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The Forgotten Self -Melancholy and the fleeting remembrance of things lost. Part I.




I intend to examine the contemporary usage of the term melancholy within visual art. My interest lies in its association with loss, time, and its connection with ‘the past’. I will firstly investigate how I deem Melancholy links to these subjects. Then I will proceed to analyse the way the term can be revealed visually in art today, by focusing on a selection of different historical and contemporary works.

My drawings and their purpose within the Paper

I am using my own works here to visually describe how my thoughts and my recent practice relate to melancholy. My drawings are not definitively bound to the text; instead they illustrate my interpretations on the subject. Sometimes I use them together with quotations, which have helped to inform my practice. In other instances they are used to create a reflective pause for the reader/viewer.

The approach I have used here corresponds with this quote by Louis Aragon’s thoughts when viewing certain surrealist compositions,

“… they did not assume an allegorical stance or the personality of symbols; they seemed less the outgrowths of an idea than the idea itself.”

(Aragon: 1986: 25)



I started this investigation into melancholy because of an urge to create imagery reflecting the inner emotions that I connect with the term. At that moment I could only describe my interest in melancholy as instinctual. It seemed to cover a range of subjects that interests me and relates to my practice. However, I found it hard to clearly explain what I meant when I described my work as being informed by melancholy. Its historical meanings and connotations didn’t always relate to my views on the term. I therefore decided that it was necessary to research both the history and the contemporary attitudes towards melancholy.

When I started my investigation into the ideas which surround melancholy, I soon found myself wondering what the term melancholy, with its complex history, means to visual artists today. Maybe the desire to accurately define melancholy isn’t important, or even possible? However, even after this initial exploration, my interest in establishing an understanding of melancholy’s complex nature and its ability to capture us still persisted. I therefore started my research by trying to comprehend what emotions are often associated with the term and why these seem to be so ephemeral.


I. The characteristics of melancholy

I deem that the sensations that melancholy embodies are a mixture of reflective and sombre feelings which gives it a unique power to ‘capture us’. In her essay Grey Hope the Swedish artist Sigrid Sandström describes how “the melancholic void” takes over an individual, and when captured by it “the future becomes lost in the sudden deepening of the present” (Sandström, 2006: 8). I agree with Sandström’s view on this. Melancholy has an unusual and particular affiliation with a person’s subjective realities and a unique relation to time. The term is often used to describe a fleeting state of mind. This represents an undistinguishable longing for ‘past times’ which one cannot fully recall.

Melancholy can become evident in our everyday lives through a variety of basic sensory reactions. In the Melancholy Art- (Essays in the Arts) Ann Michael Holly describes the presence of Melancholy as “the awareness that an authentic fragment or a vestige of something once rich and whole tarries there in its own material aftermath” (Holly, 2013: xiii). Whatever one believes defines Melancholy - it is able to momentarily begin to define ‘that what we have forgotten about ourselves’ in the present moment.

Even though melancholy is inextricably linked to its complex history, it also has an unusual ability to reinvent and adapt itself to a contemporary setting. Melancholy forms a part of the human psyche and is an underlying aspect of our makeup. Lars Gustafsson writes about this in his essay; Time, pain and Loss. He suggests the term holds a particular position within a human being, since it is so closely related to our emotions and perception of time (Gustafsson, 2007: 56).

Still, if melancholy is an underlying aspect of our temperament, why is it that we find it so hard to define? I deem that its complicated history has continuously re-shaped the interpretation of the term throughout the centuries. A lot of meanings have been attached to melancholy since it first appeared in Ancient Greek philosophy. The Greeks connected it to the idea of humans possessing an excess of black bile as a result of dryness. (Sandström, 2007: 7). Since then it has evolved in a variety of ways; relating to mental illness, psychological frailties and artistic creativity. Melancholy has been widely discussed within psychoanalysis, and has been described and portrayed by artists over many centuries. Presently the term is commonly used to describe certain short-lived emotional states. I believe that the fascinations many artists have for this subject come from melancholy’s ambiguity and how, when it first affects us, it subconsciously draws us to the notion of being in Search of Lost Times.



Figure 2. The Returnee (2013)


In the presence of melancholy, I become if only for a moment, captured by fleeting fragments of the past filled with memories that I cannot locate. Holly fittingly describes this kind of feeling as “a chain of associations older than we feel we actually are”. She calls it; “this homesickness of things” relating to our past. Melancholy holds many emotions and abstractions simultaneously. It is so full with associations that its proximity becomes ‘almost painful’.

