Throughout his works, the postmodern thinker Jaques Derrida explores a variety of thoughts around a wide variety of topics. While all writings present new understandings applicable not just in theory but in daily life, some of his writings most grounded in daily human experience are those he presents around his aporias, or puzzlements. Within these writings are Derrida’s works on mourning, which include a large range of topics from smaller ones discussing the nature of mourning in a friendship and why mourning is so painful, to larger ones such as, most famously, his conception of mourning as impossible.

His ideas have been largely inspired from other past great minds, such as Freud, but have built upon and refined some of the theories presented in the past by others. Derrida’s understanding of what the nature of mourning really is and whether or not we can truly mourn can be applied into the life of anyone who has mourned the loss of a loved one, but even more broadly, anyone who has suffered the loss of anything.

It is nearly impossible to talk about Derrida’s thoughts and writings on mourning without first elaborating on Freud and his conception of mourning. Freud has two major works on the topic of mourning, “Mourning and Melancholia” and “The Ego and the Id,” which reflect not only his thoughts themselves, but also the ways in which his thoughts on mourning have grown and developed. In his first work, “Mourning and Melancholia,” Freud defines mourning as “the reaction to the loss of a loved person or to the loss of some abstraction which has taken the place of one” (Lecture 27; PP Slide 4; Sigmund Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia” Standard Edition, Vol. 14, p. 243-4).

The initial definition presented by Freud is rather vague and generally difficult to refute, as it reflects a fairly general and relatable understanding of what mourning itself is. Freud continues to describe mourning, and some of the reasons why this loss of a loved one is so painful and jarring to us. Throughout his description, mourning can be understood to be emotionally painful not only as a result of the loss of the person themselves, but also, as Judith Butler suggests in her work “Psychic Life of Power,” “in which what is lost in the someone real is ideal, the loss of an ideal” (Butler, 1997, p. 172). This understanding of mourning which relates to the ideal of a person is very often not discussed when talking about loss and mourning, but is central in Freud’s ideas around the topic.

As described in class, Freud suggests that this is a result of the way that we build our own identity in relation to the other. We understand ourselves to be important due to the ways in which another person responds and reacts to us. This can be seen in a young child who first begins to understand themselves when their parent smiles at them, but does not stop after this first initial glance. The way we build ourselves and identities throughout our entire lives is in relation to the other, particularly our loved ones. When we lose someone we love very deeply we lose a part of ourselves. While neither Freud nor Derrida suggest that this issue of self identity is the only reason why we mourn lost loved ones, it still plays a vital role in one’s understanding of mourning as a whole.

Freud then proceeds to describe not only a definition of understanding of mourning or the identity issue it creates, but also how to effectively mourn. This conception of how one specifically achieves “effective mourning,” which Freud explores in “Mourning and Melancholia,” may be understood as to overcome the feeling of melancholia which characterizes mourning (Lecture 27; PP Slide 8). Freud defines melancholia as the fully conscious grief experienced after a loss, as “a profoundly painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love, inhibition of all activity, and a lowering of the self-regarding feelings” (Lecture 27; PP Slide 4; Sigmund Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia” Standard Edition, Vol. 14, p. 244). When suggesting the way in which one can mourn, the overcoming of grief and melancholia remain the central focus the entire time, which is later a point of refutation from Derrida. However, under Freud’s understanding of what it means to effectively or “truly” mourn, if one is successful they will be able to come out of the loss having no implicit or explicit feelings of melancholia.

While this goal of effective mourning remains the same throughout Freud’s works, the way he suggests one achieves this is refined over time, with his initial explanations in “Mourning and Melancholia” differing from his later writings in “The Ego and the Id” (Lecture 27; PP Slide 8). In the former, Freud suggests that in order to be able to “let go of” the lost loved one and the grief associated with it, one one must participate in the “breaking of attachments, as well as the subsequent making of new attachments” (Butler, 1997, p. 134). Here he is suggesting that it is possible to fully overcome the grieving process through severing ones’ attachment to their loss and “filling” that loss with other, new, people, passions or ideals. This could mean building new friendships to share time with after the loss of an old friend, or finding a new job or hobby to participate in after a painful layoff. However, in his later writing he refines and changes this view of what it means to effectively mourn a loss.

