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  • Phil McLoughlin

Durer's message: Sadder but wiser

Updated: Mar 13


The melancholic temperament has an enduring association with creative people. Although not an essential part of the creative process it seems to have played a role in the production of many great works of painting and literature. Reflecting on his own life work Edgar Allan Poe said that:

They who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night. In their grey vision they obtain glimpses of eternity...They penetrate, however rudderless or compass-less, into the vast ocean of the light affable.

Robert Burton (1577-1640) addressed what would now be called ‘depression’ in The Anatomy of Melancholy(1621) but acknowledged that many other emotional experiences were also part of the 'melancholic temperament'. Ann Lund’s new book - “A user’s guide to melancholy” - which aims to help readers access Burton’s encyclopaedic, often impenetrable, 900-page text, was the focus of a discussion about contemporary ‘melancholy’ on Radio 4’s -Start the Week’. This reminded me of my experience of Burton’s work almost 40 years ago, when I was first impressed by his recognition, like Poe, that that both despair and enlightenment played a part in creative expression:

“...hell on earth ...is to be found in a man’s melancholy heart ...but

there was ‘naught so sweet as the vile rock of melancholy”

Burton’s Elizabethan age became known as the Age of Melancholy and his contemporary, Shakespeare, mapped the disparate nature of human frailties through his characters; most of which now would be called ‘psychological disorders’. Indeed, modern psychology has largely failed to surpass Shakespeare’s elegant descriptions of many aspect of the human condition.


Today, ‘depression’ is seen as a disabling illness, needing urgent medical treatment. Necessary perhaps for some but not for all. I spent most of my psychiatric career working with so-called ‘seriously (psychotically) depressed’ people who appeared to have ‘choked’ on their life experience. Many would not talk at all; others only in monosyllables. Given time and space, however, many began to register their understanding of what had overcome them. Like the many voices recreated in Burton’s book, they re-experienced their voyage in the teeth of the storm, They made their own sense of their experience. All ‘talking cures’ involve both a courageous and a creative form of sense-making. It is no accident that descriptions of such experiences take the form of metaphors. The ‘thing’ itself eludes definition.

Thirty years ago the novelist Anita Brookner thought that Albrecht Durer’s engraving ‘Melancolia’ was the most striking image of depression ever produced. Indeed, this characterisation has become a standard interpretation of the great work. She saw Durer’s image as a symbol for the ‘despond’ encountered by depressed people. The central figure sat:

“heavy-limbed and defeated, surrounded by abandoned emblems of her study, her features thickened and made sullen by inertia, the spell under which she has fallen”


Was this Durer's intention? However enigmatic, Durer’s image is not an image of defeat and resignation. It may also be read as a more positive, timeless, message about the search for knowledge and the danger posed by the lure of easy answers to life’s problems.

Melancolia caused great speculation in its day and has fragmented opinion down the centuries. The image title (held aloft by a bat) may conceal, rather than reveal, the meaning of the work. Durer may have recognised the morbid, inferior kind of melancholy, but also was aware of a superior form, characteristic of thinkers and artists. Melancolia is not about despair at the limitations of human knowledge, far less symbolic of bottomless sadness. It may be an image of inspired listening and sensitivity to the mysterious language of the imagination. The various instruments of scientific apparatus that litter the scene appear useless or of no lasting importance.


Melancolia is a challenge to materialism and all other false gods that might divert us from the path towards true knowledge. In this sense, the ladder behind the figure becomes a powerful symbol for the hope of ascent to the upper sphere of this world, rather than into the heavens. The melancholy spirit has access to enlightenment and, if necessary, can be borne aloft by her two ‘wings’: knowledge and magic. Knowledge representing that which we already know and understand; magic by all that we know which ‘works’ but, as yet, do not understand why.


Melancolia might be a fitting symbol for the depressed person, but not necessarily for the reasons given by Brookner. Depressive experiences often arrive unexpectedly, cause great distress and, on departure, leave only a great sense of relief. Other experiences also bring insult and injury but their discomforting nature may cause people to re-appraise, re-evaluate and adjust their relationship with their world. With its passing may come the legacy of understanding: something acquired at great cost; ‘sadder but wiser’. Most survivors of John Bunyan’s ‘slough of despond’ find it difficult to say what, exactly, helped them through their darkest hours. Here again metaphor comes to their aid. The power of magic endures.


This is not to suggest that melancholy is somehow ‘good’ for people: something we should actively pursue. As the poet Randall Jarrell observed:

Pain comes from the darkness.

And we call it wisdom. It is pain.

However, whatever passes for ‘human wisdom’ is rarely offered free of charge; another echo of Durer’s enigmatic engraving.


Recently, the editor of Artmag asked: “What is art for?” One answer might be: “to help us understand better ourselves (and our world)”. If nothing else art - however defined – offers a reflection of the viewer, reader or listener. Even if considered ‘meaningless’ we come to know something that belongs, uniquely, to ourselves.

Arguably, this might also be why people make art: to know, feel or otherwise experience something anew. Many have thought that Franz Kafka’s work permitted them a rare and unforgettable glimpse into the inner world of melancholia”. Kafka may have been purging some of his own demons through his writing, but his work has helped countless others understand better life’s ironies, the helplessness of the individual and the awesome nature of power. All achieved through beautiful, if terrifying metaphors.

One does not have to be a Poe, Kafka or Durer to explore and express the ineffable aspects of our experience. All paintings and sculptures are, potentially, meditative icons - whatever their subject. Similarly, we immerse ourselves in a novel or poem and re-surface, in some way, wiser. And, of course, we can discover our own ways of exploring and expressing the ‘thing’ that lies within us.

Science, and other ‘ologies’ may measure, name and deconstruct the myriad elements of our world and its inhabitants. But only we know what it is ‘like’ to be alive; to experience the darkness and the light of human existence. Today's zeitgeist is dominated by concerns about ‘mental health’. However, happiness (whatever form it takes) is illusory, very much like art. At times we may be happy, but it will pass. Everything passes, to be replaced by some other experience. That was part of what what Durer was saying almost 500 years ago. We forget his message at our human peril.

Note: Durer's image Melancolia is shown courtesy of the Metropolitian Museum of Art, New York

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