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For most of western European history, melancholy was a central cultural idea, focusing, explaining, and organising the way people saw the world and one another and framing social, medical, and epistemological norms.  Today, in contrast, it is an insignificant category, of little interest to medicine or psychology, and without explanatory or organising vitality. In homage to its past, Freud’s work; “Mourning and Melancholia”, an essay that ushers in a new type of theorising and represents, in certain respects, the completion of this tradition and Kristeva’s essay; “Mourning the Lost Mother and the Lost Self”, are both influential sources we should refer to when looking at melancholy. The term melancholic state, melancholy, and melancholia are not distinguished in any consistent way in past writings. Writing about melancholy has customarily been broad, directed not only towards defining but also towards remedying melancholy dispositions, states, and conditions. The two texts I will therefore look at introduce conceptual questions about melancholy- what it is, rather than what to do about it. Kristeva’s account does make use of and develop some of Freud’s ideas as she also proposes a loss theory and develops the theory of narcissism, but her writing can easily be distinguished as she places emphasis on the role of gender.
Melancholy comes from two Greek words melas (black) and khole (bile). Greek science had taught that there were four elements (earth, air, fire, and water) and conceived of health as a balanced relationship between four humors, fluids or substances present in the human body: blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. Variations in these humors explained normal variation in temperament from one person to another, as well as states of disorder in a given person. Articulated first by the Greek Physician Hippocrates, affirmed by Aristotle, Galen, and the Arabic Physicians, and maintained in some form until well into the eighteenth century was the notion that, as is its name suggests, melancholy is a disorder, or a characteristic disposition, of the spleen or atrabiliary glands, the organ or organs supposed to produce the thick, acrid fluid known as the black bile.  This humoral theory persisted even when seemingly alternative explanations or etiologies, natural and supernatural, were offered, but with the advent of modern medicine and science, the link between melancholy and black bile in the European tradition gradually weakened. By the end of the nineteenth century there had been many changing conceptions of melancholy and melancholic states. Psychoanalyst, Freud, describes Melancholia as a psychological process in his essay “Mourning and Melancholia”; this essay is somewhat revolutionary as it has come to be known as one of Freud’s metapsychological essays, which constitute the corner stone of his theoretical effort. It also signalled a significant shift in both psychoanalytic theory and in our understanding of how people react to various kinds of loss.
In laying out his early theory of mourning in “Mourning and Melancholia” (1917), Freud begins by defining similarities between the two responses to loss he otherwise seeks to distinguish. Mourning and melancholia entail similar symptoms: “profoundly painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love, [and] inhibition of all activity” (Freud, 1917 p. 244).  Moreover, both “normal” mourning and “pathological” melancholia may arise in “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, and ideal, and so on” (Freud, 1917 p.243). The continuous comparison between the normal and the pathological was one of Freud’s great gifts and contrasting mourning and melancholia bridges the gap once again between the normal and pathological realms. The mourning process becomes pathological when it is interrupted in its normal evolution; it then becomes a depressive experience. Normal mourning consists of a group of functions. Different types of internalisations do not, as it so often stated, go into the ego, superego, or ego ideal but function as an ego, superego, or ego ideal. The process of mourning begins with denial. When “reality-testing” teaches the ego to accept the loss, the ego withdraws its libidinal attachment from the internalised object representation of the dead person. Whether in response to literal death or symbolic loss, mourning names an experience of grief and a process of working through during which the mourner relinquishes emotional ties to the lost object.
While drawing on existing assumptions about the mourning process, Freud suggested this detachment of libido takes place through a “testing of reality.” Although he admitted a lack of complete knowledge about reality testing, Freud maintained that the mourner severs attachments primarily through a labor of memory: “Each single one of the memories and expectations in which the libido is bound to the object is brought up and hypercathected, and the detachment of the libido is accomplished in respect of it; “When the work of mourning is completed the ego becomes free and uninhibited again” (Freud, 1917 p. 245). The most striking characteristic of the melancholic personality is extreme diminution in self-regard: somehow the loss of an object has triggered an impoverishment of the self. As Freud puts it: “In mourning it is the world which has become poor and empty; in melancholia it is the ego itself” (Freud, 1989: 585). In other words, while it would seem as though the loss suffered is that of an object, what the melancholic has actually experienced is a loss of self.
