- 1 The full quotation in Kierkegaard’s journal goes as follows: “This is the road we all must walk — (...)
Just as a woman who is unhappy at home spends a lot of time looking out the window, so the soul of a melancholic [Tungsindig] person keeps on the lookout for diversions. Another form of melancholy [Tungsind] is the kind which keeps its eyes shut in order to have darkness all around. (Pap. VIII1 A 239; NB2:125)
- 2 This impressive work, first published in 1964, discusses in a rigorous manner about 22 centuries o (...)
1It isn’t as easy as one would think to bring up the theme of melancholy and to claim something definitive about it. However one approaches it, melancholy always strongly resists any attempt to catch it in a definition. Whoever glances at its development throughout the ages will easily notice that the phenomenon arises in different forms and shapes which often cannot be harmonized or which are even squarely opposed to one another. Raymond Klibansky and his colleagues Erwin Panofsky and Fritz Saxl, who wrote one of the most quoted works on the history of melancholy (Saturn and Melancholy),2 state that we cannot depict melancholy as an invariable phenomenon (39). They are of the opinion that one should much rather speak of a figure that regenerates itself continually, whereby some characteristics turn up only to disappear again later. The obstinate resistance of melancholy to being defined is so big that other commentators even wonder whether it can be the object of a theoretical investigation at all. In their view, it belongs to “the core of melancholy to withdraw from an organizing and analysing grip” (Heidbrink 25). The popular characterisation of melancholy as “sadness without cause” is in this respect revealing.
2It is undoubtedly because of its ambiguous character that melancholy pops up in most different and diverse fields. Not only is it brought up as an object of study in medicine, psychiatry, psychology and psycho-analysis, but also artists, writers, philosophers and theologians have embarked on the theme. In general we could connect a double appreciation with the phenomenon of melancholy. On the one hand it appears as a pathological given and it is part of an individual history of disease, while on the other hand it also appears as a cultural phenomenon referring to what it means to be human. In the former case one deals with melancholy as an aberration that should be suppressed with all possible therapeutic, psychiatric and psycho-chemical means, in the latter case melancholy is showing its existential roots that cannot possibly be eradicated.
3The way in which the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) has dealt with melancholy clearly puts him in the camp of those who situate melancholy in the heart of human existence. For the Dane, melancholy is by no means a medical issue that can be remedied with a proper treatment. It much rather refers to the deeper meaning of our human condition. With some caution, the theme of melancholy can be said to be a fundamental theme in his writings. So it is often the case that commentators mention his name in one breath with melancholy. But that regular recurrence of the theme does not alter, however, the fact that melancholy also spreads its ambivalence over Kierkegaard’s interpretation. Also in his interpretation the phenomenon is not pinned down on one all-embracing description. In his oeuvre melancholy shows its many faces and throughout the various works its rich history becomes apparent. The fact that different traditions of melancholy become visible in his work and that Kierkegaard gives a hint of the way in which we can look at melancholy in a contemporary context, gives him a unique place in twenty-five centuries of history of melancholy.
4In this paper I intend to cast some light on the intriguing concept of melancholy in Kierkegaard’s work. After a short introduction to Kierkegaard’s work and thought, I will dwell upon an important difference he makes in his treatment of melancholy and then finally throw more light on what I think to be Kierkegaard’s special contribution to the development of the concept of melancholy.
5It suffices to take up one of the numerous introductions to the life and work of Kierkegaard, to notice the interwovennes of his character with the theme of melancholy. A lot of commentators depict Denmark’s most eminent philosopher as a depressed thinker. This is not surprising, since it is Kierkegaard himself who acknowledges that he continuously lived under the yoke of despair and heavy-mindedness. So he writes about his melancholy as his “intimate confidante” (Pap. III A 114; Not7:28) and his “faithful mistress” (Pap. III A 114; Not7:28), holding her responsible for the several failures in his life: his despairing youth, the split with his fiancée Regine Schlegel, his incapacity to lead a conventional life, his untimely old age, and even his conviction of never having really lived (see Pap. VII1 A 104; NB:12, Pap. VIII1 A 27; NB:141, Pap. VIII1 A 239; NB2:125, Pap. IX A 217; NB6:65, Pap. X5 A 149; Not15:4, Pap. X1 A 234; NB10:153, and POV, 79 ff.). But in spite of his numerous complaints, Kierkegaard also grants melancholy an explicit positive appreciation. As a “severe melancholic” (Pap. X3 A 310) he ascribes his melancholic nature an “indescribable benefit” (Pap. X2 A 411). Not only did melancholy provide him with the solitariness he judged necessary for the realization of his work, but when looking back upon his work as an author, he considered his melancholy even as the driving force that helped to elaborate and to hold out the fundamental idea of his oeuvre.
