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I'm Burnt': A Psychotic Neologism in Melancholia

The Letter, Issue 29, Autumn 2003, Pages 111 - 164


Lieven Jonckheere

Lacan's theory of melancholia?

When I first decided on the topic of melancholia from a Lacanian point of view as the basis for what I am about to present today, I thought the most obvious thing to do would be to start by outlining Lacan's theory on melancholia, and then to 'illustrate' this theory with some clinical material. However, I found out surprisingly that explicit pointers towards a theory of melancholia are very scarce in Lacan s work.

Firstly, it seems that Lacan never challenged the validity of this very old clinical category. Indeed, as you may already know, melancholia is one of the oldest psychopathologies to have been diagnosed as such. It literally means 'black bile', because in their medical theories ancient Greeks ascribed 'black thoughts' to the influence of some mysterious 'black bile'. Over the course of Western history, melancholia also acquired an important cultural significance, becoming closely associated with creative genius, and fuelling all kinds of aesthetic theories - we became convinced that 'black is beautiful'. Finally however, at the end of the nineteenth century, melancholia was reduced once more to a psychopathology, within the medical discourse of psychiatry - where melancholia is classified as a psychosis. This psychiatric classification of melancholia as a psychosis was, as a matter of fact, never challenged by Lacan.

Secondly, it must be said that Lacan did not contribute significantly to the psychoanalytic theory of melancholia; he did not develop a theory of the psychical or unconscious structure of melancholia.

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