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Social Text 19.1 (2001) 75-102
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Moscow and Melancholia
Whether I achieve the secondary purpose of my journey-- to escape the deadly melancholy of the Christmas season--remains to be seen.
--Walter Benjamin, Moscow Diary, 20 December
Paris changes, but nothing of my melancholy
Gives way. Foundations, scaffoldings, tackle and blocks,
And the old suburbs drift off into allegory,
While my frailest memories take on the weight of rocks.
--Charles Baudelaire, "Le Cygne" (The swan, trans. Anthony Hecht)
By definition, departures involve loss. For that reason, it makes sense that they are frequently colored by melancholia, if by melancholia we mean a potentially depressing preoccupation with absence and loss. This melancholy of departure acquires some of its emotional specificity from the fact that departure offers to memory a relatively clear image of loss: one can say to oneself, "At this particular moment in this particular place, I lost these things." This is a luxury, for usually losses are messier, more gradual, harder to pin down in place and time. As time goes on, the image of departure can gain additional attraction because, like a coin, it can be turned over and its obverse can be seen: the image of returning to the place that was left and thereby regaining what was lost. In the world of one's emotions, the idea of returning to a place can easily become conflated with the return to an earlier moment in time. [End Page 84]
Perhaps this mismatch between the logic of emotion and the workings of time helps to explain why that moment of return does not necessarily close the melancholic circuit that has been opened but, on the contrary, often intensifies it. The fact is that sometimes returns can be even more melancholy than departures, in at least a couple of ways. On the one hand, if nothing has changed upon your return, all the changes that have happened in your life--your loves and losses and new jobs and purchases and travels--seem diminished inasmuch as they are in no way registered or indexed by your material surroundings. This lack of recognition and reflection in your physical surroundings can leave you feeling a bit ghostly [End Page 75] (were all those changes in my life unreal?). On the other hand, returning to a place that has changed quite dramatically has its own spectral character. Precisely at the moment of seeing how a place has changed, you realize that the place you knew and to which you were attached no longer exists. Now, the older place exists only in your memory, and this fact, as in the Baudelaire poem above, gives your memories an extra heft; they feel weighty, like rocks.
I experienced this second sort of return when I returned after a four-year absence to a dramatically changed Moscow in the summer of 1997. There were so many advertisements, billboards, fancy stores, ATM machines (Bankomats; see Figure 1), and other aggressive signs that Capital Had Arrived that it was hard to imagine that this was once the place where there were hardly any commodity fetishes (in fact there was hardly anything to buy at all) and where it was against the law to have dollars in one's possession. In addition, the architectural face of the city was changing: new buildings and statues had appeared throughout the city, evidence that the construction that seemed to be everywhere where there was not something new was actually being completed. The city did seem rather allegorical, in Baudelaire's melancholy sense--signifying at every turn what had been lost. However, it occurred to me that this awareness of unrecoverable loss, melancholic as it is, need not be depressing. It was not depressing because I had the feeling that I was witnessing the movement [End Page 76] of History--in particular, the forceful advance of Capital--a movement that I was experiencing not abstractly at all but in my very own subjective experience of loss. Whatever my feelings about said historical developments, this awareness gave my personal life (the loves and losses and jobs and purchases...