The Melancholic


What does it mean to remain attentive to negative (“bad”) feelings? Exploring mindfulness, I have learned to pose this question when faced with a quagmire of hurt or a pang of anger. The question manifests through the phenomenon of “badness” or what hurts in the moment and is perceived as out of place. I felt this, recently, on a walk to the outskirts of Edinburgh. As one often does, I crossed paths with a pretty young man in jogging pants and trainers. He never looked at me; likely he never knew I was in proximity. He couldn’t know I was there (with him) unless, of course, I had called out to him. I didn’t, as most people do minding their way.

There was silence. What he couldn’t hear, what I was telling myself, was “you don’t get that.” It was a feeling of (dis)comfort, upon meeting someone to whom I was drawn. It was a drawing in of the unknown to myself, which poses the possibility of (dis)comfort. “You don’t get that” emerged with this sense of (dis)comfort. The event became an encounter with the (dis)comfort of “not getting that“. It implied things in and between the desired audience (a fourth wall already and always impenetrable). As the young man sped off, I was left to wonder: “Why don’t you get that”? The “why” opened up the object; there was an object orientation at play (to use Sara Ahmed’s terms). The object being oriented was not the person I desired. Unaware of the man who compelled him, the young man was doubly unaware of his subject-desire and objectification.

Who was this person to compel a sense of (dis)comfort? Who, in other words, compels the (dis)ease of not knowing and not knowing “why” one does not know (him)? In proximity, I sought to know “the why” and how “the why” came to be. “Why is he there” in that orientation (that proximity of/to desire) and “why does this (dis)comfort suggest an (in)ability to orient myself toward him”? If there was something unique about the young man, it was not obvious. What he compelled was a loose shaking or creation of a subject who might be understood as knowable, however fleetingly. His being, his sense of proximity, became a place of objects: a body in which I invested my desire(s) through the possibility of un/knowing.

This orienting of objects in and of his body was a love-connect (the creation of a “happy object”). Amid the formations of lust, confusion, longing, curiosity, and hurt, a negativity of the unknown rose, too, in the positivity of this unknown lover. Far from occupying the space of that subjective orientation (the process of becoming “the loved one,” of meeting and becoming known), the (unknown) other–the potential loved one–remained in a space of negativity. He was not known, but also, not knowable and, knowing nothing, could not possibly provide meaning or significance where or when I desired.

The negativity took root. It deepened when the new loved one (the potential “happy object”) was countered (that is, projected upon) with a “lost object”. I perceived that which was lost to be a (dead) relic of a past happy object: the love and compassion felt in the image of a past partnership (conceived, now, as a spectre of the dead). When the new loved one could not provide–indeed, exceeded the ability “to do” by virtue of “not knowing”–the lost object returned in the form of melancholia. It mapped itself upon the new loved one and in spectral force. It placed upon the new loved one an unbearable burden (one that is not already known)–that is, the will “to know”. But the will “to know” was known only through the spectral projection. Because the new loved one did not know, and because he could not possibly know, the happy object was merely the spectre. It was thus open to the despair and melancholia of that which is lost, replaced by the signifiers of the lost object.

It seemed to me that filling the happy object with the signifiers of that which was lost left only the affect of what “is not” or the negativity of a past that no longer “is” and a present which “is not”. This melancholia rooted around the happy object so as to gentrify any further possibilities of happy-object orientation. This object could not (or can no longer) be happy because he was (in the process of becoming oriented as happy) lost in what is lost.

In The Promise of Happiness (2010), Sara Ahmed understands melancholia to be “the risk of getting stuck in bad feeling or bad feeling as a way of getting stuck” (p. 138). She writes this in order to stay with “bad feelings,” to listen to what they might tell us beyond a desire to return to “good” or “happy” feelings. The person who embodies this “stuckness” in bad feelings might be called a melancholic. For Ahmed, “the melancholic may appear as a figure insofar as we recognise [him] as the one who ‘holds onto’ an object that has been lost, who does not let go, or get over loss by getting over it” (p. 139). That is, the melancholic is he who grasps a lost object and does not get over “it” through the processes of “getting over”. In my projecting, or perhaps in the mapping of a spectral “loss,” I wondered: have I occupied the body of a melancholic figure? Have I illuminated my attachment to a lost object which I refuse to relinquish or “get over”?

The process of projecting the lost object onto the new loved one was enabled by an (in)ability (or refusal) to let go of the lost object. The lost object was the memory of a previous (lost) lover through glossary citational practices. What was recalled in (and corrupts) the new loved one was a frankenstein image of a past-love blown to pieces by the reality that preceded the image. The reality (the emotional minefield that characterised the pastness of that very past) existed around the frame, at the margins, haunting, as it were, the image of what might become “new”. The image transposed its incompleteness and emerged as negative. It was an inversion of what once was and crusted over with the negative affect accrued through the process(es) of (not) “getting over”.

What emerged in the new loved one–what was supplanted in the image of what might be conceived as “new”–was a melancholic desire for the spectre. The lost object could not be reclaimed and could only make lost objects of future happy objects when captured (as with the fleeting shot of a camera) by the melancholic. Unlike Ahmed, I want to suggest that it is not useful to remain as melancholic for the purpose of re-orienting a personal politics of affection. To do so traps the subject in a cycle of signification that, while attentive to its negativity and to its ability to illuminate the underlying “goods” located in negativity itself, does not push negativity toward an occupiable position in the terminal of all meaning(s). Like a virus, it infects everything with which the melancholic comes in contact.

I want to believe that I can remain attentive to negative feelings like these–to make peace with my haunting, even while I haunt the pieces of my past–in order to grow and learn. Yet it’s clear that I cannot bear to linger as a haunting forever. Otherwise, I will have wasted my life as the embodiment of melancholia. I will only have learned through the flows (and changing signifiers) of affect as a spectral performance of what “is not”. But this is spectral and envisions only that which has no “future” as such. Moving through and away from these negative feelings, and the lost object, demands new attentiveness to affects and objects that emerge through the process of “beyond pastness”. By locating a past-time that is beyond, I want to move toward a production of the future by becoming attentive to new configurations of happy objects and new loved ones in the now.