A brief encounter with left melancholia, and how Auden showed me the way out.

I tweeted, prior to the election results, that I was worried that the election would go like the scene at the beginning/end of A Brief Encounter – where Celia Johnson watches Trevor Howard walk out of her life forever. That all this would be was a brief touch on the shoulder, that Corbyn would haven taken the piece of coal dust that is austerity and tory policy out of our eyes, and then we would have to board the train in the opposite direction, and go back home to our boring husband and awful children. I’ve thought about that parallel a lot, since.

It’s perhaps a bit too much of a reach, but the aching melancholy of it, the almost, might-have, could-have-been-ness of it, felt too much for me. Like this was the turning point, the fork in the road whereby we might have changed something, but we didn’t take the turn, and carried on instead. We let Jeremy Corbyn (cast as Trevor Howard in this re-telling) leave with a brief shoulder squeeze and no words, and I (I’m obviously Celia Johnson, come on) have to sit with a friend i didn’t even KNOW was a tory and just listen to them babbling on, completely unaware that the result had completely gutted me (not that my tory friend babbled really, it’s just very fitting because of Dolly Alderton).

Anyway. Back to Celia Johnson. 

When she’s on the train with her awful prying friend, she says “this can’t last. This misery can’t last. I must remember that and try to control myself.” I think of my own anger, misery, and dismay, and the fact that it is, ultimately, futile in the long run. Being angry and depressed about the result will bring me nothing. Being divisive about who voted for whom, will only drive everyone further apart, and we are already a country divided. What is necessary now, is that we come together, that we use all these feelings of anger, frustration, heartbreak, as a way to motivate ourselves through the mire, instead of flailing about in it, and talking about the failure of the left.

Celia also says this: “there’ll come a time in the future when I shan’t mind about this anymore. When I can look back and say quite peacefully and cheerfully how silly I was. No. no. I don’t want that time to come, ever. I want to remember every minute. Always”

I want to remember every minute of hope that the Corbyn campaign ignited in, not only me, but so many people in the country. Everyone who was out canvassing, and talking, and trying to make the world just a tiny bit better. There will never come a time when I am not angry about the country’s failure to make the right choice for everyone in it, instead of focusing on brexit, or not wanting to pay £20 more a month in tax. 

I feel as though the world had shifted, it looked different: darker, and less hopeful. I wasn’t even at home, and yet I felt somehow that everything had skewed in the wrong direction. I had gone to bed in one world, and woken up in another. 

“It is as if 

We had all left our house for five minutes to mail a letter 

And during that time the living room had changed places 

With the room behind the mirror over the fireplace’

Here, auden is writing of a kind of existential dislocation. We are not where we were before, it looks the same, but it ostensibly isn’t, and it can’t become the same thing again. It is fitting that this Auden line fits so well, it’s from For the Time Being (which in itself is a funny phrase by itself, for is time ever being at all, or are we all being time, and if time is being, is it being itself or something else?). Everything crumbling away into nothing much, tossed out into the cold. “Winter completes an age” ravaging the land, casting us all out, rendering everything to nothing. 

“Like wheat our souls are sifted

And cast out into the void.”

Auden’s poetry diagnosed a sickness in England, a “country where no one is well”. In the 1930/40s we had a similar problem to the one we have now. Bubbling dissent, rife racism, a nationalistic and isolationist drive. I’m not saying it’s a carbon copy of the time, because it’s not. But Auden’s diagnosis, of a world switched into its uncanny double, revealing the worst bits of ourselves in a bid to claim something as our own (a country, a house, a job, a headstone) is easy to see as still valid, now. 

But now I’m thinking that perhaps I am clinging to hard to the failure of the labour party to enact the changes they pledged in their manifesto, rather than looking for opportunities in which I might be able to make a difference. Government is not the only way to enact change. 

According to Walter Benjamin, ‘left melancholia’ is the state of the revolutionary, who has become more attached to a political ideal, than ever actually seeking and seizing real opportunities for change. So attached to it, that even clinging to its failure is more preferable. We ought not to cling so tightly to Corbyn, to the failure that 12th December brought to our feet, but to focus on true, real, and actual opportunities whereby we might make a difference. 

We’re don’t need to fight each other, we need to help each other. 

I’ve been thinking about these Auden lines a lot, too: 

But the new barbarian is no uncouth 

Desert­ dweller; he does not emerge 

From fir forests; factories bred him; 

Corporate companies, college towns 

Mothered his mind, and many journals 

Backed his beliefs. 

The new barbarian is the contemporary tory, fostered by the state to believe that it is purely their worries that matter on the whole. No one else’s. Just theirs. In the factories, the college towns, the corporate boardroom. Why help others when the government wants to just help you? You’re doing alright, why can’t everyone else do the same? The new barbarian is suited and booted, and walks past the dying with their hands outstretched; seeing, but not caring. The new barbarian is James Grieg’s “your boyfriend” on twitter. He’s the guy at the pub who told you “I don’t like Boris either – but I just couldn’t give my vote to corbyn, even if I do like some of his policies.” They’re also the person who’s always lived in the town you’re from, and can’t see a world outside of it. They remember Blair, and the war in Iraq, and they conflate the huge stock market crash of 2008 and the last labour government into one issue, when they’re really two. They’re kind of everyone. The new barbarian is all of us. 

Except the journals don’t back the beliefs, now, but create them. Our newspapers, and twitter feeds, and facebook feeds, and pub gardens, and coffee shop queues all incubate and create the same views over and over again. 

