That purple piece of silk he refers to, then, in the urn of Patroclus—what does it mean? —W. G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn
I have lately been collecting strange trinkets, inexplicable things, wards against the day: foreign coins; antiquated machinery parts; bits of detritus without use; unknown objects whose purpose has now been lost. I’ve been doing this for years, but lately the need to surround myself with these things has taken on an urgency. In mid-July, beset by a strange emptiness, I wandered through the sweltering city seeking out antique shops and junk dealers, hoping to find something small, cheap, useless—something whose purpose I could not easily fathom—that I could roll around in my fingers as a totem against despair settling over me. I returned with an antique key, a strange set of dice—their surface worn and pockmarked as bone, with bullseyes rather than dots—and, lastly, what looks to me like a chip of some kind for an ancient casino. I set these things before me now, wondering where is the lock, and where the gaming table, that these might once again find a home.
I’ve kept these things on me in the months since; whenever I leave the house, they’re in my bag in a small brown paper sack, alongside my notebook and whatever book I’m reading. Occasionally I’ll slide the dice into my pocket, but for the most part I don’t need to touch these trinkets, or even look at them. It’s enough simply to know they’re there, amidst the noise and heat of the city. Like a thimbleful of radium.
Only now do I realize I have done this my whole life. When I was a child, I’d rescue all manner of mundane, unimportant things that were plainly trash for my private keeping. Empty yogurt containers whose specific shape spoke to me, paint swatches that my brother and I would sometimes trade as though they were baseball cards, even bits of brightly colored string that I kept until they were hopelessly tangled with dust bunnies and pet hair. Magpie-like, I’d gather the junk of the world as it drew my eye, cocooning off myself in its uselessness.
What a great but hidden pleasure, to keepsake something useless in this world, divided neatly as it is between the valuable and waste. What a feeling of wonder, to impute and recognize an object’s worth while resisting the impulse to quantify that object. What a satisfaction, to be asked by someone about some small thing you own—what does it mean, why do you have it, what is it worth—and to answer both confused and defiant, I don’t know.
I struggled with depression well into my early twenties, but I now understand that neither “struggle” nor “depression” were ever really the right words. Even in the depths of it, there was always an element of pleasure, a sense of wonder. Depression is difficult, painful, even dangerous; though I was for years dogged by despair, suicidal ideations, and often an accompanying physical sickness, I knew even then that there was a sense of the exquisite there as well.
A friend, once explaining why she refused to go on antidepressants, mentioned that she didn’t want to “lose the high highs, just to get rid of the low lows.” It’s true, I felt the same way; but secretly I also loved those low lows.
What I called my depression is the feeling one gets as the world shades away, as though a silent wall of water is holding everything else at a remove. It is dangerous only when I have work that can’t be avoided, or when I’m obligated to go to a job or interact with others. But when I can avoid those pitfalls—when I can be alone with this feeling—it can be luminous. Driving through a city at night, encased behind glass, alive to the world and yet completely apart from it. Alone on a gently rocking subway, amidst others but completely foreign to them. In a forest surrounded by the noise and vibrancy of a natural world that has no business with me.
At its most extreme, the world seems to fall away almost entirely, opening up a vertiginous depth that can lead to very real despair, though it rarely gets this bad. Either you know this feeling already or you don’t, though I suspect there are many out there who’ve felt something like this and have been tempted to misdiagnose it as an illness, something pathological.
A far better word for this feeling than depression is melancholy, a word that was once ubiquitous, and is now scarce. One must be careful to not err too far in the other direction; to recognize melancholy is not to deny grief—crippling when it’s acute, chronic over time—or clinical depression—an affliction that responds well to treatment, therapy, and medication. But aside these two states lies the third sibling, melancholy—often maligned, or forgotten altogether.
Melancholy reigned supreme until the nineteenth century, when the industrialized world stopped seeing value in it. Melancholy had once been identified as an overabundance of black bile— one of the four humors —a condition that could occasionally be ameliorated but was more or less a chronic affliction. With the discovery of the nervous system in the mid-eighteenth century, melancholy began its transformation into a physical ailment, a pathology to be cured. In 1765, the physician Anne-Charles Lorry distinguished between mélancolie humorale and mélancolie nerveuse, and in the next hundred years this latter would come to overtake the former entirely.
