In Melancholy, Hungarian author, critic, and art theorist László Földényi presents a panorama of more than two thousand years of Western historical and cultural perspectives on the human condition known as melancholia. In nine chapters, Földényi contrasts the hero worship and mystery cults of the ancient Greeks, the Hippocratic theory of bodily humors and the medieval astrology of fateful planets, the Renaissance preeminence of the individual and the Romantic inclination toward oblivion, the heartsickness of lover and beloved, the mental and neurological illnesses defined by modern medical science, and the personal dread of “real things passing” or the end of temporary existential illusion in the permanence of loss and death.
Heavy stuff—as one might expect from a title like Melancholy.
Yet readers looking for insight into their own or others’ feelings have often been drawn to such works. Admirers of Robert Burton’s magisterial 1621 volume The Anatomy of Melancholy may find themselves pleased to be introduced here to the fifteenth-century Three Books on Life by the Italian Renaissance writer Marcilio Ficino, which, according to Földényi, “alongside Burton’s massive tome, is the other most important work on melancholia.” For fans of books such as Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, however, Földényi’s old-school approach, with monolithic paragraphs built upon copious footnotes and a bibliography of fourteen and a half single-spaced pages of sources, could easily appear scholarly to the point of impenetrability.
No fault lies with the translation from Hungarian, a Herculean labor executed with deceptive ease throughout by Tim Wilkinson, rendering the most opaque of Földényi’s passages with remarkable clarity of diction. The question is whether readers will discover enough value in this dense text to feel their efforts have been rewarded. One of the most memorable and accessible points Földényi provides in the opening chapter is that in antiquity, melancholia was honored as a hallmark of people gifted with the capacity for extraordinary achievements: though they always faced the risk of succumbing to harmful despair and madness, their drive to overcome those dangers with great accomplishments could be helpful to everyone. In a later chapter, Földényi examines how the stargazers of the Middle Ages came to view melancholics as “Saturn’s children,” subject to the patterns and influence of the heavenly spheres. A reader hoping to better understand the melancholic setting and lives of the characters in László Krasznahorkai’s terrific Hungarian novel The Melancholy of Resistance can glean some useful insights from Földényi partway through the last chapter, “Trembling from Freedom.” Yet the poetry of these notions is not Földényi’s priority. His focus is comparative, the way different eras of related societies regarded, understood, and reacted to essentially the same condition.
Of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, Földényi asserts that “even after reading the more than one thousand pages of that work, one finds it impossible to define melancholia precisely—but having fought one’s way through the labyrinths of the melancholic interpretation of life, one is nonetheless left richer in experience, if not in knowledge.” Földényi’s book originally appeared in 1984. In a 1986-88 essay entitled “Melancholy” (collected in Fire and Knowledge: Fiction and Essays), the Hungarian novelist Péter Nádas, author of Parallel Stories and A Book of Memories, says much the same is true of Földényi’s Melancholy: “When one reads this book, the image arises of being in a dead space but besieged by a desire to know. . . . Whoever reads this book will feel more precisely what melancholy is but will understand it less.” (Like Földényi, Nádas examines melancholy in Homeric myth and through close analysis of a painting by Caspar David Friedrich.) As a reader, though, I would tend to say just the opposite: reading the three hundred twenty-five pages of Földényi’s Melancholy may leave one feeling more knowledgeable about how and what melancholia has been considered in the past but neither more enriched nor precise in experiencing the feeling of melancholy life itself.