Narcissism, Melancholia and the Exhaustion of the ‘Journeying’ Subject
In this chapter, I intend to trace the development of Freud’s thought from his introduction of narcissism and the importance he placed on the process and outcome of mourning to his later emphasis on melancholic identification for the construction of the subject. I will suggest that Freud never really abandoned his belief in the significance of mourning as he always prioritised the subject’s identification with the transient power of the rival object (i.e., the father—in the case of the positive Oedipus complex—or mother—in the case of the negative one) over the subject’s identification with the lost object. However, I will also suggest that Freud’s understanding of the nature of melancholic identification is particularly significant as it throws light on the current social conditions that necessitate the construction of either a subject that melancholically (and regressively) longs for a union with what is dead or maniacally defends against it.
If, according to Freud, the outcome of successful mourning is the acceptance of the transience of the object and our attachment to it so as to be able to reignite our desire to invest in new relationships that will produce pleasure, his later insistence on the importance of melancholic identification as fundamental in the construction of the subject indicates not a new ethical relationship to the lost other (as Judith Butler suggests) but a form of stagnation and regression—that is, a subject who is so over-determined by loss and fear that he is unable to move on as he feels trapped within a world (and its corresponding form of subjectivity) that is essentially non-erotic and death-driven. This leads to a form of endless mourning that accentuates the subject’s desire to find permanence in the process of mourning itself as the world constantly threatens his survival and refuses to offer the prospect of anything new that could bring the process of mourning to a spontaneous end. In this respect, I will argue that Butler’s employment of this form of endless mourning as a basis for a new kind of community, a community that does not aspire to create a unifying identity but whose members are aware of their ‘vulnerable’ relational web of their grievable lives, is highly problematic as it seems to validate and hypostatise (instead of criticising) the social conditions that produce this community of ethical ‘losers’.
Yet, the solution is not to simply accept Freud’s earlier account of mourning, which could lead to the nostalgic restitution of the bourgeois monadological subject that stands opposed to the world in his narcissistic enclosure. By using Homer’s Odyssey as the paradigmatic narrative of the modern, ‘journeying’ subject and tracing its changing structure and content in its various contemporary manifestations (James Joyce’s Ulysses and Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis), I suggest that we should attempt to simultaneously preserve and negate this notion of mourning and the monadological subject implied by it—to demonstrate our allegiance to it at the time of its fall. This will also lead us to the configuration of a new type of ‘melancholic’ subjectivity/community—not one that obsessively clings to a nostalgic attempt to resurrect what is lost so as to satisfy his narcissistic ends and preserve his identity, but one that refuses to appropriate all the past losses for his own purposes because he wants to honour their alterity, but is unable to do so because he is currently ‘exhausted’ from his endless travelling and he needs to stop and rest so as to find the necessary time and space to process his failure to reach his ‘final destination’ (and, perhaps, to reconsider the purpose and function of this destination) before he resumes his journey.
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