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  • Unfulfillable Wishing:Depression in the Gray Zone
  • Erin Trapp (bio)

In her 1966 preface to The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt sums up the changes made to the text since its initial publication in 1950, just three years before Stalin's death.1 These revisions reflect the changing climate in the post-Stalinist Soviet Union, and the widespread phenomenon of a "thaw" in state control in Communist Eastern Europe in the following decade.2 In these remarks, "art" functions as a foil for Arendt; it is the non-totalitarian element that makes perceptible the changing qualities of the totalitarian state. Art, in this context, is not expressive of large-scale social and political change, but registers change which otherwise might not matter. She writes, "This is not to minimize the difference between tyrannical censorship and freedom of the arts, it is only to stress the fact that the difference between a clandestine literature and no literature equals the difference between one and zero" (xxxvii). The difference between "one and zero," the difference between something and nothing, is made perceptible not because of a new "freedom" of expression, but because of a differential change in social regulation, in which censorship is a gray tone on a [End Page 708] sliding scale. Arendt hesitatingly associates this new perceptibility of something non-totalitarian with the "thaw."3

Although Arendt claims that her study is limited to totalitarian states and does not consider their aftermaths, her revisions and additions-which include the more psychological reflections in "Ideology and Terror"-nonetheless reveal how the experience of the aftermath of totalitarianism inspires a phenomenology of sociopolitical emotions and emotional strategies, in particular derealization and depression. Criticism within the radical left of Arendt's theory of totalitarianism-for its conflation of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, for its inability to take into account difference between regimes, and for its replication of the Cold War logic of democracy against all else-has led to a widespread refusal of the very concept of totalitarianism.4 With these revisions and minor additions, however, Arendt is less concerned with defining totalitarianism than with describing what it is like to derealize state ideology. By "derealization" I mean the dissolution of the apparent reality of a social project, which necessarily involves a feeling of estrangement from this reality.5 The experience of unreality involved in [End Page 709] such derealizations, one that Freud describes as "incredulity," is understood by both Freud and contemporary psychology to be a secondary feature of depression. In both psychoanalytic literature and the arts in the GDR, depression is commonly associated with a feeling of the immobility of life under late Socialism.6 The "thaw" is correspondingly characterized by ambivalent phenomenal features-the tentative and unexpected "lifting" of totalitarian control described by Arendt, the tendency towards fluctuation in degree of repression, and the possibility of shifting notions of good and bad in such a period.

In this essay I would like to re-examine the logics of depression and subtle change that have been overlooked by scholarship on the literature of the "thaw," which tends to phrase itself rather in the terms of repression and expression. Depression, I argue, offers a way of thinking alternative to that of repression and expression, unfree-dom and freedom. Rather than being merely an effect of repression, depression offers a logic of its own, through which postwar poets such as Durs Grünbein explore how change may be conceptualized and represented in periods of seeming stasis and in conditions in which oppositions between freedom and unfreedom are inadequate. Grünbein's poetry on what he calls the "gray zone" of East Berlin constitutes a theory of depression, one which finds an echo in post-war psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott's reflections on the Berlin Wall as a figure of self-division. As we will see, in these theories depression is not merely an "ego impoverishment," but a mood that is able to withstand conflict within the ego.7 The defensive functions of depression also include -derealization, a suspension of the reality effect of society that provides cover for tentative readjustments which could never otherwise be achieved. Paradoxically, then, depression may preserve and protect...


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