A good friend got us an interesting and appreciated Christmas present, ‘A Field Guide to Melancholy‘ by Jacky Bowring which I have been reflecting on and reading the past few days.
At one point on New Years Day I found myself alone drinking tea and reading this book, looking at a big lonely Christmas tree in a hotel lobby thinking that everything fitted together very nicely. It looked sad, purposeless, days numbered yet also beautiful in the first gloomy day of 2014.
At another point in Sligo I found myself trying to draw the hotel and getting really down that it just didn’t look right, that the lines where wrong and my colouring pencils didn’t match the colours, that I can’t capture things properly when drawing while simultaneously enjoying the whole process.
And yesterday in Cookstown I was getting sad about how the once thriving Saturday market in my home town has all but disappeared now thanks to M&S, LIDL, Asda, Tesco,Argos, Homebase etc while also taking delight in the nostalgia of what it used to be like (or what I imagined it used to be like).
In fact the more I’ve thought about it the past few days, the more I realised that I’m maybe just a sad guy at heart and maybe that is OK. Not all the time, but maybe as a sort of default setting that is part of who I am. And perhaps 2014 is the year to accept that and even see the value in it instead of wondering ‘What is wrong with me?’ Maybe it’s just time to value the paradox of it all.
Although I found the book to be a bit dense sometimes I am grateful that someone has written a book casting sadness and melancholy as something that can be good, positive and even beautiful as it makes me feel like less of a freak.
So much of modern society seems to be about pursuing happiness or eradicating sadness which makes me feel out of place. It’s not that I don’t want to be happy more that I’m not so sure if I want to get rid of the dark, sad bits in me sometimes and that makes me wonder if I’m OK in the head as who wants sad, dark bits in them?.
There is one bit of the book that I keep thinking about:-
‘[However], psychiatric concerns cast the Field Guide’s advocacy of melancholy as a rich dimension of human existence into tricky territory, with global worries over the increase in mental illness – of an escalation of melancholy as madness. Writers such as Peter D Kramer are emphatic that depression as a medical illness should be eradicated, just as diseases like smallpox have been’
It’s something that I think about. Would I change my natural inclination towards melancholia if I could?
I don’t think I would.
One of the things that brings me joy in life is experimenting, creating and I although it also drives me crazy lots of the time I often feel at my most creative when I am down in the dumps, maybe even in some place beyond ‘down in the dumps’. As the book suggests perhaps that is the trade off.
It’s the paradox that although something might make me sad I can also feel extreme joy towards it.
I might feel alive and like I’m flourishing with creativity or appreciate the beauty in some sad work of art.
As the book suggest the lines seem blurry with many of these definitions, and I can only speak from my experience but I am not sure I would want the sad bits in me to be eradicated like smallpox as I am not sure how parts of me I enjoy and help me to love my neighbour wouldn’t also be eradicated in the process. Those bits seem linked.
There is a quote from Victor Hugo at the start of the book. Some part of me likes the idea of sombre joy.
‘Melancholy is a twilight state; suffering melts into it and becomes a sombre joy. Melancholy is the pleasure of being sad.