The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


Let her voice curl drowsily through the rooms. Draw the curtains, wrap a blanket around the knees and feel the warm sting of tears filling up the eyes. You know it’s foolish, that it will make others impatient and angry (“Stop moping around!”). Yet, when the mind drifts to everything we’ve lost, it can be hard to resist. If artists, students and blues singers are the ones most easily associated with melancholy, this is because it’s an emotion that takes time to feel properly. Perhaps it’s a little self-conscious, a bit pretentious; but most of all, it must be carefully unwrapped, each tissue-paper layer of SELF-PITY, NOSTALGIA and REGRET carefully studied. Billie Holiday was right to sing about a “sugarcoated misery.” There might be loss at its core, but we savor it like exquisite confectionery: a rare indulgence, a little high. The only risk is we might get addicted.

The idea that melancholy might be both arty and dangerous has its feet firmly in the Renaissance, when feeling melancholic was at its most fashionable. According to the medical theories of the time, melancholy was a cold and clammy substance found in the body (the idea originated in the fifth century BCE with the Greek school of Hippocrates, who named the substance melania chole, or black bile). Renaissance physicians believed everyone had a bit of black bile in them. It was one of the body’s four elemental humors, the others being blood, choler and phlegm. Each person was thought to have a unique balance of these four humors, a delicate ecosystem that would affect all kinds of things from one’s health to one’s personality. For instance those with excesses of choler in their body were, according to the Renaissance author Thomas Wright, “at every trifle… inflamed” and quickly reconciled (see: COURAGE). People with a greater balance of melancholy were the opposite. Since black bile was a thick and heavy humor, melancholics tended to be lethargic and solitary, and so were drawn toward sedentary and introspective lifestyles (see also: SADNESS). And though they were slower to take offense, they were “with extreame difficulty reconciled.” As now, universities were one of their favorite haunts.

According to early modern medicine, maintaining good health was a question of keeping the delicate balance of the humors stable. Certain things could interfere with it, sending some humors spiking, and making others behave in peculiar ways. Dramatic events that roused strong passions were thought to impact most on the melancholy humor, turning a person’s ordinary unhappiness into a more serious disease—melancholia. Anyone could succumb, but those who already had the most black bile swashing around in their bodies were most vulnerable. Falling in LOVE, the death of a parent, a great disappointment: such events were thought to raise the body’s temperature, thus heating the thick melancholy in an organ called the hypochondries, and sending noxious fumes into the brain, fogging the mind and confusing the vital spirits. The victim of an attack of melancholia would be left plagued with self-doubt, and with an inexplicable feeling of sorrow and DREAD, which forced them to avoid company, and even wear wide-brimmed hats to keep out daylight. In many ways melancholia was much like the illness we call depression today, but there is one crucial difference. The melancholic vapors were also thought to produce visions. Robert Burton in his famous account of the illness The Anatomy of Melancholy called them “terrible monstrous fictions in a thousand shapes and apparitions.” These visions, and the fumes that caused them, gave rise to the other names by which melancholia was known: hypochondria, from the organ in which the humor was heated; and “windy melancholy,” so called because alongside strange visions, the fumes were also thought to produce flatulence.

Morose and farting, melancholics were unlikely candidates to kick off a fashion. Yet, by the fifteenth century, melancholy was considered a rather desirable disease in some circles. Aristotle had suggested that outstanding philosophers, poets and statesmen had larger amounts of melancholy than usual in their bodies. In the mid-fifteenth century, the Italian scholar Marsilio Ficino, believing himself to be of a melancholic disposition, enthusiastically took up this idea. Ficino argued that melancholy was linked to genius because of the visionary fumes, which he thought brought creative insights. It was partly as a result of this claim that a cult of melancholic genius flourished, and Renaissance scholars began to portray themselves as gloomy. Some even affected the pose—Hamlet is famously accused of wearing “but the trappings and the suits of woe.” But the fashion for melancholy was not only for men. Born in 1623, some twenty years after Hamlet was written, Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, was a prolific writer on natural philosophy, as science was called at the time. Samuel Pepys attacked her for being “mad, conceited and ridiculous” for such pretensions. However, on the cover of her The Philosophical and Physical Opinions (1655), she is not so much defiant as baleful, staring out at the reader from hooded eyes, her mouth sullen, her features sunken, oblivious to the fat cherubs who float happily about her. She published her work under her own name, rather than anonymously as did other women writers at the time, and her melancholic pose is her attempt to be taken seriously as a scholar.

Even if melancholy was the mark of the thinking man or woman, it could bring tortures, the price paid for genius. For Burton, an hour of “sweet” melancholy musings during a solitary walk could give way to the more severe version of melancholia, and leave him cowering from invisible terrors from which it was very hard to recover. In the twentieth century we might still fear that an innocent melancholic affectation could tip over into something more painful and lasting—and some of our own cures have a surprising amount in common with those of the seventeenth century too. In the Renaissance, the recommended cures for melancholia were not pleasant: purgatives thought to reduce the volume of black bile included hellebore, which induced vomiting, and leeches, which sucked blood. Burton, instead, made writing about melancholy his life’s work (“I write of melancholy by being busy to avoid melancholy,” he wrote), and in the end he saw his studies as both the cause of, and the cure for, the illness.

See also: SADNESS.