Visual Arts

A Melancholic Way of Knowing

Albrecht Dürer, Melencolia I (1514) (Wikimedia Commons)

Melancholy, in its deepest truth, is not bereft of hope but rather relies upon it.

We are into autumn, which officially began with the September equinox at 10:21 AM Eastern Daylight Time on 22 September this year, and therefore it seems appropriate to turn our thoughts to a consideration of melancholy. After all, since Antiquity, autumn has been associated with the state of melancholy.

Hope exists by eluding us.
This, of course, derives from so-called humorist medical theory -- the notion that our dispositions derive from the balance in our bodies among four humors: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. A preponderance of blood leads to a sanguine personality; emphasis on yellow bile informs the choleric personality. Excess phlegm is, not surprisingly, indicative of the phlegmatic. A concentration of black bile is said to be the cause of melancholy (the name itself derives from the Ancient Greek term for black bile, “melaina chole”).

The melancholic is associated with the element of Earth (indeed the melancholic is said to be given to staring down at the earth at her feet). She supposedly identifies with the planet Saturn (thus the term “saturnine”).

Melancholy is not mere sadness. Melancholy is a disposition, a way of viewing the world, not a passing emotion. Martin Heidegger, in his renowned Being and Time writes of the importance of mood as a way of revealing non-propositional truth about the world (that is, truth that cannot be set forth as a logical proposition). The German word Heidegger employs is “Stimmung” one of the meanings of which is “tuning”, as in the tuning of an instrument.

This notion of the ontology of mood intrigues me. The tuning of an instrument does not entirely determine what is played upon it. After all, I can play the Bach Chaconne on the guitar even though it's written for solo violin. The piece is playable on each instrument despite their differing tunings. And yet, certain tonal patterns, chords, and figures “fit” better on one instrument with its tuning than it does on the other. Certain aspects of the piece are more accessible in one tuning rather than the other.

Stimmung in Heidegger may be seen as operating in a similar manner. Of course, I experience the sunlight regardless of my mood, but my mood filters that experience. I am attuned to it differently depending on my mood and that mood is capable of revealing a differing element of that experience, a differing approach to its (perhaps multiple) truth. Melancholy as a disposition may be a way of knowing, a way of coming to grips with the nature of the world, one revealed with particular clarity at this time of year.

From nearly the beginning of the use of the term, melancholy has been seen as a special humoral disposition. Avicenna associated it with “an overflowing of thought” and a somewhat obsessive personality. Aristotle, or more likely one of his students, in the Problems, asked: “Why is it that all men who have become outstanding in philosophy, statesmanship, poetry or the arts are melancholic?”

Perhaps it's not surprising that there has been a long-standing vogue for artistic identification with the melancholic, a vogue that predates but witnessed a resurgence through the 1621 publication of Robert Burton’s widely read The Anatomy of Melancholy. Examples proliferate. I will briefly mention two that are on my mind as we slip into the autumnal season.

A prominent example, worthy of constant reconsideration (which itself emblematic of the melancholic) is Melencolia I (1514), an etching by the redoubtable German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer. A winged female figure with a laurel wreath on her head (a sign of artistic achievement) sits with her head in her hand (a typically melancholic pose). In her other hand she holds a mathematical compass.

She's surrounded by numerous objects freighted with symbolic significance. A magic square is situated just above her head; each column and each row (as well as each group of four numbers in each corner) adds up to 34: a symbol of balance and a form of recreational (not practical) mathematics, thus a source of “free” contemplation. To the left of the square an hourglass reveals that time is running out; above the magic square, a bell awaits its moment to toll.

There's an empty scale, a symbol perhaps of the measured manner of contemplation exhibited by the melancholic. A polyhedron sits before the woman that has become so celebrated and so debated that it's now referred to as Dürer’s solid. It has transcended its status as a symbol of recondite contemplation to become the source of recondite contemplation.

