Melancholy in Times of Turmoil
Melancholy as a source of creativity and empathy
Philosopher J.J. Hermsen traces how we have dealt with melancholy down the ages, referring to philosophy, literature and art. Her lively, erudite cultural and historical essay takes us from classical antiquity to the Middle Ages, through its reassessments in art and thinking, to the present day.
Hermsen puts the case for melancholy as a source of solidarity, since it can connect people across the boundaries of time, culture, faith and ethnicity. But her incisive analysis of the zeitgeist shows that this connection is presently compromised by our pursuit of prosperity and instant happiness which leaves little room for any meaningful way of dealing with loss and mortality. During the course of the twentieth century, the idea of melancholy was supplanted by the ambiguous term ‘depression’ which found its way into medical textbooks and became perceived as a medical condition that could supposedly be treated and cured.
Hermsen appeals passionately for melancholy to be reassessed, for it to be reclaimed, linked with hope and given time and awareness for us to better cope with setback and loss. She also clearly points out, in referring to writings by Hannah Arendt and Ernst Bloch, that fresh political horizons would be needed, too.
In this, Hermsen places herself in the company of such innovative thinkers as Darian Leader and Emily Esfahani Smith who also oppose an over-mechanistic and medicalized definition of happiness and sorrow. With her impassioned plea for us to take melancholy seriously once more and to embrace it, Hermsen believes that far more room for creativity and empathy would be released, both of which are necessary to keep ourselves, our politics and our culture healthy.