"Besides my other numerous circle of acquaintances I have one more intimate confidant—my melancholy. In the midst of my joy, in the midst of my work, she waves to me, calls me to one side, even though physically I stay put. My melancholy is the most faithful mistress I have known, what wonder, then, that I love her in return." — Kierkegaard
Following my earlier piece on ruins, I had for sometime intended to write a companion piece on melancholy. This intent never succeeded in fully manifesting itself, until I was reminded of it by this article, In Praise of Melancholy:
"I for one am afraid that American culture’s overemphasis on happiness at the expense of sadness might be dangerous, a wanton forgetting of an essential part of a full life. I further am concerned that to desire only happiness in a world undoubtedly tragic is to become inauthentic, to settle for unrealistic abstractions that ignore concrete situations. I am finally fearful of our society’s efforts to expunge melancholia. Without the agitations of the soul, would all of our magnificently yearning towers topple? Would our heart-torn symphonies cease?
My fears grow out of my suspicion that the predominant form of American happiness breeds blandness. This kind of happiness appears to disregard the value of sadness. This brand of supposed joy, moreover, seems to foster an ignorance of life’s enduring and vital polarity between agony and ecstasy, dejection and ebullience. Trying to forget sadness and its integral place in the great rhythm of the cosmos, this sort of happiness insinuates that the blues are an aberrant state that should be cursed as weakness of will or removed with the help of a little pink pill.
I’m not questioning joy in general. For instance, I’m not challenging that unbearable exuberance that suddenly emerges from long suffering. I’m not troubled by that hard-earned tranquillity that comes from long meditation on the world’s sorrows. I’m not criticizing that slow-burning bliss that issues from a life spent helping those who hurt. And I’m not romanticizing clinical depression. I realize that there are many lost souls out there who require medication to keep from killing themselves or harming their friends and families. I’m not questioning pharmaceutical therapies for the seriously depressed or simply to make existence bearable for so many with biochemical disorders… Our culture seems to confuse these two and thus treats melancholia as an aberrant state, a vile threat to our pervasive notions of happiness — happiness as immediate gratification, happiness as superficial comfort, happiness as static contentment. Of course the question immediately arises: Who wouldn’t question this apparently hollow form of American happiness? Aren’t all of us late at night, when we’re honest with ourselves, opposed to shallow happiness? Most likely we are, but isn’t it possible that many of us fall into superficiality without knowing it?"
As an argument, this cleaves to the ideas of dystopian novels like A Clockwork Orange or Brave New World that the possibility of stripping away unwanted aspects of ourselves will also dehumanise us or deprive us of our freedom. It’s an argument I have a lot of sympathy for, as I tend to feel that modern society mandates happiness, demands it as something to be conformed to even as depression becomes an every greater social ill. According to the World Health Organisation, depression is now the fifth leading cause of death and disability in the world, leaving ischemic heart disease trailing in sixth place. I also feel that modern society is equally capable of embracing melancholy as a uniform, as with the gothic subculture. It becomes a little difficult to complain too much of modern happiness when bands like The Cure, The Smiths, The Manic Street Preachers or Nirvana have had albums outselling their manufactured counterparts.
Melancholy as a concept exists in multiple forms, which warily circle one another, never joing but never quite departing from one another. The Portuguese term, saudaude denotes a feeling of longing for something that one is fond of, which is gone. It is as close to nostalgia as melancholy. The Finnish Kaiho means a state of involuntary solitude in which the subject feels incompleteness and yearns for something unattainable or extremely difficult and tedious to attain. The German Sehnsucht relates to an inconsolable longing, while Japanese "empathy toward things," or "pity toward things," is used to describe the awareness of the transience of things and a gentle sadness at their passing. The importance of the cherry in Japanese culture is due to cherry blossoms symbolising the transience of life because of their short blooming times. In Italian, noia, or ennui, is a particular nuance of melancholy, infused with lingering, incompleteness, loss, and inconsolability. In Russian, toska translates as "the ache." As Nabokov put it in his notes on translating Eugene Onegin; "No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody or something specific, nostalgia, lovesickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom, skuka." The Arabic word found as huzn and hazan in the Qur’an refers to the pain and sorrow over a loss. Two schools further interpreted this feeling. The first sees it as a sign that one is too attached to the material world, while Sufism took it to represent a feeling of personal insuffiency, that one was not getting close enough to God and did not or could not do enough for God in this world. Orhan Pamuk argued in his recent biography of Istanbul that in modern Turkish it has come to denote a sense of failure in life, lack of initiative and to retreat into oneself, symptoms quite similar to melancholia.
Nonetheless, melancholy was known within Europe as "the English disease." Even as apparently stolid a figure as Dr Johnson could believe that he was damned, wished to be confined and whipped, take opium to alleviate his miseries and write that "this day it came into my mind to write the history of melancholy. On this purpose to deliberate. I know not whether it may be too much to disturb me… I inherited a vile melancholy from my father, which has made me mad all my life" In 1733, Dr George Cheyne speculated that the English climate, combined with sedentary lifestyles and urbanisation, "have brought forth a class of distemper with atrocious and frightful symptoms, scarce known to our ancestors, and never rising to such fatal heights, and afflicting such numbers in any known nation. These nervous disorders being computed to make almost one-third of the complaints of the people of condition in England." To the English, the disease was "the English malady." One can go back further, to 1586 and Timothy Bright’s A Treatise of Melancholie; "The perturbations of melancholy are for the most parte, sadde and fearful, and such as rise of them: as distrust, doubt, diffidence, or dispaire, sometimes furious and sometimes merry in apparaunce, through a kinde of Sardonian, and false laughter, as the humour is disposed that procureth these diversities."
