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This review appeared in Volume 2 (1) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

Depression And Signification: Speaking Loss

by Hilary Clark

Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia. By Julia Kristeva. Trans. by Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press. 1989. Pp 288. ISBN 0-231-06706-2.

Surviving Trauma: Loss, Literature and Psychoanalysis. by David Aberbach. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1989. ISBN 0-300-04557-3

In The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), Robert Burton surveys traditional definitions of melancholy and finds some choice ones, including an " 'abundance of (the)...depraved humour of black choler'," a " 'privation or infection of the middle cell of the head'," " 'a commotion of the mind'." The most striking definition, and most modern, perhaps, asserts that melancholy is " 'a perpetual anguish of the soul, fastened on one thing, without an ague' " (1932: 169). The Freudian view of melancholy confirms this notion of a focussed anguish: in "Mourning and Melancholia," Freud suggests that melancholia is a "reaction to the loss of a loved object," with this loss being distinguished from that at the base of mourning by the fact that it is "withdrawn from consciousness" (1917: 245). Further, the melancholy person is ambivalent toward the lost and repressed object, feeling both love and reproach; the sufferer's characteristic low self-esteem results from "reproaches against a loved object which have been shifted away from it on to the patient's own ego" (248). Melancholy is "fastened on one thing," a response to loss, a mourning turned narcissistically upon the sufferer. Its painful affect is an ambivalent mixture of love and hatred, nostalgia and revision.

Julia Kristeva's Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia (1989) and David Aberbach's Surviving Trauma: Loss, Literature and Psychoanalysis (1989) both address this painful and common problem of depression; specifically, both address the matter of how depression is communicated in language and cured or worked through in literature and art. Beyond their common subject, however, and a common training in psychoanalysis, Kristeva and Aberbach differ immensely in their methods of approach to the conjunction of depression and signification.

Kristeva's Black Sun follows a particular line of investigation -- exploring the nature of depressive discourse and the different means of giving it back its symbolic powers -- within a larger project on conjoining psychoanalysis and semiotics, a dual interest, developing since the 1970's especially informing Desire in Language (1980), The Revolution of Poetic Language (1984) and Tales of Lowe (1987). (Also relevant, here, is "Psychoanalysis and Language" in Kristeva's Language, the Unknown (1989)). Following Lacan, with whom she trained as a psychoanalyst, Kristeva focuses on the constitution of the subject, within normal discourse, in terms of an Other who listens (Kristeva 1980:17). The subject enters the symbolic domain of the Father, the law and language, in turning away from what she calls the maternal semiotic domain (anterior to the symbolic) of bodily drives and rhythms. However, the symbolic and semiotic domains are inseparable: "Language as social practice necessarily presupposes these two dispositions, though combined in different ways to constitute types of discourse, types of signifying practices" (1980:134). The semiotic especially resurfaces in poetic uses of language, and displays a marked "heterogeneousness to meaning and signification" (1980:133). The semiotic also characterizes depressive discourse, the speech of melancholy persons. It is this very distinctive speech which is Kristeva's main focus in Black Sun.

Kristeva's book opens with a chapter entitled "Psychoanalysis -- A Counterdepressant," and the following statement: "For those who are racked by melancholia, writing about it would have meaning only if writing sprang out of that very melancholia" (1989:3). Such is the gist of Kristeva's argument -- melancholia is lessened or alleviated by the turn to signification, but writing signifies precisely insofar as it is a turning away from melancholia and its attachment to a lost object: "Signs are arbitrary because language starts with a negation (Verneinung) of loss, along with the depression occasioned by mourning" (1989:43). Kristeva accounts for the therapeutic effect of signification in the way that signs re-enact a mourning for the lost object, a mourning that, lacking a language, requires therapy. On the basis of her experience as an analyst, Kristeva goes on, in a chapter entitled "The Life and Death of Speech,"' to characterize depressive speech, a speech that bears some resemblance to that of aphasics -- monosyllabic, broken, punctuated with long silences (JakoS son 1971:85-6). She suggests the work therapy has to do in helping the depressive patient to regain a symbolic potential, an ability to "concatenate" signifies once again, to "reconstitute(e) a new symbol system" (1989:38).

