Tristitia: Melancholy roots and Ennui. Passive acedia has yet other evils attendant upon it, evils that connect it to almost all the other deadly sins. Both theologians and psychologists have addressed themselves to the particularly troublesome component of acedia called tristitia: melancholy and ennui. It may at first seem strange that Gregory the Great included “rancour” as one of the consequences of tristitia, but in fact his perception on the matter anticipates the psychoanalytic discoveries of Freud, Karl Abraham, and Sandor Rado.

Melancholy

The psychoanalytic tradition has identified the common elements in grief and melancholy and distinguished the more pathological elements in the latter. Central to this focus is the discovery of cloaked anger and unconscious hostility at the base of the melancholic attitude. Both mourning and melancholia have their origins in the loss of a loved object. Freud outlined the steps of the process leading to abnormal melancholic attitude. Once the loved object has been lost, the person withdraws libido sexual interest and energy—from that object.

After such withdrawal, however, the ego becomes enraged with the loved one for leaving it; the anger, in turn, causes part of the ego to regress to an oral-sadistic level. But, at the same time, unable to accept the loss of its loved one, the ego remains ambivalent, splits and one part regresses to the oral-receptive state, internalizing or “introjecting” the lost love object and subsequently identifying with it.

To Freud’s and Abraham’s penetrating analyses Rado added one focusing on the symptoms of hurt, rebellion, and arrogance that melancholics often display and explained these in terms of a fundamental narcissistic wound experienced in childhood.22
The melancholic state so assiduously studied by the psychoanalysts bears a striking resemblance to the tristitia that was the bane of hermits, monks, and contemplative men of earlier epochs. Indeed, the process whereby withdrawal from the workaday world led to melancholy and rancor can be duplicated in the lives of these isolates and outsiders.

Roots of Melancholy, Modern psychoanalysis

In ascetic service to God or to knowledge, these people suffered the misfortune of losing affection for the object of their intense if private search. In the case of Christian monastics a loss of faith attended some of those who retired to concentrate on the love of God; philosophers and scholars suffer a world-weariness, a “sickness unto death” with mundane affairs, a sense that life has left them and that, alone and rejected, they are gone stale and flat.

Acedia is not confined to the Occident. The psychoanalyst Franz Alexander has noted the comparability of melancholia to the second stage of the Buddhist progress toward nirvana.25 In that stage the monk’s experience of the lost love object is perceived by him as his loss of the world-as-object, and it becomes in turn sadistically depreciated, turned against the ego, and then reclaimed by introjection, and protected by narcissism. Alexander saw the Buddhist pursuit of nirvana as, in effect, the asocial construction of an artificial catatonia and the subsequent attribution of value to it.

Melancholy oriental doctrine is wrong

In true Occidental tradition, the psychoanalyst condemns the Oriental doctrine as wrong because it encourages absolute withdrawal from involvement with the world rather than dynamic adjustment to it. Moreover, according to Alexander, precisely because Buddha
experienced a personal melancholia and yet taught its derivative doctrine to disciples, he contradicted his own basic principles.

Noting that Buddha had considered but rejected the option of keeping his new knowledge to himself, Alexander asserts that he deserved his fate death, rather than eternal life:

“He completely withdrew from the world, yet one thread he left unsevered his spiritual connection with his disciples. Here it is that he receives his mortal blow. He denied the world, and the denied world revenged itself upon him in the form of the unconscious parricidal wishes of his followers.”

The wages of Buddha’s sin of acedia are death. Tristitia becomes a mortal sin in the eyes of many because it may set in motion all the other sins. As a reaction to loss melancholy generates anger at the once loved object for departing; envy of any that might possess it; greed in the desire to own and control the thing loved; lust in the introjection and symbolic sexual defloration of it; pride in the narcissism of its ego involvements; and gluttony in its engorgement of the whole of the once-loved other.

Modern psychoanalysis is no less harsh on melancholia than the medieval theologians, pointing to its pathological and abnormal status, its containment of so many unhealthy emotions, its negative effect on interpersonal relations, and its peculiar role in causing troubles for all concerned. The melancholic, by his withdrawal and peevishness, has a powerful and unpleasant effect on the world. His sin is in his infliction of the effects of his sadness on the world.

That acedia finds form in mourning and melancholia and ultimately paralyzes the will to act is perhaps nowhere better illustrated than in Hamlet. Passive acedia has yet other evils attendant upon it, evils that connect it to almost all the other deadly sins. Both theologians and psychologists have addressed themselves to the particularly troublesome component of acedia called tristitia: melancholy and ennui.

It may at first seem strange that Gregory the Great included “rancour” as one of the consequences of tristitia, but in fact his perception on the matter anticipates the psychoanalytic discoveries of Freud, Karl Abraham, and Sandor Rado.

The psychoanalytic tradition has identified the common elements in grief and melancholy and distinguished the more pathological elements in the latter.20 Central to this focus is the discovery of cloaked anger and unconscious hostility at the base of the melancholic attitude. Both mourning and melancholia have their origins in the loss of a loved object. Freud outlined the steps of the process leading to abnormal melancholic attitude.

