Melancholia Down The Ages

With the surge in mental illness, especially depression, that the world is witnessing nowadays, we might be forgiven to think that it is a problem of modern times. But no, melancholia – which combines sadness and depression – has been around since ancient times, and many eminent thinkers and philosophers (such as Aristotle) have dwelt on it, even associated it with genius. However, medicine taking the scientific approach is now in a position to elucidate the basic cause(s) and even offer solutions in the form of new treatments.

The new generation would rather talk of melancholy, a state of prolonged sadness and depression. However, melancholia in the Western world has interested philosophers, artists, ancient and medieval medical people and historians for millennia, because it manifested itself in many famous men of those times. How sadness could influence the soul was always a topic of great concern for thinking people. It is said that Aristotle, or one of his followers, had noticed how solitude, hardship and loneliness had always plagued the lives of the great. He pondered: “Why is it that all men who have become outstanding in philosophy, statesmanship, poetry or the arts are melancholic?” That observation influenced the thinking of many generations of thinkers after him, so much so that even the Renaissance thinkers had taken that Aristotelian view seriously.

The 15th century humanist Marsilio Fucino could even see a link between astrology and melancholia: those born under Saturn, which was supposed to influence the contemplative life, were more prone to the disease. Others like Albrect Durer would explore “the relation between melancholy, creativity and knowledge, emphasising the frustration that inevitably accompanied exceptional talent and ambition”. Durer’s painting of a woman would be labelled “Melancholy”, and the motif would ultimately make some critics wonder whether “this condition should be viewed as a gift or a curse”.

In the olden days it was believed that a physiological imbalance between one of the four humours of the body: blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile would determine the mood of the individual; but a preponderance of black bile, hence the name, would cause him to be melancholic. Gradually by the 16th to 17th century the English dramatist John Ford had given a new twist to the “noonday demon”, saying that “melancholy is not, as you conceive, indisposition of body, but the mind’s disease”, emphasising the psychological rather the physiological origin of the malady. Shakespeare’s most famous melancholic hero Hamlet saw in his “self slaughter” more of a mental anguish than an ailment of the body.

In the distant past there were a host of other unpleasant symptoms associated with melancholia; these could be fear, torpor, stomach pains, fits, haemorrhoids, frenzies. But the consolation was that brilliant individuals could all suffer from them. And the treatment of those days would always make the modern doctors wink with disbelief. Medical people of the 17th century England, like Shakespeare’s son-in-law John Hall were already prescribing strong purgatives, bloodletting, flavoured drinks and enemas.

But the Renaissance also remained the “Golden age of Melancholy”, because gradually people were asking whether melancholy really bears any relationship to “inspiration, frustration and greatness”. By the 18th century the interest in the subject abated temporarily, only to be revived in the Romantic era when, true to their belief, artists, poets and writers saw in melancholy a glorified experience to be lived. They weaved “it into one of their central aesthetic concepts, that of the sublime, where the “experience of pleasure was not diminished, but rather intensified, by the knowledge of sorrow”!

Charles Baudelaire and Keats saw pleasure in melancholy, where the ideals of Enlightenment Culture like beauty and harmony were inadequate for their artistic aim. One can only wonder whether in the face of inability to understand and escape sadness and loneliness, these artists, favouring feeling over reason and tension over balance, finally decided to make the best of the situation “by revelling in the insight they believed sorrow could bring”.

Modern Views

That was the situation in 19th century, until Sigmund Freud made his appearance on the medical arena. In his essay “Mourning and Melancholy” he wrote that melancholy is neither a physiological, humoural, pathological, nervous or astrological event, but rather “a narcissistic disorder resulting from the self’s sense of loss”. This results from the failure of the individual to adapt to different stages of his life, which finally led to a disjunction in self-identity.

This new concept led to the fading of the importance given to melancholia as a separate entity in an individual’s life; nowadays we talk more of depression. But the old historical concept still lingers nostalgically in some minds, and Susan Sontag famously wrote: “Depression is melancholy, minus its charm.” One could always wonder how other cultures in other civilizations viewed melancholia, though we may be tempted to say that the blossoming of individualism in the western world had put it in the limelight more than elsewhere.

We can understand that if we were living in those medieval or ancient times, when comfort was lacking, poverty was rife and even life expectancy was short, we would not get out of that dejecting mood that would have kept gripping us. A minor setback would be enough to throw us into a black mood. Vincent Van Gogh was one who saw in the abject poverty of the people working in the mines, where he was sent to preach, reason enough to become morose and desperate. He finally gave away all his belongings and fortunes to the poor and set out to paint the miserable world he was living in, whence his genial productions. Later he would commit the irreparable.

But nowadays, it is well known that depression is a well-defined entity with a genetic, hormonal, cultural, environmental or psychological cause. It may be graded into different categories (major or minor) by expert medical providers, affecting some 20 to 30% of the population to a different degree. And the ultimate culprit could be traced to malfunctioning of some neuronal circuit in the brain and the neurotransmitters. Treatment could be psychosocial, pharmacological or a neurocognitive approach.

The days of the “black dog, the devil’s bath, the mind’s canker and the noonday demon” are not yet over, though our knowledge and approach to it have changed tremendously and it has, like other medical ailments, been properly categorized and given the attention it deserves in the medical world.

Attempts in the 20th century by psychiatric studies to dispel or confirm a connection between genius and mood changes have given mixed results. But there still persists in some modern cultures a belief that there may after all be some faint relationship between dejection and brilliance.


  • Published in print edition on 16 October 2015

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