On Melancholia

  1. Beauty, Joy, and Pain in Keats’ Ode to Melancholy

Keats’ tells us, the subject-readers, how to deal with melancholy. In the three stanzas, Keats meditates on the nature of melancholy and its relationship with beauty, joy and pain. He begins by telling his reader what not to do: that we should not ‘go to Lethe’ or forget our sadness, not end our lives with poisonous herbs, or be obsessed with objects of death and misery such as the beetle, moth and the owl. Keats wants us to partner with misery and engage with suffering — to see it as being the most fierce symbol of being alive.

Keats, then, tells us what to do when infected by ‘the melancholy fit’ — turn to beauty. The melancholic, he says, should seek beauty in the morning rose, on the ‘rainbow of the salt sand-wave’ or in the depth of the beloved’s eyes. In the third stanza we reflect — that beauty is inextricable from death; beauty’s appeal is derived from its transience. Similarly are joy and sadness, pleasure and pain inextricable from one another. What lies at the heart of the ‘temple of Delight’ is sorrow, pain, melancholia.

2. The Opposite of Sentimentality: Understanding Melancholy through Schopenhauer’s Pessimism

What is the point of life? For Schopenhauer, there isn’t one.

His most influential work, , examines human motivation, our He notes, in exquisite detail, how human will is aimless, that is, that any object of aspiration, whether materialistic or otherwise, can never give us complete satisfaction and will inevitably lead to disappointment. Furthermore, he says, human consciousness makes the situation worse, as we are aware of the disappointment that awaits us at the end of every pursuit. Our conscious memory also results in pain when we think about our past regrets and failures, and fear when we think about the future. The melancholic disposition, then, is inevitable when we think of life through Schopenhauer’s pessimism. To experience the sadness and dejection of melancholia becomes a testament of human awareness and understanding of the impossibility of a meaningful or fulfilling life. The melancholic mind is thus an aware mind; knowledge taking away the bliss of ignorance.

3.The Ego on Melancholia — Exploring Freud’s Philosophy of Mourning

In “Mourning and Melancholia” (1917), Freud draws a comparison between mourning and melancholia, which seem to have more in common than the letter they begin with. Freud notes that the visual representation and physical manifestation of both these conditions are similar, characterised by feelings of loss, sorrow, distress and departure from reality. What is distinctive about the two conditions, then, is the experience of loss in relation to the person’s ego. In the case of mourning, there is an explicit, conscious loss that the ego (of the person) has experienced. Their libidinal energy (desire, love, interest) for the object of loss makes them separate their thoughts from reality so as to prolong its attachment. Eventually, with time, the ego accepts this loss and frees its libidinal energy to seek new desires. On the other hand, the melancholic suffers from an unconscious loss, and the narcissistic libido of one ego is threatened by this. The experience of melancholia is thus one of loss of self, feeling small or insignificant. Freud notes that recovery from melancholia requires the freeing of libidinal energy by recognising the loss the ego has experienced, and reinstating the wholeness of the ego through psychoanalysis.

4.Mourning Diary & The Violence of Writing: Derrida’s Argument Against Freud’s Melancholy

Jaques Derrida has a unique take on mourning, and by extension on Freud’s formulation of Melancholia. In ,Derrida presents the philosophical concept of ‘hauntology’ to address the return or persistence of elements from the past, like a spectre or a ghost. While for Freud, mourning constitutes the loss of an object that engaged libidinal energy, Derrida suggests that the lost object is never truly gone, and continues to haunt the present. Derrida’s haunting does not replace Freud’s mourning, rather, haunting and mourning become consequent of each other. Mourning, for Derrida, is a performative act, invoking the ‘lost’ object and conjuring its spectre.

Consequently, then, the melancholic’s dual state of mind — reality and unreality, i.e., the living being and the spectre which exist together — are both performative. While the common notion would be that melancholia leads to the loss of the performance of self, we can see through Derrida’s lens that the state of melancholia makes apparent the different performances we harbour within us, and highlights the fragmented nature of one’s self.

