The New Black: Mourning, Melancholia, and Depression
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Fifty years ago, the terms mourning and melancholia were part of the psychological lexicon. Today, in a world of rapid diagnoses, quick cures, and big pharmaceutical dollars, the catch-all concept of depression has evolved to take their place. In The New Black, Darian Leader argues that this shift is more than semantic; rather, it speaks to our culture's complicated relationship with loss, suffering, and grief.
Part memoir, part cultural analysis, Leader draws on examples from literature, art, cinema, and history, as well as case studies from his work as a psychologist, to explore the unconscious ways our culture responds to the experience of loss. He visits a bookstore in search of studies on mourning, and, finding none, moves on to the fiction and poetry sections, where he finds countless examples of mourning in literature. Moving from historical texts of the Middle Ages, to Freud's essays, to Lacan, to Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, Leader provides an innovative tour of mourning and melancholia and our culture's struggle to understand them.
‘Look what you are doing to me, you have left me lost! I’ve been abandoned by my guide.’ This cycle of losing his way was a concealed form of fury: ‘I held him responsible’, he said, ‘for my being left, bewildered and frightened.’ This is one of the most important discoveries of psychoanalysis: the fact that we can feel fury without being consciously aware of it. It can even emerge when we are quite literally not conscious. Several studies of behaviour during sleep have shown how acts of
phone or the doorbell rings. Rather, we come to give certain representations the value of representing all these others. In the famous example, Marcel Proust’s taste of a madeleine dipped in tea or sight of a cracked paving-stone in Venice acted as conduits for overpowering sequences of feelings, ideas and emotions linked to a lost love. The little details that Proust made so much of had become symbolic of memory and loss, but what would happen if everything in one’s reality had this status, if
time. After a while, the torment is replaced by sweet memories of Alberto’s birth and infancy. A host of positive images emerge. Giovanni sits down to weep when a bird flies down from the mountain, singing sweet melodies. But as Giovanni approaches it, the melodies become hideous and he flees. As he does so, the bird is attacked by a sow, covered in muck from a boar, which he describes as a horrible experience. Then he sees two starlike lights in the distance, and, moving towards them, he kneels
partner… in sorrow’s mysteries’. And this is where the arts become so essential to human societies. Works of art, after all, share something very simple: they have been made, and made usually out of an experience of loss or catastrophe. Our very exposure to this process can encourage us, in turn, to create, from keeping a journal to writing fiction or poetry or taking brush to canvas. Or simply to speak and think. In his bleak essay Civilization and its Discontents, Freud examines the way that
see this situation as a metaphor for the way that depression is so often treated in today’s society. The interior life of the sufferer is left un-examined, and priority given to medicalizing solutions. Following the instructions for pill-taking becomes more important than examining the person’s actual relation to the pills. Depression here is conceived of as a biological problem like a bacterial infection, which requires a specific biological remedy. Sufferers have to be returned to their former