Aleksander Gierymski, Peasant Coffin, 1895, National Museum in Warsaw
Loss is an inescapable feature of life whose acutest expression is the loss of another. Loss reveals life to be evanescence while death and finitude are natural realities imposed on us as corporeal, transient beings. Yet loss is also socially mediated – socially symbolic, inseparable from “significations” and meaningful to us because we are social beings meaning: there is no Being (pace Heidegger) without beings qua social beings.
In what follows we explore how psychoanalysis has approached loss and mourning, especially Freud and Melanie Klein whose work enriched Freud’s original investigation but also ventured forth in new directions. We must stress we don’t consider psychoanalysis to be a behavioural-scientistic enterprise as some proponents and critics suppose but rather favour Phillip Rieff’s view that Freud’s child was, and is, central to the modern age and has a moral, cultural and historical import as well as a psychological import. If psychoanalysis could simply be bracketed with the latter it would be solipsistic, barely make sense or resonate so widely. Paul Ricoeur considered loss and mourning to be fundamental to Freud’s psychoanalysis. Loss was also emphatically placed at the centre of life in Klein’s work. Klein explored how the ontogenetic development of the young child shared similarities with the process of adult mourning. The formation of an integral, ‘mature’ ego (a capacious definition admitting a variety of states) derived from a child’s inner struggles as it tried to cope with, and psychically integrate different forms of loss.
However our main theme isn’t private loss per se and mourning but the nexus of loss-mourning and its link to culture, or what Peter Homans referred to as symbolic loss: that is how mourning can assume a communal character and shape culture. So the cultural or socially symbolic expression of loss might, for example, centre on the loss of a political ideal or a national disaster. Homans observes that talk of collective mourning can often assume a Durkheimian cast implying an organic conception of culture but this generalization may be refined to consider inter-mediate structures or ensembles such as particular generations, cohorts, movements or political parties.
Also collective mourning can be understood critically in socio-pathological terms such as the inability to mourn (or faux mourning) to nod to a specific argument originally proposed by Alexander Mitscherlich in his 1967 book of the same title. Here Mitscherlich read the celebration of the German Federal republic’s post-war economic ‘miracle’ as exemplifying a manic defence or denial of Germany’s traumatic, humiliating defeat in the war. We should also consider the relationship between temporality and collective mourning or symbolic loss. As we will see, Freud thought mourning was the work of time, the “working through” of grief, a lengthy process of reality testing that would eventually allow the subject to let go of the lost love-object.
Almost a hundred years ago Britain’s cities, towns and villages began erecting war memorials and monuments to the ‘war dead’ – over a million young men who were in reality the sons, brothers and husbands of the living and who were still vividly present in their raw grief and memories. A hundred years later, however, Remembrance Sunday has morphed into something very different, not least in the minds of those annually acknowledging the occasion whether its attending a ceremony, wearing a poppy or marking the minute silence – affectless mourning, reflection on certain recurring abstract themes (sacrifice, commemoration, remembrance) – symbolic themes and tropes that have acquired a faded, empty patina and are clearly distant from mourning and grief proper.
Astonishingly, Freud made a similar quite brilliant intuitive connection between mourning, memory and monuments in the first of his five lectures on psychoanalysis famously delivered in September 1909 at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. Freud had travelled with Ernest Jones and Carl Jung on a ship across the Atlantic carrying the bacillus of psychoanalysis to the New World where it would shortly thrive (in quite unexpected ways). Summarising his new approach for an expectant audience, Freud noted that his patients “suffered from reminiscences” – the symptoms and residues of mnemic symbols adumbrating traumatic experiences. Then Freud daringly introduced a link with mnemic symbols in other fields such as the “monuments and memorials” found in large cities that he suggested resembled “hysterical symptoms” of trauma from the distant past, symptoms of an inability to break free of the past with the consequence the “real and immediate” was neglected. For Peter Homans in The Ability To Mourn (1989), Freud’s “brilliant apercu” captured psychoanalysis’s potential for understanding culture but also some of the inevitable tensions derived from Freud’s “fear” of tradition and the past, of the clamour for meaning (read: illusions) and the possibility that tradition could reclaim the ego/subject of the modern age.
We can’t fully explore this topic here other than note that the desire for meaning is a legitimate, ontologically ineradicable impulse that is also, paradoxically, rooted in certain features of modernity. Mourning the past might be inescapable but embracing meaning that equates with fables and illusions, should be resisted (the question as to what is to be resisted, what is fabulation and illusion is evidently not a simple question and it is certainly not a question of the narrow provenance of scientific adjudication or ideology critique though our opinion is not offered in the spirit of postmodern scepsis or nihilism). Transactional relations with the past are an unavoidable and fundamental part of the human nomos or social universe – forgetting the past (homelessness) or alternatively allowing the past (tradition) to dominate the Ego are surely two major ‘dangers’ from the standpoint of self understanding and autonomy. The broader, related theme of symbolic loss, the fate of death and mourning in the privatised, disenchanted nomos or life-world of modernity, is usefully explored at some length by Homans (1).
In Mourning and Melancholia (1917), Freud defined mourning as an extended process of detachment and withdrawal of the libido (cathexis) from the lost object (such as a recently deceased family member). Accepting their death was difficult. Incremental reality testing and gradual libido withdrawal and its diversion elsewhere were necessary for the completion of mourning. In contrast, a melancholic struggled to give up the lost object or properly work through their loss because of a powerful narcissistic attachment to the object. In a not dissimilar fashion, symbolic loss, might involve the loss of specific cultural ideals, political beliefs or religious faith. In cases of symbolic loss, the process of “working through” was most likely to lead to disillusion, resignation or the abandonment of ideals rather than their renovation via revision. Yet relinquishing a specific politics or ideology might well be a crucial step in a necessary process of enlightenment. Politics, reasons, reflexive understanding are primary but keeping the (let us call it) ‘Freudian turn’ at the heart of critical reflection, is essential now as attachments to the universe of objects is inseparable from the symbolic universe and extends to ideals, political commitments, ideologies.
Loss and Collective Mourning
In terms of the formation of the mature Ego/subject, appreciating life’s transience is an important aspect of psychoanalysis. Loss is often felt as grief and emotional anguish when someone close to us dies. Loss is a universal or common experience but every loss is different and some are a greater source of pain than others. For example, loss can be shockingly abrupt and devastating such as the tragic, sudden death of a child. In this sad situation raw pain and distress is likely because the death of a child who was the object of all their parents love and hopes, who they were One for, violates life’s usual expectation that parents predecease their children. Life can be unexpectedly crooked.
This ‘normal’ everyday loss is something we are all likely to face in our lives but not all loss is of this ‘everyday’ kind. Some ‘normal’ losses are elevated to public awareness because it is deemed newsworthy – for example, those killed in a traffic accident or the uncommon, tragic death of a young child fatally mauled by the family dog. However these cautionary ‘news events’ don’t reach the threshold of national communal losses. In relatively pacific, stable post-war Britain, periodic communal losses though infrequent are not altogether rare or unknown. Britain has witnessed a series of national disasters and the following are only a select few, with some more notorious than others: Aberfan in 1966, Ronan Point and the Ibrox stadium disaster both in 1971, the Moorgate tube crash in 1975, the Manchester airport disaster in 1985, the Kings Cross tube fire in 1988, the Hillsborough stadium disaster in 1989 and the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017. All of these national disasters saw a terrible loss of life, shocked the country and dominated news headlines. Again, this is a selective list of Britain’s post-war national disasters and it doesn’t include the disaster that inflicted the greatest loss of life in the postwar years (that took place in 1953 for the curious). There are also the lives lost because of premeditated violence whether political, sectarian or criminally homicidal. So in the category of political violence it is difficult to appreciate two decades after the Good Friday Agreement, how extraordinary the British state’s ‘low intensity war’ against an Irish republicanism rooted in a politically alienated Northern Irish Catholic working class, actually was. Yet for all the ‘outrages’ and deaths studding the conflict including the bombing of city centres in Northern Ireland and the mainland, the British state and polity retained immense civic and political equipoise in the circumstances. Once contained, the conflict was never likely to escape the bounds of a stalemate that was only ever likely to benefit the British state rather than an increasingly anaemic Republican insurgency. There have been other, more recent high profile instances of loss and death through premeditated political violence such as Islamic fundamentalist violence – like the 7/7 central London bombings in 2005, the Manchester Arena suicide bomber in 2017, to select only two examples. In comparison fascist or far right outrages have been smaller in scale – the London nail bomber in 1999 or the killer of Jo Cox Labour MP during the 2016 EU Referendum campaign. Though fascist or right wing violence as ‘terror spectacle’ has so far been modest in comparison, to say, Irish republican or Loyalist violence during the Troubles, everyday hate crime or violence motivated by racism in Britain is a common experience for BAME communities. According to 2014 research by the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), there have been at least 105 murders where racism was a motive since April 1994 when Stephen Lawrence was murdered by a gang of knife wielding young white men in south east London (it is clear racist abuse and violence is either under reported or unacknowledged by the police and judicial system). It is a commonplace that racially motivated abuse, assaults and attacks including arson, have increased sharply in recent years with a surge since the triumph of the xenophobic, racist Leave campaign in 2016. A recent groundswell of anti-semitism has depressingly augmented rampant Islamophobic sentiment in Britain. The question of patterns of political violence and terror in Britain in recent times is important but it’s not our subject. Even so though we think such violence is comparatively rare any new upswing in political violence and terror would probably come from the fascist, far right. Finally, occasional acts of premeditated homicidal violence like Hungerford in 1987 and Dunblane in 1996 have been the cause of collective horror precisely because they were such rare events in a country where firearms were not readily available and gun violence was uncommon.
It is a feature of modern life that certain logics linked to the functioning of this or that sub-section of the global social order, have become un-tethered or no longer follow the orbit they previously moved in. As these local logics expand in a dysfunctional inflationary fashion and crash through their boundary conditions, they become manifest as forces of disaggregation and disintegration. The two major drivers of this systemic dysfunction (not the only ones), revealing the encroaching anomy that threatens the dissolution of the nomos and the arrival of a state of exception: are war and the ecological crisis.
