In Praise of Melancholia

Yves here. This article might seem more logical as a weekend item, but a change from our regular programming seemed in order.

I’m no fan of the American obsession with happiness, on pragmatic grounds (see this 2008 article, The Dark Side of Optimism). But there are deeper reasons for embracing difficult emotions, rather than try to repress them, flee through diversions, or medicate them away.

A major objective of religion is to reconcile people to the inevitability of suffering, loss, and death. The author asks, “Melancholy also has a faint quality of mourning, even a kind of grief, but for what?” I think it is for the transience of existence, the Japanese mono no aware, although I believe that sentiment is less intense than Western melancholia. Readers?

By Mark Kernan, a writer, independent researcher and lecturer in human rights (adult education). Originally published at Open Democracy

Without knowing the extremes of sadness and joy we can never fully know or feel all that life is.

Melancholy by Edgar Degas. Credit: Edgar Degas [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

“There is something so enchanting in the smile of melancholy. It is a ray of light in the darkness, a shade between sadness and despair, showing the possibility of consolation.” Leo Tolstoy

What if melancholy can be passed down through generations, not just culturally but at the level of our DNA? Melancholia has long been seen as a key element in artistic inspiration, along with a way of turning pain and sorrow into healing, and ultimately, an acceptance of life’s inescapable emotional sufferings and wounds.

The science of “behavioural epigenetics” is now exploring how this might actually work by studying the ways in which “signals from the environment trigger molecular biological changes that modify what goes on in brain cells.” It’s a controversial idea because up until recently, it was thought that epigenetic information was erased over time, leaving a blank slate for every new generation.

But what if genes that have been influenced by negative environmental factors like famine, conflict, slavery or alcohol abuse could retain some stressful memories that leave molecular scars on our children and grandchildren? The implications would be profound, especially because genetic engineering would be almost irresistible—and that industry has a far from illustrious history.

recent study by Rachel Yehuda and others at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York on the transmission of stress effects from holocaust survivors to their offspring claims exactly this—that severe psycho-physiological trauma experienced by parents has a measurable impact on the next generation. Stress wasn’t just culturally transmitted through holocaust stories; it was transferred at the level of the molecular biology of the brain.

So could there be positive connections across generations in this way, and if so, could these links be consciously strengthened or created?

Philosophers have long entertained the idea that melancholy and creativity are inter-connected.  Friedrich Nietzshe said that the suffering brought on by melancholy—“this evening twilight devil” as he called it—was vital to the mind and soul, even sacred. Suffering and difficulty, he thought, must be embraced, cultivated, and carefully crafted. Not for him the cowardly and numbing reassurance of what he called the “slave morality” of human timidity when faced with pain.

Without some kind of torment present in the soul, nothing of real or lasting value or beauty can be created. Without that dichotomy of emotional experiences; without knowing the extremes of sadness and joy, we can never fully know or feel all that life is. Similarly, Soren Kierkegaard wrote that melancholy was his “intimate confidant,” his “most faithful mistress,” and a place where he found “bliss.” Like Nietzsche, he thought that the suffering brought on by angst—melancholia’s more animated cousin you might say—was a necessary prerequisite for creativity.

Indigenous and shamanic cultures such as that of Aboriginal Australia have no problem in believing that melancholy and other experiences among our ancestors can shape our current reality for good and ill, and that in some way we can be psychically healed in the here and now by understanding this relationship. Aboriginal culture believes that the spirits of our ancestors reside in the crevices and caves of holy mountains, and that the hum of the wind, if understood and interpreted correctly, will reveal messages and signs from the dead.

Shamans, Sufi mystics and other ‘psycho-spiritual travellers’ have always played a highly-revered cultural and spiritual role as avatars who expand their ordinary consciousness through rhythmic dancing, hypnotic drumming or ingesting psychoactive substances, and who break through into suspended time or “dreamtime.” In doing so, they can act as a bridge between what is perceived as ordinary reality and other non-ordinary transpersonal realms.

As a result, the ‘wounded healer’—the great global archetype associated with visionary shamanism as a person with acute mental perceptions—is able to ‘bring back’ knowledge and wisdom from outside of our ordinary, three-dimensional, linear space and time. The goal of bringing back this wisdom from dreamtime is to heal and regenerate all of the community on both a spiritual and a societal level. Entering dreamtime is understood as a deeply creative act.

In the Buddhist tradition, Avalokiteshvara, the “Buddha to be” who is worshipped in both male and female forms has vowed to postpone enlightenment until s/he has released all sentient beings from Dukkha, the Sanskrit word for suffering. Suffering in Buddhism is understood as one of the four great Noble Truths. In the Fire Sermons, preached over two and half thousand years ago, the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, said that we live with delusion or avidya caused by suffering, and as a result we are “burning:”

“The mind is burning, ideas are burning, mind-consciousness is burning … Burning with what? I say it is burning with birth, aging and death, with sorrows, with lamentations, with pains, with griefs, with despairs.”

Hence, suffering and the sadness it brings is a universal part of human experience—a visceral part of who we are at our very core. We can run from this truth if we want to, but it will catch up with us in the end. There is no hiding place, and no amount of 21st century consumption or other distractions will douse our burnings.

Melancholy is a particular kind of sadness, an emotion born of suffering but reflective rather than creating a debilitating depression. It lies somewhere “in the shade between sadness and despair” as Leo Tolstoy put it, “where the possibility of consolation might lie.” Melancholy also has a faint quality of mourning, even a kind of grief, but for what? Our lost innocence? All that is lost in the past, and all that will be lost in the future? The human condition is full of bewilderment, misunderstanding, loss and grief because we will lose the people we love, and because things will not work out in the ways we want, so mourning and regret are inevitable.

As Susan Sontag memorably noted, depression is melancholy minus the charms. Depression paralyses, inflicts inertia and often steals our ability to function; whereas melancholy can act as a creative spur, building a hard won modicum of self-knowledge to draw on. Depression closes out the world and reduces our experiences to the claustrophobic confines of our own heads; whereas paradoxically, melancholy can open up these claustrophobic walls to acceptance and self-knowledge.

If we are to stay sane in the world we must actively seek out this kind of melancholy, for if we don’t we won’t be able to understand ourselves fully. We risk one-dimensionality and superficiality—two of the many curses brought on by 21st century capitalism. This cannot be self-indulgent, nor just another excuse to inflict even more pain on our ‘guilty,’ ‘undeserving’ and unexamined selves.

