Mourning and Melancholia: narcissism or object relations?

Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia” is mistaken, it seems to me, in drawing such a sharp distinction between the two experiences.  What Freud called melancholia is today called depression.  It generally refers to major psychotic depression and is no longer a useful label (Quinodoz, p 181).  Still, it seems best to stick with Freud’s term, remembering that we are always talking about depression, and not some more exotic state. 

Vamık Volkan introduces the category of the perpetual mourner, one who cannot, as Freud puts it, be “persuaded by the sum of narcissistic satisfactions it derives from being alive to sever its attachment to the object that has been abolished.” (M&M, p. 255) These mourners retain an intense tie to the lost object without slipping into melancholia (Volkan, p 199).  It’s a simple point, but a powerful one.  It fits more people than severe depression.  Many of us know someone like this.

For Freud, melancholia is narcissism

For Freud, melancholia is marked not only by a refusal to give up the lost object (as people and occasionally ideas are called) but identification with it.  As Freud puts it, “the shadow of the object” falls upon the ego.  “In mourning it is the world which has become poor and empty; in melancholia it is the ego itself.” (M&M, p 246)  The lost object becomes a part of the ego, the nucleus of an unforgiving superego that judges the one who mourns so harshly that he becomes depressed, melancholic. 

This is the key distinction between the mourner and the melancholic for Freud.  Both suffer from the loss of the beloved object but only the melancholic blames himself for being such a miserable person.  Both withdraw their interest from the world, but only the melancholic experiences a drastic

lowering of the self-regarding feelings to a degree that finds utterance in self-reproaches and self-revilings, and culminates in a delusional expectation of punishment. (M&M, p 246). 

This is accompanied, Freud continued, by a lack of concern with the one who is actually lost, as though there was never any real connection.  In a sense, there wasn’t.  The narcissist, for it seems that it is only narcissists who develop melancholia, always saw the other as an extension of himself, never existing in his own right.  In melancholia, the narcissist, whom Freud compares with an amoeba, withdraws his pseudopod engulfing the object into himself, possessing the devalued object all to himself.  He has lost nothing.

Striking is the harshness with which Freud condemns the melancholic narcissist.

When in his heightened self-criticism he describes himself as petty, egoistic, dishonest, lacking in independence, one whose sole aim has been to hide the weaknesses of his own nature, it may be, so far as we know, that he has come pretty near to understanding himself; we only wonder why a man has to be ill before he can be accessible to a truth of this kind. (M&M, p 246)

The melancholic really is a poor excuse for a human being, for he cares about no one but himself.  He has not lost another.  The other always existed primarily within himself, a possession of his ego that in loss has turned against him.

Is M&M a work about the implications of narcissism for mourning, or Freud’s introduction of object relations theory?

There are two ways to read “Mourning and Melancholia.”  As a development and application of Freud’s preceding work, “On Narcissism” (1914), or as a first work in object relations, in which “the shadow of the object” falling upon the ego is really the creation of an internal, unconscious object relationship between two parts of the ego, as the internalized lost object becomes a “special agency” of the ego, eventually the superego.

If this is so, then the task of development is to learn to mourn the loss of the ones we have loved.  This, it turns out, is the work of a lifetime, in which the development of the ego means learning to let go of all that we lose in the process of growing up, including hopes and dreams.  “Let go,” while keeping the memory of the loss alive, so that we are enriched, not just depleted.  

The adult mourning process never ends. But only if the one who is lost lives in the memory, the mental representation, of the one who remains.  To hold to a more concrete image of the lost one is to harbor a foreign object, an introject in more technical language.*   To keep the memory alive implies the ability to do something creative with it, such as remembering the lost one in new ways at each stage in one’s life. 

From the object relations perspective, the distinction between mourning and melancholia becomes less important, the narcissist a marginal figure, and mourning an expression of what Melanie Klein called the depressive position. (Ogden).**  Loss is no gift, but it brings in its train a great gift: the chance to grow up and accept the transience of all things.   Acceptance and the mourning that accompanies it are how we develop into full human beings.  

Ogden seems correct that “Mourning and Melancholia” introduces the idea of relations between internal objects.  On the other hand, this is only clear in retrospect, subsequent to the development of object relations theory by Melanie Klein and others.  Ogden’s observation that this is not a theme that Freud develops or pursues seems correct, although I don’t know enough about the next twenty-two years of Freud’s work to do more than rely on Ogden’s judgment.  Freud does, however, pursue the implications of narcissism in later works, such as Beyond the Pleasure Principle (Greenberg).  It’s probably best not to read “Mourning and Melancholia” as a founding document in object relations theory. 

In a short paper written about the time of M&M, “On Transience” (1916a), Freud writes that Rainer Maria Rilke could take no pleasure in the beauty of the Dolomites because “all this beauty was fated to extinction.”***  Rilke’s mind, Freud concluded, was revolting not just against extinction, but against mourning,  On the contrary, our task is to love, and hence be willing to lose, all that is fated to extinction, including our most precious objects, and ultimately ourselves.  This requires that we make mourning, as Socrates would make dying, our profession.  The profession of every man. 


In closing it’s worth considering exactly what we lose when we lose someone or some value.  We don’t exactly lose the other, for we never had him or it in the first place.  What the mourner loses is his experience of himself in his relationship with the other.  Neither self nor other, but the experience of self in relationship to the other is what must be mourned.  It’s useful to think about loss this way because it makes it almost impossible to objectify the other, for the other never existed for us as someone we could appropriate.  It is our relationship with the other that existed, and no longer does, except in memory.  That’s worth mourning, an experience that takes place somewhere between narcissism and true love. 


* In introjection, the subject takes the qualities of another and incorporates them into himself.  Incorporation denies the boundaries between inside and outside.  See Laplanche and Pontalis, pp 229-231. 

** Ogden does not focus on Freud’s degradation of the narcissist as I do.  Ogden does, I believe, transform melancholia into depression from which we me learn acceptance, or which we may deny by various manic means.  Narcissism would then become equivalent to what Klein calls a manic defense against depression.

*** Freud never mentions Rilke by name, but all seem to agree that it is to him that Freud refers. 


Sigmund Freud (1914). On Narcissism: An Introduction. Standard Edition, vol. 14, pp. 67-102.

Sigmund Freud (1915).  On Transience.  Standard Edition, vol. 14, pp. 305-308.

Sigmund Freud (1917e).  Mourning and Melancholia,  Standard Edition, vol. 14, pp. 243-258.  Abbreviated as M&M in text.

Sigmund Freud (1920). Beyond the Pleasure Principle.  Standard Edition, Vol. 18, pp. 7-64.

Daniel Greenberg, Instinct and primary narcissism in Freud’s later theory.  International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 1990, vol. 71, 271-283.

Jean Laplanche and J.-B. Pontalis,  Introjection.  In The Language of Psycho-Analysis, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith, 229-231.  Norton, 1973.

Thomas Ogden, A new reading of the origins of object relations theory.  In International Journal of Psychoanalysis (2002), vol. 83, 767-782.  Page numbers are from reprint in On Freud’s Mourning and Melancholia, ed. Thierry Bokanowski et al.  Taylor and Francis/Routledge, 2007.

Jean-Michel Quinodoz, Teaching Freud’s mourning and melancholia.  In On Freud’s Mourning and Melancholia, ed. Thierry Bokanowski et al.  Taylor and Francis/Routledge, 2007.

Vamık Volkan, Not letting go: from individual perennial mourners to societies with entitlement ideologies.  In On Freud’s Mourning and Melancholia, ed. Thierry Bokanowski et al.  Taylor and Francis/Routledge, 2007.


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