Years after the death of his beloved daughter Sophie, Freud showed Hilda Doolittle a charm that he wore on his watchband, stating as he pointed to it, "She is here" (Doolittle 1956, 77). It would be hard to imagine a more dramatic example of a lost object that is not lost. In Freud's poignant gesture, the deceased person, now transformed, has become part of the mourner's life. The charm (object permanence) is juxtaposed with the timepiece (the passing of time).
As the essays in this special issue of American Imago argue, Freud's gesture is emblematic of the interrelatedness of psychic and social responses to loss. Although Freud initially posited an apparently firm distinction between mourning and melancholia, this premise is called into question not only by his own later work, and that of other psychoanalysts, but especially by contemporary approaches to the workings of remembering and forgetting.
Freud could baldly ask Marie Bonaparte, "Why should a thing that emanates from man endure on that account, when everything in the universe must perish?" (qtd. in von Unwerth 2005, 177). This might seem an odd question coming from the man who worked while seated at his desk surrounded by his collection of antiquities, lost objects that had been recovered from the ground. Yet Freud insists to Bonaparte that it would be incorrect to exempt humans from being part of the natural world and its unending change. In the natural world, he points out, birth and death are facts of life, and this finitude endows the world with beauty: "A flower that blossoms only for a single night does not seem to us on that account less lovely" (1916, 306). His example seems contrived, since no matter how much we may enjoy a flower, we know that in the next season new flowers will grow to replace the ones that die. We do not value them as individuals. But the force of Freud's claim is to make [End Page 269] mourning part of the natural cycle, the unfolding of beauty against the relentless passing of time.
In both "Mourning and Melancholia" (1917) and "On Transience," written for inclusion in a 1916 volume of patriotic and memorial essays relating to World War I,1 mourning is portrayed as a stage of normal human development, but also as a riddle. Much like the Greek myth of Tithonus, who was cursed by being granted eternal life but denied eternal youth, Freud reminds us that "limitation in the possibility of an enjoyment raises the value of the enjoyment" (1916, 305).
An end to mourning is predicated by Freud's model of the mind. Each human psyche begins in a state of narcissism, then looks out into the world, finding objects to love and attach to by means of that self-love. When confronted with loss, a person will withdraw his or her attachment to the object and then find a new object to cathect, as one "flower" replaces another. Once an individual's self-love has recovered from the blow, it will eventually reach out again to the outside world.
In his initial formulations, Freud optimistically presents mourning as a "temporary disruption" that will be overcome. Reality forces the mourner to relinquish the object, and life then goes on simply by virtue of the passing of time. Freud even claims that it is possible not only to rebuild affection for what is precious but also to put it "perhaps on firmer ground and more lastingly than before" (1916, 307). However, this course of development is not followed by everyone. Some individuals experience loss in a way that totally absorbs them and they fall prey to melancholia. This state is marked by "a profoundly painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love, inhibition of all activity, and a lowering of the self-regarding feelings to a degree that finds utterance in self-reproaches and self-revilings" (1917, 244).
This remains today a vivid description of the enigma embedded in Freud's idea of "the shadow of the object" falling on the ego. At one level, Freud suggests that in melancholia precious...