quarta-feira, 31 de dezembro de 2008

IV - What kind of melancholy is ours?

Ana Luísa Barão

« Je ne puis jamais voir ou revoir dans un film des acteurs donc je sais qu’ils sont morts sans une sorte de mélancolie… »

Roland Barthes - Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography

What kind of melancholy is ours?

As soon as I finished reading the number two of the Lusitania Magazine I felt I was in the presence of an intricate universe of ideas. The relationship found between the diverse elements (texts and images) seemed to me absolutely coherent.

Melancholy was the theme chosen by the editor Martim Avillez, who is also responsible for publishing Lusitania Press.

Twenty texts and fifteen images according to a model of a traditional classification, or only one text, in the sense Roland Barthes theorized. A multidimensional space, a polisemic tessitura of codes, a textual labyrinth – place where people get lost, according to Walter Benjamin. In this space the important is not the creation act but the selection: the choice and combination of the diverse present elements.

In Under the Sign of Saturn (a text partly reproduced by the magazine dedicated do Benjamin) Susan Sontag assesses the idea that to understand something is to be able of drawing it as a map.  But in all labyrinths several ways can be drawn. Through the chosen authors Avillez offers the readers of this number of Lusitania the necessary instruments for the construction of an inter-textual platform. Each of the elements acquires further significance in the relation and remission established with others as a meta-reading possibility. The key is in the hand of the Creative reader.

The interest for French philosophers like Barthes, Baudrillard, Foucault and Lyotard, amongst north-American artists and intellectuals of the late 70’s and 80’s, gave life in this context to some post-structuralism concepts. Roland Barthes, of whom a piece of Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography is quoted in this number of Lusitania – which at the same time constitutes a direct reference for other cited authors – argues in his essay about the death of the author, concept I mentioned before and fundamental for understanding the structure I created for this analysis.

The illustrated index presented on the first page is also, paradoxically, the synthesis-image which archaeology of the sense of melancholy may reveal, and which the presentation text – a kind of homage to the modern melancholic hero, William Thomas Turner – also resumes. The same concept is presented under different shapes, from the visual to the textual, or even through synesthetic suggestions. Como passar o tempo, by Martim Avillez, explores this trail. Making a reflection over the work of Tom Dean, it deals precisely with the situational ambiguity between the visual and the written, and the shifting of meaning this passage induces. One gets from one register to another without losing memory of the first, he writes. It would be interesting to notice in that hiatus the reproduction of the Eduardo Batarda’s work, which precedes the text, and also its suggestive title: Morse according to Braille. This whole question assumes another dimension. With these proceedings the necessity to give way to principles is lifted, making them available with the appearance of different languages in order to widen up the message reception range. «William Thomas Turner lived, tragically, the three conditions for modern melancholy: the feeling of rejection and lost, the sense of finitude and transcendence, and the troubling persistence of memory». I underscore: lost, finitude, transcendence and memory. Other connexions are immediately open from these references, and the relation chain will not cease to grow until the very last pages of the magazine. William Thomas Turner, captain of the ship Lusitania sunk by a German torpedo: the logo of this magazine is the image of Lusitania at the tragic moment when it sunk. At the Index-Image these same concepts are repeated as keys for quick access to the several contents. The Lost; the finitude there mentioned under the double veil of Fragmentation and Death – the finite character of the fragment is a reality in itself; the Transience and, finally, Memory. This is, as a matter of fact, referred twice – at the beginning as well as at the end of the index, suggesting a continuous movement and an eternal coming back. From the 19th century on, several writers refer the association between Melancholy and Memory. For Kierkegaard, for instance, it is by means of the past that melancholy develops and opens for the individual the experience of Being. This connexion, also to be found in Freud – Grief and Melancholy – will also be one of the faces of the concept throughout the 20th century, as we shall see.