I’m reminded of Mark Fisher saying in a lecture once that we’ve not entered the 21st Century yet, but that we’re just rehashing 20th century culture on higher definition screens. We won’t stop watching friends, or wearing mom jeans and chunky trainers. This is, in itself, something I’ve spoken about before (and so have many other people far more eloquently than I ever have or will) But it is worth mentioning again, briefly. If we fall into the trap of continually rehashing the past, then it creates zones in which we enact our dissent without actually challenging the systems of control. Capital then feeds off of these performative acts, by directly profiting from the spaces which enable them. It creates a “safe space” within which to be anti-capitalist, without having to actually do anything about capitalism. 

So what do we do with the “new barbarian”? For starters, I should probably not use that phrase, as its problematics far outweigh the poetic Auden link. But really, how do we convince those who voted Conservative that Conservative policies serve no one except the very rich? How do we get out there and actually enact change? 

Auden was writing in the 30s. A time of similar political unrest, of rising inequality, and rising violence against marginalised groups. A time in which unions between countries were collapsing. Crisis impending. If we can see parallels between then and now, then knowing what happened in 1939; what is about to happen, now? 

I’m put in mind of Auden’s “Consider This and In Our Time”, which I would have liked to have quoted here in full so that you might read the whole thing, but I will link it here. It’s my favourite Auden (apart from stop all the clocks, but that goes without saying)

As the hawk sees it or the helmeted airman:

The clouds rift suddenly – look there

At cigarette-end smouldering on a border

At the first garden party of the year.

Such a cinematic opening. Full of impending doom and dread, caught in the tumult of weather, of the viking sounding hawk and helmet, and the close up on a cigarette smouldering on a border. What border? Between where and where? A garden party, which sounds like such a tory endeavour; perhaps a border not between places but between people. 

The beginning sounds like the beginning of a war, hitting the unaware. I need you to read the second stanza, because it sounds to me like a political campaign, a cross-section of the country called out into the open to be told a lie that will fill them with ‘immeasurable, neurotic dread’. 

Is it the left’s fate, then,  that 

“After some haunted migratory years

To disintegrate on an instant in the explosion of mania

Or lapse for ever into a classic fatigue.” ?

Will we fall apart, or lapse into inertia?

I’m afraid my analysis might be weaker than I’d have hoped, but the unease of the poem is palpable. It teeters on the edge of something, and feels so foreboding to me of the events that followed. The poem is dated 1930, and feels prophetic. Borders, and helmeted airmen, insufficient units, in uniforms, and furs; and uneasy. The whole poem seems a portend for what came after; so what warnings can we wring from it, now, with hindsight? 

The last few months of 2019 were a brief encounter with what might have been – indicative of a left melancholia embedded in hauntology, and unable to dislodge itself from its failure. Would we ever make it work if we actually managed to get what we wanted? 

To return to A Brief Encounter, Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard are always already thwarted, it will never work. I often wonder, when I’m watching it, if the two of them ever actually want it to happen at all, or if the suggestion that it might is the true seduction. Do they actually want to feel the heartbreak of the almost-neverness of it?  Doesn’t this smack of left melancholia itself, so attached to the ideal that even the failure of the ideal is as intoxicating as its possibility?

Perhaps Auden’s poetry, too, is a warning which, unheeded, could lead to the cyclical returning of previous events. Auden warns against the cyclical returnings of things, whilst A Brief Encounter enacts them.  History exists to tell us what not to do, so why aren’t we listening? The swing to the right will result in more of us dying. But perhaps there’s no use in trying, perhaps it is destiny to circle around the drain before slipping into it.

Either way, on that morning, Friday 13th December 2019,I felt the future that could have been putting its hand on my shoulder, walking out the door, as some incessant tory babbler lectured me that magic money doesn’t grow on trees, and the nhs can’t handle how many people use it. But none of these things are true. Money isn’t real; and the nhs could function better if it hadn’t been stripped of its reserves by. The. tory. Governments. It’s all a numbers game that results in some people getting rich, and most people dying poor.

That friday morning I kept thinking ‘he didn’t go… any minute now he’ll come back” it won’t be over, we can do it all again. But I have never won an election in my lifetime, and I don’t know how to imagine winning one in the future. This is the inertia I feel now. Even the Labour leadership campaign feels inert, I hadn’t even heard of Keir Stamer before this week, and suddenly here he is favouring a “broad church”. Where has all that fire gone? Why aren’t we actually still seeking methods and moments of change?

At the end of A Brief Encounter Celia Johnson nearly jumps in front of the train that doesn’t stop.  Would that have been the exit to the system we could have used? I’m not suggesting a mass left wing suicide, but a clean break, perhaps not a jump in front of the train, but what if there were a way to jump on to it? What if we sifted up our own souls like wheat and jettisoned ourselves out into the void, riding the tail of a train that stops at no stations but the one that takes us outside of the systems of control: no timetable, no scheduled stations, no tracks, no destination? 

Maybe I’m labouring this too much.

Who fucking knows.

I feel like this might have been a confusing ride through my post-election thoughts, and I know that I’m nearly a month late in posting them. Maybe I’m sorry for making you read them at all.

I’ll leave you with a note on transience, which I’ve lifted from Freud. In trying to remain positive, I remind myself that all things are transient, all things end. 

“When once the mourning is over, it will be found that our high opinion of [what might have been] has lost nothing from our discovery of [its] fragility, we shall build up again all that [austerity] has destroyed, perhaps on firmer ground, and more lastingly than before.”


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