"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).

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Mourning, Melancholia--and Hope Amidst the Ashes

In his last interview, Joseph Ratzinger makes what struck me as an anguished comment that in getting older as a Christian everything gets harder. He did not really elaborate, but I wonder if what he had in mind was the more generally human experience that the longer one lives, the more one has to mourn: the more loss one has endured, and therefore the more space grief occupies in one's life.

That came back to mind in reading this interview, "Anxiety is Our New Religion," with the psychoanalyst Jamieson Webster about her new book, Conversion Disorder, where she says that too much of "contemporary life feeds into the expectations that you're not supposed to feel unwell. Whereas I don't see what in this world provides you anything more than uneasiness. I think it's very uneasy to be a human being." (Her book has certain parallels to another new book I noted here.)

It is precisely this awareness that suffering is a semi-permanent feature of life, and "happiness" a fleeting, superficial, inconstant companion, that has long made Freud a deeply attractive and compelling figure for me. I recall reading his Civilization and its Discontents in an undergrad course in the early 1990s. While almost all the other students--as I recall--were appalled by his seemingly dour view of life expressed therein, I found it described the world so exactly that I could scarcely see what they were objecting to. (More recently I had and have the same reaction to all those objecting to Freud's theory of the death drive, which drive I take to be so obvious and powerful a feature of human life that denying it is like denying the law of gravity. The theory is well treated in a new book I am reading now and will come back to later.)

Since then it seems to me--and Webster and others--that the cult of compulsory happiness (a capitalist creation, of course, designed to sell many commodities, not least psychotropics that purport to make you happy again) has only become more insidiously pervasive.

While psychoanalysis sought, as a therapeutic method, to relieve certain neurotic miseries, that was, Freud said, only so that neurotic forms of unhappiness could be replaced by ordinary unhappiness. People who feel entitled to go beyond that as a regular matter of course, or to invent apps or drugs (etc.) purportedly enabling them to do so, are the truly unwell members of our society who should be help up to careful and constant scrutiny. The old Christian discipline of regarding this life as a "valley of tears" is not far off the mark.

Webster in her interview quotes from an "amazing letter by Freud to Princess Marie Bonaparte. He was talking to her about depression and he said, “I think the problem with the depressed is that they simply have too high of an expectation for life. They think life is supposed to have more meaning than it does.”

Some of this, of course, must, I would argue, reflect Freud's own life: having suffered enormous deprivations in war-time Vienna and many senseless losses from the war, including that of his daughter Sophie in the flu epidemic at the end of the Great War, he would also spend the last 16 years of his life in constant agony from many surgeries to keep the cancer in his jaw at bay. And then, of course, he was chased out of Austria and forced to flee to London by the Nazis, dying there eighteen months later in September 1939. (His death is well treated in Mark Edmundson's 2007 book The Death of Sigmund Freud: the Legacy of His Last Days. Before that, Freud's physician in his final years, Max Schur, wrote Freud: Living and Dying, which was published in 1972. I am reading it currently and finding it fascinating.)

I think Madeleine Sprengnether is right--as I said here in my discussion of her new and welcome book Mourning Freud--in seeing that Freud himself perhaps did not always acknowledge as much as he should have, or needed to, the role of grief and loss in his own life. Certainly by the time of his London exile, he had endured many losses, with many more to come: not just of family (all of his sisters, as elderly as he, had to be left behind--neither enough money nor enough time could be raised to bribe the Nazis and placate them with endless paperwork to get the sisters out, and most of them were killed in the Holocaust) but also of his life's work, which was, in Mitteleuropa, virtually wiped out by the war. To the extent psychoanalysis survived at all, it was in Britain and the United States.

Freud was not unaware of grief and loss, of course. His 1917 essay "Mourning and Melancholia" is one I have often gone back to, finding the distinctions he makes there helpful. But on these questions there is more than a touch of the Athenian Stoic about this Austrian analyst. And as someone who described himself as a "Godless Jew," he refused what he took to be the over-easy comforts of "religion," which he neither fully understood nor, as Ana-Maria Rizzuto has convincingly shown, ever fully managed to extricate himself from.

But even here Freud is more ally than many, perhaps most, Christians. Few things are more insufferable than the unwillingness of so-called people of faith to face death, loss, grief, mourning, and the melancholy (and its frequent disguise, anger) that are our lot. Few things are more intolerable than happy-faced insistence on canonizing people at their funerals (if they have one) and banishing mourning with blithe assurances that everyone is even now partying in heaven. If that is what constitutes "Christian hope" today, then I'll gladly take Freudian atheism any day, and twice on Sundays.

Fortunately, of course, mourning and melancholia are all through the Scriptures, not least the Psalter and prophets. Mixed in with them is our hope. We do not, as Saint Paul says, mourn as those who have no hope. But neither is our hope an antidote, a nifty memory drug, that wipes out all traces of grief and mourning. They remain with us forever mixed together.

And that admixture comes out in a new book I am using next semester with some of my students: William Abraham's Among the Ashes: On Death, Grief, and Hope (Eerdmans, 2017), 127pp. About this book the publisher tells us the following:
How can we hold fast to the hope of life eternal when we lose someone we love? In this book William Abraham reflects on the nature of certainty and the logic of hope in the context of an experience of devastating grief.
Abraham opens with a stark account of the effects of grief in his own life after the unexpected death of his oldest son. Drawing on the book of Job, Abraham then looks at the significance of grief in debates about the problem of evil. He probes what Christianity teaches about life after death and ultimately relates our experiences of grief to the death of Christ.
Profound and beautiful, Among the Ashes tackles the philosophical and theological questions surrounding loss even as it honors the experience of grief.

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