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.