Mar 272017


We…advocate that melancholia be positioned as a distinct, identifiable and specifically treatable affective syndrome in the DSM-5 classification.

Melancholic patients respond better to broad-action tricyclic anti­depressants than to narrow-action antidepressants (e.g., serotonin uptake inhibitors). They respond well to ECT. In comparison to those with nonmelancholic mood disorders, melancholic patients rarely respond to placebos, psychotherapies, or social interventions.

from “Issues for DSM-5: Whither Melancholia?”
The American Journal of Psychiatry

Dürer’s engraving Melencolia I draws from the theory of humors that goes back to classical times, where states of body and mind were determined by four essential fluids. It once was the basis of medical practice and found widespread cultural representation. Balance of the four brought health, but that was an ideal that we could not always maintain, or that not all of us could not find, or, in Christian times, a perfection none of us could reach at all since and because of the Fall of Man. A predominance of one in excess led to pathology, but in lesser amounts set phases we all went through or determined different personality types among us. I regret loss of this system, as it gave us variety and cut us some slack. Moody was something we could be. Today our vast catalog of mental aberration depends solely upon the empty term “normal” that is defined only by what it is not, that denotes a state that is a balance of nothing. Yet we stray from it at our peril.

Black bile was the fluid of melancholy, which brought lethargy and stinginess. The melancholic was the most dreaded of the four personality types, as surfeit could lead to insanity and even death. Its representations, a grim miser clenching his purse, an indolent woman asleep at her spinning wheel, were sedative expressions that suppressed that fear. And intrigue—madness and death have always had that pull on us. Dürer’s figure, however, is not a common person but a winged angel, intensely alert and deep in thought, surrounded by the elements and tools of creation. Dürer has given us a picture of the artist, and in her face we see the power of her potential. But the tools lie scattered at her feet, untouched. She is grounded, locked in thought, does not fly, does not create, while in the background a comet flares and a bat cries terror. The dread has been released in a scene of darkness and disorder. I’ve had a print on a wall for decades, and every now and then I look at her for inspiration. She does not look back. This is as it should be.

Perhaps her block and the disarray show the broil and fruitless mulling that precede creation. But according to Erwin Panofsky, in The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer, from which I take my material, that work will never come:

Hers is the inertia of a being which renounces what it could reach because it cannot reach for what it longs.

The artist is limited to the visible, what can be shown, what can be represented, and is removed from higher thought that might transcend, from the light of divine understanding, always beyond us.

But Dürer’s stalled angel also gives us one of the most compelling images of the artist we have. A picture that shows failure to create is a complete creation itself, consummate and marvelous in its workmanship, its expression. The midnight figure is bright in contrasts, the whites of her eyes against her somber face, the luminous folds of her robe against a darkened space. A scene of inactivity is charged with dynamic, in the energy of her arched wings, the push from the outlines of the many shapes, in the spiraling line of composition that runs from the eyes of the bat through the eyes of the putto, of the angel, of the sullen dog.

There is no contradiction in any of this, as there are no contradictions in art. Nor is there irony, as we see exactly what we should expect. We are shaped by our conflicts and contradictions, our reaches, our misses, and our doubts: these give us life. And the failure to represent the divine visibly points all the more to its invisible presence. It is our balanced, symmetrical representations and our clear resolutions into action that are ironic because they always fall short of our desires, of our projections, and they touch a different kind of madness.

The engraving is built on a correspondence of symbols based on theology, philosophy, and common understanding that connected the universe from the material to the celestial, that ran deep in Dürer’s culture. The four humors “were supposed to be coessential with the four elements, the four winds (or directions of space), the four seasons, the four times of day, and the four phases of life.” His angel, holding a compass, beneath instruments of measurement, echoes a prior woodcut “Typus Geometriae,” a woman representing geometry, the study that in the Renaissance was the foundation for creating art and understanding the structure of the world. Saturn, the original creator, inspired geometry as well as fueled imagination with furor melancholicus. The dog and bat were his. I won’t develop all the sources and connections, however, because I’d only repeat what Panofsky has so thoroughly and beautifully written. Also we know today none of the assumptions and correspondences are true.

But what we know is false now wasn’t true then, yet still we have Melencolia I, who still holds us captive. There’s a paradox here that needs to be sounded. If we reject the divine, and we have, we need to replace it with something else. Our lives, like our art, depend upon how much we can draw from within and reach without.


I will leave the magic square and the devices for measuring weight, time, and space hanging on the wall and ignore them. Mathematics, like our logic, we now know talks only to itself. They will also serve as reminders to deflect a world that cannot tolerate imprecision or imperfection, or indulges them too much.


I will keep the tools on the floor because I still have dreams of constructing and peopling homes and cities and worlds. But I will add a jackhammer and wrecking ball to test their strength, or demolish the facile abstractions that now surround us or any I might create.


The bat stays where he is, soaring above a leaden sea, who will scream my every waking minute to help me maintain vigilance, see terror overlooked, or induce it when I fall complacent.


I will get a dog, lean, clenched, and perpetually morose, and have him lie at my feet to anchor my flights.


And I will ponder my next project, moved by what is not there, what might be, what always never will be. Or let my amanuensis putto scribble away idly while I brood in dark brilliance and do nothing.

Gary Garvin

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