I’ve been experiencing moments of melancholy and nostalgia over the past months. Nothing too intense, just notable. It’s an old, familiar feeling, but one I hadn’t felt in a long time.
It’s not difficult to diagnose its source - I will soon been moving back to Ireland from Korea. I’m probably not alone in feeling melancholic during periods of life-transition. When I feel sad or melancholic about leaving, it’s not only Korea I think about, but all periods of my past life that I miss or long for. I think the first time I noticed those kinds of feelings was when I first left home to go to university.
Melancholy is typically understood as a failure to properly mourn - to become too attached to or desiring of the lost object/person/place, rather than accepting its loss in a healthy way. The philosopher Slavoj Zizek, however, points out that melancholy shouldn’t be compared to the work of mourning like this. Melancholy doesn’t represent an ‘unhealthy’ desire (for a lost thing), but instead represents a recognition of the absensce of desire (the loss of the subject themselves):
Say, a person who, all his life, was used to live in a certain city and is finally compelled to move elsewhere, is, of course, saddened by the prospect of being thrown into a new environment—however, what is it that effectively makes him sad? It is not the prospect of leaving the place which was for long years his home, but the much more subtle fear of losing his very attachment to this place. What makes me sad is the fact that I am aware that, sooner or later—sooner than I am ready to admit—I will integrate myself into a new community, forgetting the place which now means to me so much. In short, what makes me sad is the awareness that I will lose my desire for (what is now) my home.
The lost object (a city, person, time) is not ‘gone’. It is still possessed by the melancholic (through memory, etc.), it’s just that the desire for the object is gone, or will soon be gone. This is why we feel sad or disappointed.
This description reminds me of something from Kafka’s Blue Octavio Notebooks. Actually, I haven’t read them, but sections from them are read aloud in Max Richter’s Blue Notebooks album. Here is the text:
When Thomas brought the news that the house I was born in no longer exists
Neither the name, nor the park sloping to the river
I had a dream of return
I was able to fly
And the trees were even higher than in childhood
Because they had been growing during all the years since they had been cut down\
In this fragment, the narrator longs to return to their, now totally destroyed, childhood home. The fantasy of return brings joy (indeed, melancholy and nostalgia are often perversely joyous, just look at Vapor Wave ), but is also marked by the curious detail that the trees are even taller now, in the dream, than they were in childhood. Contained within the very wish to return, to traverse time, is the recognition that time doesn’t work like that. The line is both uplifting and sad. The trees continue to grow, even in the fantasy-space, nothing is ever at rest.
Even though there is something sad about this passage (perhaps it’s because it is in the context of a very sad/melancholic album), there is also a sense of acceptance and delight. The subject is lighter now (he was able to fly). The absence or loss of attachment is also a moment of freedom. The destruction of the childhood home is an opportunity for things to continue to grow, even after they have been chopped down.
This is what melancholy feels like to me, a recognition that there is no rest, no stasis in life. Even memories and the past are victims to the effects of time. It’s a scary and sad feeling, especially since we are generally taught that we are always working toward some kind of fixed ‘goal’ - the perfect career, the perfect family, a stable financial situation, heaven (if you’re religious), etc. We are always promised rest, stasis, stability, but, in my experience at least, life isn’t really like that at all.
Still, you don’t have to look far to find joy and intrigue in the ever-changing nature of reality. Philosophers like Heraclitus, Nietzsche, Bergson, Whitehead, etc., all demonstrate this. These days, I try to think of melancholy in the way that Catherine Pickstock describes the identity of the person. Throughout our lives, our identities, personas, etc., shift and transform. What we call a ‘self’ is just a loosely held-together frame around these transformations. Our movement through these transformations follows the pattern of a snake - in order to move forward, the snake first turns slightly backward, then turns forward again, then backward, etc. This ‘serpentine motion’ is mirrored by us in moments of nostalgia and melancholy. We look backward, longingly, and with heavy hearts, but this backward-looking is also a way of propelling us forward.