1. The Night is Dark and Full of Terrors
“As a fact, we cannot give suffering precedence in either our individual or collective lives. We have to get on with things, and those who give precedence to suffering will be left behind. They fetter us with their sniveling. We have someplace to go and must believe we can get there, wherever that may be. And to conceive that there is a ‘brotherhood of suffering between everything alive’ would disable us from getting anywhere. We are preoccupied with the good life, and step by step are working toward a better life. What we do, as a conscious species, is set markers for ourselves. Once we reach one marker, we advance to the next — as if we were playing a board game we think will never end, despite the fact that it will, like it or not. And if you are too conscious of not liking it, then you may conceive of yourself as a biological paradox that cannot live with its consciousness and cannot live without it.”
― Thomas Ligott,The Conspiracy Against the Human Race
I sat down to write a primer on value theory, and I couldn’t. The haze of listlessness set in. While I have always found the intersection of economics and values to the crux of so much of the ephermal structure of the larger world, it just didn’t seem to matter at the moment. Depression and tragedy are like a book of chiaroscuro, the edges of reality are clearer and have more distinction, but it’s qualia–it’s particular hue and value–are washed out and gone. The sepia tone life makes judgement easier, and if we are honest, more accurate until we too forget what color was and in the forgetting everything starts to blur.
Negativity is necessary. It is a gift, and in bleakest moments one can see that it is knife to cut all away lies and bullshit, but one can hack too hard and too deep. Depressives do this. To continue the metaphor: the clarity of the negative, of its constrast, when undisciplined by illness and its haze, it is easy to cut not only lies away but truths. For the chiaroscuro of the sepia and gray to wash out into a haze where one does not know where and for what one is cutting.
Depression has plagued me many times in my life. Not the idle depression that is confused with sadness, not the manic depression of bipolar in which one’s neuro-chemistry plays a particularly cruel joke of the alternating between no color and entirely too much. No, the clarity of negativity–the negation that enables to me see without too much cynicism–if I am honest, comes from being functionally depressive. In that way, I am the cliche of both the poet and the leftist–different in being driven my analytic thinking but the same in that my emotional understanding comes out of the chairoscuro I am describing. I have been told I have a gift for mapping pain, and also wanting to aid in ending pain. This gift is the one upside to lacking enough sarotin or whatever mild brain dysfunction has meant that I feel emotions differently. Sometimes in a such a way that “I” don’t see the “me” in my own life.
Yet, the reason why I couldn’t work on my primer today is not “my depression.” As many things in neurochemistry mixed with people of the same class, enviroment, and emotional ressonances, my family–both immediate and not–tends to be depressive. My intelligence helps me out in this and the fact that I have been lucky. I have traveled the world: I have a support group, comrades, my partner, my poetry. While I can’t go into specifics and I won’t name him, one of my brothers has suffered from a much more accute form of depression. He is currently in a coma. I do not live anywhere near my family–not even in the same country, and I have tried to understand my own emotions as to where he is at and how he got there.
What is interesting is that I tried to pantomine the anger most people feel about these things–I am not angry and couldn’t muster it. I have mapped some of the same passages as he has, and I know how little control one must feel. If there is anything to hold anyone accountable for, it is not depression. It is the way depression can lead the solipsism. That listless feeling when that depression isn’t turned towards something which isn’t itself, and falls into its own greying internal wastes.
That this will manifest in subtle and not subtle self-violence and general violence is unsurprisng. Violence underpins much of our lives as does negotiating its sublimation. It is clear this is the violence of stasis, the fact that if we as living beings are naturally motion the sheer weight of stopping can do harm.
In that sense, the night is dark and full of terrors, as the G.R.R. Martin cliche goes. We can spin those pains into something, we can act to redeem them in strenght and discipline, but that does not mean they are not there. For the depressive or bipolar, this is doubly true, our view is rooted in a chemistry that can seem crushing in a way that makes this oppressive and can seem apocalyptic. One can feel as if one is watching history weight down on them. We often find solace in work in the hope that work changes us–it sets our class, our ability, our route memory, our muscle memory.
