Our New Dark Ages

Freud’s masterful paper, Mourning and Melancholia (Freud, 1915), is famous for its revolutionary rethinking of loss. The intuition that melancholia is not just a transitory and necessary withdrawal from the world like mourning, but a tragic attempt to keep alive a lost loved one has reverberated down the decades since Freud wrote it nearly a century ago.

It has shaped the way generations thought about love and loss and what a precarious thing it is to be human. In just 16 pages, Freud captured the insights of his beloved poets, showing that we can only mourn if we have already lost something, and that the truly sad are those who cannot let go. The paper showed that melancholia – what we now call depression – arises when loss can’t be accepted, and rather than give up the dead, we join them, A melancholic is one who so identifies with a lost love that he becomes it and savages himself in place of it, achieving a hollow revenge.

Freud’s paper, along with its companion piece on narcissism (Freud, 1914), is among the most significant in psychoanalysis, partly because it yielded discoveries – one being that we can feel fury without being consciously aware of it and another being that hatred is a basic reaction to those who have power over us. Anger against loved ones as a cause of depression today is, however, dismissed because the depressed person denies it. And yet, blocked fury causes much exhaustion and lost interest in life. The problem is that now, with depression seen as biological, our despair is no longer our business.

We are told that the fault is in the brain; that depression is a chemical imbalance; an organic illness that can, like diabetes, be treated by drugs. Diabetics produce insufficient insulin. Depression, however, is not the result of lowered levels of anything we can now measure. It is linked with lowered levels of serotonin, but while this brain chemical can trigger a process that eventually helps some depressed people feel better for a time, that is not because they have abnormally low levels of serotonin. There is no cause and effect relationship between serotonin and depression. You could pump a litre of serotonin into the brain of a depressed person and it would not make them feel instantly better.

There is a better explanation, and it goes back to Freud’s seminal paper. As English psychoanalyst, Darian Leader, shows in ‘The New Black: Mourning, Melancholia and Depression,’ to understand depression you need the right conceptual tools, the foremost of which is language. It begins with the term depression, which, as a discrete illness, was created as much as discovered. While there is, as Leader says, “some scepticism about the claims made for anti-depressant drugs”, the “idea of depression as a brain problem retains its attraction even for the sceptics.” Even when particular drugs are linked to the risk of suicide, the reasons are explained biochemically, implying that our thoughts and actions can be determined biochemically. The implication is that the drugs are not good enough; they need to be more specific – promoting positive not negative thoughts.

This is the myth of depression, and it has come to replace a detailed study of human responses to loss and disappointment. It is a furphy maintained not just by the drug barons, but our wish to be able to quickly name and fix a problem without the pain of putting our lives under the microscope.

This suggests that the psychological therapies may be better, but Leader demurs, arguing that the most popular, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, CBT, is short-term and sees symptoms as the outcome of faulty learning.

CBT, he says, “is a form of conditioning that aims at mental hygiene. It has no place for the realities of sexuality or violence that lie at the heart of human life…as a superficial treatment, it cannot access unconscious complexes and drive” (Leader, 2008, 19)

Leader refers to our current thinking on depression as the new dark ages. But, while there is much to be deplored in the way that history saw depression, the past also possessed insights that have been obscured. The ancient Greeks, from whom we get the term melancholia, talked of a black hole, a gap in other words. By the fifth century, the scholar Cassian, described it as the Noonday Demon, after the 19th psalm which talks of dislike of the place where one is, disgust disdain and contempt for other men and sluggishness. He listed it as a temptation to be resisted. Both of these find an echo in the way that Freud and Lacan diagnosed depression.

Leader points out that until well into the 19th century, the defining aspects of melancholia were not, as they now are, sadness and feeling low. Monomania was much more common. The focus was on anxiety, not depression. As early as the 2nd century Galen, the personal physician to Emperor Marcus Aurelius, defined melancholy as a mixture of fear and despondency, a description that is likely to resonate with anyone who has experienced loss. Leader refers to the writer C.S. Lewis, who observed on the death of his wife that he had no idea that grief felt so much like fear.

The fact that depression and anxiety are now seen as separate clinical conditions is the work of drug companies. Not only did they invent modern depression, they did it when anxiety, which had been their emphasis, proved problematic after tranquillizers were found to be addictive. Imipramine, the first anti-depressant, was developed by Ciba-Geigy in the 1950s, but initially shelved because it was thought there were not enough depressed people in the world to warrant its production.

Leader returns to Freud’s dissection of mourning to get beyond the magic bullet myth, recalling that there is nothing normal about mourning; our minds revolt against it, it is a job of work, much like the dream work. Mourning is not a matter of just listing, reshuffling and recombining our memories. Something more has to occur. On its own, the work of reshuffling and listing may point to a block to the mourning process. As Freud first showed, it is a matter of doing what the melancholic finds so daunting; finding out what it is that is lost in the loved object. This means facing the fundamental ambivalence we feel towards those we have lost; a confrontation which produces guilt. For Freud, the ambivalence is decisive, rather than whatever positive feelings we may have.

As Leader demonstrates, many depressions are expressions of emotional reactions once withheld and remaining latent. There is a choice. We will, of course, identify with the lost object, but will it be with her traits only – as occurs in mourning – or with her totality – as occurs in melancholia? If it is the latter, the result, as Freud famously observes, is the ego blighted by the object. A melancholic punishes the lost one in effigy, turning an object loss into an ego loss.

