Many things have been called ‘melancholy’. They range from delusional madness to a fashionable attitude, and from a physically grounded disposition or ‘complexion’ (caused by black bile, melaina kholé), to depression as a socially rooted disorder.
‘Melancholy’ (or ‘melancholia’) sounds a lot nicer than ‘depression’. Not only because of the sonority of the word; also because of its rich resonances in cultural history – in particular, as the malady of those who think too much.
The association of melancholy with intellectual brilliance goes back to a source formerly attributed to Aristotle, Problemata (or Questions and Answers).
Why is it that all those who have become eminent in philosophy or politics or poetry or the arts are clearly melancholics, and some of them to such an extent as to be affected by diseases caused by black bile? (Klibansky et al. 2019: 18)
The lengthy answer compares the various effects of black bile to those of wine, and opens up a panorama of afflictions and conditions well beyond negative thinking: “going out of one’s mind” (ekstatikos), being “dull and stupid”, “elated and brilliant or erotic or easily moved to anger and desire”, or “subject to fits of exaltation and ecstasy” (enthousiastikoi). Its more serious effects include epilepsy and sores. “[…] among those who constitutionally possess this temperament there is straight away the greatest variety of characters, each according to his individual mixture,” the anonymous author laconically notes (Klibansky et al. 2019: 23-24).
In spite of this plethora of mostly undesirable effects, the association of melancholy with intellectual eminence has given it a dark lustre, particularly after renaissance philosophers brushed it up with astrological lore. Their influence may be suspected in melancholy’s most iconic representation, Dürer’s Melencolia I (1514). The stout, winged woman in Dürer’s engraving seems to personify human genius or intellect, unable to take flight; her brooding reflection fails to connect with the imagination, causing her thoughts to turn inward and backward, rather than outward and forward. Without the assistance of fantasy or imagination, her knowledge remains inert, like the utensils that uselessly lie around.
The doctrine of the four temperaments (sanguine, melancholic, choleric, phlegmatic) has long stayed alive as a rather confusing classificatory schema, even after the unifying explanation in bodily fluids or ‘humors’ had been abandoned. The pseudo-aristotelic ‘problem’ is clearly echoed in a treatise on mental disorders by the famous French physician Philippe Pinel (1801). Besides those of a hypochondriac type, …
The history of famous men in politics, the sciences and the fine arts shows that there are melancholics of an opposite character, endowed with an ardent enthusiasm for the masterpieces of the human mind, for profound conceptions, and for all that is great and magnanimous. (Pinel 1801: 138-139; my transl.)
(One might wonder about melancholics in political careers nowadays.)
The Melancholy Sublime
In eighteenth-century writings on aesthetics, melancholy is interwoven with the ‘sublime’, an aesthetic category complementary to beauty: the sublime is the grand and awe-inspiring, rather than the sensually or intellectually pleasing.
Immanuel Kant, for instance, in his early Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime (Beobachtungen über das Gefühl des Schönen und Erhabenen, 1764), links the melancholy temperament with the sublime through ethics. It is the serious, “moderately melancholic frame of mind” that is most disposed to be guided by moral principles (Kant 2018: 77).
An intense feeling for the beauty and dignity of human nature […] may even approach melancholy [Schwermut], a gentle and noble sentiment to the extent that it has its origin in the dread felt by a restricted soul that is full of great intentions, observes the dangers it has to withstand, and anticipates the difficult but great triumph of self-overcoming.
He whose feeling tends towards the melancholic is so called not because, robbed of the joys of life, he worries himself into blackest dejection [Schwermut], but because his sentiments […] would more readily result in that condition than in another. He is particularly sensitive to the sublime. (Kant 2018: 76, 78; my transl.)
(Women are according to Kant more disposed to beauty.)
A few years later, the Scottish clergyman William Duff (Essay on Original Genius, 1770), speaks of “that sublime melancholy which distinguishes every great Genius”, forging the link not through high moral standards but through above-average sensitivity. For Duff, melancholy is a pleasurable state: a “pensive, but pleasing melancholy” is “the inseparable concomitant of true Genius”. (Duff 1770: 345, 349)
Duff’s prototype of melancholic genius is Ossian, the fictitious Gaelic bard created or recreated in the 1760’s with immense success by the literary forger James Macpherson. The sublime qualities of Ossian’s epics reside in their “grave and solemn spirit”, according to Macpherson’s friend and admirer, the literary critic Hugh Bair.
[The sublime] imports such ideas presented to the mind, as raise it to an uncommon degree of elevation, and fill it with admiration and astonishment. This is the highest effect either of eloquence or poetry: And to produce this effect, requires a genius glowing with the strongest and warmest conception of some object awful, great or magnificent.
[…] amidst the rude scenes of nature, amidst rocks and torrents and whirlwinds and battles, dwells the sublime. It is the thunder and the lightning of genius. It is the offspring of nature, not of art. […] It associates naturally with that grave and solemn spirit, which distinguishes our author. For the sublime, is an awful and
serious emotion; and is heightened by all the images of Trouble, and Terror, and Darkness. (Blair 1763: 68)
The easy slide from the sublime into the sentimental can be illustrated with the famous phrase ‘joy of grief’ (Gaskill 1995). Coined by Macpherson-Ossian, and highlighted by Blair (1763: 49) as characteristic, it had a strong appeal in an age fascinated with ‘mixed feelings’ or vermischte Empfindungen, the Age of Sensibility (Empfindsamkeit). It pointedly characterizes melancholy in its present, most common sense: “Tender, sentimental, or reflective sadness; sadness giving rise to or considered as a subject for poetry, sentimental reflection, etc., or as a source of aesthetic pleasure,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
This definition lacks one important aspect. Joy of grief (and often, melancholy) refers “not simply to a vague mixture of happiness and sadness, but to the specific kind of pleasure which results from recalling and reliving, at at least one remove, the pleasures and pains of an irretrievable past” (Gaskill 1995: 105-6).
Recollection is an important component of ‘sweet melancholy’; the quasi-oxymoron dates back to 1614, according to the OED, but has been anticipated by similar expressions. It is the sweet variety that has become ‘melancholy’s’ primary sense nowadays; in German, Wehmut rather than Schwermut. It fades into nostalgia (a Latinization of Heimweh, introduced as a medical term in the late seventeenth century).
Remembering sad events from the past may cast a shadow over the present. Happy memories in present misery bring that misery even more into relief, even if Dante’s most quoted verse may not be true: worse than recalling happiness in the midst of misery is looking back and not finding any happiness to remember.
What ‘sweetness’ can there be in melancholy? At least part of the answer, I suspect, is the (temporarily) relaxed state of giving up being hopeful and positive. After all, keeping one’s hopes up is energy-consuming. If fed by interaction with the outside world, it also may generate energy, and that is what melancholy, shut off from the world, fails to do. The melancholic risks being trapped in a recollective loop.
Music’s Melancholy Nature
Interest in melancholy, often stimulated by the epidemic spread of present-day depression, has produced a torrent of publications on its cultural history. By comparison, its many musical connections have received surprisingly little attention. And yet, there is an intimate relation between music and melancholy.
Music has since antiquity been praised as a cure for melancholy. But it is not joyful, energetic music that the melancholic desires or even tolerates. As a remedy for melancholy, music is homoeopathic. Melancholy is not dispelled, but lightened by music that sympathetically reflects the mood.
“Pleasant are the teares which Musicke weeps”, John Dowland, a self-declared melancholic, noted in the introduction of his Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares (1604; Gouk 2000). Adding, however, that tears are shed in gladness too (maybe to justify the addition of lighter pieces to his series of “seaven passionate pavans”).
