Thursday, December 07, 2006

Melancholy

Besides my other numerous circle of acquaintances I have one more intimate confidant—my melancholy. In the midst of my joy, in the midst of my work, she waves to me, calls me to one side, even though physically I stay put. My melancholy is the most faithful mistress I have known, what wonder, then, that I love her in return.
—Søren Kierkegaard (from Either/Or)


(Can't find Thomas Hardy poem saying almost exactly the same thing. Don't remember the words either.)

Anyway, two interesting links. First on the melancholy of Joseph Roth (specially in the context of his novel The Radetzky March). It is quite interesting. My reactions were very similar after I finished the book. The article has some thoughts on Benjamin and Kant too, the later of which I didn't really understand.

Another article on Melancholy and Aesthetic Theory. It looks like an academic article but is easy to read and quite informative.

More Kierkegaard quotes from the same chapter that the earlier quote comes from here. You will have a laugh at this one I am sure (and I love that last line):

Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy—to be a man who is brisk about his food and his work. Therefore, whenever I see a fly settling, in the decisive moment, on the nose of such a person of affairs; or if he is spattered with mud from a carriage which drives past him in still greater haste; or the drawbridge opens up before him; or a tile falls down and knocks him dead, then I laugh heartily. And who, indeed, could help laughing? What, I wonder, do these busy folks get done? Are they not to be classed with the woman who in her confusion about the house being on fire carried out the firetongs? What things of greater account, do you suppose, will they rescue from life's great conflagration?


Update: Antonia points me to an interesting scholarly book on the subject called Saturn And Melancholy. I don't think there is an English translation, at least Amazon doesn't list one. I found a long and detailed piece in the TLS though which discusses the book (among other things). Amazon also informs me that I must have seen its reference not in the Understanding W.G. Sebald book but in The Noonday Demon. I also like its cover (whose painting is this I don't know)...

20 comments:

merlot said...

Thanks, Alok. It's great to know that I'm not alone regarding melancholy feeling.

One question: Since I'm a novice at literature - do you find that German literature are more mellow tone than other countries?

Cheshire Cat said...

I like the distinction between melancholy and depressiveness in the article. Example: Walser is melancholic, Beckett is depressive.

I find busyness more fascinating than laziness. It is mysterious, as Kierkegaard suggests, but does this not make it more interesting? What is unaccountable needs to be accounted for; if it remains unaccountable, there must be something fundamental about it, something holy...

Antonia said...

i was wondering alok, do you knwo thisstudy of the Warburg people, Panofsky/Klibansky and Saxl on Melancholy?

Alok said...

merlot: :) Its an illustrious company, don't worry!

reg german literature actually I feel totally opposite. german writers use fiction and storytelling not as an end but rather as a means to ask difficult, complex and uncomfortable questions. they are not content with capturing a slice of life or giving some lessons about how to live life in a happy or meaningful manner. same is true for the russians too i think, most typically Dostoevsky.

cat: so you have read Robert Walser! I have been looking for his books ever since I read Susan Sontag's essay on him (she is a big fan.)

I liked that distinction too in the article and I agree with it. Rather than struggling to be happy, I think it is better to put sadness to more productive and meaningful use.

reg busyness, I think what Kierkegaard finds funny is how unaware people are in their busyness. unaware of the vast conflagration that is life :)

antonia: no, I am not familiar with this work at all. Now that you mention it, I think I remember their name being mentioned in one of the footnotes of Understanding W. G Sebald. I think they did some work on medieval ideas about astronomy and melancholy. I am not familiar with them. I don't think I can find it in my library either.

jyothsnay said...

Alok...
I paused at Hardy...
his collection of poems gathered under an odd title - Time’s Laughingstocks
most poems are drenched with hues of melancholy....

....Sweet cyder is a great thing,
A great thing to me,
Spinning down to Weymouth town
By Ridgeway thirstily,
And maid and mistress summoning
Who tend the hostelry:
O cyder is a great thing,
A great thing to me!..

ah Melancholy...have written such a wonderful string on ur blog sometime ago..need to hunt for that

For you the night stays awake,
to deliver notes
on your front porch in the morning!
the emotion is not woven in the words, but is felt!

Antonia said...

here are some links, am sure you'll love crazy warburg...
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warburg_Institute
http://warburg.sas.ac.uk/
this melancholybook is an all encompassing one, covers a lot of disciplines and how they reactd towards melancholy, if reacting is the right word...I like this interdisciplinary approach..

