Women, Depression, and the Obscene

(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.

8 thoughts on “Women, Depression, and the Obscene

  1. I agree. I would add to this that in many, many romances, the character arc (particularly of the heroine, but sometimes also of the hero) is based on an acknowledgment and acceptance of that grief. The heroine who goes through life without realizing the many ways a loss in her past has wounded her can only achieve love, accept that she is worthy of love, when she recognizes the wounds. The reason those romances work as *romances* instead of another form of narrative is that the hero somehow precipitates this recognition.

    1. This is a wonderful, wonderful insight. And in some ways the fact that the romantic relationship “precipitates” or is coterminous with the recognition shows (I think) that the grief has been accepted because the depressive isn’t alone anymore. The burden has been shared and resolved together. The grief never goes away, of course, but it has become manageable through the new relationship.

  2. I love your last paragraph and think it’s very possible that romance textualizes and gives a space for women to mourn. I like Kristeva, but on the subject of loss and mourning I have to say that Helene Cixous is my favourite (if one may have a favourite French feminist philosopher!). I love her ideas about male vs. female approaches to loss (men mourn whereas women experience “unsparing loss”), especially when applied to literature. I’m not sure how they relate to romance specifically, but I’ll think about it. I’ll also send you the section of Cixous’s “Castration or Decapitation” that I think is most relevant to this discussion on Twitter (it’s a photo).

    I always enjoy your posts. Have you considered writing a book that incorporates critical theory and the romance genre?

    1. I’m so sorry it’s taken me a few days to find time to sit and read the Cixous essay. I read “Laugh of the Medusa” as an undergraduate and it (like Irigaray and Beauvoir) struck me as insightful but essentialist, very much about sex and not about gender if that makes sense, unable to account for queerness (among other things). Kristeva is essentialist as well but she feels informed by a slightly more contemporary take on gender.

      But that said, I found “Castration” fascinating. I loved the idea that women “only keep [their heads] on the condition that they lose them” through “silence” (43, emphasis in original), which that seems to anticipate, or I guess be articulated at the same time as, Foucault’s description of power and resistance. And I love the phrase “she lacks lack” (46).

      If women’s (or hysterics’) power has traditionally come from silence (which anticipates Agamben, who I haven’t written about yet but who definitely has things to say to/about romance), and if Cixous is trying to imagine how women could “Speak of her pleasure” (51), there is absolutely something here theoretically that informs romance and the backlash against it.

      When Cixous writes that men “[have] to mourn” in order to “with[stand] castration” while women “los[e] without holding onto loss” (54) I can both see what she’s saying but also bristle a bit at the essentialism. Romance seems in the last analysis to turn both men and women’s tears into laughter through it’s focus on women’s pleasures, narratives, and goals. Maybe feminine writing (no matter the identity of the pen holder) castrates patriarchy and patriarchal violence but turning all grief to celebration.

      1. I’m glad you enjoyed “Castration” (now there’s a sentence much better seen in writing than overheard!). I agree that Cixous’s essentialism is problematic. The way I’ve used her ideas in my work on mourning in Victorian poetry is to largely ignore the sex of the poets and focus more on feminine writing, as you seem to be suggesting in your last paragraph.

        I’d forgotten about Cixous’s concern with a woman “speak[ing] of her pleasure”—what a great link to romance!

  3. This is a thought-provoking post (thank you for the nod to MissB’s review of TP; I loved that book). I’ve never read Kristeva or Cixous, but the ideas you discussed are interesting. I’m not half as interested in Freud, or anyone else that follows him except in how they’re a lens through which to look at literature. I think that romance has to start with two figures, to one degree or another, who are broken: from the deep and neurotic angst of the NA to a comic writer, a light hand, like Crusie’s Min and Cal. Even if MCs, male or female, aren’t mourning, or damaged in some profound way, then they have to be diminished. Because it is in the working out of the relationship, the moments of recognition and understanding, and those moments can and do occur during love-making, that the little crumbled pieces of the self are recovered.

    I just finished reading Balogh’s NOTORIOUS RAKE and it is such a great example of what you’re describing here, as much about the hero as the heroine. Edmund is a notorious, cynical rake … and our sympathy for him is near nil until we find out that his dissipation is an expression of grief (he feels he was the cause of a beloved brother’s death). Mary is not mourning or as angry as Edmund, but she has worked out a quiet, bookish life, one devoid of passion. She too harbors some difficult memories of being in Spain with her Napoleonic officer husband. She is widowed and perpetually a little down, if not grief-stricken. She is traumatized by storms (during one she witnessed the death of several officers in an adjoining tent). They are people, as is true of every romance I’ve ever read, who require healing in some way. The theme of fidelity, which I think essential to romance (but hey, that’s me!) means that healing/recognition/understanding (and that magical romance moment when the hero/heroine feels that someone finally sees her for herself) comes from the One/Other. (Thanks for letting me babble here!)

    1. I very much agree with that Freud isn’t interesting to me as a psychologist at all, but he, or rather I guess those who followed him, does seem like a good lens for reading literature. I’m not sure if he was describing archetype or myth rather than individual psychology or if somehow we’ve made Freudian logic true in our art, but I do sometimes find his POV worthwhile for my reading.

      This insight (small though it is) feels important to me. I had approached romance as if it were a purely comic genre, but I’m realizing that the comedy is a red herring and romance may truly be able the power of love to let us be comic or something: loving making the grief bearable and reunifying the self.

      I need to think more about it (and the Balogh sounds wonderful), but I’m glad you don’t think I’m crazy.

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