Monday, June 15, 2015

Philosophical Melancholia

Albrecht Dürer, Melancholia I, via Wikimedia Commons

Though I am, overall, a much happier person than I was when I was young, as an adult I've experienced a a lot of what I like to think of as melancholia. By melancholia I mean some mix of sadness, low life force, discouragement, and a feeling of "Oh, whatever, what's the point."

I suppose my melancholia bears some relationship the modern problem we think of as depression, but I don't think they are the same thing. I don't have any of the typical symptoms always mentioned in connection with depression. I have an excellent appetite; I sleep well and exercise a lot; I get things done and with most things I'm not even really a procrastinator. If I go through an internet depression quiz/checklist, it might say that if you check six out eight boxes checked that's a warning sign -- but I'll have only checked one box: the one that says "I feel sad, like life has no point."

To me, nothing captures this feeling better than Albrecht Dürer's 1514 engraving, "Melencolia I," at the top of this post.

Because my rise in melancholic feelings seems to correlate with the time I've spent studying philosophy, I've often wondered if there is something about philosophical thinking -- or about a certain kind of thinking, more broadly -- that encourages melancholia.

And I think in my own case, anyway, the answer is yes. In fact, I think there are direct causal connections between my thinking philosophically and my feeling melancholic. I'm sure the mechanisms are complex, but here are a few thoughts.

One difficulty, for me at least, seems to be the effect of constantly forcing myself to take a perspective from which I am at best just one person among others and at worst a speck in the universe. I don't mean the kind of destabilization you get looking at the stars or something -- it's not, I think, the mere fact of being unspecial relative to everything else, it's more the shift in perspective of caring, of thinking about what matters or what is important.

For example, like most people, I'd expect, I have the experience that from within my life, the little things that make up my little world assume huge significance and importance to me. Relationships, intellectual projects, of course -- but even things like how should I wear my hair, whether to see a movie, whether to cook or go out to eat, whether I should try harder to learn French -- absorb my mind, fill it up, tie me to life.

But even one minute of a certain kind of reflection shows my concerns to be of virtually no importance whatsoever in the grand scheme of things.

Sometimes, they seem worse than insignificant: there are horrible things going on in the world, injustice and suffering, and you're seriously thinking about hairstyles, movies, and treats?

Other times, they seem like mere moves in a massive social scheme that has little to do with me or what I might "choose" or not choose to do. Probably you've all had this experience: you take one step back from concepts like "hairstyle," "movie" and even "food" -- and you find yourself in a dizzying array of considerations about sexism and beauty norms and Hollywood and glamorization and animal rights and environmentalism and so on and so forth etc. etc. etc.

These are all fine and important thoughts to have. My problem is that in doing philosophy, I form the habits of mind that make that dizzying array not so much a place I visit occasionally to understand the world, but more like my inner mental home. And as an inner mental home, it's horrible. At least for me, it's a profoundly alienating and cold place to spend a lot of time -- like trying to live on the Moon and breathe oxygen through a straw.

Then, too, there's a sense in which philosophical reflection itself often seems to take the form of "what is the point." How ought we to live? Why do this or that? Well -- doesn't this often come to down, "Ultimately, what is the point?"

In some contexts I think this is an OK question to ask. But the problem is that it's a question that, if you're not careful, will spread like kudzu through your days and nights, leaving you staring blankly at the ceiling, trapped in a singularity of philosophical interrogation, until, if you're lucky, you're rescued by friends, or hunger, or some everyday obligation like doing the laundry that just can't be put off any longer.

None of this is to say philosophical thinking isn't necessary, important, and good, because I absolutely think it is. It's just that too much of it might make a person sad, as I think it does me.

If you, too, have the symptoms of philosophical melancholia -- which can, of course, strike anyone at any time -- my advice is: though it might seem tempting, do not try to think yourself out of it.

Just put down the thoughts and walk away.


F said...

Wow. Very well said!
Have you seen the movie Melancholia?

Janet Vickers said...

Perhaps I generalize too much but it seems to me that melancholia is natural for people who are sensitive and intelligent given the news we listen to. Also I think of depression as being more debilitating where you can't seem to do anything and you haven't noticed the hours slipping by.

Patricia Marino said...

Hi F -- no, I didn't know about that movie! I will check it out for sure.

And Janet -- I am sure you're right. I do find some kinds of thinking make my feelings worse and some kinds of not-thinking make it better though. Thank you for all your thoughts and comments!

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