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Cultures of the Death Drive: Melanie Klein and Modernist Melancholia

Cultures of the Death Drive: Melanie Klein and Modernist Melancholia

by Esther Sánchez-Pardo

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Cultures of the Death Drive is a comprehensive guide to the work of pioneering psychoanalyst Melanie Klein (1882–1960) and to developments in Kleinian theory to date. It is also an analysis and a demonstration of the distinctive usefulness of Klein’s thought for understanding modernist literature and visual art. Esther Sánchez-Pardo examines


Cultures of the Death Drive is a comprehensive guide to the work of pioneering psychoanalyst Melanie Klein (1882–1960) and to developments in Kleinian theory to date. It is also an analysis and a demonstration of the distinctive usefulness of Klein’s thought for understanding modernist literature and visual art. Esther Sánchez-Pardo examines the issues that the seminal discourses of psychoanalysis and artistic modernism brought to the fore in the early twentieth century and points toward the uses of Kleinian thinking for reconceptualizing the complexities of identity and social relations today.

Sánchez-Pardo argues that the troubled political atmosphere leading to both world wars created a melancholia fueled by “cultures of the death drive” and the related specters of object loss—loss of coherent and autonomous selves, of social orders where stability reigned, of metaphysical guarantees, and, in some cases, loss and fragmentation of empire. This melancholia permeated, and even propelled, modernist artistic discourses. Sánchez-Pardo shows how the work of Melanie Klein, the theorist of melancholia par excellence, uniquely illuminates modernist texts, particularly their representations of gender and sexualities. She offers a number of readings—of works by Virginia Woolf, René Magritte, Lytton Strachey, Djuna Barnes, and Countee Cullen—that reveal the problems melancholia posed for verbal and visual communication and the narrative and rhetorical strategies modernist artists derived to either express or overcome them. In her afterword, Sánchez-Pardo explicates the connections between modernist and contemporary melancholia.

A valuable contribution to psychoanalytic theory, gender and sexuality studies, and the study of representation in literature and the visual arts, Cultures of the Death Drive is a necessary resource for those interested in the work of Melanie Klein.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Cultures of the Death Drive offers a sustained consideration of Kleinian psychoanalysis for literary reading. It will doubtless open up psychoanalytic literary criticism to new and unsettling perspectives. I expect this book to have a singular and important effect on contemporary intellectual life.”—Judith Butler, University of California, Berkeley

Cultures of the Death Drive is a work of great learning and original thought. I believe it will be an important source book on Klein for beginners and adepts alike.”—Fredric R. Jameson, Duke University

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Duke University Press
Publication date:
Post-Contemporary Interventions
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Cultures of the death drive

Melanie Klein and modernist melancholia
By Esther Sanchez-Pardo

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-3045-8

Chapter One


Abraham and Freud: Epistolary Anxieties and the Origins of Melancholia

Karl Abraham was in truth un preux chevalier of Science, sans peur et sans reproche.-Ernest Jones

In his The life and work of S. Freud (1953-57), Ernest Jones likens the relationship Sigmund Freud had with Karl Abraham to the one he had with Sandor Ferenczi. As in the case of Fliess and Jung, with Ferenczi, Freud had been seduced by "the sight of this unchecked imagination". Abraham, as much as Jones himself, was "certainly the most normal of the group". In 1907, Abraham sent Freud his manuscript "On the significance of sexual trauma in childhood for the symptomatology of dementia praecox." Thus began their correspondence, a correspondence that was fraught with hesitation and submissiveness on the part of Abraham and with patronizing demands of discipleship on the part of Freud (Freud and Abraham, 1965).

Abraham felt almost pathologically indebted to Freud. He had asked him for advice when he decided to abandon his appointment at the Burgholzli Psychiatric Hospital in Zurich and settle in Berlin in private practice. At that time, Abraham asked Freud if he could refer patients to him and consult him on analytic matters. At this conjuncture, Freud was invested as patron and masterand Abraham took up the role of faithful disciple and son.

