What is there to lose?

Adam Phillips

  • Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia by Julia Kristeva, translated by Leon Roudiez
    Columbia, 300 pp, $33.50, October 1989, ISBN 0 231 06706 2
  • Surviving trauma: Loss, Literature and Psychoanalysis by David Aberbach
    Yale, 192 pp, £16.95, February 1990, ISBN 0 300 04557 3

The idea that literature, or any other discipline like boxing or song-writing, could modify psychoanalytic theory – that it could be a two-way street – has always been problematic for psychoanalysts. There is, of course, no reason to think a psychoanalyst’s interpretation of a boxing match would necessarily be more revealing than a boxer’s account of a psychoanalytic session. But psychoanalysts have worked on the rather misleading principle that psychoanalysis is only useful or interesting if it is in some sense right, rather than believing that it is another good way of speaking about certain things like love and loss and memory, as songs can be (and that, also like songs, it is only ever as good as it sounds). For most psychoanalysts, including Freud, Great Artists tend to provide either vivid illustration or prestigious confirmation of psychoanalytic insights. Melanie Klein, for example, found nothing she didn’t already know in the Oresteia, and even Lacan found Hamlet reassuring.

Great Theorists, unlike Great Artists, whether they intend to or not, always make us believe in progress. So it can sometimes seem in psychoanalytic writing that Western – and occasionally Eastern – culture has reached its triumphant conclusion in a handful of psychoanalytic formulations. Dominated today by masterful voices promoting the impossibility of mastery and the virtues of difference, psychoanalysis has been far less willing than literary studies, or anthropology, or philosophy, to acknowledge a multiplicity of interesting cultural conversations (believing in the centrality of the Oedipus complex makes the whole notion of pluralism, and of pragmatism in relation to psychoanalysis, extremely tricky). And yet it is surely at its most compelling, as it is in the work of Julia Kristeva – who came to psychoanalysis from linguistics – when it knows itself to be in a world of complementary and not only competitive languages. In Kristeva’s writing, despite the sometimes tortuous difficulty of her style, hero-worship and pluralism no longer seem incompatible. In fact, her work is in no way prejudicial in the sense that she does not simulate incompatibilities. She reads Dostoevsky, and Marguerite Duras, and Holbein’s The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb – in three of the most brilliant chapters in her new book – after Freud but not for Freud. David Aberbach, by contrast, is oddly impressed by how much Great Writers in the past knew about loss without having read John Bowlby.

If new disciplines like psychoanalysis thrive initially on fantasies of purity, they can only be sustained by what looks like contamination. And it is not surprising, given the radical uncertainty of the clinical enterprise – and talking with people who are trying to find states of mind they prefer is different from literary criticism – that people have been eager to become analysts of an identifiable and usually monotheistic persuasion. The theoretical preoccupation in certain British and American versions of psychoanalysis with fantasies of boundaries and separateness and the self as a unique possession reflects this fear of jumble, and the terrors of exchange that can make the idea of the self into a prison. People’s lives as miscellaneous and contingent but still, or for that reason, narratable is the irony that confronts the analyst who is himself equipped with his own favourite stories to deal with this. But psychoanalysis as the understanding game, rather than a redescription game, is always threatened by its own rhetoric of spurious profundity, ‘deep’ being the word psychoanalysts often use when they want to indicate that they think something is Very Important. There is the thrill of hermetic, separatist idioms, and the extensive repertoire of ways of dealing with dissenting voices. And then there is also, of course, the thorny question of what it is that psychoanalysts can claim to know.