The term "melancholia" comes from the old medical theory of the four humours: disease being caused by an imbalance in one or other of the four basic bodily fluids, or humours. Personality types were similarly determined by the dominant humour in a particular person. Melancholia was caused by an excess of black bile; leading to a melancholic disposition. Melancholia was described as a distinct disease with particular mental and physical symptoms in the fifth and fourth centuries BC. Hippocrates, in his Aphorisms, characterized all "fears and despondencies, if they last a long time" as being symptomatic of melancholia. The actual word Melancholia is derived from Arabic, specifically Ishaq ibn Imran’s essay entitled Maqala fi-l-Malikhuliya, which discovered a foolish acts, fear, delusions and hallucinations under the term "malikhuliya," which Constantine the African translated into Latin as "melancolia." The doctrine of the four humours was modified somewhat in the fourth century when it came under the influence of the portrayals of madness in Greek tragedy and the Platonic notion of "divine frenzy," beginning the transformation of an essentially pathological taxonomy (the classical doctrine of the Four Humours) into a psychological one (the medieval theory of the Four Temperaments). As Agamben puts it; "Melancholy or black bile (melaina chole) is the humour whose disorders are liable to produce the most destructive consequences. In medieval humoral cosmology, melancholy is traditionally associated with the earth, autumn (or winter), the dry element, cold, the north wind, the color black, old age (or maturity); its planet is Saturn, among whose children the melancholic finds himself with the hanged man, the cripple, the peasant, the gambler, the monk, and the swineherd."
Aristotle had seen a connection between melancholy – an excess in a person of black bile – and eminence in philosophy, politics, and poetry, instancing the mythic hero Hercules and the great philosophers Empedocles, Socrates, and Plato. According to Aristotle, the ancients called melancholy "the sacred disease." Before him Plato had linked trance-like raging or frenzy to the abilities to prophesy, to perform priestly functions, to compose divine poetry, and, even, to love truly. Marsilio Ficino’s De vita triplici (1489), the first book to treat of melancholy at any length, rehabilitated the Aristotelian notion of the gifted melancholic, and expressly tied it in with the Plato’s "divine frenzy," thereby laying the intellectual foundations for a new type of man, the tortured genius, pitched back and forth between the heights of rapture and the depths of despair. Ficino linked melancholy to the astrological notion of being born under, or being at critical moments influenced by, Saturn or his spirits – Saturn being the furthest and slowest of the seven known planets and the god of old age and contemplation. From this analysis of planetary influence emerged the idea of our possessing an inner "saturnian" spirit, "daemon," or genius, and eventually the romantic and modern notion of the mad, afflicted, or wounded genius.
Predictably enough, the origins of English and European melancholy are also inextricably linked to christianity and the context of a society with high rates of mortality and comparatively brief lifespans. Rather than looking to medicine, early christianity had attributed sadness and lethargy to a condition called acedia, which opened the way to the work of the Devil. Anglo-Saxon literature was preoccupied with ideas of destiny and transience, with the Old English word dustceawung denotes contemplation of the dust. The Ruin depicts a fallen city, whose majesty has been vanquished. Poems like The Wanderer and The Seafarer treat of exile and isolation, with the latter proclaiming that "hotter for me are the joys of the Lord than this dead life fleeting on the land. I do not believe that the riches of the world will stand forever." The typical images of melancholy are often those that arise from medieval art; the danse macabre, with its dancing depiction of the Grim Reaper carrying off rich and poor alike, as with Holbein’s later engraving of the Totentanz. Doom painting would show rich and poor languishing in the fire of hell, as well as graves opening on the day judgement. The imagery of skulls and hourglasses on tombstones. Sundials decorated with refrains like ‘Orimur morimur’ (We have risen and we have set) or ‘We shall soon die all’ (the latter being a rather excruciating pun on sundial). The thanatophilia is qualitatively different from the sense behind ‘carpe Diem’ or ‘nunc est bibendum.’ Clocks were decorated with mottos such as ‘ultima forsan’ (perhaps the last) or ‘vulnerant omnes, ultima necat’ (they all wound, and the last kills) and most famously ‘tempus fugit’ (time flies). Private people carried smaller reminders of their own mortality. Mary Queen of Scots owned a large watch carved in the form of a silver skull, embellished with the lines of Horace, Nunc est Bibendum. Astronomical clocks would often have the skeletal figure of death emerge to strike the hour.
Nonetheless, the period most associated with melancholy is the fifteenth century. At this period, the transi, or cadaver tomb, a tomb which depicts the decayed corpse of the deceased became a fashion in the tombs of the wealthy. The advent of painting created the Vanitas genre, with its depiction of skulls, flowers losing their petals and broken loot strings. Holbein’s The Ambassadors famously includes the distorted image of a skull as an intercision into a scene of courtly ostentation. This is the period of Dowland’s In Darkness Let Me dwell, Campion’s The Cypress Curtain of the Night (both following Josquin Desprez’s chanson Plaine de dueil et de melancolye, which speaks of an unbearable woe which can be relieved only through complete submission to an object of love.) and Donne’s A Valediction of Weeping. As Dean of St Paul’s, Donne carried a hourglass into his pulpit to remind the congregation "from the first minute that thou beginst to live, thou beginst to die too." This is also the man who proclained; "they tell me it is my melancholly. Did I infuse, did I drink in melancholly into myselfe? It is my thoughtfulnesse, was I not made to thinke?" Shakespeare was to return to the theme many times, as in The Taming of the Shrew, where "melancholy is the nurse of phrenzy." Later, John Milton was to write in Il Penseroso; "Hail, divinest Melancholy!, Whose Saintly visage is too bright, To hit the Sense of human sight; And therefore to our weaker view, O’er-laid with black, staid Wisdom’s hue."
More specifically, this is the period that saw the rise of subjectivity or the discovery of the individual and of the artist, with the transition from craftsman and workshops to named artists. The European nobility had already undergone this sort of psychological shift in their transformation from a warrior class to a collection of courtiers. In the late 16th and 17th centuries, the change becomes far more widespread, affecting even artisans, peasants, and labourers. The new emphasis on disengagement and self-consciousness made the individual potentially more autonomous and critical of existing social arrangements, but also transformed into a kind of walled fortress, carefully defended from everyone else. Mirrors in which to examine oneself become popular among those who can afford them, along with self-portraits (Rembrandt painted more than fifty of them, not to mention Foucault’s preferred examples of Velasquez and Las Meninas or the fact that Durer was one of the first artists to draw and paint his own mirror reflection) and autobiographies in which to revise and elaborate the image that one has projected to others. In bourgeois homes, public spaces that guests may enter are differentiated, for the first time, from the private spaces – bedrooms, for example – in which one may retire to let down one’s guard and truly "be oneself." More decorous forms of entertainment – plays and operas requiring people to remain immobilised, each in his or her separate seat – begin to provide an alternative to the promiscuously interactive and physically engaging pleasures of carnival. The very word "self," ceased to be a mere reflexive or intensifier and achieves the status of a freestanding noun, referring to some inner core, not readily visible to others.
