Around the start of 2016, I got it into my head that what I needed was a break from time.
The facts of the situation were banal. I had been in graduate school in New York for several years and could not afford my rent. I wanted to move to a place where I could live cheaply and quietly and finish my dissertation quickly before I had to start teaching again, so I sublet my room in Brooklyn and took one in a less expensive college town nearby, hoping to transform a sense of entrapment in a strangled industry into a more romantic vision of isolated productivity. I felt I needed a recess from my life, and from life in general, so that I would have time to do nothing but work.
I wasn’t the only one trying to effect a temporal rupture. The would-be Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and the movement around him had cracked something open in the American political firmament, upsetting a fragile coalition of assumptions that held together a sense of the historical present. Sanders appeared to be an ambassador from a lost civilization of the 20th century. His campaign proposed a more radical break from time than the one I had attempted: not an individual time-out but a collective resetting of clocks, a strike against the forces that had locked working people out of history for decades.
Both plans—my small one and the Bernie campaign’s large one—seemed briefly like they might succeed. I set up the schedule that had eluded me in the city, walking each morning to the campus library, where I had my own shelf in an ornate uninhabited reading room, and coming home in the evening to the dingy apartment I shared with two strangers. It was restorative to have some time alone, and I became bloated with ideas. I hoped my research would help me understand the forces that, sometime in the 1970s, had ushered out an interval of utopian aspirations for the left and ushered in what the feminist literary critic Jane Elliott called “static time”: a period in which life dragged on but hope faded away.
Then, a kind of madness set in. During previous stretches of depression and anxiety, I had experienced the world as overstimulating, as though it wished to voice a complaint: electrical grids too loud, lights too bright and the wrong color, water that turned salty in my mouth. This time, it seemed the world had stopped speaking to me at all. Anything that broke through felt like a violation. (The horn section on Lemonade was a particular issue.) I tried to suck the life out of books as efficiently as possible but got little done, as though I were riding a bicycle in place. Bernie passed through town once and I watched him speak from across a vast public square, attempting to stay connected to the possibility of change.
In the months that followed, I became paralyzed by the task of choosing between equally bad options for what to do next. Hillary Clinton won the Democratic primary, suggesting that things would go on much as they had. But by this point, I had become detached from events beyond my shrunken life. In June, a shooter killed dozens of people at a gay nightclub in Orlando; in July, police murdered a Black man named Philando Castile at a traffic stop in Minnesota. The scenes of collective mourning and protest that on other occasions had made such events unbearably real, if incommensurably distant, had receded from my field of vision. Life in New York went on without me and I stopped wanting to visit. I could not remember why it was that anyone wanted to live anywhere.
It seemed that, having exited time, I could not get back in; I began to suspect I had never been part of its flow at all. Nor could I recall what it was about the past that had led me from the city to the library to begin with. In the 1930s, the Marxist critic and Jewish theologian Walter Benjamin diagnosed an ailment he called left-wing melancholy. Benjamin was a professed melancholic himself who once described his moods of indecision and withdrawal as born of an overwhelming sense of historical longing: he imagined himself as a “ragpicker . . . at the dawn of the day of the revolution,” sifting through the lost and forgotten past in search of something to redeem. But a different flavor of despondence, he wrote in a scathing 1931 essay, had set in among the irony-poisoned bourgeois German leftists of the Weimar years. Benjamin pilloried these contemporaries for opting out of the political demands of the moment altogether and attaching themselves spitefully to their losses like “a man who yields himself up entirely to the inscrutable accidents of his digestion.” Apprehending my own melancholia, I sensed how quickly one could slip from one version of Benjamin’s ailment to the other, how easily political heartbreak could calcify into narcissistic bitterness.
In the decades following the end of the cold war, many thinkers on the left followed Benjamin in theorizing the connection between radical politics and melancholia, an affect that—as the scholar Enzo Traverso put it in a 2016 study—had become “the dominant feeling of a world burdened with its past, without a visible future.” In an influential 1999 essay, the political theorist Wendy Brown connected Benjamin’s critique of left-wing melancholy to a distinction Sigmund Freud made between mourning and melancholy. For Freud, a subject experienced mourning when they grieved the loss of something or someone they were attached to. They experienced melancholy, on the other hand, when they were unable to grieve such a loss, because they could not—or would not—acknowledge that the beloved object was really gone. What was it, Brown asked, that contemporary leftists could not mourn because they could not admit they’d lost it to begin with?
I spent the summer in the library numbly trying to figure out what I was refusing to mourn, and becoming alarmed every time I got too close to an answer. Finally, that August, a friend called me back to Brooklyn to watch his cats for a month, and I stumbled home. I was still shaky when Donald Trump won the election a few months later. I did not see it coming; I was horrified and stunned. Yet almost immediately, as the liberal consensus began to implode and the old choice between socialism and barbarism reasserted itself without apologies, the world came back into hideous focus and I felt, maybe for the first time, like a long-term inhabitant of the present.
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