I've been rereading Freud's Mourning and Melancholia, an essay that he wrote round about the time of the start of the First World War. I wrote these notes to sort it out in my own mind, but you might find them helpful.

Oceanic Oneness
In Freud’s theory, narcissism comes first. This is because the infant feels part of a great oneness and resists being separated out as a separate being. Thus the earliest form of object-relation is identification. I start to discern things from an “I am that, that is me” position. Separateness is the great problem of life. The infantile mentality at first wants to deny otherness any separate existence at all and then, as it has to begin to accept separation, wants to incorporate the other through identification. Identification is thus the most primitive form of object-relation or, we could say, it is a nascent form of it. Slowly, more mature forms of object-relation emerge in which there is a clearer recognition of the separateness of self and object. In the fully developed or mature form of object relation, the other is fully recognised as an other. Only at this stage can real respect function. At all earlier stages, the autonomous existence of the other is compromised in the mind of the subject by his desire to incorporate it into himself. Thus, for instance, it is not until well into adult life, if ever, that most people start to see their parents as independent people with motives of their own that can be respected. There are thus a series of steps or degrees between primary narcissism - which is also oceanic universalism - at one end of the spectrum and mature object relations at the other end. This is a spectrum from oneness to pluralism.

Progress and Regression

Freud observes that we may all progress and sometimes regress along this spectrum. When we invest in an object and it disappoints us we are likely to regress. Life is a series of projects and when one seems to have failed we go back a step to the last time we felt secure before attempting to go forward again. We might get so discouraged that we stay in such regression for a time before we regain courage. However, each project has a double nature. We do not really chose to progress. We invest in objects in an effort to avoid having to do so, but the actual separateness, conditioned nature and impermanence of the object forces us to come to terms with its, and therefore or own, independence.

The Pain of Life

Object relations are thus the means by which we mature, but they are also the instrument by which we get hurt. At the earliest step we identify but gradually and begrudgingly have to accept, here and there, and in some degree, that the identity is not complete. This forces a degree of separation upon us. We then try to incorporate the object, but it resists. It is the fact that the object world resists us that forces us reluctantly to grow up. All of this is painful. Sometimes it is so painful that we retreat. Two of the most painful instances of this attack upon our narcissism are rejection and bereavement. In both of these cases the object strikes back, demonstrating its complete separation and independence of our will. The fundamental lesson is that the universe is not answerable to one’s personal will. This refusal of the object world to be dominated forces us to face our separateness from the oceanic oneness.

Murderous Rage

Now, in the course of this struggle, the subject has a huge mix of feelings. When the object will not be identified with, will not be incorporated, will not submit, the subject on the one hand longs and yearns and on the other hand wishes the destruction of the object. If it won’t fit into our fantasied world of oneness then, we feel, it does not deserve to exist at all. This murderous wish toward the other stands in contrast to our desire for everything - and especially everything internal to oneself - to be all harmony and light. Insofar as we recognise our own state this incongruence can become a serious problem to us. One part of us observes another part.

The Internal Dynamic

It should be apparent that as soon as such self-reflection occurs the same dynamic repeats, but, as it were, internally. The part of us that wishes the object destroyed is now itself a recalcitrant object to another part of oneself that does not want to allow the existence of such a murderous part of the self. Not only is one now in hostility to the object, but also in hostility to the hostile part of oneself. Freud sees this second level dynamic as both the source of origin of what he calls the super-ego and also as the seedbed of melancholia, which he takes to be a condition of deep self-criticism grounded in actual criticism of a disappointing object in whom there had been great hope.

Thus, melancholia is a form of masochism that is really a reaction to one’s own sadism which is a product of one reluctance to accept the independence of the cathected object. This problem is the more acute the more independent the object has been.


To put the same thing differently,
1. One invests in an object (cathexis) in an implicit hope that union with the object will return one to the fantasied oneness that one originally believed to be the real order of things when one was in the narcissistic stage. This is the same as Sartre’s notion of the for-itself trying to be an in-itself without losing its sentience and freedom in the process.
2. This hope is necessarily frustrated. The degree of frustration may be greater or less.
3. The result of this frustration can go toward maturation or toward regression. Maturation occurs insofar as one can recognise and accept the otherness of the other, thereby abandoning oneness,  but this goes against the grain. Regression occurs insofar as one only experiences the frustration as a defeat. Clearly, the more attached the person is to narcissistic oneness, the more likely the latter course becomes. Yet, the more acceptance there has been of the otherness of the object, the more the former course becomes likely. Thus there are two self-reinforcing cycles here, one leading to maturity and the other to regression.
4. Acceptance or denial of the otherness of the other is not only a function of the prior progress toward maturity of the subject, it is also a function of the degree of provocation from the object. Some objects demonstrate their independence much more forcefully than others. Let us look at an example.

