A Field Guide to Melancholy
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A Field Guide to Melancholy

Jacky Bowring

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eBook - ePub

A Field Guide to Melancholy

Jacky Bowring

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About This Book

A depressive illness or a passing feeling? Mental detachment or a precursor to genius? Melancholy is a critical part of what it is to be human, yet everything from Prozac to self help psychology books seems intent on removing all signs of sadness, depression, or, quite simply, low moods from contemporary existence. Complex and contradictory, melancholy's presence weaves through the histories of both science and art. A Field Guide to Melancholy surveys this ambivalent concept and takes a journey through its articulation in a variety of languages, from the Russian toska of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, to kaiho - which is expressed in the dancing of the Finnish tango. Melancholy is found in the historic traditions of death's presence in paradise, the tears of nature, along with nostalgia, pathos, and melancholy's presiding god, Saturn. In contemporary society, melancholy becomes a fashion statement in the subculture of the Emo whilst shelves are rife with self help books encouraging readers to overcome depression. By drawing on a range of disciplines from psychology and philosophy to architecture and design, and by examining the work of creative figures as different as Ingmar Bergman, Albrecht Dürer, WG Sebald and Tom Waits, Jacky Bowring provides an original perspective on one of the most elusive, enigmatic and fascinating of human conditions.

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The Conundrums of Melancholy:
Madness, Genius and Beauty

Bob: It’s a sad and beautiful world.
Zach: Yeah, it’s a sad and beautiful world, buddy.
Jim Jarmusch, Down By Law1

Suffering and joy. Pleasure and sadness. Melancholy is a conundrum, a riddle of contradictions. The latent richness of the concept grows out of these paradoxes, and three particular enigmas haunt melancholy: madness,genius and beauty. Why should being sad mean that you’re mad? Why are geniuses and heroes so often melancholy? And, how can things that are sorrowful be beautiful?