The concepts of Memory and History, present in the index, relate texts and images chosen for this edition transversally. The necessity of preserving a collective memory as an assurance of cultural continuum is mentioned in one of the very first texts – O 3º quarto do dia, moment of dusk… the melancholic moment itself. But there are more examples. The working process of the artist Tom Dean, already referred to, in the project Description of the Universe reveals similar worries. Developed between 1984 and 1988 it involves a deep reflection over concepts of time, memory and collection, as well as a profound criticism – somewhat good humoured – to Illuminism, to the encyclopaedic ideas of Diderot and to his classificatory projects of universal extent. The selection of artefacts and their ordering from principles of formal and material characterization, for example, as well as their repetitive disposition over tables ends up creating paradoxically unclassifiable universes, full of nonsense.

In the text Fixing Memory, of Lynne Tillman, a reference is made about the reconstruction of the past, and also about the mechanisms of a selective memory. Memory and History, real or fictitious, merge. For the post-structuralism, structures do not constitute universal and timeless truths, but fictions created in order to interpret the world surrounding us. For that reason Júlia Kristeva says that a text – or a cultural practise – is not a structure but a structuralizing process. It is also in this sense that Derrida make structures depend of authors’ conventions. The interesting context when one writes a story is not only the past, but also the present. Context is a conditioning instrument. Historical interpretation is mainly a perspective. Isn’t what Pierre Menard author of Quixote from Jorge Luís Borges, says? Chris Marker’s fictional documentary Sans Soleil (1982), present in Avillez selection – through some fragments of the argument, directly questions these notions. Over real images a totally fictional soundtrack is projected. But both registers reveal their own truths. The power of assemblage resumes itself to an intelligent compilation of stills (or combination, to use the term I applied to the way as the editor of this Lusitania number compounded all the content of the magazine). Here we test the ability of memory, which from the appearance of images is able to create a history and to show how deliriously we store our past. Memory of what was left to say or do, can be felt in the intermingling of the two temporal registers, which Bérénice Raynaud confronts in Lettre d’amour perdu under the influence of Lover's Discourse : Fragments, from Roland Barthes. The 18th century love letters of Mariana Alcoforado, and the ones from an anonymous woman, that writes to her American lover in the 20th century, show that in this confrontation the desire of losing is better than silence…

Substituted by the contemporary notion of depression, melancholy incorporated the most diverse ways and significances during the last two millenniums. The history of the word begins in the early 4th century B.C. in Greece – melancholia – and is composed by the association of two terms: kholê (bile) and mêlas (black), which meant literally “black bile”. After Aristotle it would be mankind quality of imaginary thought. Imagination was then understood as a movement by which all sensations experienced by an individual were engraved in his memory by means of images. Imagination and memory became, this way, two inseparable concepts. Plato refers imagination as the mother of the Muses. Aristotle, though refusing the existence of a world of ideas accessible to Men, shares the same conception that makes memory the origin of all and every creative act.

The ambivalence of the notion of melancholy – attribute of genius or tangible manifestation of pathology – constituted a stable basis for the definition of the term. We can see it in the different moments of that prospect associated to other concepts. In the 4th century, we can see it associated to anachoret: that one who lives in retirement, in solitude, dedication to prayer and in forsakenness of a melancholy state called ascesis. This also means neglect, indifference or fading of the spirit. From the 3rd century on, ascesis is frequently associated to malefic influences. If in ancient times, imagination reached geniality through melancholy, in the medieval period led to sin and temptation. Imagination then became the focus point of all vices, given the moral connotation related to that concept under the auspices of the double rule of Saturn and Satan. This Saturn affiliation was the work of Arabic astrologists, which, from the 7th century on, translated and reinterpreted Greek thought, signalling similarities between the black colour of melancholic bile and the planet Saturn. In Greek mythology, Cronus – Saturn for the Romans – was the golden age king who killed his father with a blade stroke and ate all his children, except Zeus. The bad influence of Saturn is recognized by astrology. Being Olympus sovereign, attributes like glory, protection, and wealth are associated with him, but also sadness and restlessness. From a meditative concept in Ancient Greece, it becomes little by little invested of a negative connotation, from which it would never break. By the end of the Middle Ages the diffusion of the four-temperament system fixed the image of the melancholic: it is cold and dry as earth, as a bitter heart. It is pale, thin and looks destroyed. It is persevering, greedy and narrow-minded, lives in lies, pain, sadness and grief. For this illness there is no possible solution, it is solitary, monastic, with no friends and possesses a tendency for creative spirit…

