Tag Archives: melancholy

On Melancholia and Media

“I hear news every day, those ordinary rumours of war, plagues, fires, inundations, thefts, murders, massacres, meteors, comets, spectrums, prodigies, apparitions,. . . .and such like, which these tempestuous times afford. . . .New books every day, pamphlets, currantoes, stories, whole catalogues of volumes of all sorts, new paradoxes, opinions, schisms, heresies, controversies in philosophy, religion &c.”* –Robert Burton on melancholy

In 1621, the Vicar Robert Burton published a gem of a scholarly work titled The Anatomy of Melancholy. Although the book, in a broad sense, is supposed to be a medical text, Burton’s approach was to gather literary quotes and create a philosophical treatise that drew from varied disciplines such as psychology, astronomy, meteorology, theology, astrology, etc. I would conjecture that Burton’s gathering of the pieces became a philosophical journey in and of itself. And, in fact, Burton claimed to have written the book as a way to dispel his own melancholy.

I’m no stranger to melancholy. Angst may be a term overused by lazy poets, but it’s also an indicator of melancholic bile, as well as an apt descriptor of the place where my mind dwells. The words above, inspired by Burton’s philosophical (if not jocular) mindset in the early 17th C, give insight into, not only my small world, but our modern 21st C reality, which throws many of us into the same splenetic fits as men suffered from 400 years ago. Think about this for a moment. You’re no doubt already aware that the character of humans hasn’t changed much over the centuries–not at core–yet we view our modern technological age as vastly different from Burton’s era. Despite that, we have, on record, an early 17th C man claiming that his private life was inundated by media. If you read the entire preface to the work where the quote is culled from, you will find that this section rambles on with the full spectrum of news–wars and rumors thereof, plagues, entertainments and entertainers, etc.

The modern glorification of media, its beauty and deceits, has come to us as a legacy from the days of the Enlightenment. Certainly, journalism and news weren’t new concepts even then; however, the 17th and 18th centuries marked a rise in printing and literacy that has not stopped rising since. Well, perhaps, literacy rates have tapered off over the years, but written words have continued to increase exponentially. Most people would call this progress, and I wouldn’t disagree with them. I love information. I love researching and sifting for ideas in a vast sea of them. Sometimes, though, I wish I could shut it all out and live as a media-less melancholic hermit in my desert home.

Do you ever feel that way? Do you ever have to remind yourself of how literacy and access to published works have enriched your life? I feel it, even if I want to shut out the noise at times. I’m quick to remind myself that the noise, or parts of it, will leave a record for posterity. As a female, I feel a great sense of relief having been born into these modern days, 400 years after Burton. I’m grateful that women are currently leaving their own record for the future.

Have you ever noticed that the early feminist movement seemed to mysteriously blossom at the same moment in history that literacy rates soared alongside of increased access to presses and printed works? I often hear the claim, usually from naysayers, that feminism is a destructive modern movement whose ideals are unknown to history. That’s a peculiar claim, really, because the core of femininity hasn’t changed over the years any more than the core of masculinity has changed (which I didn’t exactly prove without a shadow of a doubt earlier, but still, who is naive enough to believe otherwise?). With access to media, women have simply been given the voice to express who they are, and they’ve been doing so for the last few centuries. Sadly, their expressions of self aren’t always pretty or nice. But neither are the expressions of men.

My rambling thoughts at four a.m. have come full circle, it seems, with the acknowledgement that people aren’t always nice. Hence, media outlets aren’t always nice. Accordingly, it throws many of us into splenetic fits, if not irrational knee-jerk reactions to the way the world is going to hell all around us. Wars and rumors of wars. Religious controversies. Political intrigues. Paradoxes. Women. Feminism.

*Although the quote comes from the preface to The Anatomy of Melancholy, which you can find free all over the internet, I copied this tidy version of it from James Gleick’s Isaac Newton. I preferred his focus to my own. I was tempted to copy Burton’s entire paragraph because I like the whole rambling mess of it. Apparently, Gleick wasn’t tempted that way. Well, maybe he was, but, alas, he had an editor (a person I need).

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Words Wrought From Melancholia

Are you familiar with melancholia? Is she your dearest friend, who keeps you company through the wee hours of the night or early morning, before the sun has yet risen, and the air is silent and cold–when the entire world, or your small part of it, holds its chill breath before it restarts its mechanistic daily processes? That’s all right, then. You’re in good company with my dear friends from the 18th C, those men and women with whom I idly chat at my chilling early-morning tea parties. Melancholy’s in the pot, and the ghosts and I drink it together.

