Melancholia Is A Miracle?

“Chase away the demons and they will take the angels with them." – Joni Mitchell, Canadian musician, songwriter, and painter.

Eric G. Wilson in a Los Angeles Times opinion article entitled 'The Miracle of Melancholia’ suggests that we are a nation obsessed with being happy, but sometimes feeling bad can do you some good. Wilson writes: In April of 1819, right around the time that he began to suffer the first symptoms of tuberculosis the poet John Keats sat down and wrote, in a letter to his brother, George, the following question: "Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul?"

Implied in this inquiry is an idea that is not very popular these days which is characterized by an almost collective yearning for complete happiness. That idea is this: A person can only become a fully formed human being, as opposed to a mere mind, through suffering and sorrow. This notion would seem quite strange, possibly even deranged, in a country in which almost 85% of the population claims to be "very happy" or at least "happy." Indeed, in light of our recent craze for positive psychology as well as in light of our increasing reliance on pills that reduce sadness, anxiety and fear, we are likely to challenge Keats' meditation outright, to condemn it as a dangerous and dated affront to the modern American dream.

But does the American addiction to happiness make any sense, especially in light of the poverty, ecological disaster and war that now haunt the globe, daily annihilating hundreds if not thousands? Isn't it, in fact, a recipe for delusion? And aren't we merely trying to slice away what is most probably an essential part of our hearts, that part that can reconcile us to facts, no matter how harsh, and that also can inspire us to imagine new and more creative ways to engage with the world? Bereft of this integral element of our selves, we settle for a status quo. We yearn for comfort at any cost. We covet a good night's sleep. We trade fortitude for blandness.

When Keats invoked the fertility of pain, he knew what he was talking about. Though he was young when he composed his question -- only 24 -- he had already experienced a lifetime of pain. His father had died after falling from a horse when the future poet was only 9. A few years later, Keats nursed his mother assiduously through tuberculosis, but she died in 1810, when he was 15. Soon after, he was taken from a boarding school he loved and required to apprentice as an apothecary; he then underwent a gruesome course in surgery in one of London's hospitals (in the days before anesthesia).

Orphaned and mournful, Keats spent his days brooding. But after much contemplation, he decided that sorrow was not a state to be avoided, not a weakness of the will or a disease requiring cure. On the contrary, Keats discovered that his ongoing gloom was in fact the inspiration for his greatest ideas and his most enduring creations. What makes us melancholy, Keats concluded, is our awareness of things inevitably passing -- of brothers dying before they reach 20; of nightingales that cease their songs; of peonies drooping at noon. But it is precisely when we sense impending death that we grasp the world's beauty.

Keats was of course not the only great artist to translate melancholia into exuberance. This metamorphosis of sadness to joy has been a perennial if frequently unacknowledged current in Western art. Consider George Frideric Handel, the 18th century composer. By 1741, when he was in his mid-50s, Handel found himself a fallen man. Once a ruler of the musical world, he had suffered several failed operas as well as poor health. He was left in a state of poverty, sickness and heartsickness. Living in a run-down house in a poor part of London, he expected any day to be thrown into debtor's prison or to die. But then, out of nowhere, as if by some divine agency, Handel received a libretto based on the life of Jesus and an invitation to compose a work for a charity benefit performance. On Aug. 22, 1741, in his squalid rooms on Brook Street, Handel saw potentialities no one had before seen. Immediately, he felt a creative vitality course through his veins. During a 24-day period, he barely slept or ate. He only composed, and then composed more. At the close of this brief period, he had completed "Messiah" his greatest work, a gift from the depths of melancholia.

We could also recall Georgia O'Keeffe, the 20th century painter. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, O'Keeffe left the East Coast for Taos, N.M. She fell profoundly in love with the lonely vistas of this world denuded of human corruption. However, even though she was enlivened by this part of the world, in 1932, her lifelong battle with melancholia caught up with her. She was hospitalized for psychoneurosis. Rather than quelling her creative spirit, this breakdown did the opposite. Upon being discharged, she returned to the Southwest. There, in 1935, she painted some of her bleakest and most beautiful landscapes: "Purple Hills near Abiquiu" and "Ram's Head, White Hollyhock Hills." Both feature dark things amid the desert's glare -- gloomy shadows and stormy clouds. Into these haunting shades -- hovering amid hard-scrabble rock and a sinister skull -- one stares. One senses something there as silent and sacred as bones.

Joni Mitchell confessed in an interview that she has frequently endured long periods of gloom. But she has not shied away from the darkness. Instead, she sees her sorrow as the "sand that makes the pearl" -- as the terrible friction that produces the lustrous sphere. Given her fruitful struggles with sadness, Mitchell has understandably feared its absence. "Chase away the demons," she has said, "and they will take the angels with them."

Melancholia, far from error or defect, is an almost miraculous invitation to rise above the contented status quo and imagine untapped possibilities. We need sorrow, constant and robust, to make us human, alive, sensitive to the sweet rhythms of growth and decay, death and life. This of course does not mean that we should simply wallow in gloom, that we should wantonly cultivate depression. I'm not out to romanticize mental illnesses that can end in madness or suicide. On the contrary, following Keats and those like him, I'm valorizing a fundamental emotion too frequently avoided in the American scene. I'm offering hope to those millions who feel guilty for being downhearted. I'm saying that it's more than all right to descend into introspective gloom. In fact, it is crucial, a call to what might be the best portion of ourselves, those depths where the most lasting truths lie.

