"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Melancholy and / or Properly Tormented

The Last Full Moon of Winter

Beautiful image
lunar melancholia
framed in leafless twigs

~ Haiku by Burnetta & Kitti

From The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621)
By Oxford Scholar Robert Burton (1577 –1640)
"Melancholy, the subject of our present discourse, is either in disposition or in habit. In disposition, is that transitory Melancholy which goes and comes upon every small occasion of sorrow, need, sickness, trouble, fear, grief, passion, or perturbation of the mind, any manner of care, discontent, or thought, which causes anguish, dulness, heaviness and vexation of spirit, any ways opposite to pleasure, mirth, joy, delight, causing forwardness in us, or a dislike. In which equivocal and improper sense, we call him melancholy, that is dull, sad, sour, lumpish, ill-disposed, solitary, any way moved, or displeased. And from these melancholy dispositions no man living is free, no Stoick, none so wise, none so happy, none so patient, so generous, so godly, so divine, that can vindicate himself; so well-composed, but more or less, some time or other, he feels the smart of it. Melancholy in this sense is the character of Mortality... This Melancholy of which we are to treat, is a habit, a serious ailment, a settled humour, as Aurelianus and others call it, not errant, but fixed: and as it was long increasing, so, now being (pleasant or painful) grown to a habit, it will hardly be removed."

There are many artistic depictions of Melancholy
to choose from, but I'm going with this one . . .

Melancholy, 1894

. . . because coincidentally, I saw this one recently in Chicago and
was drawn to the solitary girl, as she herself is drawn to the moon.

The Girl By the Window, 1893

~ both by Edvard Munch (1863 - 1944) ~

Without seeing the girl's face, it is hard to know just how sad she is, or if she is even sad at all. However, if she happens to be melancholy, that's okay. As contemporary American writer Laren Stover wonders in her article, "The Case for Melancholy": "Whatever happened to experiencing the grace of deeply tinted blue moods, which require reflection and mental steeping, like tea?"

Stover traces the role of melancholy from Burton's Anatomy (above) to Keats's 19th Century expression of "the wakeful anguish of the soul" to a sampling of contemporary movies, including one of my favorites, the animated Inside Out, in which Melancholy is not just a concept but an actual / virtual character. Stover's article concludes as mine begins -- with a melancholy moon; and as Munch's girl in the white nightdress silently conveys to the viewer: "I want moonlight."

When my friend Vickie shared Stover's article on facebook, I was intrigued by the subsequent comments. Not only is Vickie an academic expert on the topic of melancholy, but she also offered her personal perspective: "This has been my natural humour my entire life. No getting around it, and I'm tired of trying and pretending."

Other friends responded similarly:

Billy Lord: You are loved, dear one, just as you are . . .

Patrick O'Brien: Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy -- Yes! Not a bad little read. Studies have shown we have a base level of happiness (or melancholy) that we return to despite external events. After the initial euphoria, lottery winners quickly settle back to their base level. And accident victims; paraplegics, etc., rebound to their previous level.

Sir-Igor Steinman: Certainly not "blue" as in "blue laws." I always did detect a "slight" limp. I had always assumed it was the weight of the crown, not a rebound from an accident.

Steve Stajich: All kidding aside, I think we must accept wider parameters of human mood or we're doomed to be either up or down, with outsiders attempting to adjust our down cycles into "productivity." See Soma in Brave New World. Jazz singers, for example. We love their art, but do we want to medicate them so that all they can sing is "Happy" or Christmas tunes? Gestalt theory might say, "Ask a squirrel if he feels funky today." Most critters on this planet don't even struggle with mood. [See my post "SSRI's & Walking Upright."]

My contribution was to pass on the advice that a counselor once wisely told me: "You're a writer; you're supposed to be sad." Not to mention a couple of my Modern British professors at Notre Dame: one who reminded us every semester that we were called upon as students of literature to be "properly tormented human beings," and the other who lectured regularly on "the ache of modernism" -- an ailment from which we all suffered.

What, after all, is a writer's life without a dose of despair?
from Dear Committee Members (p 68)
by Julie Schumacher

“The world is a hellish place, and bad writing
is destroying the quality of our suffering.”

Tom Waits

“I drank to drown my sorrows,
but the damned things learned how to swim.”

Frida Kahlo

Put on your red shoes and dance the blues
David Bowie

Holly Golightly: You know those days when you get the mean reds?
Paul: The mean reds. You mean like the blues?
Holly: No. The blues are because you're getting fat, and maybe it's been raining too long. You're just sad, that's all. The mean reds are horrible. Suddenly you're afraid, and you don't know what you're afraid of.
Do you ever get that feeling?

from the screenplay ~ Breakfast at Tiffany's
based on the novel by Truman Capote

After thirty, a man wakes up sad every morning,
excepting perhaps five or six, until the day of his death

Ralph Waldo Emerson

I never wake without finding life a more
insignificant thing than it was the day before.

Jonathan Swift

"Life is only on Earth. And not for long."
from the psycho - science - fiction movie Melancholia

So, it seems that no matter the century or decade, whether you're young or old, whether it's a "Melancholy Moon" or a "Melancholy Baby," from cradle to grave, in order to be a properly tormented human being . . .

