Notes on Melancholy, part 1

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 we all seems intent on removing all signs of sadness, depression, or, quite simply, low moods from our own lives.

In  A Field Guide to Melancholy  Jacky Bowring studies melancholy as a historic concept in science and art and she also explores melancholy in contemporary art and writing.


These are some questions raised in the beginning of Bowring’s text:

Why should being sad mean that you’re mad?

Why are geniuses so often melancholic?

How can things that are sorrowful be beautiful?

melancholy: [meluh n-kol-ee]

noun, plural melancholies.

  • a gloomy state of mind, especially when habitual or prolonged; depression.
  • sober thoughtfulness; pensiveness.
    • the condition of having too much black bile, considered in ancient and medieval medicine to cause gloominess and depression
  • affected with, characterized by, or showing melancholy; mournful; depressed:
    a melancholy mood.
  • causing melancholy or sadness; saddening:
    a melancholy occasion.
  • soberly thoughtful; pensive.

Melankoli 2.jpg

from Lars von Trier’s film “Melancholia” (2011)

from A Field Guide to Melancholy — melancholy & madness, a short history:

  1. Hip­pocrates: If fear or sadness last for a long time it is melan­cholia.
  2. Paul of Aegina: Melancholy is a disorder of the intellect without fever.
  3. 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 (as opposed to the ‘good’ melancholy associated with geniuses) was mainly associated with women, who were, in the words of sixteenth century Dutch doctor Jan Weir: ‘raving, poor, simple, useless, ignorant, gullible, stupid, vile, uneducated, infatuated, toothless, silly, unsteady …old.’
  4. In The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) Robert Burton 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.
  5. Samuel Johnson: Melancholy has no positive dimen­sions, no aspect of genius, and is a sign of insanity.
  6. Sigmund Freud  Mourning and Melancholia (1917): melancholia is a patho­logical condition, a state wherein mourning fails to reach completion. The individual, or ego, embeds their sense of loss within themselves, refusing to allow the loss to pass. Freud described how the ‘[t]he shadow of the object fell upon the ego’ and ‘the loss of the object had been trans­formed into the loss of ego’, so that the loss of the object, whether it be a person or an idea, becomes the same as the loss of the self.

A Field Guide to Melancholy does not romanticise depression, and is rather part of a salvage operation, reclaiming melancholy’s bitter-sweetness.

Jacky Bowring: Professor of Landscape Architecture at Lincoln University, Christchurch, New Zealand. With research interests in memory and emotion, Jacky has explored this terrain in both designed works and scholarly investigation, ranging from the Memorial Garden at Auckland’s Holy Trinity Cathedral through to the book A Field Guide to Melancholy.

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