Example: Grief Simple and Complicated

A major normal way in which a cathected object demonstrates its independence is by dying. Let us say that a husband dies. This brings home to the wife her separateness. This is an unchosen experience, a shock. The woman goes through a period of painful mourning. If this mourning follows what we can call a natural course, then the woman emerges more mature at the end of it. She is more mature because she has in some degree taken the lesson. Marriage served as a defense against recognition of separateness. Death brought home the existential reality of impermanence and contingency. So far so normal.

However, let us consider a variant case. The man in question had been a philanderer. Beside the wife he had many other women. In this way he strongly demonstrated his independence while still alive. Her efforts to tame him failed. She tried to come to terms with this in various ways, but the frustration was huge. At times she wished him destroyed. There was hate mixed with her love. As explained earlier, the woman fluctuates between hating him and hating the part of her that hates him. In her fantasy investment he is supposed to be the means by which she maintains some vestige of the sense of oneness, but over and over again it does not work. Then he dies. She is already caught up in a deep ambivalence of love and hate and now has to face the fact that the one thing that she did wish that he has actually conformed to, is his death. This is likely to stir up the most terrible turmoil. She can hardly bear the knowledge that she willed his destruction and it happened. The reason for imposing one’s will on the other is to protect one from knowledge of separateness, not to bring it about in the most absolute possible way. It is quite possible that the woman will now subside into hopelessness and self-reproach. The self-reproach will itself be a turning against herself of the very hatred that she formerly felt for the husband.

When Real Love is Possible

So, to recap again, maturity is a progress toward respect and appreciation of an object world that is separate from self. Such progress is not chosen; we resist it. It is forced upon us by experience. Objects demonstrate their separateness and we gradually, reluctantly and only be degrees come to accept and acknowledge it. Real love is only possible in a state of maturity. Much that passes for love is actually our investment in objects that we hope will protect us from the existential reality. By creating a oneness with another we will shield ourselves from the awful-seeming truth and retain some vestige of how we originally assumed things were, namely oceanic oneness. This applies to marriage, but it also applies to other lesser relationships and even to possessions which we appropriate into our self-world. We impose ourselves on objects in order to reassure ourselves that we are not separate and they are not separate from us. This is the fundamental regressed state that underpins our efforts and which experience with reality gradually drags us out of. However, if reality wrenches us out too sharply, fiercely or abruptly our resistance itself becomes extreme and a setback may occur.

The same is true in regard to what we may call authentic work. When we are still in the grip of  narcissism we work reluctantly out of an effort to ingratiate ourselves with others in the hope that they will collude with us in keeping the oneness fantasy going. This is likely to work inasmuch as the others are as immature as we are. This means that such work as we do is for a hidden compulsive motive. This is the case for the vast majority of people.

Growing Up Reluctantly

There is here a model of what psychological maturation is, how it works and how it can go astray. It implies that personal growth is a stepwise process that inevitably involves resistance, struggle, pain and setbacks of varying degrees. The more progress a person has made the bigger the next step that they can take, but this is not a self-directed process. One may choose to put oneself into challenging situations in the hope of new learning, but the will is mostly engaged in resistance and even when we do deliberately take on something challenging the way we deal with it is mostly like going through a hedge backwards.

A Conflict Model

Many will reject the idea of such a model as too negative but it does seem to fit the facts of experience pretty well and it does help us to understand the psychological problems that can arise. It is a conflict model, but it is not so much that we are really in conflict with objects, it is that we are in resistance to accepting the reality of our world, namely that there is impermanence and trouble, that reality is not part of self and self is not one with reality. The original narcissistic oneness does not account for the fact that things come and go, that they are not always nice, and that they are not under our control. As we become awakened to the real situation we become genuinely psychologically independent and capable of love and labour that is an expression of our freedom. Most people never quite get there.

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