NLS Minute 19


- 19 -

Ordinary Psychosis and Melancholia

Natalie Wülfing

Great Britain


No other clinical picture resembles more the features of subjectivity that have entered our common discourse as “ordinary” – like sadness, depression, lethargy, defeatism, etc. - than melancholia. In La Psychose Ordinaire, (La Convention d’Antibes, Seuil 2005), one of the contributions turns around this question. Melancholia resembles ‘normality’, and if we are speaking about what discreet signs in Ordinary Psychosis we can illuminate, the discreetest, most difficult to differentiate, of signs must be those of melancholia.

Let us bring out the central idea that Jacques-Alain Miller (in Psychoanalytical Notebooks 26, Ordinary Psychosis Revisited), has singled out from amongst Lacan’s classic teaching, and relate it to the question of the clinical picture of melancholia. The idea of “a disturbance that occurred at the inmost juncture of the subject’s sense of life” (Ecrits, p.466 [fr 558]), in a way, circumscribes the melancholic’s position, in a structure stripped to a minimum. What is a disturbance of the sense of life? It is the absence of something vital, but the status of this something vital is the important psychoanalytic contribution as such – for it is not an organic vitality, the vitality of the organism, but the feeling of being alive that the Name of the Father instils in the subject. In the absence of this function, the signifier returns in the real – however in melancholia, it is not the signifier, but jouissance - what is rejected in language - that returns in the real. The foreclosure of the Name of the Father lays bare the relationship to the Thing. (Laurent, Ornicar 47) It is the being of the subject itself, as object, that turns against itself. This marks its specificity and difference to the paranoid or schizophrenic clinic. 

What is this jouissance that returns in the real? Eric Laurent refers to mania when he says “The manic disorder can be grasped like a return in the real of the mortification that language imposes on the living.” It means that in melancholia and in mania as its counterpart, what is not mortified in the Other, mortifies the subject. It returns in the real as a jouissance linked to the being of waste. Lacan says it in a development prior to any formula: “That [the meIancholic’s suicide] occurs so often at the window, is not by chance. It marks a recourse to a structure that is none other than a fantasy.” (Sem X, p.336 [3.7.’63]) This recourse to a fantasy is not the neurotic fantasy, but the structure of being in the place of object a. It is not the object of the cause of desire, but the object of exclusion, the Thing, that the melancholic is always in danger of being identified with. It marks “…[the] sudden moment at which the subject is brought into relation with what he is as a.” (Sem X, p, 110 [16.1.’63]) 

In today’s world, where the object is at the zenith of the social, what is rejected from language is precisely returned into commerce, technology and addictive circuits that surround us. It thus functions as a great generalisation, this object a at the zenith. Does it mean that melancholia, and the precision of the other psychiatric clinics of psychosis, are all disappearing into this generalisation? 

If it is possible, what are the discreet signs of melancholia, that it is to isolate, to distinguish them from other clinics of psychosis? There is always of course the self-reproach, that Freud already singled out. “The self-tormenting in melancholia, which is without doubt enjoyable, signifies [ ] a satisfaction of trends of sadism and hate, which relate to an object, and which have been turned round upon the subject’s own self.” (Mourning and Melancholia, 1917)

The turning on itself is shown, by Freud, to be a consequence of the loss of ego: “Thus the shadow of the object fell upon the ego, and the latter could henceforth be judged by a special agency, as though it were an object, the forsaken object. In this way an object-loss was transformed into an ego-loss and the conflict between the ego and the loved person into a cleavage between the critical activity of the ego and the ego as altered by identification.” (ibid) 

The self reproach can also appear in more discreet forms though, such as a heightened sensitivity to the perceived criticism of others. This sensitivity is sometimes part of a more perplexed relationship to language, when the words of the other become difficult to assimilate and leave a residue in which a whole day or several days are spent going over what was said and what it might mean. Here the idea of language as parasitic, as jouissance itself, refers us to the late Lacan. (Seminar XXIII, The Sinthome) The parasite of language in the speaking being may play itself out at the level of persecution (question of the Other), of fragmentation (question of the body) or of a radical rejection (question of being), to evoke the three ‘externalities’ that Jacques-Alain Miller separated to distinguish between different psychotic substructures. (OP Revisited, PN 26)

It seems to me that mourning has disappeared from the melancholic clinical picture. What is left is the radical impossibility of shifting the certainty that everything is in vain. Nothing to be gained from the Other. Freud (somehow cruelly) in fact thought that the melancholic had an uncharacteristic access to the truth, in his self reproaches, which separated him from ordinary human beings who did not have such lucidity. It would cast him as a non-dupe. Thankfully, with Lacan, we think that the non-dupe errs…