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

3 comments:

Diana Malcolm said...

Michael: In The Chronicle Review Wilson has another article on the same theme and develops Keats’ story further. Take a look at it!

Some of the additional points he brought up which I think merit discussion are:

We are eradicating a major cultural force, the muse behind much art and poetry and music. We are annihilating melancholia. Why are most Americans so utterly willing to have an essential part of their hearts sliced away and discarded like so much waste? What are we to make of this American obsession with happiness, an obsession that could well lead to a sudden extinction of the creative impulse, that could result in an extermination as horrible as those foreshadowed by global warming and environmental crisis and nuclear proliferation? What drives this rage for complacency, this desperate contentment?

American culture's overemphasis on happiness at the expense of sadness might be dangerous, a wanton forgetting of an essential part of a full life. To desire only happiness in a world undoubtedly tragic is to become inauthentic, to settle for unrealistic abstractions that ignore concrete situations. Without the agitations of the soul, would all of our magnificently yearning towers topple? Would our heart-torn symphonies cease?

The predominant form of American happiness breeds blandness. This kind of happiness appears to disregard the value of sadness. This brand of supposed joy, moreover, seems to foster an ignorance of life's enduring and vital polarity between agony and ecstasy, dejection and ebullience. Trying to forget sadness and its integral place in the great rhythm of the cosmos, this sort of happiness insinuates that the blues are an aberrant state that should be cursed as weakness of will or removed with the help of a little pink pill.

I wonder why so many people experiencing melancholia are now taking pills simply to ease the pain. Of course there is a fine line between what I'm calling melancholia and what society calls depression. In my mind, what separates the two is degree of activity. Both forms are more or less chronic sadness that leads to continuing unease with how things are — persistent feelings that the world is not quite right, that it is a place of suffering, stupidity, and evil. Depression (as I see it, at least) causes apathy in the face of this unease, lethargy approaching total paralysis, an inability to feel much of anything one way or another. In contrast, melancholia generates a deep feeling in regard to this same anxiety, a turbulence of heart that results in an active questioning of the status quo, a perpetual longing to create new ways of being and seeing.

Our culture seems to confuse these two and thus treats melancholia as an aberrant state, a vile threat to our pervasive notions of happiness — happiness as immediate gratification, happiness as superficial comfort, happiness as static contentment. Aren't some of us so smitten with the American dream that we have become brainwashed into believing that our sole purpose on this earth is to be happy? Doesn't this unwitting affection for happiness over sadness lead us to a one-sided life, to bliss without discomfort, bright noon with no night?

Keats understood that suffering and death are not aberrations to be cursed but necessary parts of a capacious existence, a personal history attuned to the plentiful polarity of the cosmos. To deny death and calamity would be to live only a partial life, one devoid of creativity and beauty. Keats welcomed his death so that he could live.

Di Di

Avid Reader said...

I’m not in agreement with Wilson’s thesis at all. It seems that he exaggerates the perceived problem to much too great a degree. I reflect on the sorrows of the world quite frequently and wonder why things have to be this way – am I melancholic? Maybe, but certainly there is no thoughts in my mind of taking a ‘pink pill’ to treat it.

I think, however, that the loss of what might be called ‘melancholic’ subjects in school curriculae is something to be regretted. I doubt that as much emphasis is placed on understanding Keats’ Ode on Melancholy as is spent on analyzing the plays in the last football game. If this is what Wilson is regretting then I am with him on that.

Ever
DM

Megan Zamprelli said...

DM: I have to agree. His difference between melancholia and depression seems to hang on the ‘degree of activity’. That is if one is actively involved in tackling things that cause one to have the ‘blues’ then one is melancholic and not depressed.

And to say that one must have melancholia to be creative is the polar opposite to what I think most scientists might say. The more creative one is the more happy one tends to become. But maybe his point is that only happy poetry and literature in general comes from happy people and only the sad and sorrowful stuff can come from those who have experienced these feelings (i.e. feelings of melancholia). Well this seem obvious, does it not?

MAZ