When Freud wrote in his famous essay ‘Dostoevsky and Parricide’ that ‘before the problem of the creative artist, analysis must, alas, lay down its arms,’ he seemed to be suggesting that there was some kind of war between psychoanalysis and art. And also that the creative artist was in some sense a problem, at least for psychoanalysis. Art may not be soluble in terms of psychoanalysis – it is difficult to see now why anyone should want it to be – but it is interesting to see what kind of object it is for different psychoanalysts, both how they find themselves using it in their writing and what kind of relationship they have with it. If psychoanalysts could think of themselves as the makers of sentences rather than of truths they would feel less at odds with – feel less need to privilege and covertly disparage – what Freud called Creative Writers. The idealisation of art and artists among psychoanalysts who write is always accompanied by its shadow of envy; and it is of interest that psychoanalysis has never found a place for the idea of inspiration. But from quite early in Freud’s work – both in its genesis and in its content – the connection between creativity and mourning did find a place in psychoanalytic theory, one Melanie Klein was among the first to elaborate. Freud began to believe that lives were about achieving loss, eventually one’s own loss, so to speak, in death; and that art could be in some way integral to this process, a culturally sophisticated form of bereavement. A work of art was a work of mourning – and mourning itself was an art. So after Freud and Klein it becomes possible to think, as Julia Kristeva suggests in one of many striking sentences in Black Sun, that ‘my depression points to my not knowing how to lose – I have perhaps been unable to find a valid compensation for my loss?’ Compensation only comes, in Kristeva’s view, in renewing the possibilities of communication, in the commitment to language. The acquisition of language is the only way of learning how to lose. ‘The Freudian way,’ she writes, ‘aims at planning for the advent and formulation of sexual desire ... for named sexual desire ensures securing the subject to the other, and consequently, to meaning.’ Leon Roudiez, who has produced a mostly fluent version of a difficult text, translates arrimage as ‘secures’. The French term, which is nautical in origin, also means ‘to stow’. It is through desire, in language, Kristeva is saying, that the potential for connection between people is stored and kept safe. It is this, for very good reasons of his own, that the depressed person refuses and attacks. ‘The depressed person,’ she writes, only apparently changing the context, ‘is a radical sullen atheist.’

Black Sun opens – and it is more like a drama than a treatise – with an enquiry into depression as an absence of interest, and with the paradoxical sense that to write about depression or melancholia is to write words about a state of mind in which words can be virtually meaningless:

For those who are racked by melancholia, writing about it would only have meaning if writing sprang out of that very melancholia. I am trying to address an abyss of sorrow, a non-communicable grief that at times, and often on a long-term basis, lays claim upon us to the extent of having us lose all interest in words, actions, and even life itself. Such despair is not a revulsion that would imply my being capable of desire and creativity, negative indeed but present. Within depression, if my existence is on the verge of collapsing, its lack of meaning is not tragic – it appears obvious to me, glaring and inescapable.

Depression is a self-cure for the terrors of aliveness, of being alive to one’s losses and therefore to one’s desires. From a psychoanalytic point of view, imagination – the capacity for representation – begins, or rather, is initiated by the experience of loss; and the first loss appears to be of the mother. It is only in the absence of that first essential object that the infant or child will have to give thought to the mother. He will cope with the absence, which should be temporary, by imagining her presence. It is only in the space created by the mother’s absence that she can be desired and therefore imagined. Knowing people is what we do to them when they are not there. And language in Kristeva’s view – and the view of the versions of psychoanalysis she uses – is the way of managing loss by making it up. ‘Signs are arbitrary,’ she writes, ‘because language starts with a negation of loss, along with the depression occasioned by mourning.’ ‘Arbitrary’ because they are what happen to stand in for the absent mother – as though the child is implicitly saying, ‘I haven’t lost her because I have the words for her’ – and a negation of loss because they are a pretended substitute. If my mother and I are the same, of the same mind, so to speak, I would not need a word for her or for what I wanted; and because my desire would then be strictly commensurate with its satisfaction, there would be no desire. It is through loss that I come to want something, and to imagine, even though it is a controversial thought, that there might be an I doing the wanting. But it is only in the medium of language that such constructions become possible.