Melancholy and Madness: ‘A disorder of the intellect’
Madness hangs around melancholy from the beginnings of the idea two and a half millennia ago. The wavering boundary between what might be considered simply a mood, or a disposition, and a more serious disorder has never been resolved. Science’s dominion over melancholy as an illness has long sought to clarify the symptoms of insanity. But melancholy has always remained elusive, evading systems of rigid classification, and the situation becomes even more complicated in recent times with ‘depression’ added to the complex condition.
Early investigations of melancholy were based on humoral theory, and melancholy was simply one amongst four types of humoral imbalance, rather than any exceptional or alarming condition. Historians of medicine point to concerns, even amongst the ancients, about distinguishing mere temperaments from serious disorders. In the diagnosis of a ‘melancholic’, what was required was the identification of a disproportionate expression of sadness, for example in the magnitude or sustained nature of grief, or in wretchedness without a normal cause. This foundational judgment, rooted in the words of Hippocrates (‘If fear or sadness last for a long time it is melancholia’), persists to the present day, almost word for word, in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association.
These early foundations of the idea hung together as melancholy travelled through time and space. In medieval times in the West it was in the cathedral schools and monasteries that the thinking on melancholia survived, just as many other concepts and aspects of knowledge did. In this religious setting the original ideas became cross-pollinated, and religious misdemeanours and medical explanations were elided in the explanations of melancholy and madness.
The understandings of melancholy that underpinned theWestern medical tradition were added to as further information came from the East via translations of the works of, particularly, Middle Eastern scholars like the ninth century Alkindus (Al Kindi) and tenth century Avicenna (Ibn’Sina). The humoral traditions of Galen were continued in this work. The emphasis was on the treatment of humoral imbalances, eliminating the black bile by bathing and other means, for example, and remedies such as coitus were suggested because they ‘dissipated fixed ideas of the soul and calmed ungovernable passions’.2
The Byzantine Paul of Aegina noted that ‘Melancholy is a disorder of the intellect without fever’,3 and he identified a range of symptomatic behaviours of those afflicted, including prophesying, suffering from delusions of being animals, and identifying as an earthen-vessel. This latter delusion is believed to derive from black bile’s alliance with ‘earth’, and occurs also in Arabic writings around this time, as a feeling of being made of clay, which again produces anxiety in the sufferer, and fear of being broken. Foretelling the future had earlier been considered one of the gifts of melancholy, associated with exceptional insight, as with the connection to genius in the following section. At this time though, prophesying was considered another sign of madness.
Later medieval times continued the legacies inherited from the ancients, including the root idea of ‘fear and sadness’ being out of proportion or without cause, but added to this was the idea of acedia – or what is sometimes termed ‘sloth’. Monks in particular were afflicted by acedia; it was an occupational hazard. Their necessary detachment from the ordinary world of daily activities in order to release them to a life of asceticism and dedication to prayer meant that monks sometimes descended into a state of torpor. This was not only seen as a type of melancholic sickness, but also a deadly sin, persisting today as the sin of Sloth. Acedia, and its companion tristitia, are outlined in chapter 3, where the Field Guide plots a number of the allied terms which enrich ideas on melancholy.
Another spectre of insanity associated with melancholy was witchcraft. Things that were unexplainable, like exceptional memory or prophesying, were beyond what might be considered normal, and placed in the category of insanity. For several centuries this fear and lack of comprehension was explained away as a particular type of madness – witchcraft. This ‘mad’ melancholy is what Frances Yates called ‘bad melancholy’, as opposed to the ‘good melancholy’ of geniuses and heroes. During Elizabethan times, melancholia, madness and witchcraft were closely linked. Satan rather than Saturn became the governing force for melancholy in the eyes of those who considered it a sign of possession by the devil, or a punishment for evil. At this time, the ‘mad’ version of melancholy was mainly associated with women, who were, in the words of sixteenth century Dutch doctor and ‘protopsychopathologist’ JanWeir: ‘raving, poor, simple, useless, ignorant, gullible, stupid, vile, uneducated, infatuated, toothless, silly, unsteady …old.’4
Fears of witchcraft were rife in the colonies, as in the Salem witch trials of the late seventeenth century. Cotton Mather, a Puritan New England minister involved in the trials, sought both religious and pathological explanations for melancholy. Influenced by medical texts and the legacy of humoralism, Mather hedged his bets, and explained melancholy as being related to ‘.atulencies in the region of the Hypochondria as well as a degree of diabolical possession’.5 The reported manifestations of melancholy madness echo those from the Middle Ages, as in the delusions of being ‘metamorphosized into a china jar’ or ‘transformed into a smoking pidgeon pie’.6
One of the key texts in the history of the complexities of melancholy was Robert Burton’s massive tome, published in 1621, which bears the title: The Anatomy of Melancholy, What it is: With all the Kinds, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes, and Several Cures of it. In Three Maine Partitions with their several Sections, Members, and Subsections. Philosophically,Historically,Opened and Cut up.7 Burton, an Oxford don writing under the pseudonym Democritus Junior, set out to describe all the forms of melancholy, including head melancholy, hypochondriacal melancholy, religious melancholy, love melancholy, and ‘Maids, Nuns, and Widows’ Melancholy’. This form of definition by description, running to some 783 pages in the first edition, rather than achieving any kind of precision served to further emphasise the complexity of melancholy. The pseudonym of Democritus Junior linked Burton back to the age of Hippocrates, and allowed him a detached perspective from which to construct his work. He told a tale where Hippocrates came across Democritus in his garden at Abdera, sitting with a book on his lap, and ‘the subject of his book was melancholy and madness: and around him lay the carkasses of several beasts, newly cut up by him and anatomized; not that he did condemn Gods creatures, as he told Hippocrates, but to find out the seat of this altra bilis, or melancholy, whence it proceeds, and how it is engendred into mens bodies, to the intent that he might better cure it in himself, by his writings and observations teach others how to prevent and avoid it.’8 There are echoes of this ‘anatomising’ of animals with the ‘anatomy’ that Burton constructs as his study of melancholy, the idea of trying to find the cause, and the cure. It is speculated that Burton’s adoption of a pseudonym allowed him to present his own melancholy, that he was part and parcel of what was considered ‘so universal a malady’ and an ‘epidemical disease’ – words that carry a curious resonance amid today’s concern over the pervasiveness of depression.
Samuel Johnson’s definition of melancholy in his eighteenth-century Dictionary listed ‘madness’ amongst its senses. For Johnson, melancholy had no positive dimensions, no aspect of genius, and was a sign of insanity. In addition to his Dictionary, Johnson also compiled an extensive set of Sermons, where he provided a more thorough account of the madness of melancholy, particularly its effects. He believed melancholy to be the cause of fixating on one ‘notion or inclination’ so that it ‘takes such an entire possession of a man’s mind, and so engrosses his faculties, as to mingle thoughts perhaps he is not himself conscious of with almost all his conceptions, and influence his whole behavior.’9
While Samuel Johnson listed ‘madness’ amongst the definitions of melancholy, the nineteenth-century encyclopaedia of Good, Gregory and Bosworth, Pantologia, split the definition into two terms, adding a separate entry for melancholia. They retained Johnson’s definition of melancholy in the senses of a literary, Shakespearean ‘madness’ or ‘temper’, but the ‘disease’ component was ascribed to melancholia. This, they defined as:

Melancholy madness. A disease in the class neuroses … characterized by erroneous judgment … from imaginary perceptions or recollections influencing the conduct, and depressing the mind with ill-grounded fears; not combined with either pyrexia [fever] or comatose affections; often appearing without dyspepsia, yet attended with costiveness [constipation], chiefly in p...

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