Meaning and Melancholy
The poetry of existence
Luis Fernando Santos, 2019
Trump, Brexit, Marie Le Pen. Far-right movements erupting in France, Norway, Turkey. White nationalists on the streets of Poland, the country that by far suffered most from the Nazi genocide. More recently, Bolsonaro in Brazil, and far-right movements in Spain and Uruguay.
“What forces could lead to shifts towards the right in so many parts of the world?” (p. 76), asks Christopher Bollas in his latest book, Meaning and Melancholia: Life in the Age of Bewilderment, published in mid-2018. Not only a right, but a “right ‘bread with condensed milk’”, Trump’s and Bolsonaro’s right, a crude aesthetic, emptied of ideas, which embarrasses the conservative ranks of the old days, but a movement full of hate and populist acceptance (if not mass support). How can such a nefarious event come soon after Obama, Lula, the normalization of gay marriage, and the decriminalization of drugs in the United States and in several European countries? Why do we live the age of bewilderment, as the subtitle in the book says?
Of course, theories abound: caught by surprise by fake news and unpredictable popular movements, journalists and social scientists struggled in the profusion of theoretical attempts seeking to explain the point at which we have arrived.
Bollas’s new book adds to these theories, but with one fundamental difference: the author believes that the problem can not be explained by the social and political sciences alone; there aren’t neither words nor lexicon for what is happening[i]. In our reading, he proposes that we are living a serious psychopolitical moment.
The scenario: a cold civil war has arrived in Brazil
In the American elections of 2016, journalist Carl Bernstein coined a term to describe what happened with the country: “cold civil war”. A previous fragile balance had been broken with the rise of Donald Trump. Bernstein’s expression unveiled what was really at stake: an “all against all” of the average citizen. What could explain such an uncivilized phenomenon?
In order to illustrate the prevailing theories, let us consider the Brazilian case. Brum (2019) contends that “the middle man took over the power”, title of her article in El País. The main thesis is that the affirmative policies implemented in the last years, and the oppressed people’s refusal to remain in their previously assigned places, have created a backfire of those who now feel forbidden by prejudice and are cut off from their places of privilege.
In other words, a tearful revulsion of the classic Brazilian man, prejudiced on call, willing “not to be repressed by his empowered and feminist niece, at his Sunday luncheon table” (Brum, 2019), or their wives, for whom “house servant’s rights were seen as privileges” (Brum, 2019). A thesis widely used to explain also Trump in the United States, which have, in recent years, passed gay marriage and drug decriminalization laws in several states.
For this thesis, the logical consequence, a simplistic, pseudo-virile, and characteristically conservative and prejudiced candidate, such as Trump, or Bolsonaro, would conveniently fit the voters’ desire to support someone like them, an “average guy”. It’a direct (and, it seems, not so sophisticated) use of the projective identification.
A second, a more purely social one, can be exemplified by “The point we have reached: from the 1988 Constitution to the election of Jair Bolsonaro” (Fausto, 2019). If we disregard the analysis of the PT’s failures and the PSDB’s meltdown (we are thinking, in this text, of a global phenomenon, not only a Brazilian event), what remains is the thesis that the average Brazilian, benefited largely in the last two decades by the Plan Real and PT administrations, with their economic growth and their income distribution, reached a frustration turning point with the slowdown in the social improvements and, revolted, the masses would have turned to the right.
In other words, by way of example, SUS (Brazilian Public Healthcare System) has improved, but it has stopped improving, and social scientists know that,
…once the basic expectations of a given population—previously deprived from the access to certain goods and services—have been met, the following new and more demanding expectations of that same population appear over the quantity and quality of what was initially offered to them. (Fausto, 2019)
Let us read again the first paragraph of the Bollasian text. It will not be difficult to share Bollas’s feelings, that the setting is too serious for these (legitimate, for sure) theses to be enough to quell the perplexity of the increasingly rare sound individual.
Yesterday: they, the savages; today: they, my neighbors
Bollas writes that the world began to end the exhaustion of the projective mechanism of destruction that began with the European colonization of Africa (and, we can also say, of America). The African and South American “savages” became the repository of all that the Europeans hated in themselves.
“Civilized” Europe projected parts of their group self onto these civilizations, which gave them the right to dismantle African and South American nation-states, enslaving blacks and Indians.
A separate class of “disposable” people (as opposed to those “who matters,” both expressions of the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe[ii]) was formed (splitted), on which one could project everything that modern civilized European man would not have been assigned to himself.
