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Self-Knowledge • Melancholy

On Melancholy

Melancholy is not rage or bitterness, it is a noble species of sadness that arises when we are open to the fact that life is inherently difficult for everyone and that suffering and disappointment are at the heart of human experience. It is not a disorder that needs to be cured; it is a tender-hearted, calm, dispassionate acknowledgement of how much pain we must inevitably all travel through.


Ansel Adams, Aspens, Dawn, Autumn, Dolores River Canyon, Colorado, 1937

 Modern society tends to emphasise buoyancy and cheerfulness. It is impatient with melancholy states, and wishes either to medicalise them – and therefore ‘solve them’ – or deny their legitimacy altogether.

Melancholy links pain with wisdom and beauty. It springs from a rightful awareness of the tragic structure of every life. We can, in melancholy states, understand without fury or sentimentality, that no one truly understands anyone else, that loneliness is universal and that every life has its full measure of shame and sorrow. The melancholy know that many of the things we most want are in tragic conflict: to feel secure, and yet to be free; to have money and yet not to have to be beholden to others. To be in close knit communities and yet not to be stifled by the expectations and demands of society. To travel and explore the world and yet to put down deep roots. To fulfil the demands of our appetites for food, exploration and sloth – and yet stay thin, sober, faithful and fit.

Ansel Adams, Looking across lake, “McDonald Lake, Glacier National Park,” Montana, 1942

The wisdom of the melancholy attitude (as opposed to the bitter or angry one) lies in the understanding that we have not been singled out, that our suffering belongs to humanity in general. Melancholy is redolent with an impersonal take on suffering. It is filled with pity for the human condition.

There are melancholy landscapes and melancholy pieces of music, melancholy poems and melancholy times of day. In them, we find echoes of our own griefs, returned back to us without some of the personal associations that, when they first struck us, made them particularly agonising.

The task of culture is to turn rage and jolliness into melancholy.

The more melancholy a culture can be, the less its individual members need to be persecuted by their own failures, lost illusions and regrets.

Melancholy – when it can be shared – is the beginning of friendship.

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