Samuel Johnson was a classic melancholic, who sighed deeply and claimed, “I write therefore I am alive.” He wrote. He did. And so do I. Together, we make good company. Adam Sisman, a historical biographer, makes my good friend out to be a rock star, however: “His powerful personality, his manifest integrity, his distinctive style, his penetrating intellect, his original ideas, his prodigious learning, his extraordinary versatility, and his imposing figure combined to make him a dominant literary presence” (21). Great! What was in that tea again, the pot Johnson and I were sharing? At least I choose my tea-friends wisely.

By the way, it’s important to note that the above quote can be found in Boswell’s Presumptuous Task: The Making of the Life of Dr. Johnson. Essentially, Sisman waxed all poetic about Johnson in his biography of James Boswell, which is extraordinary that a biographer such as Adam Sisman is able to fill in these details 250 years after Johnson lived. The fact that Sisman wrote such a detailed and personal biography is telling; what is even more telling is that Sisman wrote a biography of a biographer who, in his turn, wrote a biography of a biographer. Fill my cup again, won’t you? I’m feeling a little jittery.

Samuel Johnson advised his friend Mr. Boswell, the Scotsman who really couldn’t help being Scottish, thank you Mr. Johnson, to keep a detailed journal of his life. Due to Boswell’s own intensive melancholic state, he followed Johnson’s advice to the letter, scratching out on paper what no one should have ever known about his life and the lives of others, until, of course, those scratchings were published, thereby giving want-to-know to delicate ladies who otherwise conduct proper, if not delusional, tea parties in the dark hours of dawn. These detailed writings of Boswell, scandalous or not, aided him when he listened far too closely to Johnson’s many opinions, one of which was that biographies should be personal rather than formal. Biographies of famous people ought to only be written by those who had shared a table with the famed person. This personal touch would avoid a distanced chronology of events, instead engaging the reader with the minutia of daily life.

I’m so grateful that Boswell took Johnson’s words to heart–deeply–especially considering their first meeting, which went about like this: “I do indeed come from Scotland,” said Boswell, “but I cannot help it.” Johnson replied, “That, Sir, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help” (22). Johnson, to put it mildly, wasn’t altogether fond of the Scots. And, yet, it was a Scotsman who wrote Johnson’s biography. Johnson, ironically, was a biographer, himself, one who didn’t take his own advice in sharing a meal with the men he wrote about–most likely because he wasn’t quite as delusional as I am, believing dead people to still live in some sense of the word. It was a little too late for him to drop his card by, say, Milton’s house, in hopes of gaining an invite to supper. But Johnson probably wouldn’t have liked Milton much, anyway. Isn’t it far better to remain detached, in order not to know? That’s, after all, why I drink tea with ghosts.

“I write therefore I am alive,” Johnson said. Are you so sure about that? It seems I know you, your dress and habits and manners of speech, because another man wrote to expel his own gloom, to rid himself of the destruction wrought by deep thought and philosophy in the scaffolding of his mind. I know you, Mr. Johnson, because of another man’s melancholy. Huh. I wonder what that says about melancholy. Maybe it would be better to take my teapot and brew it in the land of the living, where I might find true respite by jotting down details of this time and place. Or maybe I should just go to bed.

All quotes taken from Adam Sisman’s Boswell’s Presumptuous Task: The Making of the Life of Dr. Johnson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York, 2000)

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Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: Counting Crows and Raindrops

image by A Leon Miler © 2012

I’ve never counted crows, at least not that I can remember, not even as a youth when everything counted. A while back, I wrote this memoir called Change, in which I admitted to obsessively counting things. I also claimed to have changed over the years, to have eradicated the counting habit from my mind. But the posting of that piece woke me to reality: I never stopped. All these years, I’ve unconsciously counted. And now that I’ve risen from my dream without numbers, I count things consciously again. Because of the background activity in the unconscious mind, I’m not certain if I’ve counted crows or not. However, the file in my mind marked crows is of the cryptic variety, and bears little importance to my life, unless, of course, I begin dreaming of crows. At that point, I might have to reckon with the numbers. Meanwhile, reaching back to my nineties world, Counting Crows simply refers to a melancholic Berkeley band.

