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Toward Horizontal Thought: An Interview with László Földényi

Following yesterday’s book review on László Földényi’s Melancholy , reviewer Jason Newport was able to supplement his reading and review by getting a hold of the author himself, to delve a bit further into the process of the book and how melancholy is perceived.

Jason Newport is currently a Fulbright scholar and researcher, teaching literature and creative writing at the University of Pécs, Hungary. He serves as a writing instructor in the Department of English at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Hungarian critic, essayist, and art theorist László Földényi, winner of the Blauer Salon Prize of Literature, is known in Europe as the author of works on Heinrich von Kleist, William Blake, Caspar David Friedrich, György Lukács, and Goya, among many others. His most recent book to appear in English surveys the European perspective on melancholia from antiquity to today.

Jason Newport: Thank you for taking a few questions, László. I’m glad to have this opportunity to interview you for an English-speaking audience.

László Földényi: Thank you for your interest in my book Melancholy.

JN: Melancholy was published in English last year by Yale University Press, translated from the Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson. Could you please say a bit about the genesis of this book? What prompted you to put together this particular survey of the subject? Were any of the nine chapters originally published elsewhere?

LF: I wrote the book in 1982, the first Hungarian edition came out 1984 (since then there have been three further editions), and it has been translated into seven languages. The idea was to explore the dark current of European cultural history that has been always present (even if more under the surface), but has been mostly pushed into background so that it should not disturb the “sunlit” aspect of the prevailing culture. The chapters of the book were not published elsewhere.

JN: In Chapter 5, “The Bribed,” about perceptions of melancholia during the Renaissance, you note in regard to Wolf Lepenies’s 1969 analysis Melancholie und Gesellschaft (Melancholy and Society) that if Lepenies “were to make a fresh start on writing the book today, he would most probably not only work into it newer data he would have learned about the history of melancholia, but also the experience of writing about melancholia, which itself nourishes melancholia.” How much did you feel that the act and experience of writing about melancholia affected you? If you were to make a fresh start writing about it today, how might your approach differ?

LF: To write about melancholy does not necessarily make one melancholic. On the contrary: while writing the book I was enthusiastic, full with new ideas. I felt very creative. I do not think my approach would be different today; perhaps I would put a greater emphasis on the fact that melancholy sharpens the sensibility for the metaphysical aspect of our life.

JN: Would the progress of medical discovery and psychological research in the MRI era alter any of your assessments? In a later chapter, “Illness,” you note the failure up to that point of “the electroencephalograph” to pinpoint “certain mental abilities or changes” such as “mania, depression, illusion.” Earlier in that chapter you compare the 1987 and 1994 editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSMIII and IV) to a related 2012 reference. Was much new information interpolated into this latest edition of the book?

LF: As for the progress of medical discoveries, I am not really interested in this aspect of melancholy. However, in the latest (American) edition I tried to complement the latest standpoints of medicine.

JN: Péter Nádas addresses your book within his 1986-88 essay “Melancholy,” from Fire and Knowledge: Fiction and Essays, in which he also analyzes paintings by Caspar David Friedrich and Georg Friedrich Kersting and references Kleist as well as Homer. Do you know this essay?

LF: I know the piece of Nádas’s—I read it still in manuscript while he was working on it.

JN: What do you think of Nádas’s piece?

LF: I find it an interesting essay, even if his view of point is different than mine.

JN: An American reader of Melancholy is likely to notice the predominance of references to male artists, thinkers, and writers throughout history, with many fewer women mentioned, including in the sections on the Romantic period. Such readers may wonder, why not Sappho? Or Héloïse? Margery Kempe? Emily Dickinson? Virginia Woolf? Frida Kahlo? Historically, is the feminine experience of melancholia underreported?

LF: You are right, the feminine aspect of melancholy is underreported: only medical handbooks write about female melancholics who are nameless, ordinary patients. But all the books on melancholy, written before the mid-nineteenth century, report only about males.

JN: In your writing today, what subjects are you currently taking the most interest in? What are you examining at the moment?

LF: At the moment I am writing shorter pieces on contemporary art and literature; a collection of these essays will come out soon, under the title In Praise of Melancholy.

JN: What would you most like to say to an American audience? What do you most want us to know?

LF: As for the American audience, I would like to present an alternative history of European culture, showing that kind of “vertical” thinking, that was dominant in the past two and a half millennia and has been replaced by a kind of “horizontal” way of thinking and seeing the world we live in.

JN: We can look forward to seeing how your new essays define that shift in perspective. Thank you again for your time and thoughts. I’m glad to help share them with readers.

LF: Interesting questions. Forgive me for my rather poor English—I tried to do my best.

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