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TOPIA 17 |143


Douglas Arrowsmith

Melancholy in the Field of Self-Mastery:

Memory, Desire and Lost Objects
A Review of
Ross, Christine. 2006. The Aesthetics of Disengagement: Contemporary Art and
Depression. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Schwenger, Peter. 2006. The Tears of Things: Melancholy and Physical Objects.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Current interest in melancholy, or melancholia, and its relations to artistic endeavour
involves questions in contemporary psychiatry and the cognitive sciences. The
proximity of productive artistic melancholy to clinical depression and where the
two conditions switch into each other continues to provide the ground for a new
happiness industry (Economist, Dec 2006). But can we have happiness without melancholy? Does each owe a debt to the other? The flower is always in the almond as
Gaston Bachelard observes, and what we really should love to see is not happiness
but pre-happiness (Bachelard 1994: 25). All life, F. Scott Fitzgerald (2000) wrote,
is just a progression toward, and then a recession from, one phraseI love you.
There is a necessary melancholy that underwrites any advance we make toward
a love objectthe hymn of the melancholic. But aside from the life of romance
Fitzgerald describes we also love objects or things and we love art and how it takes
hold of us. Surely this love also places us at risk for melancholy and emotional fall
out. The question of whether melancholy shares the space of pre-happiness from
which artistic expression finally mobilizes, is linked powerfully to artists of every
stripe. Is melancholy an effect that finds the artist by way of the creative process she
takes? Or is it a cause? Is it the source and impetus for artistic creation?

If you are searching for answers to some of these questions and to the relationship
between melancholia and subjectivity, two recent contributions to the field come
from Canadian scholars: Peter Schwengers The Tears of Things and Christine
Rosss The Aesthetics of Disengagement. Each of these examinations is indebted to
Julia Kristevas extraordinary Black Sun, which revises Freuds (1920) central line on
melancholia by treating the condition as a founding issue at the core of individuality:
there is no imagination that is not, overtly and secretly, melancholy (Kristeva 1992:
6). Ross relies first upon Raymond Klibansky, Erwin Panofsky and Fritz Saxls
Saturn and Melancholy (1964) which remains the authoritative study on melancholy
in the context of natural philosophy, religion and art. Schwenger in contrast begins
with Book I of Virgils Aeneid and the scene where Aeneas returns to the city of
Carthage following the fall of Troy to discover scenes painted on the citadels walls.
The ensuing melancholy represents all the lost scenes and the longing for the return
of past experience. The melancholy brings with it lacrimae rerum or the tears of
things, and with tears running down his face Aeneas reads the inscription Here
too we find virtue somehow rewarded, Tears in the nature of things, hearts touched
by human transience (Schwenger 2006: 1).

Whether artists need to be melancholics has remained an open-ended question

since Aristotle. Ross dedicates pages to some of these historical concepts, tracing
melancholia from Aristotles Problemata, through Marsilio Ficino, Albrecht Drers
1514 engraving, to the work of Giorgio Agamben and Max Pensky. The book argues
for the aesthetic mode of facing the world, to see emotions and value in things,
versus the reflective mode, which analyzes and looks for causes and contexts. It
is no surprise, then, to discover the argument goes against psychiatrys summary
semiology (a phrase invented by French psychoanalyst Pierre Fdida), accusing
it of observing and recording signs as symptoms without interpretation. Further
problems with psychiatry are enlisted in terms of the biological and pharmaceutical
frameworks for diagnoses, which for Ross are not as sophisticated as psychoanalytic
models that treat symptoms as plastic phenomenon (Ross 2006: 141).
In the course of exposing the limits of psychiatry, Rosss book offers some expansion
of the symtomatology of depression, frequently citing editions of the American
Psychiatric Associations Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. She
starts by observing that depression is a privileged category through which contemporary subjects are being defined and designated, made and unmade, biologized
and psychologized. She then sets out to examine contemporary arts complicity
with depressive disorders in the way modes of art (installations, photography, film,
video and image-screens) not only enact depression but form alliances with a culture
that further materializes paradigms for depression.
Whereas melancholia was once considered a consequence of the productive anxieties
associated with the contemplative arts, Schwenger argues it has now become
a contemporary goal. The tears of things, therefore, are not an occurrence in or

of certain objects, rather they are generated in the moment a viewer or audience
engages in the systems of art and representation that mediate the intentionality of
objects. Possession is the force that underwrites the possibility for all melancholy: it
is the loss of the object-once-possessed that causes the collapse of the ego upon the
self, as Freud wrote. But there is also an uncanniness to objects as well, they absorb
the psychic investments of their owners, things paradoxically possess something
of their possessors (Schwenger 2006: 75). Perception always falls short of full
possession, however, and this is the advent of melancholia which is also described
in Virgina Woolf s passages as a wedge-shaped core of darkness through which
one ultimately loses ones personality. As with the Cartesian subject, there is always
some part of the personality left intact. Melancholia shares this dualism through
which its subject is able to be both present and absent to the world at the same
time. In psychoanalytic terms, the split for melancholics is seen on the one hand
as dissociation and on the other as intense nostalgia or longing for the return of the
part of the self absorbed by the object.

Here the production of melancholy is a result of the perception of physical things

and works of arta related question is drawn from Don DeLilloand, to be sure,
it is the pervading question in Schwengers book: Why do possessions carry such
a sorrowful weight? (77). The author argues melancholy segues into a malevolence
that is related to another sense in which objects are possessed, the demonic sense.
The notion of daemon is used to convert what is a lack in the viewing subject into
a lack and therefore an intentionality in the object, a temperament that may be
infused in the objects with which that individual chooses to be surrounded (77).
This is where pragmatic philosophers and psychiatrists will have difficulty with
Schwengers book. But in the end it may be Freud himself who still renders the best
definition of daemon in his understanding of loss being built into the evolution of
consciousness, that truth that knows no exception that everything living thing dies
for internal reasonsbecomes inorganic once again that the aim of all life is death
(Freud 1987: 311).
Schwengers book is good at isolating all the puzzles, the mise en abyme, of lack
itself, the lack that initiates desire, then, also initiates a certain melancholy. Still,
what, exactly, is this lack? The book devotes many good pages to naming some
phenomenological aspects of melancholy; its attributes are traced through the works
of Heidegger, Lacan and Baudrillard. Since when, however, have these theorists
brought us to any great clearings? The endpoint to these avenues of exploration
always signals the problem at the beginning, and the original puzzle is repackaged as
yet another puzzle which shows desire can never be fulfilled. This deferral is further


This melancholy attaches itself to everyday objects whenever they slip out
of the symbolic system that controls them and so manifest their uncanny
otherness. The melancholy produced is nothing abnormal, may indeed be
merely a recognition of the normal state of things. (Schwenger 2006: 33)


evidenced in Schwengers own, open-ended text: desire is not only generated by

lack; it is always involved with a prior loss, even the memory of which is now past
retrieval (Schwenger 2006: 69). What about the problem of lack itself? It is a failure
on the part of the subject, her or himself, to find meaning that causes displacement
onto objects. The objects then take on their totemistic value, which is the subjects
own compensation for lack of embodied meaning.
It is rather curious that Schwengers book contains no treatment of (except, he
admits, by way of appearing in his references) Gaston Bachelard, whose Poetics of
Space is an interesting text for theorizing the role objects play in the production of
melancholia and nostalgia. Bachelard has already mapped an extensive foundation
for the intimacy of substances through which we may recapture our past in objects
whereby entire realities of memory become spectral. Schwengers book, like
Bachelards, requires that one recline in the phenomenology of poetic imagination in
order to explore sensitized surfaces and thresholds between self and other/object. To
this extent The Tears of Things is itself a fascinating object, which one must return to
again and again in order to render any kind of reading. It is one part almanac another
part users manual for anyone confronting the emotional forces of representation,
possession and dispossession that define relationships with art and object.

Many artists readily admit there is a seductive nature to melancholy for to ruminate
is to keep the past alive. To the extent melancholia is a disease of rumination, presence
is its antidote and melancholics do not fair well in the present; the present kills
rumination, and therefore kills melancholia. It may just be the case that all works
of memory summon some form of melancholy, that to be an artistto dwell in the
space of memory and desire is to be melancholic. That is the point, says U.K. singer/
songwriter Stephen Duffy who also appears in the recent documentary Melancholie
in der Popmusik broadcast on A.R.T.E.s program Tracks (November 2006). For
Duffy, possession may in fact be the goal, but the repeated failure to possess and the
inability to hang on to the love object is the key to the space from which the songs
may crystallize. A similar method applies in the case of American singer/songwriter
Steve Earle: heroine is melancholy, he states during an interview for the Ron
Sexsmith film. He describes how heroine induced in him a state of melancholy that
would bring him to the threshold of a very dark and incapacitating depression. In
the state of melancholy the work of art survives, but in depression it ends. The same
holds true for writer Timothy Findley who described melancholy as a beautiful
word melancholy. It is as if everything we have experienced is somehow all gone, it
has all passed, and never to be experienced again (Arrowsmith 2001).
For these artists the world and its objects provide an aesthetic/emotional conduit
to the work of producing art. They perhaps provide more traction for Schwengers
position: he chooses Rimbauds theory of the self (I is another) and runs it through
Merleau-Pontys phenomenology of self as body-in-world to arrive at a version of
melancholia that he also argues is fundamentally different from Freuds. Objects

continually escape their beholders, leaving in their wake want and melancholy,
the moment of artist rendering where the thing appears in all its strangeness,
ineluctably itself, other than us (Schwenger 2006: 47). For Schwenger these objects evoke a language of loss from us (3) and so we long for an anterior state of
things, a state in which the objects that once stood by us are again concomitant
with our perception of the world as it is emerging. The stillness of an object does
not exclude the possibility of event, writes Schwenger: Woolf, James and Proust
advanced techniques for writing about things as they pull subjectivity into the
between, as Heidegger wrote: we must always move in the between, between man
and thing (Heidegger 1968: 243). But to be in the between is to be melancholic.
This point is made by both Schwenger and Ross. It is to read a self from the
space that exists between self and other and between knowing and ambiguity.
The relationship of self to inanimate objects and the potential melancholy that is
absorbed through their worship is expressed in Richard Burtons monologue in
the film Equus (1977):

Aside from the psychiatric issues portrayed by the patient Alan Strang, the film
shows Dr. Martin Dysart (played by Burton) estranged from any direct or passionate
connection with the world. It is he who is melancholic and simultaneously caught
inside and outside of the world. It is he who laments a loss of meaning located
reminiscently in these physical objects and it is his analysis of patient Alan Strang
that he turns upon himself and his own lack of meaning. The prescribed way out
of melancholy is offered by Hesther, Dysarts companion, who suggests keeping
priorities first, children before adults, things like that. But Dysart has not been
brave enough to create his own children, he is not adequately othered, he has
disengaged from the risks of family, and therefore disengaged from himself. He
admits not daring to have brought children into a house and marriage as cold as
his, instead pursuing the aesthetic practice of collecting art and shrinking other
childrens heads.
Artistic practice is the practice of an aesthetics of disengagement and is also the
process by which artists enact both descriptively and performatively what occurs
in depression. This is Rosss thesis. And her book calls for a greater degree of
co-production between the social sciences, psychoanalytic literary theory and
psychiatric medicine. Rosss book further locates the aesthetics of disengagement,
the process of self-estrangement in the production of melancholy in the technologies
of film, video and the proliferation of screen culture that now surrounds us. The


Life is only comprehensible through a thousand ... local gods. Not just
the old, dead gods, with names like Zeus ... but living geniuses of place
and person. Not just Greece, but modern England. Here spirits of certain
trees ... of certain curves of brick wall of certain fish-and-chip shops, if
you like ... and slate roofs frowns in people, slouches. Id say to them:
Worship ... all you can see ... and more will appear.


proliferation of new media and image-screens results in there being no immediate

vision of the world to any given subject. The human subject is experiencing the
self always through some mediated screen of language or image. The user is blind
to her/his surroundings, both inside and outside of the world simultaneously;
seeing/unseeing, self-absorbed/spent; isolated/apparent. But here Rosss treatment
of a complex topic is further complicated by the layering of aesthetic theory with
new media criticism and even psychopharmacological responses to depression.


