I have previously interpreted (Žižek’s description of) the Hegelian matrix of the dialectical process in terms of melancholy and mourning . Dialectics is melancholy insofar as it simulates the loss of an impossible or inexistent object; it is also mourning insofar as it sublates this simulation in the end, in its “punchline”, where it releases the desire (libido) which will then be able to re-attach to other objects by following its metonymy. Therefore, in the “witticism” of the dialectical process, the efficacy of mourning (sublation) relies on the preceding invocation of melancholy (lost Origin). To use an imaginary metaphor from cinema, the dialectical process is like Norman Bates cleaning the traces of Marion’s murder in the bathroom in Psycho, where melancholy is the water and soap he uses and mourning is his mopping the floor clean.
Let us now focus on a footnote where Žižek distinguishes authentic fidelity as death drive from “mourning as symbolization”:
Authentic fidelity is the fidelity to the void itself–to the very act of loss, of abandoning/erasing the object. Why should the dead be the object of attachment in the first place? The name for this fidelity is the death drive. In the terms of dealing with the dead, one should, perhaps–against the work of mourning as well as against the melancholic attachment to the dead who return as ghosts–assert the Christian motto “let the dead bury their dead.” The obvious reproach to this motto is: what are we to do when, precisely, the dead refuse to stay dead, but continue to live in us, haunting us with their spectral presence? Here, one is tempted to claim that the most radical dimension of the Freudian death drive provides the key to how are we to read the Christian “let the dead bury their dead”: what the death drive tries to obliterate is not biological life, but the afterlife–it endeavors to kill the lost object the second time, not in the sense of mourning (accepting the loss through symbolization), but in a more radical sense of obliterating the very symbolic texture, the letter in which the spirit of the dead survives. (In Defense of Lost Causes)
The main issue with this passage is the definition of mourning as “accepting the loss through symbolization”. Is mourning really a symbolization of the lost object? According to Russell Grigg, Freud’s description is the following:
in mourning each of the memories in which libido is bound to the object is brought up and hypercathected so that the libido can detach itself from it and the ego can be “free and uninhibited again” at the end of the process. (Remembering & Forgetting)
Against this description, Grigg claims that mourning is a “commemoration / memorialisation” of the traces left behind by the lost object. To support his thesis, Grigg quotes a letter where Freud shares his experience of the loss of his daughter Sophie:
We know that the acute sorrow we feel after such a loss will run its course, but also that we will remain inconsolable, and will never find a substitute. No matter what may come to take its place, even should it fill that place completely, it remains something else. And that is how it should be. It is the only way of perpetuating a love that we do not want to abandon. (Freud’s letter quoted in ibid)
Here, Grigg emphasizes the imperative expression “and that is how it should be” and claims that this letter proves that “Freud does recognise that a lost love object is in fact never completely abandoned and remains irreplaceable” (ibid). But Grigg overlooks that Freud also says in the letter “even should it fill that place completely” which unambiguously asserts the possibility of “completely replacing” the lost object. The crucial question about the letter is: Does “a love that we do not want to abandon” remain attached to the lost object or not?
I think it is more accurate to focus on Freud’s expression “it remains something else” and assert that mourning is the metonymy of desire (See ). This approach reveals the wonderful ambiguity of Freud’s letter. It can be read in two parallel ways that have nothing in common.
The first reading: “We know that the acute sorrow we feel after such a loss will run its course” means that after such a great loss our symbolic order will collapse and will need to be re-established. “But also that we will remain inconsolable, and will never find a substitute” means that our desire will always remain split between the “real world” of the objects we allegedly possess and our melancholic fantasies about the objects we have evidently lost. “No matter what may come to take its place, even should it fill that place completely” refers to the new Master-Signifier that will re-establish the symbolic order. “It remains something else” points that the split between “real world” and fantasies will never be abolished. “And that is how it should be” is an imperative to encourage the re-establishment of reality. “It is the only way of perpetuating a love that we do not want to abandon” refers to the symbolic isolation of the melancholic desire (that is euphemistically called “love”) for the lost object in the form of a “memorial” in the new reality.
This is the masculine interpretation. Grigg reads Freud’s letter in this way, and calls it a “drive to memorialize the lost person and one’s relationship to him or her”. However, this kind of “mourning” is not a drive but rather a symbolic isolation of a desire. One must remember: “Every drive is virtually a death drive.” (Lacan, Position of the Unconscious) Thus, “drive to mourn” cannot be attached to a lost object; it can only be attached to the “object-loss” of the void, as in Žižek’s “authentic fidelity” in the passage above. To discern this drive to mourn, we must re-read Freud’s letter in another, feminine way.
The second reading: “We know that the acute sorrow we feel after such a loss will run its course” means that the mourning of such a significant object will require an extensive psychic elaboration that will revise our desire concerning other related objects, which will invoke a certain amount of anxiety until its full completion. “But also that we will remain inconsolable, and will never find a substitute” means that “there is no desire which is not melancholic” and the simulated loss of a melancholic desire can only be substituted by itself. “No matter what may come to take its place, even should it fill that place completely” refers to the shifting of desire from one object to another object. “It remains something else” emphasizes the metonymy of desire. “And that is how it should be” is an imperative to encourage the metonymy of desire that is mourning. “It is the only way of perpetuating a love that we do not want to abandon” refers to a love that is not attached to the lost object; it’s a love that has fully recovered from its melancholy, “free and uninhibited again”, after the object’s complete mourning. This love is the drive to mourn, i.e. Žižek’s authentic fidelity to the void.
The hysteric melancholically desires mourning, but is unable to do the act of mourning itself, until the analyst activates the work of mourning (that is her analysis) to prove her melancholy to her, through which she “passes” to an authentic fidelity that is the drive to mourn.
Thus the saying “let the dead bury their dead” is not a distancing of the living from the dead, but to join the dead in their effort of burial by becoming “undead”.
Işık Barış Fidaner is a computer scientist with a PhD. Admin of Yersiz Şeyler (Placeless Things) blog, Admin/Editor/Curator of Žižekian Analysis, and one of the admins of “Žižek and the Slovenian School” group on Facebook. Twitter: @BarisFidaner