Thankfully, great art can console us, particularly great music. Music is surely our greatest medium of expression, and if melancholy sometimes feels like a vast enveloping grief, then perhaps music and the consolation it brings can help us to grieve. The melancholic note in popular music—the ‘blue’ note understood by the great African American Jazz artists of the twentieth century—heals, soothes and, if we allow it, can transform our suffering into this kind of knowing and accepting melancholia. Musicians from Bessie Smith and Robert Johnson to Miles Davis, Van Morrison and Lennon and McCartney have all understood this sense of pathos, and have felt and communicated it intuitively.

Take Lennon and McCartney for example. Both were the creative driving force of the Beatles. Perhaps the lonely and aching impulse of two young boys who had lost their mothers produced a symbiotic psychic energy that spurred them to create something remarkable from abrupt and searing pain. But could they have been mining something even deeper? Could emotional trauma have been passed down from earlier generations? And could the same be said of slavery and racism as part of the genesis of 19th and 20th century African American blues? It seems plausible. After all, Smith, Davis, Lennon and McCartney, David Bowie and the rest are surely our culture’s great avatars and shamans. It is they who soothe, guide and enlighten, and make it all worthwhile.

Appreciating great music is not just an intellectual exercise. It is much more than that. We don’t just hear music, we feel it, and in a melancholy state we do so even more intensely. If you haven’t felt music or any other art form with that intensity then Nietzsche was surely right: without that intensity of feeling, life would be a mistake.

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  1. ArkansasAngie

    I read once that there is a happiness gene and that researchers think maybe 6% has the gene. I think I am lucky enough to have gotten it.

    But … I also know first hand with family members and the veterans with PTSD and TBI that I work with daily that depression is real, it can be deadly and it leaves collateral damage to friends and family members.

    Soldier ON Service Dogs provides free service dogs to veterans with PTSD and/or TBI. I like to say that invisible injuries are invisible to you and I. The dog does not have ESP. The dogs react to the physical manifestations of PTSD … heart rate, breathing, sweating … etc.

    I am certainly against over medication. But … if you think PTSD … depression … is just all in your head … you are wrong.

    1. DJG

      But then there’s that bluesy rendition by Billie Holiday of “Give Me a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer.” So maybe you are a melancholic after all.

    2. craazyman

      Xanax and red wine, that’s the ticket. Suffering is over-rated.

      There’s an artist for ya. Degas not only nails every formal aspect of his topic but puts an invisible sword right through her sacral chakra, right where she bends over the arm of the chair. I bet nobody noticed that. hahaha. Too much cultural criticism and not enough Seeing, that’s yer problem.

      I bet he did that purely by channeling too, out of artistic instinct — without reference to any medical manual, which would have simply been misleading anyway.

      1. DJG

        On the other hand, the extensive use of red may indicate that he is dealing with first-chakra (base chakra) issues. Not being firmly planted in the world?

        Or is it a reference to red wine?

        1. craazyman

          I thought about that too & think it’s true. It’s both, sort of “separation and individuation” themes bound together

        1. Ivy

          Melancholy, runner’s high, a pump from working out, all somehow related. Endorphins and a body able to metabolize alcohol efficiently after exercise, perhaps on an empty stomach? Those have been welcome additions to the post-exercise pizza and beer, back when it was easier to sweat out and run off the calories.
          Now I may put an IPA or two on ice :)

      2. Aumua

        Yeah xanax and wine is the ticket. To a blackout. I definitely wouldn’t be feeling much suffering at that point, but later..

  2. Richard

    ” Smith, Davis, Lennon and McCartney, David Bowie and the rest are surely our culture’s great avatars and shamans. It is they who soothe, guide and enlighten, and make it all worthwhile.

    Appreciating great music is not just an intellectual exercise. It is much more than that. We don’t just hear music, we feel it, and in a melancholy state we do so even more intensely. If you haven’t felt music or any other art form with that intensity then Nietzsche was surely right: without that intensity of feeling, life would be a mistake.”

    Great music??

    Please! Want the ‘greatness’ of music expressed in its ultimate melancholic state. Try Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony for size. Then look again at those names above… and laugh!

    1. windsock

      So the music made by those people doesn’t speak to you. There are those to whom it does. As do Glass or Frahm or Pärt or Fauré or Abba, and, in the right time and place, electronic dance music. Or Dolly Parton or Loretta Lynn. You get my point.

      Pathétique about sums it up.

      1. From Cold Mountain

        And some people like weed and others favor drink…

        and those who drink, some like wine and some like beer…

        Don’t you see, you are all just drug addicts?

        1. windsock

          Ye Gods… are you serious?

          Music, like other arts, is a form of communication.

          But then some people like the sound of their own voice a little too much, so communication must be a drug too?

          1. From Cold Mountain

            Yes, serious.

            Drug: a medicine or other substance which has a physiological effect when ingested or otherwise introduced into the body.

            Music can be both a drug and a form of communication. Music effects us physiologically so there is no way around it as a fact.

            What defines a drug for most people is it’s lack of social acceptance. Note that most people will not consider alcohol a drug.

            There is nothing that is not a drug.some are just more powerful and obvious than others.

            And I would rather you not start with the condicending attitude.

            1. windsock

              And I would rather you not impose what works for you on to me, which I viewed as equally condescending. By your definition, food is a drug too, as it has a physiological effect. So, blatantly incorrect.

              We all walk a path through life that is subjective, no matter how objective we try to be. To start using words like “drugs” to describe phenomena like music is your subjective take on it.

              When do we start the government war on music? Are Kanye West or Radiohead part of Big Pharma?

          2. David Barrera

            “Music,like other arts,is a form of communication”
            The pan-ontology of communication, there-by and hereby your distinctive presence and hers and mine compear. But communication is not communicative, as my last sentence may well prove to some. And yet, this is my post, which is not even an article nor mass-pop nor governmental statement. We all write is subtle melancholy.

    2. horostam

      i can’t figure out who “smith” is supposed to be.

      also, i’ll take gershwin or ravel over tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky is very melodramatic to me.

        1. subgenius

          Burn down the disco
          Hang the blessed DJ
          Because the music that they constantly play
          It says nothing to me about my life

      1. David Barrera

        Tchaikovsky. Romanticism was the illusion of the self for the future elites to enjoy.
        Gershwin filled an American space where musical Impressionism could not timely exist
        Ravel, and more so Debussy, marked the field of art’s autonomy to the point that next,musical Expressionism, could not satisfy most of the elites anymore.
        I like them all, some more than others. Bourdieu put it just right: “Music is the most spiritual of all the arts”

      1. Richard

        Yes, by all means… if you will accept that the Beatles couldn’t even begin to mimic Tchaikovsky but Tchaikovsky could easily have mimcked the Beatles. If you will accept that it takes years and years of intense learning and study and practise to be Tchaikovsky, I’ll agree.

        Otherwise we’re talking about the difference between a doctor with 6-8 years of medical studies behind him and a quack who learned his trade from a couple of books picked up at the airport.

        I think you get my point…

        1. windsock

          Hmmm… David Bowie started writing music in the early/mid 60s. Fame in UK arrived early 70s. “Blackstar” released 2016, about 50 years later..

          And Mozart… child prodigy with without those previous years of study.

          Music is as much instinctive as it is a practical skill. Some people are great speakers/writers… other not so much.

          I think you get my point…

    3. jrs

      Since Van Morrison was mentioned, he has both a song called “Melancholia” and a song called “Underlying Depression”.

    4. Mark Alexander

      I take a more inclusive view of music. I am a huge fan of composers like Brahms and Schubert and Ravel, who were masters of melancholia. But I also get the same effect from works like “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway”, a 1974 album by Genesis (an obscure British rock band that bore little relationship to an 80s synth-pop band with the same name and three common band members). It’s all good.

  3. Moneta

    I can’t stand perma-optimism so this article reflects my views.

    Ironically, we yearn for a perfect life while our livelihoods depend on others having problems as a large percentage of jobs are there to solve these.

    It is clear that problems are beneficial in many ways but where is the fine line between beneficial and detrimental problems? Does this view lead us to inflict useless pain on others? As in “what does not kill you, makes you stronger”…

  4. Michael Fiorillo

    Good piece, thanks for posting.

    In addition to the “blue note” that jazz masters have given us, there’s also the feeling of “saudade” in much Brazilian music, a bittersweet feeling of loss and nostalgia which, when wedded to the rhythms of Mother Africa, gives the music of artists such as Jobim, Joao Gilberto, Caetano Veloso (who deserves a Nobel literature prize far more than Bobby Zimmerman), Gilberto Gil, Baden Powell, Guinga, Yamandu Costa, et. al.

    Here’s a distillation of it: “Noturna,” a tune written by composer/guitarist Guinga, and sung by Leila Pinheiro, melancholia transcendent:

    1. DJG

      Michael Fiorillo: Thanks for the mention of Brazilian music. I also esteem Caetano Veloso and his prodigiously talented sister Maria Bethania. And saudades are a perfect example of culturally approved melancholy in action. U.S. culture is designed to talk away, gloss over, blow off anything like saudades. (The blues excepted, but barely.)

      Oddly, even Os Mutantes somehow had saudades.

      And don’t forget Heitor Villa Lobos: The Bachianas Brasileiras are masterpieces.


        Yes, the list is long and varied; I too love Villa-Lobos, and it could/should also include many, many others.

        Can’t let go of the Caetano/Dylan thing, since he’s a better poet, songwriter, singer, guitarist, and (along with Gilberto Gil) actually risked his freedom and safety for his art and politics, being jailed and then exiled by the military junta in the late ’60’s. Those two had more cultural impact on their culture than any other popular artists, with the exception of Lennon and McCartney.

        PS: If you haven’t yet checked out guitarist-composer Yamandu Costa, do so asap; he’s one of the greatest musicians alive, a transformational virtuouso with deep, deep soul… look for “Choreco” on YouTube… his tribute to the great Baden Powell…

    2. ilpalazzo

      Saudade is of Portuguese origin though. The best rendering of this concept I know is from Cesaria Evora

      Anyway, no mention of Lars von Trier’s masterpiece “Melancholia” yet. I highly recommend watching, and this from a person that had suffered from clinical depression and at other time enjoyed (for a lack of a better term) his most creative time in life when under a spell of unrequited love.

  5. H.W.

    The definition of depression has been so broadened by the pharmaceutical industry as to include most sadness that it’s hard to know the difference between existential melancholia and something “medically significant.”

    1. furiouscalves

      Trust me the edge of melancholia is a giant cliff into depression. And art created from melancholia could, if circumstances were slightly different, have just been a view of the endless void – in other words – nothing. Art is a product of an individuals attempt to deal with his circumstance. Art made on the edge many times is inspiring & insightful for both the creator and the viewer…but could just as easily been nothing.

      The individuals interaction and relation to the void are likely in the blood line of some, if not just viewed and learned from the immediate environment. I believe some people can navigate the edge of despair successfully and never fall to complete futility, many times by just having a good relationship with their addictions of choice. For me any casual mention prozac or alcohol as way out screams “one-dimensionality and superficiality” . As if the melancholia and depression ever leave.

      I attempted suicide and so did one of my sisters, my oldest sister committed suicide. My mother has Parkinson’s with severe bouts of depression, this after a life with periodic depression. Her father had life long depression. He was admitted to a nursing home for “depression” in the early 80s. We now know that he had all the symptoms of Parkinson’s and no one cared to diagnose it so late in his life.

      I wonder about the gut biomes being passed down as a contributor to these mental states. Or even immune related attacks on the very synapses in brain that connect us to a “happy consciousness”. There is something there and I think it is biological, but with environmental triggers/causes.

      1. From Cold Mountain

        “I believe some people can navigate the edge of despair successfully and never fall to complete futility, many times by just having a good relationship with their addictions of choice.”

        Yes! I do not think anyone who has been where we were can fully understand this. Take away their addiction (drink, wife, job, kids, music, internet access, consumption) and they might understand. For me, there was no drug of addiction that could help me.

        On Parkison’s and depression, of course there is a link. High activity MAOB enzymes with low dopamine production will easily lead to both, with environment being the X factor. I have both GCH1 deficiency (I tend to be low in all the catecholamine) and MAO deficiency (I tend to keep around way too many catecholamines), so I run bipolar, mostly on the mania/anxiety side.

        The association between gut microbiota and mood runs down a two way street. Serotonin Transporter genetics alone effects gut microbiota. And a diet high in Omega 6 fats does the same. When the doctors put these together they will start healing people.

  6. hemeantwell

    Oi. The topic is certainly worthwhile, but the author’s strategy of creating a ragout of ideas is questionable. Jumping into Buddhist mythology without setting up any orientation to the basic human dimensions of a difficult matter is just evasive. A good start for thinking about melancholia is that it is simply that it is a way of lingering with the dead, staying with them, sometimes reproachfully, sometimes tenderly. The melancholic is pulled back and forth between the dead and the living. (It strikes me that one of the functions of a wake is not just to acknowledge the death but for the living to draw those closest to the dead back to life.)

    The paragraph on Sontag blurs a crucial element of mourning. The process of mourning involves taking on aspects of the deceased, and at times can result in a strengthening of the survivor, especially when the earlier relationship involved the implicit assumption that the deceased was the one who could do X, and so the survivor wound up living with a sense of incapacity. In that sense the idea of acquiring self-knowledge tends to lose track of a process of reappropriation of what had been lost, for whatever reasons, to the other in the relationship. I think this became has become part of folk psychology, particularly regarding what women, who have historically been encouraged to defer to men, can experience after the death of their spouse.

    As far as emotional trauma being passed down through generations, sure. But why go to a neurochemical level? Why not start with the obvious, a mandate to grieve imposed on the young? Write-ups of work with holocaust survivors makes that pretty clear.

    1. oho

      >Why not start with the obvious,

      Probably both—biological and social factors.

      From 2005–

      ….Mothers who experienced PTSD during pregnancy as a result of witnessing the attacks have been found to have children with abnormally low levels of the hormone cortisol, which is associated with increased stress…..

    2. DJG

      hemeantwell: Great observations. As a bad Catholic and a bad Buddhist, I am sometimes appalled at Catholic funeral masses at all of the happy talk about resurrection and all of the white veils and robes. Let us mourn. Leave us alone. But even Catholicism, with its wounded shaman, Saint Francis of Assisi, is no longer immune to “happiness.”

      Your descripton of mourning also brings up the Japanese custom of O-Bon, dancing for the dead on an evening at the height of summer. Great beauty very often is great melancholy.

      1. John Wright

        The Catholic talk about resurrection can result in strange side effects.

        I remember religion class in my Catholic high school as the class veered of into the advantage of baptizing newborns to cleanse them of original sin and then promptly killing them because they would then go straight to heaven.

        There would be no possibility of accumulating enough unforgiven sins to merit hell

        It was viewed as the ultimate sacrifice by the person doing the killing, as they could well be sent to everlasting punishment in hell, so in effect they had sacrificed their afterlife as a possible resident of heaven so that many others would go directly to heaven.

        In frustration, the Christian Brother leading the class responded with “you’re all a bunch of heathens”.

        In my case, that is a fair assessment.

    3. hreik

      Hi hemeantwell
      <blockquote But why go to a neurochemical level?

      Well, I’m glad you brought up the Holocaust survivors. Because we Jews have an unusual level of anxiety and it is likely innate. It’s because of being hounded for thousands of years (not just a few years) and the perpetual fear and ‘running’ ends up actually changing the neurochemical environment. Makes total sense to me. Just my 2.

      1. Jim Haygood

        “What if melancholy can be passed down through generations, not just culturally but at the level of our DNA?”

        I wondered about this when there was a big influx of Russians (mostly but not all Jewish) into our NYC suburb in the 1990s. The older cohort — veterans of the Soviet era — would shuffle along the sidewalk, eyes downcast. Greeting them produced no reaction at all.

        On the other hand, US-born Russian kids, raised in the American values of self-esteem and personal actualization, don’t appear particularly melancholic. Time will tell …

        1. jrs

          I love the Russian character (I know that’s a generalization). I don’t find it depressive so much as REALIST. A truly realistic and real perspective on life.

          Russians seem to value the things that actually matter (family etc.), while knowing things like politics (and oftentimes the workplace as well) are almost hopelessly corrupt. They seem to know and accept that life is short and hard. They do what they have to do even when it’s hard. Americans tend toward denial. It’s not an appealing character trait! Hope can occasionally be appealing but only if it too is realistic.

          1. Yves Smith Post author

            Realists score as slightly depressed. This is a conundrum pretty much everyone in the psychologist/psychotherapist community chooses to avoid, since optimistic self-delusion often leads to bad outcomes in particular situations (like relationships). Instead the party line is that this theory (which does have evidentiary support) is “controversial”.

    4. clinical wasteman

      I appreciate the sentiment behind the article and especially the decision to post it here: it’s hard to imagine what could be more pertinent to long-running NC concerns. For one thing because so many of us have lived our whole lives (including quite long ones) in a world where exceptions to the norm of slowly grinding social/political defeat are short lived sparks and/or someplace else. And also because employers’ expectation of “social and interpersonal skills” — i.e compulsory cheery bonhomie/strutting bluster — from workers is often not taken seriously enough as a weapon of top-down class warfare. Many thanks Yves for posting.
      But I agree with you, hemeantwell, about the method in general and the recourse to neurochemistry and heredity in particular. Sure, those aspects could be interesting, but why start there? And how useful would it be to “prove” a genetic disposition anyway? The one practical use I can think of would be an unwelcome one: it would serve as an excuse to tell non-hereditary melancholics to “cheer up” and get back to work. (Which reminds me: if some smug stranger should ever sneer the words “cheer up!” at you in the street, the correct response is: “give up“.)
      In a great book called Stanze (published in English translation as ‘Stanzas’ by Minnesota U.P.), Giorgio Agamben traces something like a melancholic tradition from the Greek and Arab and later Italian neoplatonists through Dürer and on to Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin. It’s too delicate an argument to try to paraphrase here, but somewhere along the way he arrives at this formulation: melancholy is the melancholic’s nostalgia for what s/he never had. Understood that way, melancholy would be not so much a “spur to creativity” as a basic function of imagination. It might also have something to do with the sort of lifelong social/political longing mentioned above. That and the capacity of music to induce intense joy through the expression of acute sadness. As in the overlapping musical traditions of the Greek and Arab Eastern Mediterranean, which along with a lot of heart-clenching modal and rhythmic figures share the vocal lament “aman, aman….”. You can hear it in this modern rebetiko [], a song about exile (“back” to little Greece from Smyrna/Izmir), with a chorus that goes something like: “I’m burning, I’m burning, quench my fire with oil / I’m drowning, I’m drowning, throw me deep into the sea”.

  7. timotheus

    Frederick Douglass speaks of the profound melancholic note in enslaved men “asked” to sing for the entertainment of passers-by. I forget the exact circumstances he relates, but he says something memorable about how he heard that undercurrent and wondered if the white audience had any notion of it.

    1. RabidGandhi

      By the waters of Babylon,
      there we sat down and wept,
      when we remembered Zion.
      On the willows there
      we hung up our lyres.
      For there our captors
      required of us songs,
      and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
      “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
      How shall we sing the Lord’s song
      in a foreign land?

  8. Linda

    In case Yves or Lambert drop by to read comments here, I thought I’d mention that the comment box is missing on the links page.

      1. Clive

        Thanks for pointing out — I investigated in WordPress’s backstage and am a bit stumped. There’s no clearly apparent reason why comments are closed. But my WordPress skills are, ah-hem, a little shaky which is why I’m reluctant to mess around with Lambert’s original post too much. I was going to open a new post just to allow comments but that would be confusing so I decided against it.

        As soon as their schedules allow, I’m sure the proper management will look into it. So please formulate your pearls of wisdom for when everything is back in order. Sorry to be so useless and timid, but I’d rather not foul Yves’ site up.

    1. Outis Philalithopoulos

      Hi Linda, this is Outis – although as Clive says, the origin of the problem isn’t clear, I have created a stub post where you can leave comments instead. See “4/20/17 Links Comments.”

        1. Outis Philalithopoulos

          There is a better solution now – I reposted the content of Links under the name “Links 4/20/17 (fixed)” and that seems to have made the problem go away.

  9. Norb

    When trying to understand present day capitalism, pieces like this shed light on possible avenues of expression that are more or less ignored in modern day culture. The melancholy most people feel, but successfully repress, due to the destruction of the environment and slow decay of once cherished institutions, needs to find a voice, not more distraction. But to accomplish this, one has to experience being part of a greater whole. That one is not alone in this world.

    All life is suffering, that is beyond doubt. How a culture expresses itself in addressing the consequences of that suffering determines the movement of history. Present day capitalism attempts to cover over the sorrows of living. It attempts to hide death in plain sight by destroying empathy in every form except that which reinforces the buying and selling of commodities. When the entire world is turned into a commodity, there is no room left for redemption. Commodities understood in these terms are lifeless things, and once they are used up, they are gone forever.

    The way forward, out of our current malaise, will need to come from those who have passed thru the fires of suffering and can embrace that suffering, instead of trying to ignore it, or try with all their might to keep it at bay. Solidarity is found in that manner. It is the difference between acting in the field of love or of fear.

    The glory of Empire is just one complex human artifice to mask the sorrows of living. This is why it is socialism or nothing. The narrative that a well healed elite will rise all boats if false. We all rise together, or we won’t rise at all.

  10. DJG

    Thanks for this post: As a melancholic, I understand melancholy as withdrawal. The world whirs past, seemingly happily, and the melancholic pauses. Luckily, I learned about the Four Humors way back in high school, so I recognized my temperament long ago. Many people trying so hard to be happy would be better off admitting that they aren’t sanguine, that happy talk doesn’t hold much allure, and that the blues are a way of marshaling one’s emotions to go on to bigger things.

    The world isn’t all bright colors. Years ago, Diana Vreeland wrote, Elegance is refusal. Even in that assessment of a certain stance, Vreeland gets to what melancholy is about, a kind of refusal to admit that everything is the World According to Candide. And I am reminded again of the Japanese in the concept of iki, which is a kind of refusal to paint the world in bright colors.

    Yves Smith mentions mono no aware above. There are several concepts in the West that correspond: Blues or saudades, as mentioned up-thread. Virgil’s idea of the tears in things. The Greeks and Ananke, Necessity. The Franciscan movement, as exemplied by a mystic like Jacopone da Todi. Lucretius and his poem On the Nature of Things, widely considered a kind of masterpiece of melancholy.

    1. vidimi

      melancholy is the flip side of the happiness/gratefulness coin. to be happy or grateful about/for something is to recognise, implicitly even, that it is a very ephemeral thing. so, for example, beaming on a warm and sunny day is a recognition that it is not always warm and sunny out and melancholy on a cold and wet day can be a fond remembrance of when it was warm and sunny.

  11. From Cold Mountain

    The writer has an incorrect understanding of what Buddhism says about suffering. Buddhists do not believe suffering causes delusion, they believe delusion causes suffering. Suffering exists only because we do not understand it.

    Delusion hides the true nature of the world; that everything, every. single. thing., is impermanent. And when forget this and become attached to impermanent things (including the image that we have of ourselves) we are shocked and saddened when they go away or change. By understanding the true nature of the world we become attached to nothing and then we can fully enjoy them without fear that they will be gone, or the grasping for more. (imagine doing this with your children!)

    This understanding is what saved me from dieing by suicide. By understanding that my deep melancholia was impermanent, transient, and not “me”, let me accept it with the same love most people have for their more positive, or manic times of life. This freedom to accept and look at these things is the heartbeat of creativity.

    I do not think melancholia is good or bad. I just think it is. It tells us something about how our bodies are reacting to the environment. Sometimes we can change our environment, sometimes we can’t. For the times we cannot, there is medication. Yeah, either the cheeseburger or the prozac, because they are both drugs. Music, reading about economics, using a smartphone, sex; they are all drugs. Knowing they are drugs helps us keep from become addicted to them. So I disagree with the author again; Music and art will not help you, they will make you an addict (ever meet someone with a huge iTunes library?). Music another drug, it increases dopamine and serotonin. It hides the melancholia.

    And this ties back in with the epigenetics. Epigenetics functions as a warning tag to the future generation. It is not a permanent change to the gene, but a functional change that may lead to a permanent change in the DNA. Our bodies are reacting to the environment, sending us a soft signal that if the environment does not change, we will need to change. (Read “Epigenetics across the human lifespan” for more on this). So being sad and relieving that sadness by music will only create children with screwed up dopamine receptors, and they will seek out the drug of music, sad or not.

    So to tell us we need to “seek out melancholia” is just as silly and dangerous as telling us we need to seek out positivity. It’s not to seek them, but to let them exists and watch them, without attachment, so we can see what they are telling us. This is what drives all living things; when the environment changes, either leave the environment or let the environment change you.

    Thank you for posting these topics Yves. Floating around in thoughts, and not thinking economics and the human condition are mutually exclusive is creativity, and it makes me not feel alone in the world.

    1. vidimi

      This understanding is what saved me from dieing by suicide. By understanding that my deep melancholia was impermanent, transient, and not “me”, let me accept it with the same love most people have for their more positive, or manic times of life. This freedom to accept and look at these things is the heartbeat of creativity.

      as a melancholic myself who went through long periods of depression – though never suicidal – this helped me master my sadness and even enjoy it and enter it almost at will for creative inspiration.

      i recognised that depression was a selfish thing almost always dwelling on a loss. while this loss may and often is permanent, the pain it causes is a flash in the pan, relatively speaking. the simple recognition that the pain will stop helps itself stop the pain.

      1. From Cold Mountain

        I just want to be clear, in case I was not. I do not enjoy my sadness, nor my mania. They are only messengers.

        And I think happiness is just as selfish as sadness. As sadness depends on loss, happiness depends on gain, and they both follow each other, the black is in the white, hence the symbolism in the Daoist yin/yang symbol.

        1. clinical wasteman

          It’s not wrong as such to say that music — or other “drugs”, or for that matter drugs as more commonly understood — can create a sort of dependency, but it doesn’t follow from that at all that any of these things is automatically unhelpful to the “addict”. In that figurative sense, I — like a great many other people — am “addicted” to a few particular people, to the language(s) of my consciousness, to the city I live in and to certain music [section of this sentence concerning physically psychoactive substances is self-redacted]. And no I do NOT want to “kick” any of those habits. Why would I/we, especially when it would amount to kicking the people I/we love?
          Also, the analogy between psychological habit and physical dependence capable of causing acute bodily withdrawal symptoms should only be taken so far. If you want to talk about “addiction” to sex/music/the internet/canniboids etc by all means do so, but in that case another word is needed for the other phenomenon. The problem is, it’s almost impossible to explain that to people who haven’t been through physical drug withdrawal. I’m not saying the loss of something you profoundly depended on psychologically is “less bad”, just that there’s a difference in kind.

          1. From Cold Mountain

            I did not say drugs are unhelpful. But not understanding the function of these drugs is unhelpful and likely to cause an addiction to them. Drugs do not cause suffering, our addiction to them causes suffering.

            When I had to take Klonopin I understood this process, and so it made me treat it with the respects it deserves. There are countless people who do not understand this and become addicted. This is what happens with opiod pain killers as well. I realize this in my relationships as well, that I can loose respect for the addictive power of the human connection and not treat it with the respect it deserves.

            Your fear to not be addicted to the people in your life has the seeds of your suffering. This is what the Buddha’s teach. I am not saying get rid of them, but rather, understanding the addiction can lead to a life of joy rather than simple transient happiness. Imagine being as happy with out music as you are with it? Without your lover as you are with her?

            You want to give another word for your specific addiction because you are deluded. You want to give it another name because the reality of it disturbs you so much, Have you ever seen how some people react when a child dies or a lover leaves them? When they loose access to their preferred addiction? I am not saying stop any of these drugs, but realize what they are, where they can lead, when they are and are not useful, and how they have in them the seeds of our suffering.

            All our addictions are used against us by marketers and politicians. Just keep this in your thoughts for a while if you want a good freak out.

            I do not pretend I can explain this understanding here or ever. It is a solitary and introspective pursuit and it is immense and subtle.

            1. financial matters

              Our culture tends to think of being disillusioned as being a sad thing when it really means just being free of illusions.

              Recognizing this impermanence helps us realize the illusion of ownership and helps to promote equanimity and egalitarianism.

  12. aliteralmind

    Admitting this comment is being made before reading the article:

    Fuck “happiness”. After seven years of vicious bullying, fourth grade all the way through tenth grade, I have spent a good amount of my life uncomfortable in my own skin. People telling me for years, “Smile. You never smile.” Not knowing how to respond to that.

    (Had a little victory in my Aikido class a few weeks ago. Learned the first move in my first six months that I genuinely feel powerful with. I cracked a smile, and my teacher made a huge deal about the smiling. I said “I really don’t give a shit about smiling. Just teach me how to kick ass.”)

    Smiling and happiness mean nothing. Truth, truly understanding what’s going on around you and the bullshit being shoveled. I’d rather be miserable and truly aware and prepared to deal with my surroundings, than “happy,” smiling, and clueless.

    NC and TYT and Jimmy Dore and Le Show and Wikileaks and Glenn Greenwald. Truth.

    1. reslez

      The Smile Police are something women constantly have to deal with. They’re the self-appointed facial expression branch of the Western mutawa. If you’re a female below the age of 50 and don’t have a smile constantly plastered on your face, you can expect one of these worthies to command you to appear suitably receptive and deferential at all times. Significant overlap with employers, who at least pay you for your time.

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        One of the upsides of my not at all pleasant childhood was that I was never an object of the Smile Police’s attention.

        You are 100% correct that reflexive smiling is an admission of subordinate status by women, that they need to please others, particularly men. I didn’t realize the impact of not doing that was until I was in my first negotiation at the age of 21. They were almost daily over six, maybe even eight weeks (you cannot imagine why this was took so long).

        An outsider, a Harvard prof, attended one of the late sessions, and remarked casually to me as our side was out of earshot to the other side: “They are afraid of you”.

  13. templar555510

    The work of Bert Hellinger is , I think, pertinent to this research although not directly connected to it .

  14. Marc Ross

    Thank you for sharing this piece, Yves. This is definitely a weekday item as its application to our daily existence is critical. More people would do well to read this and your piece from 2008 on the dark side of optimism.

  15. juliania

    A very wise lady once said to me “We pray for when we can’t pray.” This was a person who experienced dark times, whether from her own mental state or from what life brings.

    To me melancholia seems like a luxury condition some poets, musicians and artists have dwelt within successfully, having leisure to come and go – it seems to me an artificial state that folk, mostly poor folk, who have to be about something in order to survive, cannot allow themselves. And perhaps we may say these folk aren’t creative, don’t aspire to great works of art (which we love, having the time ourselves to experience this delicious state in their offerings) but when life is hard, can one afford to be melancholy?

    Marie Antoinette’s famous (perhaps) saying, ‘Let them eat cake’ does come to mind. Can we afford to be melancholy, and drape ourselves artistically as in the beautiful painting, when civilization is crumbling around us and there are no heroes for those struggling to have a home, a family, an education?

    Anyway, to me, sorry, melancholia seems not part of life’s reality but a staged escape from the realities of life. (Which is fine if that is what is needed.) And as Degas painted staged events so beautifully, I think that fits. In thinking about the reality of suffering expressed by art, I am now thinking of an icon, wherein suffering is transmuted into beauty in a way that is not melancholic but radiantly compelling. (I’m not saying that well, but then it cannot be said; rather, it is seen.)

    1. clinical wasteman

      Sorry, couldn’t disagree more about the “luxury condition”. Do you really think “the poor” are all always cheerful, or just cry over “appropriate” things like bereavement? It’s surely inadvertent here, but that kind of reasoning amounts to repeating the old slur whereby the poor aren’t “capable” of the “higher” or “finer” sentiments. How is it possible to miss the countless eloquent expressions of melancholy concentrated in any working/unemployed-class district of any city? Not just in art but in everyday speech and gesture, whether “pathological” or transcendently “sane”. Or, since music came up earlier, the profound and elegant (as in “elegance = refusal” above — many thanks DJG) sadness in the blues, jazz, rebetika, reggae (check out the Abyssinians or Yabby You if in any doubt about that), hip-hop some strains of rock&roll — all musical forms invented either by the very poor (blues, reggae) or the urban working class, and by some criteria the “finest” art forms of the 20th/21st centuries. A lot of contemporary visual artists may come from the same social class as Degas, and they do tend to cultivate an insufferably pleased-with-self swagger, but they may not be the ones making meaningful art.

      1. juliania

        Not at all. I am simply perhaps defining melancholic differently than you do. Sadness or sorrow, to me, is not melancholic.

        (Sorry to be late responding)

        I wasn’t talking about social class in referring to the Degas painting. I was talking about staging, which could also occur among the poor – I will grant you that. ( I’m poor myself, by the way, or at least I am by US standards. So I wasn’t ‘talking down’ to the poor, merely trying to separate out why I felt melancholia to be an unhealthy condition – at least, one in which one escapes reality.)

        I’m sorry I misled you with the word ‘luxury’ as I didn’t mean to imply that only the rich can be melancholic. Dostoievski hits upon something similar when he speaks of ‘laceration’ in the novel “The Brothers Karamazov” – a laceration being to me the physical equivalent of the state of melancholy (and in the novel sometimes self-inflicted).

    2. jrs

      depression is not chosen. For some it may be biological, for many it has a strong social component (life circumstances from economics to isolation to abusive circumstances), for some it is driven deeper by thoughts, but I don’t think these are ever the sole root cause.

      To hold an ordinary job one has to pretend to some degree if they are depressed, the degree depending on how much emotional labor one has to perform (but even the most isolated office job can’t have one completely unable to function in despair). Many work despite and through depression in jobs with more or less degree of slack (which does help). Those who are unable to even muster this necessity end up on disability and the like if they are lucky.

      1. juliania

        Again, sorry to be late, jrs. I wasn’t talking about depression above, if you are answering my post. I was talking about melancholia. I would not say the same things about depression, which is a very serious condition I’m not qualified at all to assess.

  16. BillS

    The Elizabethans were masters of Melancholy. Dowland’s “Flow my Tears” is a beautiful example. Late medieval and renaissance Europe, beset by plagues, war and lawlessness was a melancholy place, but it was an amazingly creative place.

    I find it interesting that, throughout history, periods of intense cultural creativity often (not always, of course) correspond to periods of substantial political and economic instability. Europe between 1500-1700 and China during the Warring States period are prime examples.

  17. True Outsider

    Not to seem in objection to the piece, which I enjoyed, I have to say I find Beatles and Bowie depressing pop rubbish that is the exact kind of simplistic happy face baloney (Imagine, All You Need Is Love, ad infinitum) and sentimental posturing (the Yoko loving millionaire working class hero Lennon) you open the piece denouncing. Yes, great art comes from melancholics like van Gogh. Trite banality comes from millionaire pop idols who know how to seduce the limbic brain. Are Kanye and Snoop Dogg also putting their melancholic insights to work healing their audiences? I find this a really confused and unconvincing piece by the presentation of lowbrow pop as modern shamanism.

    And, no, I’m not a culture snob. If you’d said Warren Zevon or Elliott Smith I’d have had no objection.

    1. Jim Haygood

      Lennon and McCartney were rather different personalities. McCartney on his own (in solo albums) quickly turns pop-saccharine. Whereas Lennon on his own screamed himself hoarse in Well Well Well [an ironic title?] as well as writing a rather raw song to his lost mother.

      George Harrison’s song While My Guitar Gently Weeps on the white album does tap into authentic melancholy, I would say, particularly in John Lennon’s guitar riffs.


        Not to be pedantic, but it’s Eric Clapton soloing on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, though I definitely agree with you about how Lennon and McCartney on their own paled before their collaborations, despite the fact that you can almost always tell (“Helter Skelter,” written by McCartney, being one significant exception) who the songs were written by. “Michele” is clearly a McCartney song, as “The Word” could only have been written by Lennon.

        “River Man,” by Nick Drake, is also a masterpiece of popular melancholia…

        1. subgenius

          Kudos for the Nick Drake reference…This post would probably have spoken to him, had he not self-deleted.

          As an aside I believe the Cure are named from one of his lyrics…

          1. Michael Fiorillo

            Personally, I think McCartney is a genius songwriter, one of the greatest ever. I just wouldn’t seek him out if I was looking to satisfy my melancholia jones (though “Blackbird” is a beautiful exception).

