László Földényi's book, part history of the term melancholy and part analysis of the melancholic disposition, explores many centuries to explore melancholy’s ambiguities


László Földényi, Melancholy, Trans. by Tim Wilkinson, Yale University Press, 2016.


Alberto Manguel praises the Hungarian writer László Földényi as “one of the most brilliant essayists of our time.”  Földényi’s extraordinary Melancholy, with its profusion of literary, ecclesiastical, artistic, and historical insights, gives proof to such praise. His book, part history of the term melancholy and part analysis of the melancholic disposition, explores many centuries to explore melancholy’s ambiguities. Along the way Földényi discovers the unrecognized role melancholy may play as a source of energy and creativity in a well-examined life. 
Földényi begins with a tour of the history of the word melancholy, from ancient Greece to the medieval era, the Renaissance, and modern times. He finds the meaning of melancholy has always been ambiguous, even paradoxical. In our own times it may be regarded either as a psychic illness or a mood familiar to everyone. The author analyzes the complexities of melancholy and concludes that its dual nature reflects the inherent tension of birth and mortality. To understand the melancholic disposition is to find entry to some of the deepest questions one’s life. 
This distinguished translation brings Földényi’s work directly to English-language readers for the first time.

I very much like this book, it is one of my favorites of the year so far.  It resists being excerpted, as it is an old-style think piece in the style of Montaigne, or for that matter Robert Burton.  Every page is idea-rich and should be read carefully and slowly, and that is rare these days.  Here is just one bit:
Melancholics are prominent…precisely because they are too full of life; because of them, existence overflows itself.  This explains their unappeasable sense of absence: since they have left the world of moderation, overflowing is inconceivable without being emptied.  The universe is damaged in their person; hence, melancholics’ sense of being among the elect, but also their self-hatred to the point of self-annihilation.  That makes them strong and outstanding, but also exceedingly frail.  Their strength is infinite, because they have gained knowledge of the end, but they are unhappy, since having experienced the ephemeral nature of humans, they have lost their trust in existence.  Their strength and frailty, their unhappiness and their heroism, cannot be detached from each other.  This leads us back once again to the starting point of our argument, to the Aristotelian question “Why is it that all those who have become eminent in philosophy or politics or poetry or the arts are clearly melancholic?”
Definitely recommended. - Tyler Cowen


What would an adequate vocabulary for speaking about loss look like? Answers — or, at any rate, more questions — are to be found in MELANCHOLY (Margellos World Republic of Letters, $35), a collection of essays by László Földényi, a Hungarian intellectual. “A collection of essays” — perhaps better to call it a collection of riddles. Földényi is a formidable, if at times oracular, writer, who is at home in paradox. (“Melancholia is, among other things, a consequence of the inadequacy of concepts; that inadequacy, however, is . . . the sort of thing without which concept formation is unimaginable” is a typical sentence.) His book is a wide-ranging history of the Western discourse on melancholy, beginning with Aristotle, who asked, “Why is it that all those who have become eminent in philosophy or politics or poetry or the arts are clearly melancholic?”
In ancient Greece, melancholy was connected to secret rites. Initiates had a special kind of knowledge whose price was solitude. As Földényi puts it, “A person who possesses knowledge is isolated from people who do not.” In the Middle Ages, melancholics were considered sick and sinful; rather than trusting in God, they had gone to the devil. The rise of astrology in the late medieval period led to an evolution in how people wrote about melancholy. Since the planets were believed to affect everyone, melancholics could no longer be classified as ill in the Christian sense, as standing outside grace. Today we think of astrology as a practice of pure description that abdicates personal agency in favor of determinism, but ideas about the saturnine temperament helped people to think of themselves as responsible for their destinies. The power of the planets was ambiguous, and it could either “abolish” or “ennoble” melancholy. Fate could be struggled against, even made.
In medieval paintings, melancholics were usually depicted as sleeping, but from the fifteenth century on they were shown awake and thinking. We still imagine melancholics as people who see more than others while getting lost in rumination. (The idea that melancholics are not disposed to action is, relatively speaking, new; the Greek heroes Heracles, Bellerophon, and Ajax were all cast from the melancholy mold.) Melancholics are isolated, withdrawn from the authority of society and from God, and self-aware, in one sense chosen and in another sense condemned. (Self-determination, Földényi writes, is “a melancholic’s most tormenting problem.”) Throughout history they have been keenly aware of the tension between the infinitude of the soul and the finitude of mortal life:
On the one hand, everyone is a unique, irreplaceable, autonomous personality, but on the other hand, everyone is subject to the same destiny, a fate that pushes the personality toward a common death — do we need another reason for sorrow?
The origin of melancholy is in the self but also in the state of the world, which is broken beyond repair, and the resignation of the melancholic — her unwillingness to be comforted — raises the ire of the can-do, fix-everything bourgeois. Melancholy is political insofar as it expresses dissatisfaction with the status quo, but it has no program or goals. “If the melancholic were able to say what he dreaded . . . he would not be melancholic but ‘merely’ bad tempered.” Twentieth-century mainstream psychiatry demoted melancholy from an existential critique to an illness, but what’s really interesting is how melancholics understand sickness and death — not as external obstacles or interferences but as the fulfillment of life itself. Melancholics live in a kind of time warp. They have no future, only the coming of what will soon be past. -

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