According to Julia Kristeva, the author of “Mourning the Lost Mother and the Lost Self” and of Black Sun. Depression and Melancholia, the melancholic suffers not from the Object but the Thing lost, which is “an unnamable, supreme good, something unrepresentable, that […] no word could signify. […] The Thing is inscribed within us without memory, the buried accomplice of our unspeakable anguishes” (1989: 13-14).  Kristeva identifies the Thing with the Mother, by which she understands the pre-Oedipal Mother – the one strongly bonded to the child and then prohibited in the Name of the Father. The mother is the child’s first love which has to be abandoned in order to enable him or her to become the subject. Kristeva argues that if one has not entered the symbolic at all, that is, not to have separated from the mother- as in extreme psychosis- is to be close to living death.
So unlike either Freud, Kristeva is concerned with analysing the complexities of the maternal function, which she maintains have been left out of traditional psychoanalytic theory. Her texts take us deeper and deeper within the maternal function, and thereby take us deeper and deeper into the maternal body. In her earlier work Kristeva discusses the infant’s relationship to the surface of the mother’s body, to the mother’s breasts. She describes the ways in which negation and identification are already operating in this relationship. Kristeva emphasizes that even though the process of losing the maternal (semantic) in order to become part of the paternal (symbolic) is common to both the male and the female child, it is the girl who suffers more from the matricide. While the boy, entering the paternal sphere, identifies with the father and replaces the mother with another object of the opposite sex, the girl has to return to the abandoned mother to identify with her in order to make herself an object of the opposite-sex desire. According to Kristeva, this is “an unbelievable symbolic effort,” (Kristeva, 1989 p.28) as for the girl the act of killing the mother is, in fact, the act of killing herself.
Kristeva describes the child’s relation to the mother’s sex as an abject relation that facilitates the child’s separation from the maternal body. The child does not see the mother’s sex as threatening, as scar, because she “does not have one” (Freud). Rather, in Kristeva’s analysis, the child sees the mother’s sex as threatening because it is the canal out of which it came.  Abjection shows up as the struggle to separate from the maternal body. Kristeva explains that abjection can be experienced as disgust which is a bodily form of revolt or as a phobic reaction against the polarised experiences of fusion and separation. Total revolt is impossible and this impossibility is the very condition of abjection. The theory of the abject accounts for the subject’s difficulty in ever fully relinquishing the return to the archaic mother, represented in pre-symbolic, semiotic expression, for we revolt against the frontiers and boundaries which separate us from that maternal continent.  Separation difficulty and abjection as a form of melancholy are therefore closely related. Abjection might be seen as a kind of transitional melancholy between the maternal continent and identification with the father in the symbolic. As such the abject is closely bound up with questions of identity, boundary crossing, exile and displacement.
What’s more it is the separation from the mother which enables us- as Kristeva says in Soleil noir – to become narcissists; that is, to develop an identity, an ego. From the very beginning of its unfolding, separation is physically painful. A sense of loss or emptiness comes to exist where once there was a satisfying union with the mother. At this point, Kristeva refers to Freud’s concept of an amalgam of the two parents in primary narcissism which becomes the basis of an ‘archaic’ or ‘primary’ identification: the ‘father of individual prehistory’.  The father in individual prehistory emerges prior to the formation of an object which will accompany the emergence of the subject in language; it is thus prior to any ideal, but is nonetheless the basis of all idealisation-especially in love. The father of individual prehistory which Kristeva also calls the Imaginary Father is the basis for the formation of a successful narcissistic structure- one that enables the symbolisation of loss, and the formation of desire.
