The Politics of Melancholy: Can Peace Grow Out of Israeli Desolation?

The melancholy individual may be more in touch with reality, but can the perception of the world through the prism of the mournful mind liberate us from violence?

Tahel Frosh.
Tahel Frosh
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A man at the beach (illustrative).
A man at the beach (illustrative).Credit: Alex Levac
Tahel Frosh.
Tahel Frosh

1.

Not long ago, I discovered that all my friends are miserable and sad and are taking pills to fight depression and anxiety. I was amazed – to a degree. Not because they were burdened with significant and totally abyssal misery, but because I’d thought they were resistant to the idea of altering the perception of reality by means of pills.

Don’t you think you are sad because of objective circumstances, I asked a friend when he told me he’d started taking Cipralex, an antidepressant. He said it was possible he was sad because of the changes of the seasons. Yes, I said, the changes of the seasons is a good reason for gloominess – the sense of time is subverted, and that, as we know, is a symptom of melancholy. But beyond that, I continued, perhaps with a certain petulance, don’t you think you’re sad simply because you’re not sure you’ll have a job next year?

I remember that a few years ago, I too was against experiencing unnecessary misery. I told myself, as if I were starring in a commercial for a juice diet, Go easy on yourself! I was in the midst of a breakup, I thought I’d never get over the heartache, I had to complete my graduate thesis on greed, I was wracked by depressing thoughts about my economic prospects – and on top of that the problematic political situation in the country flared up again dismayingly and unendingly. So I really was very sad. I went to a psychiatrist at the recommendation of a girlfriend who had been taking half a Cipralex for many years to cope with the anxiety and the tension in her creative, productive life.

The psychiatrist, Dr. Wertheimer, was an elderly, affable, long-legged gentleman with a glistening silver forelock that initially bowled me over. Ensconced in his north Tel Aviv clinic, he perused the results of the blood tests I’d done and asserted that my sex drive was stronger than usual because of excess testosterone. He also revealed to me rather secretively that he was against psychiatric medication, and then tried to tempt me into entering psychotherapeutic treatment.

I was pleased at the compliment about my sex drive but I carefully rebuffed his attempts to treat me. “I’ll have what she’s having,” I said to him.

That launched a period in which I experienced a mood so good and so stable that it was terrifying. I was engulfed by existential indifference. I didn’t care about not completing my thesis, my psychic life resembled an everlasting, never-ending Iowa cornfield. At some point I stopped taking the little pill regularly, as though I’d forgotten to. I reminded myself that I hated taking pills, and I really did. Electrical flashes shot through my brain when I finally kicked the habit.

'Black Circle' by Kazimir Malevich, 1915.Credit: N/A

Since then, I’ve come to respect unbearable reality and the melancholy it arouses. After all, sadness is a logical response to a lousy situation. It’s known that the more oppressed you are, the more depressed you’re likely to become. Skin color, class, gender, age – all are predictors of the intensity of the sadness.

2.

“Man is unhappiness, only an idiot would claim otherwise,” Thomas Bernhard wrote in his novel “The Loser” (translation: Jack Dawson). And if that’s true – if we are all drowning in melancholy, if in the present era we need pills to stop the terrible cascade of reality-induced sadness – how is it possible to say anything serious about politics without talking about melancholy?

Political questions have to be asked in light of the data on sadness. Has the Zionist project succeeded or failed? What line passes between the photograph of David Ben-Gurion standing on his head in an act of practical Zionist meditation, and Menachem Begin, who closeted himself in his house amid political depression?

David Ben Gurion at the beach

Freud maintained that melancholy is the working through of mourning – whether over the loss of a concrete or symbolic object – that didn’t quite work out. In contrast to mourning that has a beginning and an end, enabling the bereaved person to direct the energy that has become available to him into other relations, melancholy is an excess of sadness for a loss that is not readily apparent, and as such is directed toward the self. The melancholic individual is immersed in an unremitting sadness and cannot get over his loss.

Freud’s argument can be applied to Zionism, which is based on loss – a perception of the Diaspora as embodying the loss of sovereignty – and which is a project of tikkun olam for the Jewish condition.

It can be said that, from the viewpoint of the Zionist enterprise, all Jews were bearers of melancholy from the outset. The Diaspora was our mysterious mental illness, and Zionism arrived on the scene to heal that illness. From its early days through today, it has been trying to eradicate that element in favor of the creation of a different political individual – one who is supposed to be strong and certain of the rightness of his path, and whose work of mourning is behind him. Or, to put it like this, perhaps: Zionism aims to create happy war heroes who dance a hora.

The repressive traits of our social-political melancholy can be found in culture, above all in literature. Israeli literature is a slave to Jewish melancholia, which doesn’t seem to end despite efforts to eradicate it.

Sigmund Freud, father of psychoanalysis, as he poses for sculptor Oscar Nemon in Vienna, 1931.Credit: AP file photo

For example, Amos Oz’s most recent book, “Judas” [scheduled for publication in English later this year], is a tableau of melancholy. It is wholly driven by the violent loss of a son, who is killed in war; this destroys the possibility of life. The linear historical time of the novel is curtailed in favor of a lateral, melancholic time in which the catastrophe that occurred in the past is also in the present and future, because the loss never stops.

This repression of the loss creates a paranoia with which Israelis are very familiar: the feeling that there is no way to prevent a future disaster, because disaster is constantly occurring. Every violent act can be justified by means of this paranoia.

What will happen if we show respect for melancholia? If we decide that sadness is a political cry, and not only an inner impairment?

Freud said, with subtle irony, that the melancholy person “has a keener eye for the truth than other people who are not melancholic. When in his heightened self-criticism he describes himself as petty, egoistic, dishonest, lacking in independence, one whose sole aim has been to hide the weaknesses of his own nature, it may be, for all we know, that he has come pretty near to understanding himself; we only wonder why a man has to be ill before he can be accessible to a truth of this kind” (translation: James Strachey).

Is it possible that truth of this kind, the truth of the melancholic who sees himself in a harsh light, can bring about a different political game – a game that does not oblige repeated violence, even though violence forged it by means of loss? Because melancholics are simultaneously strong and weak, arouse pity and fear, are disposed to love and closed off from it. And more important: Such individuals, with a surfeit of self-doubting, discomfiture and chronic dissatisfaction, are not cut from the cloth of repairers of the world. No one would expect a melancholic to be a war machine. The melancholic doesn’t believe that justice resides with him; in effect, he’s convinced that the opposite is true. He looks at reality and knows that he sees hardly anything of it.

3.

My melancholia was almost eradicated when I gave birth to Eilam. Until I became pregnant, I used to wake up often in the morning and look at the plain white ceiling and think about my plain life and ask: What is all this for? Unfortunately, I was compelled to understand that my answer to that question was: for breakfast. Not a special meal, really something very simple: two slices of bread with jam or with tahini and honey, and a cup of coffee.

For some reason, the thought of breakfast played on my existential nerve and became for me the ultimate litmus test of my craving for life. Because if something inside me moved because of breakfast, it meant that desire existed within me, somewhere between clavicle and stomach.

But after I had Eilam, it happened that when I woke up and looked at the plain white ceiling and thought about my plain life and asked myself, as usual, what for, before the thought of breakfast struck me, my gaze fell on the face of my son, who was sleeping not far from me, and some sort of understanding came to me that I had to part with breakfast or, more accurately, with the wish that led to breakfast.

The internal censorship of my habitual day-to-day thinking, or forgoing the privilege of melancholia and its great repetitiveness, was shot through with great sorrow for me. Afterward, I realized that the melancholia had altered its aspect. It’s still with me, just the answer to existence has changed.

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