The child, it seems, depends on his mother: but his development into a separate speaking being depends upon what might be called sufficient loss. And loss is literally figured out in language. ‘If I did not agree to lose mother,’ Kristeva writes, bringing in the notion of choice, ‘I could neither imagine nor name her.’ Without language, and without the pain of acknowledged absence this entails, there is no desire. So from this point of view psychoanalysis becomes a way of understanding the obstacles to symbolisation, to the conversations that are being refused. The realm of the unspoken comes to represent, among other things, the unwillingness to mourn, or to relinquish primary involvements. ‘By analysing – that is, by dissolving – the denial mechanisms wherein depressive persons are stuck,’ Kristeva writes with beguiling confidence, ‘analytic cure can implement a genuine graft of symbolic potential.’ In psychoanalysis you cannot, of course, force people to be interested, but you can show them that there are interesting things around, that they are making more sense than they can let themselves know. As part of this graft of symbolic potential – horticulture is always preferable to militancy in psychoanalysis – she proposes that ‘vowels, consonants or syllables may be extracted from the signifying sequence’ of the depressed patient’s language and construed by the analyst in the service of new meanings. The analyst, in other words, can make sense of the patient’s language by listening to it as though it were nonsense poetry. If the analyst looks after the sound the sense can be taken care of. And this becomes necessary because, in psychoanalytic terms, defence mechanisms, like the denial Kristeva refers to, are forms of anaesthetic, unconsciously sustained poverties of language that pre-empt a knowledge of feeling. The desolate apathy of depression is less painful than the meanings it attempts to blank off. The possibility of meaning, the release of curiosity, is what the depression works to deny.

People organise their lives to avoid the imagined catastrophe of certain conversations; and they come to analysis, however fluent they may be, because they are unable to speak. But some people, of course, have had unspeakable experiences, or experiences that have been made unspeakable by the absence of a listener. Black Sun and Surviving trauma, through very different versions of psychoanalysis – one, broadly speaking, linguistic and the other empirical – attempt to describe, and in Aberbach’s book causally explain, such experiences. Another way of putting the difference between them – the language difference, so to speak – is that Kristeva sees that ‘aesthetic and particularly literary creation, and also religious discourse in its imaginary fictional essence ... constitute a very faithful semiological representation of the subject’s battle with semiological collapse’: the artist, in her view, can be the one who is ‘the most relentless in his struggle against the symbolic abdication that blankets him’. Aberbach, on the other hand, worries ‘the question of whether, or to what extent, loss might account for the mystery of the creative gift’. The mystery, I think, is in the ‘whether’.

It is not clear from Aberbach’s book in what sense our lives would be better if we understood more about ‘the mystery of the creative gift’. But since it is impossible to imagine a life without loss, and equally impossible not to notice that the gift is rather unevenly distributed, Aberbach’s question may be a lost cause. Unlike Black Sun, Surviving trauma is easily accessible, and by the same token coercive in its very simplicity. Psychoanalysis always short-changes us with its larger abstractions, and words like ‘love’ and ‘loss’ and ‘hate’ assume exactly the consensus of meaning that is always in question. But Aberbach uses the word ‘loss’ in the restricted context of John Bowlby’s work on this subject, if that’s what it is (it is the title of the third volume of Bowlby’s influential trilogy, Attachment, Separation and Loss, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a subject either). Aberbach simply takes Bowlby’s standardised picture of healthy as opposed to pathological mourning – Bowlby was the first psychoanalyst to outline a normative mourning process from an empirical standpoint, and acknowledge that children could suffer such things – and uses it to explain a catalogue of quotations from Great Literature, and the lives of a number of Great Men and Women. After a psychoanalytic reading of Keats like the one Aberbach offers here, one longs for a Keatsian impression of psychoanalysis. Figures as diverse as St John of the Cross, Descartes, Spinoza, Rousseau, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Krishnamurti, Conrad, to mention only a few, are all deemed to be suffering from, or really writing about, unresolved grief (it is only in books that grief or transference, or an Oedipus complex, or anything else, ever gets ‘resolved’).