A number of social trends are cited in this context, such as the prevalence of death through plague and warfare and the failure of the society to provide occupations for its educated class. Under Elizabeth there had been a considerable increase of educational activity, with a consequent heightening of men’s expectations, exacerbated by self-fashioning texts in the vein of Castiglione’s The Courtier. Even before the close of the sixteenth century there were more than a few who could find no place in the existing organization of the state. The notion of a self hidden behind one’s appearance and portable from one situation to another is also often attributed to the new possibility of upward mobility. In medieval culture, you were what you appeared to be – a peasant, a man of commerce or an aristocrat – and any attempt to assume another status would have been regarded as rank deception. But in the late 16th century, upward mobility was beginning to be possible or at least imaginable, making "deception" a widespread way of life. You might not be a lord or a lofty burgher, but you could find out how to act like one. Hence the popularity, in 17th-century England, of books instructing the would-be member of the gentry in how to comport himself, write an impressive letter and choose a socially advantageous wife. Hence, too, the new fascination with the theatre, with its notion of an actor who is different from his or her roles. Shakespeare’s Portia pretends to be a doctor of law; Rosalind disguises herself as a boy; Juliet feigns her own death. Writing a few years after Shakespeare’s death, Burton bemoaned the fact that acting was no longer confined to the theatre, for "men like stage-players act [a] variety of parts." It was painful, in his view, "to see a man turn himself into all shapes like a Chameleon … to act twenty parts & persons at once for his advantage … having a several face, garb, & character, for every one he meets."
Most importantly, the reformation has inaugurated a shift from the more socially directed aspects of Catholicism to Protestantism’s focus on faith alone; an emphasis of the self was an unintended product of this, in contrast to the medieval focus on the extinction of the self advocated by Thomas a Kempis. Catholicism offered various palliatives to the disturbed and afflicted, in the form of rituals designed to win divine forgiveness or at least diminished disapproval. By contrast, the Puritan strains of Protestantism did no such thing; instead of offering relief, they provided a metaphysical framework for depression: if you felt isolated, persecuted and possibly damned, this was because you were predestined to be so. In Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, carnival is the portal to Hell, just as pleasure in any form – sexual, gustatory, convivial – is the devil’s snare. Durkheim found that Protestants in the 19th century – not all of whom, of course, were of the Calvinistic persuasion – were about twice as likely to take their own lives as Catholics. More strikingly, a recent analysis finds a sudden surge of suicide in the Swiss canton of Zurich, beginning in the late 16th century, just as that region became a Calvinist stronghold.
The overthrow of the Catholic church was also an assault on all known metaphysical certainties, leading to the importance of the concept of mutability in Elizabethan literature, as in Spenser’s cantos on the subject. As such, with Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, the melancholic is also often the malcontent, the overreacher. Edmund in King Lear notes that "My cue is villainous melancholy, with a sigh like Tom o’Bedlam." For Shakespeare, living in an age whose metaphysical certainties had been upturned by state decree, conviction is rarely possible. His characters instead defy augury, dramatising their consciousness and examining their own roles. Hamlet is the overreacher, the machiavel, the fool and the wronged hero, failing to become, as Eliot had it, a clear objective correlative for the events of the play. The particular religious significance of Hamlet is that at the head of the hierarchy of sins held by the Elizabethan religious orthodoxy lies the sin of despair. Despair represents a refusal or inability to enter into relationship with God, and, as a result, a distancing from God’s grace. Hamlet’s melancholy causes him to distrust his first inclinations toward the apparition he has encountered (an apparition whose very existence ran contrary to the theology of the time), and to test them through the device of the mousetrap scene. In effect, he accepts the popular belief that the Devil considers melancholics to be ripe for deception – a belief which looks suspiciously upon melancholy and considers it to be a possible reflection of moral or ethical lapses. But equally, Hamlet’s soliloquies can be read as conventional statements on the transience of mortal life; "I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercise; and indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire: why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours." If medieval melancholy is a simple ailment or expression of theological commonplaces, it is an expression of both theological and metaphysical confusion in Elizabethan literature. Hamlet’s "fellow of infinite jest" is surely a conventional and orthodox memento mori.
The same theological and metaphysical confusion lies at the heart of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, with its influence on Byron, Keats and Lamb. Burton describes his text as "a rhapsody of rags gathered from several dung hills, excrement of authors, toys and fopperies confusedly tumbled out," and frequently withdraws from any sense of authorial authority; "But where am I? Into what subject have I rushed? What have I to do with Nuns, Maids, Virgins, Widows? I am a bachelor myself and lead a monastick life in a college." It can probably be best described as a fallen summa theologica, an attempt to account for the lack of metaphysical certainty in a post-reformation world ("the superstition of our age, our religious madness"), cataloguing the myriad schisms undergone by the church and the number of fanatics that have founded new cults as "they drive out one superstition with another… how many silly souls have imposters deluded!". It incessantly probes the boundaries of the immaterial and the naturalistic, cataloguing anecdotes in an encyclopaedic manner (a painter who tortured a man in order to depict it, a Swiftian tale of medical treatment by applying bellows to the fundament). The summa encompasses both the christian and the pagan, leading Burton into some rather heterodox observations. For instance, his dismissal of asceticism; "a company of cynics… that contemn the world, contemn themselves… yet in that contempt are more proud than any man living whatsoever," his dismissal of the virtuous nature of poverty "there are those that approve of a mean estate but on condition that they never want themselves," or his appeal for understanding of suicides; "we ought not to be so rash and rigorous in our censures as some are." Whilst still avowing religious orthodoxy, the dialogic approach Burton adopts castigates other religions and christian sects as well as questioning some of the basic tenets of christianity; "why does he suffer so much mischief and evil to be done, if he is able to help, why doth he not assist good or resist bad?" Burton also decouples religion and morality, arguing that "the nature of injury" is sufficient to keep men obedient to the law. Finally, he also questions the validity of a universal religion, suggesting the need for infinite religions for infinite circumstances.
Similarly, Sir Thomas Browne’s Urne Burial has a marked tension between Browne’s faith in christ and the resurrection on the one hand and by his antiquarian interest in such pagan habits as cremation and mummification on the other; Baconian scepticism and mysticism in one text. As he put it "I perceive I doe anticipate the vices of the age, the world to me is but a dreame or mockshow, and wee all therein but Pantalones and Antickes to my severer contemplations." Therefore "tis all but one to lie in St Innocent’s Churchyard as in the sands of Aegypt… The winter sun shows how soon the light fades from the ash, how soon night enfolds us. Hour upon hour is added to the sum. Time itself grows old. Pyramids, arches and obelisks are melting pillars of snow…. The heaviest stone that melancholy can throw at a man is to tell him he is at the end of his nature."
The consummate expression of melancholy in the visual arts is undoubtedly Durer’s Melencolia I, with its individualized and self-absorbed figure, lost in thought and unable to take up her tools. The prototypical pose of melancholy dates back to the classical period, with statues of the deranged Ajax existing in that pose. It was followed by Domenico Fetti’s St Peter (Fetti also gave one of his works the simple title Melancholy), Mary by de Zurbaran, St John, a 13th-century icon by Deodato di Orlando, and St. John the Baptist in the Desert (1480-85), a painting by Gérard de Saint-Jean, both show the prophet’s head resting on his right arm. The posture was soon borrowed by secular painting, as in Nicholas Hillard’s Portrait of Henry Percy and, in the 17th century, in Michael Sweerts’s Portrait of a Young Man. A century later, Goya used it for Portrait of Don Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, as did van Gogh in Portrait of Dr. Paul Gachet and arguably Rodin in The Thinker.
Erwin Panofsky believed that Melencolia I presented "a spiritual self portrait of the artist inspired by celestial influences and eternal ideas, but [one who] suffers all the more deeply from his human frailty and intellectual finiteness." One of the characteristics of Durer’s picture is its superabundance of ‘overdetermined’ symbols, the comet and the rainbow, the ladder that appears to change plane halfway up, the three nails, one with a double tine and their possible allusion to the crucifixion. The purse, the keys and the clenched fist, for example, are all associated with avarice, one of the vices attributed to melancholy in the medieval period; the crown of watercress and water parsley around the angel’s brow are an antidote to the dry humour of the melancholic; the magic square is designed to invoke the healing influence of Jupiter. Panofsky concluded that Durer’s angel is a personification of Geometry overcome with Melancholy (or Melancholy giving herself up to Geometry) and was in all likelihood inspired by a follower of Ficino, the German philosopher Agrippa devon Nettesheim, whose book, De Occulta Philosophia, draws heavily on the Italian’s work, and a draft of which was sent to Dürer’s friend Johannes Trithemius, in 1510, just four years before the engraving was made. In De Occulta Philosophia, Agrippa distinguishes three kinds of melancholy: melancholia imaginationis, melancholia rationis and melancholia mentis, arranged in an ascending hierarchy. The first holds sway over the untutored, a category that includes architects and painters; the second, over philosophers, physicians and orators; the third, over contemplatives to whom God’s mysteries have been revealed. Shakespeare advanced something similar in As You Like It: "I have neither the scholar’s melancholy, which is emulation; nor the musician’s, which is fantastical; nor the courtier’s, which is proud; not the soldier’s which is ambitious; nor the lawyer’s, which is politic; nor the lady’s, which is nice; nor the lover’s, which is all these: but it is a melancholy of mine own, compounded of many simples, extracted from many objects, and indeed the sundry contemplation of my travels, which, by often rumination, wraps me in a most humorous sadness." Panofsky concludes from this that Durer’s angel is a portrayal of the first of these, melancholia imaginationis, surrounded by her instruments but sunk in gloom at the thought of having accomplished nothing. More recently, Joseph Leo Koerner, has argued that Durer’s symbolic presentation of melancholy offers more clues for cultural analysis more than personal biography: "The Melencholia engraving thus seems to articulate a pivotal moment in the history of subjectivity. Where the Middle Ages substantialised inwardness as the excess of black bile and moralized that excess as the deadly sin of acedia [moral sloth], the Renaissance abstracted inwardness as an inherent quality of creative genius and valorized its effects in the originality of the artist, whose works are wholly his own."
Subsequently, melancholy seems to be held in abeyance. Diderot and Alembert dedicate a short article in their encyclopaedia to it, which recapitulates many medieval commonplaces regarding bile in spite of references to examining the brains of melancholics during autopsies. This is the age of "la douce melancolie." Nonetheless, the school of graveyard poetry developed much of what was to become romanticism, as with Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard; "Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife… Melancholy mark’d him for her own" Sentimental novels like Manon Lescaut were to create a new focus upon the interior life in terms that were often highly similar to sixteenth century descriptions of the melancholic lover. Prevost’s Manon Lescaut is like the works of Defoe and Fielding, episodic in nature rather than operating a linear narrative; events proceed through coincidence and accident rather than by causality. The characters of the novel accordingly vary with the circumstance; Manon being devoted and fickle by turns. Although the narrative is cast in the form of a fable, there is no redemption or repentance anymore than there is damnation ("a craven little soul, so devoid of feeling, that he could not see the humiliation of it… or else a christian… I was neither one thing or the other"), with Des Grieux even arguing that his love for Manon is akin to religious devotion or that it is unexceptional when one considers "that a mistress is nothing to be ashamed of nowadays." Prevost also suggests that Des Grieux’s crimes are not of his own making; "knowing neither the mad lust for money.. nor the fantastic notions of hnour that had turned my father into an enemy." The novel is fundamentally a sentimental one, valuing natural emotion over the unnatural morals of his father, something that further serves to distort the moral fable at the novel’s core.
Similarly, Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther also presents an interesting dialectic between Romantic ideas of nature and rationalist ideas. Werther speaks of "my resolve to keep to Nature alone in future. Only Nature has inexhaustible riches, and only Nature creates a great artist." Nonetheless he also later reverts to a less idealised conception of nature when he writes; "Nature, which has brought forth nothing that does not destroy both its neighbour and itself." Werther’s fall is characterised by his loss of feeling for nature (though the editor speaks of Werther’s ‘natural powers’ being confounded) but it equally suggests that Nature has a dual role within the novel. When debating with Albert he defends the Romantic individual against the contempt of the mundane masses, only to be told; "a man wholly under the influence of his passions has lost his ability to think rationally," before Albert states that suicide is simply a display of weakness where fortitude was called for.
Only towards the very end of the century, when the French Revolution begins devouring its own children, does the black sun of melancholy once more start to rise. Most famously, the term is reintroduced by Keats in his Ode to Melancholy; "Aye, in the very temple of Delight, Veiled Melancholy has her sov’reign shrine, Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue, Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine, His soul shall taste the sadness of her might, And be among her cloudy trophies hung." Keats had written that "I have an habitual feeling of my real life having past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence… Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul?" repeating the idea of the melancholic as one given special insights; the only way to engage the great mysteries of life is to suffer "Misery and Heartbreak, Pain, Sickness and oppression."
This next chapter in the history of melancholy comes once more with a change to how society came to regard the individual, with the advent of romanticism. The romantic stress upon the internalised quest romance further accentuates the role of the individual, as tormented genius and as rebel, as in Byron’s Manfred and Shelley’s Alastor. There are two aspects to this. Firstly, the destruction of the ancien regime itself acted to further decouple the individual from their assigned social roles, ending Burke’s "age of chivalry" and introducing a paradox whereby although romanticism often tended to be radical in its politics it also aestheticised medieval chivalry. Individuals felt that they should be able to rise up through society in the same way that Napoleon had done, leading once more to the problem of over-educated young men unable to realise their ambitions, as with Stendhal’s Julien Sorel or Balzac’s Philippe Bridau. More crudely put, the unleashing of the terror, and the consequent betrayals of enlightenment aspirations, create a new emphasis on the melancholic, the most noted examples of which being Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son, The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters, and Yard with Lunatics, the latter rearticulating the melancholic linkage of imagination and madness that is also present in Fuseli’s paintings (The Artist Moved by the Grandeur of Ancient Ruins alludes to sublimity in its title but also uses the standard tropes of melancholy in its depiction).
Secondly, romantic aesthetics existed at a particular intersection with religion that emphasised only remote and fleeting glimpses of the infinite being granted to solitary individuals. In his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, Burke had defined these two modes as being "ideas of a very different nature, one being founded on pain , the other on pleasure." , going onto define the one as dark and gloomy, the other the reverse." Kant views the sublime as an attempt to grasp an absolute conception of magnitude, while the beautiful is restricted to the phenomenal world. Kant describes the sublime as a complex feeling that combines both displeasure and pleasure. The displeasure is caused by the agitation and overwhelming of the senses and imagination which struggle but fail to take in the vastness or power of the sublime object. In the dynamically sublime the displeasure also seems to be caused by a feeling verging on fear. We feel so overwhelmed by the object that we would fear for our lives, except that we are safe and secure, and thus able to experience a sense of awe rather than genuine fear. Kant points to how sublime objects invite melancholy: "Thus any spectator who beholds massive mountain climbing skyward, deep gorges with raging streams in them, wastelands lying in deep shadow and inviting melancholy meditation, and so on is seized by amazement bordering on terror." The experience of the sublime is consequently a devastating one that the individual is not fully able to intuit. Thus Wordsworth in The Prelude writes of how "I grew up, fostered alike by beauty and by fear… terrors, pains, and early miseries, … interfused within my mind … (made) up the calm existence that is mine." The Lyrical Ballads are replete with examples of solitary figures; for example in The Mad Mother the narrator writes that "I am happy when I sing, Full many a doleful thing… if thou art mad, my pretty lad, Then I must be for ever sad." In some respects romantic melancholia is a critique of Kantian aesthetics, emphasising horror and fear rather than awe and terror. Something similar pertains to literature and to the creation of the gothic novel in particular. Ann Radcliffe drew a distinction between terror and horror; the former we are told expands the soul, the latter only creates revulsion, with that being the part dwelt on by the likes of Lewis, Beckford and Maturin. Similarly, Edgar Allan Poe opens Premature Burial by declaring "there are certain themes of which the
interest is all absorbing, but which are too entirely horrible for the purposes of legitimate fiction". The opening section of the story constitutes a discussion of the division between the sublime and the grotesque, terror and horror. The discussion is nonetheless strangely inconclusive. Intitially, we are told "these the mere romanicist must eschew, if we do not wish to offend, or to disgust". Many of Poe’s critical principles are romantic so we would naturally assume that
he himself ought to avoid such themes, but the phrase "mere romanticist" alerts us that this issue is more complex that that. Poe justifies his continuation by saying "they are with propriety handled only when the severity and majesty of truth sanctify and sustain them". As the story progresses the cataleptic malady becomes equated with horror rather than terror. The narrator describes his "very horror of thought" and states that "my fancy grew charnel". In
the earlier section we had been told that "fancy" usually viewed as inferior to the imagination in romantic thought, as with Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, is impressed by terror which is here seen as inevitably degenerating to horror and disgust, as in the narrator’s dream "I fell prey to perpetual horror". By Poe’s own criteria, he seems to indulge these "morbid" instincts on the part of both reader and author, only to disperse them "the imagintion of man is no Carathis, to explore with impunity its every cavern".
This critique of sublimity through melancholy is perhaps most evident in the work of Kleist and Thomas DeQuincey. Kleist’s works presents rather bizarre combination of ontological ideas. One the one hand, he developed a pre-Nietzchean form of pessimism surrounding Kant’s distinction of the unknowability of things as noumena and as phenomena, so that his work is replete with ironic misprisions, with tragic consequences in The Betrothal in Santo Domingo, The Foundling and The Earthquake in Chile. However, this also leads to an emphasis on supernaturalism as inThe Beggarwoman of Locarno and St Cecilia or The Power of Music, implying a divine ordering in the sense that Kant had originally intended, rather than Kleist’s original pessimistic interpretation. At one point in The Confessions of an English Opium-Eater DeQuincey informs the reader that "in his happiest state, the opium reader cannot present himself in the character of L’Allegro; even there he speaks … as becomes Il’ Penseroso." In his Letters To a Young Man DeQuincey writes that Kant did not offer universal rules by which certain problems could be tested, but that "by raising the station of the spectator… the very faculty of comprehending these questions will often depend on the station from which they are viewed." The spectator is the centre of a number of varying reactions, making the narrator the centre a function as much as a persona. To Kant the mind exists in an indeterminate relation to the aesthetic object, unless in the presence of the sublime. At this point the imagination fails to grasp totality but because of this failure the reason is able to intuit the existence of the infinite. The obvious problem with this is that order in the system is maintained at the temporary expense of the subject, which is crushed by the overbearing presence of the sublime. Whereas to Wordsworth the shock of the sublime encoded within the spots of time has the effect of forcingan ultimate awareness of the infinite upon an closed mind, DeQuincey remains unconvinced as to whether the sublime allows anything other than the mind reconstructing reality upon its own terms. It therefore comes as no surprise when The English Mail Coach we were told of how "the dreamer finds housed within himself – occupying … some separate chamber in his brain … his own nature repeated." The finite self is left eternally striving in much the same manner as Piranesi on his staircase, "God, seems to be scure and deep, only so long as the presence of man and his restless and unquiet spirit are not there."
Pre-eminent in the visual arts are works like Caspar David Friedrich’s Cloister Graveyard in the Snow and Arnold Bocklin’s The Island of the Dead. As an aspect of conventional romantic aesthetics, David Friedrich’s paintings often feature landscapes with a single figure with her or his back to the beholder, but both themes, dwell rather more on decay and contain echoes of the Middle Ages, for, much as the medieval hermit withdrew to the desert for purgation, only to fall prey there to the temptations of demons, so the solitary Romantic turns to nature for spiritual replenishment, only to be beset by visions of an infinite and possibly indifferent universe. The Romantic fascination with ruins can, after all, ultimately be traced back to the medieval tradition of apocalypse.
The nineteenth century can in many respects be regarded as the zenith of melancholy. Schopenhauer had written of how "abnormal sensitiveness produces inequality of spirits, a predominating melancholy, with periodical fits of unrestrained liveliness. A genius is one whose nervous power or sensitiveness is largely in excess; as Aristotle has very correctly observed, Men distinguished in philosophy, politics, poetry or art appear to be all of a melancholy temperament." The pessimism of Schopenhauer’s philosophy, combined with the death of god heralded by Nietzsche and Darwin led to Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Tennyson’s In Memoriam and Arnold’s Dover Beach (" Sophocles long ago, Heard it on the Aegaean, and it brought, Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow, Of human misery… The Sea of Faith Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore, Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled. But now I only hear, Its melancholy"). The lines in Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, "While you live, Drink! — for, once dead, you never shall return," mark the return of a pagan melancholy that had not been witnessed since the likes of Horace. Equally, this was a period that constructed lavish funerary monuments in the style of classical temples or gothic cathedrals and decorated them with Egyptian spinxes. The impression is invariably of an industrialised and deracinated society that had lost contact with its own funerary traditions and instead retreated into something that more resembled a collage of differing styles. The invention of photography also ushered in the advent of mortuary photography, something daguerreotype photography was well suited to. Intrigued by psychiatric research some artists and photographers followed in Hogarth’s footsteps to visit asylums to paint and draw the insane. Nonetheless, it was also a period when melancholy’s connections with ideas of the divine frenzy and the sublime were severed and it grew increasingly marginalised as something decadent and diseased. This went hand in hand with, for the middle classes at least, a declining awareness of death and mortality. Even tuberculosis, the disease feted by Sontag as the central metaphor of the Victorian era, was something increasingly confined to sanatoria. As Walter Benjamin put it; "It has been observed for a number of centuries how in the general consciousness the thought of death has declined in omnipresence and vividness… in the course of the nineteenth century bourgeois society has, by means of hygienic and social, private and public institutions, realized a secondary effect which may have been its subconscious main purpose: to make it possible for people to avoid the sight of the dying. Dying was once a public process in the life of the individual and a most exemplary one. In the course of modern times dying has been pushed further and further out of the perceptual world of the living. There used to be no house, hardly a room, in which someone had not died. Today people live in rooms that have never been touched by death, dry dwellers of eternity, and when their end approaches they are stowed away in sanatoria or hospitals by their heirs." Put in Foucauldean terms, it was a period when the birth of clinic sundered the melancholic from society into a specially devised category. Experiences like those of the Bronte sisters, growing up amidst the graves of the churchyard, were to become increasingly unusual, with new cemeteries being built outside of populous areas, as with Brookwood and Kensal Green.
During this period, the historian Janet Oppenheim argued, "severely depressed patients frequently revealed fears of financial ruin or the expectation of professional disgrace," as with characters like the Dorrit family in the Marshalsea prison in Little Dorrit. This is not autonomy but dependency: the emerging "self" defines its own worth in terms of the perceived judgments of others. For far from being detached from the immediate human environment, the newly self-centered individual is continually preoccupied with judging the expectations of others and his or her own success in meeting them. As Emile Durkheim saw it, "Originally society is everything, the individual nothing … But gradually things change. As societies become greater in volume and density, individual differences multiply, and the moment approaches when the only remaining bond among the members of a single human group will be that they are all [human]."
This led Durkheim to draw theoretical conclusions on the social causes of suicide, seeing it as resulting from too little social integration (London and London bridge were almost synonymous with suicide, as with the Hexams in Our Mutual Friend or any number of suicides in his novels, from Merdle to Lady Dedlock). Those individuals who were not sufficiently bound to social groups (and therefore well-defined values, traditions, norms, and goals) were left with little social support or guidance, and therefore tended to commit suicide on an increased basis. Sporadic decreases in the ability of traditional institutions (such as religion, guilds, pre-industrial social systems, etc.) to regulate and fulfil social needs played a part in this, as did the long term dimunition of social regulation. Durkheim identified this type with the ongoing industrial revolution, which eroded traditional social regulators and often failed to replace them. Industrial goals of wealth and property were insufficient in providing happiness, as was demonstrated by higher suicide rates among the wealthy than among the poor. Thus opens the canvas of the nineteenth century social novel, with its scores of atomised characters and suicides, characters like Dicken’s Miss Wade and the narrator of Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground or works like Thomson’s City of Dreadful Night where Melancholy presides as London’s goddess; "O melancholy Brothers, dark, dark, dark!, O battling in black floods without an ark!, O spectral wanderers of unholy Night!.. My wine of life is poison mixed with gall, My noonday passes in a nightmare dream.".
As the century drew on, melancholy was increasingly regarded not only as an illness but as a form of criminal degeneration. This change was effected by three men; the psychiatrist Benedict Auguste Morel, the criminologist Cesare Lombroso and the writer Max Nordau. Where the Neoplatonist philosophers had seen in the spiritual torments of the "children of Saturn" the seeds of genius, for Lombroso and company the imaginative powers of Baudelaire, for example mark him out as, quite literally, a madman. "Baudelaire," the criminologist wrote, "strikes us as the true type of lunatic possessed by the manie des grandeurs: provocative appearance, defiant gaze, extreme self-satisfaction" and so on.
Baudelaire’s poetry itself reminds me of Arnold’s line about "alarms of struggle and flight, where ignorant armies clash by night." Where Arnold’s response to the death of god is comparatively straightforward, Baudelaire’s is considerably more complex. In reading Baudelaire, one soon discovers that his world is urban (following the lead of Poe’s The Man of the Crowd with its depiction of the regimented urban bustle thrown up by the Industrial Revolution), where that of his predecessors was natural; the world of the flaneur is one of alienation and anomie, not encounters with the sublime. The poet, the artist, was thereby displaced, even in his own eyes. He was no longer the hero, the seer and prophet who leads a grateful people to a higher spiritual life. He was now an outcast — maudit (accursed), doomed to misery, poverty, disease, and death. The city it is that gives rise to the comprehensive word for the unrelieved Baudelairean experience: "Spleen." Its connotation in French is depression; it is not tender like melancholy, nor does it carry the idea of resentment as does English "spleen." In a sense, Baudelaire’s egotistical sublime rather resembles Burton’s encylopaedianism. Since his work is essentially symbolic, the symbol always seems to lack something stable to represent, so that his Hymn to Beauty asks "did you come from the depths of heaven or up from the pit?" (just as Horreur Sympathetique speaks of how "your shafts of light are the reflection of hell") suggesting that clear knowledge of the noumenal is beyond the poet. The result is that his poetry is over-signified, being replete with meaning. At times, his stance seems to be akin to that of Arnold, of a poet caught in a world without the divine (the line about "my soul tossed.. on a monstrous, shoreless sea" in The Seven Old Men having more than a passing resemblance to Dover Beach), at other times his mythology remains essentially christian ("a damned man without a lamp" in Abel and Cain) and at others he resembles Blake, feeling sympathy for the devil (in The Irremediable there is "an angel, unwary traveller tempted by the love of the misshapen… as if it were reproaching god" while in The Rebel there is "a furious angel… but the damned rebel always answers "I won’t!" Finally, Abel and Cain speaks of throwing god down upon the earth). Baudelaire’s poetry works by overthrowing oppositions between good and evil, beauty and ugliness, company and isolation as he writes in Crowds that "the poet enjoys the incomparable privilege of being able at will to be himself and someone else."
Similarly, De Nerval’s writing is deeply embued with German metaphysics but nonetheless represents a point where the death of god leaves sublimity undermined by melancholy (Nerval’s Aurelia, his Beatrice, is imagined as Durer’s Angel of Melancholy). Whereas earlier Romantic aesthetics emphasised the ability to intuit the noumenal through the phenomenal in brief epiphanies, Nerval foregrounds the question of the potentially subjective and misleading character of such spots of time, both through his emphasis on the difficulty of distinguishing the real from the metaphysical and through the foregrounding of his insanity and experience of the asylum. For example, in The King of Bedlam, Spifame’s imaginings of himself as the king lead to his being placed in the asylum only for him to end up leading a parallel existence to the monarch as he lives in luxury and has most of dictats implemented; "Spifame could recognise himself in a mirror or dream, he could take stock of himself even as he changed roles and personalities." Sanity and reason exist in a strangely liminal relationship rather than as opposites in Nerval; his characters remain aware of themselves even as they lose themselves. Similarly, in The Tale of Caliph Hakim, the sultan emerges first as the double of himself, sane even while mistaken for a lunatic, only to realise that he has a double he had been unaware of. The ruin strewn landscape of Sylvie similarly emerges as a place of mistaken identities where neither the phenomenal nor the noumenal can be taken for certain; "but how could I be sure I was not merely the victim of one more illusion.. such are the chimeras that beguile and misguide us." Travelling to the Orient, Nerval found it too quotidian ("the Orient is no longer the land of marvels") and prefers his friends’s opera set designs, travelling to Paris, Nerval found it a land of fantasy in contrast to British realism. His masterpiece, Aurelia, continues this: "the overflow of dream into real life… Spirit from the external world suddenly takes on the bodily shape of an ordinary woman." although at one point after a vision of the afterlife, Nerval proclaims that there is a god, he elsewhere proclaims that there is no god ("the virgin is dead and all prayers are useless… there is no god, god is no more!") and that he is god ("I myself was god, trapped in some sorry incarnation"), with the additional complication of his frequently esoteric view of religion, which has more in common with the druze than with christianity. Nerval is plagued throughout by his own double, as well as the question of whether his beloved exists as spirit or simply as a lost love, whether is insanity is precisely that or simply a form of vision. Throughout, Aurelia, opposites are overturned and nothing is left stable; everything is swallowed by the black sun.
