Sunday, 6 May 2012

Hartley Coleridge on Melancholy

From Essays and Marginalia (1851):
"Perfect melancholy," says honest Ben, "is the complexion of the ass." I have heard it asserted that the observation is no longer applicable. This is certainly a broad grinning age. A grave face is no longer the frontispiece to the apocryphal book of wisdom. Gravity is laughed out of countenance.—But melancholy is not the fashion of an age, nor the whim of an individual—it is the universal humour of mankind— so far, indeed, I differ from Ben Jonson (whose memory may Heaven preserve from editorial spite, and editorial adulation!) inasmuch as I think that melancholy is a passion properly and exclusively human. The ass and the owl are solemn, the cat is demure, the savage is serious, but only the cultivated man is melancholy. Perhaps the fallen spirits may partake of this disposition. So Ben would imply by the title of his comedy, called, "The Devil is an Ass," and if, as hath been more plausibly affirmed, the devil be a great humourist, then he must needs be melancholy—for whatever tends to laughter (unless it be mere fun) proceeds from that complexion.
Melancholy can scarce exist in an undegraded spirit—it cannot exist in a mere animal. It is the offspring of contradiction—a hybrid begotten by the finite upon infinity. It arose when the actual was divided from the possible. To the higher natures, all possible things are true; the lower natures can have no conception of an unreal possibility. Neither, therefore, can properly be supposed capable of melancholy. They may be sad indeed; but sadness is not melancholy, nor is melancholy always sadness. It is a seeking for that which can never be found—a reminiscence or an anticipation of immortality—a recognition of an eternal principle, hidden within us, crying from amidst the deep waters of the soul. Melancholy, I say, proceeds from the juxtaposition of contraries—of time and eternity—of flesh and spirit—it considers human life to be a— "Still waking sleep, that is not what it is." Whether this consideration shall give rise to laughter or tears, to hope or to despondence, to pity or to scorn, to reverence for the better, or to contempt for the worse element, depends much upon the heart, and much on the mind. But tears and laughter are but different modes of melancholy. Hope and fear, despair and scorn, and love and pity—(when they are anything more than mere animal emotions) are but various manifestations of the same great power.
Melancholy is the only Muse. She is Thalia and Melpomene. She inspired Milton and Michael Angelo, and Swift and Hogarth. All men of genius are melancholy—and none more so than those whose genius is comic. Men (those I mean who are not mere animals) may be divided, according to the kind of their melancholy, into three great classes. Those who seek for the infinite, in contradistinction to the finite—those who seek for the infinite in the finite—and those who seek to degrade the finite by a comparison with the infinite. The first class comprehends philosophers and religionists ; the second, poets, lovers, conquerors, misers, stock-jobbers, &c.; and the third comprises satirists, comedians, jokers of all kinds, man-haters, and womanhaters, Epicures, and bon-vivants in general. The philosopher, conscious that his spiritual part requires spiritual food, and finding none such among the realities of sense, acknowledges no permanence but that of ideal truth—truth is his God. He is in love with invisible beauty. He finds harmony in dumb quantities, grace in a diagram, and sublimity in the multiplication-table. He is a denizen of the mundus intelligibilis, and holds the possible to be more real than reality. The religionist, like the philosopher, craves for eternity, but his appetite is not to be satisfied with such ethereal diet. He cannot live upon matterless forms, and truths that have no life, no heart, no will. He finds that his spirit is vital as well as eternal, and therefore needs a God that is living as well as true. He longs and hopes for an actual immortality, a permanent existence, a blessedness that shall be felt and known. The heaven of philosophers is indifference, that of the religious is love.
In attributing to melancholy the origin of philosophy and of religion, let me not be supposed to attribute the love of truth and holiness to any mere humour or complexion. All that I mean is, that both presuppose a consciousness of a contradiction in human nature, and a searching for the things that are not seen. No man was ever religious or philosophic who was thoroughly contented with the world as it appears. The second class—those, namely, who imagine a spiritual power in things temporal or material, who truly seek for what they cannot find, may be said to comprise, at some period of life or other, the whole human race. All men are lovers or poets—if not in their waking moments, in their dreams. Now, it is the essence of love, of poetry, of ambition, of avarice,— in fact, of every species of passion,—to confer reality on imagination, eternity on the offspring of a moment, spirituality and permanence on the fleeting objects of sense. No man who is in love considers his mistress as a mere woman. He may be conscious, perhaps, that she is neither better nor fairer than thousands of her sex; but if he loves truly, he must know that she is something to him which she is not in herself—that love in fact is a creative power, that realizes its own dreams. The miser knows that money is more to him than metal—it is more than meat, drink, or pleasure —more than all which its earthly omnipotence can command. The lover and the miser alike are poets, for they are alike enamoured of the creature of their own imagination. This world is a contradiction—a shade, a symbol— and, spite of ourselves, we know that it is so. From this knowledge does all melancholy proceed. We crave for that which the earth does not contain; and whether this craving display itself by hope, by despair, by religion, by idolatry, or by atheism,—it must ever be accompanied with a sense of defect and weakness —a consciousness, more or less distinct, of disproportion between the ideas which are the real objects of desire and admiration, and the existences which excite and represent them. The poet does that for his subject which all men do for the things they long for, and the persons they love. He makes it the visible symbol of a spiritual power. In proportion to the adequacy of these symbols, men are happy or unhappy. But few, indeed, are wholly free from an aching suspicion of their inadequacy. The satirist is the poet's contrary. The poet's office is to invest the world with light. The satirist points out the light, to convince the world of darkness. When Melancholy assumes this, its worst and most hopeless form, it generally leads into one or both of two evils:—a delight in personal power, derived solely from the exposure of others' weakness; or a gross and wilful sensuality, arising not so much from an eagerness for the things of sense, as from a contempt and unbelief, say rather an uneasy and passionate hatred, of the things of the nobler being.
"Love is a creative power, that realizes its own dreams". I've no idea why this hasn't been taken up, and printed on a million T-Shirts, Inspirational Posters and tea-towels; it's a doozy.

No comments: