Tuesday, February 12, 2008

melancholia

I heard about a new book yesterday on NPR: Against happiness: in praise of melancholy by Eric Wilson. The author’s central thesis (as far as I can tell from the interview and the excerpts from the book on NPR’s website) is that melancholy should be seen as a gift rather than a curse. Over the centuries, some of our greatest poets and creative artists have embraced and expressed their inner demons, leaving the world a richer place. He argues that we cannot truly appreciate the sweet without the bitter, the happy without the sad.

While modern trends expect us to treat all depression, even mild to moderate cases, with drugs and therapy, Wilson says that rather than painting a happy face on our world and trying to eradicate melancholia, we should relish the muse of “sweet sadness” and face the “world's complexity, its vagueness, its terrible beauties.”

Wilson acknowledges, by the way, the need for medical intervention in the case of severe depression, but his main point is that life is about more than the pursuit of happiness. I’m intrigued by his argument. It's a well-known (and tragic) fact that many of our most creative artists have suffered from depression, some so profoundly that they took their own lives (Vincent van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath to name only a few). Did their dark thoughts steal their poetic visions from us? Or did their dark thoughts help create the poetry in the first place? It’s a question worth asking. Can we experience joy and beauty without suffering pain? Does suffering lead to a depth of understanding and creative vitality that would otherwise be lost in the sameness of contentment?

The idea of creative talent being linked with melancholy was very popular in the 19th century and dates back at least to the Renaissance. The print (above) is Melancholia from Albrecht Dürer. I also briefly mentioned Van Gogh’s famous portrait of the very sad Dr. Gachet at the end of this post here. Note the similarities in the poses and also in Michelangelo’s depressed prophet Jeremiah. I don’t know about you but when I’m really depressed, I don’t sit around with my chin on my hand looking picturesque. Personally, I take to my bed, put a pillow over my head and try to make the world stop spinning. I cry. I mope. I eat too much. I cope.

Oh, and yes, sometimes I write.

9 comments:

SuburbanCorrespondent said...

I think he is just arguing against the prevalent attitude that, if you aren't totally happy all the time, you are either doing something wrong or you need psychiatric drugs. Let's face it, life often is not a happy-making experience.

Rachel said...

Amen, brilliant post again. I truly believe there is pure joy and deep profundity that is only found in and through suffering.

allysha said...

I was interested in that interview, too. No joy without understanding the pain- it seems that topic has been visited before...

Shalee said...

I find that I can only really appreciate the ups and joys because I remember the down times or trials I've faced. Without the contrast, it would all go unnoticed...

Excellent post, in so many ways. (And I hope this post helped you if you were feeling a little melancholy of late.)

Lawanda said...

I guess I think grief is such an important part of life, that I really don't understand why people cannot see how important it is!

Most people are pretty stuck in the here and now, though. When they grieve, or are depressed (not suffering from depression, which I honestly think is an entirely different - yet related - thing.) they just cannot see the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.

mindyluwho said...

There are some states of depression that require medical assistance to be sure, but I think being melacholy serves a purpose because it can lead us to action.

When I am feeling low I ask myself why and that usually leads me to pursuing activities that will increase my happiness. And when I am able to pull myself out of a depression, then I experience and immense feeling of joy, and an increased desire to bring beauty and happiness to those around me.

Luisa Perkins said...

Have you read Barbara Platek's interview with Miriam Greenspan in The Sun? (Jan. 2008) If you want to read it, but can't find it, email me, and I'll send you the link.

It's a fascinating article; Greenspan's theories are similar to the one you posit here. It gave me a new view of my default state of melancholia.

Jenni said...

This is the second blog tonight with a post about the same NPR segment. I think I'll have to pop over there and listen and then maybe pick up the book.

I do think the author has a point. Unfortunately it seems that too many of these gifted, creative thinkers did not have something to help them balance the melancholy. It is a powerful emotion which can be useful, but too often it is a flower that is allowed to bloom with abandon until it eventually overruns the entire garden, choking the life from everything else.

Creativity can both be fed off of melancholy--as well as other emotions--and it can also be the medicine for melancholy. It's a cycle which must constantly be kept in balance. The melancholy causes introspection which fuels creativity; the creativity exorcises the demons of melancholy. Those who allow melancholy to have free rein, accepting it as their lot in life as an artist or other creative soul, do so at their own peril.

tjhirst said...

Thanks for post, especially the connection between melancholy and creativity, and as always, your connection of art to every day life. With age and experience I am learning more about this link in myself. Melancholy seems to be the natural withdrawal after a creative experience. Most recently when that occurred, I realized that I often rush past those feelings in a panic that I will settle into a depression. But recently I allowed myself "pensive reflection" and discovered that I (and probably most creative individuals) need to thoroughly feel the loss of one endeavor before freeing mind and spirit to move toward the next.