On melancholy

Happiness is not a writer’s friend. When looked at in a way that extends beyond the blinkers of one’s narrow and necessarily personalized day-to-day the world can seem a horrible place. What’s more, underneath all of the tragedies that greet us our human condition is one of servitude, in one way or another. And this inescapably so, be it to ideology, community, economics, social obligations, domestic concerns, even simple biology. In the midst of this our fundamental mode of being has become the pursuit of distraction; “I can deal with some psychic pain/If it’ll slow down my higher brain” as Elliott Smith once sang. We have learned, or been trained – however you wish to see it – to get out of our heads, to equip ourselves with full sets of answers prepackaged and ready for consumption, to journey through our time in as unthinking and as artificially high a way as possible. Put succinctly, we escape. Each and every day of our lives. Except for the writer.

The writer is not allowed this luxury for the writer is called upon to observe. The writer must stare down the reality that faces him or her in the place and position of her birth, from within the society out of which he pulled himself to turn back and stare at it. The writer must look into that awful gaping maw and withstand the stench of what rots within, internalize all of the pain and longing, and then somehow, in some unspoken manner, process it and reflect it back. The writer must remain raw. Towards this end I think that melancholy is the writer’s best friend.

What is remarkable about melancholy is that it is more of a mood than an emotion, it is the background colors to the painting whose detailed foreground demands our attention. Joy, grief, anger; they consume us, they leave us blinded to all else, they demand – and get – our full awareness for their entire duration. Melancholy does not do this. Melancholy rests beneath the surface and prods all of the more well-known, well-felt, emotions into being. Melancholy keeps the façade of our emotional lives alive with the ripples of the experienced; it is a constant reminder of the depths that lurk beneath, an open sore, an old injury that no amount of tending will ever really make go away. Melancholy keeps us emotionally sensitive to all the vicissitudes of life.

Why would we want this? Why would we wish to know all the pain that marks existence? Why would we seek to carry the hurt that, once born, exists in some way forever? And are we not the very purveyors of at least some of the entertainment that allows others their escape from “real life”? I have no answers to these questions that range beyond what I can say for myself. Each writer will have to struggle with them and, if writing is truly something they cannot but do, find some method of acceptance of the responses that come from within. These questions do, however, provide a challenge to us in our approach to this burden that we find on our shoulders: If writing, if the writing life, is an ineluctable part of who we are, then how shall we approach it? As the blind leading the blind, filling the world with pointless drivel? Or as fashioners of the mirror which frighteningly does not distort what it reflects? That is another question we can only answer for ourselves, but I know how the writers that have stayed with me would reply. It takes courage and nerve to really look at the world and say what needs to be said; melancholy is the cold comfort that results, and it is also the ally that allows us to continue.

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