The Case for Melancholy

Everywhere you look these days you see something on how to be happy — how to manifest abundance, desires and success, find your bliss.

A quick Google search will produce instantaneous remedies for the blues: the promise that it’s possible to find happiness in 10 or 15 easy steps. Some strategies promise happiness in as few as three steps.

Whatever happened to experiencing the grace of melancholy, which requires reflection: a sort of mental steeping, like tea? What if all this cheerful advice only makes you feel inadequate? What if you were born morose?

Melancholy, distinguished from grief, is not caused by events, like losing your job, the passing of beloved pets, your miscarriages or health problems. Nor does it vanish when you receive excellent news, like a big film star optioning your novel, or being invited to an all-expenses-paid trip to Venice for the Biennale.

Melancholy is more… ephemeral.

It visits you like a mist, a vapor, a fog. It is generally uninvited. And as some people are born into royalty, wealth and prestige, others inherit a disposition for sadness.

I knew melancholy long before I met my late biological father, Dr. Leon Stover, who typed “The Suicide Manifesto,” his melancholic musings, in faded gray ink while a patient in a psychiatric hospital in New York after my mother left him. It was a relief to meet him when I was 21 and to know this was an artistic inheritance. It is to my thinking, more significant DNA than our genealogical links to Frederick II of Prussia and President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

In that “Manifesto,” his explanation of his experience in psychotherapy, my father wrote: “I offered you monumental tragedy and a glorious melancholy for your insignificant pleasures and pain.”

On his bipolar melancholic mania (his passing was due to complications from diabetes, but I don’t doubt he drafted a few suicide notes), my father, also author of 24 published books, once wrote to me:

“I don’t know if you’ll be a writer, but you have the ‘up down’ thing too. Make creative use of it, otherwise, people will think you’re just plain nuts.”

While my childhood twinkled with stories and fantasies about elves and fairies despite my unhappy surroundings, my teenage years were a mixture of artistic ennui and dark poetic depression — with lots of moving.

By the time I got to my third high school, I was feeling pretty alienated. I was determined not to make any friends but instead to commune with trees, to feel their spirits. I walked along lonely train tracks behind our house and had morbid thoughts and wrote papers that began “I cannot watch another gray dawn awaken” (Melancholy often shares the stage with melodrama.)

My English teacher singled me out for independent study, during which I wrote existential essays and did tortured paintings.

I befriended an even more ethereal sprite named Erica, who wore her hair with numerous long ribbons tied at the roots, not in jaunty bows but dangling languidly like weeping tendrils, like a sort of mourning embellishment. She wore long dresses or pastel corduroy pants rolled up as if she were about to go wading in a stream, and always a fox stole pinned to her shoulder.

She carried around a jar of ink and wrote all her assignments with a calligraphy pen, translating Latin phrases such as “O the dreaded Cypress trees of death”

She read my poems, she instigated sneaking out of the window in the independent study room to escape to the Smithsonian Institution to watch old movies. She didn’t think I was a weirdo because I loved bats. She never told me to “smile,” or “cheer up.” She saved my life.

Sadness has a bad reputation. But I soon came to feel that melancholy — the word itself is late Latin from the Greek melancholia — is a word with a romantic Old World ring, with a transient beauty like the ring around the moon. We know this from John Keats’s “Ode on Melancholy”:

“But when the melancholy fit shall fall/Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud/She dwells with Beauty — Beauty that must die”

While depression is a real disease, the word, used casually, lacks all charm. By comparison it is fine to indulge in the cloudy charms of melancholy: to watch a sad black-and-white movie or to be swept away by the wind making a sound that Truman Capote described as a grass harp.

In pre-Effexor eras, melancholy was treasured. By Robert Burton, the 16th-century English scholar at Oxford University (who filled three volumes on the topic, with dietary suggestions like a botanical cure); by 19th-century poets; and then by the luminously, glamorously brooding Greta Garbo.

Though most modern characters lack such allure, melancholy has been celebrated by Tim Burton (“The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories,” Johnny Depp in Burton films) Batman (“The Dark Knight”), Heathcliff in “Wuthering Heights” and Anne Rice’s wistful, brooding vampire Lestat.

It was reassuring also to see in the recent animated film “Inside Out” that Sadness, the gloomy Eeyore of emotions, saves the day with the perky persistence of overbearing Joy.

The American commercial message is not so generally inclusive.

Clinique’s best-selling fragrance is the sweet, neon-scented exuberant Happy. With apple, plums, bergamot and a fresh-air accord, whatever that is, it’s described as “a fragrance of joy, the essence of a sunny, happy morning.”

Other successful perfumes in 2015 often have the sickly sweet depth of cotton candy: the garish appeal of a brightly colored synthetic animal won at a carnival.

Personally, I’d much rather open the windows to the fragrant garden of melancholy, and spritz on something to go with ennui, reflection, wistfulness. Such a gentle perfume might smell like autumn rain, or a rain-damp windowsill infused with wilted, decaying roses and tears.

Rainy perfume can assist your mood, though: for example, Frédérick Malle’s “En Passant.”Guerlain has expertise in melancholy. There is the mysterious twilight-esque 1912 creation, L’Heure Bleue (the bluish hour). And Jicky, created in the late 1800s, is sensuous and shimmering and described as charming and melancholy with accords of citrus, lavender and dusty books. And Mitsouko, a fruity chypre made in 1919, is another.

None of these are sunny, they never laugh out loud, and in fact, they barely smile. Iris Silver Mist by Serge Lutens (1994) has been called by reviewers on Basenotes.net as “sadness in a bottle” and “a melancholy wonder.” We need perfumes that complement our moods, our souls — not just our office attire and cocktail wear.

I felt less alone in my yearnings when I saw this posting on a fragrance blog:

“Lately I’ve been feeling a bit down, well down right depressed, to tell you the truth. 😦 Could you please suggest some perfumes that reflect my mood? I don’t want any pick-me-up scents, because this sadness is something I need to experience to get on with my life.”

Like this depressed soul, I don’t want a perfume to cheer me up. Happiness, like the sun, is ridiculously bright, a hope you can never live up to, or even look at straight on.

Should melancholy descend, you may as well welcome it, wear your finest lounging outfit; give it your finest fainting couch or chaise to lounge in, or that hammock stretched between two elm trees. Let it settle in.

You may as well enjoy it reclining with a pot of green thunder tea as you watch the rolled leaves unfurl their poetic fury as it steeps, as you listen to Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloé” or Jean Françaix’s Concertino for Piano and Orchestra, 2a.

I propose there be melancholy perfumes, fashions, footwear (no running shoes under any circumstances), music (Lana Del Rey is the melancholy diva du jour, and Joni Mitchell and Billie Holiday still work), elixirs (no alcohol; look what happened to Edgar Allan Poe) and furniture ideally suited for indulging in or succumbing to the deeply tinted blue moods.

I want moonlight.

Rain

Woke up this morning with a terrific urge to lie in bed all day and read. Fought against it for a minute.

Then looked out the window at rain. And gave over. Put my self entirely in the keep of this rainy morning.

Would I live my life over again? Make the same unforgivable mistakes? Yes, given half a chance. Yes.

– Raymond Carver

Raymond Carver

A Little Fable

“Alas,” said the mouse, “the whole world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running, and I was glad when I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I must run into.”

“You only need to change your direction,” said the cat, and ate it up.

– Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka (shown here circa 1905) is considered one of the 20th century's most influential writers. Before his death in 1924, he had published only short stories and a single novella, The Metamorphosis.

Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)

Another turning point, a fork stuck in the road. Time grabs you by the wrist, directs you where to go. So make the best of this test and don’t ask why. It’s not a question but a lesson learned in time.

It’s something unpredictable but in the end is right. I hope you had the time of your life.

So take the photographs and still frames in your mind. Hang it on a shelf in good health and good time. Tattoos of memories and dead skin on trial. For what it’s worth, it was worth all the while.

It’s something unpredictable but in the end is right. I hope you had the time of your life.

It’s something unpredictable but in the end is right. I hope you had the time of your life.

It’s something unpredictable but in the end is right.

I hope you had the time of your life.

– Billie Joe Armstrong