Monday, September 9, 2013

The More Things Change

Melancholy is a vice. It is a nebulous grieving that we indulge in for something we cannot understand, let alone name. It is a mourning that gives us pleasure, thus we continue to inhabit this diffuse pain, which remains beyond the level of full cognition. Unlike real loss, where the thing we loved and cared for is gone and our minds work on processing what cannot come back to us and thus get over the pain, melancholy fixates on something that gives us the pleasure of feeling sorrow. Mourning, then, is about the world, melancholy is about the self. Freud, in an essay that like nearly all of his writings is equal parts brilliant and loony, argues that melancholy is the product of a loss that we have internalized as an identification between self and object. In melancholy, argues Freud, the mechanism that keeps us attached to a desired object, person, or ideal is let loose by some traumatic event and rather than reconnecting us to another object it establishes a bond between the ego and the lost object. The loss of the thing is felt as a loss of the self and grieving the thing allows us to contemplate something about ourselves. Or to put it a different way, the grieving of melancholy is purely self-indulgent.

Romantic love is the perfect material for melancholic suffering. So much of that kind of affection is related to the way we cast things in us unto other people and the ineffable shit that draws us to someone else. The sentimentalism of romance has everything to do with the way we want to imagine ourselves in connection to other people. For that reason songs that resist the sentimental impulse while at the same time dealing with love and its aftermath seem exceptional. For example, despite conclusions and memories there is little melancholy in Interpol’s “Obstacle 1.” Beyond the harshness of the music, the sense of the past is one of absolute endings: “It’s different now that I’m poor and aging/I’ll never see this face again/You go stabbing yourself in the neck.” Few feelings remain here beyond anger and resignation. There is no romanticizing the past, internalizing the loss into a reason for joyous sadness. Things will be different, “we can find new ways of living,” but what was is over.

Graham Parson’s “A Song for You” splits the difference between sorrow over loss and maudlin satisfaction.  A phrase like “Oh my land is like a wild goose” evokes the kind of atmospheric feeling that is melancholy’s natural terrain. But there is an atonal, jagged quality to the song that interrupts any easy sentimentalism. And when at the song’s ending its protagonist says “I loved you every day and now I’m leaving,” the feeling there is too specific, too pointed to be self-indulgent. What is there is hurt feelings, lost hopes. This song may draw on the idiom of melancholy but it is ultimately about what’s left over after a broken heart.

 Taylor Swift’s “Everything Has Changed” is at the other end of the spectrum. Her song takes an unapologetic approach to dreamy fantasies and the origins of melancholy: I have just met you; I know nothing about you; I’m deeply attracted to something in you I may never be able to describe; my entire sense of self has been changed by something which may have no significance at all; I can begin to love you without reason; this means everything to me even if it’s actually meaningless. Affect in this song is a projection cast from the desiring subject onto the wanted object, which if to be considered “real” must take the shape of the illusion.  That is, if love is genuine, then it must be as it seems to the person who “wants to know” the object she already craves. This song makes us melancholic for something that hasn’t even happened yet because it understands that melancholy is a feeling that emerges from the self and not from the objective world. And while it would be easy to judge this song’s proleptic melancholy, such an attitude misses the point. The song’s fantasies are illustrative of something that all of us do and that few of us would be able to express in such emotive detail, and it reminds us that while melancholy is a vice it is a vice that satisfies all of us.


  1. great as usual. kierkegaard's 'repetition' would have worked well with these songs, too. would love to see you write about him one day

    1. I've gotten a few requests for songs before but never for philosophers! I'll think about it. Usually these things take a while to filter through, and, as you can imagine, I write mostly about people that have mattered to me in my own intellectual formation. Thanks for reading and for the compliment.