Narcissism and Melancholia from the Psychoanalytical Perspective of Object Relations

  • Michael Rustin
Part of the Studies in the Psychosocial book series (STIP)


This chapter puts forward the view of narcissism and melancholia as developed in the object relations tradition of psychoanalysis, and explores ()post)Kleinian perspectives on the individual/society relation.

Beginning with an overview of the ways in which Melanie Klein disagreed with Freud’s account of ‘primary narcissism’, the argument proceeds on the understanding that narcissism is a form of defence against object relations that are felt to have failed, or are feared to fail in the future. Identified in broad terms as a narcissistic disturbance of the self’s relation to objects, melancholia is cited as the piece of theory that indicates Freud’s increasing recognition of the significance of relations with external and internal objects for the well-being of the self. With reference to the work of Wilfred Bion, Herbert Rosenfeld, and Esther Bick, the chapter demonstrates how the Kleinian tradition extended and deepened the Freudian concepts of narcissism, mourning and melancholia.

The chapter then moves to consider how the title terms, as conceptualised in the object relations framework, can be brought to bear on an understanding of shared social states of mind. Two examples are explored in some detail: The seminal work of Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich on how the ‘inability to mourn’ marked the climate of post-war Germany (The Inability to Mourn: Principles of Collective Behaviour, Grove Press, 1975 [1967]), and Paul Gilroy’s development in cultural theory of the concept of melancholia to explain post-colonial states of mind in British society (After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture, Routledge, 2004). In both cases, reflections are offered to extend the respective analyses up to the present day. The work of the Mitscherlichs and of Gilroy are offered as exemplary ways to develop effective applications of clinical concepts that engender careful and context-specific analyses of psychosocial dynamics. The chapter concludes by identifying further contemporary directions for such research.


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© The Author(s) 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Michael Rustin
    • 1
  1. 1.School of Social SciencesUniversity of East LondonLondonUK

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