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Mourning and Melancholia: narcissism or object relations?

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.

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