Melancholia

Writing about Colin Wilson’s, The Outsider, recently reinforced for me a main pericope within its pages—that this “Outsider” is someone who sees “too deep and too much” into the nature of reality and as a result suffers from a lingering existential crisis. Wilson’s main protagonists are prominent figures in literature like the early Romantics, Blake, Keats and Wordsworth; also with philosophers like Nietzsche, and artists like the dancer Nijinsky and Van Goth the painter and visionaries like H.G. Wells. In his subsequent publication, Religion and the Rebel, Wilson says that these “Outsiders” are like “pimples appearing on the face of civilization” and that they are never prone to resigning themselves to the “insider” malaise of conventionality, or what the Zennist recently described as “consensus reality.” As a result, many of them succumbed to the depths of despair—some falling into madness like Nietzsche and Nijinsky, and some even committing suicide like Van Goth. What is it about the essential nature of these “Outsiders”, possessing great creative talent and keen insight into what really makes things tick, while at the same time feeling the eternal pangs of seeing “too deep and too much.” There was a term very much in vogue one time in creative circles that aptly describes this “Outsider” condition, and that is Melancholia.

As seen through the contemporary lens of psychologists and psychiatrists this would be tantamount to someone being diagnosed with severe manic depression; once viewed from a singular perspective, it connoted a fashionable intellectual and noble privilege. Albrecht Dürer, the renowned classical German Engraver and painter, once depicted Melancholia in symbolic fashion in his engraving entitled, Melencolia I, as shown in the above image. The poet John Milton, once sang his praises to Melancholia in his poem, Il Penseroso”:

…hail! thou Goddess sage and holy!
Hail, divinest Melancholy!
Whose saintly visage is too bright
To hit the sense of human sight…

…let my lamp, at midnight hour,
Be seen in some high lonely tower,
Where I may oft outwatch the Bear,
With thrice-great Hermes, or unsphere
The spirit of Plato, to unfold
What worlds or what vast regions hold
The immortal mind that hath forsook Her mansion in this fleshly nook…

In service high and anthems clear,
As may with sweetness, through mine ear,
Dissolve me into ecstasies,
And bring all Heaven before mine eyes.
And may at last my weary age
Find out the peaceful hermitage,
The hairy gown and mossy cell,
Where I may sit and rightly spell,
Of every star that Heaven doth shew,
And every hearb that sips the dew;
Till old experience do attain
To something like prophetic strain.
These pleasures, Melancholy, give
And I with thee will choose to live.

Milton marvelously captures that Melancholic Spirit. Dürer’s masterpiece is composed of vibrant, hermetic symbolism; focusing here on one element in particular is the sphere, signifying the old hermetic adage: As Above So Below. That old adage is indicative of that crucial “spiritual equilibrium” written about here in a recent post. If that equilibrium were present in the lives of Nietzsche and Van Goth, for instance, perhaps they wouldn’t have met such an untimely end. As portrayed in Milton’s poem, early “Outsiders” were drawn to the scholarly or religious path. One religious Melancholic was St. Jerome.

Jerome, as depicted in the image, was a reclusive melancholic fellow yet his fervent spiritual equilibrium empowered him to put his noble “temperament” to good use as he translated the Bible into the first Latin Vulgate edition, based on the Septuagint.

Above all, I’d like to emphasize that Melancholia is a Temperament. One is born with it and cannot deny it anymore than they can deny their own gender identity. Melancholic types are drawn to more solitary lifestyles and many choose the religious or monastic vocation.

Thomas Merton was one such “Outsider”; he joined the Strict Observance of the Trappist Order even though he had earlier fathered a child out of wedlock. An innate Contemplative, he was at the forefront of creating that singular synthesis between Christian and Zen Buddhism Monastic Traditions; one of his finest books is “Zen and the Birds of Appetite.” Unfortunately, his life was cut short when he died from “accidental” electrocution just hours before meeting with Eastern Zen Masters; I say “accidental”, because there has been speculation since his death in 1968 that foul-play was at hand—I suspect that some Vatican “shoo-fly”, someone who keeps controversy away from the Pope, was to blame.

One final thought on “Monasticism” as a viable alternative lifestyle for those of Melancholic temperament: ideally, it appears to be the perfect setting for being able to focus exclusively on what lies at the core of their being, yet one should approach this option with prudent caution. Living in the contemporary world our psyches are so bombarded with excessive outside stimuli that living in an environment that fosters intensive “silence” can prove to be psychologically offsetting and even detrimental to one’s desired “peace of mind and spirit”, because that kind of silence is “DEAFENING” …so much so that one can actually “hear” what’s going on inside themselves internally and actually coming face to face with those internal demons can be a frightening and even devastating and unalterable occurrence. That’s why it’s best to “check out” that monastic setting—for at least several months—before making what could be a tragic decision. All in all, that way of “balance” is always key. I like the Zennist’s suggestion of seeking periods of solitude in a hermitage—far away from the deafening crowds with their incessant “consensus reality” and agendas. But even then, spending months alone in the wilderness of the mind needs to be tempered every now and then with some healthy stimuli—like music—just to maintain that Balance that is the hallmark of Spiritual Equilibrium. To my fellow “Melancholics”, good luck and may the Unborn Spirit enliven you with peace.

