(Prologue: this is the latest entry in my series of late night thoughts about romance fueled by random association and too much graduate school. Please keep in mind that while I may be pretentious and use words like companionate and displaced melancholy, my characters are much healthier and cooler than I am and would never do that.)
In Black Sun the psychoanalytical critic Julia Kristeva analyzes the place where depression and creativity meet: for the depressive, “there is meaning only in despair” (Kristeva 6). She defines depression/melancholy as “a common experience of object loss and of a modification of significant bonds” (Kristeva 10, emphasis in original). Her argument is extremely Freudian: the depressive hates the other because it (the other) is separated from the self; however, they can be symbolically reunited in sex and/or death. But (because this is Freudian) the depressive doesn’t openly mourn or even hate the other. Instead the grief is displaced onto a Thing: “an imagined sun, bright and black at the same time” (Kristeva 13). But since the depressive is displacing his/her grief, the “depressive affect can be interpreted as a defense again” personality destruction (Kristeva 19, emphasis in original). I’m over-simplifying here dramatically, but you get the gist of it.
I’m really, really not interested in whether this is good psychology, but I wanted to write about it here because of how it might help us understand texts–particularly those by women. Kristeva traces in detail how women’s grief and mourning performances differ from men’s, partially because so many women writers (and female characters) are in the position of being someone’s (their children’s) Mother/Other while they also must dealing with mourning their own Mother/Other and are subjects in their own right. So women’s selves are (in this framework) already shattered.
Here’s where I think things can get interesting: if we accept Kristeva’s argument, even just provisionally (which with anything even a little Freudian seems about as far as I’m willing to go), then the most important moment in any text occurred long before the text began. Instead, the most important moment is the trauma or loss that happened off-stage and which is still animating the characters today. To understand them, we have to locate that trauma and figure out onto which Things they have displaced their grief and how they are attempting to find reconciliation through either the sex or death drives.
What I find incredibly interesting about romance and why I’d love to see Kristeva herself write about it is that romance so often makes the obscene text, by which I mean that that which is generally off-stage (the literal Latin meaning of “obscaena”) is on-stage in romance–whether we’re talking about sex (that symbolic reunion of the self and the other), the quotidian details of life, but maybe also female performances of mourning.
What started me thinking about this was Rose Lerner’s True Pretenses. Miss Bates wrote about the novel’s sadness here and I won’t re-litigate it. It’s a great, surprising, different book and you should read it. But in thinking about connections between Lerner’s text and Kristeva’s argument, I started to list books about depressives, melancholics, or aggrieved women and I came up with quite a few: Snow-Kissed, Autumn Sage, The Rose Garden, Unclaimed, A Gentleman Undone, Any Duchess Will Do, Scandal, Silent in the Grave, and The Duke of Shadows. (Full disclosure: I know some of the authors of those books.) Once I’d seen it, grief–direct and displaced–seemed to be everywhere in romance.
Now Kristeva would tell us (I think) that any explanation characters can articulate for their behavior is (probably) a lie because most people don’t know themselves that well and/or are in denial about their grief. She’d say (I would guess) that romance only appears to reveal this grief/displacement/reconciliation process but it does so through a slick commercial narrative that obscures more than it reveals–and that’s possible.
But it might also be that romance is a place where women are getting to rehearse and alleviate our grief and our isolation. Romance makes textual that which is often obscene and may thus be part of women’s performance of depression and mourning.