Rosss book aims to achieve too much all at once. There is simply so much going
on in the text and at so many levels one needs to approach it many times and from
many different angles before taking anything away. Both Rosss and Schwengers
books seem to exaggerate the interpretation of lack which after all remains wholly
within the subject. This is the position of James Harris (1995) whose work deals
specifically with depression and art. Harris points out that in a Buddhist orientation,
one of the core obstacles in the cycle of rebirth is finally releasing ones attachment
to material things, to objects and aesthetics. Such detachment is not to be confused
with indifference or disengagement, but is part of the transformation of attachment
toward a sense of freedom. The Buddhist term for the pain associated with such
attachment to objects is dukkha. Harris has studied the post-Second World War
work of Willem de Kooning who continued to paint with Alzheimers disease and
also studied the effects of Picks disease on the frontal and temporal lobes of the
brain. Harris also points out that autistic children who draw lose that ability once
they learn how to talk.
Ross may be observing similar effects in her phenomenology of disengagement.
The proliferation of contemporary media screens has produced diseased users who
are blind to their environments and lacking in their abilities to establish relations
between the real world and the virtual world they are experiencing: the new media
user has become blind, self-absorbed, isolated, cut off from the space he or she
physically occupies, and oblivious to others who might happen to be in that same
space (Ross 2006: 132-33). New media in no way close the gap between user, viewer,
subject and self and provider, looker, object and other. Rosss critique of the emptiness
of new media is compelling where it demonstrates how image screens and virtual
reality now create secondary and tertiary effects for the subject. The user no longer
sees an image, rather s/he is exposed to entirely private and essentially ephemeral
images whose immateriality prevents them from taking shape in memory. What is
lost in this system of representation is the subjects critical distance from the object,
the observers act of distancing that is a prerequisite for artistic reflection.
The question remains for whom are these books written? Your positioning on the
perennial disagreements between psychoanalysis and psychiatry will determine how
you will receive either work. Rosss book will appeal to broader audiences than that
of Schwenger because it attempts to reconcile two different discourses, those of
aesthetics and medicine, each of which is concerned with questions regarding the

relationship of contemporary art with depression. Schwengers book is probably

most appealing to English scholars and literary theorists. Schwenger recognizes
this in his own work which ends as it began. The exit issue is the entry issue, so he
concludes with poetry, the beginning and end for all melancholy, the same poetry
that is found in art. Regardless of your position you have to acknowledge Timothy
Findleys observation that, after all, it is still a beautiful word, isnt it? Melancholy.
Arrowsmith, Douglas. 2001. Techniques of Self-Mastery: Montaigne, Shakespeare, and
Freud. PhD thesis. York University.
Bachelard, Gaston. 1994. The Poetics of Space. Trans. Maria Jolas. Boston: Beacon Press.
Duffy, Stephen. 2006. Personal interview. 14 September.
Earle, Steve. 2003. Personal interview. June.
Findley, Timothy. 2000. Personal interview. 28 July.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. 2000. The Off-Shore Pirate. In Flappers and Philosophers. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.

Harris, James C. 1995. Developmental Neuropsychiatry. 2 vols. New York: Oxford

University Press.
Heidegger, Martin. 1968. What is a Thing? Trans. W. B. Barton Jr. and Vera Deutsch.
Chicago: H. Regnery Co.
Klibansky, Raymond, Erwin Panofsky and Fritz Saxl. 1964. Saturn and Melancholy: Studies in the History of Natural Philosophy, Religion and Art. London: Nelson.
Kristeva, Julia. 1992. Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia. New York: Columbia
University Press.


Freud, Sigmund. [1920] 1987. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. In On Metapsychology.

Trans. J. Strachey. New York: Penguin.