In times past melancholia was a term for severe depression, however, more modern definitions run along the lines of “A feeling of pensive sadness, typically with no obvious cause.” Personally I experience this emotion from time to time, and I actually welcome it’s arrival. Usually it will only last for several hours, typically in the evening, and I have pondered a lot lately on this unusual feeling and its causes.
I’m beginning to think that it may be induced by the weather. The light or the stillness in the air perhaps, but I can’t say this is what brings it on for sure. What I do know is that when I feel melancholia, it is not necessarily a bad thing, but an emotion which I experience with a certain amount of joy. It is as if colours are more vivid, smells more acute, flavours more pronounced and textures felt more tactilely. It makes me wonder whether there is some kind of chemical process going on in the brain which produces these increased levels of awareness. Whatever is happening though, it is pretty amazing.
For some reason whenever I think of melancholy I think of John Milton’s Paradise Lost the epos poem written in the 17th century which tells of the ‘impious war’ between Satan’s band of rebellious angels (including Beelzebub and Mammon) and God. It also speaks of Satan’s tempting of Adam and Eve prior to their fall from grace having partaken of the forbidden fruit. The overall tone of this incredible piece of literature is very gloomy and conjures the awesome and awful power of the supernatural, of forces we don’t comprehend and of things which are ultimately unknown yet have struck fear into the hearts of millions of christians for thousands of years.
And yet it is written with such mastery, it generates such a visceral reaction to a tale we all know well that one can’t help but be awed by the beauty of the tale, the genius of its author and the effect his commanding prose has on you, the reader.
Perhaps it is just that the awful content of the poem and the awesome way in which it is written are so starkly opposed that it incites feelings of melancholia. For the strangeness of this emotion comes in that it is an unsolicited feeling of deep sadness at once opposed to a heightened awareness of the beauty and wonder of the world around you.
American Beauty, the movie, has a melancholy feel to it, and there is one scene in particular that I think captures melancholy precisely. It is when the character Ricky Fitts is filming a plastic bag floating haphazardly in the wind, and he says, “It was one of those days when it’s a minute away from snowing and there’s this electricity in the air, you can almost hear it. Right? And this bag was just dancing with me. Like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes. That’s the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever. Video’s a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember… I need to remember… Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.”
Do you sometimes feel melancholy? What does it feel like to you? I’d love to hear your thoughts, please do comment below.