According to a list of definitions provided by Princeton’s online dictionary, “melancholy” is:

  • a feeling of thoughtful sadness
  • somber: grave or even gloomy in character; “a somber mood.”
  • characterized by or causing or expressing sadness; “her melancholic smile”; “we acquainted him with the melancholy truth.”

What should strike us here is how different melancholy is from the ‘normal’ experience of sadness or depression: it is ‘thoughtful,’ ‘somber,’ ‘mournful,’ and may even result from the realization of some sort of ‘truth.’ Given this unusual ‘knot’ of emotion and thought, it makes sense to reflect on the significance of melancholic experience for us. There is something sublime about melancholy: it is frustrating, confusing, and difficult to understand. Indeed, this is where understanding runs up against a fundamental deadlock (after all, the emotion is distinguished by the vagueness of its object-cause; it rests on the indeterminacy of its meaning). How can we penetrate the ‘knotty’ core of melancholy to interpret its meaning? How do we pry meaning from it? What should it tell us about our lives? Here I want to give some reflections on this, mostly on my own experience, but hopefully providing, along the way, a general examination of the individual’s relation to melancholy.

If the question why I feel discouraged or out of place, lost, ‘out of joint,’ seems impenetrable, is it not likely that this thing which eludes my grasp is something unusual, something not present to hand, something ‘buried’ or muddled in the thickness of my everyday experience? Judith Butler frames this kind of melancholy experienced by the subject today as a ‘loss of a loss,’ a denial of the disavowal of some element of life that could mean something for us, something which we could experience, but which, for all that, we have chosen to exclude; it is, in effect, a realization that all is not well, that something, as a matter of fact, was just not right about our previous enjoyment, that something was actually covered up…

In The Psychic Life of Power, Butler claims that in contemporary society, ‘alternative’ sexualities and genders make up the excluded part, the sublime object of melancholy. It is this disavowal of the possibility of other sexual and gender experiences that structures the ways in which social groups and individuals interact, says Butler, whether they approach the topic explicitly or not. In fact, on her view, actions and attitudes can be seen to maneuver around these experiences – to avoid them – in a manner akin to the drive in psychoanalysis, as Slavoj Žižek has pointed out again and again in the context of ideological critique: the drive short-circuits desire, places limits on its circulation, restricts its possible trajectories, such that some things simply are not desirable; the disavowed Thing is that which appears invisible, which resists symbolization or explicit articulation. And so it is actually when discourse avoids discussing the thing itself – even as an attempt at ‘political correctness,’ as in the Liberal aversion to non-euphemistic language  – that its ideological functioning is most insidious.

Discrimination continues, therefore, insofar as the languages we speak, and the gestures we articulate, prohibit discussion/ articulation/ expression of these ‘alternative’ sexualities and genders, whether explicitly or not. This is the basic outline of melancholy, its basic meaning, seen in the context of contemporary society; it is the experience of a lost object, a lost possibility for desire. The implications, therefore, extend beyond the individual’s narcissistic experience of the emotion, of the guilt and strange soul-searching that set in once the emotion arises: we should see how this emotion can speak to society at large, how it can show us the underlying structure of society’s experience of itself, of the relations among its constituent parts (and excluded elements as well). This is not to anthropomorphize society, as though it could experience emotions, but rather to say that the constellation of relations among persons and their emotions, between the set of rational self-reflections and the set of excluded, denied emotional experiences, parallels the relation between society’s ‘normal run of things’ and its excess, excluded, and marginalized dimensions, the existence of which reveals, precisely, the inadequacy of that very same ‘normal run of things’ for explaining the true structure of society – and that explanation is exactly what cultural critique is for.

But after that somewhat lengthy excursus into cultural criticism, I want to return to the original object of this entry: my own experience and reflections on this peculiar emotion. My sense is not that this melancholy should conjure guilt or initiative to reflect on my attitudes toward disempowered social groups. Rather, what comes to mind is another kind of concern, a basic question: precisely, what should be my relationship to melancholy? Regardless of the particular content of the disavowal – regardless of which forms of life, which forms of social activity I have undertaken to disavow – the question remains how to relate to the emotion as such. For if we cannot know the particular content, but can only interrogate our feelings and attempt to outline the intimations which those feelings, in combination with our actions, our social life-histories, and so on, suggest – that is, if we can only probe toward ‘the thing itself,’ and thus only approach the ‘real’ content asymptotically – then we are left with a plain relation to ‘melancholy’ as such. In other words, because the particular content is simply unknowable, the thing left to do seems to be to determine a manner of relating to the emotion’s form, not its content. So what actions should result from our acknowledgement of the importance of melancholy, when the particular content is itself insoluble? What should it matter that there is this disavowal? What practical conclusions can we draw?

My intuition is that we should fully embrace melancholy as a reason to pause, as a cause for reflection, for the ceasing of activity and the beginning of a more receptive, and perceptive, sense of the environment, especially the people around you. And so the virtue of experiencing the emotion to its fullest extent – instead of hurriedly putting an end to it or simply avoiding it – is that it initiates a kind of humility in the face of one’s fallibility; one comes to realize that there is yet more to be done, that there is always something that one has not yet understood, cannot understand, or has even consciously avoided: we are, in other words, always human, and others are always non-systematizable, ‘unfinalizable’ (as M. M. Bakhtin says). In a sense, melancholy is the middle-point along the continuum of experience, halfway between the opposite poles of insecurity/ fearfulness/ sadness, and arrogance/ pride/ overzealousness; it teaches us to come back down to earth, to disengage from the easy, though false, security of (self-)reflection, of ‘transcendental ideals,’ and to get to work in practical activity, with love and respect for other human beings.

Indeed, if we take the basic coordinates of this peculiar emotion to map fairly well onto the Lacanian relation between the symbolic and the real, between the ‘all’ and the ‘part of no part,’ then it stands to reason that melancholy is a kind of reaction to obsessive-compulsive neuroticism; the subject whose desire is sustained by a drive to match a perfectionistic ideal, to match its behavior exactly to the (imaginary) demands of the Other (the Master-Signifier, the set of relatively clear social roles and distinctions, etc.), and thus to deny itself to exposure or vulnerability to anything outside this order must represent the exact opposite of melancholy: and in just this way, when melancholy falls upon the obsessive-compulsive subject, is the true message not that this drive has resulted in the massive exclusion of other ways of being?

My contention is that this is precisely what my obsessive personality leads me toward; it seems in these moments of bewildered sadness that I am guilty of harming someone else – if even in the most vague manner, such as by imposing myself in a conversation, talking excessively, not listening, feeling too elated, etc. – and that such harm is, in effect, a denial of the place of the other in the symbolic, a denial of the importance of another in my own life.

Thus the solution would seem to be a return to listening to the voices of those who I have temporarily excluded from my perception of the world. This isn’t difficult. And I believe that this fact reflects the way that melancholy passes over me, its strangely transient nature.

Again, this is just a reflection on how I want to try to think of melancholy. But I think the psychoanalytic coordinates of this odd symptom are also helpful for explaining the basic structure of the symptom in general, and for understanding how we are to relate to others based upon our emotions.

Advertisements