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Review of "The Cruelty of Depression"

By Jacques Hassoun
Addison Wesley, 1997
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Sep 30th 1998
The Cruelty of DepressionWhat to say about a book like this? Michael Vincent Miller, in the foreword which is also quoted on the back cover, writes,
If Prozac works, do we really need Hassoun's book, with all its conjectures, its difficult ideas and metaphors, its closely knotted analysis? I say yes, we need it in the way that we need poetry, fiction, moral philosophy, and cultural criticism.

At times during reading this slim volume of 101 pages, I felt that I needed it like I need a hole in my head. Hassoun's approach starts from the view that depression is ultimately a mourning for the mother's breast. But he builds on this using the ideas of the French psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan. Fortunately Hassoun does not indulge in the deliberate obfuscation that characterizes Lacan's writing. Instead, he uses a sprinkling of clinical examples, references to literature, and even a footnote mentioning Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. He seems to assume that the reader is familiar with Freud's writings, with reminders such as "And let us not forget that Mourning and Melancholia comes after On Narcissism: An Introduction and Instincts and Their Vicissitudes, and four years before Beyond the Pleasure Principle." For readers such as myself, who have not got these texts fresh in their minds, Miller's Foreword gives a succinct summary of the essential ideas.

Miller's question, whether we need psychoanalytic theory, is a good one. Many people would say that we don't. There have been a number of recent books devoted to trashing Freud's ideas (such as Freudian Fraud, Why Freud Was Wrong, and Against Therapy), and while a substantial number of academic thinkers and some therapists still advocate Freud's more outlandish theories, those people are coming to be seen as increasingly stubborn and eccentric by the mainstream. Hassoun's use of Freud and post-Freudian thought is at best highly speculative, and he cannot be read as offering any kind of serious argument for his views, since the thumb-nail sketches he provides of some of his patients are no more than illustrations of some of his themes.

But if all Hassoun is doing is making suggestions, is there any reason to pay attention to him? Is his slim volume not just an exercise in self-indulgence? How could it possibly be useful to the majority of psychological thinkers and practitioners who are not ready to accept the sorts of ideas that he advocates? I wish I could find reason to be more positive about this book, because it is admirable in its readiness to address difficult questions in relatively clear language, to consider issues in abstract ways which are at the same time linked to real life examples, and to propose provocative answers which integrate the personal and the social. Hassoun's style of writing is engaging and literate. This would probably be a good book to use as an introduction to Lacanian modes of thought. The problem is that every indication suggests that it is a house of cards. To be blunt about it, it is a lot of nonsense.

So why do intelligent people still pursue this psychoanalytic tradition if it is as intellectually bankrupt as it seems? In some ways I can sympathize with the unwillingness to give it up. Modern psychoanalysis is such a conceptually rich system of thought that it allows people to express ideas which would have not otherwise been possible. Nevertheless, I can't help concluding that books like this are fundamentally misguided. We would be better off if the energy and creativity that went into it were directed at enriching psychological traditions which have a far more secure empirical foundation.

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