All this levelling could be harmless enough were it not for his apparently untroubled commitment to what he calls ‘normal social life’, and slightly more ominously, ‘normal social functioning’. John Lennon, for example, comes out of this rather badly. ‘The enormous numbers of styles and faces with which he experimented,’ Aberbach writes, as the last hundred years of cultural change drop from view, ‘testify to the insecurity of his self-image, and his songs reflect this variety.’ It is Aberbach’s assumption that a secure self-image is something we all want – or more absurdly, could even have – that is pernicious, because it pathologises variety, the styles and faces that any version of the normal precludes and often disparages. All the normative versions of psychoanalysis generate nostalgic bad faith by implying that one’s life could have been better if only one had been born into a different family. John Lennon’s life would not have been better if his parents hadn’t separated, because it wouldn’t have been his life. And a self-image is always exactly that – an image. It is a fundamentally useful Freudian insight that we are never co-incident with – the same as – the images we have of ourselves. And in a certain sense there are no selves, only families of images that we sometimes choose to think of, or collect, as a self-image. It is not that Aberbach need subscribe to these views, which are as contentious as his, but his work is impoverished by not even acknowledging their existence. ‘Even the soundest among us,’ Kristeva writes, ‘knows just the same that a firm identity remains a fiction’ (the original French une identité ferme includes the sense of ferme as both ‘firm’ and ‘closed’ or ‘locked’). Kristeva, almost by virtue of the difficulty of her text, returns us to Freud’s really interesting question, one which Aberbach assumes Bowlby has already answered, but which has a complexity that inevitably eludes Bowlby’s empiricism: what is there to lose?

Mourning, Freud wrote in ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, is an entirely appropriate response to the loss of a loved person through death or separation, but in melancholia ‘a loss ... has occurred, but one cannot see clearly what it is that has been lost, and it is all the more reasonable to suppose that the patient cannot consciously perceive what he has lost either.’ In a revealing and understated way in Black Sun Kristeva often obscures Freud’s distinction. Not denying that there is a difference between an actual rupture between people and a prevailing mood of despondency, she keeps open the question – a question that would be meaningless to someone grief-stricken by a bereavement – of what it is that has been lost. Is the trauma, for example, constituted for the child by the excessive absence of the mother, or by a breakdown or refusal of the possibilities of representation? Is what is lost the mother (or lover) as an object, or the belief in language as a substitute for her? ‘The speech of the depressed,’ Kristeva writes, ‘is to them like an alien skin; melancholy persons are foreigners in their maternal tongue. They have lost the meaning – the value – of their mother-tongue for want of losing the mother.’ So part of the value of language is the struggle we have to believe in it. And by its commitment to the possibilities of meaning, psychoanalysis, as Kristeva says of works of art, ‘can lead us to establish relations with ourselves and others that are less destructive, more soothing’. There is no cure, but there are ways of talking.

The Holocaust and the other terrors of recent history inevitably haunt both these books. ‘Those monstrous and painful sights,’ Kristeva writes, ‘damage our systems of perception and representation, our symbolic means find themselves hollowed out, nearly wiped out, paralysed.’ Aberbach, in a frightening chapter on survivor literature, reiterates Bettelheim’s point that the people who survived best in concentration camps were those who were most able to numb themselves. Learning not to feel things is obviously integral to development, and in the face of such horror the only viable self-protection may be to be muted, to relinquish or sabotage any capacity for representation. But if it is our destructiveness that makes us speechless, the risk is that our speechlessness makes us more destructive, and particularly of ourselves. Julia Kristeva, who has written in Black Sun one of the very best psychoanalytic books on depression and melancholia – which is, by the same token, a celebration, in unpromising circumstances, of the erotics of plurality – should have what her book shows is impossible, the last word: ‘For if it is true that those who are slaves to their moods, beings drowned in their sorrows, reveal a number of psychic or cognitive frailties, it is equally true that a diversification of moods, variety in sadness, refinement in sorrow or mourning are the imprint of a humankind that is surely not triumphant but subtle, ready to fight, and creative.’