The melancholic background

The re-opening is an anxious time in Italy. It is partly the anxiety of a second wave of the virus – a fear of returning to the dark time before the lockdown, twelve weeks ago, when the curve was terrifyingly exponential.

This moment is haunted by that one: there are the same number of people in the streets, and the choreography is similar, with its skirted paths, eye contact, nods (we can’t see each other’s smiles through the masks). There is more discipline in our interactions, but also more of what I might call ordinariness. Turin seems friendlier. Parco Valentino again attracts walkers, cyclists, joggers, dogs and children, hoping to be infected only by each other’s happiness. Young people in my neighbourhood are having small parties again. Sex workers and drug dealers are back at work. The police have relaxed their patrols of the local market. As more activities open, the nervous anxiety will likely fade, but nobody’s sure of anything yet. Every conversation I have seems to end in speriamo, let’s hope for the best.

There is a second kind of anxiety, as we step out into the world we share with the virus. There is the question of how we have allowed ourselves to be moved by these events: how we will tell the story of what has just happened, how we will mourn. Because the crisis has suspended us in our homes – if we are lucky enough to have them – it has altered our sense of social involvement. It has made us appear private, while making our interdependence starkly public. It has been a shock, and we have found ways to live with the shock. But as we return to our lives on the outside, we face the daunting task of making meaning from it.

As someone who has not lost a family member or friend, I am experiencing this at a theoretical remove, a privilege that many Italians do not have. But I am still experiencing it. Australia’s early intervention, or its good fortune, or its strange curse of innocence, has placed it in a similar position. What does it mean to grieve for others, for hundreds of thousands of people I have not met and will never know?

In ‘Violence, Mourning, Politics,’ the second essay in her post-9/11 book Precarious Life, Judith Butler wrote that it is our physical vulnerability and susceptibility to grief and harm that make us human: that ‘each of us is constituted politically in part by virtue of the social vulnerability of our bodies.’ The grievable, according to Butler, can also circumscribe and limit who is considered human. ‘I am as much constituted by those I do grieve for as by those whose deaths I disavow, whose nameless and faceless deaths form the melancholic background for my social world.’

COVID-19 has reinforced this reality. It has poured through the health systems of the world like contrast dye; on the screen before us, we can see where the weaknesses are, where the public money and the profits go, where the vulnerabilities are in systems of care; we can see who is dying, and who is doing the work; the risks people are taking, and how much they are paid.

This contrast dye has also entered public discourse, and revealed an abscess.

There was John Kehoe in the Australian Financial Review, saying his sixty-eight-year-old father has ‘had a good run’ and ought to sign a DNR order for the sake of the economy. There was the Janet Albrechtson of the Institute for Public Affairs, writing in The Australian that ‘every life has a different value’. There was Boris Johnson’s father’s remark that his son’s illness ‘got the whole country to realise this is a serious event’, because the eight thousand people who had died in the UK by that point had not registered for him as people.

The prevalence of eugenicist takes has revealed just how essential these fascist principles are to neoliberalism’s status quo. Not content with the list of bodies already marked for death – a list we know includes First Nations bodies, black and brown bodies, queer bodies, disabled and chronically ill bodies, among others – sectors of the right-wing commentariat have invented a variation of ‘First they came for the communists,’ a long list of the expendable which now includes anyone over the age of retirement, anyone without a visa, health care workers, teachers, bus drivers, and so on. This is not the logic of war, but of mass murder.

In a recent interview with The Nation, Butler reflected on her work in the context of COVID-19. She calls the social Darwinism of ‘herd immunity’ and acceptable death a form of state violence, ‘a eugenic calculation that depends on dispensable and replaceable workers,’ and warned: ‘There is a good chance that it may become normalized in the course of restarting the economy.’

In the context of this threat, the question of making meaning from the pandemic becomes urgent. How do we make, from this scale of death, a story that resists dehumanisation?

In April, a petition was launched in Italy to make the 20th February a public holiday in honour of health care workers. In calling for a national holiday, writer and director Ferzan Ozpetek specifically invoked the role of narrative: this day would enable Italians to explain this time to an imagined future child, ‘to tell the stories of the women and men who have worked and sacrificed themselves to help others.’

At the tiny primary school that takes place in my apartment, this principle was being illustrated in real time: as some of the children learned about holidays, the lesson moved from Easter, to Passover, and on to the concept of slavery. Rituals provide ways to learn what matters to us, what makes us who we are; they help us to describe who we think constitutes the ‘us’. But as decolonial reconsiderations of monuments, names and national holidays remind us, the act of memorial-making can sometimes obscure history, rather than reveal it.

The Italian petition was co-presented by the SIAE, the Italian equivalent of the Copyright Agency. It fascinates me that it is cultural practitioners who have led this call; in Italy, this role of taking responsibility for social memory seems to be assumed and respected, in stark contrast to Australia’s often hostile approach to the arts.

I think this is something many writers and artists around the world are feeling now, as we look for ways to carry the weight of the pandemic’s stories. For some of us, work can be a welcome distraction, a point of focus away from the pandemic. Writing and reading can be cathartic, a means of processing emotional impact. It can also be a way of documenting struggle, of holding on to possibilities before they are snatched away. Literature needs to be a democratic, widely distributed labour, or it risks leaving out important lessons. The pandemic is not one story, but many thousands of them.

Judith Butler cautions against applying a Protestant work ethic to grief, as if it is a process one can productively and rationally resolve. Instead, ‘one is hit by waves … one finds oneself foiled. One finds oneself fallen. One is exhausted but does not know why.’ When I read this description, I recognise the texture of my quarantine. While I want this time to be meaningful, I am also nervous about trying to rush from uncertainty into usefulness. I mean to argue for change, not productivity. I hope this need for change also applies to our ways of working.

‘Perhaps,’ Butler speculates, ‘mourning has to do with agreeing to undergo a transformation … the full result of which one cannot know in advance.’

Of course, narrative alone is never enough. We also have a fight on our hands. Here in Italy, the political moment is being compared to post-war reconstruction. There will be a reckoning for mistakes, but there are also many changes. Last week the government passed an amnesty to allow residency for an estimated 600,000 undocumented workers, albeit only for six months. Major cities are being transformed, with bike lanes to address the strain on public transport and help reduce pollution levels that, here in the north, have likely contributed to the high death toll.

It is vital – as in, a matter of life or death – that we hang on to and expand those possibilities in Australia. That we keep pushing for access, social safety nets, an end to the exploitation of precarious workers. Hang on to the dream of free child care and a doubled Newstart and extend that living allowance to disabled people. Address the housing crisis. Rebuild with the climate emergency in mind. As we head into prolonged economic crisis, we need to demand a universal basic income, robust public health; we need to fight for an ‘us’ that is all of us and a system that leaves no-one to die.

Grief can be demanding. Let this have mattered, it yells. Let what we have lost become a story we can tell to children, a story that explains who we were. Grief can sometimes be profoundly euphoric, a moment of great depth and possibility.

But the fact is that all these possibilities were already there. Inequality was killing people before COVID-19 arrived. The contrast dye pours through the body politic, reveals the weaknesses in its social structures and its social logic. But it didn’t put the abscess there. We’ve been letting it grow.


Image: Renè Magritte, ‘The Lovers’ (1928)

Jennifer Mills

Jennifer Mills was Overland fiction editor between 2012 and 2018. Her latest novel, The Airways, is out through Picador.

More by Jennifer Mills ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. I’d like to congratulate you on this article because more than so many I’ve read in the last months that seem like years – or days, I can feel the gut-wrenching reality of what is happening elsewhere – written so large. Sitting here in a cosmic safe zone in New Zealand – where success in our first battle with Covid-19 seems to have bestowed permission for so many to dance into complacency, it is easy to want to join in that dance. But this is no time for dancing, as it is no time for complacency. Your article reminds us all what we have lost – both the young and the old – but also what we stand to loose as partisanship and entitlement allow the sacrifice of many to enable a return to a ‘normalcy’ which favoured a few.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.