Laszlo Foldenyi, a Hungarian professor of art, has written a literary history of melancholy. It’s not a self-help book for the melancholic; it’s not a social science book on their tendencies and accomplishments; it’s not a psychological plumbing of a few famous people whom it afflicts. Instead, Melancholy presents depictions of the condition in mythical, novelistic, ecclesiastical, and historical terms.
The book’s main question is one from Aristotle: “Why is it that all those who have become eminent in philosophy or politics or poetry or the arts are clearly melancholic?” There’s a startling, beautiful claim on every page. The ideas are too provocative and many to excerpt, but still I’ll share a few of the themes below, along with some of my commentary.
What is melancholy? If one has to define it bluntly, one might call it deep thinking plus sadness. (The project of the book is to define the term without bluntness.) It’s not mere depression; Foldenyi quotes a writer who regrets that particular term, “a noun with a bland tonality and lacking in any magisterial presence, used indifferently to describe an economic decline.” (253) There’s a much greater weltschmerz implied by the condition, and Foldenyi showcases the special despairs that grip those whom he calls melancholics.
While reading the book, I kept wanting to look up the paintings Foldenyi describes; or to put it down and pick up something by Thomas Mann; at one point I tried to find a good biography of Goethe. Throughout are some gorgeous descriptions of sadness, recklessness, solitude, and suffering.
Who are the melancholics?
Foldenyi writes with far too much delight on the grandeur of melancholy. Here is an early claim, coming at the end of the first chapter:
“Melancholics are prominent precisely because they are too full of life; because of them, existence overflows itself. That explains their unappeasable sense of absence: since they have left the world of moderation, overflowing is inconceivable without being emptied. The universe is damaged in their person; hence, melancholics’ sense of being among the elect, but also their self-hatred to the point of self-annihilation. That makes them strong and outstanding, but also exceedingly frail. Their strength is infinite, because they have gained knowledge of the end, but they are also unhappy, since having experienced the ephemeral nature of humans, they have lost their trust in existence.” (48)
“They clashed with everything… and that was why they were regarded as abnormal, because others generally satisfied common expectations. They regarded themselves, however, as the most normal of all.” (102)
Melancholia is resignation: “Melancholics can never be accused of being revolutionary.” (306)
“The example of melancholics shows that they turn away from the world, and all the fixed achievements of civilization become questionable for them, while their indisputable capacities for learning and astuteness make them solitary and withdrawn.” (49)
“Melancholics live in the same world as other people, yet they do not see the same world. They build themselves a new world into which they alone can enter…
They are Saturn’s children, and for that reason stupid, stuck in the mud, and dull-witted—that, at least, is how the world in general thinks of them, since melancholics are incapable of seeing the simplest of facts ‘normally,’ in conformity with public opinion. But being Saturn’s children, they are also clever, outstanding, magnificent, and wise—the same world asserts those things, too, for after all a melancholic can discover shades and perspectives of existence that remain invisible to an ordinary person.” (107)
Who is melancholic?
As with autism, melancholia in the famous is fun to diagnose at literary distance. Foldenyi shares his thoughts on a few artists whom he is certain are melancholic, like Dürer and Michelangelo.
Foldenyi asserts that all great art is sad art. “The greater the technical perfection of art, the more prominent the sadness… A creative artist feels perpetual dissatisfaction—however great the work that is brought into being, there is a feeling that he was unable fully to cast it into the form that he conceived in himself—and the viewers, if they lose themselves in the work, find themselves face-to-face with infinite sorrow (as in Don Quixote, for instance) or is the endpoint toward which everything heads (the movingly resigned final scene of War and Peace is like that).”
Attributing melancholia to great artists feels like a dangerous game. Do we really know how they felt? Was the bon vivant and bachelor David Hume a melancholic? How about Stendhal, who loved life, but wrote works of stunning interiority? Let me throw out a few names offhand: Proust, Wittgenstein, Melville, Gauguin, Schoenberg… are they all melancholics?
Foldenyi singles out Caspar David Friedrich for particular treatment as a melancholic. Here he is on Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea: “The large painting depicts the tiny figure of a monk standing with is back to the viewer, in front of a vast sea and under an overcast sky. The solitary figure is the melancholic genius himself, born at the time of Romanticism. Friedrich, who according to reports from friends was characterized by the deepest melancholia and painted the most melancholy pictures of all time, had an infallible sense of all the touchstones of modern melancholia: metaphysical solitude, a compulsion for self-justification, suffering in self-enjoyment, a death wish merging into a fear of death, and a condition bordering on that of a genius.” (201)
Music and melancholy
Even more so than painting, Foldenyi asserts that sorrow is at the very foundation of music. “Is there really such a thing as cheerful music?” Schubert asks.