Once the loved object has been lost, the person withdraws libido sexual interest and energy from that object. After such withdrawal, however, the ego becomes enraged with the loved one for leaving it; the anger, in turn, causes part of the ego to regress to an oral-sadistic level. But, at the same time, unable to accept the loss of its loved one, the ego remains ambivalent, splits and one part regresses to the oral-receptive state, internalizing or “introjecting” the lost love object and subsequently identifying with it. To Freud’s and Abraham’s penetrating analyses Rado added one focusing on the symptoms of hurt, rebellion, and arrogance that melancholics often display and explained these in terms of a fundamental narcissistic wound experienced in childhood.

The melancholic state so assiduously studied by the psychoanalysts bears a striking resemblance to the tristitia that was the bane of hermits, monks, and contemplative men of earlier epochs. Indeed, the process whereby withdrawal from the workaday world led to melancholy and rancor can be duplicated in the lives of these isolates and outsiders. In ascetic service to God or to knowledge, these people suffered the misfortune of losing affection for the object of their intense if private search.

In the case of Christian monastics a loss of faith attended some of those who retired to concentrate on the love of God; philosophers and scholars suffer a world-weariness, a “sickness unto death”24 with mundane affairs, a sense that life has left them and that, alone and rejected, they are gone stale and flat.

Acedia is not confined to the Occident. The psychoanalyst Franz Alexander has noted the comparability of melancholia to the second stage of the Buddhist progress toward nirvana. In that stage the monk’s experience of the lost love object is perceived by him as his loss of the world-as-object, and it becomes in turn sadistically depreciated, turned against the ego, and then reclaimed by introjection, and protected by narcissism.

Alexander saw the Buddhist pursuit of nirvana as, in effect, the asocial construction of an artificial catatonia and the subsequent attribution of value to it. In true Occidental tradition, the psychoanalyst condemns the Oriental doctrine as wrong because it encourages absolute withdrawal from involvement with the world rather than dynamic adjustment to it.

Moreover, according to Alexander, precisely because Buddha experienced a personal melancholia and yet taught its derivative doctrine to disciples, he contradicted his own basic principles. Noting that Buddha had considered but rejected the option of keeping his new knowledge to himself, Alexander asserts that he deserved his fate—death, rather than eternal life:

“He completely withdrew from the world, yet one thread he left unsevered his spiritual connection with his disciples. Here it is that he receives his mortal blow. He denied the world, and the denied world revenged itself upon him in the form of the unconscious parricidal wishes of his followers.”

The wages of Buddha’s sin of acedia are death.

Tristitia becomes a mortal sin in the eyes of many because it may set in motion all the other sins. As a reaction to loss melancholy generates anger at the once loved object for departing; envy of any that might possess it; greed in the desire to own and control the thing loved; lust in the introjection and symbolic sexual defloration of it; pride in the narcissism of its ego involvements; and gluttony in its engorgement of the whole of the once-loved other.

Modern psychoanalysis is no less harsh on melancholia than the medieval theologians, pointing to its pathological and abnormal status, its containment of so many unhealthy emotions, its negative effect on interpersonal relations, and its peculiar role in causing troubles for all concerned. The melancholic, by his withdrawal and peevishness, has a powerful and unpleasant effect on the world. His sin is in his infliction of the effects of his sadness on the world.

That acedia finds form in mourning and melancholia and ultimately paralyzes the will to act is perhaps nowhere better illustrated than in Hamlet. Hamlet has suffered a grievous loss in the death of his beloved father. Moreover, the deadly assault on his father is exacerbated by his terrible suspicion that his uncle and new step father is the murderer. Hamlet suffers both injury and insult; indeed, the full scope of his suffering can be understood as a deep and incurable narcissistic wound.

While others go through a normal period of mourning for the dead king, Hamlet sinks roots into melancholy. His symptoms have attracted the interest of psychoanalysts as well as Shakespearean scholars because they are such a fine presentation of the pathological syndrome: dejection, loss of appetite, insomnia, irrational behavior, delirious seizures, and uncontrolled rage. More to the point of our own study, however, is Hamlet’s almost complete reversion to that affliction of contemplative men who have lost a love object melancholia.

It is Hamlet who discourses with the ghost of his father, who finds himself unable to place his complete trust in this apparition of his dearly departed sire, but who reluctantly takes over the task assigned to him by it. And it is this same Hamlet who, having done all this and also plotted craftily against his enemies, still cannot carry off his awesome duty; he invents unsatisfactory rationalizations to account for his moral paralysis and his physical incapability.

Hamlet’s sin is certainly that of acedia, here taking form as holding back at the opportune moment, refusing to accept God’s “charity,” the will of God and the plea of the ghost that Hamlet revenge the murder that placed his uncle in the bed of his mother and on the throne of his father.

Melancholia not infrequently leads to violence and aggression, as the diseased sinner acts to alleviate the boredom that has ensued since his separation from the world. For Hamlet, however, it leads to withdrawal, self-doubt, and uncertainty. Hamlet has lost faith in his world and in himself.


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