by Laszlo Földényi
Dostoyevsky Reads Hegel in Siberia and Bursts Into Tears,
by Laszlo Földényi
By ALAN WALL.
SOL, IT’S SAID, never sees a shadow. But the offspring of melancholy, Saturn’s delinquent children, never see anything but shadows. They can only trace the lineaments of vagrant light. They live in a spiritual murk from which all their endeavours are needed to help get them out of bed in the morning. It can be equally difficult to get them back between the sheets at night. They stand askew to the world. Something about them is always gravely amiss, and they are sorely tempted by psychotropic substances.
Melancholy involves a paralysis of the spirit. A part of our vital life is frozen. The melancholic lives under a black sun. What causes this affliction is open to question. It came to be held that the malign influence of Saturn held sway. This was not a superstition that had entirely vanished by the twentieth century. Walter Benjamin believed he was a dark child of Saturnian shadows, but Freud reckoned the condition was brought about by a species of unconsummated mourning, which incorporated the dead object into the psyche, thus making our inner life a domicile of death. By leaving the mourning unfinished and incomplete, we entrap the raw grief within the psyche. The dead lie unburied inside us. There they cast a dark pall over everything we do. We carry death around inside us, like an unhealed wound. Or a virus, replicating. Melancholics are painfully aware that each and every one of them contains a graveyard. And even those without a physics degree understand that the light is ultimately quenched by darkness. That’s in this world, anyway.
But is the condition somatic or psychogenetic? Or is it all down to the position of the planets? The humoral system provided a somatic basis, in the form of an imbalance between the sanguinary, choleric, phlegmatic and melancholic qualities that made up the balance of our selves. Technically all this should have closed down for ever with Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood. The humoral system cannot be reconciled with that. But these are mere technicalities for the true believer. How many millions of horoscopes are published across the globe each morning?
In these two superb books, Laszlo Földényi analyses the modern world, and how we arrived here. In terms of intellectual genealogy, he reckons a category is missing from most of our summative accounts: melancholy. We have trivialized and medicalized this condition, whereas ages before us realized how foundational it needs to be. He is not foxed by the age. He believes he can see its shape. This is unusual. Mandelstam saw the shape of the age from inside the USSR: he believed it was a beast whose back had been broken. Földényi thinks that a world of robotics and globalisation does not represent an opening, but a closure. Reality arrives in two dimensions; it is delivered on a screen, so it is forever shallowing itself out into a summary. And summaries are not, and never can be, the body text.
There are more startling insights in these books than I could count. Here is one. If the world is controlled entirely by rationality, then we are all in hell. And that is where, if you follow his logic, Hegel wished to put us all, though he did not seem to realise the consequence of his own progressive globalism. Dostoyevsky did though. It was beyond the borders of rationality that he found possibilities of freedom, even during his exile and incarceration. He read Hegel in Siberia and found him wanting. Indeed, he wept, hence the title of one of these books. There is a certain amount of speculation going on here, but the author uses it to great effect. In one of his lectures Hegel says this: ‘We must first of all eliminate Siberia, the northern slope of Asia. For it lies outside the scope of our enquiry. The whole character of Siberia rules it out as a setting for historical culture and prevents it from attaining a distinct form in the world-historical process.’ Another way to put this would be Hegel actually saying: I have never been to Siberia, nor do I have any intention of ever going. I know nothing whatsoever about the place, and therefore it is disqualified from history.
There is a comic side to this, to be sure, but an awful lot of people were to be subsequently disqualified from history, and the manner of their disqualification was not a joke. And yet in a perverse way, Dostoyevsky agreed with Hegel. Siberia was outside history, it was a margin or a parenthesis. And so, set apart from all the grand historical currents, this non-place permitted the discovery of the soul, which modern society obfuscates, indeed buries, like treasure secreted on an unnamed island. Kierkegaard also objected to the vast progressive programme of Hegel’s philosophy. It was, he believed, ultimately spurious. If Hegel wrote off Siberia as a vacancy of history (as he also did Africa), where exactly did that leave the poor souls tramping across it in the snow? Both the Russian and the Dane were all for the exiled souls, and against Hegel. Both were intransigent, solitary, and prone to melancholy.