Alok said...

antonia: thanks! I found this great review in the times literary supplement which discusses the book. havent read it yet, will read it later. I like reading interdisciplinary books too and it is one topic which lends itself very easily to interdisciplinary thinking and study.

jyothsna: Now I don't think the poem that I was thinking of is by Hardy at all. The poet says something like Sadness is the only loyal friend he has, because he waves her goodbye everytime and everytime she comes back to him. It is actually funny in a way, I don't think Hardy could have wrote it. Don't remember where i read it either.

Antonia said...

oh I see you put it in your post...thanks for always taking upmylinks...you know this warburgthing is truly unique and I wonder why not more of such things exists....Austerlitz reminds me a lot of this warburg principle. Sureley Sebald must have known them.

Alok said...

I should be thanking you :) I always learn a lot of new things from your comments.

Cheshire Cat said...

There's Musil's famous description of Kafka as a "special case of the Walser type". Of course that does justice neither to Kafka nor to Walser.

Alok said...

yeah, susan sontag mentions this in her essay too, as a way of indicating how famous he was once. it is ironical, in just a few decades we now have an academic industry around kafka and walser's books are out of print.

Antonia said...

i cant imagine that kafka out of print, walser yes, but they need kafka to blind the intellectuals, kafka actually tells them such a claustrophic reality (desribed by Kafka, provided by the politicians) is what life is all about and that is the ugly tendency of politics as well. Only the intellectuals feel Kafka is so awesomly subversive. Only just the other side of the medal. What the politicians can't manage, fool the intellectuals, is what they do themselves in immersing themselves in Kafka's depressive worldview and everything is finished, the intellectuals knocked themselves out. You can't get it any easier, can you?
gosh am I cynical today.....
but Walser out of print, I hope you mean Robert, this would be a real shame.

Antonia said...

oh I misunderstood....I read kafka and Walser out of print.
but the academic industry around kafka is already existing since ages, no?

Alok said...

I mentioned that because Cat had pointed out the comment by Musil when he called Kafka "a special case of Walser type" not the other way round.

Yeah, the kafka industry started just after the second world war and the holocaust. And if we are being cynical here, we might even add that the kafka industry owes its existence to Kafka's Jewishness and the jewish influence that is there in the american academia specially...

but he was a great writer, more than a that, a visionary and a prophet, a symbol and a reminder of the horrors of twentieth century. I think he deserves all the attention he gets from intellectuals.

one of walser's books jakob von guten was brought out by the new york review of books publishers which specializes in out of print books. but i don't see it in either the nearby bookstore or the library.

Antonia said...

yes you are right, maybe I overreacted a bit...it is just I hate all this 'academic industry' and how they occupy (-themselves with - pun intended) certain authors. Yes Kafka was great, but others were too and if it continues like this you end up with a canon of 4 writers or so. Kafka has enough attention. Walser has not even attention in his own country (Swiss). It is a shame, what you tell about this Jacob van Gunten book, that it is nowehere to be found, it is one of his major works. And Walser wrote so much nice great stuff. I think his collected works mounts up to 20 volumes in a nice green and recently (ok some years ago) more stuff has been published.....and here we are again, so many nice books :)

Cheshire Cat said...

I don't really think Walser is that difficult to find - most of his translated work is available at Amazon. Walser is a determinedly marginal writer - he seems to have coveted peripherality much as Blanchot coveted anonymity or Kafka coveted failure. The problem is not specific to Walser, it has to do with the general negative attitude in America towards literature in translation. Maybe Antonia was referring to the situation in German-language studies, that I don't know about.

Also I have to disagree with Antonia about Kafka, he's a special case (even if not of the Walser kind). The purity of his writing marks him out even among writers of the highest rank. Even Walser and Bernhard, great as they are, cannot compare with Kafka - their writing lacks a sense of the sacred.

Antonia said...

haha yes let's have a playful argument on Kafka....:) yes of course he stands out compared to such writers as Walser or Bernhard, but not to such ones as Proust, Musil, Virginia Woolf, not at all.

Cheshire Cat said...

Kafka is my weak spot. I'm so easily provoked by any criticism of him... Works every time.

If it's going to be a playful argument, I propose ranking Lewis Carroll, Raymond Queneau and Ludwig Harig over Proust, Musil and Woolf :)

Alok said...

hmm, how about putting all of them together in the "writers of the highest rank" group :)

(had to google for ludwig harig though) ;)

Antonia said...

agree with alok :)
I know, easy defeat :)