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Depressive Realism: An Interview with Julie Reshe

Svetlana Gusarova interviews Julie Reshe. Translated into English from Russian by Duane Rousselle, from Диалог Искусств [Dialogue of the Arts], 2020: 20/1, pp. 52-8.




Svetlana Gusarova: Last year the Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson sang for six hours the phrase “sadness will conquer happiness.” It felt like a hypnosis session, and many viewers succumbed to it. You, too, are against happiness, but much more radically. Why doesn’t it suit you?

Julie Reshe: I am not against happiness. It is more interesting for me to focus on sadness, which everyone is trying to escape (although this cannot be done). Happiness is inevitable, but it is not forever. Sadness is forever.

SG: Why does a person easily agree to be manipulated by the images of happiness that are on offer?

JR: Because it is very tempting. Not everyone has the strength to come to terms with the fact that sadness not only lies at the foundation of our world but also that everything we do in life is an attempt to get rid of it. When someone promises to lead you to happiness, that person is lying. Social manipulations are based upon another logic: they interpret unhappiness as a pathology, and happiness as a healthy or normal state. Unhappy people are equated with the sick, with people who have to pull themselves together or go to a psychologist.

SG: At what point in history did happiness become obligatory?

JR: It seems to me that such ideas have always existed. But with the onset of postmodernism, certain fledgling structures — for example, religious illusions — no longer allowed us to hide from our deepest misery. The institution of psychology works, in principle, as a replacement for these religious structures. Psychologists give the illusion that finding happiness will happen during the patient’s life, and people believe in it.

SG: If happiness is culturally dependent then what is it in our culture today?

JR: Today, our ‘everyday’ happiness is very different from the ancient Greek or [early] American (Thomas Jefferson) versions. The eye is perceived as a biological pleasure and it is associated with the release of dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin. But even that source of happiness cannot be permanent because it occurs biologically as a letting go, ‘it was bad and it ended.’ You need this contrast in order to be happy. For example, the benefits of playing sports are built upon a simple switch from vague existential suffering to a specific physiological suffering that can be controlled. Happiness is optional, not the other way around. It occurs as a break in our suffering, in the continuum of life.

SG: Sadness is felt by even the most prosperous people. Why?

JR: It is a well-known fact that sometimes people in developed countries with high income experience depression more often than those with low income. Obviously, investing in economic stability and high living standards does not reduce but rather increases our sorrow. So long as a person has unsolved life problems a bad mood can always be justified, but when he or she has achieved everything, the explanation for sadness is much more difficult. Psychologists and psychiatrists come to the rescue and say ‘darling, yes, you are ill. Now we will cure you, with pills, and everything will be fine.’

SG: You wrote that depressed people are more capable of assessing reality. But is reality worth the assessment?

JR: No, not worth it. This is an alternative view of depression. Even this view is to some extent an illusion because it gives depression some kind of positive meaning. Heidegger’s whole philosophy is a recognition of an original existential anxiety from which one cannot escape. He gives moral superiority to those who recognize this over those who do not experience this anxiety

SG: The pandemic today shatters our illusions to smithereens. How do we deal with this?

JR: During the first wave of the pandemic everyone began to actively cooperate, support each other, and now we have apathy and sadness. As for me, I am distracted by work.

SG: As a depression specialist, this time must be nonetheless interesting for you?

JR: It is somehow uncomfortable for me to say, after Heidegger, ‘I was right, I warned you that everything is terrible.’ People are already feeling quite bad. So, for now I am keeping quiet and writing a book on negative psychoanalysis and depressive realism. I develop a theory that originally appeared in psychology. In philosophy, depressive realism is closer to existentialism — it is the acceptance of our anxious existence. Depressive realism views depression as an adequate comprehension of reality. Today, when depression is increasing due to the pandemic, it may well be massively rethought as a ‘normal,’ ‘non-pathological’ condition. After all, what is characteristic of most people cannot be considered a pathology. Depressive realism and existentialism may be most suited for modern people.

SG: To what extent does art form the mental background of society?

JR: Art, like sarcasm, is one of the forms of recognition of the meaninglessness of reality, because what we usually call ‘art’ is anything which is not assigned with a certain meaning. It remains a free sphere, although today it is often perceived as a political activity, endowed with positive meaning. Art corresponds to the human tendency to self-destruction. When a person wants to create, has inspiration, he or she destroys herself, surrendering to his or her interactions with chaos. Art denotes chaos, and opposes itself to established meanings and orders. And our desire for death, or self-destruction, is associated with our fondness for chaos and the transgression of established meanings and orders. It is not that much about how art affects the mental background but about how art is a way of interacting with what attracts us and what destroys us psychologically.

SG: Art destroys norms but simultaneously creates them, does this mean that those are ‘new’ norms?

JR: The process of breaking and setting up new norms are parallel to one another. Fortunately, norms are never fully established any more than any law is absolute. There is an element of self-destruction already inherent to the law. If the new norms did not contain a repetition of the former norms, then the world would be plunged into chaos. There is a theory of the entropic brain: scientists believe that the creativity of the brain is directly dependent upon chaos. A child who has fewer external boundaries and taboos thinks more creatively; his or her brain is plastic. At the same time, all social institutions work to suppress chaos within a person. This is what Deleuze’s philosophy is based upon: chaos is the initial state, norms are formed from this configuration and constellation. It is the presence of chaos that allows norms to change. Imperfect repetition, there are laws, but they always change.

SG: Do we have a need for something new?

JR: That which is absolutely new destroys us — it is impossible for a creature to sustain him or herself in the new. As Heidegger pointed out, we can hide from inspiration and chaos through something familiar and repetitive in everyday life. Repetition gives us a sense of security; it gives us the illusion that we are in control of something and that we can know what to expect in the future. A person needs ‘repetition with a difference,’ a little chaos in the soul. If there is only chaos around — just like if there is only continuous repetition — we suffer existentially.

SG: Necro-psychoanalysis is your know-how. How did you come to this?

JR: I originally completed my PhD in philosophy and psychoanalysis and then received the post of director of the institute of psychoanalysis [at the Global Center for Advanced Studies]. But at that time I became critical of psychoanalysis. I decided to retrain in neuro-psychoanalysis, a direction founded by Mark Solms. Knowing my penchant for things dark and depressive, an editor and colleague Vadim Klimov joked, calling my position ‘necro-psychoanalysis.’ This is how the term became entrenched. In the academic environment it can be called ‘negative psychoanalysis.’ It is not practiced there though — it acts as an idea.

SG: What works of psychologists and philosophers do you rely upon?

JR: I am interested in the work of the Norwegian Peter Zapffe, who was close to Schopenhauer, and who, it seems to me, was still a hidden optimist. Nietzsche — with whom I have many disagreements concerning the assessments of sociability. He associated it with the morality of slaves and opposed it to the super-morality associated with anti-sociability. It seems to me that sociability is important for any new ethics or morality. This is a key component which we cannot just leave behind.

An interesting tradition of critical psychoanalysis from the Frankfurt School tried to reinterpret Freud in a critical leftist key. They were the first to formulate the concept of ‘negative psychoanalysis.’ I also have complaints about their work because they replace the call for individual happiness — which all modern positive mainstream psychologists talk about — with a call for public happiness. They have hope for non-individual collective happiness in the end.

SG: How does negative psychoanalysis affect practical psychology?

JR: Negative psychoanalysis, in its original form, mainly criticizes contemporary practical psychology without offering anything practical in return. That is to say that as theorists they offer how not to do it, but do not offer a new form of psychological practice in its place. Negative psychoanalysts contrasts itself with positive psychology. The followers of the Frankfurt School, such as Herbert Marcuse, urge us to temporarily emancipate negative feelings because they offer us the potential for solidarity and social revolution. The problem is that they associate solidarity with happiness. But it seems to me that it is human sorrow that is more connected with solidarity.

I think that our original existential anxiety has a lot to do with sociability. The pain that we feel as individuals is as a rule not caused by the individual fear of death — we cannot be afraid of our death because we have not had such an experience. Fear and pain arise in sociability. Love, affection, resentment toward others, the likelihood of rejection, fear for loved ones — that is what hurts. That is, all good sociability is felt through pain. The basic needs of sociability cannot be perceived as the Frankfurt School suggested: solidarity cannot make anyone happy because it is built upon pain, and this, precisely, is the human tragedy. A tragedy does not happen to a person all by herself, cut off from people, but, on the contrary: attachment is the source of pain. With others it is unbearably difficult for a person — and without them it is far worse.

SG: Is our sociability especially acute now?

JR: I think so. Modern capitalist society is even called the “autistic” society. People are becoming less and less social, the intimacy between them is fading. I think autism can be viewed not so much as an inability to socialize, to communicate normally with people, but rather we are dealing with hypersensitivity. For an autistic person, the other is already too much. As Zapffe said, we get worse and worse as our consciousness develops. It was by becoming so smart that we stopped believing in ideals; it is difficult for us to be with ourselves, unbearable. The need for one another also develops and it becomes painful. On the one hand, we are trying to distance ourselves from one another and at the same time we feel nostalgia for some imagined “real” human connections that existed in the past. I think it is a sign of our hypersensitivity. Detachment and hypersensitivity exist simultaneously, each manifestation intensifying the other. We are nostalgic for something that never existed. I constantly hear people say that nobody communicates in real life anymore, only on the Internet through Messenger, and so on. This assumes that people used to communicate in real life and that it was awesome. This is an illusion. Objectively, communications have intensified due to social networks — nostalgia for something supposedly lost suggests that there is a need for intimacy.

SG: Phantom pains?

JR: …upon which, in principle, sociability rests. It is all painful, with some period of relief in the form of an illusion that finally, somehow, we have found something that we associate with happiness. This condition is very temporary, though we try to prolong it indefinitely. People do not understand how it works: the ideal of love is to get rid of toxicity, as they say now, but the excessive embodiment of this unattainable ideal of intimacy is toxicity.

Now, I think you will ask me what is to be done…

SG: I have another traditional question — where is everything going?

JR: The answer is in the question itself. There is already a hope here that it is possible to determine where we are going and to somehow control this process. Depressive realism also gives us hope that we will at least understand the world we are now in, that it will all be bad. It seems to me that pessimism is our hope. When there is no hope, then it doesn’t matter where we are heading.


Julie Reshe is an anti-positive psychologist and necro-psychotherapist of Ukrainian Gypsy origin. She is a professor at the School of Advanced Studies (SAS) at the University of Tyumen in Siberia, and director of the Institute of Psychoanalysis at the Global Center for Advanced Studies (GCAS). Here, she develops the idea that sadness is human destiny. She is the author of Introduction to Philosophy: The Plasticity of Everyday Life (Moscow: Opustoshitel, 2017).


Duane Rousselle (pictured above) is a Canadian professor of sociological theory and a practicing psychoanalyst who has published numerous books including Real Love: Essays on Psychoanalysis, Religion, Society (Atropos, 2021), Gender, Sexuality and Subjectivity (Routledge, 2020), Jacques Lacan and American Sociology (Palgrave, 2019), and Lacanian Realism (Bloomsbury, 2018).

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, May 2nd, 2021.