6This twofold appraisal of melancholy — disapproval on the one hand and appreciation on the other — is not only present in Kierkegaard’s diary entries. Casting a glance at the role of melancholy in his philosophical works also points in the direction of this ambiguity. To get some idea of the place and role of melancholy in the totality of his oeuvre, it is crucial to point out the religious foundation of Kierkegaard’s philosophy.
7On many occasions, the “father of existentialism” states — sometimes explicitly, at other times in guarded terms — that he only had one end in view with his oeuvre. It was his first concern to confront his contemporaries with Christianity in its pure and essential form. According to Kierkegaard, a majority are unaware of living in “an age of disintegration [Opløsningens Tid]” (POV, 119) and have no proper understanding of the religious corruption that is prevalent in their time. Although they count themselves among the Christian sort or consider themselves as a part of Christendom, they do not realize that they have lost sight of the true, inner meaning of Christian faith. Through the tangle of pseudonymous works, edifying discourses and autobiographical writings, Kierkegaard’s readers can find that religious goal as a basic thread in his writings. All crucial categories that support and push along his activities as an author are directly or indirectly related with that religious preoccupation. So, the famous Kierkegaardian concepts of “irony”, “anxiety” and “despair” are interrelated in that they all refer to a fundamental characteristic of existence and are as such connected to an adequate or inadequate religious commitment. The different writings that have been set up around these concepts — respectively The Concept of Irony (1841), The Concept of Anxiety (1844) and The Sickness unto Death (1849) — can hence be read as stages on the way to the religious goal of Kierkegaard’s work. All other works equally serve the same maieutic goal: to warn the reader of the existential abyss in his or her life and to “awaken” him or her towards a higher and more authentic (religious) attitude to life.
8Now, in search of the meaning of the concept of melancholy in Kierkegaard’s work, one soon finds out that it comes up in different places and in various meanings. The concept is present to such a degree that one can range it simply among the above listed key notions of Kierkegaard’s philosophy. We can easily tie the theme of melancholy to some important characteristics of his thought, and therefore it is all the more surprising that he never elaborated the concept systematically. In this respect, some mention “The Concept of Melancholy” as the missing work in Kierkegaard’s writings (see McCarthy 152). Still it is not evident to attach to melancholy a well-defined position in the Danish philosopher’s work. The different contexts in which it comes up render it difficult to situate melancholy in the whole of his oeuvre. Sometimes it appears in a work that is to be found at the very outset of Kierkegaard’s career as a writer, at other times we trace it in the strictly religious writings of his later work. It is only for those who render account of the diversity of writings and contexts in which the concept functions that something filters through of the variety of meanings that melancholy has in Kierkegaard’s writings.
9The many faces of melancholy in Kierkegaard’s thought do not prevent us from finding some constant features. The Christian-religious main theme of Kierkegaard’s work already offers a firm grip for a thorough interpretation. Indeed, the different meanings of melancholy all contain a reference to the possible attitudes to life a man can have on the way to religious perfection. Hence it seems obvious that, when all is said and done, Kierkegaard will discuss melancholy mainly as something that should be conquered if one wants to reach an authentic Christian way of life.
10As was already alluded to above, many general introductions to philosophy consider Kierkegaard as the “father of existentialism”. Although he never uses the word “existentialism” himself, it is undeniable that with his thought the Dane has laid the foundations for later existential philosophy as we can trace it in the works of Jean-Paul Sartre and Karl Jaspers, and also partly in the thought of Martin Heidegger. With their philosophies they all want to point at the concrete and unique way of a human being’s existence. Unlike his successors however, Kierkegaard finds the key for an authentic experience in (Christian) religion, i.e. in the experience of the religious person who finds himself placed as a single individual before God. Accentuating subjectivity means for Kierkegaard that one should be striving for the fulfilment of one’s existential task by having faith in divine authority. To exist means to take into account that the concrete and individual existence only gains sense and meaning via the strength of a belief in something that can no longer be explained from a rational point of view, but is the object of passion and faith.
