Melancholia"

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Both melancholia and mourning are triggered by the same thing, that is, by loss. The distinction often made is that mourning occurs after the death of a loved one while in melancholia the object of love does not qualify as irretrievably lost.

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1: Melancholia, mourning, and the countertransference

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Priscilla Roth

“Mourning and Melancholia” is a psychoanalytic treasure that changed the way psychoanalysts think. Though written as one of the metapsychological papers, it is profoundly concerned with emotions. In its insistence that the mind is not unitary, it led to the conceptualization of an internal world in which there are different and separate parts of the self and different internalized love objects all relating to each other in complex ways…sometimes friendly and sometimes powerfully hostile. And it introduced the idea that the quality of these relations between parts of our self and our internalized love objects is what defines our moods, our sense of well-being, and, indeed, our character.

Like Shakespeare's Hamlet, Freud's “Mourning and Melancholia” is full of famous quotes; I want especially to focus on one of them. The statement “People never willingly abandon a libidinal position, not even, indeed, when a substitute is already beckoning to them” is among Freud's richest formulations. For many years I have suggested to students, only half jokingly, that it ought to be emblazoned in large letters on the wall of every consulting-room, where the analyst can be reminded of its message during every session with every patient. “People never willingly abandon a libidinal position”. A fulcrum, embracing discoveries first adumbrated in On Narcissism and the Leonardo Da Vinci paper and pointing ahead to Beyond the Pleasure Principle and The Ego and The Id, the sentence succinctly describes that which is most puzzlingly intransigent in human nature. The repetition compulsion, manic defences, obsessional disorders all have their roots in the behavioural pattern described in these eighteen words.

 

2: Mourning for “missing” people

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María Lucila Pelento

After the death of a loved-one, forgetting…that “latent gift”, as Blanchot (1962, p. 87) called it…requires a certain process to take place, which is part of the work of the psyche that Freud termed “mourning work” [Trauerarbeit] (Freud, 1917e [1915]). It begins with acknowledging the reality of death, which is an unavoidable condition for triggering a mourning process. This acknowledgement entails gathering “what was seen”…if the person witnessed the loved-one's illness and/or death…”what was heard”…if the death was also communicated, or only communicated…and “what was ratified”… through the various practices that are usual in society at certain points in time.

The “revolt of the minds against mourning”…as Freud described it in “On Transience” (1916a)…is immediately felt as an intense wish for the death not to have really happened.

Words pronounced in a state of shock, particularly in the case of unexpected death…such as “I can't believe it”, “it can't be true”… express the need to deny the fact of death and reveal the refusal to abandon the former object of pleasure. This is a fluctuating process: the subject believes and does not believe the actual reality of this death by turns. Nevertheless, once the fact has become compellingly undeniable, convergence of all the above-mentioned components constrains the subject to accept the evidence of reality by withdrawing his investment in the object. But this is an extremely difficult and painful operation. The subject turns away from reality, withdraws all interest from it, while strongly cathecting each and every one of the memories that form a link with the object. This retreating to the most intimate relationship with the internal object, this hyper-cathecting movement, is absolutely indispensable, because through it the ego tries, unsuccessfully, to fill the libidinal loss it has suffered. During the first stages of mourning this entails a functional splitting of the ego, since, although one part of the ego, withdrawn from other interests, keeps a strong relationship with the internal object, another part must, once the initial shock is over, continue to fulfil some of its usual activities. This splitting will result in different outcomes if it persists while the work of mourning takes place and gradually dissolves, or if it becomes more intense, with mourning encysted in a part of the ego, thus causing an impact on the bereaved or their offspring. At other times, the absence of this splitting may be a sign of a possible evolution into melancholy.

 

3: The analyst, his “mourning and melancholia”, analytic technique, and enactment

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Roosevelt M. S. Cassorla

The aim of this chapter is to discuss current aspects of analytic technique, relating them to the ideas initially exposed by Freud in “Mourning and Melancholia”.

A clinical vignette introduces the study.