The remainder of the first half of Black Sun ("lllustrations of Feminine Depression") consists in case histories of depressive female patients, suggesting that women have particular difficulties in freeing themselves from mourning for the hated and loved mother because they have a "lesser aptitude (than men have) for restorative perversion" (71). Variously masochistic, anxious, frigid, crushed with a burden of grief, these women come to therapy and find "a psychic territory that becomes able to integrate loss as signifiable as well as erogenetic" (1989:83). In "the mourning of the analysis, " in which a wounded speech is heard and forgiven, "words succeed in infiltrating the spasm of tears -- provided they can find an addressee for an overflow of sorrow that had up to then shied away from words" (1989.91). "Words, words, words," says Hamlet in his melancholy, understanding words to signify nothing; to make them signify again ("signifying precisely because of the absence of object," 1989:41), to mourn for the "primal Thing" (1989:41), yet at the same time negate it in the arbitrary turn of the signifier -- such is the aim of the therapeutic dialogue in which the subject, in the listening of an Other, (re)constitutes itself.

The first part of Kristeva's study, then, concerns itself with the role of psychoanalysis as a "counterdepressant," recharging and reshaping a depressive speech. The remainder of the book turns to the role of art and beauty in enabling the sufferer to inhabit discourse meaningfully once again. In "Beauty The Depressive's Other Realm," Kristeva suggests that art secures a "sublimatory hold over the lost Tlning," serving as a "counterpoise" to loss (1989:97).it helps the depressive person to approach the lost Thing, name it, signify it, while at the same time checking its destructive lure in the distancing turn of representation. Kristeva is particularly interested in poetic language as, through prosody, it speaks a "language beyond language" (1989:97): Semiotic processes, particularly rhythms, break into the symbolic order of the ego while the latter order -- "sign, word, structure, contract, constraint" (1980:28-29) -- shapes these processes as being significant.

The therapeutic effect of poetic language is also due to the polyvalence or "polynomia" (1980:112) of the sign under the poetic function: here, in the unsettling of meaning, in the memory of the body, the subject has "a chance to imagine the nonmeaning, or the true meaning, of the Thing" (1989:97). Poetic language opens up language as a whole, entering into a productive tension with the symbolic. The resulting artifice paradoxically allows the representation, or at least suggestion, of a lost, loved object beyond words -- and this because art is by its very nature an "allegory ...of that which no longer is...remak(ing) nothingness" (1989:99). As does the surface play of analytic discourse, art's beautiful surface translates a deep, invisible loss.

Kristeva includes studies of four artists and their works: Hans Holbein the Younger and his painting, "The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb"; Gerard de Nerval and his poem, "El Desdichado"; Fyodor Dostoyevsky and his novels, Crime and Punishment and The Idiot; and Marguerite Duras in a number of her fictions. In each of these cases Kristeva is concerned with describing the artist's depressive discourse and world-view, as manifested in very different forms ranging from Holbein's painting of Christ, the redeemer, an "emaciated, tortured" corpse laid out on a slab, through Nerval's attempt to speak The "Black Sun of Melancholia" and thereby "assimilat(e) the archaic state into the language of poetry" (1989:171), through Dostoyevsky's representation of Raskoinikov and his search for forgiveness and renewal under condemnation, to Duras' tale of love enduring in the death of Hiroshima. Kristeva is concerned with the tracing the ways in which these artists, through their art as semiotic-symbolic process, both mourn ambivalently and work through their grief. Mourning needs time to complete itself and become detached, finally, from its object. If completed, mourning "remove(s) our morbid lining and set(s) us up as independent, unified subjects" (1989:257-8).

Central to Kristeva's argument is the notion that this completion of mourning requires the processes of imaginary identification and forgiveness opened up in art (as in therapy). We have seen how, through prosody and the polyvalence of poetic language; a way is opened to signify loss and thereby overcome it, both enacting and completing the process of mourning. At a more general level, through the processes of identification and forgiveness the subject both recovers the lost object and comes to terms with separation. In Holbein's representation of the dead Christ, Kristeva reads a striking image of separation, and, in the mourning this opens up, an image of all the "splittings" -- "birth, weaning, separation, frustration, castration" -- that structure us as subjects (1989:132). Yet this state of separation is the precondition for symbolic power; the Christian analogy to this, Kristeva notes, is Christ's death and loss as a precondition for his redeeming power. The process of identification can be read in both Christian and psyclloanalytic senses: an imaginary identification with an "absolute Subject" opens up the realm of intersubjectivity and thereby that of signs. Whether in the Eucharist or in analysis, it is faith in a listening Other that offers "an antidote to hiatus and depression, along with hiatus and depression and starting from them" (1989:134).