There are numerous additional details in this ever-rich etching but there are two worthy of note here. First is the countenance of the winged figure. In most reproductions her face is beclouded -- not an unexpected detail in a depiction of melancholy. But upon closer examination, one sees she's not despondent. She gazes quizzically upon the world. She's not exuberant but she is engaged. She's somehow simultaneously withdrawn and engaged. This, I suggest (and am not the first to do so), is the dialectic of melancholy.

The melancholic is not a depressive in the reductive sense of that term. The melancholic sees the world marked by sadness but that does not cause her to disavow the world or to approach it with a nihilistic shrug of despair. The melancholic is not a nihilist. She believes in the world even as she receives it, in Max Pensky’s unforgettable phrase, “synthesized under the sign of infinite sadness”.

This is where that other detail emerges in importance. In the upper left of the engraving we see a rainbow and beneath its curve blazes forth a resplendent light. Is it a comet, a meteor, a blazing star? These are symbols of hope.

The star is a nearly perfect symbol for hope. The star is unattainable. It shines for us. We cannot bathe in its light as we might in the sun’s light or even the moon’s. That is why poets sometimes refer to starlight as distant and cold. But we don’t entirely experience it that way, either. There's warmth there, the warmth of promise, a promise that always recedes but nonetheless beckons us, impossibly, to follow.

Even a “falling star” is beyond our reach. It streaks across the sky, suggesting greater proximity but always ineluctably distant. Hope is like that. When we attain the hoped-for thing, we no longer hope for it. We have it. Hope, in its essence, must always be out there, provocatively beyond our capacity for grasping it. To have hope is to realize that you will never attain it. You cannot attain hope as such, only the hoped-for. Hope exists by eluding us.

The other artwork I have in mind as autumn encroaches is by one of the great melancholics of music: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky endures something of a mixed reputation. He's somehow too accessible to be regarded seriously and too memorable to be ignored. But he has an unrivaled gift for revealing the nuance of the melancholic disposition.

Think, for instance, of that excruciatingly dark turn the blithe “Waltz of the Flowers” from the Nutcracker takes, without notice, seemingly without justification. All is pleasant undulation, courtly benignity, and then the music turns a corner into pathos with a cello-driven melody. Notice how it disrupts the progress of the music, breaking in before the previous phrase has ended. It's as though all social nicety falls away, all pretense is set aside, and Tchaikovsky the melancholic speaks to us directly, cutting into the flow of the dance, breaking from it, tearing it asunder. It's disarming and we are caught unawares. As quickly as it arises, it's gone again. It's a moment of insight, a cri de couer. It strikes one as somehow too intimate, out of place, and yet it's the moment I have indelibly marked in my memory of the piece.

As I write this I'm listening to “October: Autumn Song” from his solo piano cycle, Seasons. The music is the perfect admixture of melancholic resignation to what is and a transcendent reliance upon the bittersweet impossibility of hope. Again, the notion of hope as impossible is not meant to be depressing. It's not the cry of the hopeless. Rather hope in its hopefulness registers its own impossibility as the condition of its being. Hope is what transcends possibility. It's what promises the improbable.

In roughly four minutes, Tchaikovsky’s “October” conveys something of that dialectic of melancholy. Listen carefully to the way the music moves, the way it indicates sadness but does not wallow in it, does not acquiesce to it. Listen to the way it implies hope but hope as it is, not false hope, not the image of hope realized but rather the suggestion of hope in its essence as the ever-withdrawing glimmer of promise.

Autumn, with its rich colors, its bringing to fruition the labors of the earth, but also its falling leaves, the drying up of life, is a melancholic season. It is not, however, devoid of hope. It promises renewal but acknowledges that it itself cannot deliver that renewal. Death (winter) must come first.

If we are to believe Heidegger, perhaps autumn reveals a truth about the world and our place in it that is worthy of our attention. So as the weather cools, as the leaves dry up and fall to earth, as we invest ourselves against the coming chill, give in to its melancholy but remember that melancholy, in its deepest truth, is not bereft of hope, but rather relies upon it.

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