«I propose then that, from an analytical point of view, the only thing of which one can be guilty is of having given ground relative to one’s ...»
Melancholy and Lost Desire in the Work of Marlen Haushofer
University of Calgary
I propose then that, from an analytical point of view, the only thing of
which one can be guilty is of having given ground relative to one’s desire.
Jacques Lacan (Seminar VII 319)
A sense of loss and nostalgia, tinged with wistfulness, permeates the texts of
Marlen Haushofer. Something has been lost, although it is never quite clear what.
The term “melancholy” frequently appears in the reception of Haushofer’s work (Caviola, Fliedl, Gürtler, Lorenz).1 A familiar, if archaic sounding word harking back to the four humors, the term “melancholic” does indeed seem to be the most appropriate adjective for describing both the situation of the protagonists and the style of the writing in which their perspectives are expressed. Melancholy, however, is not a well-defined concept. Before I turn to Haushofer’s work, therefore, I would like to examine the idea of melancholy a little more closely.
Given Haushofer’s attention to the psychological make-up of her characters, and the importance she accords to their past and to forgetting and repression, it seems fitting to consider some psychoanalytic interpretations. I shall begin with Freud’s understanding of melancholy, then turn to Kristeva’s reevaluation of Freud’s concept, and subsequently show the relevance of Lacan’s conceptions of subjectivity, desire, and sexual difference. Ultimately I shall argue that not only is the idea of melancholy crucial to Haushofer’s writing, but that her writings themselves can help revaluate our conception of melancholy; they can help refine it, and they can even help redefine it.
Freud’s Melancholy In his 1917 essay “Mourning and Melancholia,” Freud attempts to distinguish melancholia from mourning. He argues that mourning involves a loss that one gradually accepts, as one slowly withdraws libido from a lost object and directs it onto a new one. Melancholia, on the contrary, involves an inability to accept a loss, an identification with the lost object, and an introjection of it into one’s ego. What Freud calls normal mourning generally proceeds along conscious lines, although the Modern Austrian Literature, Vol. 41, No. 1, 2008 © 2008 by the Modern Austrian Literature and Culture Association 66 LorrAINe MArKoTIC de-cathecting of the lost object is a protracted process. In cases of melancholia, however, an unconscious dimension may be involved: what the melancholic has lost—or what precisely s/he has lost in the object (why the loss is so devastating)—may not be at all evident.
Among other things, Freud notes that the melancholic person is full of self-recriminations, but that if one looks at these self-accusations closely, it becomes evident that they are actually directed towards someone else: “someone whom the patient loves or has loved or should love” (257). Freud analyzes this phenomenon as follows. Melancholia, like mourning, begins with a shattered object-relationship: the loss of a person or an ideal. But instead of the free libido being transferred to another object, it is withdrawn into the ego. The individual identifies with the lost object as a way of preserving it, and introjects it into her ego. But because the person had ambivalent feelings towards the object (perhaps even love and hate), one aspect of her ego—the idealizing aspect, which admired or loved the object—now expresses hostility towards another aspect of the ego—the disparaging aspect, which disliked or hated the object. (In Freud’s view, the melancholic can go so far as to kill herself because she is able to treat herself as an object.) elements of this are present in a number of Haushofer’s works, especially in Die Mansarde, where the self-deprecations of the melancholic protagonist manifest themselves in precisely the way Freud describes. In this novel, each day over the span of a week, a housewife receives in the mail a large envelope with pages from notes she wrote as a diary seventeen years earlier. one night she had abruptly become deaf without physical cause; feeling she was an encumbrance to her husband and young child, she felt compelled to go away to live in a house in the woods. After a time her hearing suddenly returned, and she went back to her husband and child.
Now, years later, she reads from the diary that had then been stolen and for some unknown reason is now being mailed back to her. As she cleans the house, prepares meals, and occasionally meets an acquaintance, she reflects on what she wrote and what she thought and felt during the time of her traumatic deafness. She also reflects on her current damaged and desolate existence with her husband. The protagonist’s repeated self-recriminations are not really directed against herself, however; her selfcritique is ultimately a criticism of her husband, Hubert,2 who is of a social order that disparages women and what is deemed feminine, and who she feels abandoned her.
Anne Duden provides a wonderfully apt summary of the novel, but I would disagree with her statement that the protagonist “macht ja niemandem einen Vorwurf” (110).
It is true, as Duden writes, that the protagonist invariably retracts the accusations, provides an explanation “die alles zurücknimmt, beschwichtigt, entlastet …” (113);
but in the first instance the accusations have been put into words.
The loss to which the protagonist seems to be responding is the loss of Hubert as someone on whom she can depend, and the loss is her ideal of marriage and family.
For Freud, melancholy involves the loss of such a specific object—although this lost object may not be conscious to the subject. This is what I see as most problematic in Melancholy and Lost Desire in the Work of Marlen Haushofer 67 Freud’s theory: he assumes that in melancholia, as in mourning, a specific object has been lost (be it a person or an ideal, be it conscious or unconscious). This assumption, it seems to me, is what Haushofer’s texts dispute. They certainly express deep loss and suggest that something has gone missing, but what has been lost remains unclear (and is not simply unconscious, in my view). Haushofer’s texts are infused with longing, but that which is longed for remains undefined. If the works were not so irredeemably sad, one might characterize them as nostalgic, because they seem to hark back towards another, earlier time. But then one realizes that this time never was.3 The nostalgia is rather for what might have been, an imaginary world where the losses have not taken place. Haushofer’s melancholic work does not involve instances of unconscious loss, but of losses that are vague and unclear. Haushofer’s protagonists are depressed, their lives depressing, but both what is lost and what is longed for remains elusive.
It is tempting to seek to determine the lost object that imbues Haushofer’s fictional works. Undoubtedly there have been losses, and the works are permeated with sadness; “Trauer” is a recurrent word in the texts, and a number of them do suggest that a particular loss is being mourned. on the one hand, the loss might be the innocence of childhood, the sense of Geborgenheit that one has (or imagines one had) as a child. one can read Haushofer as looking backward, longing for an earlier, less damaged existence. on the other hand, in almost all the works the female protagonists suffer (or have suffered) greatly at the hands of the male characters. Hence, the melancholic aspects of the works may be interpreted as containing a longing for a time when there will be communication and, above all, parity between the sexes.
one can also read Haushofer as looking forward, as criticizing her time in a way that implicitly invokes some future, less misogynist world. Finally, one can read the texts as presenting a more general critique of modern society and the alienation it entails, and as evoking a less complex, less denatured world.4 There is something to all these perspectives: almost all the novels clearly convey that leaving the world of childhood involves a relinquishment that is permanently damaging; almost all present at least one brutal male character; and almost all see little positive in modernity. But there is also much more to Haushofer’s rendering of “Trauer” and loss.
In my view, the loss that imbues Haushofer’s texts is amorphous. The texts seem to offer little way out in part because there is nothing concrete to get out of! even when something specific is lost, the melancholic tone suggests that this is only the echo of some earlier loss. In Eine Handvoll Leben, for example, we learn that Betty, the protagonist, had simulated her own death and left the country years earlier. Now that her husband has died, she returns incognito to see her son and the former girlhood friend who subsequently married her husband. Betty looks at old photos that call up her past, mainly her turbulent time as a young girl in a boarding school, but also the brief time when she was a wife and young mother, and then eventually also the lover of another man. At a certain point, she had felt that she needed to break away; she also felt that her girlhood friend would make a better wife and a better 68 LorrAINe MArKoTIC mother than she had. The novel comprises Betty recalling and reflecting on her childhood and youth leading up to the time of her leaving. But although she has returned to see what she gave up—including her son, now an adult—there is a clear sense that she had already lost something much earlier, before she escaped her familial life, rather than that she lost something by leaving.
And even with the very young child Meta in Himmel, der nirgendwo endet, extremely early losses echo even earlier ones. Near the beginning of this novel, Haushofer brilliantly depicts the little girl watching (unobserved) her mother holding her newly born brother (39–40). Meta longs to enter their warm world, which is now closed to her; she tries to imagine herself into it, but only furthers her understanding of this world as lost to her. From the opening sentences of the novel, however, even before this salient incident, it is clear that Meta longs for happiness and affection but realizes that such emotions are always only temporary and that she will ultimately lose them again. In other words, the birth of her brother only solidifies a sense of loss that she has already been feeling.
Kristeva’s and Haushofer’s Melancholy A depiction of melancholy that more accurately corresponds to what occurs in Haushofer’s writings can be found in Julia Kristeva’s Black Sun (1989). According to Kristeva, the depression, or even despair, that often overcomes us when we experience a loss or failure seems to call forth an earlier injury. Indeed, she states that the depression into which we sink often does not seem warranted by the events; it is as if some “old trauma” has been awakened (4). Kristeva explicitly and radically challenges Freud’s conception of melancholy. In her view it invokes an earlier loss—one to which we have never been reconciled. In Die Tapetentür, we find a similar assertion: “Alles Leben war zu Surrogat geworden, und doch konnte man das Unbehagen und die Trauer nicht ganz unterdrücken, die in den Herzen der Menschen saßen, jene vage erinnerung an etwas längst Verlorenes, das nur noch im Traum Gestalt annehmen durfte” (149–50). At the beginning of Die Tapetentür Annette’s lover leaves for six months. At first she is relieved to be by herself, but she quickly becomes lonely and somewhat forlorn. She meets a ruthless lawyer named Gregor, becomes pregnant, and they marry. Annette realizes that Gregor is brutal and egotistic, but she feels drawn to his self-assurance and strength. As her pregnancy advances, he begins seeing other women. She feels isolated and abandoned, escaping into a dream world of her childhood. Annette gives birth, but the child is stillborn, and she barely survives the labor. She seems to have lost the will to live, and at the very end of the novel is being cared for by her Uncle eugen (her life with Gregor seems to be over). Although she is gradually improving, Annette’s sorrow is overwhelming. It seems less related to the recent event than to a retrieval of a deeper loss buried within her and to her having been abandoned when she was very young.