Melancholy: Psychology Vs Poetry

Melancholy: Psychology Vs Poetry

By Mirela Sula Strugaj

Stirling University – July, 2011


This paper explores the tension between melancholia as an aesthetic emotion and its present accounts as a psychological disorder entailing a broad array of symptoms and descriptions ranging from extreme forms of clinical depression to mental derangement and modern angst as a purely psychological condition. On the other side of the string, melancholia as the dim muse of poetry seems to be a myth relegated to the realm of fables. Through an account of my dual experience as a psychologist engaging in positive and family therapy and as a poet I tried to argue that the distinctive features of the latter, its particular nature greatly and ultimately differentiate it from depression or any known form of psychological disorder. My paper has juxtaposed Albanian poems with related notes and observations from my therapy sessions, so as to pit melancholy vs. symptoms of actual psychological disorders under therapy in an effort to mark a clean distinction between melancholia and its accounts as depression. In this paper I argue that it is the distinctive character of melancholy, its dual character and its differences from sadness and depression, which distinguishes it as an aesthetic emotion.




In the brave, wild, post-postpositivist world melancholia takes a rather somber, neglected and dejected place. Even if one might think this were the place for melancholia to justly belong, it isn’t; nowaday’s melancholia is derelict and depressed, for it has been scientifically dissected; for, as absurd as it might be, such an fascinating thing as melancholy can be converted into a solid state for the purpose of being cut to pieces, for the greater knowledge of science and for the greater good of the mankind.  

Its complexity, and the claim that melancholy is fascinating in itself, does not sound really plausible. For melancholy has been associated for far too much, far too hard and far for too long a time with depression and with the extreme features thereof.

There exists, to my opinion, a justified apprehension about the advancement of some sort of ultimate “mainstream” outlook on melancholy. As our world is more and more defined by science, economy and pragmatism, the economy of thought might easily have the final say on melancholy too. The “clinical” accounts of melancholy, along with its popular “dispositional” or “temperamental” version, seem to have finally gained the upper hand on the significance of melancholy as an aesthetic emotion.

It is my intention to argue that whilst the term “melancholic” is a highly useful, sound and valid working specifier of modern psychology, melancholy as an aesthetic emotion is at least as meaningful as ever. In order to do so, I will first discuss definitions of melancholia in the past and in the present, by trying to provide its qualification as a scientific concept and as an aesthetic emotion.

My intention is to show that while there is, and there will always be some sort of tension between the two, the competing accounts of melancholy do not necessarily exclude or subsume each-other. On the contrary, through my experience in positive and family therapy, I will contend that the clinical and the aesthetical account of melancholy as two distinctive discourses that have developed and grown apart from a common ancient ancestry can meaningfully complement each-other in present times, among others for the purposes of assessing and confirming the level and validity of psychological rehabilitation. The context I have selected in this regard is my activity as a professional engaging in psychotherapy.

I. Definitions of melancholy in the past and today

As we all recall, melancholia has been described as a distinct disease in its own right quite early in human history. Its accounts have been traditionally well detailed in ancient and modern medical books. It is arguable that describing melancholia as one distinct signifier of the human situation has given an impetus to the development of the Western cognitive science as such. Therefore, equating melancholia to depression may come to be seen as the “natural”, conclusion of a history of ideas about melancholy that exceeds 2500 years. Even more so, if one recalls that the “End of History” is a quite fashionable term of the last two decades.

Yet if the historical and the ever-increasingly scientific context of melancholia seems to squeeze melancholy into the straitjacket of the medical model of depression, it is our task as professionals, doctors of science, poets, and humans, to retain a proper perspective on the process. Or, to regain that perspective, when it’s lost. My experience as a practitioner of family therapy has taught me that giving the right perspective to persisting tensions means looking from the right angle at concepts and values at least as much as at one’s life and career troubles.