With Renaissance and the renovation of the Aristotle tradition, by which melancholy manifests itself in geniality of mankind, new understandings of perspectives were opened for the representation and interpretations of the concept. According to Marsilio Ficino, through humanism and revaluation of reason, for ascending the highest levels of human spirit was necessary to separate oneself from the body, let it die, and in that sublimation procedure, the philosopher surrendered himself to melancholy – saturnine feeling –, time interval between knowledge, in one side, and will, on the other. It is by then that one of the most enigmatic images of melancholy is made available. I refer to Melancholy I, from Dürer, reproduced in Lusitania and accompanied by the essay bearing the same name from E. Panosfsky. For the first time melancholy is intellectualized, and geometry humanized. We know today that Dürer’s biggest influence was Agrippa, from Netteshein – melancholia imaginationis and melancholia rationis – more than the Ficino, mentioned by Panosfky. Nothing in the work of that philosopher seems to make reference to the privileged place Dürer gave Geometry. On the engraving, the compass that the figure holds in one of his hands, the measuring instruments that surround her, the presence of the sphere and the polyhedron, all contrast with the alienation in which the figure seems submerged. Dürer’s Melancholy is, according to Panofsky, an attempt to elevate the arts of visual representation to the level of speculative sciences. By doing so, the German painter captures the essence of artistic melancholy. Painting and architecture while connected to geometry and numeric science induce those of practise them the awareness of their own human limitations. The more the artist shapes the world the more he becomes aware of his incommensurability. It is interesting to remark that Avillez, amongst the artists he chose to integrate this edition, placed Marcel Duchamp and the 3 Stoppages Étalon. An ironic compliment, passion for mathematics, the concept of chance«Si un fil droit horizontal d’une mètre de longueur tombe d’un mètre de hauteur sur un plan horizontal en se déformant à son gré et donne une figure nouvelle de l’unité de longueur …». Apparently antagonistic principles the Melancholy of Dürer gave harmony.

At the turning from the 16th to the 17th century several medical treatises were edited about melancholy. The most widespread, whose cover is reproduced in Lusitânia, was The Anatomy of Melancholy, of Robert Burton (1628). But others saw daylight: Libro de la Malancholía, of Andrés Velazquez (1585), the Traité de la mélancolie, of Timothy Bright (1586) or the De la mélancolie érotique of Jacques Ferrand (1640), etc. Each one of them touches slightly the notion of sane melancholy, focusing then its attention in descriptions of a pathology they associate to imagination. «Of everything affecting the soul, I consider fantasies of imagination to be the ones that ruin deeply the spirit », would write Bright on his treaty. The stages of melancholic disease would go from madness to depression according to the patients’ imagination strength… an English physicist would say in the 17th century. In the literary field, melancholy has not always been the shelter of geniuses. Hamlet of Shakespeare (1564-1616) is a noble, melancholic hero. Irony is his weapon. In Andromaque, of Racine (1639-1699), melancholy is a disease, and in Boileau (1636-1711) clear manifestation of bad taste.

With the Philosophy of Lights new territories opened to reason and feelings, and from their alliance the genius man would be born. But in none of the two essays from Voltaire and Marmontel over Imagination in the Encyclopaedia the term melancholy is used. Only Diderot dedicates it a small essay, defining it as the usual feeling of imperfection. No absolute knowledge could be the result of such condition. During the 17th and 18th centuries other images associated to melancholy saw the light of day. Vanitas is probably the most widespread and it was used to keep alive, in the memory of men, the moral consciousness of life transient aspect, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death.