Eric G. Wilson is a professor of English at Wake Forest University and author of "Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy."

Melancholia - a miraculous invention?

Posted February 26, 2008

Shari’ah law For Britain?

“Right, I’m off to get a burqa for the mother-in-law” – British subject Tom Harrop

In a series of threads in this blog (A Picture Worth a Thousand Words, London Bridge is Falling Down and Muslim Britain) we have discussed the problem of integrating a growing muslim population into the historical British culture. This photograph, published in The Daily Express, shows Muslim radicals demonstrating in favor of establishing Shari’ah law in the UK. The proposal to introduce Shari'ah law is also discussed in an article in the NY Times of February 8, 2008 entitled “Top Anglican Seeks a Role for Islamic Law in Britain” where John Burns writes about the proposal from the leader of the world’s Anglican to permit the practice of Shariah law in the United Kingdom:

The archbishop of Canterbury called Thursday for Britain to adopt aspects of Islamic Shariah law alongside the existing legal system. His speech set off a storm of opposition among politicians, lawyers and others, including some Muslims. The archbishop, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, spiritual leader of the world’s Anglicans, said in his speech that the introduction of Shariah in family law was “unavoidable.” But he said such “constructive accommodation” should not deprive Muslims of their right to take their cases to the existing court system.

The archbishop compared allowing Muslims to take carefully defined issues to their own religious courts to the established practice among Orthodox Jews here of referring religious disputes to rabbinical courts. Roman Catholics might also benefit from what he called “plural jurisdiction” in matters affecting religious conscience, he said. He noted that the Church of England, formally headed by the monarch, also has its own ecclesiastical courts. Shariah is drawn from the Koran and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. It prescribes religious and secular duties, along with punishments for their breach.

In countries where Islamic militants have gained power, like Afghanistan under the Taliban, harsh forms of Shariah law have been imposed. These have included stoning to death for adultery and the chopping off of hands for theft, along with severe restraints on women’s rights and provisions subjugating them to the will of men. But much of Shariah law deals with issues like marriage, divorce and inheritance, and many Muslims in Britain, a small but often isolated minority of 1.5 million in this nation of 60 million, have for many years taken disputes in these areas to Shariah councils in neighborhood mosques.

Nobody in their right mind,” the archbishop told the BBC, “would want to see in this country the kind of inhumanity that sometimes appears to be associated with the practice of the law in some Islamic states — the extreme punishments, the attitudes to women as well.” But equally, he said, “I don’t think we should instantly spring to the conclusion that the whole of that world of jurisprudence and practice is somehow monstrously incompatible with human rights simply because it doesn’t immediately fit with how we understand it.”

The 57-year-old archbishop, an Oxford-educated theologian, was met with immediate repudiation from political and legal leaders. A spokesman for Prime Minister Gordon Brown, speaking anonymously in the tradition of Downing Street, told reporters that Mr. Brown did not “welcome or support” the proposals, and added that Mr. Brown “believes that British laws should be based on British values.” Spokesmen for the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Parties, the main opposition groups, issued similar responses. Baroness Sayeeda Hussain Warsi, a 36-year-old lawyer who is a rising star in the Conservative Party and one of its most influential Muslim figures, issued a statement calling the archbishop’s remarks “unhelpful.” “Of course the important principle is one of equality, and we must ensure that people of all backgrounds and religions are treated equally before the law,” she said. “But let’s be absolutely clear: All British citizens must be subject to British laws developed through Parliament and the courts.”

The archbishop’s proposal, if adopted, would set a precedent in the West. In 2005, Muslims in Ontario appeared to be on the verge of a breakthrough when the province’s attorney general proposed Shariah-based law for use in Muslim family disputes. But the provincial government abandoned the proposal, saying there should be one law for all Canadians. Legal recognition of Shariah has been a longstanding demand among some Muslim groups in Britain, and their spokesmen endorsed the archbishop’s proposals. Faisal Siddiqui, a lawyer, told the BBC that sensational stories about extreme punishments had distorted the benefits of Islamic law. “The reality is that it has enriched civilization and humanity for 1,400 years,” he said.

The archbishop’s speech was made at the Royal Courts of Justice, before an audience of leading judges and lawyers. Typically, it was steeped in historical and philosophical nuances that risked being lost in the headlines. He argued, for example, that the principle enshrined during the 18th-century Enlightenment, that all citizens should be under the uniform law of a sovereign state, was a reaction to despotism. He said that a modern democratic society should “acknowledge the liberty of conscientious opting-out from collaboration with procedures or practices that are in tension with demands of particular religious groups.” This, the archbishop said, could be extended to create new legal rights for all faiths, not only Muslims. He cited Catholic adoption agencies that have resisted accepting gay couples as adoptive parents, a stand that has brought them into conflict with the law in Britain, and other religious groups that have resisted stem cell research.

But within hours of the BBC interview, the broadcaster’s Web site was inundated with angry postings. One man, Tom Harrop, left a mocking comment that was typical of many others: “Right, I’m off to get a burqa for the mother-in-law,” a reference to the head-to-toe veil worn by many conservative Muslim women.

Could Shari'ah law be viable in Britain?

Posted February 8, 2008