We have lost our Melancholia and our Black Bile and we’re the worse for the eradication. We now seek happiness through the pit of a pill and the trough of psychotherapy instead of actively working to remove ourselves from despair and founding ourselves in happiness and contentment even though they can never truly be achieved.

It is that struggle to raise our bodies and our thoughts that makes the life worthy of the living. Melancholia has a rich and deadly history in the mark of humankind and no other state of being has been rendered so beautifully in art than that of the Melancholic mind. It’s fascinating how “head on hand” is the rich semiotic used throughout antiquity to indicate this mournfulness of the memory for the living:

Why is the darker side of the human condition memorialized in our shared, universal memories in art and music and poetry and performance and sculpture?

There are few purely joyous renderings of the human experience in the canon of Arts, Literature and the Humanities and the reason for that is we were all born into suffering and despair.

It is our inborn depression and darkness — as necessary and as involuntary as breathing and blinking — that defines our Melancholia and indelibly links us to each other.

Happiness and contentment are foreign ideals in the world while we all innately understand sorrow and hurt and the general malaise of being human.

Melancholia must be celebrated, not cured or tamped down or made misbegotten with a pill and counseling. Melancholia, and all its pain and internal wounding, confirms who we really are as the brightest and the boldest indicators of living.

Melancholia, and its natural contretemps, creates the hallmark of a human life on earth.

32 Comments

  1. You use the word “Melancholia” 8 times yet the word “depression” only once.
    Given that the former is an archaic word and the latter is a known word now it’s a strange differentiation you draw.

  2. Mark –-
    Most of the art used in the post use “Melancholia” in the title.
    Do you find “depression” less romantic than “Melancholia?”
    Why do you think “Melancholia” has been replaced in our current vernacular?
    There’s a reason for everything so what’s your rationale for the change in labeling? As well, I remind you to consider Foucault’s theory of power and naming as you ruminate on this modification of expectation and result.

  3. David- Melancholia is built into the langueage and philosophy we are given. Interesting that melanin is the dark pigment. There is a great prejudice towards light being positive and dark negative. The whole vocabulary has prejudice, racism and war built into it. To “life “being positive and death negative. Even sunny weather is most often called “good” and rainy weather called “bad.” Obviously words are meaningless enough if accepted literally without hooking them together, and accepting these hookups literally. When animism was the accepted view, everything was alive. With the post Descartian split, melancholia came along to a greater degree to the point of “depression.” Considering we spend an infinite time “dead” compared to “alive” if one accepts this modern view, of course depression will accompany this view. It is more an indicator that we should change our view, and vocabulary and grammar, than somethiong to get depressed about.
    i remember an old Peanuts cartoon. Chalie Brown had his head down and looked depressed. Someone said he should hold his head up and he would feel better. Charlie said “No- if you want to get any
    ” Joy ” out of depression you have to hold your head like this (down).
    We shouldn’t so easily accept the absolute meanings of words and separate all so called opposits; they are also as close together as possible; and realise everything is one, with many spinning apparent separetnesses that will all return to the one, someday. To lighten up=enlightenment. Perhaps we should call it “endarkenment” for a few years just to show how prejudice our language is.
    It might also help if we based society on some other principle than war and negative words and concepts and the concept of “opposit,” which is pre-emptively brewing war. Peace has led to war more than any other concept or term and we are left with a lose/ lose situation if one follows the standard dictionary and encyclopedia, and melancholia is the logical result.

  4. Absolutely on target, fred!
    Melancholia has a definite meaning in the history of human living. It was seen as a necessary meditative and contemplative part of the day and if one really thinks about life and our station in it as cogent, caring, human beings, the notions for success and curing the ills of the world are nil. Finding pleasure in despair is the job of us all and if we do not then we sunder into death.
    Does that mean we give up and go lightly into our deaths?
    Not at all!
    It is that very darkness and the acceptance of living in a murderous and dangerous world is what helps give meaning to the happier, fleeting, moments. The old artists understood this and celebrated that state of mind in their work and art.
    Today we want to eradicate the Melancholy — renamed “Depression” to sell pills and blend cures and provide therapeutic moments by those enriched with goods and power — and in that devastation of Melancholia we have lost any opportunity to truly shine in happiness. You eradicate the lows and lop off the highs and you’re stuck in the never-ending middle mind where nothing matters. There is no joy. There is no remorseful pondering. You just exist on an even keel until the end keeps you.
    Without a necessary Melancholia that we can discuss with each other and explore through shared distresses and failures we are lost forever in the semiotic pit of the dead without the marks of pondering and fear and inconsistency of thought to bring us alive!

