Wandering through the halls of the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh some years ago, I came upon a little-known work by Lucas Cranach the Elder, a 16th century German painter. Was it the title of the painting that captivated me – An Allegory of Melancholy – or the painting itself, so modern, almost surreal, in its juxtaposition of strangely discordant elements?
Let me start by explaining that I like the word melancholy, even though its Greek etymology is black bile, hardly an attractive notion. One of the four humors: I cannot see myself as choleric, or sanguine, or phlegmatic, so I’ve always opted for the melancholic side of things. Melancholy has a bad rap, especially in these days of enforced cheerfulness and tooth whitener smiles. The word melancholy is onomatopoeic to me, something about its consonants and rhythm suggestive of languor, gentle sadness, nostalgia. Sitting alone on a veranda watching the sun go down, missing some one, but gently.
The other day in my Russian lesson in the middle of a poem we came upon the word toska, which is basically one of those untranslatable words with a wealth of emotional associations. What does it mean, asked my teacher (that’s her job), and I came up with a number of synonyms: sadness, unhappiness, melancholy, even though we both knew it wasn’t quite any of that. It’s more a kind of mournful yearning, nostalgia, homesickness, self-absorbed longing, words I don’t know in Russian. And any Russians reading this will tell me it’s not quite that either. My teacher, who is something of a good-natured, bawdy cynic, scoffed and said, Nowadays they call it depressia. I nodded and agreed: take the smile off your face and you’re depressed. Stuff poetry and untranslatable Russian words, and toss nuance out the window.
Dear reader: don’t buy it. If you think you’re feeling depressed, you may simply be going through a bout of old-fashioned melancholy. Enjoy it: you’re in good company. Eastern Europe and the Balkans are famed for it, but that’s no reason to disdain a perfectly good mood, and there is plenty of music out there if you don’t happen to know any Slavic languages. I recall seeing a biographical film about the great Polish pianist Arthur Rubinstein where, when asked about Chopin, he said something to the effect that there was great pleasure to be had in the sadness of Chopin’s music. I was extremely susceptible and romantic in those days, and it seemed as if I had been granted permission to be as sad as I liked: if it was okay for Chopin, that Great Romantic Hero, it was okay for me. Followed thereafter a period of listening to other equally melancholy or gloomy music: the artist whose moods most marked that particular era was Leonard Cohen. The mere tone of his voice was enough to get you on a high of melancholy. If that seems like an oxymoron, it is; but times were different. I’ve noticed even Cohen is sounding more cheerful these days, or trying to, anyway, despite having been royally ripped off by his manager and having every right to be full of black bile.
Why are we no longer allowed to enjoy sadness? Why can’t we be negative, or complain, or put the back of our hand to our forehead and lean to the side as the silent era heroines once did? A friend of mine, whose doctoral dissertation was on the culture of cheerfulness, relates the enforced emotions of cheerfulness to marketing and capitalism it’s the Hi How Are You Doing Today Smiley Face syndrome you get at The Gap, at Starbuck’s. Corporate emotion control. No one wants to buy coffee from one of those grouchy waitresses you still encounter on occasion in France or places where they haven’t had customer satisfaction training sessions it will come, alas. Smiles help sales. Gloomy employees are viewed as unreliable and moody they might call in sick, that’s not productive. When I was first hired by the French government, apparently my boss confided to his intern that I was right for the job but: elle ne sourit pas beaucoup. (She doesn’t smile a lot). The intern passed it on when we became friends; you would think not smiling would be an asset in France but this was for the now-defunct tourist office in San Francisco, to sell the Disneyland version of France to Americans.
The distaste for melancholy seems to have spread to the arts: filmmakers and writers who specialize in mist and rain are chastised for being depressing. Last night I watched a film by Greek filmmaker Theo Angelopoulos; not distributed in this country outside of New York or film festivals, it is fortunately available on DVD. Witness this explanatory warning from the NY Times review:
But for those willing to enter into its grave, melancholic rhythms, “The Weeping Meadow” is a beautiful and devastating meditation on war, history and loss. (Dana Stevens)
You have to be willing to take the risk, to engage with gravity and melancholy. Or take this Guardian UK review (less prone to cheerfulness, the Brits are nevertheless following the commercial tastes of the US): “a painful lack of humour, a bleak pessimistic vision and an obsession with mud and water here are great images, most memorably Spyros’s funeral raft followed by a flotilla of boats full of people carrying black banners, which, of course, takes place in the ever-present mist and rain. There are also romantically depressing tableaux on the beach.” Clearly this reviewer (Philip French) didn’t hear Arthur Rubinstein on the pleasure of melancholy. For me, this film is a masterpiece but I have my predispositions.
Am I a depressed romantic? I don’t think so. Depression is a real illness, that needs treatment. It is mentally, morally debilitating; life does become bleak and pointless. Something no Angelopoulos film would have the poetry to describe.
Which leads me back to the woman in the Allegory. She is not smiling, but she doesn’t look what we would call depressed: reflective, rather. She’s had half a glass of wine; she’s waiting for something, or someone. She is tired of her babies and children, and is leaving them happily to be devoured by the pet Rottweiler (or are they devouring the dog, hard to tell); she is dreaming of other landscapes, another life. Or perhaps the landscapes in the background are where her demons reside, bringing on her dark moods with the help of a glass of wine.
On my last day in Edinburgh I went back to the National Gallery to say goodbye to Cranach’s melancholy lady. A velvet rope blocked access to the upper galleries. A kindly older gentleman in plaid trousers said: Sorry, lass, we’re short-staffed today and we’ve had to close that gallery. Which painting was it you wanted to see? The Botticelli? No, the Cranach Allegory of Melancholy. He didn’t know the one but he winked and waved to me and said quietly, Come on, then, it’s quiet enough today, I can take you up there for a quick last look.
Yes, these days most people head for the Botticellis. Lovely, safe, predictable. Classic beauty. But I wonder how much quiet pleasure they are also missing, just around the corner, as they hurry to join the crowds jostling cheerfully for a glimpse of the Virgin adoring the Sleeping Christ Child.