Melancholy, Nostalgia and Depression

09Man struggles to be born,
And birth is at risk of death.
He feels pain and torment.
For the first thing; and in his very beginning
His mother and father
Begin to console him for being born.

But why give to the sun,
Why keep alive
One who then requires consolation?
If life is misfortune,
Why cling to it so tenaciously?
Inviolate moon, such
Is the mortal state.
But you are not mortal,
And perhaps care nothing for my words

(G. Leopardi, The Song of a Wandering Shepherd of Asia)

For decades, depression, understood as an illness, had been a point of encounter (and often of conflict) between different schools of thought, which saw it as derived from numerous genetic, biological, social and psychological causes. Today, different ways of speaking about depression – poetic, psychological and scientific – have come together and found powerful confirmation in the new discoveries and support for what were once only brilliant insights or reflections. These languages are no longer in conflict but merge and completely supersede any Cartesian kind of division with mind and body fully united in the same language.

Depression takes the form of a painful affect toward the self and others, a deflection of the life drive, the substitution of the death wish for the life wish. It is a state of mind in which the affections are frozen, meager, bare, devoid of metaphors, effaced in the ability to plan the future. Creativity dries up and the crisis is revealed in that phenomenon known as the “empty ego.”

Language effectively translates this devastation of a world where ideas elude us without being replaced by other more durable images from the past. The content represents a world of apprehension, disturbance and inadequacy to the point where the sufferer is unable to act. This applies to both not hoping to live and not hoping to die. Despair leads to the rejection of every good, to solitude in a silence filled with deleterious phantoms.

Depression in all literature (Kierkegaard, Hölderlin, Gérard de Nerval, Pirandello) is closely bound up with the idea of death, the failure of the life force, the impossibility of its continuation. It has always fascinated philosophers such as Aristotle, Empedocles, Plato and Socrates (melancholy temperaments) and Aretaeus, The Cappadocian, as well as figurative artists such as Michelangelo or Albrecht Dürer.

Inseparable from the concept of death is that of time. The depressed person suffers a disjunction between real time and lived time. He lives in a present charged with negative elements (a sense of guilt, conviction of error, self-reproaches), with a recriminatory attitude to representations of the past. The future is often viewed as threatening, while the present is dominated by negativity, frustration and feelings of guilt.

Solitude undermines the ability to keep up relationships and to communicate, the epitome of our existence in the world as social beings. The faces of depression – mimetic, verbal, motor, conceptual and sensorial – are affected by separation from others, by reduced contacts, by reflection on oneself. These are, in substance, the faces of the solitude in a circle that gradually admits only a single protagonist within it.

To all people, events related to separation in its various forms, with regard to birth, the discovery of limits, the passages of life, the loss and finally the death of others and ourselves, unavoidably entail pain and suffering. Yet despite this, most of us learn to think or continue to do so, and develop the ability to relate to these facts in order to project ourselves into the future. And if death represents the most extreme of losses, we know how depressed people seem to prepare for it and how at times they seek and procure it. They do not see it for what it is, namely, the extreme expression of our transience, but instead as a way of escaping from an intolerable feeling, a mixture of healing and peace for love lost, or atonement through a sentence of death.

Besides, just as the melancholic is unable to express this awareness of precariousness and transience, it is also impossible to have nostalgic feelings. Nostalgia is an affect, a feeling with various sources, which enables us to understand that, those who feel it, are in possession of a temporal depth, so that they can rely on memories, and these can be expressed through life and be represented. Nostalgia also offers the possibility to keep alive a relationship (whether of friendship or love), even in the absence of the object, when it is or may be irremediably lost, and this loss is clearly present and conscious in the mind.

According to Aristotle, “Exceptional men in philosophical, political, artistic or literary activity have a melancholic temperament.” Greek thought found correlations between melancholy and Eros. A contemporary author, Julia Kristeva, asserts that there is no writing that symbolically refers to love, and no imagination that is not openly and secretly melancholy.

In the fundamental work on the various conceptions of melancholy in the course of the history of culture and of the arts by Klibansky, Panofsky, and Saxl, the notion of melancholy acquires a human and positive content: the man of genius is no longer conceived as the product of the eruption into reality of mythical forces, but as the result of natural forces by the extreme action of laws immanent in those same forces.

Nostalgia is a sentiment that leads to victory over the destructive forces of time. Recovering lost times and places, activating memory, and experiencing nostalgia make it possible to dwell on the past, which then enables us to proceed, to go ahead and to make new emotional investments. Creativity and depression are related; the two terms interact, and an ancient tradition correlates artistic activity (poetry, music) to the divine platonic mania, possession or inspiration by a god. This is a markedly euphoric moment, hence, ecstatic, which is somehow the antipodes of depression in the usual and clinical sense of the word.

Gérard de Nerval in Aurelia observes, “Everyone knows that in dreams we never see the sun, even though we often have a perception of a very vivid brightness.” R. Guardiani, in sketching the profile of the man inclined to melancholy writes, “We seek passionately and everywhere for something we do not possess… and seek it with a grievous sensibility and intolerance…. We seek and struggle to take things as we would like them to be: to find in them that weight, that seriousness, that ardor and that accomplished strength we are longing for; it is impossible. Things are finite. All that is finite is defective. And this defect is a disappointment for the heart that yearns for the absolute. The disappointment expands and becomes the sense of a gaping void….”

“What is darkest and therefore deepest in human nature is nostalgia, which is, so to speak, the inner force of gravity of the spirit and which, thus, in its most profound manifestation, is melancholy. It is particularly by means of it that man’s sympathy with nature is mediated.”

The arts and the artists with their intense point of view are a defense for suffering humanity. They warn against all ideologies. They teach us to look at mankind in its true need for salvation.

Poets, as is widely accepted, know more things between heaven and earth than those contemplated by scientists. And a poet like Rilke, in his long inward path from the Notebooks of Malte to the Sonnets to Orpheus, wrote “of wanting to entrust each quest solely to my own redeeming creativity.” Perhaps he succeeded and expressed it in two verses, which he desired, in the testament he dictated a year before his death, to be his epitaph. There he speaks of a rose, the symbol of the unity of the heart, of complete attainment and perfection. And its petals, which are the degrees of approach to its center:

Rose, pure contradiction, joy of being,
No one’s sleep under so many eyelids.

All life, in a certain sense, is a struggle against depression, and each of us has to continually cope with a long series of partings and losses. Each of us has to undergo trials that inevitably expose us to a sense of depression. However, it is also true that it is possible to live through this feeling: to feel depression and to have the capacity to suffer from mental pain without necessarily entering a state of depression. Nostalgia, the power to draw on nostalgia, enables us to expresses the possibility of feeling depressed without falling ill, or it provides a way out of the illness if it has become established and so provides a way to recovery.

Edited from the Preface of Beyond the Dark by Luca Artioli

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