- Romanticism and the Poetics of Political Despair
Christmas, the day after, in 2004, following the presidential re-election of George W. Bush.
I am staring out of the window in an extremely dark mood, feeling helpless. Then a friend, a fellow artist, calls to wish me happy holidays. He asks, "How are you?" And instead of "Oh, fine—and you?", I blurt out the truth: "Not well. Not only am I depressed, I can't seem to work, to write; it's as though I am paralyzed, unable to write anything more in the novel I've begun. I've never felt this way before, but the election. …" I am about to explain with further detail when he interrupts, shouting: "No! No, no, no! This is precisely the time when artists go to work—not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. That's our job!"—Toni Morrison, "No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear" (2015)1
It's early 2015. As Toni Morrison begins to compose an essay that would appear in the 150th Anniversary Issue of The Nation, at the front of a section dedicated to "Radical Futures" and "strategies for keeping hope alive," she recalls the despair she felt about a decade prior, after George W. Bush won a second term as president of the United States. And then she recalls her friend's timely utterance. Although his words initially made her feel "foolish"—so many artists, she goes on to note, have worked in much darker times without giving in to despair—the intervention was salutary, the message inspirational. She was able to get back to work. Proceeding, then, to offer her reflections on the "bruised and bleeding" world of 2015, Morrison returns, in conclusion, to her friend's lesson, which she reiterates and expands, merging his voice with her own: "None of this bodes well for the future. Still, I remember the shout of my friend that day after Christmas: No! This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal."2 [End Page 967]
Flip forward two years. Donald Trump has been elected president of the United States. In the months that follow, artists and celebrities recall and quote the concluding passage of Morrison's essay on awards shows and social media.3 Their followers re-tweet it en masse. Needless to say, they all find its message to be positive, a source of hope and inspiration in dark times. No one seems to notice that, in fact, the passage is rather negative. After all, it begins with an exclamatory "No!" and leads on to four more anaphoric negations that dictate how an artist should—or rather should not—respond emotionally to such times. Of course, Morrison intends to encourage artists to speak and to write, to urge them not to fall into political quietism. "In times of dread," the subtitle to her essay reads, "artists must never choose to remain silent." The piece is a call to action, and feelings of despair can be artistically debilitating, as Morrison details. But then are such feelings necessarily antithetical to working with language and literature? And what would happen if they were not so quickly resisted as soon as they began to touch upon the political realities from which they stem? What possibilities might emerge if there were time for despair?
Such questions are at once opened and closed by the initial shout of Morrison's friend, which, at second glance, is less therapeutic than repressive. Notably, it's only when Morrison begins to link her dark feelings to politics that this fellow artist interrupts her with a prohibitive "No!" Despair is fine, it would seem, so long as it isn't directed toward the political. The affective space in which Morrison found herself after Bush's reelection was new to her ("I've never felt this way before"), yet this male friend shuts it down before she has a chance to say anything more about its contours ("I...