“But when the world did not offer the melancholic the possibility of establishing a home, and he was surrounded ever more threateningly by objects, the role of music grew, and—lacking in all objective references as it does—it became the most melancholic of all the genres of art.” (166)
In a footnote, Foldenyi names a few pieces that programmatically deploy melancholia. These include CPE Bach’s Trio Sonata in C minor for two violins, and the Finale of Beethoven’s String Quartet in B-flat Major, op. 18.
I thought to suggest two more pieces. Anyone can write in a minor key, but some pieces draw out sadness with special weight: Mahler’s Symphony no. 3, final movement, recording by Claudio Abbado with the Wiener Philharmoniker; and Messiaen’s Quatour pour la fin du temps, fifth movement, by Tashi.
(For an antidote, perhaps you’ll want to listen to Dance no. 3, by Philip Glass, which is ecstatically joyful.)
Sorrow does not spare even the king
Melancholia was not always treated the same throughout the ages. Foldenyi shares how the condition was treated in different ages, and then quotes from Pascal’s Pensées: “The melancholic is not fleeing the world but trying to find himself a quiet nook within it; he does not make immoderate demands; he is not enraged and raving, as in antiquity; he is not mentally ill, as in the Middle Ages; he is not desperately calling anything to account, as in the Renaissance; but he is above all, depressed: quiet, withdrawn into himself, feeble, and inert. According to Pascal, the aim of the French court at the time was to stifle the sadness and melancholia that was breaking out on all sides:
Put it to the test; leave a king entirely alone quite at leisure, with nothing to satisfy his senses, no care to occupy the mind, with complete leisure to think about himself, and you will see that a king without diversion is a very wretched man. Therefore such a thing is carefully avoided, and the persons of kings are invariably attended by a great number of people concerned to see that diversion comes after affairs of state, watching over their leisure hours to provide pleasures and sport so that there should never be an empty moment. In other words they are surrounded by people who are incredibly careful to see that the king should never be alone and able to think about himself, because they know that, king though he is, he will be miserable if he does think about it.” (173)
Melancholia and genius
This discussion of genius feels to me very… German: “A genius constantly, at every moment, endangers himself and keeps falling, spiraling down to ever-greater depths. He is not threatened by an external enemy, which is why he is unable even to defend himself. And what to an outsider appears to be creativity is in fact an internal rumination. True genius destroys itself—it is obliged to league with death.” (146)
Melancholy and death
Death is present on nearly every page of the book.
“An openness to death distinguished them from others, the nonmelancholics; that was what made them chose, solitary, and at the same time, the unhappiest of souls.” (105)
“Renaissance melancholia was an all-consuming flame… the subsequent time period has been characterized by a desperate effort to transform this flame into ashes, to make sadness fit for polite society—to tame melancholia.” (150)
Melancholy is reckless: “Many of the Romantics did literally destroy themselves; they were so unconcerned about themselves that, sooner or later, earthly destruction was bound to ensue…Without batting an eye, they accepted that they could count only on themselves, and therefore they seemed reckless—assuming that one perceives recklessness not just in a physical sense (for example, leaping across a crevasse) but also in an intellectual sense (for example, thinking fully through a hitherto-inconceivable thought for the first time)… With a nonchalant wave of the hand, Kleist burned his manuscripts, among them two plays and a two-volume novel; after burning one of his works, Byron wrote that it caused him as much pleasure to burn it as to print it.” (222)
Melancholy and boredom
Melancholy paralyzes: “Boredom, hand in hand with sadness and inertia, puts up with everything; bored people allow the world the direct their footsteps. What really bores people is being condemned to inaction. Their personalities urge them to make the best of their rights and realize everything inherent in their individuality, but they have to endure being clapped in irons… for the person who is bored; it is not purely a matter of time passing but, as time passes, of recognizing the innumerable opportunities that are not being put to use…. The more extremely one is bored, the more stultifying one’s ego becomes to oneself.” (176)
The second-to-last chapter is called Illness. Foldenyi grandly asserts that scientists and doctors have disliked melancholy because it is beyond the scope of science. It can’t be understood as mere illness, of the body or of the spirit. But what if it can?
What if melancholy is a matter of, say, low testosterone? It’s at least casually documented that people with low testosterone feel little motivation with some distress.
Maybe it’s not hormonal. Even if it’s not depression, I wonder how much of this poetic trait can be explained by consultation with the DSM-5. Perhaps being melancholic is a function of having schizoid personality disorder; then combined with some form of autism, it creates great artists.
But I won’t insist. Reducing melancholy to some psychological or personality disorder renders the subject sterile. Instead, it’s far too romantic to wonder about the trait that has taken hold of Michelangelo, Beethoven, and Byron. And this literary, philosophical take is the correct way to approach the subject.