When It Gets Dark

Deutsche Version


Berggasse 19, 1090 Vienna

On the day we found out about the terror attacks carried out against Israel by the Palestinian organization Hamas, our world became even darker. Aghast, our thoughts have been with the victims of these heinous acts of aggression ever since. The ubiquitous visual documentation of dead, burned, and raped victims also cast flashes of memory of our historical failure here in Austria some eighty-five years ago. Faced with the anti-Semitism currently erupting in Europe, a hidden, perhaps hitherto repressed fear of history repeating itself—the slogan “Never again!” to the Shoah and war had only just faded away—has risen to the surface of our collective consciousness. Furthermore, with every day that passes, we grow increasingly aware that it is virtually impossible to put an end to the spiral of violence that has been forging ahead in several nations for some time now. The ideals of our civil societies—nourished, strengthened, and unified by global peace movements until two decades ago—are evaporating.

When the foundations of our confidence are destroyed, our social spaces for thought and action shrink: they mutate into cramped prison cells that isolate us and rob us of all perspective. Which is how the state of mourning transforms into melancholia. According to Freud, the former is a general life experience, whereas the “complex of melancholia” draws all of life’s energy to itself and “behaves like an open wound”[1] that does not heal. Ultimately, one’s ego is defeated by this constant inner struggle and is eventually lost: “In mourning it is the world which has become poor and empty; in melancholia it is the ego itself.”[2]

Freud’s advice that the symptoms of melancholia do not necessarily have to be caused by the loss of people but perhaps instead by lost connections to “some abstractions […] such as one’s country, liberty, and ideal,”[3] makes clear the parallels between the fates of the individual and those of the group: for instance, the development of a community after overwhelming experiences of loss may, via phases of permanent self-abasement, end in utter self-abandonment.   

In these times, another symptom is apparent that affects our current condition and mental state and is paid particular attention in psychoanalysis as a result of severe traumatization (or re-traumatization): a widespread and acute loss of language. A catastrophic danger is inherent in the absolute inability to communicate or listen to one another: a persistent catatonia damned to passivity that renders any manner of (re)constitution impossible.
Yet the opposite also floods our communication channels: outpourings of scathing accusations and compulsive immunization strategies that serve to justify one’s own existence and established mindsets. Both defense mechanisms—roaring silence and a loquacity akin to the Babylonian “confusion of tongues” that obscures everything—seem due to the same cause: the urge to repress our ubiquitous sense of powerlessness and helplessness.

One hundred years ago, Sigmund Freud was invited by what was then the League of Nations—today’s UN—to correspond with Albert Einstein about the question “Is there any way of delivering mankind from the menace of war?” In his sociopolitical reflections, the psychoanalyst confirms the physicist’s pacifist arguments while also making the case for implementing a peacekeeping power that would operate internationally, as intended by the League of Nations. It was an attempt, wrote Freud, “to acquire the authority […], which hitherto reposed exclusively on the possession of power, by calling into play certain idealistic attitudes of mind.”[4] Here, Freud held out the hopeful prospect of social cohesion being achieved not just through the use of force but also by another means—by strengthening the emotional ties among the community’s members, by identifying with one another. According to Freud, such ideas can only be meaningful if they are an expression of a deeply rooted sense of unity shared by all. It is therefore necessary to determine the effectiveness of such feelings.

In line with Freud, who believed everything that advanced cultural development (some called it civilization) helped to hinder war,[5] the mutual conditionality of individual and society is the focus of the Sigmund Freud Museum’s activities.[6]Here, the psychoanalytical dialogue format—“the way in which words can affect us, but also the productivity of a conversation that not only reproduces previously considered ideas but is also productive”[7]—provides a valuable guide. As a museum and educational institution as well as a communication platform that is indebted to Freud’s cultural heritage, it is necessary to ascertain whether and which commonalities are inherent in different positions in order to expand our knowledge of and about one another and to find an explanation for the symptoms of our age. Yet it is important to emphasize that neither the discipline of psychoanalysis nor the museum located in its birthplace is qualified to “silence others. On the contrary, it finds nothing more intriguing than what others have to say.”[8]


Monika Pessler

Sigmund Freud Museum
Vienna, Oct./Nov. 2023



[1] Sigmund Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia” [1915], in: The Standard Edition, vol. XIV, p. 253.

[2] Ibid., p. 246.

[3] Ibid., p. 243.

[4] Sigmund Freud, “Why war? A letter from Freud to Einstein,” The UNESCO Courier, March 1993, https://en.unesco.org/courier/marzo-1993/why-war-letter-freud-einstein (accessed Nov. 16, 2023).

[5] Ibid.

[6] See the article “Frei Sprechen—Speak Freely” on the principle that guided the Sigmund Freud Museum’s program in the years 2021 to 2025: https://www.freud-museum.at/en/blog-posts-details/articles/speak-freely (accessed Nov 16, 2023).

[7] Joachim Küchenhoff, “Das analytische Gespräch auf der Suche nach dem Sinn,” in: Der Sinn im Nein und die Gabe des Gesprächs. Psychoanalytisches Verstehen zwischen Philosophie und Klinik. Verlbrück Wissenschaft, Weilerswist 2013, p. 88.

[8] Dirk Baecker, Schlüsselwerke der Systemtheorie, (2nd ed.) Springer Verlag, 2016, p. 7.