Rain is gloomy. Perhaps rain is the cause of, or is at least correlated with, counting things. Adam Duritz of Counting Crows understands the gloomy nature of rain, and uses it to his advantage on the quintessential nineties album, August and Everything After. His songs literally drip with rain. I might assume, from my own experiences, that Duritz counts crows in the rain–hence the band name–but I don’t think this is true. According to a quick search on the ever useful Wikipedia, the members derived their name from a divination rhyme, in which the number of crows answers man’s uneasy questions about the future. I’m not sure I would want my future foretold by the number of crows roosting in winter trees–or wherever they happen to be–but that may be owing to my unacknowledged crow file.

On the other hand, I know what it’s like to count rain in days, nights, and hours. I know this because my childhood world dripped with rain. Even now in my desert world, I can’t separate myself from the form of it. Rain changes people at a core level, in the genetic landscape of their souls, and this information is then passed down from generation to generation. Growing up in Portland, I lived with a constant drizzle for nine months of the year. To be exact, the average yearly rain count in Portland is thirty-eight inches. How many barrels would thirty-eight inches fill? That depends on the size of the barrels. All barrels being equal, other cities in the U.S. would fill more. New York City, for example, has a higher average rainfall. Nonetheless, Portland’s rain overshadows the citizens because of the lingering crust of gray clouds, and its capacity to drip like a leaky faucet for months on end.

August and Everything After, Counting Crow’s rainiest album, released soon after my husband and I married in 1993, and just after we fled from Portland’s rain to Southern Oregon, where the rainfall average is cut in half (38 to 18–yes, I know, this isn’t exactly half, but even less!). Ironically, Adam Duritz hails from a place with a similar low level of precipitation (San Francisco); however, he was born in Baltimore, Maryland, which explains his wet head. His early life in a rainy place changed the genetic landscape of his poetry, such that rain and melancholy ooze from his lyrics in the way that damp oozes from the walls of old dwellings near the water.

Rain is like a drug to those who have soaked it up in their youth. It’s bad for us–we sense this deeply, but we can’t stop wanting it. When my world snapped from the dryness of the scrubby Southern Oregon hills, with the deep skies of summer and the white air of winter, I heard ghost rain in rattling pot lids and steam vents. I watched for the white air to pour forth, and my brain cracked from the melancholy that no longer had a cushion of rain to fall back on. From the Medford Coffee Company, where I served up life-giving trays of coffee, I stared out into a blank parking lot, swept by scattered leaves and traffic. At night, I studied the dry, black window glass that barricaded me against the traffic. Those in the espresso shop were on an island. In a mall parking lot, we provided a refuge amid the paved, dry seas.

But rain cut in half is still rain. The hollow where the city of Medford rests isn’t a desert. Eighteen inches of rain, on average, must fill its barrels for the sake of maintenance because averages are guiding strictures in a world where true understanding is unknowable. So when the rain began to fall, I counted it. I counted drop after drop until I lost count altogether and lost myself in the sound of it, in the resting place of my childhood pensiveness. Somehow, deep thoughts require at least a modicum of rain to work themselves out. This kind of brilliancy, requiring a lack of light along with barrels of rainwater, is one of the grand contradictions of a mysterious universe.

Since moving to New Mexico, my rain has halved itself yet again, leaving me with that much less of a cushion for my thoughts. The span of the desert breaks me. The span of time without rain doesn’t empty out my thought channels, but rather, it dries them as it dries the arroyos in my backyard that snake from West to East and fill with dead mesquite branches and decaying cholla arms. In the same way, my thoughts back up and cover themselves over with dust.

And the only way out is, oddly, the same out I had for the inevitable depression caused by growing up in a rain-soggy world: coffee and espresso made strong and black, short or tall. In addition, to make a pun of it, I count things. I count my coffee, my ounces, and the raindrops that fall during the monsoon season. I count how many days pass without rain. Back in Oregon, caffeine was a corrective drug to counteract the rain drug. Here, in the desert, it’s a replacement. And I never count crows because when crows flock together in the desert, they are too many to take into the hidden parts of my mind.

20,18,38,64,9 (a list of cryptic numbers indicating the rounded rainfall averages, in inches, of various places I’ve lived, except the 20, which represents San Francisco).

The image is actually of a blackbird, not specifically crow. See A Leon Miler’s website. A Leon Miler is my dad, and he also spent far too many years in a rainy climate.

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