By valuing the sensitive individual at the margin of society, one which prefers sources from imagination instead of reason – attributing to fantasy an original means of expression – the romantic artists seized some of the attributes of ancient melancholy. In the figure of Satan or in visions of exacerbated eroticism, in the attention given to dreams and nightmares and in the exultation of madness, Romanticism once more appropriates all the vocabulary of melancholy. In his Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, Kant mentions the alliance between melancholy and genius in Aristotle theory. The path that leads to an ideal goes through imagination, considered by Baudelaire the queen of the faculties. It is, therefore, an inner process. The place of melancholy is not anymore between the World and the Divine, but between Men and the Universe, not in transcendentalism but in emanation. That incarceration in emanation would lead Man to a growing feeling of impotence. In his Aesthetic Courses Hegel associates melancholy to a notion of time. And time itself makes present the feelings of unfulfillment.

After Romanticism the notion of melancholy is always related to loss of transcendentalism and the experience of a drifting, tragic, finite, and nostalgic life. Nostalgia reveals precisely that place, memory, where images can be kept. To Freud, to take from melancholy the privilege of accessing the past would mean transforming it in pathology. That is precisely what he tells us when he compares Grief and melancholy, reproduced also in that number of Lusitânia. Both originate an equally profound depression, a suspension of interest for the outside world, the loss of ability to love, inhibition of every activity. The only difference being that in grieve it is possible to identify the lost “object”...

In the 20th century, melancholy goes from the territory of imagination for the territory of Memory, of the tragic conscience, alienation, indifference, of the inadequate, despair, delirium, prostration, difficulty of being… 

Apathy in front of images of violence and the sensitive erosion they cause to whom every day is submerged in the catastrophe mentioned by Susan Sontag, in Regarding the Pain of Others, is maybe the big contemporary issue of melancholy…

What are we talking about when we mention the Word Crisis? The question is all but new. In every field it has been pointed out as one of the distinctive traces of our times. Nowadays we have enough reasons to mention this question again… We talk about economic crisis and the progressive lost of buy power, we talk about energetic crisis, of the rise of petrol derived product prices and the diminishing of their reserves. We talk about the crisis of the capitalist structural system. We talk about crisis in what regards conservation of environment and a sustained exploitation of natural resources. We talk about crisis in ideology. We talk about crisis whenever demography and the impoverishment of the Third World are mentioned. We talk about crisis when we face cities, bigger every time and not being able to function properly. We talk about crisis when we prove that old polarities – functionalism and organics, for instance –, valid until recently, now reveal themselves as obsolete. We talk about crisis when we observe traumatic interactions between economy and creativity, between economical power and the power of imagination, between the control bastions of economical life and political power. We talk about crisis when we observe that the inner competition model for capitalist societies is based in the omission of a moral judgment affecting the existence of every system of values. This way, the crisis of the civilization model is quickly transferred to a moral field, and to a field of behaviour codes. We talk also about a crisis in representation, etc. The list is endless, and the intermingling of sectors is evident…

But when do we really talk about crisis? Whenever a given model is drained without alternatives being perceived… Even when conscious of the end, Men never stop walking towards the abyss… Like a baudelairian hero, conscious of his own failure, and not giving up the fight… The thematic of crisis, and its polyvalence, makes us stand in front of a series of tensions… Pessimism, inevitable catastrophes, state of melancholy… If we consider such system to be essentially dynamic, we could have as hypothesis the notion of a permanent crisis. Does a state of everlasting melancholy expect us? Is melancholy the rule, the manifestation of us being inadequate to this world, of our alienation? Will crisis be the last home for melancholy? Or the debate crisis, as a fertile ground for reflection, can be the end of melancholy…


«The Titanic was designed to contain any possible damage done to one of its “secure” compartments. In what was one of the first 20th century lessons over the limits of faith in technology, the vessel showed tragically inadequate when it collided with reality»

Robert D. Ballard in Lusitania, nº2, p.3

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