“One feels as if one were lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep dark well, utterly helpless,” Van Gogh wrote in one of his many letters expounding his mental anguish. And yet the very melancholy that afflicted him was also the impetus for the creative restlessness that sparked his legendary art. In his diary, the Danish philosopher and poet Søren Kierkegaard — one of the most influential thinkers of the past millennium — wrote that he often “felt bliss in melancholy and sadness” and thought he was “used by the hand of a higher Power through [his] melancholy.” Nietzsche, too, believed that a certain amount of suffering is essential to the soul.
“Our minds run over a daunting litany of global problems. We hope with our listing to find a meaning, a clue to our unease.”
“Our American culture’s overemphasis on happiness at the expense of sadness might be dangerous, a wanton forgetting of an essential part of a full life. I further am wary in the face of this possibility: to desire only happiness in a world undoubtedly tragic is to become inauthentic, to settle for unrealistic abstractions that ignore concrete situations. I am finally fearful over our society’s efforts to expunge melancholia from the system. Without the agitations of the soul, would all of our magnificently yearning towers topple? Would our heart-torn symphonies cease?”
“There is a fine line between what I’m calling melancholia and what society calls depression. In my mind, what separates the two is degree of activity. Both forms are more or less chronic sadness that leads to ongoing unease with how things are — persistent feelings that the world as it is is not quite right, that it is a place of suffering, stupidity, and evil. Depression causes apathy in the face of this unease, lethargy approaching total paralysis, an inability to feel much of anything one way or another. In contrast, melancholia generates a deep feeling in regard to this same anxiety, a turbulence of heart that results in an active questioning of the status quo, a perpetual longing to create new ways of being and seeing.”
- The Egg