Avital Ronell on Mourning

"Nearly every philosophy I have known has built a sanctuary, however remote and uncharted, for the experience of mourning. Sometimes a philosopher accidentally or furtively mentions the pull of loss, even when trying, like Nietzsche, to affirm all of life’s tragic edges and the necessity of mourning lost friendship or the destructive operations (and operas) of love.

"My teacher, Jacques Derrida, considered various forms of mourning disorder — the difficulty we have in letting go of a beloved object or libidinal position. Freud says that we go into mourning over lost ideals or figures, which include persons or even your country when it lets you down. Loss that cannot be assimilated or dealt with creates pockets of resistance in the psyche. One may incorporate a phantom other, keeping the other both alive and dead, or one may fall into states of melancholy, unable to move on, trapped in the energies of an ever-shrinking world.

"Many of the themes in films give expression to failed mourning, a relation to death that invents the population of the undead — vampires, zombies, trolls, real housewives of Beverly Hills. In America, we are often encouraged to “let go,” “move on,” “get over it,” even to “get a life,” locutions that indicate a national intolerance for prolonged states of mourning. Yet the quickened pace of letting go may well mean that we have not let go, that we are haunted and hounded by unmetabolized aspects of loss. In Freud’s work, the timer is set for two years of appropriate mourning. When Hamlet tries to extend that deadline, the whole house threatens to fall apart, and he is admonished by Claudius to get over himself, man up. The inability to mourn or let go is sometimes called melancholy. Many of us have slipped into states of melancholic depression for one reason or another, for one unreason or another—one cannot always nail the object that has been lost or causes pain.

"For Derrida, melancholy implies an ethical stance, a relation to loss in the mode of vigilance and constant re-attunement. You do not have to know or understand the meaning of a loss and the full range of its disruptive consequences, but you somehow stand by it, leaning into a depleting emptiness. It takes courage to resist the temptation to bail or distract oneself. Entire industries stand ready to distract the inconsolable mourner."


— from "Stormy Weather: Blues in Winter"