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Why the left needs melancholy


#1

In the Boston Review, Peter E. Gordon reviews Left-Wing Melancholia: Marxism, History, and Memory by Enzo Traverso, published earlier this year by Columbia University Press. The book confronts the fact that for the left, the past century has been largely a history of defeat and disappointment, leading to a pervasive form of “left-wing melancholia.” But as Gordon observes, Traverso sees this melancholia not as a politically debilitating pathology, but rather as a necessary “point of departure” for the construction of a new utopian vision. Read an excerpt from the review below, or the full text here:

Enzo Traverso, an Italian-born historian at Cornell University, has written the perfect meditation for our melancholy age. His Left-Wing Melancholia: Marxism, History, and Memory is not quite a book so much as it is a set of variations on a theme: namely, that ever since the fall of communism, a culture of defeat has characterized the left’s understanding of political history and theoretical critique. The book does not fasten on a specific argument so much as it wanders through its topics in a melancholy mood, tracing the affect of failure and defeat that pervades leftist culture in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Between Hungary in 1956 and Prague in 1968, much of the intellectual enthusiasm for communist regimes had already dimmed, but the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 served as the final disappointment for many Marxists, as well as for other stalwarts on the left who never quite managed to break their cathexis with official communism. It was not a shattering surprise, but the collapse of Soviet-style communist governments across Eastern Europe brought to an end a romance with communist dictatorship that was never much more than a fantastical projection of Western dreams. Today, Traverso observes, we live in an era that suffers from this “eclipse of utopias.” In the twenty-first century, here and there, the left still finds itself burdened with a sadness it cannot dispel.

Faithful to his melancholy theme, Traverso’s book worries away at its questions without working them through. Nearly all of the chapters have been published before as essays, and though it is not always clear what holds them together, the wandering may be the ideal compositional form for a cultural history that explores left-wing melancholy as an affect born of defeat. A world without utopia, after all, looks not forward but back: it plumbs our cultural memory and fashions for itself (in Pierre Nora’s phrase) “realms of memory.” Traverso’s book explores these realms of defeated utopia in film and in the written word. In one chapter he compares films by Theo Angelopoulos, Ken Loach, Carmen Castillo, Chris Marker, and Gillo Pontecorvo. He holds Pontecorvo, the Italian director of The Battle of Algiers and Burn!, in highest regard, extolling him as “the filmmaker of glorious defeats.” But perhaps the most iconic and most haunting image for left-wing melancholy appears in Angelopoulos’s 1995 film Ulysses’ Gaze, when we watch a dismembered statue of Lenin, bound Gulliver-like with ropes to a barge, drifting slowly down a canal. Lenin’s arm is still raised, though less in triumph than in a kind of quotation of the past, as if the bearded Bolshevik has been demoted to little more than a tour guide who points the way downstream. Not only Lenin, Traverso notes, but all of the symbols of bureaucratic socialism, have become “desacralized.” In their brokenness they stand as “melancholy guards of a defeated utopia.” Traverso is our guide into this realm of shattered dreams, but he emerges from the darkness with an instructive lesson for the political left: melancholy, he claims, may be a necessity.

Image of Lenin’s body via news.berkeley.edu.


#2

Traverso, it is worth reading every word of him. It might be noted that, though Italian born, he writes in French.