A young and involved Analyst (AN) brings Mrs PT for supervision. She wants to investigate a session that has disturbed her. She had never discussed her case because the analytic work was running satisfactorily and had been pleasurable so far.

PT began the session by saying she hadn't slept well …she hadn't slept a wink. Her muscular pains had made her change to a new doctor again. The previous day she had been to a specialist who prescribed too many medicines for her. She had considered taking sleeping pills, but was afraid of missing the session. The doctor had recommended a physiotherapist to her. She also had pains in her legs and all over her body. She had decided not to have the recommended physiotherapy and look for another professional. She had seen his name in a women's magazine, advertising a revolutionary muscle-strengthening method. The analyst AN intervened, pointing out that once again PT was not going to follow prescribed treatments, preferring to go after miraculous novelties. And she further added: “After all, how many doctors have you visited, and how many treatments are you getting now?”

 

4: Not letting go: from individual perennial mourners to societies with entitlement ideologies

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Vamlk D. Volkan

For three decades my colleagues at the University of Virginia and I conducted a study of hundreds of mourning processes and their various consequences (Volkan, 1972, 1981, 1985, 2004; Volkan, Cil-luffo,&Sarvay, 1975; Volkan&Josephthal, 1980; Volkan&Zintl, 1993; Zuckerman&Volkan, 1989). In this chapter I draw upon our findings, first by updating and summarizing the psychodynam-ics involved in an adult's mourning and depression, about which Freud's (1917e [1915]) conclusions still provide the basics. Second, I describe a condition that was not touched upon in “Mourning and Melancholia”: some individuals become stuck for years…or even for a lifetime…unable to let the lost person or thing go. They utilize their various ego functions to cope with their losses, primarily to deal with the conflict between “killing” or “bringing back to life” the lost object, and they do this at the expense of using them for more adaptive purposes. They become “perennial mourners” while not developing depression. Third, I focus on societal mourning (Volkan, 1977, 1997, 2006), a concept that is also not mentioned in “Mourning and Melancholia”, and ask this question: can a large group, such as an ethnic or religious group, become a society that suffers from perennial mourning?

 

5: Mourning and creativity

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María Cristina Melgar

Jorge Luis Borges writes that after Socrates’ death, Plato invented the Platonic dialogue so as to hear his master's voice once again. He adds: “Some of these dialogues do not reach any conclusion because Plato thought as he was writing them…. I imagine that his main purpose was to have the illusion that, in spite of Socrates having taken hemlock, he was still accompanying him” (Borges, 1967–68, pp. 22–23).

In “Mourning and Melancholia” (1917e [1915]) Freud did not probe into the relationship between mourning and creativity, but dealt with inhibition in melancholia. However, mourning as well as trauma has negative effects, as is the case with unresolved mournings, but it may also have positive ones that stimulate creativity. In this text he did not answer the question of how the psychic pain produced by the loss of a person or an ideal, of something concrete or abstract, can trigger creativity. Notwithstanding this, the complex metapsychology that pervades “Mourning and Melancholia”, with its obscurities and confrontations and without the theories he would develop later on, advances some ideas and opens new paths related to the ways and mechanisms with which man creates so as to be able to retain what death makes him lose. In Borges’ Plato, out of the heart of mourning there emerges an amazing novelty, a creation by the psyche in mourning, and with this an innovatory work for Greek thought: the dialogue. Plato is among those geniuses whom mourning leads to produce outstanding creative works in the world and in themselves. Nostalgia for the object, remembrance, and fantasy, Borges remarks, are in charge of revealing that the past is not a burden without life but, rather, a potential to keep on living.

 

6: A new reading of the origins of object relations theory

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Thomas H. Ogden

Some authors write what they think; others think what they write. The latter seem to do their thinking in the very act of writing, as if thoughts arise from the conjunction of pen and paper, the work unfolding by surprise as it goes. Freud in many of his most important books and articles, including “Mourning and Melancholia” (1917e [1915]), was a writer of this latter sort. In these writings, Freud made no attempt to cover his tracks, for example, his false starts, his uncertainties, his reversals of thinking (often done mid-sentence), his shelving of compelling ideas for the time being because they seemed to him too speculative or lacking adequate clinical foundation.

