On The Psychic Effects of Repressed Melancholia and Its Cultural Transmission To A Generation’s Offspring

The following is excellent supportive psychoanalytics detailing the situation of the postwar generations following the fall of Hitler as the psychology of the postwar era enriched our literature. These biographical works outline the psychic pain of what may be called the “Father Wound.” However, it should be noted that this “Father Wound” may be more appropriately called the “Forbearers Wound” as psychic pain can be inflicted by the mother as well.

“Beginning in the late seventies, a number of German authors began a much belated process of coming to terms with these unintegrated phantoms. These efforts typically took the form of a reconstruction of the father’s biography. This biography or literary obituary – in most cases the father was already dead – was woven together with an autobiographical narrative that registered the wounds inflicted on the psyches of the author by the father. Examples of such texts, which together might constitute a subcategory of new discourse analyzed . . . Are: Paul Kersten’s Deralltägliche Tod meines Vaters (The everyday death of my father; 1978); Ruth Rehmann’s Der Mann auf der Kanzel: Fragen an einen Vater (The man in the pulpit: Questions for a father; 1979); Sigfrid Gauch’s Vaterspuren (Traces of a father; 1979); Heinrich Wiesner’s Der Riese am Tisch (The giant at the table; 1979) Peter Härtling’s Nachgetragene Liebe (Love in the aftermath; 1980); Christoph Meckel’s Suchbild: Übermeinen Vater (Images for investigation about my father; 1980); Brigitte Schwaiger’s Lange Abwesenheit (Long absence; 1983); Ludwig Harig’s Ordnung ist das ganze Leben: Roman meines Valters (Order is the essence of life: Novel of my father; 1985). . . . .Michael Schneider proposes Hamlet as the negative patron saint of these authors and indeed of the second generation more generally, especially those members of this generation who participated in the student movement in the late sixties only to fall into the melancholy, passivity, and so-called New Subjectivity of the seventies. Hamlet is so suggestive in the present context because his saturnine disposition clearly derives from blocked mourning. The corrupt familial and political constellation in which Hamlet finds himself offers little opportunity to pass beyond the mere “trappings and . . . . Suits of woe”; in this world of “maimed rites” Hamlet indeed seems destined to remain captive to an elegiac loop, always hovering between murder and suicide.

The situation of the postwar generations in Germany is, however, rather more complex than that of Shakespeare’s Dane. As these literary biographies suggest, the second generation bears deep psychological wounds left by elders whose own inability to work through the radical disenchantment of narcissistic phantasms predisposed them to seeing their progeny primarily as a resource for the reparation of their depleted sense of self. For these traumatized parents, the family, became the primary site where a damaged self could be refurbished, could be respecularized under the mirroring gazes of spouse and offspring. That is, the family was used as a sort of looking glass that would magically make one whole again, give oneself back to oneself, if only as an image. In this way the second generation was blackmailed into complicity with the parent’s inability to mourn. As a result of this complicity, which was, after all, the price of emotional survival in such families, these members of the second generation inherited the melancholy that their parents had managed to hold in abeyance by way of a variety of defense mechanisms (these mechanisms were analyzed in detail by the Mitscherlichs in their 1967 study). Schneider characterized this cultural transmission of psychology in the following way:

“The depressive disposition and the high incidence of suicide within the “second lost generation” . . . would lead us to conclude that the post-war generation identified less with the . . . Pathos of the reconstruction generation than they did with the latent emotions of that generation, ie: with the concealed, unspoken, un-”lived-out” and apocryphal side of their sense of self. In a sort of unconscious displacement, the post-war generation appropriated those feelings of melancholy, resignation, and depression which the older generation, in an act of self-preservation, had denied itself, by repressing them through the heroic reconstruction effort.”

One of the cruel ironies of this legacy was, as I have already suggested, that the second generation inherited not only the unmourned traumas of the parents but also the psychic structures that impeded mourning in the older generation in the first place. That is, since so many members of the second generation never really had access to the full attention and care of their parents, who were expending enormous amounts of psychic energy to ward off melancholy (these were parents who were, psychologically speaking, always elsewhere), their own psychological growth has in large measure been disrupted. They have tended, to fixate on their parents to a remarkable degree. This fixation is the flip side of a “depressive self-obsession,” a state of melancholy “which can be attributed less to a sense of sorrow that something has been lost than to an existential feeling that something is missing – a sense of disappointment over something which was never received.” And as the history of the parents illustrates, such a condition can heighten people’s vulnerability to anxiety in the face of alterity and thereby provide fertile ground for unrealistic and absolutist longings for security, community, and intimacy. Postwar generations in Germany may be predisposed to respond to new postmodern uncertainties and disorientations In the same ways – according to the same “patterns of childhood” – that their elders responded to the economic and political instabilities of the twenties and thirties.

 

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