It is ironic that I who advocate for the abolition of certain kinds of labor know that labor is a solace and a way to being. My alienation from that labor may pain me, but the labor is enough to keep me moving, and like the old myth about the shark, if I a move, I continue to breathe and I know the haze will lift.
II. The Angel of History
“Melancholy betrays the world for the sake of knowledge. But in its tenacious self-absorption it embraces dead objects in contemplation, in order to redeem them.” – Walter Benjamin
It is beyond this space and in abstraction where the infamous “left” meloncholia sets in. While in the individual it may well be a neuro-chemical phenoma, it is structural and have to avoid in the communal sense. The same heightened awareness of edges emerges, but also with the impulse that the pain was somehow redeemable… avoidable. One moves from the paralysis described by Allie Brosh to the mind-numbing committed imploding on itself on sees in Benjamin himself as well as Guy Debord.
What is this left meloncholia and has is it different from the overwhelming sepia of the depressive. Benjamin Noys may have defined its parameters in the terms of the ultra-left already. The subsumption of daily life in terms of capital and in terms of the state both horizantally and vertically leaves one with little but unhappy-making thoughts. While someone like Louis Proyect may say something incredibly vapid like, “My Rx for combating melancholia is victories, no matter how minor, against the bourgeoisie. “ The real conditions are harder and as things are subsumed into the larger system of capital production, it has harder to know what an actual small victory would be. Noy’s essay, while given to theoretical verbage, does admit to frame this:
There is, in this dialectics of mourning and melancholy (which are not distinguished along the lines Freud had made famous ), a politics that works on and with the feelings of detachment and disgust with the ‘empty world’. Benjamin notes that: ‘Melancholy betrays the world for the sake of knowledge. But in its tenacious self-absorption it embraces dead objects in contemplation, in order to redeem them.’ Now, knowledge is prioritised over the worldly and action (what we could call the ‘Hamlet-complex’), but this self-absorbed and disabused stance transforms contemplation into the act of ‘embrace’ and the promised of redemption. We could recall here Benjamin and Adorno’s later reflections on the transit through the ‘dead’ or hostile bourgeois ‘object-world’, as the site of intervention and resistance. The melancholic moves away, detaches themselves from the world, in the usual clichés of distancing and abandonment, but is also in the world, immersed in the destructive element of dead objects and creaturely life.
So this mirrors the depressive in that in turning in from itself, it also turns against the “object-world” and thus the social world. While strategically or tactically this may be useful for insight, to be engaged in this meloncholia for too long is a politics of awares that leads to nihilism, but also mirroring depression, if not control, it is ultimately completely destructive.
So avoiding leftist meloncholia is key, but its not subtle victories that avoids it. It understand one’s relationship to the social world. Optistism of the will is to continue working towards something, towards a context, but a context that is more than likely tragic in the main. The difference between this and the depressive is that one is the result of kind of living and thus altered, and the other a condition of being which can be adjusted to and in adjusting there is the chance of alternation.
3 thoughts on “The color out of mind: On depression, on “leftist” meloncholia, and on the difference”
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I view left melancholia as the result of a deprevation of a need — the need for power. We attach ourselves to certain propositions or states of affairs, and in terms of left politics, those states of affairs seem incredibly unattainable in light of our current circumstances.
I don’t know if that’s just saying the same thing in a different way, but I thought I’d share it. I think it’s an important thing to prevent, if we are practical persons. Melancholia is the sort of thing I think I could prevent — if someone is depressive, then I don’t believe I can prevent it, because I don’t think depression is the result of mere misguided attachment and disappointment, but more along the lines that you have said, that it’s more like a state of being which maybe you can accomodate yourself to, but can’t really change.
We agree. Although I am going to flesh out some more on depression and melancholia and the overlap.