If melancholy is to some degree ‘painful’, why don’t we try to reject its presence? I believe it is melancholy’s capability to awaken our recollections of the past that intrigues us. It unsettles us, but at the same time it contains reassurances of something familiar. In my view the “homesickness” that Holly talks about retains a rare ability to reassure us of this familiarity. These feelings are so temporary and obscure; that their meanings and origins become complex. In the essay Anatomy of a Cloud Brian Dillon refers to the melancholic individual as being a kind of cloud, “he becomes foggy, indistinct, feels himself adrift and untethered”. (Dillon, 2007: 27). The reason for this struggle to describe the melancholic state of mind is that the essence of melancholy is ‘untethered’. It exists only in its own present moment. Thus, I consider this the reason why feelings of pain and loss which melancholy is associated with are so ephemeral.

Gustafsson discusses “the pain of the soul” that relates to melancholy, referring to it as the mental pain that occurs the moment we realise an occasion is lost forever. “Loss is a fundamental experience without which we would not be able to recognize ourselves as ourselves at all” (Gustafsson, 2007: 57). The loss we experience shapes us as human beings and more importantly it changes how we perceive the world. Loss is therefore an essential aspect in the way we interpret and experience ‘melancholic moments’. This often occurs when we encounter certain places or works of art.

The impact that loss has on us is dependent on time. The unfathomable nature of time is hard to comprehend; it is always related to one’s state of mind. Gustafsson points out how time has only one direction, while space has several (ibid). Thinking of time in relation to space makes it feel almost claustrophobic. We are forever locked in time’s perpetual forward facing motion. Perhaps this is why the emotions we associate with melancholy - such as pain or loss - are so strongly related to time; and particularly to ‘past time’. I deem that the pain we encounter when we are affected by melancholy is related to a past and a loss that only becomes evident during the influence of melancholy. To surmise, I will conclude this complex issue by stating that melancholy’s power is that it can remove us from the rational logic of everyday existence. It is as though “the texture of consciousness slips out from the strict cartographic depictions of a complete, coherent structure to a more unsettled and ambiguous terrain” (Sandström, 2007: 7). In the grip of melancholy, we briefly find ourselves in a place ‘here and now’, where time and place merge.



Figure 3. Divine Messenger Rising (2013)


We feel the pain, but not the lack of pain we feel the grief, but not the lack of grief; the fear but not the safety. ” from The World As Will And Representation by Arthur Schopenhauer

How melancholy connects to ‘time passed’, longing and loss closely relates it to nostalgia. In particular it is associated with what Svetlana Boym in the Future of Nostalgia, refers to as reflective nostalgia. Just like melancholy, reflective nostalgia “dwells on the ambivalences of human longing” (Boym, 2001: XVIII). However, there is an important difference between these two terms; “unlike melancholy, which confines itself to the planes of individual consciousness, nostalgia is about the relationship between individual biography and the biography of groups or nations, between personal and collective memory” (Boym, 2007: 8). Nostalgia always has a sustainable connection to ‘something’ which we associate with our history. Conversely, the origin of melancholy’s past is transient and personal, yet indiscernible. While we can stay in a nostalgic moment through focusing on memories, melancholy has no sustainable connection to our past and can therefore disappear instantly.

Zisselberger writes in his essay Melancholy longings: Sebald, Benjamin, and the image of Kafka; how melancholy is a ‘tool’ that enhances a longing for the past that is always already lost (Zisselberger, 2007: 296). Therefore some of melancholy’s power lies in its ability to briefly make us feel as though we are revisiting ‘something’ that connects with the past. It’s offering us a brief connection to the Forgotten Self.

While we can grieve over the loss of a ‘nostalgic’ time or place in our past, we cannot mourn the Forgotten Self since we cannot pinpoint what we have lost. In Mourning and Melancholia, Freud talks about mourning as being a “reaction to the loss of […] some abstraction which has taken place for one, such as one’s country, liberty, an ideal, and so on” (Freud, 1917: 242). He then addresses that for some people the same kind of influences produce melancholia instead of mourning. Even though Freud talks about melancholia as a mental condition, his description of this still closely relates to certain aspects of a more contemporary outlook on the melancholic state of mind. Freud suggests that unlike melancholia, mourning is a more impermeable term which more specifically relates to the process of overcoming a loss. (ibid: 243). The biggest difference between the two terms is that the mourner comes to a point when he acknowledges his loss, whilst the melancholic remains absorbed in his loss. He can therefore not clearly distinguish himself from the feelings of loss. In some cases he “cannot see clearly what it is that has been lost”, this, since loss experienced by the melancholic is somewhat “withdrawn from consciousness” (ibid: 244).