Upon Freud's request, Abraham's mission would be to gain the sympathy of the German public (Letter, October 8, 1907; 1965, 9) and win it over to the analytic cause. As he writes in a letter addressed to Freud at the beginning of their correspondence, he is bound to represent psychoanalysis in partibus infidelium (Letter, June 11, 1908; 1965, 41). He never had the chance to be geographically close to the Freudian group in Vienna. From the orphanage of his intellectual exile, there was an undercurrent that intimately linked both men, their common Jewish origin. Freud phantasized a feeling of kinship that enabled their common "understanding" (Letter July 23, 1908; 1965, 46). Nevertheless, their relationship was not free of ambivalence. Whereas Jung's initial allegiance to Freud was overestimated on the basis of the bridging of the former's original resistance, Abraham's was simply taken for granted.

The geographical space of Abraham's mission was also highly emblematic. Berlin was the city where Wilhelm Fliess had been living for many years. As is well known, after Fliess's unfortunate claims of originality in some of the ideas developed by Freud-the universal bisexual disposition being the most notorious-and their disputes, Freud decided to break off his relationship with his friend and confidant. The horizontal model of Fliess's mirroring function would be displaced onto a vertical genealogical paradigm. Freud is inscribed there as paterfamilias of a long line of legitimate and illegitimate sons, whose discipleship would prove to be either fruitful (uncritically continued) or barren (rebellious and consequently rejected).

In September 1911, Abraham gave a lecture at the Third Congress of Psychoanalysis, which was published in the Zentralblatt and entitled "Notes on the psycho-analytical investigation and treatment of manic-depressive insanity and allied conditions" ([1912] 1949). In 1915, Freud wrote "Mourning and melancholia" ([1915, 1917] 1953). On February 18, 1915, Freud told Abraham that he was about to receive a manuscript written by Ferenczi on melancholia and that he himself wished to send him a technical paper for his opinion.

On February 28, Abraham responds: "I must first of all thank you for the proofs. I found nothing to criticise from the first word to the last. To my great satisfaction everything in this paper corresponds with my own experiences. In saying this is your first paper that did not give me anything new, I only mean that-for once-I did not need to do any re-thinking. On the other hand my own observations were not yet so clearly formulated and I therefore learnt quite a lot from the way you structured your paper" (Letter, February 28, 1915; 1965, 212).

We do not know whether by the time Abraham received this letter Freud's manuscript "Mourning and Melancholia" had reached him yet. It is when Freud has just written his essay that an impasse seems to occur in their relationship. Abraham comes to realize that Freud's concepts, as they are outlined in this essay, signify nothing new to him; to some extent, they are similar to ideas of his own that remain in the shadows, untheorized. In this particular instance, he feels as if he were released from his debt of intellectual loyalty.

By March 27, Freud, not having heard from Abraham, writes a second letter in search of reassurance: "I ... have found confirmation of the elucidation of melancholia in a case I studied for two months, though without visible therapeutic success, which, however, may follow" (Letter, March 27, 1915; 1965, 215). This time, Abraham's response is revealing.

I have long postponed commenting on your "Outline of a Theory of Melancholia"-this was not only because I have no real leisure for work. Some years ago I myself made an attempt in this direction but was always aware of its imperfections, and was therefore afraid that my attitude to your new theory might easily be too subjective. I think I have now got over this difficulty and am able to accept all the essentials in your work. I do think, however, that an element from my earlier work should be more greatly stressed than it is in yours, and should like to put forward a suggestion which may solve the question left open by you. Important questions do of course remain unanswered, and I have no explanation for them at the present time. I should like to remind you-not to assert my priority but merely to understand the points of agreement in our findings-that I also started from a comparison between melancholic depression and mourning. I found support in your paper on Obsessional Neurosis (The Rat Man). (Letter, March 31, 1915; 1965, 215-16)

Freud's anxiety of authorship rendered untenable Abraham's position as a disciple. Abraham's ideas had been silently incorporated into the Freudian construction of "Mourning and Melancholia." And Freud was not even willing to give him credit for that.

In Freud's response, dated May 4, he includes a critique of Abraham's understanding of melancholia based on two main points: lack of emphasis on the topographic aspect, the regression of the libido, and the abandonment of unconscious object cathexes; and the placing of anal sadism and eroticism in the foreground. Freud requires the consideration of dynamic, topographic, and economic factors in order to reach a "true explanation" of melancholia (Letter, May 4, 1915; 1965, 220). Indeed, the regression of the libido constitutes the core of Freud's hypothesis and has nothing to do with Abraham's. And it is Freud alone who foregrounds anal eroticism. Abraham's original contribution to the theory of melancholia lies precisely in the paramount role played in it by orality.

