The Under-Appreciation of Melancholy

Melancholy, Max Richter and the Merits of the “The Leftovers”

The textbook definition of melancholy, “sadness or depression of the spirits”, demonstrates the misrepresentation and lost opportunities surrounding this emotion. Philosophical framing sheds light on the fact that, as far as emotions go, melancholy is arguably the most constructive and useful emotion when channeled properly. This has not been realized and taken advantage of by the general population, largely due to a legacy of historical prejudice fueled by a medical misnomer.

Melancholia as a term originated as an archaic version of the “disease” we know now as melancholy and is known as one of the four temperaments matching the four humors of ancient and pre-modern medicine. In the 5th and 4th centuries BC melancholia was considered a medical disorder whose chronic onset was attributed to demonic possession with acute bouts considered precursors of serious mental instability. While the foundation for these ideas comes from our greeco-roman traditions, the work “Anatomy of Melancholy” written by Robert Burton, is considered the cornerstone for the western conception of melancholy. Another work that is worthy of note is the Encyclopedia of Diderot and d’Alembert because, while it does similarly conceive of melancholy as a disease, it does accurately identify the causes, namely: grief, pains of the spirit, passions, as well as all the love and sexual appetites that go unsatisfied.

Importantly, this where we can bridge the gap between the medical and the philosophical. As proposed by “The book of life”, arguably the most successful conversion of philosophical wisdom into the modern era, “melancholy is a species of sadness that arises when we are open to the fact that life is inherently difficult and that suffering and disappointment are core parts of universal experience”. So what does this mean? this means that death looms around us constantly, loneliness is a universal reality of human existence, no matter what choices you make you will always have regrets, and we all live in our own internal maze of contradictions. But, this also means that we are inextricably tied to each other in human suffering, and this is felt no more strongly then that moment when you slip into a melancholy mood. Where everything slows down, you feel calmed, connected and constructive decisive action is the only kind that comes to mind. The melancholic individual has organically slipped into a quintessentially stoic mode, so embrace it.

While currently exuberance and excess seem to be the preferred modes of civilization, there have been a few pieces of modern media exploring this realm of emotion in a meaningful way.

Max Richter is a post-modern composer of contemporary classical music producing solo work as well as music for philharmonic orchestras and scores for film and television. Throughout his compositions runs an underlying feeling that can be only expressed as melancholic, in it’s grasp you feel directly grounded in suffering at it’s most pure and you leave from that place in touch with a deeper self. The song that introduced me to him was “On the Nature of Daylight” from the movie “Disconnected” which is the most perfect example of Ricther’s unique brand of melancholy.

Similarly, his re-composition of “Vivaldi-The Four Seasons” display vast understanding of the melancholic mode.Being able to recompose Vivaldi’s four seasons, specifically spring, into such a heart wrenching melody takes an appreciation for melancholy on the part of the composer, as well as a more philosophical grasp of what spring really holds. That unavoidable lesson that while everything blooms so beautifully after the harsh winter, and summer will bring unrivaled vitality, it is all transitory, momentary, as winter will inevitably descend once again on these newly fertile landscapes. Max Richter has this understanding of emotion, where just because something must end it does not have to be a sad occasion, rather it can be one occasioned by melancholy acceptance stemming from the fact that everything ends.

Recently, Max Richter has been in charge of scoring and music for the HBO television series “The Leftovers” adapted by the book written by Tom Perrotta , and a better pairing could only be found in a fine wine and fillet of fish while watching this show. Set in a world where one in 50 people, or 2 percent of humanity, has suddenly and inexplicably vanished, there is no-one who is untouched by this mysterious travesty and the show explores this through the lens of a variety of relationships to the tragedy and people to each other.

Primarily revolving around a small town the leftovers, as they are known in the show, all face the fallout from the same tragedy but deal with it in different ways and the score is a large part of connecting you to this series. Richter sprinkles the original works that he produces for the show with other artists tracks as well as some of his previous works where appropriate. The show carries the weight of sorrow in a way that is not boring but is rather binding, and enthralling. As the plot develops and changes occur in this series different reactions to the rapture-like event connect to viewers inherent sadness in very visceral and intimate ways.

In a world that has largely ignored the merits of the melancholic state of mind, it is incredibly heartening that there are still those out there willing to dabble in this stream of thought and take a sip from the restoring fountain of melancholy.

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