His younger contemporary and scholar Robert Burton, whose voluminous Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) has been the morbid delight of melancholics of four centuries, observed that …
Many men are melancholy by hearing musicke, but it is a pleasant melancholy that it causeth and therefore to such as are discontent, in woe, feare, sorrow or dejected, it is a most present remedy, it expells cares, alters their grieued minds and easeth in an instant. (Gouk 2000)
During sweet melancholy’s second heyday in the eighteenth century, Hugh Blair pointed out that Ossian’s joy of grief specifically relates to the performance of music:
To “give the joy of grief” generally signifies to raise the strain of grave and soft musick; and finely characterises the taste of Ossian’s age and country. In those days, when the songs of bards were the great delight of heroes, the tragic muse was held in chief honour; galant actions, and virtuous sufferings were the chosen theme; preferably to that light and trifling strain of poetry and music, which promotes light and trifling manners, and serves to emasculate the mind. (Blair 1763: 50; Gaskill 1995: 105)
In a later remark on literary simile, Blair highlights Ossian’s comparison of the effects of ”soft and melancholy music” and those of nostalgic recollection:
Two objects may sometimes be very happily compared to one another, though they resemble each other, strictly speaking, in nothing; only, because they agree in the effects which they produce upon the mind […]. For example, to describe the nature of soft and melancholy music, Ossian says,
“The music of Carryl was, like the memory of joys that are past, pleasant, and mournful to the soul.”
This is happy and delicate. Yet, surely, no kind of music has any resemblance to a feeling of the mind, such as the memory of past joys. (Blair 1783: 408)
Confidently stating that “no kind of music has any resemblance to a feeling of the mind”, Blair bluntly dismisses an issue that still provokes philosophical debate. In its temporal unfolding, can music reflect or represent, by some kind of analogy, processes of emotion and recollection?
I’ve written previously about the tendency to associate the concept of beauty in music with melancholy in its softer shades. Edmund Burke thought that musical beauty (or its effect) was inherently melancholic. We find the same idea in the Poétique de la musique (1785) by Étienne, Comte de Lacépède, an eminent naturalist who was also a politician and a composer. Music, Lacépède proposes, had its origin in spontaneous, vocally expressed emotions. But though pleasant feelings gave rise to dancing songs …
[…] it is to grief and sad melancholy that we owe true Music, that animated picture of all the passions, and especially of those that are most profound, which impresses them so strongly and kindles them so quickly in our souls, which causes a flow of tears so delicious, gives emotions so sweet and enjoyments so intimate to all sensitive souls who have experienced or are experiencing misfortune and therefore – alas! – to all those who have received the precious and fatal gift of sensibility. (Lacépède 1785: 7; my transl.)
It may be odd that the uplifting and energetic potential of music should be considered less ‘true’ than its melancholy qualities. And yet, I suspect, it is still not uncommon that the strongest, most profound, and more lasting responses to music are thought to be those of a melancholy kind. Which may betray the thoughtful listener’s own melancholy complexion.
Blair, Hugh. 1763. A Critical Dissertation on the Poems of Ossian, the Son Fingal. (London: Becket and De Hondt).
Blair, Hugh. 1783. Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres. Vol. 1 (Dublin s.n.; Ann Arbor: Text Creation Partnership, 2011.).
Duff, William. 1770. Critical Observations on the Writings of the Most Celebrated Original Geniuses in Poetry. Being a Sequel to the Essay on Original Genius (London: Becket and De Hondt).
Gaskill, Howard. 1995. “The «Joy of Grief»: Moritz and Ossian.” Colloquia Germanica 28 (2), 101–25.
Gouk, Penelope. 2000. “Music, Melancholy, and Medical Spirits in Early Modern Thought”. In Peregrine Horden (ed). Music as Medicine: The History of Music Therapy Since Antiquity (London: Routledge, 2000), 173–194.
Kant, Immanuel. 2018. Kants Populäre Schriften. Ed. by Paul Menzer (Berlin: De Gruyter).
Klibansky, Raymond, Erwin Panofsky, and Fritz Saxl. 2019. Saturn and Melancholy: Studies in the History of Natural Philosophy, Religion, and Art. Ed. by Philippe Despoix and Georges Leroux. New ed. (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press).
Lacépède, Bernard Germain Etienne Médard de. 1785. La poétique de la musique. Vol. 1 (Paris: Monsieur).
Pinel, Philippe. 1801. Traité médico-philosophique sur l’aliénation mentale ou la manie. (Paris: Richard, Caille et Ravier).