In his response, Abraham adds one more reservation. He is not persuaded yet that in melancholia the reproaches addressed to the other are turned back on the ego. He resists the idea of an independent, autonomous ego for which the other exists only as long as it is incorporated and transformed into a psychic instance. His reservations on the turning of reproaches against the other into self-reproaches comes from his skeptical view of placing narcissism center stage and, more broadly, of the solipsism of Freudian thought.

Finally, Abraham surrenders. He goes on to consider Freud's "Mourning and melancholia" as the "most fundamental and important of your papers for a long time" (Letter, April 1, 1916; 1965, 233). Upon receiving Freud's printed version of the original manuscript, Abraham's response is worth quoting at length.

I am pleased to note that my "incorporation phantasy" could be fitted into the larger framework of your own theory. I haven't any important criticisms of this paper either, and can only admire your ability to complete a theoretical structure of this kind at such a time. One very minor criticism is the following. The so-called ideas of inferiority found in the melancholic only seem to be such. Sometimes they in fact represent delusions of grandeur, as for instance when the patient imagines that he has committed all the evil since the creation of the universe. Even though the self-reproaches may be aimed at the love-object, they signify at the same time a narcissistic over-estimation of the patient's own criminal capacities (similar to obsessional neurotics who think themselves capable of monstruous crimes). (Letter, April 16, 1918; 1965, 274)

Abraham's premonitory "incorporation phantasy" turns out to have been swallowed and incorporated by Freud into his own theory. As much as the object is internalized and disappears in Freudian melancholia, here the loyal disciple suffers the same fate. The delusions of inferiority of the melancholic are in fact delusions of grandeur, an obvious manifestation of his omnipotent feelings. This insistence upon the narcissistic character of melancholia runs parallel to Abraham's former reluctance to admit that the melancholic's self-reproaches are addressed to his object of love. He gives a further twist to the argument by talking about "criminal capacities," striving to find a way out of intrapsychic conflicts dominated by ambivalence and feelings of guilt, to envision the possibility of relating to an other that is real-as real as to be the target of our own destructive tendencies. By operating this shift from ambivalence to omnipotence of thought in the Freudian account of melancholia, the issue of the existence of a radical other comes to the forefront. How is Freud going to integrate this notion of the radical alterity of the lost object of love into the workings of mourning and melancholia?

Early on, in Abraham's essay "Notes on the psycho-analytical investigation and treatment of manic-depressive insanity and allied conditions" ([1912] 1949), his premises are far from those that Freud would later develop. He introduces four psychic categories interwoven in a complex system of relationships: anxiety, fear, depression, and mourning. He never uses the concept of melancholia, adopting depression instead. Whereas there is a significant number of studies on anxiety neuroses, psychoanalytic literature does not abound with studies of depression. Abraham is interested in drawing the distinction between both illnesses.

Reviewing psychoanalytical ideas on these matters, Freud first stated that neurotic anxiety originates in sexual repression. This sexual aetiology of anxiety is what allows us to differentiate it from fear. Following along these lines, and according to Abraham, we can distinguish between mourning and neurotic depression, with the latter caused by repression on the basis of unconscious desires. There exists an analogous relationship between anxiety and depression on one side and fear and mourning on the other. We fear the possibility of future unhappiness, whereas we mourn the unhappiness of a past satisfaction. Neurotics are prey to anguish over the impossibility of satisfying the demands of their drives by virtue of repression. Depression overwhelms the individual when he has neither successfully nor satisfactorily renounced his sexual aim. He feels incapable of being loved, and this is why he has mixed feelings about his life and his future. Abraham writes: "Anxiety and depression are related to each other in the same way as fear and grief. We fear a coming evil; we grieve over one that has occurred. A neurotic will be attacked with anxiety when his instinct strives for a gratification which repression prevents him from attaining; depression sets in when he has to give up his sexual aim without having obtained gratification. He feels himself unloved and incapable of loving, and therefore he despairs of his life and his future ([1912] 1949, 137-38).