The world is drowning in a sea of loss – not a Nature imposed necessity but conflicts and ecological crisis arising from systemic drives linked to the leveraging of social power and capital accumulation. Endemic violence and conflict in metastasizing zones creates “death-worlds” (Achille Mbembe) while “uncivilised wars” (John Keane) blossom like poisonous flowers in the twenty first century. Mary Kaldor had already noted the impact of globalisation on sovereignty and organized violence in the last quarter of the twentieth century, unleashing anarchic trends that ran counter to the old Westphalian model of a balanced system of nation-states predicated on mutual respect for the inviolable dominance of other sovereign states with their territorial monopoly of violence. However the ideal of a balanced hierarchy of states or a static state system was no more realistic than the Ptolemaic conception of the universe. The twentieth century has seen the proliferation of independent nation-states and in the post-war years much violence sprang from infant states (national liberation movements, post-colonial states) challenging the old imperial hegemon, providing a theatre of superpower conflict in the Cold War or engaging in deadly rivalry with local competitors.
Globalisation, the fission of trans-national forces but also the arrival of the post-colonial state meant decentralisation and the outbreak of organised violence by non-state actors and “war-machines” (Deleuze and Guattari), some of which were powerful enough to vie for the sovereignty of territories (challenging for the ‘allegiance’ of their inhabitants) claimed by the nation-state albeit these were typically among the weaker post-colonial nation-states. Often the reality was the escalation of war and violence, the creation of a fire storm in ‘zones of exception’ where distinctions between combatant and civilian was obliterated creating hell on earth far from the more pacific, stable zones of the global system.
Individual and collective trauma is rarely acknowledged as a reality of our age though it often dominates the nightly news. Or some of the world’s conflicts become part of the media spectacle for those citizens fortunate (or privileged) to be living in the more pacific, stable zones of the global system. Many zones of conflict are virtually invisible beyond the immediate confines of the conflict zone. An egregious example is the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo that erupted in the aftermath of genocide in neighbouring Rwanda (1998-2003) and is the bloodiest war since the Second World War with possibly more than five million Congolese killed mainly children as a result of the starvation and disease that has been a byproduct of the conflict. Arbitrary killing of civilians and mass rape have been features of the conflict in DRC and yet there was little news coverage of the conflict in comparison to other, more modest, conflicts elsewhere. Indeed, the steep rise of victims of global conflict, has made trauma an urgent political problem of our age. One of the most visibly potent aspects of this ‘trauma emergency’, are the armies of refugees surviving in grim camps, bombed villages, towns and cities and other liminal zones of destruction.
Often when we think of trauma we tend to think of it within our comparatively benign social horizon as largely individual or inter-personal trauma familiar from the unenviable figure of the survivor of domestic abuse or child sexual abuse. Such complex PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), generally reflects prolonged and multiple forms of inter-personal trauma where ‘escape’ was blocked by a variety of social constraints. The core symptoms of PTSD are re-experiencing, avoidance and numbing and hyper-arousal. These primary symptoms are often accompanied by a number of secondary disturbances such as dissociation and difficulty with social relationships that all together suggest the loss of emotional, psychological and social cognitive competencies. Treatment for complex PTSD is itself complex and multivariate, generally involving three a phase therapeutic model. Firstly, stabilisation, secondly, a direct focus on appraising the trauma including re-experiencing, reorganising and reintegrating the traumatic experiences, and thirdly, the transition out of therapy to a firmer engagement with life and the community. Obviously, the three phase therapeutic model for treating complex PTSD ideally implies one to one therapeutic intervention (group therapy, for example, isn’t really appropriate for CPTSD) and the trauma’s severity could mean that therapy might take years with the strong possibility of relapses necessitating recapitulating earlier steps. Even without relapses, remitting traumatic behaviour fully is unlikely given the life stressors the complex trauma survivor will encounter and occasional therapeutic refresher sessions are likely to be needed to ‘manage’ the ongoing impact of complex trauma (2).
The post-war years witnessed the gradual emergence of PTSD as a mental health diagnoses in North America and Europe driven by two particular circumstances. Firstly, the emerging evidence of trauma afflicting Holocaust survivors who were obliged to conduct a struggle of attrition against the medical and psychological establishment of the German Federal Republic in the 1950s and 1960s. This establishment shamefully compounded the survivors suffering by denying the evidence of their trauma and pain. There was deep ‘scepticism’ that someone could still be suffering trauma having lost their family or re-experiencing their camp existence a decade after their liberation while doubt was also cast on the motives of survivors who were also fighting the German government for modest compensation having lost everything. What finally ‘validated’ PTSD as a mental health diagnoses was the experience of American soldiers who served in Vietnam and unsurprisingly proved a more powerful lobby than Holocaust survivors. There is some irony in this as there are features of the mental health problems US army vets experienced that don’t fit the PTSD model as Judith Herman has noted (it goes without saying the trauma and complex trauma suffered by citizens of the South East Asian countries that made up the theatre of the Vietnam war were irrelevant). Nevertheless their lobby helped secure recognition of trauma and PTSD was finally included in DSM III in 1980 (3).
