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.