The legacy that Freud left was not simply a set of ideas but, as important, and inseparable from those ideas, a new way of thinking about human experience that gave rise to nothing less than a new form of human subjectivity. Each of his psychoanalytic writings, from this point of view, is simultaneously an explication of a set of concepts and a demonstration of a newly created way of thinking about and experiencing ourselves. I have chosen to look closely at Freud's “Mourning and Melancholia” for two reasons: First, I consider this paper to be one of Freud's most important contributions in that it develops for the first time, in a systematic way, a line of thought that would later be termed “object-relations theory” 1 (Fairbairn, 1952). This line of thought has played a major role in shaping psychoanalysis from 1917 onwards. Second, I have found that attending closely to Freud's writing as writing in “Mourning and Melancholia” provides an extraordinary opportunity not only to listen to Freud think, but also, through the writing, to enter into that thinking process with him. In this way, the reader may learn a good deal about what is distinctive to the new form of thinking (and its attendant subjectivity) that Freud was in the process of creating in this article. 2

 

7: Mourning and mental development

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Florence Guignard

In this chapter I attempt to redraw the contours of some basic psychoanalytic concepts concerning mental development as opposed to mere adaptation, particularly with regard to Western society as we know it today. From this point of view, the question of the object and its loss in the external world and/or in the internal (psychic) world seems to me to be a crucial one, as is that of symbolization, compared to the extraordinary development in modern times of virtual reality. I shall therefore discuss the disappearance…recent, but now widespread in Western society…of the latency period, and the impact this may have on repression and on the model of the neuroses as the prototype of how the human mind works.

Mourning: an intersection for the mind

Mourning lies at the intersection of several domains that themselves link together various components of mental functioning. It is the outcome of “relationships of relationships”, which, in an earlier paper, I have called a “concept of the third kind” (Guignard, 2001):

 

8: “Mourning and Melancholia”: a Freudian metapsychological updating

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Carlos Mario Aslan

And I hope that you will soon find consolation from my death and that you will allow me to continue living in your friendly thoughts…the only limited immortality that I acknowledge.

Freud's letter to Marie Bonaparte, 1937 (in Jones, 1957, p. 465)

“Mourning and Melancholia”, fons et origo, fount and origin of any psychoanalytic reflection on depression, is a relatively short but very important paper, considered by many authors as a hinge…an articu-lation…between the first, “topographic” theory of the mind, and the second, “structural” theory.

Besides opening the way to a psychoanalytic, metapsychologi-cal conception of both normal and pathological mourning…mel-ancholia…this paper introduces, among other important ideas, an advancement of the concept of the “critical instance” (the future superego) and of forms of structuring internalizations such as the introjection of objects and of secondary identifications.

Mourning is a phenomenon belonging to everyday life. We all have experienced it, together with its consequent mourning processes, through either our own or other people's losses

 

9: Teaching Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia”

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Jean-Michel Quinodoz

“Mourning and Melancholia” constitutes one of Freud's major contributions to psychoanalysis. But, like most of his writings, this contribution cannot be read as an isolated piece of work. As Freud continuously revised his ideas, we need to take into account the evolution of his thinking over more than four decades. This is the reason why I have simultaneously used a selective and a chronological approach to teaching Freud's psychoanalytic texts, especially “Mourning and Melancholia”. These two approaches do not stand in opposition to each other: in fact they are complementary, for each in its own way illustrates how Freud himself kept uncertainty to advantage and taking his clinical experience into account in order to develop further what he had discovered.

For didactic reasons, I have divided this chapter into four parts:

1. before Freud: Karl Abraham;

2. “Mourning and Melancholia” and Freud's subsequent developments;

3. a selected post-Freudian contribution: the Kleinian approach;

 

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