Wednesday, June 6, 2012

depression or melancholy

"I'm depressed." "I suffer from depression." "I'm taking antidepressants."


I'll let the dictionary do whatever it is that it does to define that malady. It was probably written by folks who are not in a paralysis of soul and being anyway. What do they know? And what do psychotherapists know? I just don't know. And I don't really care.

I'll wing it, as always.

I'm gonna say that depression is something like a break with normality. An inner situation has altered. Things are now peculiar. Now things are different, feel odd, whereas before they were just freaking dandy. Perhaps a certain enzyme has been secreted from the big toe and made it all the way to the brain, where it's now set up its dark work, alchemic shenanigans, mental fritzing.

So now that "I am depressed," it's time for some medications. To get a person back on the path of how it was before. And a little dubious talking therapy so the will can somehow complement the action of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Whatever.

And then there is melancholy. This is a special condition, and I don't think it has very much to do with depression. Melancholy is an early and permanent orientation. It might even be a form of hyper-consciousness. A melancholic child will grow up to be a melancholic old guy. Outbreaks of joy are ruptures in this particular "normality" -- dubious durations when the world has gone berserk with an uncalled-for sense of well-being, or even mild giddiness. Maybe there are medications available to ward off such anomalous seizures of positive feeling?

A melancholy as opposed to a depressed person is a latent ecstatic being. And in my personal dictionary, "the ecstatic" is far removed from the positive or giddiness or joy. It is a geysering potential for lostness to go exponential, to erupt with the hot black lava of numinous seeking numinous. Life as an echoing perplexity and high-pitched sounding beneath the oblique curve of Death.

A merely depressed person wants to get back to the ground floor of everydayness.

Antidepressants are ineffectual and rather annoying for the melancholic. Instead, he would prefer peyote or much red wine. When the doctor occasionally prescribes a nice pain killer for some illness or injury, he doesn't take the meds then. He hoardes them for later, when the illness or injury has passed. So he can take those pain pills for a temporary approach toward the transcendent. Depression is about getting back to normality. Melancholy is about staring out toward the Great Horizon.

You will, I suggest, look ineffectually for a melancholy being among certain professionals -- engineers, politicians, surgeons, stock brokers. They have too much vested interest in normality, or in staking out various claims on time and circumstance. They are inside the matrix, man, and the view is just fine.

You will, I propose, look successfully for a melancholy being in the bohemian milieu. Artists, composers, poets. Other assorted riff-raff glowing with an inner sad light. For them, time and circumstance are huge mysteries. Identity is in flux: "What the hell am I, anyway?" They tend to feel things quite deeply. No, "deeply" is the wrong adverb. Even depressed normals feel deeply. Rather they tend to feel things quite strangely. For them, manipulating matter, governing process, and moving forward in life are not of much energetic concern. Simply being-in-the-world is the riddle for ponderation.

Some melancholics end up as religious mystics. How could they not? It's all about transcendence, and forms of Otherness are suitable to hang the mystery on. Some melancholics comport themselves in a different way -- they fall in between the cracks of world-fever novels, of pigments on surreal canvases, of what happens between bow on cello or fingers on piano, of what is not said but connoted in marvelous poems.

Depression is, I guess, an illness. Melancholy is a disposition. Both hurt and both can be hell. But there ain't no pill for melancholy. Only sublimation and creation. The depressive one has been interrupted. The melancholic one is inconsolable.


  1. I wish I had something more profound to say, but this was so wonderful that I just had to comment anyway. I found your blog while looking around for people's thoughts on "Hymns To The Night" by Novalis, and at the sight of the word "melancholy" on the sidebar, I had to click the link. Your delineation between depression and melancholy is acute and really resonated with me. I've never thought to sit down and work it out myself, although it seems like it'd be very helpful to do so. I certainly fall on the side of melancholic and understand the real struggle when it's confused with depression (by myself or others). And honestly, that melancholy feeling, which in fairness does ebb and flow from day to day, is strangely sweet, and I think I'd miss it if it was ever fully alleviated. In my head, I relate it to the German idea of sehnsucht ...which no one I know has heard of, let alone understands, but it seems like given the topics of your posts, you're likely familiar with it. Anyway, I just mostly wanted to say thank you for this entry. It was quite a random, but strangely helpful thing to read :)

    1. Thank you for reading and for your comment. I like what you said about melancholy being strangely sweet. And much like sehnsucht, it's a haunting savor.