Ahhhh Melancholy – one of my favourite words. Mel-an-choly. Mel-an-choly. It is a line of poetry, a stanza in itself. So less depressing than depression. An interlude rather than a condition. An adagio rather than a grave. “Melancholy is the pleasure of being sad” said Victor Hugo, and as the writer of Les Misérables, I guess he knew something about it.
When we are in a state of melancholy we feel the irresistible gravity of sadness, pulling us down. Melancholy seduces and binds with soft bonds. It is not violent nor aggressive, but rather persuasive like an old friend, an old lover, our mother. We return to it as we return to a favourite comforter, to a half-drunk bottle of wine, to the left-overs in the fridge. “Hello darkness, my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again”.
Melancholy drags us away from the world, from work, from things, from people. We can step into its shadow in a moment, even as we step out of a crowded room into the kitchen to fetch something, to make a drink. It is waiting for us there, hiding like a stalker, ready to ambush us.
Melancholy seeps into us like icy cold water into an expectant dry sponge. We feel its toxic injection of pointlessness, futility, age and weariness flooding through our veins, into our very being. As it consumes us, it dismantles and devours us. We are paradoxically filled with emptiness and overwhelmed with loss.
Then, having silently disintegrated our heart, it shakes out our tears. We weep, maybe for a moment, maybe for a while. All strength has left us, save the energy to cry and quietly wail. And finally, as our despair begins to mellow; melancholy soothes our pain. Having mugged us, it wraps us in a thin blanket and holds us in its invisible arms.
In times of melancholy, loneliness feels to be a reasonable price to pay for being alone. We are liberated from the exhaustion of trying to maintain relationships with other people, who will inevitably let us down. Melancholy is a place of solitude where there is nobody else to hurt us and where the superficial pleasures of the world no longer attract. A place our soul acquiesces to be.
We need these times. To step away from the world and into ourselves. They seem to be self-expressive rather than reparative, but nevertheless necessary. Rather like biting your nails or shouting at the neighbour’s dog. Or as another has put it far more eloquently:-
Melancholia is, I believe, a musical problem: a dissonance, a change in rhythm. While on the outside everything happens with the vertiginous rhythm of a cataract, on the inside is the exhausted adagio of drops of water falling from time to tired time. For this reason the outside, seen from the melancholic inside, appears absurd and unreal, and constitutes ‘the farce we all must play.
So said Alejandra Pizarnik, unsurprisingly a Russian, whose parents had fled the holocaust. As was Vladimir Odoevsky, who most stoically contested that “the soulless have no need of melancholia”. Like the French, the Russians seem to understand melancholy. Maybe it is just the English who struggle with our famous stiff-upper lips.
The Iranians get it too – as Freddie Mercury more playfully had it; “I’m permanently glued, To this extraordinary mood. So now move over. Let me take over. With my mel-an-choly blues” (and, cue the piano and guitar)
The mood may feel permanently glued. But melancholy – unlike depression – releases us once it has had its way with us and sends us soberly on our way. Like a small boy being dismissed from the headmaster’s study.
It passes and fades even as winter opens into spring. Even as we journey from one place in our lives to another. To finish, inevitably, with Dostoevsky, and a passing line from Crime and Punishment:-
He reached the window on the first floor; the moon shone through the panes with a melancholy and mysterious light; then he reached the second floor.