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Book Review: A Field Guide to Melancholy

Monday, 25 September 2017  | Rex Dale

By Jacky Bowring 
(Harpenden, UK: Oldcastle Books, [2008] 2015)

Jacky Bowring introduces us to the subject of melancholy and how it touches literature, art and of course her own speciality of landscape architecture. She acknowledges that melancholy is very difficult to define, can have phases and varies enormously from one person to the next. It is a familiar term, but extraordinarily elusive and enigmatic (13). It is seen in humans from the pathological to the passing mood of sadness. It is also seen in landscapes, seasons and sounds. Jacky Bowring, who is Professor of Landscape Architecture at Lincoln University in New Zealand, is interested in all its phases - darkness, unrequited longing, heroism and genius. Melancholy, even in its mildest form, has a way of stimulating thought and artistic endeavour. In its non-human aspects it shows as twilight, autumn and minor chords.

This book is an explicit promotion of the ideal of melancholy and extols the benefits of sadness. It also questions modern society’s obsession with the pursuit of happiness (14). Melancholy is the central condition of the human condition. Hildegard of Bingen, the 12th century abbess and mystic, believed it to have been formed at the moment Adam sinned when he took the fruit in the Garden of Eden. At that point, melancholy curdled in his blood. Modern day Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, positions melancholy and its concerns with loss and longing, at the very heart of the human condition. He describes melancholy as disappointment with all positive empirical objects, none of which can satisfy our desire, and is in fact the beginning of philosophy. The subject is a difficult one because it is sometimes viewed in a scientific way, and at other times in a poetic way.

It is remarkable how we are drawn to books and TV programs that project melancholy or despair in a big way. One just has to think of Scandinavian police mysteries, which are filmed in black and white to enhance the effect! Yet too many of those threaten to smother us. And we need to note the observation of a 19th century writer who saw that people with an appetite for sadness in books were often repelled by it when confronted by it in real life.

Bowring writes about ‘the potential danger in the conundrum of finding beauty in melancholy suffering’. She gives the instance of Charles Dickens’ character Will Fern in the novel The Chimes. Will is a poor, honest man, but has been given a bad name. His home is a leaky hovel, but it has become a magnet for artists who want to sketch its charms. Will says: ‘you may see the cottage from the sunk fence over yonder. I have seen the ladies draw it in their books a hundred times. It looks well in picters, I’ve heard say; but there ain’t weather in picters, and maybe tis fitter for that, than a place to live in. Well I lived there. How hard –how bitter hard, I lived there I won’t say’ (47). Will is an early victim of what has become known as the ‘culture of spectatorship’.

In the modelling world, the concept of the ‘beauty’ of Heroin Chic evolved. This was popularised by Kate Moss in a Calvin Klein advertising campaign (48). Moss would assume an expression of drug addiction as shown in near-death white skin and black eyes. I wonder if Bowring could tell us how successful these sorts of promotions were, and what she thinks about how advertising of cheaper clothes features cheerful models. The starkly melancholy beauty of someone who seems near death is analogous to the fascination with landscapes that are devastated in some way. One just has to think about Australian pictures of a decrepit farmhouse on what is probably marginal land. Someone must have built the house in great hope, and perhaps at first the land had great yields. But then perhaps a weakness in the soil became evident, or the rains did not arrive when needed. Whatever it was, it just became too hard and probably very lonely. So the house was abandoned to the elements. Our fascination with these sorts of pictures is not entirely unworthy. They can be a reminder that, for many, life can hit hard times.

Edgar Allan Poe took an extreme view. He pronounced sadness and melancholy as the site of Beauty’s ‘highest manifestation’. And as death is the ultimate melancholic topic, its poetic potency is enhanced when aligned with beauty (48).

Bowring refers to many writers and artists I am not familiar with. One in particular stood out: Edward Hopper. Hopper’s speciality is urban loneliness in paintings often populated by just on person, empty places and images of loss (163). His ‘Nighthawks’ depicts four people in an American diner, in the dead of the night. Each of the four is completely absorbed in their own introspection and, although they are physically close, there is an absent empty feeling. The light spilling out of the diner is a cool unforgiving light.

Bowring devotes some time to the subject of ruins. What is the attraction of these melancholy sites? When drawing up plans for buildings in Berlin for Hitler to peruse, the architect Speer would include sketches of how these buildings might look in a thousand years. Why are tourists drawn in such huge numbers to the remains of great civilisations? There is plenty to think about when viewing remains of once proud empires. Clearly they were homes to an energetic people to built such marvellous structures. Then something happened, and people left. Was it war, famine or some vague sense that the place was cursed and it was time to move on?

A different and much more recent type of decay is that of Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour. It was until recently a melancholy place indeed. It had been a prison, it had been a shipyard, but hard times came, and it went into decay. The contrast with the rest of Sydney Harbour could not be greater. Tourists on their way to attractive bays and vistas gave it a passing glance and briefly wondered about such a melancholy place. Then the authorities decided the island needed cleaning up and development. Its melancholic aspect was to be ‘put under wraps’ and made agreeable to the rest of the harbour (198).

It might be surprising that clowns should be associated with melancholy (63). As persons marooned on the outside of society, clowns became symbols of latent tragedy and imminent disaster. Soren Kierkegaard’s tale of the clown in the theatre captures the predicament of how being the eternal funny guy draws a veil over anything possibly serious. When a fire broke out backstage in the theatre, Kierkegaard recounts how the clown came out to warn the public, who thought it was a joke and applauded. He repeated the warning and the acclaim was even greater.

Bowring associates certain countries with their own particular type of melancholy. She quotes Joseph Addison, who thought the English had a disposition towards melancholy. Bowring compares the melancholy of England and New Zealand. England’s is associated with picturesque gardens and journeys and literary monuments. New Zealand’s melancholy tends towards a gothic brooding quality. Which brings us to Australia. Marcus Clarke asked: what is the dominant note of Australian Scenery? No tender sentiment is nourished in the shade of the Australian mountain forests. Even the mountain names underscored their melancholy: Mount Misery, Mount Dreadful and Mount Despair.

Chapter 3 is to me of particular interest. It describes the states of mind and soul associated with melancholy. ‘Acedia’ is an affliction that brings with it boredom, world-weariness and despair at life’s tedium. In the times of the Desert Fathers stationed in Egypt, acedia was identified as a spiritual illness. Evagrius Ponticus, John Chrysostom and John Cassian had their own different ways of describing this condition of restlessness. Cures were perseverance, courage, fervent prayer and (though Bowring does not mention it) manual labour. But St Jerome took a different line. He proposed that acedia required ‘Hippocratic Treatments’: that is, he viewed the condition as being a physical illness rather than a spiritual one. John Cassian described acedia (or accidie) as the midday or noonday demon, when tiredness and irritability were at their worst. It is in reference to Psalm 91:6, which warns about destruction that wastes at the noonday (92).

How we view Nature is very subjective. Wordsworth had his own particular way of viewing nature. In his early years he was so excited by the French Revolution that he travelled to Paris to take part in it. In time he became disillusioned, and decided to return to England where he found his calling as the poet of Nature. He believed that, at least in his part of the world, nature brings refreshment to the human spirit. So he wrote:

…[Nature] can so inform

The mind that is within us, to impress

With quietness and beauty, and so feed

With lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues,

Rash judgements, nor the sneers of selfish men,

Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all

The dreary intercourse of life,

Shall e’er prevail against us, or disturb

our cheerful faith that all which we behold

Is full of blessings.

In his autobiography, John Stuart Mill describes how, when his mind was at the end of its tether, he came across the poems of William Wordsworth. Reading them brought great relief to his burdened mind.

For centuries, the mountains of Switzerland were seen as obstacles causing great inconvenience. Then, in the 18th century, a new phrase came into use: ‘a sense of the sublime’. And people took a different view of the mountains.

Bowring concludes: ‘To lose melancholy is to be deprived of one of the imagination’s last refuges, the dark interior realm where thoughts fly. They fuel one another. Melancholy slows things, allows for percolation, facilitates solitude and solace for the imagination’ (210).

Rex Dale is a graduate of UWA, spending much of his retirement reading and writing. Rex’s earlier related article, Seneca and the Good Lifewas published by Ethos in April 2013. 

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