            Why my email address appeared in previous comments, instead of my name, I don’t quite get, but so it goes…

  18. Annotherone

    Music is a soother and healer, as others have mentioned. I wonder if its soothing properties link to its unseen, unheard, but felt vibrations? Poetry can help during bouts of melancholia too, I’ve found. Theodore Roethke and “going where one has to go”; and Matthew Arnold’s “On Dover Beach” are favourites of mine – last verse of “On Dover Beach”:

    Ah, love, let us be true
    To one another! for the world, which seems
    To lie before us like a land of dreams,
    So various, so beautiful, so new,
    Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
    Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
    And we are here as on a darkling plain
    Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
    Where ignorant armies clash by night.

    1. KTN

      Nice point on Yates’ Occult Philosophy, which this commenter was otherwise going to bring up. Yates’ work (chapter, really) draws heavily on major book length studies by her predecessors.

      When humoral theories of personality (along with many more inheritances) fell by the wayside a rich cultural network of allusiveness connecting myth, literature & classical culture was also lost. Cf. ‘jovial,’ saturnine’ and ‘mercurial’ dispositions, to name only a single superficial example, but which nevertheless has the potential to ramify down through the centuries when properly considered.

      Coulianu in Eros and Magic makes a convincing case that the Reformation & Counter-Reformation’s combined assault on the imagination & imaginative interpretation of all kinds laid the groundwork for the present era’s barren scientism.

    1. From Cold Mountain

      Ha! I like this and hate this at the same time!

      I like it because talking about epigenetics changes nothing but makes it look like the elites are doing something.

      However, i hate this comment because understanding it is the only way out of this self imposed nightmare.

    2. Susan the other

      not sure what the question is, but it makes me think that epigenetics is both a form of molecular intelligence… and some kind of human hardware ;-)

      1. duck1

        Epigenetic means something that is outside the gene itself affects the genetic expression, ie a carcinogen causes a cell to become cancerous. It seems it is becoming an all purpose reference point by the smart set. Prolly reams of TED talks thereof.

        1. Susan the other

          I think epigenetics is actually RNA, not DNA, and has to do with making slightly modified proteins in the cell, a function of RNA – whereas DNA is the master code, RNA is the change agent.

  19. Susan the other

    Thanks for this post. It really hit the spot today. Melancholia is like that black screen downtime just before you get a good idea. Also, I’m puzzling about the color blue since it is the most intense visible light; funny, maybe blue can throw us off our denial and into a kind of meditation. I think I like that function – (my first grandson is Little Blue and his dad is Big Blue and they always make me wonder). Maybe the color blue gives us a sufficient buzz so we can clean out our silly obsessions. Here’s an example of fearless melancholia: The Paiute Indians have a wonderful funeral protocol – they gather all the deceased’s belongings and put them in the house – I assume they no longer dispatch the loved one along with his/her stuff but they once did – and then they light the whole thing on fire and hold a wake until it smolders out, during which they chant the spirit up to heaven somewhere.

  20. reslez

    It seems that depression temporarily frees our brains from many of the self-delusions that normally fill our minds. The human brain is subject to numerous logical fallacies, most of which are all tilted the same way — toward self-aggrandizement, believing ourselves better than others, morally superior, incapable of hypocrisy, over-optimism, and all the rest. Depression strips all this away. It seems like a mechanism that occurs when the brain is faced with a severe shock or change, when we really need to focus on actual reality and possibly attempt some meaningful change. Maybe this is why it can be so helpful to keep a diary when we’re depressed, or to write about the difficult situation. Writing to oneself helps with the necessary introspection and self-analysis. Physical activity also seems to be key. Without that, it seems like many people, myself included, get stuck in a cycle where they’re unable to break out of depression. I think NC has linked to articles on this topic before, though I don’t remember the titles. Melancholy seems more like a semi-permanent state, an awareness of the transience of things. Anyone who lives with an elderly pet knows they’ll someday lose a beloved companion. Yet we find ways to be aware of the impending loss but continue to love our friends. In normal life, we usually avoid thinking of these potential losses. But they never disappear. In melancholy we reach for the light through the sadness — I agree with this.

  21. pdxjoan

    Thank you for this posting, Yves. Now, I think I finally understand the 2011 movie “Melancholia” written and directed by Lars von Trier. I have watched the movie several times because I find it unsettling but hauntingly beautiful. Kind of like life.

  22. aletheia33

    “A poor sheep-stealer is hanged for stealing of victuals, compelled peradventure
    by necessity of that intolerable cold, hunger, and thirst, to save himself from
    starving: but a great man in office may securely rob whole provinces, undo
    thousands, pill and poll, oppress ad libitum, flay, grind, tyrannize, enrich himself
    by spoils of the commons, be uncontrollable in his actions, and after all be
    recompensed with turgent titles, honored for his good service, and no man dare
    find fault, or Mutter at it.”

    –robert burton, anatomy of melancholy

    1. Parker C Dooley

      This quotation should probably be prepended to every post on this site. It says all we need to know — just fill in the details.

  23. meeps

    The melancholy of mono no aware is aesthetically different from Western melancholy (in my opinion as a Westerner with informal exposure to some of the Eastern traditions). The sorrowful aspect of it is the reality of impermanence. It’s a spacious sadness, though; it leaves room for the experience of joy. Because the suffering of loss contains the potential for release from suffering, any moment can be a moment of appreciation (of what was lost and of what remains in the here and now).

    Trees and flowers live this principle year in and out. The Japanese cherry blossom festival, Sakura, celebrates it. So does the Japanese art of Ikebana. Stéphane Bédard, who studied Ikebana with Seibi Watanabe Sensei, said, “Let it be known that Ikebana is a smile mixed with tears. Flowers are vulnerable. That is their strength. They do remind us that profound peace is born in a broken heart.”

    The Degas painting of the woman above is emblematic of the Western (or contemporary?) approach to melancholy. No support in sight (including her own) no window with a view to the world or a vase of flowers to remind her that she’s not alone.

    The yogic traditions have practices aimed at cultivating friendliness (toward oneself as well as others) called Maitri. Apparently it takes practice (a lifetime’s worth!) to let pain be there when it IS there because it’s natural to want to “fix” it. The overdose crisis is a case in point.

    I think this is an important post because people are grieving and not just for the losses of candidates in elections—it’s jobs, languages, opportunities, voices, forests, species. None of which is to say, smile and get happy while waving goodbye, but to return attention to the beauty that still exists in the world and learn how to cultivate it.

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