In their fascination with ruins and the macabre the Romantics had gestured toward the existence of melancholy, but its scientific grounding came with the work of Freud. Here, the melancholic is no longer a romantic figure. Entrapped in narcissistic regression, he or she resists any consolation and inhabits a surround devoid of affect and feeling, other than that of a compulsive desire to "repeat the trauma of loss." Ever since he wrote On Transience in 1915, Freud acknowledged that mourning was the crucial conundrum that the therapist must penetrate. "Mourning over the loss of something that we have loved or admired seems so natural to the layman that he regards it as self-evident. But to psychologists mourning is a great riddle, one of those phenomena which cannot themselves be explained but to which other obscurities can be traced back." In Freudian theory, "mourning follows a loss that has really occurred," asserts Agamben; "in melancholia not only is it unclear what object has been lost [self or other], it is uncertain that one can speak of a loss at all." In a 1917 essay titled Mourning and Melancholia, Freud began a meditation on the manner in which the human psyche deals with loss. "Mourning," he wrote, "is regularly the reaction to the loss of a loved person." We rest assured that after a lapse of time it will be overcome, and we look upon any interference with it as inadvisable or even harmful." This is grief at the "normal" register. By contrast, "melancholia," though sharing many of the surface characteristics of "mourning," is identified by Freud as a pathological illness, marked by an inability to recover from the loss, to "overcome" it, and to return to daily activities. Thus, "the complex of melancholia behaves like an open wound," a wound that refuses to heal, a loss that cannot be salved.
Unsurprisingly, after Freud melancholy lost its organizing status and became a minor category subsumed into the larger realm of developmental psychology. Similarly, the melancholy and the tragic are perhaps too integral an aspect of modernist aesthetics for it to be distinguishable amidst the surrounding sound and fury; consider Eliot’s "Webster was much possessed by death, And saw the skull beneath the skin" or Benjamin’s "Melancholy betrays the world for the sake of knowledge. But in its tenacious self-absorption it embraces dead objects in its contemplation, in order to redeem them…. The persistence which is expressed in the intention of mourning is born of its loyalty to the world of things." Modernist literary discourses are generally haunted by the spectre of loss: loss of a coherent and autonomous self, loss of a social order in which stability reigned, loss of metaphysical guarantees, and in some cases loss and fragmentation of an empire. Holderlin’s elegiac sense of modernity’s profound loss; Rilke’s elegiac metaphysics of absence, the loss of personal identity in Woolf’s novels, the loss of authentic existence in Hamsun’s novels (Hunger perhaps being the modern work that most deserves to be labelled melancholic) Heidegger on the forgetting of Being or the nightmare worlds of Beckett and Kafka. In the midst of all this, the pleasurable sense of melancholy is either at a loss or is simply subsumed, in the same way as the traditional idea of the ruin began to seem merely picturesque by the twentieth century. As EM Cioran put it "Melancholy redeems this universe, and yet it is melancholy that separates us from it." Modernism was the culture of an age of mass death. It was, as Matei Calinescu has said, an "aesthetic thanatophilia." Richard Howard, in his homage to Ford Madox Ford, called the modern "that all-inclusive negative." By the end of the second world war the question had become even more difficult, with the likes of Plath termed a depressive rather than a melancholic; the two terms may be congruent but they are far from synonymous.
Some visual arts continue to reference melancholy, as with De Chirico’s Melancholy and Mystery of a Street, or several works by Edvard Munch all entitled "Melancholy," Several versions depict a pensive man sitting by the sea (for example, paintings from 1891; 1892), many repeating the pose depicted previously by Fetti and Durer. Even so, there’s little doubt that his painting of The Scream was rather more in keeping with the spirit of that age. Conspicuously present in the background of Durer’s engraving is an enigmatic, eight-sided, and up to the present inscrutable polyhedron, one whose very inscrutability makes it mysterious, even uncanny. Alberto Giacometti based a sculpture on this work, sculpting a plaster version of the singular-looking polyhedron in Durer’s composition. It seems to summarise well the displacement of the traditional iconography of melancholia.
Melancholy was ultimately parasitic on christian theology and its secularised equivalents in romantic aesthetics. However, there has been at least one noteworthy resurgence. In his recent book Istanbul, Orhan Pamuk draws connections between representations of Istanbul by French writers who visited the city in the nineteenth century such as Nerval and Gautier, and those by prominent Turkish writers of the early twentieth century. Pamuk emphasizes the melancholic tone in all of these "western" and "eastern" representations of Istanbul, which in turn constructed his own perceptions of his home city. "A sense of deprivation and hopelessness" which was verbalized by Baudelaire as the definition of beauty, and which can be seen in Nerval’s and Gautier’s depictions of Istanbul’s landscape, also appears in Pamuk’s Istanbul, as the melancholy raised by wandering in the poor back-streets of Istanbul, in its ruins from past civilizations, in the midst of an urban landscape that has lost the glorious days it had during the Byzantine and Ottoman Empire. The huzun inscribed deeply in the urban landscape of Istanbul is a collective melancholy for Pamuk that unifies its residents. In Baudelaire and Pamuk, melancholy is no longer something internal to the subject, but something connected to the object. It is not a single individual who is melancholic, but the city’s landscape (manzara), "the beautiful object", that elicits the feeling of melancholy as a collective emotion. Melancholy thus leaves the isolated individual and infiltrates the city itself. In the book that juxtaposes his autobiography with the biography of the city, Pamuk suggests melancholy caused by "poverty, defeat, and the feeling of loss" as the primary common emotion of Istanbul.