The second view of effective mourning presented by Freud is that which he presents in “The Ego and the Id” where he refines his initial claim that mourning must involve the complete breaking of an attachment. He instead presents a theory that explains effective mourning as incorporation of a loss. This idea is synthesized by Butler, where she states that “letting the object go means, paradoxically, not full abandonment of the object but transferring the status of the object from external to internal” (Butler, 1997, p. 134). Freud believes that the full mourning process cannot be realized by a person without full internalization of their lost loved one back into themselves.

This idea cannot be misunderstood with a desire for the same fate as a lost loved one, and in a sense, actually expresses the opposite. When one fully incorporates their loved one into themself as Freud suggests, they are keeping a part of the other “alive” within themselves. This refined understanding of grief and what it means to mourn effectively is the one which is most influential to Derrida’s ultimate conception of his aporia of mourning. While Derrida’s specific conception of the aporic nature of mourning is generally the aspect which is most widely discussed, it is only a part of his nuanced and detailed account of what it means to mourn a loss, particularly the loss of a friend. Derrida’s ideas of mourning from the beginning, the erasure of a world, and the way in which a death reflects our own, all work to inform his beliefs on the nature of mourning.

One idea which pervades Derrida’s writings on death and what it means to mourn a friend focuses on the role death plays from the very beginning of a relationship with another. The Editors’ Introduction of his writing “The Work of Mourning” gives a synthesis of his thoughts on this, describing simply how, in any friendship, “One must go before the other” (Brault & Naas, 2001, p. 1). This uncomfortable yet objectively factual statement is one which remains central to many of Derrida’s ideas on what it means to be a friend with another person as well as what it means to mourn them. Every relationship ultimately begins and ends with the principle that eventually, one day, one friend will have to mourn the loss of the other. In the Editors’ Introduction it is clarified that even in the rare exceptions to this rule, where by some stroke of either luck (or the lack thereof), the two friends die at the same time their relationship was still always founded on this principle that eventually one would experience the death of the other.

As a result of this understanding of the way in which death pervades all relationships creates an understanding of mourning as something “that does not wait for the so-called ‘actual death’” (Naas, 2014, p. 117). While he does not disagree that the feeling of grief and melancholy over a loss is naturally heightened after one physically passes away, Derrida’s construction of mourning expresses it to be a constant state in any friendship. As a result of our implicit awareness of both our own and the others’ mortality, there is no friendship or relationship in which, at least subconsciously, we are not mourning and influenced by the eventual mortality of the other.

Another important idea presented by Derrida on mourning works to help explain why mourning and the experience of anothers’ death is so painful. Derrida characterizes death not as the simple loss of a single person, but as the loss of an entire world. This is summarized by Naas in “When it comes to mourning” by saying that because of the way we create our own identities through the other and through our relationships, when we lose someone close to us, someone constitutive in the construction of our personal world, “Each time unique, a personal mourning is nothing less than the end of the world” (Naas, 2014, p. 121).

This idea presented by Derrida is often taken to be a mere hyperbole, where he is simply overexaggerating to express how painful grief can be. However, while potentially seeming hyperbolic upon first glance, this assertion by Derrida is meant in a literal sense. Because, as mentioned earlier, we are constantly constituting who we are and building ourselves and individual worlds through relationship to the other, when they are lost this literally results in the ending of a world. When discussing Derrida’s thoughts on the actual aporic nature of mourning, this idea of the death of a loved one as being the literal erasure of a world works to inform and support his ideas.

An additional idea on death and its relationship and impact on us presented by Derrida reflects the way in which the death of another in turn reflects our own mortality and eventual death. His conception of this relates heavily to the way he describes our experience of the death of another as the erasure of a world. He suggests that because the other is a part of us and our world, when they die it gives us insight into our own death, influenced by Heidegger’s idea (Naas, 2014). He explains this in an interview from 1990 mentioned by Naas (2014) by saying that “‘I can have this experience of ‘my own death’ by relating myself only in the impossible experience, the experience of the impossible mourning at the death of the other’” (Naas, 2014, p. 118).

Through experiencing the death and subsequent mourning of a loved one Derrida believes we can experience our own. This idea of being able to experience the death of ourselves through the other, however, is not the only vital concept he suggests in this interview. When describing this idea Derrida points to the impossibility of mourning the other. This conception of mourning as impossible leads to arguably one of the most important ways Derrida presents mourning- as an aporia.