Freud first identifies narcissism as a homosexual object-choice through which a man loves another man, who resembles him, in the way in which his mother loved him. (1990) Freud next describes narcissism as a stage in an infant’s development that comes between autoeroticism and object-cathexis. (1914) Here Freud suggests that narcissism is not just a stage through which the infant passes. Rather, at this point, Freud sees narcissism as an ongoing structure of the ego. This is the hypothesis that Kristeva takes up. Freud explains in his “Mourning and Melancholy”, that in losing the object, rather than directing the freed libido to a new object- the healthy response-the melancholiac appears to have withdrawn the freed libido back to the ego. This libido is then used to establish a narcissistic identification of the ego and the abandoned object; ‘Thus the shadow of the object fell upon the ego’ (p.249).  This explains why the ego is impoverished. By holding the object within, as it were, the melancholic can enjoy, at leisure, the opportunity of vilifying it.
Similarly Kristeva develops her own theory of narcissism. As opposed to the first kind of depression that she describes, which she calls objectal depression, Kristeva calls this second kind Narcissistic depression. Instead of feeling hostility to some internal object, the depressed narcissist feels flawed, incomplete, and wounded. Kristeva argues that melancholia is a noncommunicable grief, the melancholic is wrapped up in her sadness, it is hers alone, something which she cannot share in the social/symbolic realm. This is of course the malady; a wound occurring when one is still in infancy, in the midst of what Freud called primary process.  In Freudian theory, the term primary refers to the first stage of development and to what occurs unconsciously.
Nevertheless, probably nothing is more controversial among feminist critics than Kristeva’s notion of the maternal body, the feminine, and women, some critics have accused Kristeva of essentialism. For example, Domma Stanton and Nancy Fraser argue that through her association of the semiotic Chora with the feminine and the maternal; Kristeva reduces the feminine to the maternal and thereby essentialises the feminine.  Judith Butler and Ann Rosalind Jones both argue that Kristeva makes maternity compulsory for women. However Kristeva claims to that she is concerned with discourses in which identity breaks down. She is concerned with discourses that call up a crisis in identity. For her the discourse of maternity is such a discourse. It is a discourse that, possibly more than any other, points to a subject-in-process.
While “Mourning and Melancholia” crowned Freud’s metaphysical theorising, the paper was also important on a clinical level. For Jones in 1955, it was “still the best account available of the psychology of manic depressive insanity”.  But whether the melancholia in question is of clinical or of theoretical interest, just what melancholia is comes to be particularly difficult to assess since, as Freud notes at the very beginning of his paper, there does not seem to be any unifying principle behind the symptoms of this particular neurosis. He warns readers against overestimating the value of his conclusions on melancholia because its definition “fluctuates” (p.243) even in descriptive psychiatry. By stressing the necessity of speaking of different forms of melancholia and pathological depression, the text rejoins the longstanding tradition of treating melancholia as a typology to be classified rather than as a condition to be specified. Nonetheless, although Freud says melancholia cannot be reduced to any fixed concept or symptom in his attempt to understanding what mental processes are taking place, he proceeds to make some rather clear-cut distinctions. As the title of the essay already suggests melancholia is defined as distinct from mourning, which, we are soon told, would be the “normal affect” of grief caused by the loss of an object, while melancholia is defined as distinct from mourning.
While there are many critiques that see Freud’s description of normal and pathological grief as flawed, what remains momentous is its impact on the psychoanalytical world. No study of melancholia can begin without a reconsideration of Freud’s work. Similarly Kristeva examines the link between depression and the history of melancholia in a literary, artistic and psychoanalytic context. Kristeva’s work on depression is an integral part of her project to bring the unspeakable into desire and language. In depression there is a melancholic disinvestment in language’s symbolic power, a split between language and affect at the infraverbal level of tone, modulation, vocal gesture, that is, a semiotic level.  There is a failure of symbolic activity, a state of abjection. It is in her theory of melancholy that Kristeva is able to bring together aspects of the semiotic and of abjection. Despite the many criticisms she receives, Kristeva is esteemed for the rigor and variety of her thought and remains one of the leading intellectuals in the West.
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