Narcissism and melancholia
Written in 1915 (though not published until 1917), ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ extends the work of Freud’s paper ‘On Narcissism’ of the previous year. The translation of Freud’s 1914 title ‘Zur Einfuhrung Des Narzissmus’ as ‘On Narcissism: An Introduction’, suggests that the paper promises an introductory sketch of narcissism, whereas the German title indicates that the task of the paper is in fact to account for the introduction of narcissism to the broader psychoanalytic project (1914a, 69). This difference of inflection is important because it draws us back to the central problems that the theory of narcissism raises and which persist in Freud’s work on melancholia. Why, we must ask, does Freud ‘introduce’ narcissism to his metapsychological field; what research problem does this introduction attempt to solve, and how does it pertain to his subsequent theorisation of melancholia?
We recall from our reading of the 1914 paper, that a ‘new psychical action’ was posited as necessary to propel the transition from autoeroticism (an object-less state which exists from the outset) to the state of narcissism (a state in which the ego is libidinally cathected). The supposition of a distinct psychical action, a catalyst of sorts, was deemed necessary by Freud because it was assumed that ‘a unity comparable to the ego cannot exist in the individual from the start’ (77). A fundamental question persisted, however, when the reader of the 1914 paper did not learn what the ‘new psychical action’ is that instantiates the necessary development of the ego. It is not altogether surprising, then, that when Freud turns to his theorisation of melancholia the following year he takes the opportunity to stage a further reckoning with the problem of ‘the constitution of the human ego’ (1917b, 247). And yet a disquisition on states of sadness may well strike us as an unusual location from which to pursue this aspect of metapsychological enquiry.
Mourning and melancholia contribute to the catalogue of commonplace conditions, enumerated by Freud in his 1914 paper, that are characterised by a narcissistic withdrawal of libido on to the subject’s own self (e. g. organic illnesses, hypochondria, sleep, falling in love). When the sick man suffering from toothache, say, withdraws his libid – inal cathexes back into his own ego and temporarily neglects his most cherished objects in the external world, we do not find his behaviour alarming (1914a, 82). Likewise, says Freud, we are not taken aback when the loss of a loved one creates in the individual a state of ‘profoundly painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love, [and] inhibition of all activity’ – for the person in question will, of necessity, devote herself to the work of mourning until the point at which ‘respect for reality gains the day’ and investments beyond the ego can be afforded once more (1917b, 244). Such is the condition of so-called normal mourning. For the melancholic, however, the picture is a little more complex. In addition to exhibiting the painful symptoms of a subject in mourning, the melancholic manifests a curious ‘disturbance of self-regard’ which finds expression in uninhibited self-criticism and self-reproach (244). It is only when one understands melancholia as a process through which an object-cathexis is replaced by an identification, however, that the true target of the melancholic’s criticism is revealed to be the lost object rather than the individual’s own self. This confusion rebounds because the nature of the loss that gives rise to melancholia cannot be as directly apprehended as it can in so-called normal mourning: the melancholic might know ‘whom he has lost but not what he has lost in him’ (245). With this differentiation between the known whom and the unknown what, Freud underscores the opacity of melancholia commensurate with the withdrawal of the object-loss from consciousness. This leads Freud to articulate the distinction between the two states thus: ‘In mourning it is the world which has become poor and empty; in melancholia it is the ego itself’ (246). But just how does the lost object get ‘inside’, so to speak, and how might an understanding of this mechanism shed light on the residual question from the 1914 paper regarding the development of the ego? To answer these questions we need to go a little further in our explication of the melancholic’s impoverished ego-state.
In his 1914 paper Freud demonstrated the (narcissistic) difficulty of maintaining a conceptual distinction between the ego-as-subject, and the ego-as-object. When Freud claims that a unity comparable to the ego cannot exist from the start, we assume he is thinking of the ego as subject; which is to say, the ego as broadly coterminous with an agentic sense of self that a general usage of the term implies.1 But of course, the force of the paper resides in Freud’s provocation that the ego can be libidinally invested as can any other object. We can call this difficulty a narcissistic one in as much as Freud’s theoretical challenge replicates the boundary confusion that we have seen to exemplify narcissistic states. In the 1914 paper the apparatus of the ego’s critical agency, in the form of the ego-ideal, went some way in articulating its dual status (i. e. the ego as subject and object). The clinical predominance of the melancholic’s ‘dissatisfaction with the ego on moral grounds’ – the melancholic’s shameless self-criticism – gives Freud further cause to investigate the critical ego-ideal in his subsequent paper (1917b, 248).
Freud explains that when, in melancholia, the surfeit of libido that the loss of the object releases is withdrawn into the ego it then binds the ego to the abandoned object in a narcissistic identification. In a much quoted passage, the mode of identification of the ego with the abandoned object is described as follows:
Thus the shadow of the object fell upon the ego, and the latter could henceforth be judged by a special agency, as though it were an object, the forsaken object. In this way an object-loss was transformed into an ego-loss and the conflict between the ego and the loved person into a cleavage between the critical activity of the ego and the ego as altered by identification. (249)
It is important to keep in mind here the inviolable psychoanalytic principle of ambivalence: With particular reference to narcissism, Freud tells us that in the oral/cannibalistic phase of sexual organisation, where love and hate are not yet in opposition, the desire to incorporate the object is an expression of ‘a type of love which is consistent with abolishing the object’s separate existence and which may therefore be described as ambivalent’ (1915c, 138). Hence in melancholia, a regressive narcissistic identification with the object enacts an incorporation which brings the melancholic’s ambivalence to the fore. In sustaining a narcissistic identification with the object, the melancholic does not have to give up the lost object wholesale (object-loss is transformed into ego-loss); however, in the very act of safeguarding something of the object (through its transformation), the melancholic also preserves the conflict that was coincident with object-love. Now though, the ‘conflict due to ambivalence’ is a battle that rages entirely within one breast (1917b, 251). Freud continues:
If the love for the object – a love which cannot be given up though the object itself is given up – takes refuge in narcissistic identification, then the hate comes into operation on this substitutive object, abusing it, debasing it, making it suffer and deriving sadistic satisfaction from its suffering. The self-tormenting in melancholia, which is without doubt enjoyable, signifies […] a satisfaction of trends of sadism and hate which relate to an object, and which have been turned around upon the subject’s own self [… ] (251)
Presupposing that the ego can take itself as object (a substitute object), melancholia models a turning around of destructive trends back on the subject’s own self. We cannot overlook the violence inherent in this melancholic fantasy-scape with its intimate connection to the operations of (moral) conscience. Freud offers the phenomenon of suicide (and suicidal thoughts) as operative under this schema where ‘the ego can kill itself only if, owing to the return of the object-cathexis, it can treat itself as an object’ (252). Some years later, by which time the ego’s critical agency was theorised as the superego, Freud asks how ‘in melancholia the super-ego can become a kind of gathering-place for the death instincts?’ With reference again to the figurative ‘turn’, he concludes that ‘the more a man controls his aggressiveness, the more intense becomes his ideal’s inclination to aggressiveness against his ego. It is like a displacement, a turning round upon his own ego’ (1923, 54). What is important to note is that this curious picture is generalised when Freud explains that melancholic ‘substitution^]’ (i. e. the replacement of an object-cathexis by an identification) should be understood as ‘common’ and ‘typical’ in a theory of ‘character’ formation (28). With this formulation of a figurative turn, and the identification of the ego as object, we are returned to Freud’s unresolved statement from his 1914 paper, ‘the ego has to be developed’ (1914a, 77).