This mechanism has got a lot of fuel in recent centuries: after the African and South American autochthonous communities were terminated, others came to occupy their place, such as Vietnamese, Korean and Arabs — Bollas (p. 33) recalls American perplexity concerning the September, 11: “Why do they hate us so much?”. Cold civil war comes, then, when that projective identification is no longer addressed to the distant savage, but to the next door neighbor.
But again, why did the projection on the not so distant being cease to function, breaking that perverse equilibrium that somehow held the world (at least the Western, white and bourgeois world) together? For Bollas, it is so because, in fact, it never worked properly. Here, we quote him at length:
But if they have been successfully projected, why then murder? Because the other will always threaten to return the projected to the sender; so it is only by obliterating the other that these rejected parts can finally be annihilated. (p.20)
Bollas recalls that the world was experiencing an age of mania in the early twentieth century. Unthinkable technologies, the beginning of globalization, a world in apparent equilibrium and a romantic expansion of life in which nothing seemed to interfere.
But the two World Wars brought a harsh reality to this equation: not only was the world not well and no one knew it (Americans were drawn from nightclubs to the frontiers of World War I), as well as the individual and group human dilemmas were more prominent than ever, crying out for thought. The slaughter in the First War and Nazism were the biggest punches in the stomach that modernity has suffered.
At that time, the promises made by the first, maniacal decades of the twentieth century were not delivered, and the gigantic frustration that ensued created an anesthetic melancholy in society.
Such frustration of the promise of a perfect future has thrown the civilized world into this paranoid, individualistic melancholy. Long story short: The capitalist market has appropriated this affective void and created yuppies and entrepreneurs — oh, come on, forget the world out there, the system still has a chance for you.
“Mom died today. Or maybe yesterday, I do not know.”
Think of the borderline individual: a radical division of mind between positive and negative (a very great love for someone today and a hatred of the same degree the next day), a complete separation between affection and speech, between what one says and what ones feel.
If, before, the psychic contents denied by the ego were deposited in the distant savage (a more banal mechanism, of the order of the neuroses), today they run high, addressed to the neighbor and with full intensity. As Santos (2018) says, people are being called to vote on who should die. And they are voting for themselves! For Bollas, this mechanism involves a sort of anesthesia, of melancholy. He recalls Mersault, the protagonist of The Stranger, by Albert Camus, who begins his narrative by communicating his mother’s death without remembering straightway if it had happened early that day or in the day before. As a group, we are all Mersaults: in the face of events that should leave us perplexed, we just keep leading our lives.
Therefore, the social does not give a full account of what is going on; we need a psycho-political vocabulary to think about our internal Mersaults, our individual and collective inability to create a composition of the elements of the self that stands up, causing us to go for mechanisms like splitting and projection.
Let’s start with the premise time as an asset (DeLillo, 2003, quoted by Bollas, 2018, p. 64), that is, the transformation of individual chronological time into commodity. Put differently, in an era of entrepreneurship, let’s think of this time as a means of production to generate more profit.
We are all pseudo-owners of small means of production called “time”. As victims of productivity, we move away from thinking, we do not need to think about values, just numbers. Current capitalism (which some call hypercapitalism) is a structuring of dissociation.
I illustrate with an example: on the occasion of the second round of presidential elections between Haddad and Bolsonaro, a well-known, gay, middle-class, posted on Facebook something like: “what a tragedy, now we are to choose between being spanked on the street (Bolsonaro) or never seeing the recovery of our economy (Haddad)”. He published that as if the two things were comparable! As if intolerance could be thought of in the same frame of mind as the abstract growth of GDP.
It is the absence of real thought; the insight replaced by sight (p. 64); as if a glimpse of a complex idea is enough to have understood everything. Bollas gives an example of his clinic:
“I think your being indispensable to your friend allows you to covertly attach yourself to her.” / “You got it. I am indispensable, and I should probably watch that. That’s brilliant—thanks so much.” / “You seem to have grasped this thought so quickly that I’m not sure we have had a chance to think it.” / “Oh, no, I mean it was great. Am I… am I… supposed to think about it?”” (p. 64)
In the chapter “New forms of thinking”, Bollas theorizes about three more of these new ways of thinking, with clinical examples:
Horizontalism: eradicates hierarchical thinking, making mental disputes equal. No idea has more merit than another. An example:
“You seem to cope with your envy of your friend by making yourself indispensable to him.”/“Oh…YEAH! Yeah… and I’m also doing too much biking and stuff like that.”
Homogenization: the need to eradicate difference and shape a world of indistinguishable beings.
