The last thing we were assigned to read before Christmas was Freud’s evocative watershed paper “Mourning and Melancholia.” In this dense work, Freud puzzles over the question of depression, though he doesn’t call it that, and what makes melancholia different from mourning. I fell into the text, taking in Freud’s formulations. Both mourning and melancholia, Freud says, are, to begin with, states of withdrawal from the world, and both are prompted by some real, external loss.
The paper is short but it brims with ideas that changed the course of psychoanalytic theory in the years to follow. It is considered the work that led to the concept of the superego, the third and final layer of Freud’s so-called metapsychology. But in truth, it was not this breakthrough in the mapping of the mental structure that most grasped my interest. I was thinking of my father.
As I was reading Freud’s essay, my father, a novelist and radio personality, was mired in depression, debilitated almost beyond recognition, for what had then been nearly three years. I had last seen him on my twenty-fourth birthday, two weeks before I left for London, for graduate school. My mother and father had both flown from New York to California, where I lived at the time, to celebrate this birthday with me. It was a disaster. I saw that my father, off the plane, was unreachable, a person in another dimension.
That night, we went to a boxing match in downtown Los Angeles. David, the boyfriend I lived with, was an obsessive boxing fan and it seemed the natural way to spend the evening. David and my brother Adam and my chic mother in her black cashmere uniform and my walking corpse of a father and I all sat in a row and watched two heavyweight champions, Sam “The Nigerian Nightmare” Peter and James “Lights Out” Toney, throw their punches and dance the ring and fall into those intermittent embraces that boxers use for rest, as well as for moments of closeness, it always seemed to me.
No one was really able to watch the fight. That’s how it is when you’re sitting next to a zombie. It is not the case that the zombie recedes into invisibility, that his presence is forgotten. Anyone who has been around a person trapped in deep depression knows all about this. Your life, too, must shrink down to those tiny, miserable parameters.
My father murmured that he was going to get a hot dog and lurched to his feet. The rest of us looked at one another nervously. “Are you okay?” my mother asked him. Long divorced, they had always remained close friends. “Of course, of course,” he said, aiming for levity. I wasn’t sure that he would be able to make it back. The author of five books and a presence on American radio for forty years could not be relied upon to make a trip to the hot dog stand.
Well, he returned, with sauerkraut.
After the fight, we went for Korean barbecue. The restaurant was a favorite, but the atmosphere remained grim. I had the image of my father as an abused child, his presence a mere cobweb at the table. Do I need to explain that my father was not always like this? Do I need to say something here about how he was, for all the years I’d known him, wild, hilarious, colorful, eccentric, electric? Sometimes very black, too, but always, always a heavyweight. And yet, evidently, this was still my father, this person at the table whose uncomprehending eyes stared vaguely in my direction through the gusts of steam rising from our plates.
There had been clues. For a while now, he’d been doing this falling thing, this thing where suddenly, without warning, he would fall, extravagantly, onto the floor. He did it on the street, he did it in the elevator, he did it in lobbies and in restaurants. He never hurt himself, and it wasn’t neurological, doctors told him. Later, I would think of him when I was studying Freud’s hysterics, whose limbs were apt to give out at inexplicable moments.
There was another moment, too. I was home in New York for my brother’s high school graduation. We were all there, the stepparents and half siblings, and it was a happy occasion, watching Adam, the beloved punk, cross the stage to get his diploma while noticeably chewing gum.
Out on the street afterwards, my father turned to me.
“My God,” he said, “I can’t figure out where the car is.”
“Where’d you park it?”
“That’s not it,” he said, looking left towards Park Avenue and right towards Lexington. “I can’t figure out which is east and which is west.”
My father had lived almost his whole life in Manhattan, in most cases mere blocks from where we stood.
And then California. At the end of the gloomy evening, which I had largely spent in tears, we dropped my father off first, then drove my mother to her hotel on La Cienega. I got out of the car to hug her good night. I believed I had ruined the whole night that she’d tried so hard to infuse with festivity. Flying west, bearing presents, ordering cakes, and being, as ever, full of enthusiasm and brightness for the future. But my mother just grabbed me and said, “It’s awful, isn’t it?”
Through the first months in London, I still spoke to my father occasionally, but the calls were tedious and detached and I couldn’t wait to hang up. His availability had always been subject to change. Now it was simply gone.
In “Mourning and Melancholia,” Freud describes how the ego is born into the world prepared to attach itself to people around it. Cathexis
is the word Freud used to denote this attachment. The ego, Freud says, sticks its cathexis onto love objects of its choosing. At first the ones that happen to be there; later, a more select group.
In melancholia, Freud says, what seems to be happening is that this love object, the one with the cathexis stuck onto it, gets lost, goes away, rejects you, disappoints you. You withdraw your cathexis back into the ego, now that there’s nothing there anymore for it to stick to. But what happens once the ego turns back in on itself is less straightforward. “In mourning it is the world which has become poor and empty,” Freud writes. “In melancholia, it is the ego itself.” There is, Freud says, the persistent sense that something
In my father’s case, I knew only too well who the lost object was that had sent him into his three-year coma. Her name was Liese, she was thirty-three to his sixty-five, and she’d finally ended things between them. He’d been involved with her for a decade, now, throughout much of his marriage to my stepmother. Why did I even know about this? Well, I did. My father had taken me into his confidence years before. Liese lived in a little studio apartment on West End Avenue, where she kept an embroidered cloth over her television when she wasn’t using it. “She thinks someone could see her through the screen,” my father told me. “What’s wrong with that?” I’d been to the apartment. I’d seen the cloth.
The situation played out in my mind as I read through Freud’s essay. I put it down. I picked it up. Read it again. Suddenly, my eyes focused on a short passage, near the beginning. It was one of those plot twists that stop the heart, that run throughout Freud’s whole forty years of writing. It is just a single observation: One cannot see clearly what it is that has been lost, and it is all the more reasonable to suppose that the patient cannot consciously perceive what he has lost either. This, indeed, might be so even if the patient is aware of the loss which has given rise to his melancholia, but only in the sense that he knows
whom he has lost but not
what he has lost in him. The loss is unknown.
I scribbled it in the margin. The loss is unknown.
Underlined it three times. I had never before considered that maybe my father didn’t know exactly what the loss was that had so capsized him. That maybe he was as hopelessly estranged from his own mind at that moment as I was from him. If that were true, then we were estranged together, a little bit closer than I’d thought.
Copyright © 2015 by Casey Schwartz. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.