Melancholy as a Condition of Being Human


In the Middle Ages, it was believed that melancholy was caused by an excess of black bile and related with Saturn. People’s interests in melancholy have persisted and amplified to the extent that it has been regarded as a virtue for the cultivated. Furthermore, it has been exalted as a sort of cultural symbol in diverse artistic and literary movements since Renaissance. According to Robert Burton, the author of Anatomy of Melancholy, all human beings are melancholiacs (like himself) and without the depression in the mind of human being there is no hope for the future – which is an utopian interpretation of melancholy. Erwin Panofsky’s interpretation on Albrecht Dürer’s engraving, Melencolia I, also gives an affirmative view to melancholia. He regards the main feature in depressed condition as the artist’s self-portrait and mathematical and geographic tools symbolizes

On the contrary, Freud sees melancholia as one of serious mental disorders, and tries to analyze it with the scientific method. Freud wrote this short essay in 1917 in order to investigate the nature of melancholia which seemed very similar to mourning and the normal emotion of grief in its symptoms and features. According to Freud’s comparison, while mourning is as a state of grief “regularly the reaction to the loss of a loved person, or to the loss of some abstraction which has taken the place of one, such as fatherland, liberty, an ideal, and so on,” melancholia, even though caused by the same influences, displays “a morbid pathological disposition”(164).

Patients in melancholia show symptoms such as a “painful dejection, abrogation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love, inhibition of all activity, and a 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” (165). But these traits are also what we can find in grief and mourning except self-reproaches. That is to say, what distinguishes melancholia from mourning is that the melancholiac expresses painful denouncement to himself. Freud thinks that in melancholia loss of all the interest in the things outside might be just “the effect of the inner travail consuming his ego” (167), i.e. the effect of self-accusation.

Why has he lost his self-respect and how this mechanism functions in economy of melancholia? Melancholia begins with the reaction to the loss of the loved object, actually died or not. A sort of loss has been experienced but melancholiac does not consciously know what has been lost. Thus “melancholia is in some way related to an unconscious loss of a love-object, in contradistinction to mourning, in which there is nothing unconscious about the loss”(166). If we reconstruct this unconscious process: (1) There was object-choice to which the libido had attached itself; (2) The object-relationship was undermined due to a real injury or disappointment concerned with the loved object; (3) The object-cathexis proved to have little power of resistance, and was abandoned; (4) Free libido was withdrawn into the ego and not directed to another object; (5) The libido serves to establish an identification of the ego with the abandoned object; (6)The loss of the object become transformed into a loss in the ego (170).

Seeing this process of transformation in melancholia, what is contradictory is that, although the object-cathexis has little power of resistance (because the object does not exist any longer), “a strong fixation to the love-object” is inevitable. Freud explains this condition with the narcissistic identification and the conflict of ambivalence: “The ego wishes to incorporate this object into itself…. by devouring it”(171) and by reproaching and hurting the part of the ego – the loved object which has been shifted on to the patient’s own ego – it thus takes revenge on the loved object. Patient’s tendency to suicide, as an extreme case of melancholia, can be explained by this sadistic gratification – making the new substitute object inside suffer.

If melancholia occurs when the ego internalize the lost love-object (mother) and then shows complex ambivalent love-hate reactions to the internal object, is there any difference between melancholia and the general process of the ego formation? Melanie Klein thinks that “there is a close connection between the testing of reality in normal mourning and early process of the mind”(147) or between mourning and the manic-depressive state. She regards the infantile depressive position (which is melancholia in its original form) as the necessary process of acquiring knowledge by experiencing and overcoming the frustration and ambivalence of reality.

Where Freud stopped further investigation on the function of libido’s regression into the ego, Klein seems to begin her own explanation. For Klein “every advance in the process of mourning results in a deepening in the individual’s relation to his inner objects, in the happiness of regaining them after they were felt to be lost … in an increased trust in them and love for them because they proved to be good and helpful after all”(164). Kristeva also tries to see the constructive aspects of the depressive affect by focusing on potential of the asignifying mechanism in melancholia, as the eye of the melancholy woman in Dürer’s engraving suggests her artistic genius overcoming fateful failure of human being through contemplation and intellectual exploration.

Works Cited:

Sigmund Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia,” General Psychological Theory, Touchstone, 1991 (1997).

Melanie Klein, “Mourning and Manic-Depressive States,” The Selected Melanie Klein, Free Press, 1986.


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