This, Leader, argues echoing Freud, is how character is formed; our ego is made up of the left over traces of lost relationships, the experience of loss and the registration of loss. You are not what you eat, but what you have loved. We become, Leader says, what we could not bear to give up.

While Melanie Klein and Karl Abraham disagreed with Freud, believing his polarisation of mourning and melancholy was too rigid, they did not demur with his emphasis on ambivalence. For Abraham, as Leader shows, ambivalence is at the heart of all forms of mourning, which he sees as derivatives of melancholia. The child’s hatred of the mother, heightened by the early disappointments linked to the oral sadistic phase, can swamp their love, and they, as Leader says, “find themselves unable to either wholly hate or wholly love her. This impasse would be felt as a profound helplessness” (Leader, 2008, 61).

One of the strengths of this book is the way Leader draws on art, history and literature, to make his case. To consider how loss when overpowering can be distorted or denied, he goes to the life of Marianne Ellenbogen, a young Jewish woman who miraculously survived the Holocaust inside Germany. Interviewed later in her life, Ellenbogen told a different story to the one she recorded in her journals at the time, just as both of these sources sometimes conflicted with external accounts. As her biographer, Mark Roseman, studied the material a pattern became clear, Leader says. “Where moments of separation were so traumatic as to be unbearable for Marianne, they would be rewritten using the memories of other people” (Leader, 2008, 78).

Rather than false memory syndrome, Leader thinks of this as borrowed mourning. “She was able to make something from how other people had represented their own grief” (ibid). He calls this a dialogue of mourning, a tool in symbolizing and thus processing loss. Words, he says, converge at the point that is most unbearable for us. But words also show us, not just loss but how something can be created from it. It is not a matter of getting over loss, and getting on with your life, but finding a way to make loss a part of one’s life. Living with loss is what matters, he says, and writers and artists show us the many different ways in which this can be done.

Leader points to Kleinian analyst, Hanna Segal, who argued that we not only identify with works of art, but also their creators, in the sense that they have made something out of an inferred experience of loss. He says, “the arts exist to allow us to access grief, and they do this by showing publicly how creation can emerge from the turbulence of a human life” (Leader, 2008, 86)

The intention is to put the past into the past, but not forget it, which for Leader means creating a representation out of the experience of loss, in much the same way that an artist like Sophie Calle created a text, ‘Exquisite Pain’, from a failed relationship. You have to tear something down and replace it with a new structure. This needs to be original, not standardised. Otherwise it will end up like the teaching of emotional literacy, which Leader sees as brainwashing, imposing a language on the individual and coercing them to use it in place of their own unique ways of expression.

Leader quotes Melanie Klein and the way she spoke of the necessity to re-create the whole of one’s internal world with each loss, arguing that where Klein had seen this as a sign that the internal world had to be re-created, it is in fact the entire symbolic world of convention that must be refashioned. By way of example, he cites the German artist, Thomas Demand, who takes photographs of scenes he has reconstructed through meticulous life size cardboard models. Demand will often choose a site linked to loss and grief that can’t be readily symbolized and then rebuild it is a completely artificial way before photographing it. Critics say the work is pointless – why not photograph the original space – but this misses, Leader says, a crucial point. “Confronted with the unsymbolizable nature of the crime or tragedy, the symbolic dimension itself has to be mobilized, and hence the emphasis will be on the register of the artificial…Demand is showing us how the artificial has a vital function. Even if the space looks the same it isn’t because it has been artificially created” (Leader, 2008) Leader likens this to Freud’s case of Little Hans, the five year-old boy who had a phobia about horses. Hans drew a giraffe, then crumpled it up and announced the new beast as ‘crumpled giraffe’. “Found in no nature reserve,” Leader observes,” ‘crumpled giraffe could only be created by symbolic conventions, by words, and Hans’s production emphasizes precisely this symbolic, artificial dimension (ibid, 110).”

The writer, W. G. Sebald, who was described by one psychiatrist as an anti anti-depressant, offers another example. Sebald’s books focus on apparently random, contingent details, such as an old photograph, which he explores. In so doing, Leader says, “he brings into focus not simply the individual life behind the photo…but the impossibility of encompassing all the lives behind all those details that make up human culture.” If one photo can lead to a real story of loss, all photos might potentially do the same. This makes human civilization an immense hole, an abyss. “It is,” Leader says, “exactly this unthinkable hole that his work circumscribes” (Leader, 2008, 113)

Freud thought that the work of mourning involved a declaration that the lost object is dead, whereas, Leader says, Melanie Klein believed that it was about demonstrating that we have not killed the dead. According to Leader, the important thing is the symbolic death, which puts to rest our need to keep the dead with us.

Leader draws upon Lacan to emphasize that we can only mourn when we have already lost something; mourning involves a process of constitution of the object, registering of empty space.

For mourning to occur, the object, and the object’s place must be built up. This construction is never a given, as Freud knew when he differentiated between whom we have lost and what we have lost in them. Mourning is not about giving up an object, but restoring one’s links to it as lost. Such castrated living is never popular. But it is the way we leave the dead behind. Without it, we run the risk of nursing a psychic bruise that slowly deepens into a terrible ache. Doris Lessing captured it when, nearing 90, she said of her past: “Here I still am, trying to get out from under that monstrous legacy, trying to get free.”


Freud, S. (1914). On Narcissism: An Introduction (2001 ed. Vol. 14). London: Vintage.

Freud, S. (1915). Mourning and Melancholia (Vol. 14). London: Vintage.

Leader, D. (2008). The New Black: Mourning, Melancholia and Depression. London: Hamish Hamilton.