Self-Love and Thomas Hardy: Conflicts of Sue Understood through Definition of Melancholia by Freud – V

Freud’s definition of melancholia (depression) describes many of Sue’s conflicts: “a profoundly painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love, inhibition of all activity, and a lowering of the self-regarding feelings to a degree that finds utterance in self-reproaches and self-reviling, and culminates in a delusional expectation of punishment.” In depression, Freud suggests, “dissatisfaction with the ego on moral grounds is the most outstanding feature”. This is especially true of Sue’s self-punishing tendencies. Depression is related to object loss in that the sadism directed initially against the object is converted to masochism.  In both mourning and depression, the loss of an object deprives a person of the love necessary for growth and nurture. Unlike mourning, which is usually a temporary phenomenon, depression may last permanently, reasons Prof. Ashoka, in the fifth part of his eight-part erudite research, in the weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths. 

Object loss is a central theme in Jude the Obscure, and Freud’s seminal essay “Mourning and Melancholia” (1917) casts light on many of the baffling psychological dynamics of Hardy’s characters.  Freud’s definition of melancholia (depression) describes many of Sue’s conflicts: “a profoundly painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love, inhibition of all activity, and a lowering of the self-regarding feelings to a degree that finds utterance in self-reproaches and self-reviling, and culminates in a delusional expectation of punishment.” In depression, Freud suggests, “dissatisfaction with the ego on moral grounds is the most outstanding feature”. This is especially true of Sue’s self-punishing tendencies.  Freud argues that the self-recriminations characteristic of depression are “reproaches against a loved object which have been shifted away from it on to the patient’s own ego”. Depression is related to object loss in that the sadism directed initially against the object is converted to masochism.  In both mourning and depression, the loss of an object deprives a person of the love necessary for growth and nurture. Unlike mourning, which is usually a temporary phenomenon, depression may last permanently. Freud viewed depression as arising from hostile feelings, initially directed toward parents that are internalised, producing guilt and low self-esteem.

Depression is widely regarded as one of the most common of psychiatric illnesses, but there is disagreement over its origin and treatment. Analysts distinguish object-related depression from narcissistic depression. The sense of helplessness and lowered self-esteem are common to both forms of depression, but their origins appear to be different. Object-related depression, which Freud had in mind, awakens virulent aggression toward the disappointing love object. Narcissistic depression, by contrast, originates from disappointments in achieving fantasized or idealised states. For object relations theorists like Otto Kernberg, depression represents the internalisation of aggression originally directed toward the rejecting love object. The major conflicts in object-related depression involve aggression: the fear of one’s own destructive rage and the fear of retaliation by the object.

For theorists like Heinz Kohut, on the other hand, depression represents the inability to merge with the idealized object. The major conflicts in narcissistic depression involve unrealistic or unobtainable goals, such as the pursuit of a perfect relationship.

Elements of both forms of depression appear in Jude the Obscure. The family backgrounds of Sue and Jude reflect a long history of parental neglect and abandonment. Both suffer object loss as children and parents. Their sadomasochistic relationship represents a defense against further object loss. That  is,  the  sadist  and  masochist “play  out  both  sides  of  the  pain-inducing/pain-suffering object relationship.” Masochism represents a bond —or, more accurately, a bondage—to the early sadistic object. Contrary to their separation at the end, Sue and Jude remain symbiotically bonded, just as sadism and masochism are inextricably conjoined. The narcissistic element of their depression appears in their failure to merge with healthy, empathic self-objects. Neither Jude nor Sue can sustain former ambitions, goals, ideals; both fall victim to bitter disillusionment.  Sue’s movement from social rebellion to repressive conformity parallels Jude ’s journey from unquestioning acceptance of life to embittered rejection.

Nowhere is Jude’s idealising power more evident than in his desire to pursue a university education at Christ minister.  The novel opens with Phillotson telling Jude why a university degree is important. “It is the necessary hallmark of a man who wants to do anything in teaching”. Jude invests Christminster with mystical significance, transforming it into a radiant city of light, a “heavenly Jerusalem”. The eleven-year-old Jude associates his esteemed schoolteacher with holy Christminster, and he is understandably distressed by Phillotson’s departure. Jude’s infatuation with Christminster has erotic significance. “He was getting so romantically attached to Christminster that, like a young lover alluding to his mistress, he felt bashful at mentioning its name again”. At the same time, Jude speaks of his devotion to Christminster in terms of a son’s devotion to his mother. “Yes, Christminster shall be my Alma Mater; and I’ll be her beloved son, in whom she shall be well pleased.” Before leaving Jude, Phillotson invites him to Christminster, promising never to forget him. The promise is broken years later when Jude visits Phillotson and discovers that the teacher cannot remember him. Jude thus experiences his rejection by Christminster and Phillotson as repetitions of maternal and paternal abandonment.

Jude’s lofty idealisation of Christminster becomes a deadly mirage, as elusive as Narcissus’ reflection. Jude’s idealisation is really an attempt to compensate for disappointment over parental abandonment.  But on discovering the reality of university life, he is dismayed by its hypocrisy, rigidity, and narrow-mindedness. Jude suffers other setbacks: he is deceived by the quack Vilbert, who reneges on the promise to supply him with Greek and Latin grammars; he is disillusioned at learning that Phillotson has given up the scheme to receive a university degree, and he is distressed upon receiving a letter from a Christminster professor advising him to renounce intellectual aspirations. We feel Jude’s crushing rejection, his outrage at the collapse of his hopes for a university education.  And yet, given Jude’s impossible idealization of Christminster, we sense that he would have been disillusioned by any university system.

Jude comes to perceive, with Hardy’s approval, that “there is something wrong somewhere in our social formulas: what it is can only be discovered by men or women with greater insight than mine,  — if,  indeed, they ever discover it—at least in our time”. Jude does not perceive, however, the narcissistic meaning of his idealizing tendencies. As Kernberg and other analysts point out, defensive idealization conceals fundamentally ambivalent feelings toward the love object, feelings that arise in the early mother-child relationship. The repetitive and compulsive nature of idealization suggests the continual effort to deny the disappointment and aggression associated with early object loss. Jude is eloquent in his social criticism and knowledge of literary and political history, but he is less convincing in his understanding of psychology. Wounded by early narcissistic injuries, Jude is rendered finally into a pining Echo, and his last words echo Job’s: “Let the day perish wherein I was born.”

(To be continued)

This is an excerpt from Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad’s book, Self-Love in Literature. The book is dedicated to the Principal of Colvin Taluqdars’ College, the author’s boarding school, H.L. Dutt, one of the most respected figures in Indian secondary education and a teacher par excellence, who kindled many nascent literary instincts.

©Prof Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

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