A century on, Freud’s melancholia remains the psychological condition of the lost soul. Which is why psychoanalysis has become the modern form of exorcism

” I believe in ghosts. I live with them all the time. But it wasn’t always the case. Foolishly, I used to pretend they didn’t exist, that the dead stayed dead, that they had no purchase on my life. But now I speak to them all the time and they speak to me. I have photographs of them on my study wall. And I have even come to love them, in a strange kind of way. But I don’t call them ghosts. I call them memories, many half buried, many faintly conceived. For one of the surprising things unearthed for me by the extraordinary chemistry of psychoanalysis was the continuing presence of my ancestors. Ghosts are psychological unfinished business, often associated with unprocessed pain.

It is exactly a hundred years since Sigmund Freud set pen to paper to write his ground breaking paper Mourning and Melancholia. Published in 1917, Freud distinguished between two responses to loss: mourning, when the object of loss is clear and obvious, and thus can be emotionally processed; and melancholia, a state of being in which one is affected by a loss that one is unable to name. Melancholia is, as it were, a loss that one doesn’t realise has been lost. And because one cannot properly name this loss, because it exists in the psychic shadows, one cannot go through the process of mourning it properly. The pain goes unburied. So it hangs around and continually haunts you. This state of melancholia is often associated with depression.

It was four years ago last Monday that I resigned from St Paul’s Cathedral. Dealing with the emotional fallout led me back to therapy. Initially, I thought the subsequent depression was to do with something obvious like a loss of ego-status or a life-crisis that had yet to be properly worked through. But as the lens widened, something unexpected came into view. My ancestors came to these shores escaping persecution. Many were central European refugees fleeing tsarist pogroms. And as Jews were being gassed in Nazi Germany, my family were desperately seeking to re-build their lives, searching for normality and acceptance. And for some, the best way to do this was to forget the past and to blend in. My dad became a Christian. I became a priest. Unconsciously, it was the ultimate way not to talk about what had happened. But theologically, it was the ultimate betrayal  not to talk about what had happened. And yet, for me, the dead refused to stay dead. The Jewish talking cure, also invented by a man running away from his religion, returned to me these buried presences and invited me to walk among them again: my great-grandfather Louis, working for the Jewish Board of Guardians looking after “swarms” (cf David Cameron) of desperate refugees in the East End; his brother Samuel, with his Anglican-looking dog-collar, but leading the Princes Road synagogue in Liverpool.

And yet, for me, the dead refused to stay dead. The Jewish talking cure, also invented by a man running away from his religion, returned to me these buried presences and invited me to walk among them again: my great-grandfather Louis, working for the Jewish Board of Guardians looking after “swarms” (cf David Cameron) of desperate refugees in the East End; his brother Samuel, with his Anglican-looking dog-collar, but leading the Princes Road synagogue in Liverpool. They both changed their names from Friedeberg. And, interestingly, they were both of Freud’s generation.  For me, only by re-membering the dead would melancholia be converted into plain old mourning. My healing was to be found among the ghosts.

The year before Freud was writing Mourning and Melancholia, the fascinating ethnographer Shlomo Ansky was writing his own Jewish ghost story called The Dybbuk and subtitled “between two worlds”. In Jewish mythology, the dybbuk is a dark lost soul, suspended in some intermediate state between life and death. For a secular socialist like Ansky, his story was an expression of mourning for a religious culture that was collapsing both around him and inside him. The Jewish faith was something he rejected and yet needed at the same time. “My life was broken, split, torn,” as he put it. Freud invented psychoanalysis and Ansky wrote about ghosts. But they were doing a similar thing: resurrecting the half-dead, thus to give them a proper burial. Freud’s melancholia is the psychological condition of the dybbuk, the lost soul. And psychoanalysis is a form of exorcism. So, yes, I believe in ghosts. My sanity depends upon it. Happy Halloween. ” Giles Fraser

This entry was posted by Council for Psychoanalysis and Jungian Analysis on Tuesday, November 3rd, 2015 at 5:02 pm and is filed under Opinion.