- Heidegger on Melancholia, Deep Boredom, and the Inability-to-Be
In her article, “Melancholia, temporal disruption, and the torment of being both unable to live and unable to die,” Emily Hughes offers a provocative and powerful analysis of an experiential aspect of depression that is often overlooked in the psychiatric literature. Drawing on Heidegger’s account of ontological death, what he calls “dying” (Sterben) in Being and Time, Hughes illuminates how episodes of major depression can disrupt the synchronous unity of time that structures our experience and gives meaning to our lives. When this happens, the sufferer enters a paradoxical liminal space, one in which we live through our own death, where death is understood ontologically as an inability-to-be. For Heidegger, “to be” human is to understand and make sense of things, to have things count and matter to us in our everyday lives. This is why he says, “to exist is essentially . . . to understand” (Heidegger 1982, p. 276, my emphasis) The desynchronization characteristic of major depression destroys this everyday understanding of things by stripping away the intelligibility of the world, affectively bleaching out the qualitative significance and radiance of things. This leaves the sufferer trapped in a meaningless present, with no future and no past. In this state, as Hughes writes, “one is unable to live and unable to die.”
When Heidegger says human existence (or Dasein) is structured by “temporality” (Zeitlichkeit), he means that our existence simultaneously stretches forward into the future and backward into the past, creating a unified horizon that allows things to meaningfully reveal themselves. He refers to this dynamic temporalizing movement in terms of “thrown projection” (geworfen Entwurf) in the sense that we are irrevocably “thrown” into a uniquely embodied socio-historical situation (the past), and it is against the background of this situation that we “project” possibilities for ourselves (in the future). Time, understood this way, is not an entity that is external to us. Dasein, rather, is time, the temporalizing event that opens up a space of meaning and possible ways to be in the world. As Heidegger writes, “Temporality temporalizes, and indeed it temporalizes possible ways of itself. These make possible the multiplicity of Dasein’s modes of being” (1962, p. 377). And Hughes’ article shows the extent to which depression can shatter this disclosive movement, leaving the sufferer abandoned in a meaningless atemporal void. One of the aims of therapy, then, is to work with the patient to restore the temporal unity and cohesion that gives meaning to things by recreating the tacit rhythms of everyday life and slowly reestablishing the patient’s orientation towards [End Page 215] future projects, making it possible for things to light up again with value and significance. When this occurs, the patient’s ability-to-be can be restored.
This is why, according to Hughes, special care must be taken when considering cases of physician-assisted suicide for treatment-resistant depression. The longing for death by suicide is understandable in the face of desynchronization; suicide can be viewed as a decisive act of power and agency, of taking back one’s finitude when one is both unable to live and unable to die. But the decision is fraught because without the orientating framework of temporality the depressed person is not oneself. Moreover, the terminal act closes the depressed person off from, what Heidegger sees as, the potentially liberating aspect of ontological death. When our ability-to-be is compromised in depression and the world-constituting framework of temporality collapses, we are confronted with the ultimate questions: “Who am I? and “What it is the meaning of my life?” Although, as sufferers know all too well, this is a terrifying experience, it also provides an opportunity for personal growth and transformation by creating a nihilating space that makes it possible for Dasein to reevaluate its choices and take back ownership of its existence from the tranquilizing grip of “the They” (das Man). In Heidegger’s words, the experience “rips Dasein out” (reiβt aus) of its everyday comforts and distractions, making it possible for Dasein to authentically confront itself, to “come back to itself” (selbst zurückommt)” by identifying...