Sigmund Freud – Mourning and Melancholia (1915-17)

Drawing heavily from the Narcissism essay, “Mourning and Melancholia” is an attempt to understand the rare times when an ego “[overcomes] the instinct which compels every living thing to cling to life” (584).Whereas in mourning, the lost object, though repeated reality-testing, is successfully identified and then replaced with another object-cathexis, in melancholia,the unknown loss results in the free libido being “displaced on to another object,” but rather being “withdrawn into the ego” (586), which results in “an impoverishment of the ego on a grand scale” (584). “In this way object-loss was transformed into an ego-loss.” Put otherwise, this is the mirror-image of the “On Narcissism” essay, in that his return to the self represents a violent (not erotic) “regression from one type of object-choie to original narcissism.” Identification with the love-object supersedes object-love:

The ego wants to incorporate this object into itself, and, in accordance with the oral or cannibalistic phase of libidinal development in which it is, it wants to do so by devouring it. (587)

Freud goes on:

The difference, however, between narcissistic and hysterical identification (melancholia) may be seen in this: that, whereas in the former the object-cathexis is abndoned, in the latter it persists and manifests its influence. (587)

In other words, the melancholic does not properly digest the object of mourning. It gets stuck. The processes of reality-testing–going out into the world and coming back to the self–is stunted. In extreme form, the melancholic subject develops sadism directed at the ego, because the ego is thought to be responsible for the lost object. This is the crucial point that turns the ego against the drive for self-preservation:

Owing to the return of the object-cathexis, [the ego] can treat itself as an object–if it is able to direct against itself the hostility which reates to an object and which represents the ego’s original reaction to objects in the external world. (588)

So whereas in mourning, time is needed for reality-testing to free the ego of its libido of the lost object, “the complex of melancholia behaves like an open wound, drawing to itself cathectic energies…from all directions, and emptying the ego until it is totally impoverished” (589). This image, besides bearing an uncanny resemblance to Merleau-Ponty’s “flesh,” totally disrupts the metaphor of diachronic digestion–it is directionless and therefore dangerous. [See Deleuze “Body Without Organs” for reading of this topography as potentially liberating.]


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