It should be apparent from the foregoing that this picture of a relatively benign environment for treating inter-personal complex trauma that takes for granted an established mental health or therapeutic infrastructure is far removed from the tragic circumstances producing adult onset complex traumas of civilians or refugees who have lived through war, genocidal campaigns, torture and so on, and who have also lost their homes and the means of making a living. Also, for the largely civilian populations who are still subject to the traumatic stressors of ongoing conflict, it makes little sense to talk of post traumatic stress disorder because the trauma is a current everyday reality. So the familiar inter-personal victim of, say, child sexual abuse diagnosed as suffering complex PTSD, has been joined by collective trauma and a proliferation of traumatized communities across the globe which inevitably means that the sheer mass or density of collective trauma, much of it complex trauma (CPTSD), is both intractable and likely to remain an urgent issue for the foreseeable future. This reality will not change while necropolitics, authoritarianism and barbarism are growing forces.
Violence creates traumatized victims and the “uncivilized wars” of the globalised era generates traumatized communities. In many parts of the present day global system, biological precarity shapes existence while social, cultural and physical death is imposed on incomprehensible numbers of people. Concentrated violence blasts out “death-worlds” (Deleuze and Guattari) ensuring the nomos (life-world or social horizon of meaning and action) cedes ground to anomy as populations are indiscriminately targeted for death and destruction, rendered stateless, brutalised, subjected to “invisible killing” and exterminatory violence. Traumatized communities are mostly composed of civilians who are either deliberately targeted or considered an acceptable cost of the remorseless prosecution of war aims. Everything within the biosphere is seen as part of the theatre of war. Collective trauma is a disintegrative force destroying existing social bonds between people.
Almost everywhere the notion of ethno-nationalism based on an imagined set of nativist markers or a commitment to ‘blood and soil’ trumping inclusive citizenship, gains ground. So traumatized communities and the people who belonged to them have often been violently displaced from their homes and even their countries and transformed into pariah refugees. As such they repel identification and solidarity among more affluent populaces that have not experienced war and conflict for generations. This is apparent across Europe where refugees are a neuralgic political stressor, on the right of the political spectrum in the main – particularly the growing populist right or alt-right, some parts of the conservative and liberal mainstream but also some sections of an ambivalent left retreating from internationalism and anti-racism as it repudiates globalisation in the name of the socialist heimat. Across the globe there exists a layer of the world citizenry who struggle to identify with the victims of war and violence, with refugees and so on – a layer that inhabits contiguous national ‘silos’ in a heteronomous social world, passive spectators of the spectacle, living comfortable but liminal lives far from the centre. Even those who believe they live at the centre of the universe secretly know this is an illusion. Nativist and exclusionary ideologies reinforce mixoseny, fear and loathing of the Other whose reviled existence is used by ‘nativists’ to define themselves in the act of excluding the Other.
Yet another section of this population identifies with the desperate plight of refugees and is politically committed to a very different ideal of Europe based on inclusive citizenship, multiculturalism and anti-racism – a view compatible with parts of the liberal centre and some parts of the left. Whatever political weaknesses or ambiguities that still adhere to this position, it offers the main home to an important pole of resistance to the racism and anti-migrant, refugee loathing politics of the populist and alt-right.
Symbolic Loss and Memory
Britain is a mausoleum; a relatively pacific, stable post-imperial country that has not experienced the impact of war for generations. Britain’s post imperial adventure in the 1982 South Atlantic campaign was a simulacrum of war and its contemporary military interventions are wars at a distance where violence and horror is visited on the Other in benighted faraway countries like Afghanistan. Such ‘conflicts’ or ‘interventions’ as they are symptomatically described, touch few families in Britain, leaving most people detached spectators with few considering they have a ‘stake’ in these ‘policing operations’ beyond support for ‘Our Boys.’ In stark contrast, societies entombed in conflict and death are zones where endemic violence births traumatized communities – countries like Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Myanmar, Gaza, Chechnya and many others. The reality of war and repression in such conflicts creates (as we noted above) what psychotherapists call complex trauma, whose cumulative and long term effects overwhelm ‘normal’ loss (and mourning). Complex trauma also acquires a socio-pathological dimension evident in a variety of morbid social symptoms. In this context, we should distinguish between de facto and post traumatized communities – where, in the former, war and repression is a contemporary reality, and the latter where the source of trauma, conflict, has ended but the trauma is very much a present disabling reality. A country like Argentina or Sri Lanka are examples of a post traumatized society where, for example in Argentina’s case, a transition from repressive military rule and its ‘Dirty War’ to civilian rule and democracy has taken place allowing the trauma of the survivors and the families of the victims of the military dictatorship, to be openly expressed.
Of course, other kinds of loss are imaginable – loss connected to the sphere of social action or the nomos, such as the loss of a political goal or ideal, that might be relinquished because of its tardiness or, alternatively, because its fruition fell short of the expectations and hopes originally invested in it, exposing the gap between ideal and reality. Naturally, not every adherent is open to enlightenment or is willing to discard their cherished ideological weltanschauung or the political goals it prescribed. While political goals and ideals can undergo a subtle abridgement in response to the deferral of the original goal, underlying attachments to a utopian essentially intra-uterine phantasy of a society that is whole and without differentiation, are likely to remain implicitly in place.
