For two years my daydreams had been haunted by an image, more accurately a GIF, looping on the inside wall of my skull. It showed me slumped against the lip of the sofa in a rumpled shirt, hair matted, eyelids drooping, left temple propped on my curled fingers as I stared over the top edge of the TV screen. A ribbon of numbers and words, headline statistics of the June referendum or the November election or some monstrous hybrid of the two (farage edging electoral college), streaming indifferently across the screen’s base. Around me, scattered alongside misshapen aluminium takeaway trays slick with palm oil: a smartphone low on battery, a laptop low on memory, unsheathed pens set on the open, soiled, blank pages of a notebook.
I couldn’t stop recalling this scene, undeterred by the fact that it hadn’t occurred; I’d slept through both those nights in some misguided gesture of defiance, as though disaster could be averted merely by refusing to pay attention to it. But what was the source of this moving tableau, if not my own memory?
In truth, I don’t know. An appealing if preposterous answer came to me in a flash a few months ago, as my eye fell on an illustrated plate of Albrecht Dürer’s celebrated 1514 engraving, Melencolia I. It appeared in a book I was reading at the time on acedia, the medieval term for the spiritual torpor induced by traumatic recognition of the vanity of worldly life.
There she was, Melancholy, the image of exhausted dejection I’d seen a thousand times, staring moodily into the middle distance, surrounded by the same array of discarded technical instruments, still fiddling distractedly with the pair of compasses pinned onto her skirts. It occurred to me that now, 504 years later, my unconscious, like some personal fake-news farm, had insinuated her into my bodily memory. For my daydreaming self, giddy with self-importance, it evidently wasn’t enough to be a mere person; I had to be an allegory of my age.
In his seminal 1943 monograph on Dürer, the German-Jewish art historian Erwin Panofsky interprets Melencolia I as a departure from the traditional iconography of melancholy. More than the personification of a generalised ‘gloomy inertia’, his figure of Melancholy is an image of a metaphysical affliction. Her slumped despondency is the effect of intellectual exhaustion, not laziness: ‘work has become meaningless to her,’ writes Panofsky, ‘her energy is paralyzed not by sleep but by thought.’
Melancholy is tired and emotional. The geometrical or practical instruments scattered round her – the hourglass, the hand plane, the scales, the saw – can take precise measure of Earthly time and space; but her weary gaze is directed beyond the visible world, not at it. She radiates defeat by the ‘insurmountable barriers which separate her from a higher realm of thought’.
Panofsky quotes Dürer himself: ‘The lie is in our understanding, and darkness is so firmly entrenched in our mind that even our groping will fail.’
Around me too, sources of limitless information and instruments of thought that do nothing but return me to the same exhausted refrains: ‘I can’t’, ‘It’s all too much’, ‘No. No.’ I am sleep-deprived and sluggish, drained of any capacity for surprise or hope, my deadly inner lethargy a form of impotent solidarity with the world itself. There is no symphony of histrionic lament, only a hiss of white noise.
Darkness is firmly entrenched in my mind and yours. The metaphysical lie of the sixteenth century has found its correlate in the political lie of the twenty-first. That, surely, is what my daydreamed avatar intuited in those early-morning reveries, casting his bleary eye over sickly old men wreathed with medals, rejoicing through tears that they had their country back, or over blowhard frat boys swollen with beer and triumph, whooping in menacing chorus.
Did my unconscious turn to Dürer’s Melancholy in search of an analogue for my own feeling of humiliation? That, at any rate, is what I now see in her expression of bitter helplessness: the grim understanding that she understands nothing. She resents those impenetrable heavens, just as I do those jubilant, laughing crowds, infinitesimally close and infinitely distant, celebrating their victory over me and all the other pathetic losers.
It must be humiliating to master, as does Dürer’s Melancholy, such a vast body of scientific knowledge only to find it redundant before what you most want to know. I’d thought I knew something too. Over how many acres of commentary had my eyes wandered – on the mounting hatred of the political establishment, on the cultural dispossession of white men, on Rust Belt hopelessness and the forgotten North of England and the losers of the neo-liberal consensus, on all other stock phrases that by now tripped so effortlessly off the tongue?
It wasn’t as though the diagnosis of these real historical grievances was incorrect, any more than the metrics of compasses and hourglasses were incorrect. But Melancholy’s predicament is that in their very correctness, they miss something more elusive and more essential.
For the liberal world order to buckle so precariously, something had to compound those wounds and hostilities. It was something I could see radiating from that gurning face, whose long-term residence in my daily consciousness I was now grimly anticipating: an anarchic pleasure in upending meaning, in the gleeful scission between words and things, actions and consequences. I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay?
It’s one thing to attack civilisational norms, another to turn them into empty phrases. The former might induce anger and resistance; the latter induces humiliation, at least for me. I find it hard to invoke concepts like environmental responsibility or minority protections or human dignity these days without feeling the prickly heat of mockery on my neck. That I could allow myself to feel mocked, that my inner grip on the substance and meaning of these terms seems so fragile and vulnerable, only deepens the humiliation.
It occurred to me at a certain point that the Fifth Avenue comment wasn’t so much about the lemming-like credulousness of the base, more about an air so thick with indifference and disgust as to render the act of shooting someone publicly, in cold blood, as arbitrary and meaningless as squirting them with a water pistol. In theory, holding to meaningful values should confer on me a talismanic righteousness before the nihilism that faces down all values with an indifferent smirk.
But it doesn’t, which may be why I needed the daydream – to give voice and visibility to an obscure region in me that feels as defenceless as a sleepless baby, unable either to shut or to open his eyes, bereft of the slightest clue as to what to think or say or do.
In the established narrative of 2016, a loose network of global operators harnessed the political capital dormant in the unheard and unseen anxieties and vulnerabilities of the ‘left behind’. We repeat this potted analysis with the same coiled enervation with which others rub worry beads, all the time suspecting it may not really be doing anything, that ‘darkness is so firmly entrenched in our mind that even our groping will fail’.
We, metropolitan guardians of the waning liberal order, want to enlighten the new populist constituencies. Palms pressed exasperatedly to our foreheads, we asked our conveniently silent and invisible interlocutors of Dudley in the West Midlands, or Knox County, Tennessee, if they really thought these venal fuckers cared about them, or that they were going to put them back in control or make them great again.
No one, we kept reassuring ourselves, elects for chaos and insecurity and division. Now, called out twice on our smug, uncomprehending complacency, we clung by our fingertips to the conviction that we knew something they didn’t, that if only they could just see . . .
We’d thought the rally crowds, baying gleefully at journalists and slugging protesters, were just the sad dupes of false promises. We were too fearful or unimaginative to suspect that it was the sheer emptiness of his words and gestures, the exhilarating licence he gave people to believe in anything and nothing, that really roused them. We’d assumed we were in the contest of substantive forces we used to call politics, where versions of justice run up against one another. Now we stare confusedly into the middle distance, bitter and exhausted, unable to navigate the weightless space beyond. ‘The lie is in our understanding.’