Kristeva also explores the idea of forgiveness in both Christian and psychoanalytic senses, starting from the power of the theme of forgiveness in the poetics of "Dostoyevsky the Christian" (1989:185), and tracing forgiveness as implicit in Dostoevsky's ~6dialogism" (Bakhtin's term). The analytic situation, like art, involves conflict, &Ťa painful, continuing struggle to com pose a work edge to edge with the unnameable sensuous delights of destruction and chaos" (1989:186). In both, the appeal to a listener, a forgiving audience, leads to significance, the rebirth of meaning. Kristeva defines forgiveness in specific terms, here, as "giving in addition, banking on what is there in order to revive...the possibility of a new encounter" (1989:189). In therapy as in art, the forgiveness of the Other "identifies with abjection in order to traverse it, name it, expend it..." (1989:190).

In forgiveness and identification, then the subject is drawn out of her lonely, self-destructive anguish via the powers of speech and the possibility of love. In this access to the symbolic, the linking of signs in art or speech, loss is represented and death thereby loses its fascination, death "the hiatus, blank, or spacing" of writing,"the dissociation of form itself" (26-27).

Kristeva ends Black Sun by widening her focus, through the works of Marguerite Duras, to take account of the particular intensity of the mXchdic mahdy irt contemporary life. After Auschwik and Hiroshima, a "tremendous crisis of thought and speech, a crisis of representation, has...emerged" (221); death the unrepresentable has marked our discourse as depressive, "our symbolic means...hollowed out, nearly wiped out, paralyzed" (223). Kristeva notes that writing has figured this crisis, engendered by two World Wars, in becoming nonrepresentational, minimal; in the "new rhetoric apocalypse," writing turns back upon itself while at the same time pursuing a fascinated guest for the "invisible" Thing, Kurtz's "Horror" beyond words.

How do we forgive ourselves, then? The depressive discourse of the modern, Kristeva argues, must give way to the "postmodern challenge" which seeks to write it into a larger narrative, comic or parodic, turning away from the abyss of horror, from the unnamed and unnameable Thing into an "artifice of seeming" (259). In this sense, the postmodern has the same sublimatory or forgiving function with respect to the modern as Kristeva suggests that art has with respect to melancholy: the artifice of parody, it seems, names abjection while incorporating and exceeding it.

Kristeva's Black Sun, like her other books, requires more thna one reading; at points, Kristeva's prose seems opaque and circumlocutory ("What we call meaning is the ability of the infans to record the signifier of parental desire and include itself therein in his own fashion; he does so by displaying the semiotic abilities he is endowed with at that moment of this development and which allow him a mastery, on the level of primary processes, of a 'not yet other' (of the Thing) included in the erotogenic zones of such a semiotizing infans,"pp.62-3). But this is a minor complaint; like wine, Kristeva's prose improves with each tasting.

In contrast, David Aberbach's prose in Surviving Trauma is immediately clear; the problem with his book is not stylistic but is, rather, a higher level problem of method in its approach to the conjunction of language, literature and depression.

Aberbach's purpose in Surviving Trauma is to determine to what extent loss and mourning have a role in the creativity expressed in art and literature, in dreams and memories, in mystical experiences and philosophical systems. In his Preface, Aberbach notes that "(I)oss is presented (in his study) as one of many possible forces and subjects of creativity" (1989:xi). Seeing loss as a "force" of creativity, impelling creativity, leads the author to examine a number of mystics, poets, novelists, and philosophers from a biographical perspective, looking particularly for childhood losses (the death or loss of a mother, father or other family members) as keys to understanding the particular thematic obsession and motifs that structure their work. As well, Aberbach's emphasis on seeing loss as a "subject" of creativity leads him to draw extensively upon examples that feature loss as a subject or theme.

Like Kristeva, then, Aberbach focuses on art as a response to loss and a cure for grief: for "those who endure loss in childhood...the inhibition or blockage of fantasy as a result of incomplete mourning may find its compensation or antidote in creative self-expression" (1989:3). Unlike Kristeva, however, Aberbach is not specifically semiotic in his interests; he does not focus on the ways the signifying process as such may effect a cure. Rather, Aberbach's view of language and art is largely an expressive one: language is a medium by which one expresses one's grief and pain, and it is assumed that in this cathartic expression, the liberation of "blocked" fantasy and feeling in itself effects a cure.

Aberbach's chapters run through various permutations upon these basic thematic-expressive premises. The author looks at different forms of "creative self-expression," and shows how these illustrate childhood loss and incomplete mourning. In "Creativity and the Survivor, " Aberbach undertakes to show "the role of creativity as a response to personal and collective loss" (1989:2); he is particularly interested in aesthetic responses to the Holocaust and to the collective weight of grief among its survivors. Following this are chapters on loss and creativity (drawing on examples of poetry and prose fiction), loss and dreams (drawing on dream-reports)l, and loss and childhood memories (drawing on autobiographical writing, and referring particularly to Freud's notion of "screen memories", insistent childhood memories that function, like dreams, to convey a repressed wish).ln all these lines of inquiry, Aberbach is exploring several hypotheses, that

creativity may help to express, to master and work through the grief process; it might give the bereaved greater control over his life...; it might act as a memorial of the lost person. Creativity may also serve to confront and attempt to resolve emotional conflicts and heal wounds...The satisfaction of creating a thing of beauty may palliate the artist's grief, and the distancing of the self from grief through art may be similarly therapeutic. (1989:23)

In his illustrations from creative works, Aberbach amply demonstrates that these works do indeed appear to "express,"' "confront," "master," and "resolve" grief; however, what is never quite clear in Aberbach's discussion is precisely how Surviving Trauma creativity, especially in the form of verbal art, achieves these effects. And in assuming that works of art are varying forms of autobiographical expression, Aberbach tends to overlook their status as fictions, and indeed that making fictions may be part of the cure.

Next a chapter entitled "Grief and Mysticism" establishes a parallel between the stages in the grief process and the stages in the mystical via negativa, both featuring stages of detachment, yearning for the desired object, despair, identification. Beyond this parallel, as well, mysticism can "provide an effective outlet for the expression of grief..."; a mourner may have mystical experiences, satisfying "the need for an orderly, transcendent, goal-oriented form of grief" (1989:95). However, Aberbach is careful to note that not all moumers become mystics, and especially that not all mystics are moumers in disguise.

In "Loss and Philosophical Ideas" and "Loss and Charisma," Aberbach points out that many philosophers and charismatic individuals lost parents in their childhood. Again, like mystics, philosophers are not all in mourning; however, for many "the development of their thinking often clearly represents an attempt to confront delayed grief and master it" (1989:110-111).

Likewise, "charisma may sometimes be understood as a displaced or transcendent form of yearning and searching impelled by grievous loss" (1989:124). Discussing figures as diverse as Spinoza and Winston Churchill, Rousseau and Krishnamurti, Sartre and Witler, Aberbach demonstrates that philosophical systems and charismatic personal careers may be built, however unconsciously, upon loss and mourning.

Aberbach finally turns to the more extreme manifestations of grief, where normal feelings of anger toward the loved object, anxiety about separation, and guilt over loss become pathological and lead to mental illness. He suggests that mental illness may be "held in check" through creativity. (In a similar manner, Kristeva argues that art has a sublimatory function, drawing the depressive back into the circuit of speech.) At times, however, the "checking' function of creativity (whether manifested in art, ideas, charismatic careers, dreams, or selective memories) breaks down. The anger and grief that drive the creator can also be overwhelming. Through the process of identification, hatred and anger felt toward the lost person are turned on the self, and if these affects are strong enough, this identification has fatal results. Aberbach ends Surviving Trauma (oddly enough, considering his title) on the sombre note of suicide. Art is obviously insufficient, a very frail bridge over the abyss of self-loathing that characterizes the melancholy person; recalling Kristeva's notion of intersubjectivity as forgiveness, we might conclude that only knowing the faith and love of an other can keep one from falling.

The main problem I find in Aberbach's book is a consequence of his view of art and ideas as "creative self-expression." In holding to this view, the author sees language as being basically the instrument of an expressive purpose. The critic can look at a poem or a novel or a dream report as a transcript of anger, yearning, ambivalence, and so on. Then, the critic can use the work to illustrate assertions that these feelings characterize the author. If language is seen as being basically instrumental, then literature will be seen in this way as well; we can read through it, that is, overlooking its specificity. This is precisely what Aberbach does in Surviving Trauma<: he offers an abundance of examples, but rarely reads them closely, rarely comes to grip with their language, choosing instead simply to use them to illustrate assertions, usually about the place of childhood losses in the subject's life. In looking at Thomas Hardy's poems on the death of his first wife, for example, Aberbach asserts that they "touch ()...on the harsh abruptness of her death," that their winter imagery "mirror the poet's numbness in the throes of grief,"that in them Hardy "reveals ... traces of his remorse and anger at Emma's passing, as well as his searching for her" (1989:30).But he does not speculate on the role of poetic form itself, the role of recurrence in rhythm, rhyme, sound, the "materiality of writing" (Kristeva 1980:100), in helping the grieving process. He suggests that creativity has a healing effect; the key to this effect is here, in the very language of his samples

On the whole, then, Kristeva's book on depression is more "useful" than Aberbach's if our purpose is to study depression as a discourse, as an inarticulate, painful form of communication, which comes to signify more fully and articulately in art and therapy. In Surviving Trauma, Aberbach largely confines himself to pointing out that famous creative persons had grievous losses and inadequate opportunities for mourning in their childhoods; in amassing biographical facts about loss, and samples of creative work, Aberbach demonstrates connections between particular losses and particular works. Kristeva's discussion of depression is more interesting, even for those who are not psychoanalytically inclined, because it is concerned with this widespread source of anguish as a semiotic phenomenon. Depression signifies loss and narcissistic ambivalence. For the depressive person, writing, speaking (in general, signifying to an Other), is an act of love and faith, reorienting signs beyond the numb or pained body of the sufferer: "there is no writing other than the amorous..." (1989:6).

One of the main points of Kristeva's book is that semiology must take melancholy into account because semiology is by its very nature a science of loss, absence, skirting along the borders of desire for the lost object. Language is our melancholy burden; it is a "negativity" (Kristeva 1980:109) always translating the unnameable, speaking the unspeakable, while in the arbitrary turn of signification suggesting something lost. Yet the metaphorical dialectic between identification and separation constituting language is the basis of its power to tie a "narcissistic, drive-animated" orientation to "signifying ideals" (1987:38). To the extent that the analytic bond is a version of intersubjectivity in general, Kristeva's notion of depressive language will be useful, beyond the bounds of psychoanalysis, to indicate the absence or loss at the base of all signification, and the curious way this absence can drive symbolic power. In semiotic as in psychoanalytic terms, to acknowledge loss and abjection is to take into one's hands all the power in the world.



Aberbach, David (1989) Surviving Trauma: Loss, Literature and Psychoanalysis. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Burton, Robert (1932) The Anatomy of Melancholy. 3 Vols. London: Dent.

Freud, Sigmund (1917) "Mourning and Melancholia." Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Ed. and trans. James Stachey. Vol XIV. London: The Hogarth Press.

Jakobson, Roman (1971) "Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances" in Jakobson and M. Halle, Fundamentals of Language. 2nd Ed., Rev. The Hague: Mouton.

Kristeva, Julia (1980) Desire in Language. Ed. and trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press.

--- (1984) The Revolution of Poetic Language. Trans. Margaret Waller. New York: Columbia University Press.

--- (1987)Tales of Love. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press.

--- (1989) Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press.

Hilary Clark is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Saskatchewan. She holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of British Columbia. Her book, The Fictional Encyclopedia: Joyce, Pound, Sollers, was published in 1990 by Garland Press. She has articles on Joyce and Bunting in James Joyce Quarterly and Sagetrieb, and has articles forthcoming on the infinite text and the mnemonics of autobiography in The Canadian Review of Comparative Literature and Biography.

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