NY Times | “Stormy Weather: Blues in Winter” by AVITAL RONELL
I have been trying to get a grip on my winter blues. Philosophy has a long history of handling the experience of distressed states. The ancients were concerned with stand-out types of psychic debilitation; Descartes, Kant, and Nietzsche probed, each in his own way, into the dark side of mood and temperament; Kierkegaard passed the mic to fear and trembling; Heidegger based his existential analyses on anxiety; and Sartre drilled down on sheer nothingness. Philosophers wondered whether it was possible to feel at-home in the world, given our basic homelessness — a predicament that many of them saw as the uprooted nature of our dwelling on this earth. I count on these abyss-gazers to land me safely, without much illusion, and somehow to keep me going, even if the trek is bound to be mournful.
From childhood on, I have been trained to clear really scary and voided chasms, dense existential passageways. My education does not come with an E-ZPass. Like nearly everyone else who isn’t entirely sociopathic, I continue to falter and know defeat. Ever on the alert, philosophy offers some emergency supplies of meaning when I feel especially exposed and vulnerable, when I lie fallow on wintered grounds.
Very often, when the chips are down, philosophers can be a welcoming crew—well, not all of them. One has to sift and sort, find the byways, pass the arrogant know-it-all types, overtake the misogynists and leave in the dust those who claim to have a firm hold on truth. Not many are left standing, but they are the worthy ones. They stay close to poetry and music and let themselves be instructed by literature’s astonishing comfortableness off the cognitive grid. There are things that we simply cannot know or understand. Literature lives with that sublime stall, and fires off extravagant hypotheses, basking in transgression and feats of rhetorical frontier-crossing. When philosophy becomes accomplice to such stretches of imagination and frees itself up from a certain number of constraints, it can turn in exhilarating and life-affirming performances. It can deliver even when you are seriously in the dumps, ready to call it a wrap.
Of course, people used to say to me that it was the study itself of philosophy that brought me down, a charge that cannot be altogether denied. Yet, upon reflection, I have to think it’s the other way round. I consider philosophy my survival kit. In any case philosophy does the groundwork and comes face to face with my basic repertory of distress: forlornness, the shakes, and other signs of world-weary discomfort. Thud, thud. Today’s blues seem very specific, however. Maybe I can summon the master thinkers to help me get a handle on my internal downturn, my current sense of loss.
Nearly every philosophy I have known has built a sanctuary, however remote and uncharted, for the experience of mourning. Sometimes a philosopher accidentally or furtively mentions the pull of loss, even when trying, like Nietzsche, to affirm all of life’s tragic edges and the necessity of mourning lost friendship or the destructive operations (and operas) of love.
My teacher, Jacques Derrida, considered various forms of mourning disorder — the difficulty we have in letting go of a beloved object or libidinal position. Freud says that we go into mourning over lost ideals or figures, which include persons or even your country when it lets you down. Loss that cannot be assimilated or dealt with creates pockets of resistance in the psyche. One may incorporate a phantom other, keeping the other both alive and dead, or one may fall into states of melancholy, unable to move on, trapped in the energies of an ever-shrinking world.
Many of the themes in films give expression to failed mourning, a relation to death that invents the population of the undead — vampires, zombies, trolls, real housewives of Beverly Hills. In America, we are often encouraged to “let go,” “move on,” “get over it,” even to “get a life,” locutions that indicate a national intolerance for prolonged states of mourning. Yet the quickened pace of letting go may well mean that we have not let go, that we are haunted and hounded by unmetabolized aspects of loss. In Freud’s work, the timer is set for two years of appropriate mourning. When Hamlet tries to extend that deadline, the whole house threatens to fall apart, and he is admonished by Claudius to get over himself, man up. The inability to mourn or let go is sometimes called melancholy. Many of us have slipped into states of melancholic depression for one reason or another, for one unreason or another—one cannot always nail the object that has been lost or causes pain.
For Derrida, melancholy implies an ethical stance, a relation to loss in the mode of vigilance and constant re-attunement. You do not have to know or understand the meaning of a loss and the full range of its disruptive consequences, but you somehow stand by it, leaning into a depleting emptiness. It takes courage to resist the temptation to bail or distract oneself. Entire industries stand ready to distract the inconsolable mourner.
Let’s see if I can try to stay focused. Maybe it is possible to get an aerial view of my own cluster of blues.
I actually think that I, like many New Yorkers, am having a delayed response to Hurricane Sandy. Or that, continually flooding my psyche, it keeps on returning. I see no off-switch to the effects of Sandy, some of which remain very real to neighboring areas.
So. I am slowly climbing out of the inundation of 2012 like the Swamp Thing. In order to dry off and reflect on what happened this past autumn in New York, I had to remove myself from the premises, surrender to a stance of meditation from another urban site. Off-center and beat, I decided to go to Paris to watch the year turn. My intention was to see my friends and colleagues and reboot myself, preparing the newest year’s anticipated yield of projects, looking forward and backward in a mood of self-gathering.
And so I arrived in Paris, to welcome our newest baby year. Drip, drip.
Coming in to Charles De Gaulle a few days before Christmas, I had a rocky landing — emotionally speaking. It wasn’t due merely to the weather —though weather, the disjunctive edge of climate, seemed implacably poised to compromise this grrrl. But it wasn’t the dismal weather, the droplets of rain, that depressed me, but an accumulation of all sorts of internalized weather systems and pressure zones that I would need to understand. Yes, maybe I could install my own weather-prophet to read off the mists of mind’s droopiness.
I used to study weather and the scandalous beginnings of weather forecasting. Do you know who set up the first meteorological prediction center? My main man, Goethe. At the time, in the 18th-century, the very idea of grasping weather competed with the prerogatives of the gods. Mortals should not have access to such clusters of immateriality, it was thought. Only gods and poets should try to divine weather conditions.
Like much of the weather, my mood proved unpredictable. Exhausted and shaken following a semester of overload, I crawled around Paris for days, waiting for some sign of surviving the holidays. It was long in coming. My pangs were suspended when I would meet my friends and alternative families. But the minute they unleashed me, after a lunch or afternoon stroll, I spun on my own, in considerable agony, my stomach falling out: “Merry, merry, merry Christmas.” I’m not the only one, I know, for who does not come with a crash cushion for family holidays, and so I sputter. This year was different in terms of seasonal despair, which makes me wonder why.
It seems far away. But Sandy continues to return, to rage in my stomach — site of anxiety, where events show up as severe and unyielding. I know that greater parts of our world regularly live on the subthreshhold of calamity, awaiting the next trial, the next move commissioned by an unfathomable enmity — I think of friends in Haiti and Malaysia, those who try to keep it together in areas that are rarely disaster-free or earthquake-proof: I will never forget the day in the fall of 1989 at Berkeley when Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy taught their first seminar together and the building rattled, the earth shook, our complexions showed different shades of green. I was strangely steady as things and people started crumbling around me. I prided myself on being a strong warrior, able to hold still as things fall apart, leaning into anguish, whether externally pitched or internally churning. I was earthquake-proof, I told myself.
In the Bay Area a building is earthquake proof when it has built-in fissures and intentional crevices. Normed solidity or, rather, rigidity is a sure killer, because if you’re too rigid you will be cut down, toppled. Like the World Trade Center — too massive, too strong architecturally speaking..
When weakness is part of the concept of the building’s stance, it can sway and shift around as part of its very own survival mechanism. This “architecture of pain,” as psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan says in another context altogether, was my model for a long while, a model that I am trying to reconstruct today, with ample allowance for punctuated lacerations and weak points meant to bolster part of my psychic suppleness.
One of the aspects of the earthquake in Berkeley was that you could not tell if it was happening inside or outside. The staccato outbreak started out as if it had originated in one’s body. Only when one looked out the window and saw the sway of buildings, did the sense of collapse spread to the outside. The fitful spurts and earth-lunges functioned like Freud’s endopsychic perception: Was this merely a projection of inner turmoil or suppressed rage? Or had we regressed to biblical law, under penalty for a collective wrongdoing?
Read previous contributions to this series.