  5. David- Andrew Weil says that there is natural organic need to alter ones consciousness. He says even little children spin around to get dizzy, go on swings, hold their breath and other such means. He says that with adults the main way society allows them to alter their consciousness is with alcohol consumption. Most foods and drinks have a stimulating initial effect and a depressive after effect. This seems especially true with alcohol. Perhaps if more avenues were open for people to choose their avenue of transcendence their would be less excess melancholia to the point of depression.
    Before my photos got accepted at all, i sold laser prints in stores. One store i went into, the young lady running the place said she didn’t want to carry my photos because she didn’t think they would make people “feel good” ( implying melancholia). i guess she was more into the big eyed Margaret Keane happy / feel good type “art.” i told her, “one would think that art created by nature would make anyone feel good, especially knowing the person who captured it found a way make a living doing what he intrincically enjoyed.” It showed me that many people think nature itself is melancholic.
    Coltrane’s entrance on “Blue Trane” to me is the epitome of the acerbic beauty inherent in melancholia and i will take it any day over the saccharin “feel good ” music i was always seeking to find an alternative to before i knew of it’s existence. Finding it first with Shastakovitch, then with Thelonious Monk thru Albert Ayler. Dissonance can be beautiful. i think it all starts with green olives; most likely way before.

  6. Right, fred!
    Modern medicine stole our right to our Melancholia by re-labeling it and “diagnosing” it as “depression” and something in need of a cure.
    Now there are those who are suicidal — and I prefer to call them “suicidal” than “depressed” as modern labeling now requires. The more people you can label with a word you can “cure” with a pill and visits to an office the more money you can make and the more power you have to set the agenda.
    Here’s a fun experiment anyone can do. You should do this at least 25 times over the course of your life to give the best chance for a pseudo-random sampling:
    When an infrequent acquaintance — not a good friend or family member or stranger — asks, “How are you?” and you know they don’t really care because they’re just being polite, answer with:
    “I’m feeling a little down today.”
    You’ll get two responses:
    1. The person will tell you not do be down and try to pep you up. You will never hear them say, “Good for you! Feeling down is natural and that contemplative state makes up the majority of our lives! Enjoy the feeling!”
    2. Your response will be ignored with silence as the person metaphorically turns and runs away from you as fast as they can do they will not be tainted with your “illness.”
    At one time Melancholia was a celebrated part of our lives and no one felt the need to dismiss it or cure it, so science and technology –- perpetually searching for ills to heal — had to band together and rename Melancholia in order to remove it from the good social psyche and, in that re-naming, stigmatize, demonize and degrade the Melancholia ideal from emotional appropriateness and into the taint of “depression.”

  7. David- Correct- When the animistic shamen with his psychotropic plants was replaced with the doctor/ rabbi / priest, the latter “elevated” himself to a supposedly “good” place the average person could not aspire to. The model of an external Jesus on a pedestal that no earthly mortal contained within himself as a living principle or could aspire to was the epitome of this. Originally the shamen was looked at as both positive and negative, and at one with the tribesmen were merely melancholic at times.
    The lambs in the fold of the rabbi / priest were more likely prone to flat out depression given no out except to go to the doctor who was elevated on the same plane as these self proclaimed superior beings. Natural medicines could not be quantified on the Descartian x and y axis, so they were extracted and made quantifiable, which has caused quantifiable mechanical depressed individuals in many cases. The commercial supermarked food has many of these same aspects as the pharmaceuticals in the drugstore. Middle men have replaced the shamen. Depression has replaced melancholia.

  8. Hi David,
    A little melancholia is good for the artistic soul because it provides the contrast needed to fully appreciate happiness. If I’m taking pictures, I often feel more inspired to pull out the camera when it is rainy and dark, rather than when it is a cloudless and sunny sky. Melancholia provides drama, just as a thunderstorm or rainshower.
    But, as in all things, one doesn’t do well to always be in the depths of melancholia because there is much in life about which to be happy.
    Balance is the key.
    Feeling a little melancholia every now and then helps us to appreciate the good times. Being stuck in the depths of depression — where it affects life functions — is a different matter that doesn’t do anyone any good.
    Medication doesn’t necessarily have to take away all of the peaks and valleys that make life interesting, if it is dosed correctly.

  9. Right, fred, I’m glad you’re extending today’s argument into deeper realms of what is important and what is missing in our modern lives.
    We’ve lopped off the extreme ends of living in favor of an immobile, unsophisticated and unfeeling middle ground where neither living or dying are given any importance. We’re in constant stasis and instructed to love the equilibrium.
    Let’s return to the full realm of the pendulum and experience all facets of life again:
    http://urbansemiotic.com/2006/02/16/the-sht-and-the-pendulum/

  10. Chris —
    I understand your argument, but today “balance” has come to mean in the medical community “immobility of feeling.”
    Strong feelings and emotions and reactions are discouraged by the societal mainstream because they lead to dangerous actions and change and the medical community steps in to “heal us” from feeling.
    There is great value in pressing everyone into the emotional middle where they can be watched and tested and herded and — if someone dares to feel to much — their medical dosage can be increased to return the self to “normal” which really equals “death” in the antiquity of emotional realities.
    Our culture celebrates murder and killing in the mainstream media and beating up and punching and tackling in our sports. But the observer can never become the participant on a large scale or emotional chaos will be the result and that is unwanted by those who demand control of the artificially balanced middle.

  11. Hi David,
    I always wonder why our culture always celebrates what it celebrates. It’s too bad we don’t focus more on love in politics, religion, and in our personal lives.
    If we did, we’d probably have less reliance on artificial means of finding happiness.

  12. Hi Chris!
    You went right into the Spam hopper! Merry Christmas!
    :mrgreen:
    Comments that disappear always go into Akismet. Comments that are moderated remain visible but labeled as being in “Moderation” and only the author can see the comment. I’m sorry about that trouble! We’ll just keep on it… and keep clearing you… again and again and again…
    There are some who would argue the reason we seek murder and despair is because we have eradicated Melancholia from our lives and we crave those missing emotional depths.
    As fred argues, we want to be in motion and become dizzy and feel all the extremes of life. Civilization requires of us, as a part of fitting in, that we repress our most base human emotional expressions and that, in my view, leads to imbalance, immobility, and feelings of doom that replaces our appropriate Melancholia.
    Here’s a historic example in song of trying to falsely force cheer into a “Melancholy Baby”
    http://www.theguitarguy.com/mymelan.htm

  13. Yes David- I’ll call your “We’ve lopped off the extreme ends of living in favor of an immobile, unsophisticated and unfeeling middle ground where neither living or dying are given any importance.” And raise you a “We’ve also lopped off the true middle ground,” that most saught after prime center cut. The true middle ground is often labeled as extreme to make way for the pseudo replacement that you refer to as neither alive or dead but merely tranquilzed. This true middle ground is the “true son of God, or Man; who has nowhere to rest his weary head- that the oft quoted, (but rarely understood as not separate from each of us), Jesus mentioned. Yet many of these true sons and daughters are often marginalized, labeled as extremists and placed in mental institutions and prisons for merely trying to occupy this middle ground from which they have been excluded by the false pseudo- middle.
    Alberts Ayler was said to have commited suicide. His cousin and fellow musician Charles Tyler said it was because of Alberts belief in “that old time religion,” which added great pathos and feeling to his music, but was most likely also the cause of his early demise.

  14. Merry Christmas
    I’m sorry, but “The Necessity of Melancholia and Black Bile” looks… like a promotion of the grieving and loneliness. That may help us to comprehend lots of things but is it what we are striving for? The Advent ends with the Christmas Holiday.
    Art uses Melancholia as a tool of expression but not the ultimate goal. We rejoice at the famous plastic figures but not the longevity of their skeletons.
    These frameworks are the words of my comments and are just the words. What’s matter indeed is our willingness to seek for the eternity and to recognize ourselves in the eyes of each other, in the eyes that share the divine love and shine with the gratitude.
    I wish only the best for you in this Holy Season. May God Bless you in all that you endeavor.
    Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

  15. Leonard Cohen and the Hallelujah Lyric

    SuperGenius is born in a moment of blinding beauty and then propagated in flashes of inspiration from one mind to another. When those sparks ignite in a rapid-fire movement, a REM-like sleep flutters across a community of open minds, a