The scepticism of postmodern philosophy toward standard values and assumptions on humanity has shattered parts of the current human understanding on melancholy. In this context, aesthetic melancholy is certainly more prone to be denounced as an accepted story, or, in other words, a romantic metanarrative, an imaginary construction of Romanticism. On the other hand, the medical definition of melancholy is certainly less prone to be affected. If one contends, with Kalle Lasn, that post-modernism is “arguably the most depressing philosophy to ever spring from the western mind[1]”, then it can also be argued that “old-school melancholy” has suddenly got a competition

In view of the above “dual” account on melancholy, I maintain that the very idea of melancholy in the context of post-modernism, beyond its eminent attempts to de-structure and abolish social constructs and bipolar oppositions, is marked, by means of contradiction, by a considerable ‘bipolar’ tension between what is now usually called ‘depression’ and its current, yet somehow off-stream account as a “sound” aesthetic emotion.


This tension is to me a clear sign of the permanence of the centrality of melancholy to the human condition. Investigating the history and the current bearing of melancholy as a concept and of its accounts in psychological and aesthetic terms, by relating it to both cultural and medical resources, is a direct way to explore the human condition itself.

II. Accounts of Melancholy as Depression

As we know Freud used the term ‘melancholic’ to denote a specific feature of depression upon the very eve of modern psychoanalysis. There are several symptoms that qualify melancholy as a psychic disorder. According to the current international standard laid out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, melancholic depression, or ‘depression with melancholic features’ is a subtype of a major depression episode characterized by depressive disorder.

Ancient accounts of melancholia as a depression characterized the later by aversion to food, despondency, sleeplessness, irritability and restlessness. It was held that grief and fear, when lingering, provoked melancholia. Among others, wizards and hostile magic were named as possible causes.

In modern times, it is common knowledge that the essential feature of a Major Depressive Episode with melancholic features is anhedonia, that is, loss of interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, activities or a lack of reactivity to otherwise pleasant stimuli.

As we can see, melancholy describes a highly distressing condition in the present and in the past.  In modern science, adding the specifier “melancholy” to depression qualifies the later as “highly depressing”. According to authoritative sources, melancholic depression accounts for some 10% of the total of depression cases.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders clarifies that “the distinct quality of mood that is characteristic of the specifier With Melancholic Features is experienced by individuals as qualitatively different from the sadness experienced during a non-melancholic depressive episode.”

That is, we have statistical evidence that qualifies melancholy as a particular form of depression. It is substantially different from sadness. Whereas sadness is entitled to an immediately intellegible cause, melancholy is not.

The Manual clarifies the grounds of the difference between sadness and melancholy by stating: “This (the difference) may be elicited by asking the person to compare the quality of the current depressed mood with the mood experienced after the death of a loved one”. That does it. While sadness is directly linked to intellegible causes, melancholy seems to evade them.

The specifier “with Melancholic Features” removes the victim of depression from the realm of “normal” human relations that is by the “normal” cause-effect relationship, that is, from the direct cause of sadness and sorrow. The causes of the exceptionality of the melancholic features are of course hidden, relegated to a dark dimension that is to be explored at a scientific level, quite far away from common sense.

III. Quantifying Melancholy

Modern science has seemingly gone at great lengths in quantifying melancholy. Quoting again from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders we see that melancholy is weighted statistically and measured chemically to an astonishing level of detail: “Melancholic features are more frequently associated with laboratory findings of dexamethasone nonsuppression; elevated cortisol concentrations in plasma, urine, and saliva; alterations of sleep EEG profiles; abnormal tyramine challenge test; and an abnormal asymetry on dichotic listening tasks”.

Now I were 18th century poet, I guess I would have grown quite depressed by the mere reading of these lines. Still I claim to be a poet, and I have to confess I feel quite melancholic right now. At any rate, as I will explain in my final paragraphs, the sort of melancholy I proclaim to feel is substantially different from what I felt one day, when one of my clients, upon her full recovery, was not at all impressed by a poem of mine!

For some, symptoms of melancholia as a clinical depression appear following to psychological and physical disorders. This may include the use of drugs and alcohol, or maybe the side effects of another problem, that is, a lost job, overwork, or financial and family problems.

Not much is known about the causes of melancholia; however, leaving melancholic poets aside, it is generally and scientifically believed that it is mostly due to biological causes. Some may have inherited this disorder from their parents. Thus, the “scientifically quantifiable” melancholy is not caused by life events, although stressful circumstances can trigger an episode.