Since one of my personalities is that of teacher, I usually want to prepare something to say to students when a so-called natural disaster breaks. At the time of the earthquake I turned to Kant and traced what happened to and in philosophy, from the outposts of literature, as a consequence of the earthquake of Lisbon in 1755. Everyone was shaken, and in many ways we never stopped quaking. In Goethe, Nature became irreversibly maimed: demonic and glacialized with indifference to the human manifestation of being, Nature became an unbeatable adversary.
For the inundation of New York, I went to Freud and primitive attitudes toward violent weather events, trying to make sense of that which seizes you and throws you against a new wall of experience.
First, I needed to critically dismantle any idea of a “natural” disaster in our day, in our way of trampling on the planet, carbon footprint by carbon footprint. I do not believe in “natural” disasters, but only in the effects of man’s failed custodianship, primed by the incessant prod of pollution, planetary exploitation and spoilage: the usual menu of historical recklessness.
On a more local and personal plane, I needed to reflect on my own sorry failures: I was shaken by my fearfulness and the collapse I observed of my warrior self when during the worst of the storm I lost any sense of social responsibility and just caved, became isolated, felt unsheltered. I stayed at the level of acute worry about electronic disconnection. All I could do was spread around my own sense of unprotectedness.
From now on, I said to myself, I will follow Gandhi’s directive: be what you want the world to be. Rather than crumbling and trembling, isolating, waiting for Someone to rescue me, I will be the one to arrive on the scene, a “first responder,” prepared to take charge, stage street theater, check in on my isolated neighbors, make and deliver creative meals. Sometimes you have to turn yourself into an animal in order to be brave and reassuring, to leap with cheer or still yourself. Thus, lately, Golden Retrievers and Labradors have been called upon to visit trauma sites and bring soothing steadiness, messages from another realm.
Many people continue to be affected by the storm and its invisible after-tremors. They were and remain stuck, and I was psychically not flowing, unable either to surrender or act, energy-trapped. For seven days or so lower Manhattan earned the designation, according to our resident philosopher Jon Stewart, of “Little North Korea.” We were stunned to have lost our sense of “New York, New York,” to witness the powering down of its habitual trajectories and hard-edged rhythms.
When Freud reviews the attitude of so-called primitive peoples to calamities missile-guided by Nature or gods, he points to these peoples’ felt failure. Natural disruption, which puts into play and unleashes something like the supernatural, appears to be sent our way as a message from above. Most often, it represents a form of reactivity, an accusation. The super-natural (Sandy was so often called a super-storm) is something that humankind has called upon itself in response to stinging acts of frivolity. Freud’s examples involve failed mourning—of the enemy. The so-called primitives believed that storms mark down those who have neglected to honor or properly bury their enemies.
I try to review our recent wars, whether mapped on Afghanistan or in ghetto streets and surrounding precarious clinics. I try to gauge the implication, however remote, of every citizen, in the waging of these and other aggressions. This seems far-fetched — perhaps closer to science fiction than to science. Is there a way in which radically disrupted weather systems tell us, maybe merely on an unconscious register, that we are involved in world-class wrongdoing? In a Shakespearean way, I keep on punctuating such observations by the refrain: “No, such a reproach cannot be addressed to us.” I am also of the scientific epoch and understand the repercussions of global warming.
Still, could the super-storm have been a call from elsewhere? A reminder of the stripped-down disposal of enemy troops or tropes, our graceless menu of aggressions brought home to us, the world-class homeless? I may or may not have my finger on the pulse of Hegel’s Weltgeist, the guiding world-spirit, but something about my very private and idiomatic blues comes from the pressure of a sustained injustice, a dishonoring that occurs in my name and that may affect all Americans on one level of consciousness or another.
via NY Times
Avital Ronell is University Professor of the Humanities at New York University, where she co-directs the Trauma and Violence Transdisciplinary Program. She is the author of several books, including “The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech” and most recently, “Loser Sons: Politics and Authority.”
A version of this article appeared in print on 02/03/2013, on page SR5 of the NewYork edition with the headline: Stormy Weather: Blues in Winter.
The Stone is a forum for contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless