[When] President Kennedy was assassinated, who among us did not experience the most profound disorientation? Despair? Which way? What now? What do I say to my kids? What do I tell myself? It was a time of people sitting together, bound together by a common feeling of hopelessness. But think of that! Your BOND with your fellow being was your Despair. It was a public experience. It was awful, but we were in it together.
-Doubt, Screenplay by John Patrick Shanley
Why are you studying Freud? It is a question that has come up at nearly every mention of his name in conjunction to my scholastic work. One friend—who has personal investment in understanding modern mental health research—complains that too many disciplines within the humanities still refer to Sigmund Freud’s work when countless of his theories have been replaced by new concepts in modern psychology. “Mourning and Melancholia” is my first attempt reading anything by Freud and—with the exception of the words specific to psychoanalysis that I had to learn—it was surprisingly easy. He uses examples to make the concepts graspable and he comes across as modestly aware when his theories need further research. Besides having the title of father of psychoanalysis and being recognized as one of the most influencing thinkers in the field of psychology, at least in the twentieth century if not today, I do not claim to know why his work is still read in academic fields such as art. What I am interested in knowing, however, is why do I need to read “Mourning and Melancholia” and what would a modern look reveal about its relevance today?
A basic view of Freud’s theory of the work of mourning would be stated:
Mourning is regularly the reaction to the loss of a loved person, or to the loss of some abstraction which has taken the place of one, such as one’s country, liberty, an ideal, and so on… Reality has shown that the loved object no longer exists, and it proceeds to demand that all libido shall be withdrawn from its attachments to that object… Nevertheless its orders cannot be obeyed at once. They are carried out bit by bit, at great expense of time and cathectic energy, and in the meantime the existence of the lost object is psychically prolonged… The fact is, however, that when the work of mourning is completed the ego becomes free and uninhibited again. (Freud 243-245)
Freud’s understanding of melancholia has many of the same causes and symptoms but it differs in that instead of the libido detaching itself from the lost object, the ego internalizes it and begins to identify with it. In the essay “Mourning and Melancholia Revisited: correspondences between principles of Freudian metapsychology and empirical findings in neuropsychiatry” Robin Carhart-Harris (et al) summarizes Freud’s concept of melancholia—simply called depression for their purposes—saying:
[T]he illness is triggered by the loss of an object imbued with a particularly intense level of libidinal cathexis, there is a forced withdrawal of cathexis, a regression of libido into the ego, a critical judgment of the ego based on its failure to live up to its ideals, and a simultaneous attacking of the ego repressed emotions felt toward the lost object. (Carhart-Harris)
The goal of Carhart-Harris’ essay is to highlight similarities between Freud’s concepts of mourning and melancholia and current findings relating to depression. She reviews Freudian terminology and puts it in modern perspective. Central to mourning and melancholia is the idea of the ego. Because the ego performs so many functions it cannot be located in a specific region of the brain. However, studies have shown that the “medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), posterior cingulate cortex, inferior parietal lobule and medial temporal regions meets many of the criteria of the Freudian ego” and “activity in the mPFC node…has been closely associated with self-reflection” (Carhart-Harris).
Freud describes melancholia as turning the object-cathexis on itself, the individual’s energies occupied within themselves instead of on another real object. A key region of the brain in the pathophysiology is Cg25 and “in depression [it] can be envisaged as functioning in a manner analogous to a dam” (Carhart-Harris). When stimulation is applied to a targeted part of the brain there is a decreased blood flow to Cg25. Patients were relieved of the symptoms relating to depression and felt as if something had been lifted from them. “The ‘something…taken away’ described in [patient] accounts is consistent with the idea of a release from repression and a return to object cathexis” (Carhart-Harris).
Whether all of Freud’s theories and writings can be so easily related to modern scientific findings is highly unlikely. However, these findings support Frued’s understanding of the literal work of mourning and depression in regards to the use of mental energies in the various states. However, establishing modern medical support for Freud’s concept of cathexis may or may not be relevant to understanding the other texts in this essay, where a theoretical knowledge may suffice.
The other texts I will discuss in relation to Freud’s original concepts of mourning and melancholia reveal individuals working through the process of mourning. In one instance, Jacques Derrida’s, The Work of Mourning, is a compilation of texts whose very existence is due to loss. The authors of essays from Loss: The Politics of Mourning highlight artists whose work is also an externalization of personal losses. Susette Min’s, “Remains to be Seen” focuses on work by Khahn Vo and Dean Sameshima. In Charity Scribner’s essay, “Left Melancholy”, she looks at three artists exploring the fall of the German Democratic Republic (GDR); I’ve chosen to focus on Andreas Ludwig’s Open Depot in relation to the arguments made here because I feel that his work is a result of a “real” loss being an East German living in the eastern bloc. While I do not wish to disparage the loss felt by artist, Joseph Bueys or playwright, Judith Kuckart, I feel that their work is that of an outsider looking in. Like a tourist in another person’s grief, their work is curious about life in the east but fails to mourn the passing of the socialist state in its entirety.
“[B]eing at a loss says something…about mourning and about its truth, the impossible mourning that nonetheless remains at work, endlessly hollowing out the depths of our memories” (Derrida, 95). This ‘impossible mourning’ is a process without end and, as Derrida suggests, without beginning as well. It is something never fully finalized. This is contrary to Freud’s idea that the work of mourning starts once the object is lost—or the individual realizes its loss is real—and is finished when the ego has fully detached itself from it ‘bit by bit’. Derrida suggests that friendship is based in mourning, with the knowledge that one friend will die first. “One must always die before the other… this is the law of friendship—and thus of mourning” (Derrida, 1). This suggests to me that mourning can begin even before an object is lost and, possibly even before an object is possessed.
The idea that mourning might not have a tangible beginning is similar to that of its end. The act of mourning is at times incapable of being finished in the sense that the self has detached itself from it, only when memory itself fades can one be safe from it, but even then some external event can cause the memory to flare up, reinstating the mourning for a freshly remembered loss. When someone who has suffered a loss is able to return to a healthy state of mind and resume their normal activities, does that mean that they have stopped mourning their loss? This would imply that the death of a loved one might be recovered from relatively quickly without the result of that loss impacting the rest of their lives.
The politics of friendship with its base in mourning comes full circle when mourning as a public display creates a new unit of individuals who find common ground in mourning a collective loss. Jaqcues Derrida’s and the authors’ from Loss: The Politics of Mourning texts show the work of mourning to include a public display of a personal loss—allowing the loss to be viewed as worthy of a collective mourning. This leads me to the question: What is a private mourning? Is there always an outward expression of the process that makes it public? Does the act of mourning require the individual to externalize the loss, not as a spectacle but as a means to have their grief shared? Enabling them to find a community of individuals with a common experience, a way to find connections with people in a time generally marked with feelings of personal isolation? Freud’s description only states the outward expression of mourning to be “painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love, [and] inhibition of all activity” (Freud, 244). Derrida’s letters, transcribed orations, and memorial texts were always written with the knowledge that they were to be shared, if only to one other person. Likewise, the art works described by Min and Scribner were installed or performed in a public context. Even crying or wearing black as a sign of mourning invites outsiders, unfamiliar with the specifics of your loss, to share in your grief.
Susette Min speaks specifically of a private loss being turned collective in the works of Khanh Vo and Dean Sameshima. Through their various strategies they allow the viewer to participate in the loss of an unfulfilled desire in Sameshima’s photographs and a lost homeland in Vo’s installation. Each work lets the viewer adopt the loss as his or her own and it becomes something to be collectively mourned. Similarly, curator, Andreas Ludwig’s Open Depot is a repository for the material remains of the collapsed GDR. The museum becomes a place for the storage of the memory of a loss felt, in different ways, by both the East and West Germany. While some dismiss Open Depot as nostalgic Scribner asks “can it not also be argued that this place of reckoning might set the stage for a requiem for communism in this moment of transition? That is a site for mourning?” I agree with that sentiment especially as it relates to the donors of artifacts to the museum, as well as the individual visitor, it acts as a place where the passing of the GDR can be mourned individually and collectively.
In conclusion, even when the cathectic energies have resumed their normal flow allowing the individual to return focus to the routine of their daily life the effects of a loss may still be felt which makes the mourning process no less real. Likewise the mourning process can start, before the object is truly lost, with the knowledge that one day it will be gone. At any stage of this mourning process, however, sharing the loss with others, by allowing it to manifest itself in an external display—whether spoken, written, through the creative art process or even through unconscious acts of mourning such as crying—may lighten the individual’s grief.
Carhart-Harris, Robin, Helen Mayberg, Andrea Malizia and David Nutt. “Mourning and Melancholia Revisted: correspondences between principles of Freudian metapsychology and empirical findings in neuropsychiatry.” Annals of General Psychiatry 7:9 (2008).
Derrida, Jacques. The Work of Mourning. Ed. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001.
Freud, Sigmund. “Mourning and Melancholia.” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Ed. Jame Strachey. London: The Hogarth Press, 1957.
Min, Susette. “Remains to be Seen: Reading the Works of Dean Sameshima and Khanh Vo.” Loss: The Politics of Mourning. Ed. David L. Eng and David Kazanjian. Las Angeles: University of California Press, 2003. 229-250.
Scribner, Charity. “Left Melancholy.” Loss: The Politics of Mourning. Ed. David L. Eng and David Kazanjian. Las Angeles: University of California Press, 2003. 300-319.