Freud on mourning
In Mourning and Melancholia (1917), written shortly before the First World War (it was published three years later), Freud asked, what is melancholia? Perhaps surprisingly Freud said little about mourning itself, obliquely defined via a comparison with melancholy. In some medieval thought influenced by earlier ancient Egyptian and Greek medicine, cosmology and philosophy, melancholia which belonged to one of Hippocrates four original humours, was regarded as a character disposition indicating the influence of Saturn at a distance, issuing either in deep introspection or sloth. Freud noted the elusive quality of melancholia, its waxing definition in literature – from a ‘disease’ of lethargic monks to the arrival of the Renaissance which saw melancholy associated with artistic or intellectual temperament (4).
Freud considered mourning a universal reaction to loss, usually a loved one (love-object) or the loss of something more indefinable like an ideal. Similar drivers produced mourning’s close relation, melancholia. Mourning could indicate a “grave departure” from life and Freud speculatively suspected the influence of a “pathological disposition.” Commonly mourning and grief was considered a painful reaction to the loss of the love-object while the inescapable ameliorative ‘cure’ was the passage of time. Also melancholia signalled a “profoundly painful dejection” indicated by a loss of interest in the outside world and loss of the capacity to love and the inhibition of all activity, accompanied by a lowering of the “self regarding feelings.” It was ‘low self esteem’ (as we would say today) that differentiated melancholia from mourning. According to Freud’s basic account, mourning was a form of reality testing with time and life’s tumult offering inducements to give up the lost object meaning the demand to withdraw attachment from the love-object grew steadily. Inevitably, this demand faced resistance reflecting the reality that “people never willingly abandon their libidinal position.” Yet prosaic reality eventually won the day and with mourning “completed” the ego would be “free and uninhibited again.”
So mourning and melancholia were marked by a gradual withdrawal of libido from the object. With mourning that loss was invariably a ‘real’ loss constituted by the death of the love-object. Also with mourning the process of detaching libidinal energy (cathexes) from the object was gradual but there the similarity ended. The detachment process was marked by ambivalence toward the love-object, signifying a struggle between love and hate. This ambivalent struggle could imply the activation of repressed traumatic material and so part of the struggle to withdraw libido from the object, took place in the Ucs. (unconscious).
Freud defined melancholia according to three features: the loss of the object, ambivalence and the regression of libido into the Ego (narcissism). The object-choice arising from the attachment of libido to the object continually encountered disappointment or ‘slights’ preventing any normal withdrawal of the libido from the object taking place as happened with mourning but instead promoting ‘displacement’ to a new object. With melancholia, object-cathexis had little power and the new freely available libido failed to find a new object but was instead drawn back into the Ego ensuring that the “shadow of the object fell upon the ego.” Object loss became ego loss and the ego was split between a part altered by identification with the lost object and an independent part of the ego.
Freud was curious about the cause of this ambivalent love/hate intra-psychic conflict. In formulating an answer Freud picked up on an observation of Otto Rank – the original object choice was strongly narcissistic meaning that a ‘weak’ object-cathexis was unable to avoid regression to the ego (narcissism). A narcissistic identification with the object substituted itself for erotic cathexis meaning conflict, or ambivalence, with the loved object need not entail the demand to give up the love-relation. Importantly, identification was a preliminary part of the object-choice process; it was the ego initially choosing the object and the ego wishing to introject the love-object in the process symbolically recapitulating the ontogenetic development of the ego/subject to the earlier oral stage of the psyche when the characteristic narcissistic desire was to absorb the object into the body (the first object, the original ‘good’ object as Melanie Klein claimed, was mother’s breast). Indeed Karl Abraham noted that severe melancholia typically involved a refusal to eat (as food was the not the object-choice). Melancholia had a quality of “pathological mourning” that revealed the underlying ambivalence of the love relation. Morbid self reproaches, debasement, self abnegation and suffering (a source of enjoyment as Freud originally observed), inevitably arose from the importation of the ambivalent love/hate relation into the ego ensuring conflict between the two parts of the split ego.
So melancholia was defined by the exceptional narcissistic strength of the original object-choice that strictu senso implied identification. Crucially, another significant distinction between mourning and melancholia was the former was a conscious process – the lost object was a definite, known object while in the latter circumstances it was more nebulous: object-loss was, to a degree, “withdrawn from consciousness.” So whatever absorbed the ‘melancholic’ subject (or constituted the object of melancholia), couldn’t be fully known though, it was a paradox, that perhaps the ‘melancholic’s’ greatest loss was the part of their split ego identifying with object (and harshly reproached by the other part for its pains).
Another way to read Freud on melancholia and the ideal as lost object, is understanding that while a certain degree of identification remains (ultimately based on narcissism) there is also some dissatisfaction with the ideal as object, some anxiety or a nagging sense that the ideal is in some ways deficient or falls short. In terms elaborated by Melanie Klein, external objects are introjected by the ego/subject into the internal psychical world of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ objects that ‘shadowed’ (not mirrored) the external object universe (including the symbolic universe), reorganised and seen from the standpoint of the ego. As noted, the original ‘good’ object was mother’s breast yet inevitably even the ‘good’ object could be a target of envy, anxiety or anger, usually stimulated by external factors like the withdrawal or unavailability of the external ‘good’ object.
