Freud and Nietzsche – An Account For The Role Of Memory In Our Lives


One of the main concerns of contemporary philosophy has been the role of the memory in the life of the individual and the group, or more precisely - the lack and excess of memory. Memory is something very unreliable, because it causes the same kind of decay that invades our physical bodies, undermining the identity of every individual and every society. Even though human identity is based on historical memory, neither individuals, nor societies should be limited in categorical way by it and the importance of forgetting should not be diminished. In consideration of memory, psychoanalysis and history as disciplines may be merged to provide one with a more expansive view of this phenomenon, without reducing one to the other. Reading Freud’s account of melancholia in relation to Nietzsche’s account of historical illness can help enhance the understanding one derives from each individual discourse, in addition to highlighting an important theme in contemporary philosophy.


In Freud’s essay, “Mourning and Melancholia”, he considers the act of mourning, which if carried out incorrectly can result in melancholia, a pathological illness. Freud states, “In mourning, it is the world which has become poor and empty; in melancholia, it is the ego itself.” An individual suffering with melancholia often cannot pin point what they have lost, as it is often not a person but an abstract concept. Their fixation on this object is intense often due to the narcissistic basis of the attachment, therefore when they lose this object; they lose something more drastic - themselves and their will to live. Symptoms of melancholia are similar to those of mourning; however melancholia is differentiated by “an extraordinary diminution in self-regard” and the absence of shame. Freud believes that a certain period of mourning is necessary when confronting loss; in fact if this process were not to occur, or if this process were to be interrupted, it could be of great detriment. Mourning should be used to recognize the loss of a particular object and to eventually come to terms with the separation, the experience ultimately making one stronger and urging one forward.


Nietzsche believes that history is also something that individuals and groups must use to move forward, however it is largely practiced in a harmful manner. History is necessary for us to be human, yet it must be practiced in the right way to avoid damage to human life and culture. Irving Ball beautifully articulates the point, “the past should be a springboard not a hammock”, as the past must always be in service of the present and the future. In his essay, Nietzsche outlines three forms that an excess of history can take.


The first is what Nietzsche describes as the “monumental”, in which people look to the past for models, which they passively emulate, robbing the present of its self-defining vitality. The veneration of the past turns history to stone, literally and figuratively, and therefore is really a kind of hatred, as a certain amount of forgetfulness is required to allow history to live. The monumental strips both the past and present of value. When we consider what Nietzsche describes as the monumental, we can see that it bears close resemblance to Freud’s idea of cathexis, a precondition for melancholia. “Object cathexis” or a strong fixation on the object in consideration, acts in the same way, as the individual directs all his energy towards the object and therefore has difficulty carrying on with his own life, preventing the individual from forming new attachments or interests, or producing anything of novelty.


The second form that historical illness can take is what Nietzsche refers to as the “antiquarian”. Antiquarians have a tremendous preservative impulse and ravenously consume whatever knowledge they can get their hands on. An example of an antiquarian is Antoine Roquentin from Sartre’s “Nausea”, who spends every day in the library going through all the texts in alphabetical order. The antiquarian, like the monumental is not venerating the past, he too is vengeful as he approaches history in an indiscriminant manner and the oral and later sexual terms, in which the condition is described, suggests a consumptive violence. Hegel’s philosophy works in this way, absorbing vast amounts of events and ideas to form the dialectic