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November 9, 2016, was a strange day to walk through the liberal enclave of Cambridge, Massachusetts. At home and on the streets, melancholy was the shared affect, the dull pain after the sudden shock, the heartache for all bleeding hearts. Everyone spoke in the hushed and earnest tones typically heard at a funeral. In 1621, Robert Burton wrote in The Anatomy of Melancholy that “What cannot be cured must be endured.” In November in Cambridge, everybody endured, though nobody knew quite what to do. They knew only that they would spend the next two months awaiting the inevitable, much like the French during the drôle-de-guerre (Phoney War) of 1939-1940, when they could do little more than brace themselves for the German invasion.
Arguing against Walter Benjamin and Wendy Brown, Traverso sees left-wing melancholy as a site of resistance.
Enzo Traverso, an Italian-born historian at Cornell University, has written the perfect meditation for our melancholy age. His Left-Wing Melancholia: Marxism, History, and Memory is not quite a book so much as it is a set of variations on a theme: namely, that ever since the fall of communism, a culture of defeat has characterized the left’s understanding of political history and theoretical critique. The book does not fasten on a specific argument so much as it wanders through its topics in a melancholy mood, tracing the affect of failure and defeat that pervades leftist culture in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Between Hungary in 1956 and Prague in 1968, much of the intellectual enthusiasm for communist regimes had already dimmed, but the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 served as the final disappointment for many Marxists, as well as for other stalwarts on the left who never quite managed to break their cathexis with official communism. It was not a shattering surprise, but the collapse of Soviet-style communist governments across Eastern Europe brought to an end a romance with communist dictatorship that was never much more than a fantastical projection of Western dreams. Today, Traverso observes, we live in an era that suffers from this “eclipse of utopias.” In the twenty-first century, here and there, the left still finds itself burdened with a sadness it cannot dispel.
Faithful to his melancholy theme, Traverso’s book worries away at its questions without working them through. Nearly all of the chapters have been published before as essays, and though it is not always clear what holds them together, the wandering may be the ideal compositional form for a cultural history that explores left-wing melancholy as an affect born of defeat. A world without utopia, after all, looks not forward but back: it plumbs our cultural memory and fashions for itself (in Pierre Nora’s phrase) “realms of memory.” Traverso’s book explores these realms of defeated utopia in film and in the written word. In one chapter he compares films by Theo Angelopoulos, Ken Loach, Carmen Castillo, Chris Marker, and Gillo Pontecorvo. He holds Pontecorvo, the Italian director of The Battle of Algiers and Burn!, in highest regard, extolling him as “the filmmaker of glorious defeats.” But perhaps the most iconic and most haunting image for left-wing melancholy appears in Angelopoulos’s 1995 film Ulysses’ Gaze, when we watch a dismembered statue of Lenin, bound Gulliver-like with ropes to a barge, drifting slowly down a canal. Lenin’s arm is still raised, though less in triumph than in a kind of quotation of the past, as if the bearded Bolshevik has been demoted to little more than a tour guide who points the way downstream. Not only Lenin, Traverso notes, but all of the symbols of bureaucratic socialism, have become “desacralized.” In their brokenness they stand as “melancholy guards of a defeated utopia.” Traverso is our guide into this realm of shattered dreams, but he emerges from the darkness with an instructive lesson for the political left: melancholy, he claims, may be a necessity.
• • •
“Left-wing melancholy” was once the title of a review essay that Walter Benjamin wrote in 1931 for the feuilleton section of the German newspaper Die Gesellschaft. It was occasioned by the publication of a new collection of poems by Erich Kästner, the novelist and poet whose works have now faded from memory, except perhaps for the children’s adventure, Emil and the Detectives.
A world without utopia looks not forward but back.
To say that Benjamin did not take a shine to Kästner’s poetry would be an understatement. This was an execution disguised as a book-review. He lumped Kästner alongside other “left radical publicists” such as Walter Mehring and Kurt Tucholsky, whose writing he condemned as “the decayed bourgeoisie’s mimicry of the proletariat.” They belonged “not to schools but to fashions,” they formed not parties but cliques. Partisans of an ill-defined left, they were in Benjamin’s verdict chiefly aesthetes, drawn first to Expressionism, then to the New Objectivity. In their work the concrete business of politics became an empty gesture, a “clenched fist in papier mâché.” Spitting venom, Benjamin described Kästner as the poet to an intellectual elite for whom politics became a “know-all irony” bereft of genuine feeling. “What is left,” he wrote, “is the empty spaces where, in dusty heart-shaped velvet trays, the feelings—nature and love, enthusiasm and humanity—once rested. Now the hollow forms are absentmindedly caressed.”
