So now I begin to understand this political idea of mourning, or more specifically “left mourning.” It’s not really different from James Willard Schultz’ lament about the dispersal of the Old West and the buffalo days, except that this time the term is meant to be a prescription rather than a celebration. That is, the real message is “get over it.” LEAVE mourning. First, REALLY mourn, which means define exactly what it is you grieve for, as honestly as you can, without sentiment. Then accept the pain and finality of it, and let it go. Don’t hang on, making a fetish, a monument, a national holiday, when inevitably the passage of time erases all ideal paradises and even stone mausoleums. Make way for the future.
The Old West has been preserved in a thousand ways, all conveniently commodifiable as stories, art, ghost towns, museums, paraphernalia and conferences. The open range lasted only decades, yet there are still people all over the planet who believe huge cattle herds are still moved on their own hooves and Indians still camp in circles of tipis. You can make a living becoming expert on chaps, spurs, barbed wire. A certain kind of person, usually white and male, justifies privilege on the back of the Old West.
But rather, this specific critique seems aimed at the classic Lefties, the educated Europeans who barely escaped the holocaust and took refuge in Manhattan or nearby neighborhoods where they championed what they believed was right and true: a resolute view of freedom, a communal approach to economics, and the sanctification of the poor and the artists. Since that time they’ve been challenged and borne down to the ground by two main forces: diversification (ethnic, gender) that doesn’t even perceive the old groups and poststructural analysis that refuses to respect the old heroes and constantly redraws the lines of the argument, to say nothing of reading new meanings into old manifestos. The original discussion of this point of view is at http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/boundary/v026/26.3brown.html
It’s new to me, so I may not be getting it quite right and I’m tempted to just quote sentence after sentence. You can get a feel for Wendy Brown if you go to YouTube and watch her speak, though you’ll have to wade through a few other “Wendy Browns” before you get to the scholar. I like her very much.
The original phrase, “left melancholy” comes from Walter Benjamin who used it in a study of Charles Baudelaire. He meant, according to Wendy, not Baudelaire -- whom he approved -- but “the revolutionary hack who is, finally, attached more to a particular political analysis or idea -- even to the failure of that ideal -- than to seizing opportunities for radical change to the present.” I ran across people like that in the Unitarian world now and then, still clinging to leftist commie pinko ideas and believing in the sacredness of genius -- Nietzche and Sartre, not so much Ayn Rand, but her, too. The younger ones were still grieving over the end of Civil Rights marches in the South -- not so much the persons who died, as the excitement and meaningfulness of those times. It didn’t seem as though much had happened since. Indeed. Three assassinations, the Vietnam War, demonstrations everywhere -- hard to top, hard to sustain.
The deepest loss of the Lefties seems to be their conviction that they were in the right, totally virtuous. Since then things have become pretty ambiguous. Easier to hark back to the memories and let them become “thing-like” mental constructs. Freud’s label was “narcissistic identification” and, always alert to the dark side, he suggested one can come to hate the idealized but vanished affiliation for not persisting, for failing, like a bad parent. Then pile on top of that resentment of class and capitalism without any alternative or strategy for a remedy.
Brown’s essay suggests this leads to “disorganized capitalism” which has been dominating the scene. “If you really want something, you can make it happen. Follow your dream. Your education can guarantee your future. Everyone should go to college.” Alas, while all the individuals were scurrying around lining their nests with guarantees and diplomas, the macro-scene was rearranging itself so that all the marbles would run into one corner: theirs. This is neoliberalism. I begin to see it as world domination by corporations while government shrivels. “Withers away,” a la Marx? We’re not there yet, but we’re sliding that way.
Nassim Taleb points out that when it comes to corporations, all the profits go to the big guys, all the losses go to the little guys -- who have no power to protest anyway, because they don’t stick together. They have no way to acquire inside information. Patrick Burns, better known as “terrierman,” brings the principles of dog-training to organizational reform. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ohS4GSGu6s&feature=player_embedded This is a speech he made suggesting ways to wake up corporations from their comfortable and complacent naps in the arms of the law. I’ve never been clear about what Patrick does for a living, but now I see he enforces whistle-blower law. These two guys, at least, appear to be roused and ready to reframe the laws, revalorize individual human beings, pull back winner-take-all thinking, and protect the minorities by de-stigmatizing them. Among other things. Recently, for the first time, a shareholders’ meeting refused to authorize a huge salary for their CEO.
I’m rarely around real-life “Lefties” these days. Not many in Valier. I hear their echoes in the comments of some friends: pessimistic, yearning, indignant, hopeless. They are unempowered. Not so stripped of comforts and intelligence as the unfortunate characters in that bogged-down movie I just watched called “Satantango” but headed in that direction. That movie was filmed in winter when there were no crops in the field, no leaves on the trees, nothing but mud in the roads. In summer the landscape would be quite different.
I’ve been out in the yard raking the dead leaves and wind-fall sticks away from the flower beds while the underlying growth is still new enough to slip between the tines of the rake. Little green sprouts everywhere. Soon there will be peonies and bluebells, allium and iris. I didn’t plant them -- they are perennials already there when I came. Not graves, not death, no grief. New times, new blooms. The peonies do not pout over last year’s peonies. The bluebells do not boast about last year’s bluebells. It’s a new season.