‘The New Black: Mourning, Melancholia and Depression’ by Darian Leader

Published by Penguin in 2009.


What happens when we lose someone we love? A death, a separation or the break-up of a relationship are some of the hardest times we have to live through. In this book, Darian Leader urges us to look beyond the catch-all concept of depression to explore the deeper, unconscious ways in which we respond to the experience of loss.

Fifty years ago, the terms mourning and melancholia were part of the psychological lexicon. Today, in a world of rapid diagnoses, quick cures, and big pharmaceutical dollars, the catch-all concept of depression has evolved to take their place. In The New Black, Darian Leader argues that this shift is more than semantic; rather, it speaks to our culture’s complicated relationship with loss, suffering, and grief.

Part memoir, part cultural analysis, Leader draws on examples from literature, art, cinema, and history, as well as case studies from his work as a psychologist, to explore the unconscious ways our culture responds to the experience of loss. He visits a bookstore in search of studies on mourning, and, finding none, moves on to the fiction and poetry sections, where he finds countless examples of mourning in literature. Moving from historical texts of the Middle Ages, to Freud’s essays, to Lacan, to Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, Leader provides an innovative tour of mourning and melancholia and our culture’s struggle to understand them.

Darian Leader—the British psychoanalyst who famously described shrinks as mutants scavenging after a nuclear holocaust—gives the profession a sound scolding for mishandling and misunderstanding depression. Our current idea of depression, he says, was created to fit the symptoms (such as insomnia and lack of appetite) that antidepressants treat. Leader goes back to Freud’s classic 1917 essay, Mourning and Melancholia, to show what depression is really about: the loss of an important relationship. He presents a thorough and thoughtful review of what happens when the work of mourning (detaching ourselves from the loved ones we have lost) or melancholia (where what is lost is not so obvious to the patient) goes undone. He also rails at the erosion of public mourning rituals that can ease the process.

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