Meaning and Melancholia: Life in the Age of Bewilderment (Review)

In this post, Christina Wilkins reviews Meaning and Melancholia: Life in the Age of Bewilderment (London: Routledge, 2018), authored by Christopher Bollas.


“We have changed.” (127)


This simple sentence, uttered towards the end of the book, encapsulates everything psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas is trying to say in Meaning and Melancholia: Life in the Age of Bewilderment. Through an examination of the major changes of the past two centuries, Bollas attempts to diagnose certain trends that have directed our ways of understanding the world. Of particular interest is his attention to recent political developments (Brexit and the election of Donald Trump), to which he applies psychological models of understanding. These models for Bollas are a way of laying bare the thinking behind the results that seemingly surprised much of mainstream media. In offering a diagnosis of our current state, it allows for the insight we so desperately need. Whether it is enough, or accurate enough to detail our past and current problems, is another question.


In its own way, Meaning and Melancholia functions as a diagnostic manual for the changes of the last two decades. It describes events from the industrial revolution, along with the World Wars, through to today. It uses anecdotes and literary examples, from Virginia Woolf to Albert Camus, to represent the effects of these cultural moments. At each important moment in our (Western) history, Bollas offers an examination of the mindset of that time. As such, every cultural moment is seen as indicative of a psychological condition, including dissociation, mania and paranoia. These are more often discussed on a broader level – that is, what our society is en masse – in an attempt to categorise the shifts in thinking through our recent history. Given the brevity of Meaning and Melancholia, these examinations are necessarily very general, and the result is the moving through of a number of different psychological positions that appear to variously diverge and contradict.


Photo credit: Pixalbay (geralt)


Perhaps it is our inherent desire to explain, recognise and categorise that is a way of situating ourselves in the world, to find meaning through our position among it. Indeed, the tendency to categorise, and diagnose, is evident in many of the events that appear unsettling to our perception of the world. Take for example, Trump – someone Bollas also presents a psychological sketch of within Meaning and Melancholia. Attempts to diagnose him were both embraced and criticised. This form of understanding through diagnosis has its dangers, creating a somewhat restrictive framework wherein only ‘useful’ data is applied. This is something of an issue also within Meaning and Melancholia itself.


Like Bollas’ other books, the tone is one uncommon for psychoanalytic perspectives; he writes with an energy that at times almost races you through his thoughts. The commonalities with his other writings do not stop there. His earlier Being a Character (1992) presents ideas in the same vein through its attempt to understand the self through the collective. Meaning and Melancholia similarly moves between understanding the group think of a society and between our comprehending of ‘selves’, establishing a framework for a period that seeks to offer a clear structure, a definition. But a definition of what? In Being a Character Bollas proposed a way to think about the formation of generations, exploring the ways in which generational identity is formed. What he presents in Meaning and Melancholia is a version of this but through the lens of the political and social examples that shape these generations. The conclusion of Meaning and Melancholia sees a rather bewildering reference to millennials, whom he says, ‘inherit the effects’ of the melancholic centuries previous (128) despite not knowing about them. This nod to a specific generation feels awkward here, especially in contrast to the ideas set out previously that looked to understand but not specifically define generational identities. However, it is in keeping with much of the current media coverage that has come to be consumed by attempts to define just what a ‘millennial’ is.


Overall, Meaning and Melancholia attempts to offer a grand theory of our understanding of the world and how the development of society has damaged us, irreparably shaped us in some way into thinking in a particular mindset, or ‘frame of mind’ as Bollas puts it. Whilst there are some interesting ideas here around comprehending the changes to our world experience, such as the digitisation of experience and the way in which we mediate our experience as ‘transmissive selves’, the repeated criticism of the many facets of change becomes in itself wearing. We may not live as we used to; knowledge of the world is accessible instantly, and the theories from which we gleaned our understanding of the human condition become part of the oppressive background of information that is our lives.


Yet, in focusing on the overwhelming nature of existence and bringing only the negative to light, we lose sight of why we have pushed ourselves into the world we now inhabit. The democracy Bollas details is enabled by better and more comprehensive access to information and platforms for new voices. Rather than being in the hands of the few, the representation of human experience is possible by divergent voices through better channels of mediation. Bollas used the example of Virginia Woolf, and her eloquently expressed thoughts on the change in human character in the early twentieth century, but to say she spoke for a generation is folly (23). In the same way, we acutely understand the failure of Brexit and Trump to accurately reflect wider societal views. Psychoanalytic thought here can only go so far in providing our collective cognitive map. It may sketch out the rough shape of the terrain and the major pathways that led us to our location, but it fails to see the landscape beyond.



About the author:

Christina Wilkins is a researcher in literature and film working at the University of Winchester. She is currently researching male mental health and suicide, and tweets @stinaface.

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