By Phil Hall
After the failure of the revolution in 1905 in Russia many of the revolutionaries despaired. Some of them committed suicide. Others slunk off to Great Britain, which gave them refuge. This was a moment of Thermidor, when counter revolution was victorious; a moment of pure despair.
Many supporters of the left, Bennites and Corbynites, socialists, strong social democrats, advanced liberals, progressive ecologists, socially concerned religious people, idealistic young people, workers in the community, trade unionists working for the welfare of their brothers and sisters, teachers, public sector workers, care workers … many people feel despair that Jeremy Corbyn’s labour lost the election.
They feel sick at the stomach as they watch Corbyn, McDonnell and Abbot’s political assassins gather around Keir Starmer. We feel desolate at the squandering of such an enormous opportunity to better the lives of the ordinary people of the United Kingdom.
But the gains of the French revolution were not all lost and ten years after the 1905 revolution the 1917 revolution in Russia was successful – until Stalin, taking advantage of the top heaviness of the Bolsheviks, orchestrated his coup.
We feel desolate at the squandering of such an enormous opportunity to better the lives of the ordinary people of the United Kingdom.
When all looks as if it is lost, in fact it isn’t. It is the moment for reassessment and understanding and for setting out in new and better directions. The ANC went through many dark, dark moments in exile, but one of the characteristics of the best comrades was that they stopped, took stock and moved forwards with renewed hope. Each defeat brought us closer to changing the racist regime in South Africa. I am sure there are young Palestinians and Israelis, even now, who are implacable optimists despite everything that has happened.
Dealing with an Existential Crisis
I want to write about something each of us faces in our lives: that moment of emptiness. It might be political, but it is also deeply personal: it is the moment when we look around and cannot extract enough meaning from our surroundings to justify being here; that moment when we have to face up to the abyss of a future, perhaps one governed by Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab.
But there are many things that can bring us to the abyss, not just politics. Some people are brought to the abyss because they are so full of feelings. Perhaps they love absolutely. In the end, your beloved cannot satisfy your need to give life meaning. Love is supremely important, but, like politics, it can lead you to the abyss. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The point is that we must all come to this crucial moment one way or another, if we want to understand and experience fully what it is to be human.
Another way that we can be lead into this abyss is to experience or witness, terrible, unbearable suffering. There is a moment when you see, or hear of, or imagine, something so awful, that everything else seems irrelevant and is wiped away. For example, the sight of a malnourished child sucking at its dead mother’s breast: that was something my father witnessed as Oxfam’s representative in Ethiopia in 1973. My mother was deeply affected by his account, though she herself had seen many awful things. In the end – after the initial horror – this galvanized her and made her more impatient for real change.
Congratulations! You have found another path to the abyss.
Then there is addiction. There are so many demons, aren’t there? And do you recognise that moment when one side of you begins to consume the whole of you: when it is destroying your health and relationships. Congratulations! You have found another path to the abyss.
Being a victim is a road to the abyss and despair: the victim of poverty, ill health, disfigurement, paralysis, constant pain, an unfortunate accident, of abuse.
How about boredom and the ordinariness of the bleached world around you? You were born in Rotting Dean. You live as a single mother in a small village full of gossips. You live in an abandoned industrial zone with polluted air and water. You were transported to some remote part of the country against your will and live there unwillingly. Nothing seems transcendent or numinous to you.
A spell is cast and you fall under it. The careers officer suggests that you work in a bank. Perhaps life is spent looking after sheep on a steep rocky mountainside. Maybe your husband is a filthy, violent and unattractive man. You spend three hours every day doing the laundry, and another three cooking and cleaning. In short, there are many paths to the edge of nothingness and despair, but we all come to it. One way or another.
I was with two other people having breakfast. It was a very nice breakfast; so nice that I took pictures of it and posted them on Facebook. We were talking about euthanasia. Should we have a right to kill ourselves?
Definitely, said one companion. Who wants to live experiencing such great pain?
What about the rugby player who broke his spine. He couldn’t move his legs, but he could move his upper body. He didn’t want to live any longer. Do you think he should have been allowed to go to Switzerland?
Who are we to decide for him?
