The melancholic temperament, and particularly its links with creativity, has exercised many brilliant minds over the years. Aristotle gave us the earliest explicit textual link in his question: “Why is it that all those who have become eminent in philosophy or politics or poetry or the arts are clearly of an atrabilious temperament [i.e., melancholic]?”
Since Aristotle there have been countless theories of melancholy. This is no surprise: if all great artists and thinkers are fundamentally melancholic, an understanding of this complicated and nebulous concept becomes crucial to an understanding of society and cultural milieu. Indeed, in the late 19th and early 20th century, through the writings of Sigmund Freud, Walter Benjamin and Friedrich Nietzsche, modernity was often typified as a peculiarly melancholic context.
Melancholy, first published in Hungarian in 1984, and now in English for the first time in a translation by Tim Wilkinson, traces the word and its multitudinous meanings over the course of human intellectual history.
The Aristotle quote above opens László Földényi’s book. Aristotle’s link was never quite forgotten, but in the middle ages melancholy was considered a mental illness, linked to the sin of acedia (sloth), and the foremost philosophers of the day would suggest cures for it: Aquinas suggested baths, prayer and friendship. In 1489, the priest and scholar Marsilio Ficino published his De vita libri tres, which restated the idea of melancholy as a heavenly gift, linking it to the Platonic idea of divine mania. The Renaissance was the furnace which forged the modern western mind, and the period of great change in the way melancholy is perceived. Between Ficino’s De vita libri tres and Burton’s 1621 The Anatomy of Melancholy, melancholy again became linked to genius. These two books are the greatest influences on ideas of melancholy today, and accordingly the chapter Földényi writes on Renaissance melancholia is probably the most powerful and persuasive in his book. The admiration of melancholia began to pave the way for the worship of the ego and the overthrowing of God.
Földény’s final chapters argue that in recent years we have side-lined melancholy, as our society increasingly turns to medicine and psychiatry to suppress our torments. Are we today closer to the medievalists who saw melancholics as sinful and ill? Földényi writes:
“One way or another, every sick patient is a mystic, Victor von Weizsäcker declared; they pose problems for which physicians are unprepared. In the vast majority of cases, however, medical science does not hear the question, or, to be more exact, it hears only the questions that it is able to answer.”
The most interesting aspect of Melancholy lies in how Földényi traces how the characteristics and associations of melancholy, such as madness, depression and sloth, have themselves come to describe melancholy, depending on its many different socio-historical contexts. We are never allowed to pin down the word ‘melancholy’ as something fixed and immutable.
As a guide, Földényi can be frustrating, teasing ideas out over long, laborious paragraphs. This leads the reader (or this reader, at least!) to become impatient and to second-guess the direction of the argument. It was possibly a mistake to have the book foreworded by that most lucid of writers, Alberto Manguel; by comparison, Földényi’s prose can be, at times, leaden and unclear, especially when he is at his most allusive. Some pages become cacophonous, too thick with quotations and references which are not marshalled into a coherent pattern. The prose is better when Földényi gives himself room to play with the central paradoxes of melancholia, the intermingled nature of its credits and deficits. The melancholic person has, it seems, privileged access to certain aspects of human experience, and yet believes the whole damn thing is still folly. A gifted writer can always have fun with paradoxes like these, and Földényi often adopts one stance, before twisting his own words to say the opposite in the next sentence. His is a convincing voice, and Tim Wilkinson’s translation reads well, although at times I wasn’t sure whether I was convinced because the reasoning was sound, or because the idea was so complicated that I had given up but trusted Földényi to be on solid ground.
It is now thirty years since Földényi wrote his book, and in those years, melancholy has experienced something of a cultural revival. Susan Sontag and W.G. Sebald, writers preoccupied with the subject, are today major influences on literary trends. The rhetoric of melancholy is also strongly felt in post-colonial literature. The new, bookish melancholic of our times seems to me to be a slightly changed member of the club, however: neither Aristotelian, imbued with both great strength and sadness, nor a Platonic divine maniac. The idea of a powerful, brilliant man struck down by the weight of his own genius is no longer so hip; the melancholic archetype that has developed in the last century or so is a natural outsider, who cannot look away from the savagery inherent in progress and civilisation. Take the W.G. Sebald of 1995 and his book The Rings of Saturn: Sebald’s narrator starts writing in a hospital bed after a breakdown and is preoccupied with freedom, “but also with the paralysing horror that had come over me at various times when confronted with the traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past, that were evident even in that remote place [Suffolk].”
All Sebald’s narrators are blighted with a melancholic perception of time. He observes the structures of war and violence underpinning our societies, and, as a melancholic (and, let us not forget, a German melancholic), cannot ignore them. Földényi touches on similar themes, but in his final chapters I’d have preferred a wider look at the curious, guilt-driven melancholy of late modernity.
By James Tookey
By László Földényi
Translated from the Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson
Published by Yale University Press (A Margellos World Republic of Letters Book), 2016
James Tookey is a reader and occasional writer. He lives in London and works at the independent publisher Peirene Press.