While in 1931 Walter Benjamin ridiculed for its “despair,” “fatalism,” and “complacency” a certain “Left Melancholy,” which he detected in the poetry of his time, he cultivated a very special interest in melancholy as a philosophical project on which he worked extensively, especially in the years 1916-25. This interest coincided with explorations of melancholy and mood by thinkers like Freud, Panofsky, and Heidegger whose views may be compared with intriguing results, as shown for example by the probing work of philosopher Ilit Ferber which focuses on melancholy as attunement/Stimmung, perhaps something that works like this:
Following the loss of a beloved object (which may be a person, ideal, job, country, etc.) the world feels empty as the attachment with the lost object has been shattered. Freud distinguished two possible reactions to the loss, a normal and a pathological one, which represent different attitudes to the world.
One reaction is mourning/Trauer, a normal condition whereby the ego gives up the object by declaring it dead, overcomes its loss/death, and becomes free again. “In other words, the cutting of the strands of attachment is dictated by the voice of reality, so that the work of mourning is directed towards life and life-energy. This is the point in which the principle of life takes over and directs the mourner to focus himself on the important work of detachment and uninhibited life. The aim of the process of detachment has thus, nothing to do with the object itself, but with the subject which has to be freed from it. The object here is only a problem that we should push aside in order for reality to prevail. ‘Mourning impels the ego,’ Freud writes, ‘to give up the object by declaring the object to be dead and offering the ego the inducement of continuing to live’ (Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia,” p. 256) (Ilit Ferber, “Melancholy Philosophy: Freud and Benjamin,” E-rea 4.1, 2006, p. 14).
The other reaction to the loss is melancholy. The melancholic cannot overcome the loss by mourning it and keeps longing for the object and reliving it. He identifies with the loved and lost object and replaces it from within through interior projection, allowing the affective attachment to live on. He internalizes the lost object as a way of refusing to let the loss go. The complex of melancholy acts like an open wound. “Both Freud’s mourner and melancholic begin with a basic denial of their loss and an unwillingness to recognize it. But soon enough, the mourner, who is reacting in a non-pathological manner, recognizes and responds to the call of reality, to let go of the lost-loved object and liberate libidinal desire. This is the point of divergence with the melancholic who remains sunken in his loss, unable to acknowledge and accept the need to cleave and in a self-destructive loyalty to the lost object, internalizes it into his ego, thus furthermore circumscribing the conflict related to the loss. The lost object continues to exist, but as part of the dejected subject ” (1).*
For Benjamin, however, melancholy is neither a pathological condition, as Freud suggested, nor a solipsistic exercise of bourgeois self-indulgence, like the Left Lyricism he attacked. Melancholy is not a personal problem in need of cure but a historical one that pertains to the historicity (specifically, modernity) of one’s subjectivity. In his book on the mourning play/Trauerspiel, he “combines melancholy and its deep acknowledgement and responsibility towards loss, together with work — and more specifically with philosophical work. Thereupon, Benjamin does not view work as what should be directed towards a detachment from the object, aimed at rendering it absent, so that the subject will be become free again. Rather, work is aimed at presenting the object, giving it a voice and consequently redeeming it.  The object will not be disposed of but presented and given a voice, and thus saved.  In other words, the work Benjamin is proposing is that of rendering the object present, and not absent (as the mourner does). It is a work that lacks neither the pathology of melancholia, nor the normality of mourning — it is a sad work, in that it is still, almost heavy, lacking the libidinal-life energy, which makes melancholy so destructive, and mourning so easily parting” (15). A congealed “significance is attainted by retaining the loss, rather than by overcoming it” (18). Ferber argues that in his revision of Freud Benjamin introduced the potential of attunement between humanity and world in which beings themselves are disclosed as their subjectivist enclosures are broken. This kind of melancholic mood is comparable to Heidegger’s Grundstimmung/fundamental attunement which “opens Dasein to the world” (Ferber: “Stimmung” in Benjamin and Vardoulakis, eds.: Sparks will Fly: Benjamin and Heidegger, 2015, p. 74). The attunement of melancholy from the cry of suffering to the language of music redeems the lost object through its very fidelity to the loss. “Benjamin combines melancholy, with its deep acknowledgement and responsibility for loss and the mourner’s work by turning the latter into philosophical work” (Ferber, Philosophy and Melancholy: Benjamin’s Early Reflections on Theater and Language, 2013, p. 61).
Jonathan Flatley too has drawn on the Heideggerian Stimmung/attunement: “Affective mapping” is the name he gives to “the aesthetic technology – in the older, more basic sense of a techne – that represents the historicity of one’s affective experience.” In addition to giving one “a new sense of one’s relationship to broad historical forces” it also “shows one how one’ situation is experienced collectively by a community, a heretofore unarticulated community of melancholics.  I propose that we understand the task of turning one’s melancholia into a mode of vital connection with the world as changing one’s ‘mood’” (Affective Mapping: Melancholia and the Politics of Modernism, 2008, pp. 4-5).
Recently Benjamin’s “Left Melancholy” has been used to criticize the loss of a political goal or ideal that results in a stylized defeatism, aesthetic pessimism, and denunciation of action. Note, for example, the post-revolutionary turn of Left thinking to notions of loss: memory, trauma, victimization, genocide, displacement, the wound of history, and the like: What kind of attitude and conduct does it indicate – ethical, lyrical, negativist, narcissistic, skeptical or other? Wendy Brown blames conventional (economistic, deterministic, totalizing, teleological) methods of critical theory for the Left sense of loss. Expanding on Brown, Elisabeth Anker discerns a kind of theoretical melancholia: “‘Left melodrama’ is a form of contemporary political critique that combines thematic elements and narrative structures of the melodramatic genre with a political perspective grounded in a left theoretical tradition, fusing them to dramatically interrogate oppressive social structures and unequal relations of power. It is also a new form of what Walter Benjamin called ‘left melancholy’, a critique that deadens what it examines by employing outdated and insufficient analyses to current exploitations. Left melodrama is melancholic insofar as its use of older leftist critical methods disavows its attachments to the failed promises of left political-theoretical critique: that it could provide direct means to freedom and moral rightness” (Anker, “Left Melodrama,” Contemporary Political Theory 11:2, 2012, 130).
If Left Melancholy is understood in a framework of regret and renunciation repenting for the “sins of youth,” then it certainly deserves to be both scorned and scorched. But if its eclipse of hope is viewed as the loss of confidence in messianism and deferral, in the revolutionary “not yet” and “not ours,” then emphasis shifts from the imminent to the immanent, and the notion becomes productive. The exemplary collaborative and public work of the Greek Generation of the 2000s on Left Melancholy shows that the ethics of this political disposition may be driven by refusal, not resignation; defiance, not defeat; rage, not retreat. It can inspire autonomist disengagement and lead to a recasting of the theory-praxis dialectic in the institutions of the common understood as music making.
* For example, when it comes to our friendship, there has been a radical divergence of attitudes between my “other self,” Pantelis Polychronidis, the mourner, and me, the melancholic.
November 20, 2015