In such circumstances the benign circle of reparation and love could be disrupted by persecutory, destructive psychical forces that might in turn prompt destructive guilt. In terms of the constitution of the integral or ‘mature’ ego, the process was a dynamic and conflicted where love and hate were constantly in contention though ‘maturity’ implied that the reparative, benign psychical forces of love, were generally able to retain the upper hand. The key point here though in relation to narcissism and identification and the introjections of myriad ‘good’ objects, is that identification necessarily retained a degree of ambivalence because the internal model: firstly, ‘good’ object qua identification qua ideal, could never exactly match the external ‘good’ object though this actual non-identity was essential for our capacity to develop our critical faculties, judgement and so on (5). A more or less lengthy period of reality testing may eventually spell disenchantment and the relinquishing of the ideal as love-object though incipient enlightenment might also prompt manic defence of the ideal. Indeed, Freud felt the ‘melancholic’s’ self reproaches were deceptively narcissistic and disappointment with the object wasn’t far beneath the surface, as we observed. Yet the object-relation was rarely abandoned though it was often displaced.
A close relation of melancholia was acedia (also accidie/accedie from the Latin acedia; also Greek for ‘neglience’), defined as listlessness or torpor, or not caring or being concerned with one’s position in the world. Acedia was paralysing and prevented people acting in the social world. It was related to forms of apathy, laziness and boredom. Aquinas considered acedia a vice in Summa Theologica (Q35) – a state of restlessness that manifested in an inability to pray or work and he also linked acedia with the “sorrow of the world” (a spiritual good) that could potentially spoil in a flight from the divine terminating in indifference or despair. On the basis of Aquinas’s description acedia appears to fit a spectrum of analytical diagnoses – loss of attachment to the world, withdrawal into the ego, masochistic self abnegation and more, echoing aspects of Freud’s clinical description of melancholia. In his Accidie essay, Aldous Huxley summarised acedia as a disease of the modern age and sixty years later in our consumer society with its accompanying culture of narcissism (Christopher Lasch), it is hard to ignore the conclusion that socially necessary sloth derived from consumption without end, aids the cultivation of the demobilized and deactivated citizen or in the language of Jacques Camatte, the ‘domestication’ of humanity.
Pursuit of the Millennium
An object-choice has much invested in it (cathexis) while there are real obstacles to any effort to withdraw from the object especially when it seems there is no obvious alternative object for the great libidinal investment made. This is pertinent to the political field – consider the perennial ‘crisis of Marxism’ whose fissiparous intellectual edifice, is continually read, reread and revised, not on the basis of the unity of theory and practice (a circuit that broke down long ago) but as that difficult to relinquish introjected object par excellence. There is no ‘scientific’ road map to an alternative socialist social order lying beyond capitalism and no revolutionary subject at the heart of such a eschatological utopia. In truth the long standing ‘crisis of Marxism’ – as melancholy or dejection, is no more than a symptom of the definitive socio-historical loss of the object. Defeat after defeat followed by retreat of the socialist sea of faith across the globe, paralleled the birth of a monstrous variety of bureaucratic totalitarian regimes whose existence mocked the hopes of its partisans. Today what global support for becalmed Marxism exists still is shot through with melancholia and manic defence, avowed by a dwindling band of supporters. More generally, it seems to this observer at least that partisans of social justice might usefully let go of Marxism (unless they wish to remain hobbyists) and ditch the eschatological certitude of the recent past, the abstract opposition to ‘what is’ that in practice is a fundamentally conservative stance offering the consolation of a secular faith for those forlornly waiting for the currents and riptides of history to sweep them up and take them somewhere. A radical rethink of the politics of social justice is required, especially how that politics relates to, and fits the global struggle for recognition and the project for autonomy – a subject that Paths and Bridges will return to shortly.
Death without Affect
Freud’s investigation of mourning and melancholia was speculative by his own admission and he would return to these themes later but he wasn’t alone. One aspect of Mourning and Melancholia (1917), was that it patently displayed all the hallmarks of Freud’s classical drive theory (instincts, drives, libido, cathexes, attachment and so forth), evident in the foregoing summary. It is notable that when Melanie Klein revisited this territory in 1940 she didn’t employ any of Freud’s language of drives, libido and instincts. Yet Freud’s 1917 article also illustrates how, as Don Carveth has argued, Freud can be regarded as the original theorist of Object Relations (the Object Relations or so-called British School of psychoanalysis emerged during the war and the post-war years and was heavily influenced by Melanie Klein). Broadly, object relations presupposed for each ego/subject, an internal and external world linked together to create a relational field of objects that constantly corresponded, mediated by the internal psychical world of the ego.
Finally, as Peter Homans observed of Mourning and Melancholia (1917) and other works, Freud never refers to mourning practices or ritual per se (ie. socially symbolic mediations and practice) and this is hugely significant because Freud’s backdrop is the disenchanted and desacrilized social universe of modernity. This social universe saw the retreat of tradition, the destruction of faith and the entropy of powerful religious narratives that previously helped make death both intelligible and meaningful. Instead Freud’s primary universe is the interior psychical universe of the individual exemplified in his continuous talk of the “painful working out” of grief evoking an individual thrown back on her own psychical resources. With modern society split between private and public worlds, death as “invisible death” is relegated to the private sphere where it becomes anonymous. This development partly reflected a primary cultural mutation in death mirrored in the transition to the “biological”, the product of a particular social-historical constellation: the scientific revolution, desacrilization and biopower, while mourning was simultaneously hollowed out of the sacred but also made more intensely personal, psychologised. The evacuation of sacred meaning was not necessarily the destruction of all meaning but rather a shift in the locus of meaning in terms of loss and mourning.
