restricted access The Vicissitudes of Melancholia in Freud and Joyce
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The Vicissitudes of Melancholia in Freud and Joyce

But what breaks the hold of grief except the cultivation of the aggression that grief holds at bay against the means by which it is held at bay?

Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power

In "Dubliners and the Art of Losing," John Gordon maps Joyce's various literary appropriations of a strange Irish habit that converts accidental absences into engineered subtractions, simple lacks into suffered losses.1 Gordon then glosses over the more sedimented cultural twin of such a habit—in effect, the tendency to defuse transhistorical or individual losses into constitutive or structural absences—and attributes the habit to a hermeneutics broken loose from its historical moorage. I would rather ascribe it, however, to a fully fledged psychic apparatus, set in motion largely by a post-Famine cultural history of successive losses. Rather than remapping the literary inscriptions of such a history—a task accomplished by scholars such as David Lloyd, Seamus Deane, and Declan Kiberd2 —my interest here is more modest: to lay bare, through a close examination of two characters from Dubliners, the patterns of psychic engagement with loss at the level of individual, personal history.

While the short stories that constitute Dubliners present us with a wide variety of characters who have experienced the pangs of loss, "The Sisters" and "A Painful Case" are unique in their exposition of a sequential trajectory that ranges from attachment, loss, and melancholia to mania or suicide. Joyce intuitively inscribes through the character of Father Flynn in "The Sisters" an interactive relationship between loss, melancholia, and mania and through the character of Emily Sinico in "A Painful Case" a similar relationship between loss, melancholia and suicide. In this, he anticipates Sigmund Freud, who articulates the psychic rationale behind the regression of some melancholics into mania and the adoption by some others of a more lethal line of flight—suicide. This essay exposes the striking parallels between the literary inscriptions of the turn from melancholia to mania and from melancholia to suicide in Joyce's stories and Freud's psychoanalytic exposition of the vicissitudes of melancholia. Not [End Page 95] only will the reconstruction of Freud's struggle with the subject of melancholia enable us better to grasp its dynamic in relation to other psychic forces, but it will also throw some light on the mysteries of Father Flynn's mania and Emily Sinico's suicide.3

Melancholia and its Vicissitudes

To square the literary inscription of melancholia in Joyce's two stories with Freud's psychoanalytic work, we first have to elucidate the latter's concept of melancholia in relation to its originary cognate—the concept of mourning. In "Mourning and Melancholia," Freud distinguishes the two, while attributing both to a common origin: loss. He contends that, although both affects originate in (a reaction to) loss, they diverge in their ways of dealing with it. While mourning is a normal affect accomplished once all object-cathexes are withdrawn from the lost object and displaced onto a new object, melancholia originates from an unfaltering fixation on the lost object. It then culminates in a regressive process of incorporating, if not devouring, the lost other—a process which might eventually enact a primary narcissism and which Freud suspects of a pathological disposition.

Whereas in mourning the lost object is integrated into the texture of the psyche, in melancholia, the object is engraved within the psyche, and the cathectic ties with it are intensified rather than relaxed. In other words, the reconciliation with reality consoles the ego for its loss in mourning, while in melancholia the very denial of loss devolves into an unbreakable fixation on the object. Melancholia thus enacts nothing less than a vicissitude of normal mourning—an indefinitely prolonged denial of loss—and Freud identifies it as a pathological disposition. Yet, while Freud never fully accounts for the waning of the affect of melancholia after the passage of a certain period of time, he contends that the resolution of mourning itself cannot occur without a passage through melancholia. "[S]etting up . . . the object inside the ego," Freud suggests in The Ego and the Id, "makes it easier...


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