5.“That Melancholy Convention” : Albert Camus and The Myth of Sisyphus

Albert Camus’s reading of The Myth of Sisyphus is one that calls for the experience of revolutionary pleasure in the light of unending misery. According to the Greek legend, Sisyphus is condemned by the gods for eternity to repeatedly roll a boulder up a hill only to have it roll down again once he got it to the top. Camus reads this as a metaphor for the individual’s persistent struggle against the essential absurdity of life. Camus challenges the notion that the myth tells us that life and its struggles are endless and meaningless; death is inevitable and thus suicide makes logical sense. On the contrary, Camus says, death cannot be experienced, but the human experience is what we have. Thus, we must rebel and revolt against the melancholy convention, enjoy the wild beauty in the world and seek pleasure in our innate humanness.

6.The Seriousness of Melancholy in Milton’s

Would you take Melancholy to be your beloved? Milton’s narrator in does exactly that. The speaker addresses divine goddess Melancholy through the course of the poem, praising her beauty and ‘saintly visage’ that needs to be hidden from mortal eyes. Milton cares little for his contemporary view of melancholia as a psychical condition. For Milton, melancholia is an artist’s disposition that makes possible deep contemplation and appreciation of beauty and wonder. It is the passivity of observation, the surrender of devotion and the sweetness of sonder. Melancholy, then, becomes an indispensable part of the poetic spirit. The narrator invokes the lady melancholy to bestow upon him all the things he needs to fulfil the poet’s destiny: Peace, Quiet, Fasting, Contemplation, Silence, and the Muses. Together, Melancholy and the asceticism she embodies makes for the toil, labour, discipline, pain and pleasure that makes poetry.

7.Melancholia as a Psychopathological Condition?

While poets write odes to melancholy and turn her into a goddess, historically, medical practitioners have seen melancholia as a psychopathological condition. Up until the late 19th and early 20th century, melancholia was considered a psychological condition of the human mind, almost synonymous with depression. Often, it was understood that melancholia (much like other psychopathologies of the time) arised from a biological predisposition triggered by a tragic event in the person’s life. Melancholia was seen to be a condition characterised by a loss of interest or enthusiasm in the real world, daydreaming, loss of appetite, weight and general physical health, and a notable absence of care or concern for family. Melancholia was often also attributed to the weather of a place and thus, one of the most common recommendations to a melancholic was to travel and experience a change of weather. However, in the modern day, melancholia is seen as a poetic representation of sorrow and misery, whereas the psychopathological disorder comprising depression is understood from a holistic biopsychosocial perspective.

8. Retracing the Origins of Melancholy from the Greek to the English

Melancholia has seen its definition change with the same intensity as a melancholic experience change in their life. From classical greek mythology to Shakespeare’s linguistic mixture and modern day English vocabulary, melancholy has changed shape, size, form and affect in the literal and imaginative sense.

The word melancholy has etymological roots in the Greek (black) and Most notably, Hippocrates (460–379 BC) attributed the melancholic state to an excess of black bile in the human body, characterised by several symptoms, above all fear and sorrow. Galen (129–216 AD) followed this theory to add that the melancholic experiences delusions or departures from reality. In the first century AD, Aretaeus of Cappadocia proposed that melancholy comprised two fundamental dimensions, an emotional state of anguish and an intellectual state of delusion. The idea of melancholy being characterised by a partial delusion gradually became dominant until the end of the 18th century. In this time, Greek had evolved into Old French and consequently the middle english melancholy. Along with the word, the melancholic state travelled across literary tradition in Europe, gaining importance in the 19th century Romanticism. While melancholia continues to capture creative imaginations across the world, the medical condition has been replaced by the psychological term depression.

9. John Donne and the Fashionable Melancholy Movement

In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, a new literary and artistic cult phenomenon in England made melancholy fashionable. From being a medical condition, this movement valorised melancholy to the mark of artistic genius. Painters, poets, writers and dramatists illustrated the compelling picture of the melancholic artist, inspired by his condition to immortalise their muse.