Operationalism: a variation of refractive thinking; a kind of “action-thought,” to quote Kohut) in which reflexivity is readily converted into an action plan. An example:
“Okay, I get it. So all I have to do now is… ”/“I notice that you seem to take what I say as a set of instructions for how you can improve yourself.”/“Well that’s the point, isn’t it?”/“It might seem so, but by immediately putting it into a plan for behaviour change, I wonder if you have actually given yourself any time to think about it.” (p. 61)
Free association as a way to the democratic mind
Let’s go back to Bollas’s political question: “What forces could lead to shifts towards the right in so many parts of the world?” All the construction analyzed earlier in this essay is the train of thought he chooses to try in order to come up with some answer, but at the end of his book he argues in an even more politically fashion.
He reminds us of the creation of democracy in Athens, and highlights the fact that in this form of government ideas can circulate and be spoken at assemblies. In other words, the greatest number of different points of view could be present in the government.
Leaving aside the problems of Athenian democracy, the parallel that Bollas wants to make is that “The analytical relationship creates a psychological democracy” (p. 80). Democracy, then, is not the natural output or mirror of human rationality. It is exactly the opposite: the possibility of democracy in a country is allowed precisely by this space in which different and antagonistic, chaotic thoughts can reach some understanding in a subject’s mind.
Without this ongoing and exhausting exercise of composition of the various aspects of the individual mind, our psyches become fascists. Then the collection of them — the society — also becomes fascist. Putting it straightforwardly: for Bollas, that is exactly what is happening.
So we need to talk about the ego, the obvious agent of that composition. For Bollas, the price of living in civilization today is given less for the prevalence of a cruel superego and more for an incapacitated ego, adapted by “deeply compromised forms of thinking” (p. 68).
This diminished mind can neither think nor form a subject. It is controled, this time, not by repressed content, but by new forms of thinking (horizontalism, homogenization, etc.) which infect the ego, undermining its ability to engage the contents — now, yes — of the mind. We do not have a content problem, but a form problem.
Bollas (p. 69) arrives at a melancholic diagnosis: “part of the challenge faced by contemporary psychologists is how to regain interest in being a subject.” Our societies are no longer made up of subjects.
In this scenario, the author renews the importance of free association, the mechanism par excellence of the democratic mind. As we speak freely, we reconnect with our psychic democracy, as well as with our most forgotten totalitarian, oligarchic, and monarchist parts.
Bollas comes up with an office hint to prevent new forms of thinking from undermining free association: the valuing of the detailed narration of recent events, not letting them be translated by a simplistic “was good” or “was bad.”
This simplification seems to be, from the Bollasian standpoint, the great outlet of all the processes analyzed in the book and that generate the psycho-political tragedy in which we live nowadays.
Addressing the question of the beginning of this text, the author thinks that the populations of very different countries are united by a simplistic frame of thought, governed by the new forms of thinking. “They were protesting against complexity” (p. 76).
Making room for more dialogue (internal and external), more analysis, more free association, simple as it may seem, we can resume a process of inner democracy, of appreciation and consideration (not of annihilation!) of the contents and ways of thinking of the psyche. We would enter into what Virginia Woolf calls (and Bollas recalls) poetry of existence[iii].
It’s a costly process, and Bollas believes it needs to be shaped almost from scratch. However, to rescue the poetry of existence, it seems to be a beautiful functional update for the free association, created by a man who called interpretation an art (p. 70).
[i]. The words and expressions coined by Bollas (or used by him with singular meaning) will be marked in italics in this text.
[ii]. In this beautiful book, the author updates and radicalizes the concept of biopolitics (M. Foucault), stating that the maximum capacity of sovereignty of a state lies in its prerogative to decide who should live and who should die. See Mbembe, A. (2018) Necropolítica. São Paulo: N-1
[iii]. See Woolf, V. (1982). A Writer’s Diary. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, p.55
Bollas, C. (2018). Meaning and melancholia: life in the age of bewilderment. New York: Routhledge.
Brum, E. (2019, January 4). O homem mediano assume o poder. El País. from https://brasil.elpais.com/brasil/2019/01/02/opinion/1546450311_448043.html.
Camus, A. (1979). O Estrangeiro. São Paulo: Record Editora.
Fausto, S. (2019). O ponto a que chegamos: da Constitutição de 1988 à eleição de Jair Bolsonaro. Piauí, 149. from https://piaui.folha.uol.com.br/materia/o-ponto-que-chegamos.
Mbembe, A. (2018) Necropolítica. São Paulo: N-1
Santos, L.G. (2018). Viva a morte! São Paulo: N-1.
Woolf, V. (1982). A Writer’s Diary. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich