Finding how to lose

by Sam Kriss

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form.
King John, Act 3, Scene 4


I’m terrified of the EU referendum, not because of what might happen (because nothing will happen, nothing ever happens), but because of the way all this moral responsibility seems to be spiralling downwards onto me, a sword that hangs in expectation of my choice. And I don’t really know what to do. Both options are so utterly unpalatable: an indignant array of petty Poujadists in Union Jack waistcoats, arranged like souvenirs on some well-dusted shelf; the blank forces of international capital, their clanking machinery underground, their liquid streams of finance darting overhead. The union is monstrous; its opponents are monstrous too. It’s hard not to turn yourself into Hegel’s beautiful soul – the retreat of conscience from action into speech, the sense that everything surrounding us is evil, and the only thing one can do is avoid being muddied by it. The beautiful soul, Hegel writes, is the thing ‘whose light slowly fades, and who vanishes like a formless vapour disappearing into thin air.’ But this is Hegel: what fades always remains, preserved in its disappearance; the beautiful soul’s lonely death firms the ground for absolute knowledge. Start with the fairly obvious fact that voting doesn’t really matter, that one person’s voice is always lost in the democratic din. But you’re going to vote anyway. What negated things can we keep hold of in their negation? Why vote to win when you can fall silently into loss? I’ve decided what I’m going to do. I’ll follow the polls very carefully, and vote for whoever won’t win: if it’s clear that Britain will vote to leave the EU, I’ll vote to stay, a last-ditch effort to do something against that lethal wave of reactionary nativism; if it seems we’re staying, I’ll vote out, and slow the fading phantom of a slightly different world. It’s pointless, and it’ll only work if I’m the only one doing it. But when the worst happens, as it always does, I’ll be able to say: don’t blame me, I voted for Kodos.

But then I’ve always voted for Kodos. Every election, every referendum, everything I’ve ever given my grudging support to has lost. It’s a curse. I’m perpetually on the wrong side of history, but the things that never happened hang crystalline and unreal above a sordid world. This is something Walter Benjamin talks about in his Theses on the Philosophy of History. The task is to ‘brush history against the grain,’ to read its secret index of defeats and losses, the long sad tale of that which was never remembered, and find in it the messianic power of the weak. ‘Nothing which has ever happened is to be given as lost to history.’ All that once failed is reborn; as long as there are the victorious there will be the defeated, and as long as there are the defeated, the thing that we lost can never really be gone. The two senses of loss swirl together: loss in battle or loss in an election, and the loss of grief and melancholia. Somewhere out of their overlapping negations comes something to hold on tight to.

As a child I was unsatisfied with the world, already looking for ways out. I read some online pamphlet about Advaita Vedanta and decided I believed in it; I made myself a little diagram of the cosmos, within and without Māyā, dotted lines connecting Brahman to Atman to my own confined and unhappy self far across the limits of observable reality; I was weird. I liked things that weren’t really real; not pure fantasy but all those lenses that made the world bearable in its new capacity to be somehow otherwise, that gave me a kind of conceptual power to change things that I didn’t have in daily life. Conspiracy theory, pseudohistory, socialism, faith. I think it wasn’t long after my grandfather died that I found a collection of alternate histories, little stories told by pop-historians about what might have happened if one battle or another had gone the other way, a prism of worlds that never were. I don’t remember the title; it was actually a fairly stupid book (one account described the result of Lenin’s assassination on the way to St Petersburg: the Bolsheviks are effortlessly sidelined and we get a happy, prosperous, liberal-democratic twentieth century). The cover was utterly inevitable: a black and empty sky, and a swastika flag on the Moon. But that really did happen. The space programme that sent the first people to the Moon was the Nazi space programme, all those scientists snatched up in Operation Paperclip, effortlessly swapping Hitler for Washington. Watch the dialectic at work, preserving what it negates, proceeding as always by its bad side. It’s not that the Nazis are another example of Benjamin’s defeated of history; how could they be, when putting a swastika on the cover is still the best way to sell a book? But the litter that chokes our planet remains, all the bones remain, and one day we are promised the resurrection. This is why utopia is always melancholic, the refusal to simply mourn, the tight grip of the living to the dead.

Freud writes in The Ego and the Id that ‘the character of the ego is a precipitate of abandoned object cathexes that contains the history of those object-choices.’ We are who we are not because of the things we have, but the things we lost; the human psyche is a broken terrain pitted with innumerable jagged navels, places where the lines that once connected us to something else were ripped away. First we lose the world. The subject forms as the oceanic unity of the oral stage shatters. You’re no longer a mouth sucking in a world that is also yourself. You collapse into your limits, now you have a mouth, your first scar. You lose your invincibility in language, you lose everything else in other people. But there’s a solipsism that persists, into Freud’s own works: that reductive psychodynamics, the reconfiguration of a being-in-the-world into what is essentially a piece of highly complex plumbing, full of glooping streams of libido. A blockage in one interior capillary will cause the psychic fluid to gush the wrong way through its coil at furious speed, manifesting itself as neurosis. If a pipe or vent out of the system is cut off altogether, the fluid will just circulate endlessly around all the major channels, reaching boiling point, until touching the surface will burn the skin off your fingers: the plumbing has become psychotic. Everything is contained in this knotted ball of pipes. Freud spends most of Mourning and Melancholia insisting that the melancholic’s self-accusation really concerns a lost object, but that object is itself lost from the page as soon as you try to take hold of it. Instead there are images: melancholia is the ‘picture of a delusion,’ the object is reproduced internally within an ego that splits itself in two because other people don’t really exist. It’s the object-cathexes, not the object itself, that snaps back in the miserable subject’s face. Freud, you can tell, had never taken a punch. When my grandfather died we sat shiva in the house, and I spent the whole time staring through the dining-room window, watching weathered relatives filing in, deluding myself that at any moment I’d see his beige overcoat emerge out the gloom by the front path. I had never cathected that overcoat. This was something else, unrelated to any twanging lines of investment. The sudden and abyssal unreality of an object, the sensation of a thing that was not there, but whose absence became so solid, so close, more real than reality itself. And if there’s a worthwhile politics, and I hope there is, that’s where I think it can start: with a child who hasn’t yet learned how to grieve.