Perhaps the poet most influenced by this movement was John Donne. His portrait from 1595 captures a telling image of fashionable melancholy, where the poet, with a ruffled cap and dispirited posture, mimics a melancholy lover. Donne’s literary work is filled with references to, as well as accounts of, his self-understanding as a melancholic. He often writes about how melancholy fuels his artistic and intellectual pursuits. As a torchbearer of metaphysical poetry, Donne puts his melancholic temperament in conversation with his philosophical inquiry about religion and devotion. As a consequence Donne meditates on Death — as a concept, a phenomenon, an inevitability, and a lover for whom one experiences longing.

10.Reexamining Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy

Robert Burton’s , in-full, was first published in 1621 and subsequently republished five more times over the next seventeen years with significant changes. In this book, Burton ambitiously attempts to say everything there is to say about Melancholy, and satirizes his motivation by claiming that, “I write of melancholy by being busy to avoid melancholy.”

Formally, the book claims to be a medical textbook, but achieves a unique genre of philosophy, science and literary criticism as it examines melancholy and its dispositions as a lens to examine human ideas of thought, emotion and literature. The author’s style compliments this, often slipping into a stream of consciousness with digressions, meanderings and unsolicited trivia; both serious and satirical in tone, Burton’s style animates the text — like a melancholic writing with equal parts disdain and desire for melancholy, and the richness of human experience accompanying it.

11.Hamlet as the Embodiment of Melancholy through Verse

Hamlet proclaims, in the face of his melancholy state, “How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable /

Seem to me all the uses of this world!” — a clear, remorseful expression of his disdain. Hamlet’s melancholy is evident from the beginning, where he is characterized as a deeply sensitive, troubled, and brooding individual, weighed down by his life’s unfortunate circumstances as well as his own, personal moral dilemmas, which are exacerbated by the decisions of those around him, particularly in his mother’s marriage to Claudius, his uncle, following his father’s untimely death.

Hamlet, as a hero, moves through his life with a particular discomfort, evident both in his speech and his decision. Shakespeare has used Hamlet’s unending melancholy as an expression of the pain that comes from being unable to control, or accept, the world around oneself, thereby feeling the same sense of loss regarding one’s own being. In verse and rhyme, Shakespeare brings out Hamlet’s individuality, his melancholy its distinguishing trait, his faith in moving beyond it what drives the plot.

12. Where Young Werther Transcends his Sorrows: Goethe’s Philosophy of Melancholy

The Sorrows of Young Werther, published for the first time in 1774, is Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s most spoken-of works — known as one of the most prominent novels in German literature and a great influence in the later Romantic movement. It is, first and foremost, a loosely autobiographical account by the author, aged 24 at the time of its writing, comprised of letters written by a young melancholic Werther to his friend Wilhelm, expressing his existential sorrow, his qualms about a love left unrequited, and his personal understanding of what it means to be alone, until he, at the narrow edge of a troublesome love triangle, decides that he can no longer bear the burden of it and takes his own life.

Melancholy, in young Werther’s life, is the means to a painful end; however, as Goethe expresses in his philosophical accounts, it is an inevitable, and even useful. In a poem, Goethe says “the genius of the poet / loves the element of melancholy” — implying that it is inextricable, like darkness from light, to the experience of life, “a bright flame” borne from the impulse to rid oneself of “threatening evil”.

13. The Art of Melancholy — A Modernist Perspective

With the late 19th and early 20th centuries arrived a movement in art that transformed how art was created, experienced, and spoken of. From the disjointed, scattered poems of Ezra Pound to Picasso’s famous cubism, modernism brought innovative approaches to art, to cinema, to music, and to literature. And, it seems, to melancholia. While art was limited to the devotional or the regional, modernism brought it closer to home, closer to the heart: an expression of the self as a product and creator of the world, encompassing the beauty and the pain that comes as a natural consequence of being alive.

