To say that one has an exquisite taste in melancholy would seem odd, even disturbing. The uncanniness strikes us because the modern interpretation of melancholy is predominantly medicalized: scholars increasingly attribute molecular causes to health conditions, coin new names for these “diseases”, and find drugs to cure them. This is best represented by the Diagnosis and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (DSM-IV) that associates melancholy with “endogenomorphic” and “bipolar,” terms used to characterize various other mental illness.
Rationalization deprives melancholy of its flavor. The richness of discourse throughout history is lost in cold operation rooms and laboratories. Although I do not deny in the least the effectiveness of modern medicine, somehow a keen understanding seems missing. For a reconnaissance of the aesthetics of melancholia, then, let us take a journey from Hippocrates to Durer.
The story begins in ancient Greece. In the fifth century B.C.E., Hippocrates designed a theory of humors. Melancholy, literally meaning black bile in Greek, was characterized by an excess of this humor compared to blood, phlegm, and yellow bile—the imbalance leading to insanity and manic behavior. The initial conception of melancholy as a corporeal disease is unsurprising, considering how far away it is from the inception of Descartes’ mind-body duality.
In addition to a medical diagnosis, antiquity scholars gave melancholy a humanistic tint. Citing Hercules or Ajax the Great as examples, Aristotle in Problem XXX questions, “Why is it that all those who have become eminent in philosophy or politics or poetry or the arts are clearly melancholics?” With this query, the image of a melancholic as the creative genius was born.
This notion is revived in 15th century Renaissance with eloquence by the Neo-Platonist Marsilio Ficino. Revisiting the humoral theory, he mentions that intense contemplation, “turns the brain cold and dry, depleting the spirits.” Thinning of blood in the brain would lead to melancholy by concentrating black bile elsewhere in the body. More importantly, however, Ficino articulates the Aristotelian image of melancholy. To ward off negative associations made in the Dark Ages (when melancholy was associated with the original sin and its descriptive lexicon pertained to vice), Ficino turns, in part, to Saturn.
Saturn was traditionally associated with melancholy, but Ficino infuses virtues of perseverance and patience. In his book Di Vita Triplici, he associates Saturn with the highest cosmic stratum, paralleling the macrocosm by the microcosm Mens Contemplatrix, a perfection of the faculties of the mind. Thus, the dual nature of an intellectual genius is established once again: our tragic hero soars to unparalleled heights, but suffers also from bouts of melancholia.
Perhaps the quintessence of melancholy in the Renaissance is found in Albrecht Durer’s masterpiece, Melencholia I. An angel-like figure sits away from the rainbow, one hand cupped around her chin and the other holding a compass. She looks pensive, depressed—her darkened face insinuating the Hippocratic condition. She is surrounded by objects of excellence, those often attributed to professions that suffer from melancholy. The polyhedron represents geometry: the hammer, the carpenter; the purse, money; and keys, power. The gnomon magic square on the wall is a Jovian artifact attributed to Saturn. Piecing together these enigmatic clues, some argue that, as a gloomy form of self-diagnosis, an image of a dejected hero closely mirrors Durer amidst the pinnacle of his career.
The secret lies in her eyes that, despite all, glean fiercely. Staring into the etching, I even sense a mysterious air not unlike the Gioconda smile. For me, Durer’s masterpiece is a celebration of melancholia. It is a celebration because those radiating eyes testify to an unrelenting quest for intellect and boundless imagination—not everyone gets to be burdened by the profundity of their talent. The melancholy in this work, then, resembles a Wordsworthian account—“Strength in what remains”—of a Shakespearean tragedy. Here, the beauty of melancholy arises from its transformative capacity to rarefy sadness into poignancy, and prowess into heroism. A superficial interpretation which solely recognizes a depression would, therefore, obfuscate this qualitative escalation and ultimately preclude one from appreciating the true beauty of Durer’s work.
With this, our journey ends. We may easily dismiss notions of melancholy in the antiquity or the Renaissance as misplaced sentimentality or pseudo-scientific conjectures; instead, we should embrace the baggage that melancholy carries for a deeper understanding of the word and the world. After all, the cure for melancholy may be as easy as what Keats suggests: Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose, / Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave.