Fall 2017–Winter 2018

What Does the Melancholic Know?

Agonizing attention

Brian Dillon

Housewives notice that they cannot follow a recipe; card players cannot attend to the game; readers lose their place and have to reread a thing several times.
—Frank J. Ayd, Recognizing the Depressed Patient (1961)

Despairing, then, of describing the emotional pain itself, the depressed person hoped at least to be able to express something of its context—its shape and texture, as it were.
—David Foster Wallace, “The Depressed Person” (1999) 

Melancholia as a mode of knowledge: it seems implausible, even a vulgar denial of the real suffering involved in depression, which is our historical heir to the disorder of the black bile. Of course, one may retroject certain hard-won lessons about oneself and the world by having dwelled in depression’s purgatorial precincts, but can we genuinely say that in the midst of woe we learn anything at all, or that the pain is itself a kind of dolorous episteme? Consider our writers’ metaphors for the state of the depressive mind: Sylvia Plath’s bell jar, William Styron’s bad psychic weather, Wallace’s at once nameless and aptly named Bad Thing. None of them suggests a cognitive or imaginative purchase on things—rather absence, disarray, and the collapse of language.

And yet a venerable tradition among physicians, philosophers, and poets long insisted on a relation between knowledge and melancholia. Aristotle (or one of his followers) famously has it that melancholia affects “all men who have become outstanding in philosophy, statesmanship, poetry or the arts.” The fifteenth-century Italian Neoplatonist Marsilio Ficino avers that “of all learned people, those especially are oppressed by black bile, who, being sedulously devoted to the study of philosophy, recall their mind from the body and corporeal things.” The church fathers of the Middle Ages had been more precise, and admonishingly pictured the melancholic in his cell or cloister, afflicted by the monkish curse of acedia, shuttling between torpor and excessive animation. His disease, it seems, affects the capacity for concentration; the scholar or copyist leaps up time and again from his work, attention drawn by the slightest disturbance or daydream.

The problem, as Robert Burton would later elaborate it, is not that the melancholic’s attention is diverted from the world into a state of doleful reverie—or not only that. (Burton agreed with earlier writers that melancholia was a scholar’s malady, and repeated the assertion that it had a digestive locus: it may be caused, he surmised, by leaning the belly for too long on large books.) The sufferer is as likely to become super-alert, his mind charged by a thousand topics at once, like “a ranging spaniel that barks at every bird he sees, leaving his game.” In fact, this is Burton’s own affliction; his Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) tries to say all there is to say about the illness in question, and then everything there is to know about everything else. Burton revised his treatise for twenty years; he simply could not stop adding causes, symptoms, cures, anecdotes, and wildly erudite conjectures. He wrote to cure his own melancholia, but produced a model for melancholic suspension between concentration and distraction.

In his Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View (1793), Immanuel Kant engages explicitly this notion that the melancholic—whom we may also imagine, not incorrectly, as dissociated and distracted—actually pays too close an attention to things. Melancholia for Kant is identical with hypochondria: a digestive disorder that causes the patient to attend too keenly to the feelings of his own body and the stimulations of his immediate surroundings. Kant likens such impressions to the chirping of crickets in a house at night, which the sleepless listener cannot banish. “The illness of the hypochondriac is such that certain inner, bodily sensations do not only disclose an actually existent illness inside the body, but they can also cause an illness because human nature, by virtue of a peculiar quality lacking in animals, can strengthen or sustain a feeling by centering attention on certain local impressions.” Somewhat perplexingly, the cure for such a distracted mind can only be found in further diversion, or “intentional abstraction.”

How are we to tell our good abstractions from bad? Of course we cannot, and one definition of melancholia—Freud’s, in his “Mourning and Melancholia” of 1917—would have it that the illness consists in a misapplied grief for an object (the self) that has not been lost at all, or is only lost to the extent that melancholia makes it so. Giorgio Agamben offers a complex gloss on Freud’s essay in his Stanzas: “If the libido behaves as if a loss had occurred although nothing has in fact been lost, this is because the libido stages a simulation where what cannot be lost because it has never been possessed appears as lost, and what could never be possessed because it had never perhaps existed may be appropriated insofar as it is lost.” Melancholia has a phantasmatic power; it conjures an object that we lose and possess in the same instant.

Hence the affinity, divined by Walter Benjamin, between the type of the melancholic and the figure of the collector. Among the acutest insights of the Arcades Project, and of Benjamin’s oeuvre in general, is the homology it proposes between the gaze of the melancholic upon a disappearing world and the regard of the acquisitive connoisseur for the things he owns or the objects he dreams of owning. The melancholy of the collector consists not, or not primarily, in the fact that he will never possess all the artifacts he would like to possess, but instead in the knowledge that even those he owns appear out of reach. The acquisitive melancholic thus resembles the distracted devotee of consumer culture, fixated on things and at the same time separated from them by the exquisite pain of desire and distance.

Consider finally the classic image of the melancholic that has in a sense been ghosting these remarks all along. In Albrecht Dürer’s engraving Melencolia i, a winged angel sits slumped, head on left hand, with eyes downcast, regarding the ruins of human endeavor in the form of discarded tools that belong to geometry, architecture, and construction: compass, sphere, hammer, scales, and straightedge. They describe, says Agamben, an “epiphany of the unobtainable”: the realm of knowledge and of making that lies just out of reach of the melancholic’s enervated mind and body. It is not the case, then, that melancholia turns definitively from the world and its possibilities; rather, it pauses entranced before the profusion of things and their potential. The melancholic mind is crippled, for sure, by sloth and indecision, but concentrated nonetheless—agonizingly attentive, unable to look away. 

Brian Dillon is UK editor of Cabinet and teaches writing at the Royal College of Art, London. The US edition of his most recent book, Essayism (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017), will be published by New York Review Books in September 2018. His books include The Great Explosion (Penguin, 2015) and Objects in This Mirror (Sternberg Press, 2014). He is working on a book about sentences, and a collection of essays on contemporary art and literature.

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