Art, as a melancholy modernist, is multifaceted. It is the blank drones of Rothko’s meditational paintings, the splattering courage of Pollock’s abstract expressionism, the strangely shaped sculptures of de Kooning. It is the reclining, pensive figures of Moore; the painful contortions of Francis Bacon’s flesh-like paintings; even the provocative pop art of Paolozzi — which he titles, with boldness, “I was a Rich Man’s Plaything”. The modernists are not afraid of addressing the humanness of life — the art of melancholy called forth and mastered through each of their deeply personal, deeply provocative pieces.

14. Is Melancholy a Woman? Rereading Kristeva’s Black Sun through a Gendered Lens

is a series of considerations in the subject of melancholia through the perspective of psychoanalysis, philosophy, art, and literature, as well as broader themes of religious and cultural explorations of the experience. Kristeva delves into the experience of depression and melancholia, addressing what it means to “lose” oneself and how critical our sense of identity is in our relationship with the world around us, and thereby the quality of the life we have. In contrasting themes in texts and artwork ranging from Holbein to Duras, Kristeva establishes that depression and melancholia are not pathologies to be viewed clinically, but experiences to learn, to master, and to communicate our truths through. From a gendered lens, we consider the lived experiences of women through the centuries, women who have been traditionally disempowered to use their voices to understand, let alone express, themselves as a part of the larger societal narrative. What does the loss of identity mean to someone who cannot express or choose their identity to begin with? What does the language of melancholy mean to someone who has not been taught how to speak? Depression, as Kristeva puts it, has a dark heart: perhaps we can make the same claim for women, whose dark hearts have been sheltered in silence, whose pain has been pathologized and reduced to illness, who, like melancholy, can find the means to articulate their truths as soon as we let the light back in.

15.Billie Holiday Sings the Blues: Melancholy as a Tune

Lady Sings the Blues: a song Holiday opens with an admission of her melancholy in a clear, distinct confession. “Lady sings the blues, / she’s got them bad, / she feels so sad. / And wants the world to know, / just what her blues are all about.” Holiday’s voice trembles as she sings but is as bright as ever, accompanied by a jazz ensemble that’s both soft and striking, bending around Holiday’s voice to create an atmosphere of pain that’s only partly felt in its expression, some part of it held back, mysteriously evaded.

Holiday speaks of separation from her partner, her own depressive state and desolation, but also brings forth a definite conviction of her own strength, saying “I know I won’t die” in response to life’s troublesome circumstances. She finds power in her ability to express to the world, to choose when to start and when to stop this confession. Melancholy, in Holiday’s song, is bittersweet and defeatable. It demands to be spoken of and shared; it also, at the same time, demands to be let go of. Melancholy, then, is the simple act of being together in our confrontation of life: lady sings the blues, and we listen.

16. I Am, I Am, I Am — Plath’s Insistence on Survival through Sorrow

Sylvia Plath’s novel, The Bell Jar, has been monumental in understanding depression and melancholy from a literary perspective, particularly through the autobiographical perspective of Plath’s very honest, sharp, and matter-of-fact narrative. Through the novel, Plath describes her many encounters with depression, the treatments she went through to try to find a cure, and her experiences of being suicidal in the face of her personal psychological difficulties. What is most important to note, though, is that Plath consistently brings back an assertion of her having survived, conquering her deeply melancholic state, at the end of each episode: equating the beat of her heart to that of the words .

Melancholy, in Plath’s case, seems to displace her sense of self, making her question who she is, what she wants, and how she wants to live. The counter argument that she presents to her own emotional disturbances is that of her strength, her desires, and her abilities in creating the narrative that at once expresses how she feels and liberates her from it. Plath assures us that not only can we survive through our sorrows, like she did through hers, we can swim through them, speak through them, still hold onto what we love the most about ourselves through it.