11Like all crucial themes in Kierkegaard’s work, the theme of melancholy should be put in this larger, religious perspective. Putting it in broad terms, melancholy should be seen as a disturbing element in the individual’s self-development: it troubles the process of religious awakening. This claim, however, is rather vague and asks for differentiation. In order to clarify this assertion, I should start with the general remark that Kierkegaard discusses melancholy as a kind of “closeness” or “being locked up in oneself”, which also amounts to the interpretation of melancholy as a way of secluding us from the world around us. With this interpretation Kierkegaard puts himself in a modern tradition of interpreters who saw in melancholy a kind of disturbed relation with reality. From a modern point of view, melancholy cuts a person off from a normal relation with the surrounding world and throws him or her completely back upon him-/herself. Still, melancholy understood as an ambiguous relation to the outside world, is not a merely modern issue. From its very inception on, this problematic connection to reality has been present in the heart of melancholy. Thus, in the ancient Greek conception, the black bile was the only bodily fluid that did not refer to a real substance, but could only be observed through side effects. And also after Antiquity the unreal character of melancholy was maintained. In the Christian perspective of the Middle Ages the melancholic temperament fell into disgrace just because it averted the faithful from the omnipresent divine reality and because it was a threat to the daily habits of religious community life. Theologians and spiritual authorities linked melancholy to idleness or “the sin of sloth” and turned it into a deadly sin since it was detrimental to an undivided attention to God and the community of Christians.
12That a melancholic closes herself off from the surrounding world is also for Kierkegaard an insurmountable fact. Still, melancholic persons differ from one another. So the way in which one closes oneself off or in which one is closed off from the world determines for him the intensity of melancholy. Whoever reads Kierkegaard’s work carefully will notice that the philosopher basically distinguishes between two main types of melancholy. On the one hand he makes reference to a conscious type of melancholy (or one that is connected to consciousness), on the other hand he refers to a type that manifests itself without the interference of consciousness. In the latter case, melancholy comes about rather unintentionally and independently of the will, while in the former case the melancholic person is someone who knowingly and deliberately withdraws from the dynamics of reality. Kierkegaard also seems to use two different names for these two types, viz. “melancholy (Melancholi)” for the unreflexive or unconscious one and — what one could translate as — “heavy-mindedness (Tungsind)” for the reflexive or conscious one. “Seems”, because he is not explicitly accounting for this terminological difference. His consistent useof both terms in most of his writings, however, gives us no reason to think that he is alternating between both concepts merely for stylistic purposes (see McCarthy 153). It is thus striking that Kierkegaard reserves the concept of “melancholy (Melancoli)” for youthful characters that have not yet reached full maturity, or for mythical and often literary figures to which real consciousness cannot be attributed. Their melancholic disposition is rather linked to their constitution, to what they are instead of to what they do. In the case of “heavy-mindedness (Tungsind)” on the other hand, Kierkegaard expresses a similar sensitivity, but on a higher — more reflective — level. Kierkegaard applies this concept to figures for which a normal relation with reality is made impossible because of an abnormality on the level of consciousness.
13For a good understanding of Kierkegaard’s difference between “melancholy” and “heavy-mindedness”, it might be helpful to throw the light of history on it. In doing so, we soon notice a parallel of both terms, respectively to the ancient Greek understanding of melancholy and the typical modern manifestation. In the classical conception, as is well-known, melancholy refers to the four bodily fluids or “humours”. Along with the black bile, being one of the four fundamental elements of the human organism, melancholy gained a central place in the human condition. Insofar as the black bile was essential to the physical constitution, melancholy, too, could be counted as part of what it meant to be a human being. The way in which the black bile was mixed with the other bodily fluids determined the well-being of the melancholic person. It gave rise to a healthy inclination and even to genius in case of an optimal mixture with other bodily fluids, or it was the reason for disease and aberrant behaviour in case of an unbalanced mixture. In any case, melancholy functioned in the first place as a constitutional fact and referred to a physical function. Much later, partly because of the Scholastics and their spiritual interpretation of melancholy as “tristitia”, this Greek perspective changed thoroughly. While the Greeks used melancholy to refer literally to the (non-existing) bodily substance of “melaina cholè” or black bile, in modernity we find names that refer more to feelings, to moods or to a spiritual given, in short to a conscious relation to one’s melancholic inclination. Concepts like the aforementioned English “heavy-mindedness”, the German “Schwermut”, the French “morosité” and the Danish “Tungsind” have obscured the reference to the classical doctrine of the bodily fluids. It was no accident that the rise of melancholy as a mood of life took place in a period when self-reflection and individuality slowly gained the upper hand over the symbiosis of human being and creation that was dominant until then. It became even popular to adopt a melancholic nature. Figures like Milton’s “Penseroso” and Shakespeare’s dramatic characters — think of Hamlet — or Keat’s “Ode on Melancholy” are the literary expression par excellence of a real cult of melancholy, varying from omnipresent “spleen” and the popular “English malady” to the fashionable “joy of grief” and the “douce mélancolie”. From a popular and romantic viewpoint melancholy pointed at the subjective experience of a great satisfaction in life, since it provided the melancholic with an exceptional state of mind and thus enabled him or her to rise above mediocrity. In its existential roots on the other hand it was attached to an increased self-experience, typical of the rise of modernity.
14It is striking that Kierkegaard especially focuses on the theme of “heavy-mindedness (Tungsind)” and deals with that of “melancholy (Melancholi)” only to a lesser degree. An explanation, however, is not far away. Kierkegaard lived in an age when heavy-mindedness was fashionable, and he seems to take advantage of the theme. What is more, heavy-mindedness is a central topic, since the theme of consciousness and the development of consciousness in the individual are the very core of his philosophy. It goes without saying that he pays attention to phenomena that are related to the problem of consciousness or that are a hindrance to its proper development.
15Now, what makes Kierkegaard’s view on melancholy so special, and in what sense does his thought play a prominent role in the history of melancholy? A more detailed look at some of the passages that deal explicitly with the theme might provide us with a satisfactory answer. From his very first writings on, Kierkegaard gives us a clear idea of what he means by heavy-mindedness. Although he admits that “there is something unexplainable in heavy-mindedness [Tungsind]” (EO 2, 189; SKS 3, 183), he nevertheless ventures to analyze its causes in a few pages. In the second part of his well-known and pseudonymously published manuscript Either/Or[Enten/Eller], at that time his most successful book, he notes: “[one falsely] assumes, as do many physicians, that depression inheres in the physical, and, strangely enough, physicians nevertheless are unable to eliminate it” (EO 2, 190; SKS 3, 184). According to Kierkegaard, heavy-mindedness is in no way a matter of the body, and therefore it cannot be cured with the aid of doctors or medicines: “Only the spirit can eliminate it, for it inheres in the spirit” (EO 2, 190; SKS 3, 184). In its relation to spirit, he quite determinedly explains the cause for heavy-mindedness as follows:
“What, then, is heavy-mindedness [Tungsind]? It is hysteria of the spirit. There comes a moment in a person’s life when immediacy is ripe, so to speak, and when the spirit requires a higher form, when it wants to lay hold of itself as spirit. As immediate spirit, a person is bound up with all the earthly life, and now spirit wants to gather itself together out of this dispersion, so to speak, and to transfigure itself in itself… If this does not happen, if the movement is halted, if it is repressed, then heavy-mindedness [Tungsind] sets in” (EO 2, 188-89; SKS 3, 183).
16In other words, for Kierkegaard heavy-mindedness occurs when the tendency of the individual to something higher is disturbed and when the personal development of one’s spirit comes to a standstill. It is not so much “something” — tangible or assignable — that is the immediate cause for heavy-mindedness. It is rather the total experience of existence weighing upon one. Moreover, Kierkegaard is of the opinion that anyone who suffers from heavy-mindedness bears responsibility for that him- or herself: “only through his own fault does a person become depressed [tungsindig]” (EO 2, 185; SKS 3, 180). How one experiences existence, what meaning one attaches to life or how one develops in one’s existence is a personal matter that may never merely be passed onto externalities. Only for those who succeed in “finding their meaning in this life” do “all the [so called] causes that produce heavy-mindedness [Tungsind] in life vanish… such as not feeling at home in the world, coming too early or too late in the world, not finding one’s place in life…” (EO 2, 190; SKS 3, 184).