By the mid-nineteenth century, physicians had become generally skeptical that there was anything but the nervous form of melancholy, and alternately diagnosed it as a symptom of schizophrenia or manic depression. Melancholy, properly speaking, has little to do with either of these conditions, but such thinking reflected a desire to find some way to see melancholy as a condition one suffers that can be treated. Rather than trying to parse a strange, centuries-old philosophical concept in the language of modern medicine, doctors came to favor their newer creation, depression. Depression is a pathology, a clinical issue; a problem to be solved.
The issue with melancholy is that it’s always been nebulous, amorphous, vague. That is its charm and its power, but it is also its weakness—in an age of precision, classification, and data, something as elusive as melancholy has no place. Depression, on the other hand, was something that could be diagnosed and treated, and gradually doctors became far more comfortable with the clinical notion of depression than any abstract idea of melancholy. The minutes from a 1904 meeting of the New York Neurological Society recorded a comment by a doctor named Adolf Meyer, who suggested that melancholia “implied a knowledge of something that we did not possess and which had been employed in different specific ways by different writers. If, instead of melancholia, we applied the term depression to the whole class, it would designate in an unassuming way what was meant by the common term melancholia.” Shaded into depression, melancholy was quickly tamed and, since the dawn of the twentieth century, we’ve largely been without it.
Melancholy was long considered forbidden knowledge, the Devil’s work. It goes nowhere, has no end product, creates nothing. It luxuriates in its own pointlessness. It is a desire to be alone without the simple pleasures that often are attendant in solitude. It is a depth of withdrawal, a sense of removed sadness for the gulf that now separates you from everyone else.
In such states, going to work or to be with others are the furthest things from my mind. To be awash in melancholy is to cease to be a productive member of society. It is to hear the incessant pulsing of the world as though through a thick, oak door; these concerns are there but they have no pull on you, no reach to where you are. I misdiagnose my own melancholy all the time; it manifests as anger, frustration, jealousy, general bitchiness. Invariably, what’s at the root of so many of these issues is a need to be alone, a need to be immersed in this melancholy. These other symptoms only manifest when I’m forced to interact with the pressing demands of this world.
Melancholy has consistently bedeviled the modern world. No one has any patience for such unproductive withdrawal, not in this day and age. “The melancholic of the modern age,” László Földényi writes , “has been denied the possibility of creating a new world, but also prevented from dodging a world that is alien to him.” Too often the melancholic is accused of self-indulgence—but what the melancholic indulges in is not the self, but in the feeling of isolation, and in the distance itself.
Though depression has eclipsed melancholy, the two are not synonymous. Földényi puts it succinctly: “Melancholy is an opening; depression—a closing in.” Before it was neutered by psychiatry and capitalism, melancholy was the disease of the artist, and its creative output is vast. Romanticism was the last real gasp of melancholy, the last time such a feeling could be seen as a wellspring of creativity and thought.
For all the writing and art devoted to it, its specific meaning remained elusive. One feels for Adolf Meyer, at such a loss to describe the symptoms of melancholy that he proposes eliminating it altogether. The search for a stable definition of melancholy is itself melancholic, because the emotion is inscrutable, unknowable, shading into so many differing and conflicting emotions. It is the melancholic mind—ever probing into an idea that can never be fully known—that produces something akin to Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy— a book that stretches over a thousand pages in search of a definition without ever reaching it, a quixotic futility that enacts rather than defines melancholy. The only way to approach it is as an inexhaustible void, pointless and unproductive.
And there is Dürer’s Melencolia I , perhaps his most famous engraving. The allegorical figure sitting amidst her pile of junk is anything but depressed; her face shows her lost in thought, but far from gloomy or despondent. Her eyes are wide with wonder, fixed on a distant thought. The Roman numeral in the print’s title refers to Cornelius Agrippa’s cataloging of melancholy—the first kind of melancholy, melencolia imaginativa, belong to that of creativity, where imagination predominates over reason and rationality. In Dürer’s engraving, the allegorical figure of melancholy holds a compass idly, as though not yet ready to work. Surrounded by things strange and unknown, she is trapped deep in thought by an inexplicable world of wonder.