IV. An Aesthetic Emotion

“Melancholy is sadness that has taken on lightness”, Italo Calvino says. The history of melancholy as an aesthetic emotion runs a wholly different track from the scientific use of melancholy as a specifier of a subtype of depressive disorder.


In other words, one might put it as follows: in its second use melancholy is useful, while in the first, it is beautiful. Starting from the eighteenth century, melancholy was diametrically opposite to what is now mainly equated with “a lack of pleasure in activities” or “a lack of reactivity to pleasant stimuli”.

Melancholy was really one of the motors of romanticism, a driving force, a modus vivendi, a slogan of protest, one of the powers that ensured the dominion of imagination over formal rules in general, and over realism in particular. Yet, in a way it seems that again both ends meet.

The point where the aesthetic and romantic end of melancholy meets its neutrally scientific counterpart I will call “ruin”. Both archetypes of melancholy meet where ruin is. Yet I maintain these are two different types of ruin

While the concept of ruin remains the same, its applications are substantially different. They are as different as a romantic ruin from a human ruin. A human ruin is a metaphor. A romantic ruin can be any old building seen in a certain way. And that’s the way of aesthetic melancholy. “Romantic beauty” does in fact relate to ideas and imagination that can melancholically relate to any building, provided, for the sake of romance, that it’s a bit worn down.

Psychic melancholy approaches the concept “ruin” the other way around. Yet the concept is central to both. The concept of ruin is of a substantial importance to contemplative melancholy. It is similarly central to qualifying psychic disorder as well. A quick look on the dictionary will reveal that the noun “ruin” relates to “an irrecoverable state of devastation and destruction”.  On the medical side, melancholic depression refers to a ruinous form of depression, where the loss of psychic homeostasis is severe to the point of being almost irrecoverable as the patient has almost definitively lost his ability to motivate himself for recovery.

On the introspective side, melancholic contemplation refers to a calm reflection on what is considered as a irrecoverable loss, yet the sadness about the loss “has taken on lightness”, that is, the one who is able to contemplate melancholically, is also able to cope with the irrecoverability of the loss. This is the case not only in highly artistic or literary contexts, but also in situations of everyday life. And this is precisely my point.

V. The quiet order

The quiet order of melancholy, “the beauty of romantic ruins” is diametrically opposed to the psychic disorder with melancholic features.

On the one and, both scientific and the poetic melancholy relate to the realm of fantasy, associated ideas, and imagination. On the other, there is nothing more contradictory than the spin these two accounts of melancholy give to imagination. Melancholy as a romantic mood is an assertive way of escaping from a reality that is found unpleasant.

Melancholy as a psychic disorder is a passive and total loss of interest from escaping from or reacting to anything. Melancholy as an aesthetic emotion that marks our way of experiencing art or even getting a special taste of everyday life situations runs totally against what we rightfully and scientifically qualify as ‘depression with melancholic features’.

I will never grow tired of repeating, that, while both ‘scientific’ and ‘aesthetic’ melancholy relate to loss and sadness, aesthetic melancholy truly “is a sadness that takes lightness on” in Calvino’s words, that is, the irrevocability of the loss is creatively perceived and actively sublimated, decay serves to generate, and fabulous constructs of feelings are build on the very foundations of past ruins.

One might notice that the new keyword is “to build”. For contemplative melancholy, just “ruins” do not suffice.

In final instance, aesthetical or contemplative melancholy places you on that bridge, from where “you can finally see the remains of the day“, as Patrick Yaeger puts it. In other words, melancholy is that high plane, a control point, a watchtower, from which one can aesthetically contemplate past dealings and wheelings of his or her life.

VI. Melancholy on a practical note

It’s plain to see that to me, as a therapy professional, using this particular account of melancholy can prove to be an invaluable asset.

Allow me to spend a couple of minutes on my experience as a psychotherapist. Over the last two years, in additional to my regular family therapy sessions, I have provided individual psychotherapy sessions to 17 patients. Out of 17 cases, I have been able to diagnose depression in 11 cases. Out of the 11 cases of depression, I have been able to ascribe melancholic features to 4 cases.  These cases displayed a comparatively higher risk incidence and a higher level of complexity compared to the remaining 13.