17But what can it mean to “find one's meaning in this life”? With this question we touch upon the very heart of Kierkegaard’s thought. I already indicated that for Kierkegaard to exist means to gather oneself together out of an immediate harmony with the surrounding world and to try to give life meaning and significance by having faith in a higher, religious power. In other words, one has to turn away from all earthly dispersion in order to reach a higher spiritual stage. However, this does not mean that one effaces oneself and the surrounding world in order to gain an undisturbed contemplation of a divine reality. Such a kind of renunciation would again lead to a melancholic isolation and cutting oneself off from reality. It is Kierkegaard’s conviction that an existing human being should raise life above the necessities of the world we live in by having faith in a higher possibility without however losing sight of the “here and now”. In that perspective one should not reduce the meaning of life to the limitations and restrictions from which one suffers, or to the qualities one has. It has much rather to do with the way one takes up one’s possibilities in a commitment to the surrounding world. Precisely in the awareness that the meaning of life cannot be reduced — even though not unrelated — to who or what one is, ,lies the expression of true self-knowledge and of what it means to “find oneself”.
- 3 Here lies also the basic difference between the concepts of “melancholy” and “heavy-mindednesss” a (...)
18In Kierkegaard’s opinion, melancholic, i.e. heavy-minded persons do not succeed in maintaining that delicate balance between the necessity and possibility of one’s life, between finitude and infinitude. Although they sense that a higher meaning is reserved for their spirit, they are not able to undergo that metamorphosis. They don’t feel at home in this world, but they can’t see that the real problem is not situated outside but inside themselves. The heavy-minded person is not suffering from the world but he is essentially suffering from the repression of his higher spiritual meaning. In the early publication Either/Or Kierkegaard formulates it quite extremely when he writes that only those who “bow in true humility before the eternal power” can overcome heavy-mindedness, even though “the same individual may suffer many sorrows and troubles in his life” (EO 2, 189; SKS 3, 184). Still, this is the perspective that one finds in his later works.3 With his conviction he wants to make a plea for a religious attitude to life whereby one knows how to balance between the temporal and the eternal in man, and whereby one is capable of arming oneself against the existential decay of a heavy-minded life.
19In conclusion, one could say that in Kierkegaard’s work, the concept of melancholy bears reference to the many historical faces of melancholy. The Danish philosopher is close to the classical Greek understanding of melancholy as something constitutional every time he connects it with characters that have no or little connection to consciousness. But being a child of his times, Kierkegaard more often settles into a typically modern context by associating melancholy with heavy-mindedness and analyzing it as a wilful isolation from actuality. In this respect, and in full agreement with the goal of his work, a religious motive is always connected to the theme. Above all, melancholy — especially as heavy-mindedness — prevents the spirit from reaching its higher destination and keeps the individual from observing his or her religiosity. The religious interpretation of melancholy as it appeared in the Middle Ages — I briefly referred to it earlier — is equally present in that approach. So it is not surprising that the young Kierkegaard unreservedly joins “an ancient doctrine of the Church that classifies melancholy among the cardinal sins” (EO 2, 185; SKS 3, 180). Likewise, he elsewhere emphasizes that “the ancient moralists show a deep insight into human nature in regarding tristitia among the septem vitia principalia[the seven cardinal sins]” (Pap. II A 484; EE 117). Whoever wants to “find himself” and to exist authentically has to cross the “bridge of sighs” ever present in daily life — that much is certain. But that bridge does not take us past this life into a vague hereafter. The religious striving that Kierkegaard has in mind, takes into account the actuality of daily life and points at the (relative) importance of the finite world. And even if heavy-mindedness, in a positive sense, is a sign that one’s spirit is so to speak ripe for a step towards a higher stage, the heavy-minded person nonetheless has to take that step if he does not want to spin around in himself forever.
20Approximately one hundred years later, the famous German psychiatrist and neurologist Hubertus Tellenbach offered a similar analysis of melancholy and its impact on the experience of life. In his essay entitled “Practice in Transcendence”, he strikingly bears a striking resemblance to Kierkegaard’s position when he claims that a melancholic person “finds oneself exclusively in the finite and ignores the practice of transcending finitude, [a practice] without which existence is incapable of any transformation” (Feldmann 147). Tellenbach leaves aside whether religion is the best way to practice in transcendence. But that Kierkegaard remains a rich source of inspiration when it comes to claiming something meaningful about melancholy today, is beyond questioning.