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Melancholia

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Our sixth combat is with what the Greeks call ακηδια, which we may term weariness or distress of heart. This is akin to dejection, and is especially trying to solitaries, and dangerous and frequent foe to the dwellers in the desert… (Cassian circa 416 CE)

 

Ajax, in Sophocles’ play, after slaughtering cattle believing that they were human captives regained his senses but then fell into melancholia. Tecmessa said of him

[…]

He broke into such piteous cries of anguish

As I had never heard him use before;

For he had always taught me that loud crying

Was only fit for cowards and mollycoddles;

If he lamented it was with low moans,

A bull’s deep groaning – never a shrill complaint.

And so he still sits, utterly dejected;

Will take no food nor drink, but only sits

Still where he fell among the slaughtered beasts.

He clearly means to do some dreadful thing,

If there is any meaning in his words,

His bitter cries…

 

So, what is this feeling that is so dreadful that it is a ‘deep groan’? How to describe a feeling that Alberto Moravia’s  (1907-1990) protagonist in Boredom describes as follows

…It resembles a repeated and mysterious interruption of the electric current inside a house: at one moment everything is clear and obvious – here are armchairs, over there are sofas, beyond are cupboards, side tables, pictures, curtains, carpets, windows, doors, a moment later there is nothing but darkness and an empty void…[it] might be described as a malady affecting external objects and consisting of a withering process, an almost instantaneous loss of vitality – just as though one saw a flower change in a few seconds from a bud to decay and dust

 

The challenge is to find the words to do justice to an experience, a profoundly incommunicable experience that is outside of the ordinary, but that is misunderstood as the same as ordinary sadness. William Styron (1925-2006) made this point in Darkness Visible

 

Depression is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self – to the mediating intellect – as to verge close to being beyond description. It thus remains nearly incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it in its severe form

 

And, Styron is a wordsmith, a man not readily prone to failing to find the right word!

 

All we have is language, words, to express how we feel, to say what things are like for us, and when languages fails us, then there is that peculiar sensation of being cut off from others, from the common weald. And, since we are social animals. To be cut off is tantamount to death. It is clear then that there is a burden, an obligation on others, doctors included, to reach out across this abstract chasm, to make contact, to indicate understanding and solidarity in the face of the unutterable.

 

To return to Moravia’s protagonist

 

What struck me above all was that I did not want to do simply anything, although I desired eagerly to do something. Anything I might wish to do presented itself to me like a Siamese twin joined inseparably to some opposite thing which I equally did not wish to do. Thus I felt that I did not want to see people nor yet to be alone; that I did not want to stay at home nor yet to go out; that I did not want to travel nor yet to go on living in Rome; that I did not want to paint nor yet not to paint; that I did not want to stay awake nor yet to go to sleep; that I did not want to make love nor yet not to do so; and so. When I say “felt” I ought rather to say that I was filled with repugnance, with disgust, with horror. I used to ask myself, between these frenzied bouts of boredom, whether perhaps I did not want to die; it was a reasonable question, seeing that I disliked living so much. But then, to my surprise, I realised that although I did not like living, I yet did not want to die.

 

My aim is merely to find the myriad ways, the analogies and metaphors, the words and ideas that have come down to us, always attempting to tie down what is amorphous yet toxic, what is dreadful and un-nameable but that yet has to be given breath, tongue, lips and sound. So, that this inner canker can be communicated and therefore understood if not expunged.

 

This is Ivor Gurney (1890-1937) crying out to us from the City of London Mental Hospital

 

To God

Why have you made life so intolerable

And set me between four walls, where I am able

Not to escape meals without prayer, for that is possible

Only by annoying an attendant. And tonight a sensual

Hell has been put upon me, so that all has deserted me

And I am merely crying and trembling heart

For Death, and cannot get it. And gone out is part

Of sanity. And there is dreadful hell within me.

And nothing helps. Forced meals there have been and electricity

And weakening of sanity by influence

That’s dreadful to endure. And there is Orders

And I am praying for death, death, death.

And dreadful is the indrawing or out-breathing of breath,

Because of the intolerable insults put on my whole soul,

Of the soul loathed, loathed, loathed of the soul.

Gone out every bright thing from my mind.

All lost that ever God himself designed.

Not half can be written of cruelty of man, on man.

Not often such evil guessed as between Man and Man

 

Photo by Jan Oyebode

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