"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


  1. This post is fantastic: I love the Kahlo quote so much! And the Holly Golightly/Paul exchange: priceless.

  2. Thanks Jan & Jessika:

    Jan: "My dear friend Kitti Carriker, who makes the best connections among literature, art, popular culture, and life in general, just posted a beautiful blog about melancholy. Here is just a hint of what is waiting for you there -- a quote from Frida Kahlo:

    "I drank to drown my sorrows/
    but the damned things learned to swim."

    Check it out!"

    Jessika: "Once I was told this feeling 'seems to be self aggrandizing but only to those who don't experience it.' I love Bowie's quote, if one must be despondent one might as well look fabulous; at least that's how I roll."

  3. Thanks Katie & Meg:

    Katie: "This is such a sad entry--so many beautiful and touching thoughts on (and images of) melancholy. Sad but very beautiful!"

    Meg: "To lift folks from Despair about what's happening in the world, I introduce you to its pensive cousin, Melancholy, along with passages, artwork, and quotes to soothe your soul culled by my dear friend Kitti Carriker for her literary blog 'of connection and coincidence, custom and ceremony' -- and I'll add, curiosity -- which all together make it a worthy and rewarding read."

  4. Annette Bening, as the character Dorothea Fields in the movie "20th Century Women" (2016):

    "Look, wondering if you’re happy is a great shortcut to just being depressed."