That was 1931, when financial crisis and party radicalization on both the left and the right were edging the Weimar Republic toward catastrophe. The stakes were high, and not wholly dissimilar to today’s political climate. Indeed, as the political theorist Wendy Brown has argued, left-wing melancholy was Benjamin’s name for a “conservative, backward-looking attachment” that becomes “thinglike and frozen in the heart of the putative leftist.” For Brown this condemnation is decisive. After such a great series of disappointments and defeats—Reaganism and Thatcherism, neoliberalism and Trumpism—she fears that the left could once again lapse into a kind of malaise where it would become “more attached to its impossibility than to its potential fruitfulness.” A left that remains caught in a “melancholic attachment to a certain strain of its own dead past” cannot work through this past for the sake of present action. The result, Brown claims, is a paradoxical stance of left-traditionalism: it abandons the project of social transformation, and it shuts down the task of imagining new forms of political agency that would look not backward but forward with (in Brown’s words) “visionary spirit.” In politics, a pivotal moment arrives that demands not irony but action.
This is a bracing argument. With the benefit of hindsight, it is especially tempting to praise Benjamin for his clairvoyant verdict on the indulgences of the bourgeois intelligentsia. But Traverso asks us to pause and consider the limits of this perspective. Wasn’t Benjamin just a tad too comfortable in his outrage? Does militancy leave no room for melancholy? Is it possible that action and irony, conviction and doubt, might somehow coexist in a single soul?
Among the more interesting claims of Traverso’s book is that Brown (and Benjamin) may be mistaken. The purported “conservatism” of left-wing melancholy, Traverso suggests, could also be seen as “a form of resistance,” since it discourages us from rushing to reestablish an untroubled bond with political reality. From this point of view, melancholy can help us to recall the utopian ideals that the world has dashed. It can even restrain us from “identification with the enemy.” Traverso urges us to “depathologize” melancholy, to see it not as an alternative to mourning but as its point of departure. It is a “necessary premise” that “precedes and allows mourning” rather than leading the political subject into a state of permanent abjection.
One difficulty with Traverso’s book is that it never quite brings this promising suggestion to a well-rounded conclusion. Its various chapters are rich with cultural-historical insight—especially appealing is the meditation on the politics of “bohemia,” the nineteenth-century dream of artistic freedom that captured the imagination of poets and painters and musicians from Baudelaire to Puccini. As Traverso shows, bohemia was not always the island of left-wing utopia beloved in popular memory. It could also serve as the incubator for political reaction, a home for literary fascists such as Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Robert Brasillach, and Gottfried Benn. Fascinating as such chapters may be, it is not always clear how they relate to a theoretical defense of left-melancholy.
Political conviction must be tinged with regret, and ambition with sorrow for the failures of the past. The transformation of the world can never be anything more than a “melancholic bet.”
A certain frustration will arise, for example, for readers who expect new insight into the published correspondence between Theodor Adorno and Benjamin (the topic of the sixth chapter). It is a commonplace of modern criticism to see Benjamin as the more militant thinker, a friend to Bertolt Brecht who embraced the political possibilities of modern art-forms such as photography and film. Surprisingly, Traverso suggests we should read their correspondence as a dialogue between “two different forms of left melancholy.” But, without careful analysis, such claims gain little traction. Here we confront many of the now-familiar and imprecise views about Adorno as a theorist whose Marxism was “purely aesthetic,” who “rejected any idea of political commitment” and “withdrew into a form of resigned romanticism.” This is an unfortunate cliché about Adorno that seems to persist notwithstanding his efforts in postwar Germany to promote the shared task of public self-scrutiny that he called “working through the past.”
Although Traverso’s defense of left-wing melancholy never turns into a real argument, it remains a suggestive aperçu, and it is one that merits our attention today. Emotions may have a history, but left-wing melancholy cannot be confined to a particular time or place. It is our affliction as well.
• • •
In his 1917 essay “Mourning and Melancholia,” Freud described melancholy as a state of “painful dejection” leading to a loss of interest in the outside world. The melancholic has lost not only the love-object itself but also the ability to love. He gives in to feelings of self-reproach and even self-hatred. Whereas mourning is a necessary and “normal” stage in the process of “working through,” melancholia remains pathologically fixed on the lost object. “In mourning,” Freud writes, “it is the world that has become poor and empty; in melancholia it is the ego itself.”
In Freud’s essay, one already finds the consequential contrast between illness and health, where mourning is assigned all of the appealing qualities of a radiant normality and melancholia assumes the distorted features of a psychological disease. We are plunged here into the language of therapeutics that seeks to “cure” anyone who exhibits the wrong sorts of conduct or the wrong sorts of desire: for Freud the symptoms of psychopathology are arranged on a single continuum that moves from the modest to the alarming—from the refusal to talk or eat all the way to the refusal to have sex with someone with the proper genitalia. Somewhere along this spectrum, we find the poor creature who is stricken with melancholia and just refuses to budge. He does not see mourning as a stage; he has turned it into a lifestyle.
But all of this talk imposes on the diversity of human affect a set of norms that assume “health” as the final prize. To the person who remains fixed on a past trauma and simply cannot get on with the business of life, the demand that he stop indulging in feelings of loss will come as another psychological blow. From the authoritative Freudian verdict on mourning as healthy and melancholia as disease, it takes only a few short steps to our own emotionally sanitized culture, in which even a momentary lapse into sadness becomes an occasion for psychopharmacological intervention.
