On the Joys of Melancholy
"Flow, my tears, fall from your springs!
Exiled for ever, let me mourn;
Where night's black bird her sad infamy sings,
There let me live forlorn."
Lachrimae Pavane, John Dowland
The exquisite joys of melancholy are a perennial source of inspiration for poets. The remarkable study by Ethan Watters "Crazy Like Us", (Free Press, 2010) includes the account of how, up to about 2005, Japanese society had no notion of depression. What we call the depressive or melancholy type, was considered to be a superior type of person, very reflective and thoughtful, well disciplined and, in his or own way, wise.
It was the pharmaceutical company, Glaxo Smith Kline , that set itself the goal of turning this perception around. It mounted a huge advertising campaign to convince the Japanese population that it suffered from a serious disease, labeled "depression" and that only their poison "Paxil" could relieve it. By the year 2009, the sales of Paxil in Japan passed the billion dollar mark.
Yet, historically, many European and American poets have agreed with the Japanese:
"But hail thou Goddess, sage and holy
Hail divinest Melancholy
Whose saintly visage is too bright
To hit the sense of human sight"
– Il Penseroso
"Veiled Melancholy has her sov’reign shrine
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine."
-Ode on Melancholy
Percy Bysshe Shelley:
"Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is
What if my leaves are falling like its own
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies
Will take from both as deeper autumnal tone
Sweet though in sadness"
-Ode to the West Wind
And the inevitable Shakespeare:
"Sweet are the uses of adversity"
-As You Like It
There can be no denying that one can find great pleasure in attuning one’s soul to "the still, soft music of humanity".
It sets me to wondering: maybe that’s why I go, so often, so far out of my way to court disappointment. Just so I can sit back and enjoy it…