"You've got to win a little, lose a little,
always have the blues a little. . . . "

Haiku by Basho
Gravestone at Cedar Grove Cemetery
University of Notre Dame

Next Fortnightly Post
Friday, April 14th

Between now and then, read
THE QUOTIDIAN KIT ~ "Always Have the Blues a Little"
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Ides of Whatever

Posting a day late in honor of the time - honored
historic and historical Ides of March.

I came across this mysteriously annotated sugar packet when cleaning out my backpack the other day. How can I explain it? I searched my mind but drew a blank. It seems that once again I've written a note to myself yet completely forgotten what it was that I intended to remember. I can only assume that at some point in my travels, a stray thought crossed my mind -- something about "The Present" -- and, having a pen in hand but no paper, I jotted down a note to myself on the nearest portable surface -- thank goodness for the ubiquity of sugar packets!

It wouldn't be the first time! A friend of mine at Notre Dame asked me once how I could write down so little, and I assured her that I would retain what I needed to know. She couldn't believe that sometimes I didn't even have a notebook, and she liked to say that if I suddenly needed to write something down, I would just reach back and tear the label from my tee - shirt and jot down a word or two for future reference. I never really did that, but I liked that story!

Alas, despite my best intentions, I am unable to interpret the sugar packet message, sent by my very own self from the past into the future, never to be understood in the present. I am not alone, however; Joan Didion's journal entry -- "dinner with E, depressed" -- suffers the same indecipherable fate:

Who is E?
Was this "E" depressed,
or was I depressed?

Maybe one day my sugar packet message will reveal itself to me. Was I thinking of a gift for someone -- a present to purchase, wrap, send, or bring to a party? Was it perhaps a self - actualizing reminder to stay focused on the time at hand, to live in the present moment. One thing I know for sure, I will never solve this riddle by staring at the sugar packet, so I think it is about time to move on to some prose and poetry about time.

"Lets look to the past only as it gives us pleasure.
And look to the future only as it gives us hope."

from Death Comes to Pemberley (2011)
by P. D. James (1920 - 2014)

Jane Austen version:
"Think only of the past as its
remembrance gives you pleasure."

So often we are impatient for time to pass. Years ago, in a book from childhood, I read a story that warned against such impatience. I have lost all the details -- title, author, plot; yet one scene has stayed with me, though I can no longer recall the names of the characters: the grandchildren are piled into a one - horse open sleigh, riding over the river and through the wood with their grandfather. Excited for their destination, they start wishing they were already there, but the grandfather warns: "You must never wish the time away!" How often that line has come back to me!

Even so, we sometimes wish for the time to fly. The Here and Now can drive us a little crazy -- making us tense, so to speak! It might be that you are not really into the Ides of March, or the Ides of He Who Must Not Be Named, or the Ides of Whatever. Maybe March just isn't your favorite month, as was certainly the case for one of my favorite Philadelphia columnists Karen Heller (now of the Washington Post). In her humorous essay "Nine days to go," she gloomily describes the final days of February:
You must not fight February but embrace it like the cold, wet, aging testy, mangy, drooling gray mutt that it is. February is here to make us appreciate May . . . How can you love May when you haven't Februaryed in grand style? And so we wallow and we wait knowing that only this month could deliver a comeback, a punchline, a headache as nasty and wicked and ugly as February.
~ from the Philadelphia Inquirer, mid 1990s
Poet Leonard Orr shares the negative sentiment, suggesting "daychotomies" or "weekectomies" to get through the offending times, going so far as to eliminate entirely The Month That Must Not Be Named. Even the title offers some alternatives to the Present Tense:
Past Tense, Future Tense
My naive calendar has so much sadness now
I could not stand it. Little did I know,
little did I know. I snipped away the foul days.
I completely excised whatever was that
month after February, its name I will not mention.
If it comes up accidentally, I drown it out
with whirling greigers and stamping feet.
turned out far better, though individual days
when we could not be together, these I carefully
snipped away, performing daychotomies,
weekectomies, and sutured the ragged sad edges
together, wetting the wounds as needed
with my abundant fluids, all my excess. I expanded
those few times we were together, those dates
receiving hour - augmentations; I botoxed my tongue,
the tips of my fingers, to seal inside me those
recollections of you, the spectacular aerie,
the tiny bits of time, ticking, always ticking.
May and the first days of June, little did I konw,
little did I know, so wonderful and blissful,
joyful in my last days, my running out of sand,
and now these blanks of time, soggy, unprinted
months with no days, no light, no passionate glowing.

(emphasis added)
~ Leonard Orr ~
from his collection Why We Have Evening

Political Post Script for
The Ides of Trump

My postcard messasges:
1. Stop Gerrymandering
2. Protect Planned Parenthood & Roe v. Wade
3. Don't Build the Wall
4. Remember the traditional motto of our country:
E Pluribus Unum
5. Honor the Statue of Liberty:
"Give me your tired your poor . . . the homeless . . .
I lift my lamp beside the golden door."

Next Fortnightly Post
Tuesday, March 28th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading