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Self-Knowledge • Melancholy

Melancholy: the best kind of Despair

There are a great many ways of handling the unhappiness that inevitably comes with being human: we may rage or despair, we may scream or lament, we may sulk or cry. But there is perhaps no better way to confront the misery and incompleteness with which we are congenitally cursed than to settle on an emotion still too seldom discussed or employed in the frenetic and buoyant conditions of the modern world: melancholy. Given the scale of the challenges we are up against, our goal shouldn’t invariably be to seek out routes to hope and good cheer, but also – as  importantly – to master ways of settling wisely and fruitfully into unhappiness. If we can refer to better and worse ways of suffering, then melancholy deserves to be celebrated as the optimal means of encountering the catastrophe of being alive. 

It is key to determine from the outset what melancholy is not within the spectrum of our more sombre feelings. It isn’t bitterness. The melancholy person lacks any of the bitter one’s original optimism and therefore has no need to respond to disappointments with a resentful or wounded gnarl. They understood from an early age that most of it would be boredom and agony and structured their world-view accordingly. They aren’t of course delighted by the mess and the insults, the meanness and the hardship, but nor can they muster the energy to believe that it was really meant to be any other way. 

Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Chelsea 1871 James Abbott McNeill Whistler 1834-1903

At the same time, melancholy is not anger. There was perhaps a giant ‘fuck you’ to the planet somewhere at the outset, but it has long dissipated into something far gentler, more philosophic and more indulgent to the imperfection of everything. The melancholy greet what is obviously terrible and frustrating with a weary ‘of course’: of course the partner wants to break up (just as we had finally grown used to them), of course the business is now closing; of course friends are deceptive – and of course the doctor is advising a referral to the specialist. These are the sorts of horrific things that happen on everyone’s passage through existence. 

The melancholy manage to resist paranoia: bad things certainly happen, but not specifically to them, and not for anything exceptional that they have done wrong: this is just what happens to averagely flawed humans who have been around for a while. Everyone’s luck runs out soon enough. The melancholy have factored in catastrophe long ago. 

But nor are they for that matter cynical: the melancholy aren’t using their pessimism as a defence against let down. They aren’t compelled to denigrate everyone and everything in case they suffer hurt. They’re still able to take pleasure in small things and to hope that one or two details might – every now and then – go right. They just know nothing has been guaranteed. 

The melancholy don’t collapse too violently into despair. They know the temptation; times of curling up on the floor under a blanket or duvet and wailing without restraint, but this is not their habitual state. It isn’t that they aren’t grief-stricken, more that their grief has dripped into their soul over long years and so is less inclined to burst forth as floodwater in the face of crises.

Melancholy is based on an awareness of the imperfection of everything, not this or that unfortunate day, not one or two bad people, but the generally and implacably vast gap between what should ideally be and what actually is, what we want and what we must be ready for. Melancholy is a form of hypersensitivity to the dark or shadowy underside of existence; the sunny day, the birthday party, the first kiss. The melancholy person lives without much of a skin, they feel every breath of unkindness and every hint of difficulties to come. They can never forget the gap between reality and hope. They long for close communication with others, but catch the small deceits and evasions, the words not understood and the longings not answered. They are haunted by how short a time there is left in relation to what they might want to do and still need to see and experience. They are aware of how much they are squandering their talents and how little of what is precious about them will ever see the light of day. They are – given their temperament – especially receptive to small islands of beauty and goodness in an otherwise fallen world. They can be deeply moved by flowers, by a tender moment in a children’s book, by an unexpected gesture of kindness from someone they barely know, by sunlight falling on the side of an old wall at dusk. Much of their melancholy is absorbed and contained by art: there are melancholic paintings and melancholic songs, melancholic buildings and melancholic poems. Art is no mere entertainment for them, it is their defence against what might be an otherwise overwhelming loneliness. Despite their craving for connection, they perhaps enjoy their own company more than most, because it offers protection against all that is fake and insincere in social contact. 

The melancholy suffer particularly when they are called upon to be cheery and one-dimensionally hopeful and purposeful. Office culture may be hard, consumer society even more grating. Certain countries and cities may be better disposed to the feeling. Melancholy is naturally at home in Hanoi and Bremen; it almost impossible to sustain or defend in Los Angeles.

The task is to rehabilitate melancholy, to give it a more prominent and defined role in how we interpret ourselves and share news of our condition with others. A community may be described as civilised to the extent to which it is prepared to countenance a prominent role for the emotion, to accept the idea of a melancholy love affair or a melancholy child, a melancholy holiday or a melancholy company culture. Certain ages – the 1400s in Italy, Edo period Japan, late 19th century Germany – have been more generously inclined to melancholy than others, granting the feeling prestige in a way that helped individuals to feel less persecuted or strange when it came to visit. The goal should be the creation of a more melancholically-literate and accepting world.

With melancholy returned to its rightful place, we learn that the most sincere way to get to know someone is not to focus on their work or their history, not to enquire into their families or broach politics, but simply and directly to ask always, with kindness and fellow feeling: and what makes you melancholy?

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