I am examining Freud’s analysis of ‘the melancholic illness’ in an attempt to form an understanding of melancholy’s allusive nature. I conclude that his description is a true embodiment of many things, which still define the term melancholy. The state of ‘absorption’ and the ‘withdrawness from consciousness’ Freud describes as being a characteristic of the melancholic has seemingly led to ‘a modern’ understanding of melancholy.



Figure 4. Moonshine (2013)

You became my heavy thirst
for worlds of white relief,
You became the vision cool
that steels me to all grief.

Invisible Things from Hidden Lands by Karin Boye (1924)


In another essay with a contemporary relevance to Mourning and Melancholia, “On Transience” Freud reflects on how the ephemeral and mortal condition of ‘Man’ is closely associated to melancholy. In the essay he recalls a memory of how he, accompanied by a poet, strolls through the nature on a beautiful summer’s day. His companion becomes struck by the beauty of nature, but this experience is not only joyful it is also filled with grief. This sensation is explained by Freud as a reminder of our mortality. The poet “was disturbed by the thought that all this beauty was fated to extinction that it would vanish when winter came, just like all human beauty and all the beauty and splendour that men have created or may create. All that he would otherwise have loved and admired seemed to him to be shorn of its worth by the transience which was its doom.” (Freud, 1915: 305). Freud’s consideration of his friend’s thoughts is that he found a fault in the logic that beauty’s transience should cause grief instead of increasing life’s pleasure. Freud claimed to have identified an “emotional vulnerability” in our experience of transitory and ephemeral phenomena. This emotional vulnerability is another vital aspect which relates to why melancholy always manages to affect us. And why it can move us between contrary feelings of comfort and loss, grief and pleasure.

There has never been a time in which I have been convinced of my life through myself alone. I apprehend the things around me only in representations that are so outdated that I always feel that the things were once real but are now fleeting away. I have a constant longing, my dear sir, to catch a glimpse of things as they may have been before they show themselves to me. I feel that then they were beautiful and calm. It must be so, for I often hear people talking about them as though they were there.

- Frank Kafka, ‘Conservation with the Supplicant’ (1958)

Walter Benjamin believes that “We can never entirely recover what has been forgotten” (Zizzelberg, 2007: 296). He deems that the loss of the forgotten could be a ‘good thing’, because it maintains our longing for the past as well as ensures that we, in some way, understand it (ibid). We do, to some extent understand it, since our longing is capable of recovering ‘some’ fragments of the forgotten (ibid). The longing linked to melancholy can therefore have a positive effect on us. It can serve as a tool that subliminally helps us understand our past and the ‘emotional vulnerability’ that Freud identified.

In his 1934 essay on Kafka, Benjamin suggests that ‘reading’ could serve as an activity in which ‘we could find fragments of our own existence’ (ibid: 297). Zizzleberg explains that these kinds of fragments ‘could preserve our ‘melancholy longing’ (ibid). Just as reading certain texts can nurture the melancholic state of mind, I find studying specific works of visual art can also help sustain and develop this cognitive process.



Figure 5. Perpetual Transience (2013)


note I. Full bibliography to follow with part II of The Forgotten Self -Melancholy and the fleeting remembrance of things lost.

note II. Part II of this essay will be posted a fortnight from today (17/6/13). We will announce this a day before publishing - keep following for further details…



List of Illustrations:

Figure 1: Glantz, Anna. (2013). Jorm. [Illustration, acrylic on paper] In possession of the author: Canterbury.

Figure 1: Glantz, Anna. (2013). The Returnee. [Illustration, acrylic, gouache, ink and screen wash on paper] In possession of the author: Canterbury.

Figure 3: Glantz, Anna. (2013). Divine Messenger Rinsing. [Illustration,, acrylic, ink, screen wash on paper] In possession of the author: Canterbury.

Figure 4: Glantz, Anna. (2013). Moonshine [Illustration, acrylic and ink on paper] In possession of the author: Canterbury.

Figure 5: Glantz, Anna. (2013). Perpetual Transience [Illustration, acrylic, ink and screen wash on paper] In possession of the author: Canterbury.

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