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6 Responses to Melancholia

  1. suki says:

    A lot folks just go about their lives without ever really questioning what the hell’s going on! Really I mean, what is happening? Yeh, once you start poking around, it is impossible to know how it unfolds or unravels for each ‘individual’. For me it started when I was 13 yrs old with believe it or not, T. Lobsang Rampa 🙂 Hey don’t knock it…it stirred and fired the imagination and I had to know more and rest is history. Enjoying your posts and I am still reading the Dharmakaya Sutra. Very slow reader am I. Not much of an edumacation, left school when I was 16 and muddled throught life the best way I could(so I thought).

    Much thanks – Suki

  2. Bodhichild says:

    Suki,

    “Not much of an edumacation”…

    Don’t worry about it…it’s vastly over-rated! 🙂

    Glad you enjoy!

    Namaste!

  3. Sansiddhah says:

    Very interesting post. We have differing temperaments. But thankfully to the Mahayana path we can have faith that as to Buddha-Nature, we’re all the same.

    It’s not easy to cultivate a “lotus in the fire”. The Last Patriarch directly says there’s no need to go to monasteries and everyone can train at home, he reassures us:

    “If fire can be kindled with a piece of wood,
    Mud surely will produce the lotus flower.”

    Ta-Hui advanced this idea and saw the noisy ordinary life as even more favourable than the monastic lifestyle. He guided his students from far away, which is why he could be considered a forerunner of what we’re involved in, “Internet Zen” (he conducted Zen teaching through mail) –

    “Ma-tsu stresses the need ‘to be free of defilement’ and ‘spontaneous’. Ta-hui refuses even to posit the necessity of maintaining an undefiled state, which the ordinary person might find daunting. For Ta-hui, nothing at all need be perfected to achieve enlightenment: not purity, not samadhi or prajna, not even the bare ‘faith’ [in Buddha-Nature] of Lin-chi. Ta-hui insists instead that the practice must begin and end amid the typical afflictions of ordinary life – especially ignorance, delusion, insecurity and stress.”

    Someone I correspond with, Upasaka Heng Yu, wrote this recently:

    “Richard Hunn once lived in a bedsit where people use to walk through to get to other parts of the house. This went on all day andmost of the night. He said that he held the hua tou so firmly that the people became like waves in the sea, neither present nor absent. This is an interesting perception. What we seek is above the phenomena, but it is through phenomena that we find it.”

    Very inspiring words for us “home practitioners”. These devices that were handed to us compassionately, the kung-an, hua t’ou penetration or, what lies at the root of them, the “Word” within the Lankavatara Sutra (Tozen), surely are not hindered by external circumstances or temperament.

  4. Bodhichild says:

    Sansiddhah,

    You are Colin Wilson + 1! 🙂

    His work focuses pretty much exclusively with the Western experience but you have tied in the Eastern Path most nicely. Certainly Ta-Hui was above the fray of “consensus reality” by providing his students a viable alternative to the prevailing monastic lifestyle. Has encountering Ta-Hui helped you to resolve any monastic leanings? Your post seems to indicate that you’re growing evermore accustomed to the “home practitioner” stance.

  5. Sansiddhah says:

    Bodhichild, it did help. I’m starting to slowly understand the circumstances in which the monkey mind produces the monastic idea. It’s deluded insofar as it wants to deny this phenomena (ordinary) to replace it with other phenomena (sacred), instead of transcending within this situation here! Dahui is showing to be a tremendously helpful resource. I never heard of Colin Wilson before you wrote about him. Interesting implications here …

  6. Bodhichild says:

    “I never heard of Colin Wilson before you wrote about him. Interesting implications here …”

    Perhaps more than you realize at this junction. At the time of The Outsider’s publication in 1956, Colin Wilson was 24 years of age–a great breakthrough for him–it was on the Times’ Best Seller List for some time. With your erudite and developing encyclopedic grasp of Zen Masters, who knows, perhaps you could write something like, “The Outsider Looks East”–starting from your own existentialist western angst, like Wilson’s work, and then bringing in that Mahayana vantage-point of superseding the dilemma via your own grasp of the Buddhadharma and Buddha-nature. Highly recommend you read The Outsider–it’s a great read and will open up new vistas of possibilities for you.

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