Does militancy leave no room for melancholy?
If we pause to consider what it has meant in the past for political regimes to mobilize the distinction between the normal and the pathological, we confront the unsettling fact that this distinction has nearly always been used against the weak, the infirm, and the “abnormal.” For example, in her recent book Cold War Freud: Psychoanalysis in an Age of Catastrophes, Dagmar Herzog shows how the West German government enlisted army psychiatrists to diagnose camp-survivors for a long list of symptoms that included “debilitating insomnia, nightmares, chronic melancholia, fears, fixations, disabling psychosomatic pains, difficulty concentrating, or crippling apathy.” The government used its diagnostics to evade legal responsibility for the victims’ complaints: survivors, it was said, suffered either from preexisting pathologies or from the challenges of postcamp existence, not from the actual trauma of the camps. The lesson here should not be exaggerated: we are not all the victims of fascist persecution. But the way in which metrics of psychological normality can be deployed as a defense against genuine pain should serve as a cautionary tale regarding all efforts to dismiss melancholia as merely a pathological infirmity.
Revolutionary Marxism itself, we should admit, all too often succumbed to the temptation to extol the strength of the mind and the health of the body. Once in power, it behaved no better than its enemies; it jutted out its chin and thumped its chest and organized parades to its own magnificence. The record of Stalinist collectivization alone should suffice to disabuse the left of any belief in its own innocence. But Stalin’s personalist brand of authoritarian rule and the bureaucratic collectivism that followed in his wake were never the paradigm for a genuinely emancipatory politics. The question today is not whether the political left must finally stop mourning for the collapse of communism but whether it can survive at all if it continues to make a fetish of its own militancy.
• • •
In the days following the American election, the victors grew increasingly irritated with the left’s refusal to concede defeat. The Women’s March that took place on January 21st just after the Presidential inauguration was the largest single-day political demonstration in U.S. history, bringing more than three million protesters into parks and streets across the United States. The mood was not deflated but celebratory. Those pink pussy-cat hats turned Trump’s boorishness against him in a spirit of carnivalesque mockery.
These days, people are protesting less; the playful mood has given way to a grim acknowledgement of gathering damage. To the newly installed leader and his partisans on the right, the upsurge in popular dissent came as a narcissistic wound, and they condensed their response into three angry words: “Get over it.” But it’s clear that nobody is going to get over it any time soon. We live not in the aftermath of communism, but at the beginning phase of political reaction in both Europe and North America resulting in the emergence of melancholia as the governing affect on the political left. This is not an emotion that will easily fade away—no amount of organizing can make up for the enduring feeling of a loss that is deeper than any election. Leave it to the forces of reaction to boast of their strength. For the left, it will be crucial to hold fast to the virtues of irony and detachment—notwithstanding the imperatives of political action.
The animating theme of Traverso’s book is that political conviction must be tinged with regret, and ambition with sorrow for the failures of the past. The transformation of the world, he suggests, drawing on the words of Daniel Bensaïd, can never be anything more than a “melancholic bet.” We do not know what such a transformation would look like, or how it might be distinguished from the travesties of the twentieth century that were leftist only in name. We know only that such a politics would have to remain radically open to a future beyond the certitudes of any program or script. It would need to hold fast not to the dream of a revolution triumphant, but to the memory of those who have suffered most whenever triumph becomes the highest standard of political action.
Many readers may feel perplexed at Traverso’s persistent attachment to the ideal of communism when the actual record of Soviet-bloc party-dictatorship was “left-wing” only in name. (You don’t mourn a regime that murdered millions; you cheer its demise.) Between political reality and political aspiration, however, there is always a kind of wound. Every ideal, no matter how inspiring, carries with it a feeling of sadness at how far the world falls short, and melancholia is nothing but the name for the space between.
In this sense, Traverso may well be right. It may be that the melancholic’s feelings of doubt and disappointment can never be wholly eliminated from our political life, since disappointment is the other side of action: the one is a spur to the other. But psychoanalysis may proffer an even deeper lesson. Although Freud distinguished mourning from melancholia, he also knew that the self can never achieve more than partial happiness, since the “impoverishment of the ego” is not an affliction but an accurate portrait of our all-too-human vulnerability. Melancholia, one could say, is not a mere pathology or a mood, it is constitutive of human life. The political left has often wrestled with itself to grasp this point—that solidarity lies not in unflinching strength but in the common experience of our own fragility. In the face of so much suffering and injustice, the melancholic’s refusal to move on with business as usual already bears within itself a kind of resistance, a recognition that all is not right in the world and that something must be done.
Peter E. Gordon is the Amabel B. James Professor of History at Harvard University and Faculty Affiliate in the Department of Philosophy. His most recent book is Migrants in the Profane: Critical Theory and the Question of Secularization (November 2020).
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