In his Trauer und Melancholie (1917), Sigmund Freud noted that:
If the love for the object — a love which cannot be given up though the object itself is given up — takes refuge in narcissistic identification, then the hate comes mto operation on this substitutive object, abusing it, debasing it, making it suffer and deriving sadistic satisfaction from its suffering. The self-tormenting, in melancholia, which is without doubt enjoyable, signifies, just like the corresponding phenomenon in obsessional neurosis, a satisfaction of trends of sadism and hate which relate to an object, and which have been turned round upon the subject’s own self (1957:251).
It is this definition of melancholia that came to mind while I was listening to Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britain, a cascade of hauntingly tragic descents, as though the listener were eternally bidding farewell to all that she holds dear, performed on strings (see below).
I think of it now as the end of 2017 approaches and as I follow various threads on social media because it strikes me that it was both a supremely narcissistic, but also a supremely melancholic year, in precisely Freud’s sense. Perhaps what is needed is lamentation.
The interminable post-mortems — most notably and most tragically, Ms Clinton’s What Happened — bear evidence, in nearly every instance, of this dual construction: narcissism and self-contempt. As Freud points out, when some thing or person identifiable has been lost, the consequent mourning is viewed as normal and in fact necessary. Melancholia differs from this normal and necessary act insofar as it is difficult or even impossible to identify the lost object.
What did we lose? An election? Or was it more ephemeral? Many women voters took Donald Trump’s victory, and Hilary Clinton’s loss, as a personal affront to them; the contempt they continue to hold for Bernie Sanders and for Bernie Sanders voters points to the loss of something difficult or even impossible to identify. More generally, mainstream Democratic voters took 2016 as the last and best opportunity to recover what was lost in 2000; which, again, is not so much an election as much as a vision for democratic politics — born out of the humiliations of 1972, 1980, and 1984 — that has refashioned Democratic candidates into the natural allies of bankers, traders, and business leaders, of law and order (with a heart), and heirs (kind of) of the Civil Rights and Woman’s movements. The 1990s were within our grasp in 2016 — a better, (slightly) more militant, updated, feminine 1990s — but we let it slip from our hands; or, rather, it was stolen from us by voters who claimed not to have benefited from the 1990s. We lost the 1990s — and all that is wrapped up in the 1990s — in 2016.
Of course the 1990s were not only neoliberalism wrapped in a FDRish mug. The 1990s were not Ronald Reagan and not George Herbert Walker Bush. The 1990s was the expanding markets that Reagan and Bush promised but failed to deliver. They were high tech jobs (for some). They were exuberant equities markets (for some). And the profits did trickle down; they did. But they trickled . . . down. And there’s the rub.
When in 2016 Ms Clinton promised to restore the 1990s, she left roughly half of voters in America cold. Huh? There is sufficient narcissism and self-contempt here to fill a library, and then some.
The left — the real left? — the ones we gain special pleasure from calling “naive”? Where do they fit in this look at melancholia? Ok. Then where is your famous working class? Where is your organized labor? Where is your unstoppable youth-women-labor-minority-arts-university intelligentsia coalition?
To be sure these ethereal objects long ago passed from history. And, yet, their imaginaries play a powerful role in the narcissistic self-hatred cycles being traced here. Few leftists — and even fewer real leftists — have the chops to carefully, thoughtfully, and soberly sift through the empirical social, economic, political and cultural data necessary to explain (never mind overcome) the disaster of 2016. True. Failure is not evidence of falsehood. Success is not evidence of truth. And, yet, depression becomes narcissistic and self-destructive when it refuses to even consider — on principle — the evidence staring us in the face.
What Happened? cannot be recounted in a book so short on facts and so pathetically weak on methodology that it can be only described, at best, as self-defensive.
What happened? Loss. Loss of all of the objects, real and imagined, recounted here, and many more, many more. Should we allow this to drag us into melancholia; into a downward spiral — pleasurable as it might be — of narcissism and self-contempt, self- and other-hatred?
Where is the lamentation? The true and genuine sadness over what we have lost; not accusing; not finger-pointing — but real sadness; where is it?
These are my thoughts while listing to Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britain.