Some of the core understandings, or lack thereof, focused on by Derrida in his works were his aporias. An aporia reflects a certain puzzlement. This puzzlement is over a concept or idea that reflects a conundrum or clash between possibility and impossibility (Lecture 24, PP Slide 2). This sort of clash occurs when the very thing that makes some act or concept possible is also what makes it impossible. Derrida uses this term of aporia to describe ideas such as hospitality or gift offering and also to describe his beliefs of true mourning. While in his works Derrida generally approaches this understanding of mourning in relation to his friends who have passed away, his ideas do not have to only apply to this. Derrida’s understanding of complete mourning can apply to anything one can mourn, whether it be a failed romantic relationship, the loss of a job or a familial split that did not result from a death. Though most of Derrida’s works on mourning relate to the deaths of his close friends, the possible-impossible nature of full mourning can apply to one’s mourning of almost anything which carries high stakes and emotional value.

Derrida draws a significant portion of his understanding on mourning and what it means to mourn from the aforementioned ideas of Freud. However, Derrida contests Freud’s idea that effective and “genuine” mourning can ever actually be achieved. Derrida begins this by first referencing Freud’s ideas of mourning involving the internalization of the other into oneself. He then refines these ideas, making a distinction between introjection and incorporation. In Derrida’s context, “introjection” can be understood as “love for the other in me” (Derrida, 1977). It involves fully homogenizing the other who has passed away, making them an inextricably connected part of oneself.

When one introjects the other into themselves they are fully rejecting the “otherness” or alternity of the other and instead are bringing them in as one with a non-physical bond. This is contrasted by Derrida with incorporation, which refers to a sort of internalization where one is still recognizing the other as a separate being or “a foreign body within one’s own body” (Lecture 27, PP Slide 17). Under Freud’s view of mourning, the mode one must take to effectively mourn the other and overcome melancholia is primarily through the process of introjection. However, Derrida contests this, holding that incorporation is more respectful than introjection. He suggests that when one introjects a lost friend and fully internalizes them as part of oneself they are actually disrespecting the dead person’s status as a unique other, separate from them. He believes that in the process of introjecting a lost other, one is posthumously changing and transforming their relationship and bond with them (Lecture 27; PP Slide 19). By refraining from this complete form of incorporation, one respects the other by maintaining their “purer” form.

Derrida clarifies that he does not believe that one should not internalize their loved one at all or that any level of interiorization represents a lack of fidelity. In Derrida’s writing on the death of his friend Louis Althusser, he describes how internalizing and interiorization is “in some respects undeniable in the work of mourning” (Derrida, 2001, p. 159). Rather, he suggests that in order to show respect to a lost friend one cannot fully internalize them in the way of introjection.

When responding to the loss of a friend, one must always recognize them as a unique and alternate being from themselves. In the same work, Derrida describes Althusser as “completely other, infinitely other, as he has always been, and death has more than ever entrusted him, given him over, distanced him, in his infinite alternity” (Derrida, 2001, p. 161). When someone cherishes and loves a friend, even if they are no longer physically there as an other, one cannot ever fully internalize them in a way that does not at least partially continue to recognize them as alternate and unique from oneself. This is what Derrida describes to be “the paradox of fidelity” (Derrida, 2001, p. 159) and what makes Freud’s ideas of effective mourning impossible. There is no way for one to entirely turn their attention away from their understanding of their lost friend as a unique other. And even if one could, by doing so this would disrespect their loved ones’ memory.

Effective mourning requires internalization in order to overcome melancholia. But this act of full introjection is impossible and would be unfaithful and disrespectful to a lost friend. When describing his view of genuine mourning Derrida states that “this is the law, the law of mourning, and the law of the law, always in mourning, that it would have to fail in order to succeed. In order to succeed, it would well have to fail and to fail well” (Derrida, 2001, p. 144). By being unable to fully internalize a lost friend we respect their memory and existence as a unique person. However, at the same time, by being unable to fully internalize them we bar ourselves from ever completely mourning them. This is why “success fails” and “failure succeeds” and Freud’s effective mourning is impossible (Brault & Naas, 2001, p. 12).

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William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0

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