"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, May 4, 2018

Meaning and Melancholia

Christopher Bollas is a prolific writer and one of the most important psychoanalytic theorists alive today. I have previously mentioned a number of his books, and recently received and read his newest: Meaning and Melancholia: Life in an Age of Bewilderment (Routledge, 2018), 174pp. I had high hopes for this book, but they were only partially met.

The title, of course, instantly calls to mind one of Freud's wartime essays, "Mourning and Melancholia" (The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XIV: 237-258). (This Penguin edition gives you that essay and a number of related works.)
I have been thinking about that essay and drawing on its important insights for some time in a number of lectures I gave on the underlying psychology of ISIS propaganda about Eastern Christianity and the Crusades.

Like many of Bollas' books, and not unlike the analytic process itself, Meaning and Melancholia is written in a diffuse style loosely stitching together a number of themes under an overarching narrative. As the publisher tells us: 
Meaning and Melancholia: Life in the Age of Bewilderment sees Christopher Bollas apply his creative and innovative psychoanalytic thinking to various contemporary social, cultural and political themes.
This book offers an incisive exploration of powerful trends within, and between, nations in the West over the past two hundred years. The author traces shifts in psychological forces and ‘frames of mind’, that have resulted in a crucial ‘intellectual climate change’. He contends that recent decades have seen rapid and significant transformations in how we define our ‘selves’, as a new emphasis on instant connectedness has come to replace reflectiveness and introspection.
Bollas argues that this trend has culminated in the current rise of psychophobia; a fear of the mind and a rejection of depth psychologies that has paved the way for what he sees as hate based solutions to world problems, such as the victory of Trump in America and Brexit in the United Kingdom. He maintains that, if we are to counter the threat to democracy posed by these changes and refind a more balanced concept of the self within society, we must put psychological insight at the heart of a new kind of analysis of culture and society.
This remarkable, thought-provoking book will appeal to anyone interested in politics, social policy and cultural studies, and in the gaining of insight into the ongoing challenges faced by the Western democracies and the global community.
In this short book, Bollas imitates Freud in some ways insofar as he engages in broad cultural analysis of many themes of our time, especially certain developments in both technology and politics. But this is no mere restating or updating of Freud but instead clearly a book of our time. The impetus for it, he tells us, comes largely from the election of Trump in the US, the rise of Marie Le Pen in France, and the Brexit vote and ongoing discontent in the United Kingdom. But this is not a partisan book that discusses policies so much as it looks at the history of the past century to detect certain underlying psychological themes, including, he begins by claiming, unfinished mourning from the Great War, which introduced a massive splitting into the Western psyche from which it has not recovered.

The book spends more time than I wanted on the causes and effects of current American politics, and not enough time on the changes wrought by technology. But what links the two, Bollas says in a number of ways, is a preference for simplicity, homogeneity, and the deliberate destruction of complexity: "in the age of bewilderment, there was peace to be found in ridding the mind of unwanted complexity" (77). Such eliminations are widespread: today's politics preys on that anti-complexity; today's globalized capitalism demands it; and even today's therapists and psychologists go along with it, offering almost instant ready-made courses of action to "fix" one's life rather than (as a psychoanalyst would) encouraging one to reflect on it at length in all its messiness, perhaps coming later to a new course of action--or perhaps not bothering to do so but instead, as Adam Phillips might say, coming to be content not to know without being thereby frustrated.

When he does focus on technological change--especially what it means to live our life tethered to phones and tablets, and broadcasting bits and pieces of that fragmented, homogenized life on social media--Bollas provides this very apt summary of the problems of social media, as anyone who ever bothers to read the comments on any website about any topic soon realizes: "Aspects of the way we communicate and think in the twenty-first century can be seen as forms of psychic flight from the overwhelming weight of inheriting a world shattered by dumb thoughtlessness."

In the end, Bollas says that the chaos and unmourned losses unleashed by the Great War have fed into an age of bewilderment which is only getting worse, and we have not recognized or admitted this--to our peril:
With the loss of a sense of meaning--the feeling that our lives can make a contribution--mourning has turned into melancholia. When we are melancholic we are angry over the losses we have suffered, and we unconsciously blame that which has apparently left us. We now feel abandoned by the humanist predicates of Western culture and the network of belief systems that seemed to offer a progressive vision of humanity, and we have turned our rage against social efficacy itself (127).

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