Psychoanalysis Unit


On learning from loss: Rereading ‘Mourning and Melancholia’

On 18 March 2020, the Psychoanalysis Unit in collaboration with the Freud Museum was due to mount an exhibition of artworks produced by London University students exploring the theme of melancholia. Like so many other events, our exhibition has had to be postponed due to the pandemic sweeping the globe. Here Liz Allison, Director of the UCL Psychoanaylsis Unit, takes a look back to the situation in which Freud wrote his original, groundbreaking essay on melancholia.

‘Mourning and Melancholia’ was written in 1917, in wartime and a year before the outbreak of the influenza pandemic that would kill between 50 and 100 million people worldwide, including Freud’s own beloved daughter Sophie more people than had died in the Great War itself. The terrible events of those years focused Freud’s mind on the psychological legacies of loss and trauma. Both the war and the pandemic left their mark on his later book Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) which heralds a rethinking of many of the assumptions that had shaped his ideas about the mind up to that point.  

One hundred years later, we are reeling under the impact of a global health emergency that at a stroke has separated us from our loved ones, deprived us of our freedoms, exposed the fragility of the safety nets we believed protected us, and brought us face to face with the grim reality and inevitability of death. Many have drawn comparisons to wartime experience. The situation has a nightmarish quality, like a terrifying dream from which we cannot awaken. We are struggling with loss, both actual and dreaded, and subject to waves of overwhelming anxiety that we feel powerless to master or even mitigate.    

Rereading ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ in these dark days serves as a reminder that, whether we like it or not, loss and the painful feelings it evokes precipitate change. At first Freud tended to think of the structural change to the personality that occurs in melancholia when the loved and lost object is taken into the ego through identification as pathological. However, he later came to realise that our personalities are formed by our identifications with the people on whom we depend in infancy, who at times will inevitably disappoint and frustrate us despite their best efforts to satisfy, and from whom in the end we must separate if we are to develop. After Freud, other analysts including Melanie Klein and Wilfred Bion explored the range of possible reactions that we experience as infants to our fundamental helplessness and dependence on others, including omnipotent denial of the unwelcome reality, angry attacks on the inevitably frustrating object, and resigned acceptance.  

The current pandemic confronts us anew both with our fundamental helplessness and with our dependence on others both for survival and to find a way out. This is a deeply unpleasant experience, and there is plenty of evidence of efforts to deny these painful realities, both on the political stage and at an individual level. As yet it remains unclear to what extent we will be able to learn from this encounter with our own humanity and turn the lessons to good account. However, we can be confident that when the floodwaters recede, the world will not be left unchanged. The ways we live, love and work are already being transformed. Perhaps if we are able to face the loss of the old order, including our narcissistic illusions of autonomy and self-sufficiency, we will be better placed to shape the new one on a more secure footing.   

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud tells the story of a game played by his eighteen-month-old grandson, the elder child of his lost daughter. Freud understood this game as the child’s attempt to come to terms with both the ordinary losses of infancy (separations from his mother) and the extraordinary losses of the war (his father was away for long periods at the front and his mother later died of influenza). Although Freud describes his grandson as a good boy, who never cried when his mother left him, he also reports that he had an ‘occasional disturbing habit’ of taking his toys and throwing them into corners, under the bed, etc, which could make tidying up quite a challenge. As he did this he would exclaim ‘O-o-o-o’ with great interest and satisfaction, and both Freud and Sophie understood this to be his attempt to say ‘Fort’ (Gone!) Freud also once observed his grandson playing a game where he repeatedly threw a bobbin on a string away from him into his curtained cot, again saying ‘O-o-o-o.’ He would then pull the bobbin back into view, joyfully exclaiming ‘Da!’  Freud writes, ‘This, then, was the complete game – disappearance and return.’ What puzzles Freud about these observations is that his grandson’s habit of throwing away his toys seemed to be enjoyed as a game in itself, even though Freud was convinced that he got more pleasure out of ‘the complete game’. The conclusion he eventually reaches is that both children’s play and its successor, art, provide ‘ways and means…of making what is in itself unpleasurable into a subject to be recollected and worked over in the mind.’  

One conclusion we can draw from this is that art may have an extremely important role to play, not simply in holding up a mirror to reflect our experiences in these times, nor in comforting us by picturing an alternate reality, but in helping us to recollect and work over the distressing situation with which we are currently struggling. This makes us look forward all the more to eventually mounting our exhibition.

To find out more about the upcoming exhibition, please visit the event webpage.