The clients suffering depression with melancholic features were also subject to medical treatment. By now I have been able to establish a good level of success with 1 out of 4 patients suffering depression with melancholic features. This person does not receive medical treatment any more and has returned to her normal life. One patient is still under therapy while the remaining two have interrupted the psychological therapy sessions.

I will briefly expound my take on the treatment of depression with melancholic features on the client that has returned to normal life. For data protection purposes I will call her Lina. Lina is a female, 29 years old, formerly working as a manager of marketing in a private company. Lina was referred to me by her family doctor who had noticed her growing lack of interest, first in matters affecting her own health, then gradually spreading out to the totality of matters affecting her life.

Further to holding a number of sessions I was able to detect in Lina the symptoms of anhedonia, connected to a Major Depressive Episode. Lina had permanent headache, fatigue, trouble in getting up in the morning, lack of motivation to work, lack of care for her appearance and for her body, and at times she was subject to uncontrolled fits crying and convulsions. Lina had lost her job two months prior to commencing therapy.

Four months prior to the start of the therapy Lina had broken her relationship with her boyfriend. During my inquiries with her parents and friends I was not able to detect any sign of previous depressive disorders in Lina. During one of the therapy sessions, Lina gave the following statement that I found simply astonishing. I will of course name the reason, but first let me reproduce Lina’s statement:

“Somehow I knew he would leave me. Somehow I constantly feared he would leave me.(…) The day he asked me to stay away from each-other for some time I knew I was right. I knew it would happen and I feared it would happen, and there was nothing I could do. (…) There is nothing I can do now. He accused me of being too possessive, but if I was it was because I loved him. I can’t live without him. We loved each-other and I deserve to have a chance to live with him. I’d rather kill myself than accept it is over.”

I recorded the above statement in late 2010. From a professional point of view, there is nothing astonishing in such a statement, of course. Such a statement could have been taken from a psychology textbook. Even Freud’s very early efforts on melancholia were able to capture Lina’s situation: “Profoundly painful dejections, cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of capacity to love, and inhibition of all capacity.” Further to holding a number of therapy sessions, diagnosing depression with melancholic features in Lina was not precisely the feat of a genius. Yet, from my own, personal point of view, upon having a second read of the statement, I was utterly amazed.

Lina’s statement was, if not literally, at least meaning-wise, identical with a poem of my own written in 2004. It reads as follows:

“I’ve always been scared/…from the advent of  this moment./ You are not anymore./ Morning finds me incapable to wake up/ like a woman hanging on your breath/ wandering  within psychic boundaries,/ I disown you/ to defend myself, / to survive…”

The difference between the lines written by Lina and myself is the difference between the bits and pieces of a broken psyche and a piece of aesthetic melancholy. I do maintain that the difference between the two is and will always be, quite blurry. It does not look so on paper, whence depression and aesthetics sound so different.

Melancholy as an aestethic emotion means that the ones who are fully able to experience it, are also able to transcend the ruins of their broken feelings. That is to me, the very sign that depressive melancholy is over. Once she was restored to normal life, I showed to Lina my poem. She was quite sympathetic about it. Lina likes poetry, yet my poem did not seem to move her in any particular way. I actually feel quite the same

It’s not my best piece, after all.

Thank you!


Instead of an epilogue


The broken vase
Grows cold
A solitude of petals
Opened in glass
Have withered in my hands,
However much the splinters of glass may weep
I still don’t believe in the sincerity of bloody hands,
Silence is a grave
From which the truth will sprout.

I believe only
In the broken vase.

(Frederik Reshpja – Pain)



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2 responses to “Melancholy: Psychology Vs Poetry

  1. well, this was a bit more than i could chew but a few things stuck out. the first is that you seem to have a compassion for those that have melancholy. secondly, i certainly would want a doc that was a poet versus the others. thirdly, the situation i have is much better than the previous. lastly, i absolutely loved that little poem at the end!

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