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  • James Lowell Brunton

Nostalgia and Melancholia

I’ll wrap up my semester-long look at nostalgia with some insights on Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia” that occurred to me while reading Marcos Piasan Natali’s “History and the Politics of Nostalgia.” In this later essay, Natali criticizes the prevailing notion in 19th- and 20th-century thought that nostalgia makes for both “bad politics” and “bad history” (13, 18). On the “bad politics” front, we have Marx, whose belief in stages of history necessarily leading to a socialist revolution made the idea of looking back to past economic systems a politically conservative act. The “bad history” argument is embodied by Frederic Jameson’s claim in Postmodernism that nostalgia glosses over historical facts, presenting a view of the past that is both sentimental and inaccurate. Natali finds Jameson’s argument suspect insofar as it assumes that the lens of history is the only way of relating to the past. The “bad politics” and “bad history” arguments rest on an understanding of history “as necessarily emancipatory, progressive, and rationally comprehensible” as well as on an understanding of the past as irrecoverable (21).

These are all valid points that support my arguments laid out in previous posts. But Natali misses an opportunity in his reading of nostalgia in Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia,” and instead places Freud’s remarks on melancholia in the same anti-nostalgic camp as Jameson and his predecessors. I would argue that what we find in Freud’s essay is the elucidation of a state of mind that could serve as the framework for staking a personal claim in the redemption of the past.

Natali argues that Freud’s essay on melancholia advocates for “a particular way understanding of death” that precludes the idea of repetition or return—a point Natali uses to bolster his claim that Freud’s anti-nostalgia is rooted in the same brand of empiricism and historicism as Marx or Jameson (19). In fact, however, Freud is explicit throughout his essay in noting that “the occasions that give rise to the illness extend for the most part beyond the clear case of a loss by death, and include all those situations of being slighted, neglected or disappointed…” (251). Freud is not talking about a simple delusion wherein the melancholic person fails to believe in the actual death of a person. Rather, Freud describes a way of relating to the past that keeps all the tension of that past alive in the present.

Melancholia is a condition in which the subject identifies with the loved object that is now missing, precisely as a way to keep that object alive. “The narcissistic identification with the object,” says Freud, “…becomes a substitute for the erotic cathexis, the result of which is that in spite of the conflict with the loved person the love relationship need not be given up” (249). This point makes Freud’s theory of melancholia particularly important for theorizing nostalgia (as opposed to anti-nostalgia) because it shows 1) that one’s psychic relationship to the past can, and sometimes does, involve the keeping alive of an object that is, empirically, gone, and 2) that the lost object is kept alive precisely through incorporation by an individual ego—it is as though the lost past becomes re-embodied through a living person.

Furthermore, Freud points out that the melancholic position is anything but uncritical of the past; in fact, Freud found that in most patients, criticisms that ought to have been levied against the lost object were displaced by the melancholic onto her or himself. “The loss of a love-object,” he notes, “is an excellent opportunity for the ambivalence in love relationships to make itself effective and come into the open” (250-1). Such a model as Freud describes is far from the glossing over of the past as described by Jameson. Rather, melancholy in fact makes manifest the latent ambivalence felt in the past toward the loved object.

What begins to emerge in this reading of Freud’s theory of melancholia is a kind of looking back that brings the past, with all its negative aspects intact, into the present with real, material effects. Certainly, Freud cast melancholia, with its damaging symptoms, as a pathology. But nowhere does Freud wholly dismiss the legitimacy of the melancholic’s view (as even Natali points out, Freud tells us that the melancholic “has a keener eye for the truth than other people who are not melancholic” when it comes to understanding his/her own situation) (249). Instead, I think Freud offers a potentially productive way of looking at nostalgia.

“In mourning,” Freud writes, “it is the world which has become poor and empty; in melancholia it is the ego itself” (249). Neither of these viewpoints seems particularly conducive to positive action. But consider that where the subject in mourning sees a broken world of irrecoverable loss, the melancholic subject sees herself as a site of loss. She carries the lost object and all her ambivalence toward it within her own self and, according to Freud, battles with that ambivalence again and again. The melancholic ego is the site of an incomplete loss—a loss that is still worried over, still kept alive, and thus, perhaps similarly to Benjamin’s concept of the “oppressed past,” still capable of being recovered (396).

Benjamin, Walter. “On the Concept of History.” Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 4, 1938-1940. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2006. 389-400.

Freud, Sigmund. “Mourning and Melancholia.” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XIV (1914-1916): On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement, Papers on Metapsychology and Other Works. Trans. James Strachey. London: The Hogarth Press, 1962. 237-258. Print.

Natali, Marcos Piason. "History and the Politics of Nostalgia." Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies 5 (2004): 10-25.

#psychoanalysis #jameslowellbrunton

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