Let us return for a moment to Freud’s modern attempt at the recapitulation of the burden of melancholy. Another way of putting Freud’s perceptions is to say that melancholy, unlike mourning, is intransitive, it neither has nor needs a specific object – or rather, it has already lost one. The umbrella hoists itself above the whole of the mind. The world darkens and grows drier. In the humoral system, melancholy is cold and dry. If you put a melancholic alone in a room, he gazes. This gaze does not require any specific object, but will lock on any that are there. The melancholic is like the opium-addict in this: they can both stare all night at a candlestick. Walter Benjamin called it ‘the mystic gaze’. It operates within the paralysis of history, for the melancholic’s paralysis of spirit translates itself externally. All in the hinterland of the gaze is petrified. That is why the melancholic renders the world emblematic. Emblems are effigies, stiff and lifeless, dislocated from organic life. Their natural home is inside the allegory.
PERHAPS THE MOST famous of all melancholic images is Dűrer’s Melencolia. There the tragic female figure gazes listlessly on the whole world; she has been bequeathed all the gifts of the liberal arts, and is doing nothing with any of them. She is wreathed with watercress and ranunculus, their wateriness designed to offset the parched quality of the melancholic’s life. This image was (along with Klee’s Angelus Novus) central to Walter Benjamin’s life. Benjamin was perhaps the most exemplary melancholic of the twentieth century.
All melancholics are children, however illegitimate, of Saturn, the planet of detours and delays, again according to Benjamin. A certain worldly clumsiness is a characteristic of the melancholic. This is matched by an unparalleled swiftness in the intellectual realm. This would apply to Dűrer’s engravings, or Benjamin’s prose. The Saturnian shadows lead us out of the light. Eyes dilate. Things invisible to those whose eyes are attuned perennially to the sunshine are revealed. Dűrer hints at this. Tolerance is a species of formalism. We assess how much ‘play’ there is in any situation, and exploit it. Knowledge of the form, and a brave exploration of its dimensions, allows for the maximum of spiritual motion. A bat hovers about in Melencolia. And bats aren’t at their best at noon. Their receptivity is attuned to the darkness.
Földényi has a number of dates and people who represent markers to try to grasp the scope of melancholy, its seemingly infinite intellectual fecundity; all that we have excluded in our modern wisdom. One is the writings and suicide of Heinrich von Kleist on the banks of the Kleiner Wannsee near Berlin on November 21, 1811, together with Henrietta Vogel. These suicides were a statement, in stereo, of the defiance of life’s expectations. His late letters reveal how welcome Von Kleist found this terminus. Then there is Dostoyevsky’s testimony in Siberia. He will not be crushed by the monstrous logic of the grand philosophers. And there is Antonin Artaud, and his lecture ‘Theatre and the Plague’, delivered in 1933 at the Sorbonne. Here any tidy barriers of discourse collapsed, and Artaud by the end was no longer the lecturer; he was instead the subject, gibbering in distress. He had become what he proclaimed, plagued by his own obsessiveness.
Walter Benjamin comes and goes, but he is at one with Földényi in insisting on the unfathomable richness of the melancholic disposition, something largely dismissed by modern thought. Benjamin insists that his own melancholy is not a mere affliction impeding the work; it is a form of damage but a form of vivid perception too. The melancholic lives in a state of mourning for a world of lost objects, none of which can ever be restored. There is a compensation mechanism for this: the melancholic has a tendency to view history at a standstill; his penetrating gaze freezes the scene before him, translating all that motion into a pageant or a phantasmagoria. Here we find Benjamin’s characteristic mode of seeing: dialectics at a standstill. Objects that have survived the catastrophe that translates the past into the present are greatly valued. Bibliophilia is a melancholic trait. In Benjamin’s case so was collecting postcards and toys. They were all fragments he had shored against his ruin. And they were all dispersed in that human form of entropy known as exile. At the end of his life all that was left was ruin. Ruin with a swastika tattoo.
So, the sources agree that melancholy is a great affliction; only some insist that it is also a route to revelation. The melancholic gaze can turn easily into a melancholic glaze. This paralysis of spirit leads to remarkable feats of intellectual observation. It can also lead to hideous stasis. Benjamin reckoned one great solace the melancholic had was allegory. Allegory transposes the vital organic figures into a tableau, in which meaning dictates characteristics and movement. Once more we are seeing dialectics at a standstill.
Freud, we remember, self-injected a dose of death. The beloved dead object is incorporated into the psyche, becoming a whole world, and this self-injection of a lethal dose produces self-loathing and a crushing of the soul. Christianity found it easy enough to discover in melancholia the work of the devil. The problem was known as accidie or acedia. The melancholic was in effect disengaged from everything, even God. An open invitation then for the Father of Darkness to move in and take possession of the dwelling-place. As Martin Luther put it: ‘Ubi est caput melancholicum, ibi habet Diabolus suum balneum.’ With a head full of melancholy, you’ll soon be sharing your shower with the Prince of Maledictions and Malignity. And then you’ll never wash the sadness away.
For once Kierkegaard almost agreed. Tungsind was his feeling of separation from the Almighty. It is interesting how the different nations’ words indicate non-identical identities. The Goncourt Brothers reckoned there was a particularly French form of melancholy, which could be both sweet and ironic. And Victor Hugo was explicit: ‘Melancholy is the enjoyment of being sad.’ J. B. Priestley asked what sort of music he liked, replied: ‘I’m a fat man and I like to be melancholy. I lie back on the sofa and listen to Elgar’s Cello Concerto.’ Ben Jonson in Every Man in his Humour has Stephen hunting around for a stool to be melancholy upon; he is gagging for a serious bout of deep pondering. He has become fashionably avid for melancholia. It will probably make him vastly more attractive to women.
And then we have Hamlet and his affliction. The affliction precedes the play. It converts from the intransitive to the transitive when he discovers that his father was murdered by his uncle, who then promptly married his mum. Yet he still broods about how melancholy might have prompted his visions, rather than a bona fide revenant, come back from Purgatory to snitch on his lethal brother. The visions of the melancholic should not be entirely trusted. He’s altogether too sad.
Can anyone ever get to the bottom of all this? Democritus was found dissecting small animals, to try to locate the origin of melancholia. Baudelaire walked the streets of Paris each night and saw all around him an allegory, of which he was the melancholic observer. Burton wrote a massive treatise, examining the theories and symptoms at exhaustive length. Some of it still holds: anesthesia dolorosa, the dulled sense of meaninglessness that afflicts the melancholic. As valid now as it was then.
Földényi sees that Benjamin was an exemplary modern melancholic. He looked into things with the perceptions of the condition. For example, he was entranced by the immense melancholy of Surrealist art, filled with allegorical emblems that have lost their referents. Staring at one of these paintings is like looking backwards into time, seeing a world startled at the sight of itself. All the creatures in Surrealist art seem to say, silently: noli me tangere. Their untouchability is an aspect of their infinite regret. Sic transit could be inscribed on each of their brows. In Surrealism objects are thrown out of kilter, generating that disorder so feared by melancholics. We see it in Dűrer: all the instruments for creating and measuring order are disordered. Dűrer’s engraving also shares a characteristic of Surrealism: a transcendent vision of creatures transfixed in time. We see this clearly in the paintings of Paul Delvaux. The gaze of women in his paintings always exceeds any possible object. Surrealism turns the past into a museum, then spills the contents out on to the streets. Any taxonomy is forsaken. The melancholic is always bringing up the rear of his possibilities. His intellectual home is that defenestrated museum.
There are moments in Shakespeare which exhibit this same frisson; the same potent sense that the past is inescapable and irrecoverable. When Falstaff broods upon how he and his disreputable companions have truly heard the chimes at midnight. Or when Macbeth sees his life like an illuminated tableau projected before him, how his life is ‘fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf’.
Photography can share this quality too. Benjamin noted the profound melancholy of Atget’s photographs of Paris, which he said had the forensic quality of the recorded scene of a crime. And that scrupulous exactitude might partly explain why melancholics are often seen as prophets: it is not that they ‘see into the future’ but how they see, engraved in the physiognomy of the present, what is being prepared for delivery in the womb of time.
The melancholic is never actually here, but always broodingly elsewhere, usually in the past. And death is what lurks in the bushes, ready to jump us. But if you yourself should become the impresario of death (as Kleist did), then you turn the tables on archetypal experience — you incorporate your death into your life. Kleist’s suicide asserts the meaningfulness of death, instead of a depersonalized inevitability. But it does mean we get no more of Kleist’s wonderful stories.
These two books are brilliant critiques of how modern medicine has pushed melancholia out of its once-central position in understanding the human psyche, while asserting the curability of everyone and everything, insisting that none of us need be thus and thus in perpetuity. Given the melancholic’s dread in the face of the future, it is hardly surprising that he tends towards an obsession with the past. The melancholic’s only true home on earth is in the preterite, mortified. All his landscapes, real or fictional, are filled with Lacrimae rerum. The tears of things.
Alan Wall was born in Bradford, studied English at Oxford, and now lives in North Wales. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor Placebo. Jacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester. He is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. His book Endtimes was published by Shearsman Books in 2013, and Badmouth, a novel, was published by Harbour Books in 2014. A collection of his essays has now been issued by Odd Volumes, The Fortnightly Review’s publishing imprint. A second collection, this time of his Fortnightly reflections on Walter Benjamin, followed. An archive of Alan Wall’s Fortnightly work is here and a new collection of essays is forthcoming from Odd Volumes.