Sunday, November 12, 2006

Susan Sontag on Melancholy

Susan Sontag's essay on German critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin, titled Under the Sign of Saturn, is really worth reading, even if you, like me (at least before reading the essay), don't know what the word Trauerspiel really means. It's a beautiful analysis of Benjamin's complex melancholy and a fascinating character portrait. I love this line from the essay in particular:

Dissimulation, secretiveness appear a necessity to the melancholic. He has complex, often veiled relations with others. These feelings of superiority, of inadequacy, of baffled feeling, of not being able to get what one wants, or even name it properly (or consistently) to oneself--these can be, it is felt they ought to be, masked by friendliness, or the most scrupulous manipulation.

I loved that oxymoronic phrase, "scrupulous manipulation"!

Speaking of Benjamin, I really wanted to see this documentary Who Killed Walter Benjamin, which played in New York a few months back. It is about the mysterious circumstances in which Benjamin committed suicide while attempting to escape the Nazi occupied France. You can also watch a trailer on the official site linked above.

Wiki page of Benjamin here. I have tried reading his essays on Proust and Kafka, which are considered classics and one of the best on the subjects, but it was a little too deep for me. Even Sontag's essay is very technical. Lots of things to learn, I think!

19 comments:

bloggerhead said...

There always is--lots to learn i mean. But you seem to have immersed youself into this with singular devotion. That's what defines people for me.. passion, for something, anything. And also makes them superlatively attractive.

merlot said...

Dissimulation, secretiveness appear a necessity to the melancholic. He has complex, often veiled relations with others.

I wonder if it has anything to do with living at the time of the Nazi and being Jewish - you can't exactly be opened about your life.

I don't quite agree with Sontag's descriptions of melancholy, though. I think melancholy is more about being unable to express yourself the way you want to and the fear of being misinterpreted/understood and less of a secretive/dissimulation.

One question, as English is not my first language, why is 'scrupulous manipulation' an oxymoron?

Antonia said...

I had a long fight with Benjamin's Proust essay, a long fight and once wrote a paper on it, at first I was completely in love with benjamin's view then I started to disagree more and more....yet I still think that Benjamin's essay is the best that has been written in german language on Proust. The longer I think of it, Benjamin struggled a lot himself in coming to terms with Proust, one source of this struggle was Benjamin's political opinions, but there is another source pof Benjamin's struggle with Prouyst and that is more difficult to grasp, he has a bit of too pessimistic view on Proust and here is the melancholy again....and therefore does notdo justice to certain other aspects in Proust...I think Benjamin is better with the Kafka....

merlot,
one could define manipulation as per so anti- scrupulous...so that's why it can be an oxymoron....but what about a very careful manipulation, "staggerd by deception, charmed into submission, somthing like that...after all, merlot, I am not a native speaker either...;)

the Radetky thing I read tooologn ago, can't remember a lot of it, but the reading feeling, as I recall it, was ok...:)

Alok said...

bloggy: superlatively attractive? don't make me blush :))

books don't make me happy, I in fact avoid books which try to make me happy, but they do take me away from my personal sadness which is petty, boring and concerned with trifles. thats why I like reading...

merlot: actually sontag says the same thing. melancholy people notice far too many possibilities in every situation and are too self-concsious, that's where that fear comes from and which leads to secretiveness. she didn't mean to say that those people are like that in bad faith or they want to deceive people on purpose.

Also she claims in the essay that Benjamin was like that since his early childhood, even before he could have been aware of his jewish background and nazi politics. He claimed to have been born under the sign of saturn, the planet of "detours, delays and indecision" which he thought made him melancholy :)

scrupulous manipulation? hmmm. manipulation is something bad to do, but melancholy people are not manipulative on purpose... they are just too self-aware of their feelings and its fluctuations. Kierkegaard has a brilliant portrait of one such scrupulous manipulator in his "A Seducer's Diary." Actually it is a standard trait of a Byronic character, a staple of romantic fiction...

merlot said...

oh, okay...see there are lots to be learned everyday.

Although, Alok, the idea that melancholy people 'notice far too many possibilities in every situation...' seems like a strange concept. I would have associate those traits with optimistic people. Or is it that even though they notice many possibilities, they are not 'good' possibilities.

Alok said...

Wow, I have a Proust scholar as a reader :) It is my favourite daydream. Becoming world's number one Proust scholar one day. Hehe :)

more seriously, Reading Proust of course doesn't make one happy, indeed I had to abandon reading him in the middle of the third volume because I was feeling paralysed by despair. But after reading what Benjamin (and Beckett too) have to say about him, at least in so far as I could understand, I felt that perhaps I was not feeling sad enough :)

Haven't yet stated reading Joseph Roth. Will do soon.

Alok said...

Merlot: too many possibilities in the sense of too much self-awareness and too much self-consciousness. too much thinking and too little doing :)

merlot said...

Becoming world's number one Proust scholar one day. Hehe :)

Mine too. Maybe you have to be in a depressing mood like me when reading Proust - then his novels are really a comfort to one's soul ;)

Maybe I'm a Saturn - those descriptions sound like my personality.

jyothsnay said...

....
when the melancholy fit shall fall
sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,
that fosters the droop-headed flowers all,
and hides the green hill in an April shroud;
Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose...Keats

Veiled Melancholy, his true companion sprang from nowhere,
stood outside the gates of his home,pleased by his anxious existence,content with strife
on his face,a prolonged far away battle-field, carnival of conflicts between affection and hatred, stubborn hopes and delirious fears, faithful manipulation and imperious pride...

I attempted to read through the links..but shot rapidly off my head

jyothsnay said...

This is quite interesting ...Aristotle said melancholy men of all others are most witty...Alok, do comment!

Sadness or the state of experiencing grief, as we all know, is a pain one has to wither away with.From what I read, I understand that Melancholy is a state of mind where one enjoys the sadness, it's almost like watching the dark clouds gather in the skies with a silvery fence glittering across. There's a promise of the loam getting drenched by the skies,and there's an unruly possibility of gloominess as well tucked in somewhere. A state where an individual contemplates over sadness, connects self to what happened, what cant be restored and a sense of amusement over fragility of the condition he is currently in....relates back to the wit it up there!
that means melancholic individuals are the most formidable ones as they are capable of accepting & celebrating their imperfections...

Alok said...

merlot: welcome to the saturnine company... :)

I can't read Proust when I am depressed. I get even more depressed. :(

Jyothsna: wow, where did you read these things? or are these your own thoughts? I was trying to write a long post on history of melancholy, from Aristotle and Hippocrates to Freud and Kristeva... Will discuss their ideas on that post.

Human history is filled with all kinds of saturnine geniuses. i am sure i dont belong in that company, i have neither the wit nor the genius. there should be a list of saturnine losers somewhere too :)

Now if you will excuse me I will have to go back to work, after a long time i am feeling like doing something. I can't afford to waste time musing on melancholy.

and thanks for those lines by Keats!!

Antonia said...

hmmmmmmmmmnnn
double hmmmmnnn
Proust isnt so sad...beyond sadness rather.....

Alok said...

Proust isnt so sad...beyond sadness rather.....

I still have to reach that stage of Proustian stoicism. I am trying :)

jyothsnay said...

Alok and his audience

Happy Children's Day!

J

Antonia said...

proust is even more addictive than Bernhard,I can assure you :)

Alok said...

antonia: yes, i know. I had to force myself not to continue reading proust after spending almost two months reading him continuously. that was two years back. i have been reading mostly secondary works about him after that... am divided about taking him up now or postponing him for my middle age :)

jyothsna: thank you, but my blog has got an international audience. they wouldn't know what a children's day is!

jyothsnay said...

got that sir...

midget in the rustic & hilly terrain

anurag said...

Alok, so you have a fanclub now :)

Can I get online the essay on Kafka that you talk in the last para ?

Alok said...

i don't think there is an online version. i read it in an essay collection Illuminations by Walter Benjamin. Will see if i can copy it here.