- Resisting Left Melancholy
In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it. . . . Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins.—Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,”
in Illuminations: Walter Benjamin, Essays, and Reflections
For the last two decades, cultural theorist Stuart Hall has insisted that the “crisis of the Left” is due neither to internal divisions in the activist or academic Left nor to the clever rhetoric or funding schemes of the Right. Rather, he has charged, this ascendancy is consequent to the Left’s own failure to apprehend the character of the age and to develop a political critique and a moral-political vision appropriate to this character. For Hall, the rise of the Thatcher-Reagan Right was a symptom rather than a cause of this failure, just as the Left’s dismissive or suspicious attitude toward [End Page 19] cultural politics is for Hall a sign not of its unwavering principles but of its anachronistic habits of thought and its fears and anxieties about revising those habits.
But what is the content and dynamic of these fears and anxieties? How would we begin to plumb these? Impossible to explore exhaustively in these few pages, I want to consider just one dimension of them, a dimension that many decades earlier Walter Benjamin termed “left melancholy.” As most readers will know, Benjamin was neither categorically nor characterologically opposed to the value and valence of sadness as such, nor to the potential insights gleaned from brooding over one’s losses. Indeed, he had a well-developed appreciation of the productive value of acedia, sadness, and mourning for political and cultural work, and in his study of Charles Baudelaire, Benjamin treated melancholia itself as something of a creative wellspring. But left melancholy is Benjamin’s unambivalent epithet for the revolutionary hack who is, finally, attached more to a particular political analysis or ideal—even to the failure of that ideal—than to seizing possibilities for radical change in the present. In Benjamin’s enigmatic insistence on the political value of a dialectical historical grasp of “the time of the Now,” left melancholy represents not only a refusal to come to terms with the particular character of the present, that is, a failure to understand history in terms other than “empty time” or “progress.” It signifies, as well, a certain narcissism with regard to one’s past political attachments and identity that exceeds any contemporary investment in political mobilization, alliance, or transformation.1
The irony of melancholia, of course, is that attachment to the object of one’s sorrowful loss supersedes any desire to recover from this loss, to live free of it in the present, to be unburdened by it. This is what renders melancholia a persistent condition, a state, indeed, a structure of desire, rather than a transient response to death or loss. In Freud’s 1917 meditation on melancholia, he reminds us of a second singular feature of melancholia: It entails “a loss of a more ideal kind [than mourning]. The object has not perhaps actually died, but has been lost as an object of love.” Moreover, Freud suggests, the melancholic subject will often not know precisely what about the object has been loved and lost—“this would suggest that melancholia [End Page 20] is in some way related to an object-loss which is withdrawn from consciousness, in contradistinction to mourning, in which there is nothing about the loss that is unconscious.”2 The loss precipitating melancholia is more often than not unavowed and unavowable. Finally, Freud suggests that the melancholic subject—low in self-regard, despairing, even suicidal—has shifted the reproach of the once loved object (a reproach waged for not living up to the idealization by the beloved) onto itself, thus preserving the love or idealization of the object even as the loss of this love is experienced in the suffering of the melancholic.
Now why would Benjamin use this term, and...