Mourning and Melancholia
- Tanya DalziellTanya DalziellUniversity of Western Australia
Mourning and melancholia are among the primary concepts that have come to interest and structure late-20th- and early-21st-century literary theory. The terms are not new to this historical moment—Hippocrates (460–379 bce) believed that an excess of black bile caused melancholia and its symptoms of fear and sadness—but they have taken on an urgent charge as theories respond to both the world around them and shifts in theory itself. With the 20th century viewed as a historical period marked by cataclysmic events, and literary theory characterized by the collapse of the transcendental signified, attention has turned to mourning and melancholia, and questions of how to respond to and represent loss. The work of Sigmund Freud has been a touchstone in this regard. Since the publication in 1917 of his essay “Mourning and Melancholia,” theorists have been applying and critiquing the ideas Freud formulated, and examining how literature might register them. The elegy has been singled out for particular scrutiny given that this poetic form is conventionally a lament for the dead that offers solace to the survivors. Yet, focus has expanded to include other literary modes and to query both the ethics of coming to terms with loss, which is the ostensible work of mourning, and the affective and political desirability of melancholia.