An Etymology of Melancholy: Durer, Hugo, Sontag

melancholy (n.) Look up melancholy at Dictionary.comc.1300, “condition characterized by sullenness, gloom, irritability,” from Old French melancolie “black bile, ill disposition, anger, annoyance” (13c.), from Late Latin melancholia, from Greek melankholia “sadness,” literally (excess of) “black bile,” from melas(genitive melanos) “black” (see melanin) + khole “bile” (see Chloe). Medieval physiology attributed depression to excess of “black bile,” a secretion of the spleen and one of the body’s four “humors.”

I can’t say I’ve noticed any pronounced overproduction of black bile (unless that’s what gives you acid reflux) but I have found myself, most curiously, suffering a rather acute post-sabbatical funk best defined by ‘melancholy.’  By which I mean not sadness exactly, not hopelessness nor loss of interest, but an underlying sort of pewter-gray hue to days spent trying to reconnect with my job.  I sift through emails and find myself NOT bristling at bureaucracy, nor particularly fraught about schedules, modules, the latest teaching technology or the intricacies of departmental border wars –

Might I be (gasp?) content? Is contentment silver-hued and amorphous – a cloud of cotton batting, blocking out the world? Victor Hugo evidently wrote that ‘melancholy is the happiness of being sad’, which might mean it is the inevitable and ineffable by-product of some accomplishment, the completion of which leaves one sadly happy – or happily sad – passing through from one state to another. Melancholia is not sadness but stasis, a kind of ebb – like Durer’s angel in the famous print – not falling – fallen, but still possessed of wings.

As Susan Sontag wrote, “Depression is melancholy minus its charms.”  

Or, to invert Stevie Smith,  Not drowning, but waving’ –

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About hickson1

Art historian, professor, Italian Renaissance and Baroque specialist
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