For Phillip Aries, the airless, alienated cultural landscape of the US indicated a socio-historical and cultural shift and the leeching away of the symbolic charge of meaning (depth, significance and so forth) from death while Prophets and proselytisers like Ernest Becker, writing in the early 1970s with some of the residual idealism of the 1960s counter-culture, excoriated the culturally prevailing “denial of death” and the fearful flight from mortality. It is difficult to escape the apprehension that Becker’s ‘ontology of anxiety’ and “denial of death” typified by various strategies of avoidance of the reality of mortality in narcissistic US society, was also obscurely played out (or displaced) in the ferocious death rained down on countries like Vietnam and Cambodia though we wouldn’t claim this distinctly North American cultural matrix concerning death was the cause of the murderous imperialist violence unleashed abroad. Naturally this sort of critique is speculative but it’s symptomatic perhaps that the 1960s radical counter-culture was able to make such intuitive links to the American way of death and the conduct of the pre-eminent Superpower’s armed forces throughout the world. Such global psychological insights seem to have become a bit passé by the time of the US anti-war movement that opposed the US’s invasion of Iraq in 2002. While various critiques of the hyper-reality of ‘post-modern’ war or similar, circulated and enjoyed a certain vogue, these were not quite the same, betraying both a changed context and their intellectual origin among European thinkers who took a position of cool or ironic distance as opposed to critical distance from the phenomena (7).
In The Denial of Death, Becker claimed that rationality and science simultaneously explained the world but also destroyed meaning and therefore advocated a return to a ‘lost’ horizon of plenitude and significance that was once supplied by religious belief, as an antidote to the loss of affect gripping modern alienated death. However, Becker’s ‘melancholy existentialism’, has drawn criticism. Recently, Don Carveth strongly dissented from Becker’s unduly pessimistic account of humanity’s predicament and his belief life should be supplemented by essentially religious illusions. Carveth denied Becker’s prescription partly on the grounds that Freud was in many (unrecognised) ways, the ‘first’ existentialist in the loose sense that late works like The Future of An Illusion (1927) and Civilization and its Discontents (1930), acknowledged our modern ontological anxiety in the face of mortality and the reality that ultimately death must remain a mystery to all, the final Great Barrier. Though as humans we remained stubbornly wedded to sublimated forms of flight from, and avoidance of the reality of our mortality, and though such forms of evasion were pervasive and sedimented in our culture, we were aware of our impending death and retained a capacity to accept this fact and even derive meaning, significance and even beauty from evanescent, transitory life (8).
Freud On Transience (1915)
In On Transience (1915) written shortly after Mourning and Melancholia (the latter was published later), Freud presented the case that the evanescence of life and nature, the “temporal limitation” of beauty, the work of art or a time bound intellectual achievement, shouldn’t entail an object losing its “worth.”Freud’s reflection on life, transience and meaning, was inspired by a walk in the Dolomites with a melancholic poet who professed to be unable to see any beauty in transitory Nature because ultimately it was perishable. The decay of beauty was inevitable and provoked different responses among people whether despondency, melancholia, acedia or even manic defiance against the despondent impulse. In response, Freud essentially declared his allegiance to the anthropos – beauty, Nature’s Sublime that existed for us that meant there was no reason for Nature to exist beyond us; a position that is really Freud’s confession that it’s humanity who will one day cease to be. Also the evanescence of summer elevated its beauty – erased by winter (beautiful in its own right), summer would nevertheless return until the incomprehensible point when it didn’t (with the advent of the anthropocene perhaps that time is not so far off as it had once seemed). In a related context, Peter Homans argues that Freud prepared us – us ‘Moderns’, to face a century full of losses, for the rise of movements and ideals and their destruction, encompassed by a “psychology of disillusionment” (8).
One feature of trauma is that it blocks the normal functioning of mourning. As Freud insisted mourning required memories to “work through” or process grief whereas trauma, as the psychotherapist Judith Herman emphasised, powerfully disrupted memory. The recall of traumatic memories and experiences is deeply painful and it is therefore unsurprising that these experiences are usually buried deep as a coping mechanism. Also trauma as a destructive psychical force disrupts bodily integrity and the sense of self and the self’s relations with others (9).
As we saw in the above summary of PTSD’s core symptoms in the context of inter-personal complex trauma, traumatic memories have a habit of returning unbidden to the surface of awareness with often painful consequences. Re-experiencing, flashbacks or recalling ‘repressed’ memories was one of the three core symptoms of complex trauma. Also in the second of the three phase therapeutic model for treating complex trauma, assessing, reappraising and re-experiencing the memories of trauma in order to reorganise and reintegrate those traumatic experiences into the survivor’s autobiography, was fundamental to the success of therapy. Wilfred Bion insisted that ‘truth’ was at the heart of psychoanalysis – the mutually enlightening nature of the talking cure, shone a powerful light on the subterranean psychical forces that held us in their grip precisely because of our constitutive narcissism and egotism and our failure to appreciate or resist the allure of the illusion of the apodictic subject in command of itself and everything it surveyed. In opposition to the idea of mastery and self possession as accomplished ontological fact we must insist mastery is a verb – in the sense that the aspiration to know thy self at the heart of psychoanalysis or any dynamic therapy, is inevitably an ongoing struggle, a perpetual process that must never simply come to a rest and a struggle for sober self understanding that is a key aspect of the project of autonomy.
Yet the complex relationship between the ego and its memories has an analogue in the social and cultural sphere. Peter Homans invokes the notion of ‘collective memory’ in the context of Durkheim’s student Maurice Halbwachs who argued that our understanding of the past is mediated by our socially symbolic ‘collective memory’. We might also understand this ‘collective memory’, in Castoridian terms as a component of the social imaginary. Halbwachs who perished in a Nazi concentration camp during the Second World War, underlined the distinction between memory and history and how the former, occurring in the present, was an ever active process of reworking. Clearly some interesting questions are raised about the objectivity of history or the historical record.
In the socially symbolic sphere, social power can promote active forgetting, making certain memories taboo, or actively filter or edit those memories in a repressive form of social censorship that functions to quarantine certain (traumatic) memories. Containment or repression may have a prophylactic function – perhaps Britain’s Remembrance Sunday, mentioned earlier, is an example of this. Here we have a far from benign process of active forgetting passed off as remembrance in the sense that we are no longer talking about grief, mourning or trauma but rather a frozen or affectless rote ritual whose core symbolism has become profoundly ambivalent, a “hysterical symptom” according to Freud’s first lecture to Clark University in 1909 – with talk of ‘sacrifice’ not entirely unconnected to efforts to insulate Britain’s armed forces from any criticism of their conduct in Iraq or Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Memory and trauma can also be weapons of resistance to social power against what George Orwell or Hannah Arendt would have regarded as a totalitarian trend. Memory as truth can therefore serve as a weapon in the armoury of social or reparative justice. In Britain, the indomitable Hillsborough campaign ‘Justice for the 96’ led by the families of the 96 Liverpool football fans unlawfully killed at Hillsborough football stadium in Sheffield in 1989, fought for many of those years in the wilderness. Lies were heaped on the fans and their families by a compliant national press following the lead of the South Yorkshire Police in a concerted conspiracy that involved obfuscating perceptions of the football fans who died and those who survived, simply ordinary fathers, sons, daughters and friends but denigrated as thugs, hooligans and thieves in an insidious campaign rehearsed by the same police force at the heart of policing the south Yorkshire coalfields during the 1984-85 Miners Strike. In the South Yorkshire police force’s concerted efforts to evade their responsibility for the disaster, the memories of lost loved ones were opposed by malign fabulations drawn from a stock of existing ideological tropes that incidentally, as a casual, spite filled by product of their operation denied the trauma of the survivors and the victim’s families.
Another celebrated, heroic example of the use memory utilising the refusal to forget as a weapon of social and reparative justice, is the ‘Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.’ They were mothers of some of the victims (‘the disappeared’) of the Argentine military juntas ‘Dirty War’ against so-called domestic subversion that took place between 1976 and 1983. It is estimated that more than 30,000 civilians were murdered by the junta, literally taken off the streets, tortured and murdered with no record of their arrest, detention or execution being kept. Some mothers began marching and silently gathering in the Plaza de Mayo outside the Casa Rosada presidential palace in Buenos Aires in defiance of the junta and wearing white headscarves symbolic of their child’s diapers. As a form of protest against the junta, their actions were so effective in highlighting the military junta’s murderous suppression of human rights that they inevitably attracted terror themselves. The the founder of the ‘Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo’ was kidnapped, tortured and murdered with two French nuns on the orders of Argentina’s military dictator. Yet this leader was eventually imprisoned after the return to civilian rule.
In the near future Paths and Bridges intend to explore in more detail the contribution psychoanalysis and the dynamic therapies that emerged from it, can make to the politics of reparation that must ultimately (among its aims) consciously and collectively organise itself and seek to tear up the roots of surplus trauma, and illumine why it should be considered an essential part of the struggle for recognition and social justice that forms the premise of the project for autonomy.
(1) Peter Homans ‘Introduction’ in Symbolic Loss: The Ambiguity of Mourning and Memory at Century’s End, edited P. Homans (2000), pp2-8.
(2) This is a condensed summary of ISTSS Expert Consensus Guidlines for Complex PTSD November 2012 produced leading experts in the field of PTSD constituted as the Complex Trauma Task Force.
(3) The political backdrop of the ascent of PTSD is fruitfully accounted for by Dagmar Herzog in Cold War Freud (2016).
(4) Sigmund Freud Mourning and Melancholia (1917) in the Standard Edition volume 14 (1914-16), pp.243-58.
(5) Melanie Klein’s account of mourning and its affinity with the early development of the young child is explored further in an upcoming Paths and Bridges post.
(6) See Ernest Becker The Denial of Death (1974).
(7) See Donald L. Carveth Psychoanalytical Thinking (2018), pp.161-67.
(8) Sigmund Freud On Transience (1915) in S.E. Volume 14, pp.304-07.
(9) Judith Herman Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror (2015 edition), pp.175-95.