Melancholia and the Creative Urge

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By 2017-07-16

By Martin Kämpchen

When I attended High School in the USA, we were asked by our teacher to which of the four temperaments we thought we belong: to the sanguine, the phlegmatic, the choleric or the melancholic type? We were seventeen years old and nobody in the class wanted to be anything but sanguine – to be a positive, active and lively person. The self-image we all had, with me being no exception, was of an extrovert person without real problems, a happy-go-lucky boy or girl.

In other words, we felt, even though only sixteen or seventeen years old, as ‚perfect' human beings, untouched by the deeper problematic of the human condition, ignorant of the soul-searching and struggles that were ahead of us.

Perhaps we all later learned that we were not, and could never hope to be, unalloyed sanguine persons. We have strands of the other three temperaments within our personality. We are given to anger or to fits of irritation – that is, we are part-choleric. We are laid-back, sluggish and slow – we are part-phlegmatic. We are also in-drawn, contemplative and given to moods of mournfulness – we are part-melancholy.

The specific mixture of these temperaments is what constitutes our individuality. In each of us one temperament is likely to dominate at a given moment. Such dominance may vary during the passage of time, or even depend on the dynamics of external circumstances. Our personality defines itself anew again and again with, hopefully, a few constants.

The theory of the temperaments has a hallowed history going back to ancient Greece. The four temperaments were related to the bodily fluids, to the four elements (earth, fire, air and water) and to the planets. Modern science, especially medical science, may no longer rely on this theory to understand human beings. Psychology has developed finer and more varied techniques. However, the alternative educational system evolved by Rudolf Steiner's Waldorf School Movement (which maintains schools all over the world, including in India) still makes use of the four temperaments to understand young people.

Do we in India have any similar classification? Yes, there are the three gunas. Can we in any way relate the four temperaments to the three gunas? – Indeed, this appears to be possible without any serious loss of substance. The sanguine temperament is certainly akin to the sattva-guna which is the quality of purity, clarity and peace. The choleric temperament can be associated with raja-guna which is the quality of activity, anger and erratic movement. Remains the tama-guna, the quality of inertness, which has a parallel in the phlegmatic temperament.

This leaves the melancholic temperament unassociated to a guna. In India the guna-system is considered all-comprehensive and a tool to gauge the dispositions of every person. One guna is predominant and the two others are admixed in larger or lesser quantities resulting in an unlimited variety of human dispositions.

What is melancholia? What makes it so special? For the Indian psycho-analyst Sudhir Kakar melancholia is „the defining attribute of the creative person". It is the inclination of humans to draw inward and consider the larger and essential issues of life. The ancient Greeks associated melancholia with the element Earth, with the Autumn season and with the Evening from among the periods of the Day. Interestingly, Earth, Autumn and Evening reveal one common feature – that is they fuse different elements or strands into a union. Earth is, in the Indian understanding, the coming together of all other elements – of air, fire, water – into space (akasa). Autum is the transformation of summer into winter, containing both these seasons. Evening is the twilight zone where day and night meet with both lingering on. Therefore, these phenomena have a special density, or intensity, which the other elements, seasons and times of the day lack. Similarily, in melancholia the three gunas join and create a temperament of special intensity.

In European painting, melancholia was deeply expressed in the works of the masters of German Romanticism, like Caspar David Friedrich. What do we see? We see vast, often empty landscapes stretching to the farthest horizons, and men or women peering out into the distance in an attitude of yearning and expectation. It is the yearning for the Infinite, for the Limitless. The figures view the horzons knowing that beyond one horizon is another and still another one – yet even this „another and still another one" does not give them the satisfaction to know Infinity.

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Melancholia becomes manifest not in the yearning, but in the distressing realization that no matter how far the distance stretches before our eyes, a final and definite attainment cannot be expected. It is, in a sense, a pessimistic view which does not quite harmonize with the general Indian idea that Infinity, the Divine, is forever attainable if only we make a sincere effort. However, men would not normally stop with this disappointing realization and resign themselves to it. Melancholy posssesses an energizing componement, an element of defiance. Melancholic persons, it is said, are perfectionists and develop a strong tenacity when they face obstancles. They are not easy to satisfy and go on and on striving to reach their ideal. The realization that perfection (Infinity; the Divine) is impossible in human life gives them the desperation to attempt it anyway.

The melancholic person is able to find an emotional outlet and some satisfaction in one activity which has the semblance, the proximity of Infinity, of the Divine – in creative activity. This brings us back to Sudhir Kakar's dictum. By conjuring lines and colors on a canvas, by creating imagined worlds through language, through music or dance, artists become Co-Creators with the Divine and attain – for those inspired moments of the creative act – a semi-divine status. It is in those moments that melancholia dissolves into its antipode – ananda – and that a foreboding of Infinity becomes possible.

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It may now be clear why melancholia has a special place among the four temperaments and the three gunas. Ultimately, once the pessimistic block of melancholia is overcome it develops a power which seeps into the other temperaments, spreads among the three gunas and becomes pervasive.

Melancholia always possesses the ambiguity of the „Not-Yet". This state of uncertainty, this delicate emotional and mental balance breeds creative activity. As a conclusion let me quote two telling passages of an unknown Hungarian writer Béla Hamvas (1897-1968) which demonstrate the foundational relation between melancholia and the Infinite. Hamvas wrote copiously and with berserk energy without ever getting published in his lifetime. It is only in recent decades that he is being discovered and recognized as a furiously original writer. I here re-translate him from the German:

„Melancholia seizes those who realize that they are not immortal."
„We cannot retain anything except ourselves, until finally we lose ourselves, too – perhaps!... Who knows? That doubt is what we call: melancholia."

The author is presently Tagore Fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, India. His last book is meant for both children and adults: Together We are Strong! Ramu and Tara Grow Up in the Himalayas (Ponytale Books, New Delhi).

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