17. The Melancholy Science: Adorno, Rose, and the Search for Style

is Gillian Rose’s inspection of the work and legacy of Adorno’s philosophical theories. She explores Marxist theory and juxtaposes Adorno’s work to those of his contemporary writers including Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger, describing Adorno’s worked as a foray into the “sociology of illusion”, the personal experience of a larger, distinctive narrative in philosophy. Adorno, described as a philosopher, a psychologist, a musicologist, a sociologist, and a composer, is most distinguished for his work in critical theory. He called to question the aesthetics of our narrative and applauded Beckett (even dedicating his final book to him), exploring the way that human experience, which encompasses all emotions including desolation and melancholy, can be encapsulated through modern art, reversing the “fatal separation” that philosophy traditionally requires of the writer, seeking to reunite what we feel and what we think in a way that is more honest than it is harmonious, more visceral than it is vicarious.

18.Melancholy as a Political Agent: The Poems of Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks, in 1950, was the first African American individual to win a Pulitzer Prize; in 1985, she was also the first African American woman who was included in the American Academy of Arts and Letters. While her achievements stand testament to her extraordinary capacities as a poet, author, and educator, they are also directly indicative of the definite inequality in the sociopolitical landscape of her times. It goes without saying that she was not the first in these categories because she was more talented or more deserving than others who came before her — it is that others before her (and around her, and even after her) were marginalized, their voices pushed back and countered, their achievements unacknowledged.

What did Brooks speak of? Reality, of herself, of her apartment in a small city, of her people and the social injustices that limited their potentials. Brooks delved into matters of melancholy with a steady, measured hand — in some poems, hinting at it in an indirect, biting sarcasm, and in others, bringing it out with intentional fierceness. One thing that Brooks never did, though, was shy away from it: and it is in this courageous retelling of the personal and political histories of herself and the people she loved that she found a means to address important issues through metaphors and similes, rhymes and chapters, not only to express what she felt, but to encourage people to play a part in the political movements that she supported, shedding light on what needed attention most urgently, most consistently.

19. Revisiting Gender, Performance, and Melancholy with Judith Butler

In “Melancholy Gender — Refused Identification”, Butler refers to Freud’s discussions on mourning and melancholia through a gendered, queer-focused lens, considering the ego as a concept that is not only psychological, but also in relation to the body: the ego as constructed through the experience of a body that is inevitably labelled, gendered, and controlled by social agents, reconstructing it. Butler considers what the implications of disturbance to this bodily ego might be, particularly beyond the traditional heteronormative lens, asking questions of how an individual who identifies as anything other than a cisgender, heterosexual person experiences this “loss” of “normalcy” — a loss that is not defined through the act of losing, but through the state of never having had what they were expected to have to start. Butler goes so far as to consider gender itself as a kind of melancholy — not a cause, but a product, a symptom of “the unfinished process of grieving” that Freud proclaimed melancholy to be.

20. The Relationship between Melancholy and Beauty in F N Souza’s Paintings

F N Souza is one of India’s most notable modern artists who gained critical international acclaim in the mid to late 1900s. His work is personal, it is direct and experimental — it is also dark and mysterious. What stands out most, and most immediately, about paintings by F N Souza is their brash dramatism, contrasting colors, portraits with wide eyes and evocative outlines. His paintings are built of emotion, with melancholy being a state that he refers to often, melancholy derived from loneliness, darkness, and aggression.

One of his exhibitions, titled “Luminous Solitude” shows still life paintings that are dark, subjects almost indiscernible from the background that contains them, self portraits that come as a perplexed image of a man with eyes crowded around his forehead, and even ghost-like figures standing in front of a large showcase, striking out, haunting. The tones of Souza’s paintings are either flesh-like, raw and bright, or dull, as if the color has been leaked out of them, evoking a sense of pensive and tumultuous emotionality. Beauty is unmistakably present in each of his pieces, and, at the same time, so is a melancholic undertone: it seems, through his work, that the two are inseparable in the space of modern, self exploratory art.

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Merayah Sardana

Merayah Sardana

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