In his 1912 essay, Abraham inquires into the nature of depression, an issue that has been frequently overlooked in psychoanalytic literature to date. His positing of a difference between anxiety and depression adds an unexplored and untheorized dimension to Freudian thought. When he states that the depressive has renounced his sexual aim "without having obtained gratification," he advances an irreconcilable idea within the domain of Freudian theory, disengaging himself from a notion of repression based on a conflict between desire and interdiction. In Abraham's view, depression is brought about by renunciation, not by repression. Depression, as well as mourning, follows the occurrence of a psychic event. Thus, Abraham introduces a concept of depression that is distinguishable and different from anxiety. Whereas anxiety originates in considering a satisfaction to come, depression stems from a renouncement that has already taken place. So depression rests on the idea of something that in the actual course of events has already happened and on the idea of the exteriority of the event. This exteriority does not mean that it has to represent any "real event" but rather underscores the impossibility in the relationship with the other.

In 1924, Abraham published "A short study of the development of the libido viewed in the light of mental disorders" ([1924] 1949). He introduced the first section of this essay with a reference to his 1912 paper: "More than ten years have passed since I first attempted to trace the aetiology of manic-depressive disorders on psycho-analytical lines. I was quite aware at the time of the shortcomings of that attempt and was at pains to make this clear in the title of my paper. But we should do well to remember how very little had been written as yet on any psycho-analytical subject.... Nevertheless, in spite of the shortcomings of that first attempt, its results have proved to be correct in certain not unimportant particulars. Freud's paper, 'Mourning and Melancholia,' confirmed my view that melancholia stood in the same relation to normal mourning for a loss as did morbid anxiety to ordinary fear".

Abraham presents Freud's text as a confirmation of his paper. Whereas he establishes his anteriority in time, he foregos any claims to originality, putting aside his insight concerning the differences between anxiety and depression: "And we may now regard as definitely established the psychological affinity between melancholia and obsessional neuroses. Furthermore, these two illnesses show similarities in regard to the process of the disengagement of the libido from the external world. On the other hand, it had not hitherto been possible to discover anything concerning the point of divergence of melancholical and obsessional states; nor indeed had any light been shed as yet on the problem of the specific cause of the circular insanities" ([1924] 1949, 419).

Abraham raises questions that are crucial to Freudian theory. He suggests that Freud does not make clear the distinction between pathological mourning and melancholia. Abraham takes up the challenge and embarks on an arduous attempt to distinguish between melancholia and obsessional neurosis. This will lead him to develop his own theory of developmental stages, a theory that results in a thorough and detailed explanation and broadening of the one postulated by Freud. He believes it to be of utmost importance to introduce two substages within the anal sadistic stage: "This differentiation of the anal-sadistic stage into a primitive and a later phase seems to be of radical importance. For at the dividing line between those two phases there takes place a decisive change in the attitude of the individual to the external world. Indeed we may say that this dividing line is where 'object love' in the narrower sense, begins, for it is at this point that the tendency to preserve the object begins to predominate" ([1924] 1949, 432).

This subdivision of the anal sadistic stage, as much as regression in the melancholic-"the process of regression in melancholia does not stop at the earlier level of the anal-sadistic stage, but goes steadily back towards a still more primitive organization of the libido" ([1924] 1994, 432-33)-calls for subsequent subdivisions at every stage. Abraham adds one further innovation, namely, that these developmental stages of the libido go hand in hand with stages in the development of object love. He uses the schema I reproduce in table 1, by means of which he makes clear that upon completion of the final genital stage the subject attains postambivalent object love.


Excerpted from Cultures of the death drive by Esther Sanchez-Pardo Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This

Frederick Jameson
Cultures of the Death Drive is a work of great learning and original thought. I believe it will be an important source book on Klein for beginners and adepts alike.
Judith Butler
Cultures of the Death Drive offers a sustained consideration of Kleinian psychoanalysis for literary reading. It will doubtless open up psychoanalytic literary criticism to new and unsettling perspectives. I expect this book to have a singular and important effect on contemporary intellectual life.

Meet the Author

Esther Sánchez-Pardo is Associate Professor of English at Complutense University in Madrid. She has written and edited numerous books in Spanish.

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