What Melancholy Teaches Us About Ourselves

A self-investigation strategy to cope with depression.

Posted May 18, 2020

Common emotions, such as fear or anger, are usually directed towards identifiable causes—think of a crying kid who has just dropped their ice cream. But melancholy, which British philosopher Emily Brady describes as a totalizing, long-lasting mood, instead seems to come from nowhere.

Melancholy is defined as a variable mood of discouragement and impotency. In simple words, it is the good, non-pathological sister of every depressive disorder. All of us feel melancholic at least once in a while.

Given its sporadic nature, melancholy is an occasion for meditation, self-reflection, and contemplation, which allows the affected person to recollect, sense, and explore the causes of their condition. Thus, melancholy puts human beings in a privileged position, namely that their self-investigation of the psychological processes hidden behind it could be a chance to better comprehend the roots and nature of depressive conditions.

What happens when we feel melancholic?

The Italian writer and poet Cesare Pavese struggled with depression for his entire life and eventually succumbed to suicide at the early age of 41. Despite this extreme gesture, he left us a significant trace to dissect the origins of his depression, partially annotated on frantic pages of a personal diary he kept until the end—This Business of Living: Diaries 1935-1950. These notes are of extreme help in overcoming bouts of melancholy in our own lives.

Central for our reflection is Pavese’s so-called “theory of the myth.” In classical terms, a myth is defined as a tale that describes the origin of humanity and of natural phenomena. As we will see, Pavese’s effort is to apply this concept to the personal history of every individual, starting from infancy and moving into adulthood.

Infancy is the stage of life in which we make our first contact with every object of the world. We touch a dog for the first time, we see a tree for the first time, we visit places for the first time. These connections between the infant’s mind and the multiple aspects of reality—which as I have described elsewhere mainly occurs when the infant’s self-awareness is absent or very primitive—lay the foundations for the meanings we attribute to the different objects of the world.

Let us take a practical situation. The term “park” refers to a semi-natural zone that is full of trees, cycle paths, and areas for children’s recreation. All of us, when hearing or pronouncing this word, think of a place like this. However, before being an idea that inhabits an individual’s mind, a “park” is a real thing.

In other words, at some point in our childhood, we see a park for the first time and only then, we can picture and idealize it.

This is the reason why children speak in absolute terms. They never ask their mom, “Please, can we go to a park?” but rather, “Please, can we go to the park?” In their mind, only “that park they saw for the first time” exists, which will subsequently make possible the abstraction of the concept “park.” In Pavese’s conception, these first encounters happen during infancy, in a psychological condition in which the child still ignores the distinction between past, present, and future.

The main characteristic of these pure, primordial experiences is that they cannot be remembered per se.

Another example will clarify this aspect. It often happens that we listen to a song and we find ourselves humming the lyrics. We cannot understand where the text is coming from, but we soon realize that we know it. We are therefore remembering something that we encountered at least once at some time in the past, although we feel as though we were experiencing it for the first time.

As Pavese stated on March 25, 1945: “We never see a thing the first time, but only the second—when it has changed into something else.” We cannot remember something unless we happen to think about it for a second time.

Let us now try to recollect the pieces.

As infants we see, touch, hear, smell, and taste the world for the first time. These experiences enable us to give a personal, intimate meaning to the reality we live within. As we become adults, however, we cannot access the details of such experiences anymore, nor the precise sensations we felt. What therefore follows is an inevitable, censored, psychological trauma.

But how does this explain melancholy and, ultimately, the nature of depression?

We should move back to our description of melancholy as an enduring mood that emerges from nowhere. Pavese would probably say that anytime we feel melancholic, anytime we feel this sensation of something that “emerges from nothing,” we are revealing the absent contact of our psyche with the first time we lived the particular experience that we can no longer relive. In simple terms, we are experiencing the echoes of our trauma, and melancholy is the blaring alarm.

What can we learn from melancholy?

In contrast to depression, melancholy is usually accompanied by bittersweet memories that help individuals to cope with the situation. We do not need to feel lost and completely hopeless because these blurred memories gently drag us to the places of our infancy, to walk into them once more. Cesare Pavese’s trauma can be recollected in his separation from his place of birth and infancy, the hilly area of the Langhe in Piedmont, famous for the colors and scents of its vines, to which he came back regularly during adulthood and dedicated his most therapeutic poems.

We heal ourselves by paying a regular visit to the theaters of our primordial experiences. By periodically reconnecting with them, we can make amends for the inevitable betrayal that adulthood reserves for infancy.

This post was written by guest blogger Simone Redaelli, a molecular biologist on the verge of obtaining a doctoral title at the University of Ulm, Germany. He is Vice-Director at the online magazine Culturico, where his writings span from Literature to Sociology, from Philosophy to Science. Find him on Twitter at @simredaelli.

References

Brady, E. (2003). Melancholy as an aesthetic emotion. Contemporary Aesthetics, 1.  Permalink: http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.7523862.0001.006

Pavese, C., (1952). This Business of Living: Diaries 1935-1950. Einaudi.

Redaelli, S. (2018, Nov. 26). The emergence of infant identity. Culturico. https://culturico.com/2018/11/26/the-emergence-of-infant-identity/