What is this horde of objects that surround her? The hourglass, bell and scales, the ladder and hammer, the truncated rhombohedron—now known by some geometrists as “Dürer’s solid,” in which is the faint image of a skull—the sphere and the dog, and so on? Artists, writers, and mathematicians have long sought to interpret these objects as symbols of some hidden code, either as some oblique form of autobiography, or a series of Freemasonry references. But this misses the point—these are things to be contemplated but not deciphered, as this is the work of melancholy.
In Dürer’s work, along with the writing of W. G. Sebald and a dozen other melancholics, I at last found a language for my love of the small, strange trinkets that I’d kept close throughout my life. The more strange, elusive, and forgotten an object is, the more likely it is to provide an outlet for the melancholic mind, a totem against the world of productivity. I’ve found a name for these things I treasure, the tokens that bedevil the rational mind, asserting their right to remain undefined.
Ours is a melancholic age. Just because we no longer speak of this emotion doesn’t mean it doesn’t still accompany us, a silent companion always in the wings. Beyond the actual mourning we do all too often, beyond the rage and fear and confusion and depression, there is a gnawing within us of a grief for a loss we cannot comprehend, lingering in the margins of consciousness.
In 1978, Sacvan Bercovitch noted how the primary narrative of America is the jeremiad —a rhetorical form of address, born of the sermon, where a speaker decries a falling away from a former purity—and calls for a return to this state of grace. “American writers,” Bercovitch explained , “have tended to see themselves as outcasts and isolates, prophets crying in the wilderness. So they have been, as a rule: American Jeremiahs, simultaneously lamenting a declension and celebrating a national dream.” From Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” to Thoreau’s Walden, to Ginsberg’s Howl , we persist in the belief that something has been lost, that we must go back to that earlier time so we may be made whole again.
It’s a fiction that’s driven much of our restless energy as a people, one that preys first and foremost on melancholy. Because we’ve lost touch with the history of this feeling, politicians and pundits have successfully marshaled for it repeatedly for electoral gains. Every politician speaks in jeremiads, celebrating a nostalgia for former days, lamenting our current state of decline. And each of these jeremiads seeks to capitalize on our melancholy, a bait-and-switch driving our political discourse. What else does a slogan like Make America great again mean, other than a false promise to resurrect the nameless dead that haunt us?
Indeed, melancholy is the secret heart of this country—even as we have forgotten it, denounced it, strove to eliminate it in all of its visible forms. Embracing melancholy, as an end unto itself and calling it by its name, has become itself a curious act of resistance, refusing to allow that which makes us great to be politicized or medicated out of us. It is the passive but unassailable resistant of the great melancholic scrivener, Bartleby. It is the necessary act of preferring not to.
But all of this is a luxury—on all sides, pressures conspire against you to make good use of your time. Be productive; don’t sit around and mope idly. If you’re going to have leisure time, spend it with friends, and spend it by spending money. Solitude is impermissible; solitude is a disease. As much as we may need it, melancholic time—by design in our modern economy—is out of reach.
In the months since that sweltering July day, I’ve continued to hunt for bits of small treasure: an oddly-shaped piece of quartz; a praying mantis encased in Lucite. In the meantime, I’ve kept the dice, the key, and the poker chip close to me, and I’ve learned a few things about them. The pips on the dice are off-centered and uneven (particularly the sixes), suggesting they were painted on by a human hand—or at least a rapidly deteriorating manufacturing machine. The figure on the chip appears to be a variant of the Bolnisi Cross, and the key’s toothing generic enough to suggest it never fit a single lock. But beyond that they’re still ciphers, and their smallness and their banality all but guarantees they’re remain so.
When there is no time to be alone in the mysterious, the only solution is to carry in one’s pocket a physical mystery: an object whose meaning is inexplicable; whose purpose, origin, and story is perpetually beyond your ken. To stand in the swell of a city, crowds streaming past you and jostling you out of the way, beset on all sides by anxious murmurings, incessant demands—these are the things that keep you safe, whose presence is a reminder of all of the world that will never be known to you.