But don’t you think that that if the young man was counselled, perhaps he would have changed his mind? If he had received therapy? After all, many people don’t have the full use of their legs and yet they have rich, fulfilled lives.
The man had a physical condition, yes. But his condition was also psychological.
Let’s take it further. Do you think it’s OK to encourage people who are depressed to end their lives?
Of course not.
In this fucking world if you are not occasionally depressed, then you are either a psychopath or a sociopath, or you are just fooling yourself.
What if the young man’s depression was compounded by being poor or made worse by the defeat of his football team or his political party?
Isn’t part of the the solution to change the world, to take action, not simply to off yourself?
Perhaps the reason why some people avoid coming to terms with life, almost until the moment they die, is because they think they can’t handle life and they feel that the world around them is unchangeable and fixed. They feel powerless to make it better.
When you reach the edge it means that all the clockwork of your life has run down. The story doesn’t seem to make any sense any more. Your upbringing and your education and the values you have inherited and the opinions of the people you know and the opinions the people who demand respect no longer hold water. Perhaps your parents voted Tory or Liberal Democrat and you feel forlorn. The meaning drains away.
Still, at a personal level, you can’t blame everything on the world, however unpleasantly, and unfairly it is currently configured. Anyone with soul, one way or another, will come to the abyss.
Everything comes from Nothing
It sounds unconvincing, but don’t you think that if you can steady yourself, to reach this point can be a great thing: a powerful thing; a moment of rebirth? Because from that moment of nothingness, everything can come forth in a tremendous act of self-creation and determination. You must now learn to generate meaning in all that you see around you, or it won’t be there. In doing so you become an artist: a revolutionary.
Sometimes, we need to welcome these moments of despair when we have nothing to say, when our side has lost, when we are empty.
You could decide to become kinder, more open and understanding; humble and forgiving. You can choose to see worth where you didn’t before. Perhaps you will be able to bear pain you previously thought was unbearable. Maybe, at your wits end, you will find the courage to stand up against injustice, oppression, exploitation, bullying and cruelty. Perhaps you will be energised more than ever to fight for a human, socialist society despite the current Tory shitstorm.
You must now learn to generate meaning in all that you see around you, or it won’t be there. In doing so you become an artist: a revolutionary.
I am reminded of three scenes: two from fiction and one from a book by Edward Grey.
The first is the scene in War and Peace when Pierre lies down on his back and looks at the “high everlasting sky”.
The second is the story Edward Grey, the Kabbalist, tells. He and his friend are waiting to be evacuated from Dunkirk and all around them it is carnage. The German bombs and shells are falling and Edward turns to his friend and asks:
Did you bring your chess set?
And his friend replies, Yes, but there is a piece missing.
Never mind, we’ll improvise.
And with the violence all around them, they play chess.
And the third is the moment in the book by Garcia Marquez, “El Coronel no Tiene a Nadie Quien le escribe”:
La mujer se desesperó.
Y mientras tanto qué comemos?” preguntó, y agarró al coronel por el cuello de la franela. Lo sacudió con energía.
Dime, qué comemos.
El coronel necesitó setenta y cinco años —los setenta y cinco años de su vida, minuto a minuto— para llegar a ese instante. Se sintió puro, explícito, invencible, en el momento de responder. ‘
“The woman was desperate. And meanwhile, what are we going to eat? she asked, and grabbed the colonel by the lapel of his coat. She shook it hard.
Tell me, what are we going to eat?
The colonel needed seventy five years the seventy five years of his life, minute by minute to reach this instant. He felt pure, clear and invincible, at the very moment he answered.
Sometimes, we need to welcome these moments of despair: when we have nothing to say, when our side has lost, when we are empty. When we don’t know what to do, when we are desperate and when our path forwards becomes unclear and Jeremy Corbyn is back in his allotment instead of in no. 10 Downing Street.
We should be happy, perhaps, that we come to this abyss, because it presents us with an opportunity; an opportunity to create, to revolt, to identify what’s important and to act on it and, perhaps, to decide firmly to recommit to changing the world for the better.
Phil Hall is a university lecturer working in the Middle East. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain and Mexico. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine.