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Emily Brady and Arto Haapala (2003) define melancholy as a complex emotion with aspects of both pain and pleasure that draw on a range of emotions — sadness, love and longing — all of which are bound with a reflective, solitary state of mind. Melancholy, they argue, does not just play a role in our encounters with artworks and the natural environment but also invites aesthetic considerations into play in more everyday situations. As such, melancholy can be considered an aesthetic emotion per se. In this paper, I critically examine the various aspects of Brady and Haapala’s account, then present an alternative analysis of melancholy and its aesthetic relevance.
aesthetic emotion; bittersweet; epiphany; everyday aesthetics; existential aesthetics; melancholy; mono no aware; nostalgia; sadness; Tolstoy
Some films, like Late Spring (1949, dir. Ozu) or Ikiru (1952, dir. Kurosawa), leave me with a powerful bittersweet feeling, one that I tend to savor even after the film is finished. The same goes for certain songs, such as The Kiss, by Judee Sill, La Chanson des Vieux Amants, by Jacques Brel, and Twee Meisjes, by Raymond van het Groenewoud. Other artworks can also evoke in me this type of profoundly bittersweet feeling: from choreographies like Laid in Earth by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui (2020) to compositions like The Disintegration Loops by William Basinski (2002-2003); from graphic novels like Imagine Wanting Only This by Kristin Radtke (2017) to the photo books of Titus Simoens, such as For Brigitte (2017).
In literature, some works do not just evoke this feeling but describe it in detail. In a memorable passage from War and Peace, Tolstoy recounts how one of his protagonists, Prince Andrei, suddenly feels overwhelmed by a powerful bittersweet feeling:
After dinner Natasha, at Prince Andrei’s request, went to the clavichord and began to sing. Prince Andrei stood by a window, talking to the ladies, and listened to her. In the midst of a phrase he fell silent and suddenly felt choked with tears, a thing he had thought impossible for him. He looked at Natasha as she sang, and something new and joyful stirred in his soul. He had decidedly nothing to weep about, but he was ready to weep. About what? His former love? The little princess? His disappointments? … His hopes for the future? … Yes and no. The main thing he wanted to weep about was a sudden, vivid awareness of the terrible opposition between something infinitely great and indefinable that was in him, and something narrow and fleshly that he himself, and even she, was. This opposition tormented him and gladdened him while she sang.
Emotional epiphanies like this abound in Tolstoy’s oeuvre. Many of his leading characters go through experiences that are similarly meaningful and bittersweet. Natasha herself, after a particularly dark chapter in her life, resolves to become a better person. But, when she attends a local church and watches the people around her, she comes to the painful realization that she cannot help judging others and being judged. Then, the priest begins his prayers with a soothing solemnity. “Tears, incomprehensible to herself, rose in Natasha’s breast, and a joyful and agonizing feeling stirred her.”
Chekhov, a great admirer of Tolstoy, would often emulate him in his short stories by evoking experiences in which the bitter and the sweet come to intermingle. Here is a passage from his short story, The Lady with the Dog:
Yalta was hardly visible through the morning mist; white clouds stood motionless on the mountaintops. The leaves did not stir on the trees, grasshoppers chirruped, and the monotonous hollow sound of the sea rising up from below, spoke of the peace, of the eternal sleep awaiting us. So it must have sounded when there was no Yalta, no Oreanda here; so it sounds now, and it will sound as indifferently and monotonously when we are all no more. And in this constancy, in this complete indifference to the life and death of each of us, there lies hid, perhaps, a pledge of our eternal salvation, of the unceasing movement of life upon earth, of unceasing progress towards perfection. Sitting beside a young woman who in the dawn seemed so lovely, soothed and spellbound in these magical surroundings – the sea, mountains, clouds, open sky – Gurov thought how in reality everything is beautiful in this world when one reflects: everything except what we think or do ourselves when we forget our human dignity and the higher aims of our existence.
Many of us can relate to these feelings. We may not have had the exact same experience, with precisely those thoughts. But many of us will recognize the depth of emotion and be able to recall similar reflective moments infused by bittersweetness, either in our responses to artworks or in circumstances such as Gurov’s. Such episodes are bound to be rare, but because of their powerful nature they are often memorable. We tend to cherish and value them. It is this complex affective state that I wish to examine in this paper. (Since Tolstoy and Chekhov offer such vivid descriptions of it, I will occasionally return to the passages quoted above.)
An appropriate term for such a profound and bittersweet experience is ‘melancholy.’ But melancholy, it should be noted, is a term with a long history; over time it has been used to refer to very different phenomena. For centuries, it was regarded as one of Galen’s four temperaments, or personality types, caused by an excess of black bile, from which its name derived: melas, ‘dark,’ and kholē, ‘bile.’ Later, it came to be seen as a mood disorder, a type of depression, a symptom of narcissistic self-obsession, and even a form of cultural decline. Freud famously thought of ‘melancholia’ as a pathological response to loss, where the recognition of loss is withdrawn from consciousness in a way that makes it unrecoverable.
The experience described in the literary passages above, however, does not seem to fit any of these senses. There does not seem to be anything pathological or narcissistic about the experience of Gurov. Likewise, Tolstoy’s descriptions of Prince Andrei and Natasha are not of a debilitating mental illness, but rather of an emotional episode triggered by circumstances and thoughts, an experience that can be savored and not leave the subject disengaged and sullen. The same can be said about my own keenly felt reactions to films like Late Spring or songs like La Chanson des Vieux Amants. My responses are not brought about by a personal and festering loss; nor are they expressions of a longstanding clinical depression. Rather, they are powerful and often lovingly savored responses to the melancholic beauty of these art works.
Much has been written about melancholia as a fundamentally undesirable and unpleasant state, in a Freudian sense or otherwise. But very little has been written about the bittersweet and positively cherished experience one may have in response to artworks or certain poignant circumstances. One notable exception is Emily Brady and Arto Haapala’s essay, “Melancholy as an Aesthetic Emotion,” published in the first volume of Contemporary Aesthetics. Brady and Haapala conceive of melancholy as a valuable experience with a distinctive aesthetic character. Addressing its “joyful and agonizing” dual nature, they examine its role in our encounters with art and literature, and also in our engagement with nature and everyday environments. It is to their view that I will direct my attention in the first few sections of this paper. In section 2, I will present the details and merits of Brady and Haapala’s view. In sections 3 to 5, I will formulate some objections that point to the need for an alternative account of melancholy and its aesthetic relevance. And, in section 6, I aim to provide such an account.
2. Brady and Haapala on melancholy
Brady and Haapala define melancholy as “a complex emotion with aspects of both pain and pleasure which draws on a range of emotions — sadness, love and longing — all of which are bound with a reflective, solitary state of mind.” As they explain, there are two necessary conditions for melancholy.
Firstly, melancholy is always reflective in nature. So, it is never an immediate response to some perceived object. Rather, melancholy “most often involves reflection on or contemplation of a memory of a person, place, event, or state of affairs.” When walking through an archetypal melancholic landscape, like a desolate moor, it is not the moor as such that directly triggers the emotion, but rather “the setting combined with the recollection of particular memories, a narrative of some kind.” To make this more concrete, the authors sketch a possible scenario:
The land that stretches out into the distance is empty and spacious, coloured by subdued shades of brown and green against the grey backdrop of the sky. The air is still and mild with a refreshing mist. A reflective mood descends as you settle into the rhythm of a quiet pace. A feeling of longing forever to be in the pleasurable solitude of the moor combines with pangs of loneliness. Specific memories and thoughts may come into play; perhaps memories of living near that place long ago. There is some pleasure felt in recollecting the good times, but along with it, almost in equal measure, comes sadness from missing the place itself.
In discussing the role of memories, Brady and Haapala make a further distinction between contemplation and recollection. If memories are vivid, reflection is characterized by contemplation; but if memories are vague, then reflection is characterized by the effort of recollection (understood as the active retrieval of memories that are faint and fragmentary). That said, whether actively recollecting or contemplating, the significance of memories is in their role as a narrative for melancholy. It is in the unfolding of this narrative that we find the more specific objects of this emotion. Brady and Haapala give the example of a past love affair. The narrative of this past relationship may unfold in memory in such a way that when one reflects on the bitter end of the affair, a negative feeling is elicited, followed by a positive feeling when one recollects the various pleasures of being with that person. This, in turn, may be followed by dread, when recalling the loneliness one now feels without that love, and so on.
The reflective nature of melancholy, according to Brady and Haapala, is especially significant “insofar as it makes this emotion more refined than others.” The comparison with sadness is meant to illustrate this. Because melancholy is reflective, Brady and Haapala argue, “it lacks the immediacy and brevity that typifies sadness. Feeling sad is most often in response to some type of loss, and this is deeply, yet most often immediately felt.” Moreover, sadness often involves crying or looking miserable, but when in the thralls of melancholy “we do not cry — it is neither an emotion with this extreme, nor it is exhibited through this type of expression.” Instead, our behavior is calm and pensive.
The second necessary condition of melancholy, as understood by Brady and Haapala, is that it always offers a combination of displeasure and pleasure. More specifically, “the displeasurable or negative aspects lie in feelings of loneliness, emptiness, sadness from loss, and the fear or dread that sometimes accompanies longing,” while the pleasurable aspects arrive “primarily through reflection, when we dwell on happy memories or fashion elaborate fantasies.”
As their example of the desolate moor illustrates, this ambivalent emotion can be present in some of our aesthetic responses to the natural environment. But, we can also experience melancholy when engaging with works of art. The narrative of memories then will be replaced with the narrative of the artwork. The example that Brady and Haapala give is the film, The Age of Innocence (dir. Martin Scorsese). Viewers follow the love story between Newland Archer and Countess Ellen Olenska and vicariously feel the joy of two people in love and the disappointment at the impossibility of their lives together.
Besides works of art and natural environments, Brady and Haapala also insist that melancholy invites aesthetic considerations to come into play in more everyday situations. Here is how they make their case: “When mourning transforms itself into melancholy, when the desperation of a loss has calmed down and is mixed with pleasurable memories, then we have an instance of melancholy, which in itself seems to create an aesthetic context of its own. […] Melancholy in this everyday context may lack the intensity of artistic experience, but its refined harmony is no less a significant aesthetic feature.”
Because of this complexity that invites aesthetic considerations, not only in well-defined artistic and aesthetic contexts but also in everyday settings, Brady and Haapala consider melancholy an aesthetic emotion per se.
3. Reflection, nostalgia, and sadness
If we return to the literary examples that we began this article with, that is, the three passages from Tolstoy and Chekhov, we can see how apposite Brady and Haapala’s analysis is. To begin, they consider melancholy primarily as an emotion, not as a temperament or type of character, and not as a medical condition or mental illness. They also emphasize its complexity and foreground its dual nature. They rightly draw a distinction with sadness and acknowledge that reflectivity is at the heart of melancholy. Furthermore, they appreciate how valuable the experience may be and recognize that it is “something we even desire from time to time, for it provides an opportunity for indulgent self-reflection.” Finally, they acknowledge and examine the relevance of melancholy in our aesthetic encounters with nature and art and in other contexts in a way that few scholars before them have done.
Still, I believe there are a number of problems with their account. Let me begin with the two necessary conditions Brady and Haapala identify. While it is helpful to highlight the importance of reflection to melancholy, the proposed conception of reflection as essentially backward-looking seems too narrow. Contrary to what Brady and Haapala suggest, it is not always, and not even primarily, memories that engender episodes of melancholy. Natasha, for instance, does not so much brood on her past as reflect on her own and other people’s judgmental nature. Prince Andrei is visited by memories of previous disappointments while listening to the recital, but as Tolstoy makes clear, the bittersweet feeling is mainly triggered by his realization of the terrible opposition between his own finite nature and something infinitely great that is in him. Gurov’s reflections in The Lady with the Dog seem mostly future-oriented, as he thinks about the monotonous, hollow sound of the sea that will continue to be heard long after he is gone from this earth.
Brady and Haapala argue that the pleasurable aspects of melancholy arrive first and foremost through reflection. It is the recollecting of the good times that is supposed to make this an enjoyable emotion. But, if we look closely at the examples of Natasha, Prince Andrei, and Gurov, we notice that each actually reflects on some painful truths. So, reflection seems more often than not responsible for the shade of bitterness in a melancholic experience.
Furthermore, one might wonder how the painful and pleasurable aspects of melancholy relate to one another. If they are to be part of one emotional experience, there needs to be some connection. Otherwise, we would merely have a succession of disparate feelings, rather than a unified emotional process with sufficient coherence to be captured under one label. However, Brady and Haapala leave the link between the painful and pleasurable aspects largely unexplained, and sometimes write as if, indeed, it concerns a succession of disparate feelings: “melancholy’s negative and positive aspects alternate unpredictably. The enjoyment of a pleasurable narrative may give way to the sudden pain of desperate loneliness or unbearable longing. We might then seek to keep the pain at bay by returning to the sweetness of particular memories.”
Consider the following scenario: Ida is lost in thoughts and is recalling a pleasant summer holiday as a child. But, then she realizes it is, in fact, the middle of January and she’s snowed under with work. She is now overcome with a desperate longing for vacation. But since she has no time to indulge in self-pity and these negative feelings only aggravate the situation, she decides to think of a nice Christmas meal she shared with family a couple of weeks ago. That helps to dispel her desperation, and she can now warm herself with these memories. This scenario fits the description offered by Brady and Haapala of a pleasurable narrative giving way to the sudden pain of desperate longing, which is kept at bay by a recalling of sweet memories. However, this does not seem a case of melancholy. Instead, what we have is a succession of unrelated and differently valenced emotions. There are sweet recollections, followed by a bitter realization, followed again by a sweet memory. But, Ida does not end up with the kind of complex but unified bittersweet feeling (and its concomitant expressions) that we find in Gurov or Prince Andrei.
Because Brady and Haapala’s account remains rather vague about the relation between the painful and pleasurable aspects of melancholy, it proves insufficient to distinguish melancholy from other emotional states. For instance, a brooding jealousy — a state in which painful suspicions of unfaithfulness alternate with gratifying fantasies of retribution — is also “a complex emotion with aspects of both pain and pleasure which draws on a range of emotion […] all of which are bound with a reflective, solitary state of mind.” In this case, too, one could say that the displeasurable aspects lie in feelings of loneliness, sadness from loss, and the fear or dread that sometimes accompanies longing, whereas the pleasurable aspects come primarily through reflection, when one dwells on happy memories or fashions elaborate fantasies. Yet, jealousy is obviously not the same emotion as melancholy.
A similar point could be made about nostalgia. Brady and Haapala often seem to conflate melancholy with nostalgia, either consciously or inadvertently. Take one of their key examples: “as the narrative of a past love affair unfolds in memory, a negative feeling, a tinge of sadness, comes when reflecting on the bitter end of the affair; longing and pleasure are felt as we recollect the various pleasures of being with that person.” This fits perfectly with the standard account of nostalgia as a backward-looking longing, where one has positive feelings about the imagined past and negative feelings about the gap between that imagined past and the actual present. In fact, there are several passages in Brady and Haapala that seem to be more about nostalgia than melancholy. By contrast, the examples I cited from Chekhov and Tolstoy are distinct from nostalgia.
Of course, it is not uncommon to conflate melancholy and nostalgia. Both are bittersweet emotions. The realization of transience, which is key to nostalgia, can also bring about melancholy — think of Gurov’s reflections on the passing of time. Nevertheless, it is advisable to keep the two apart. Firstly, nostalgia is always backward-looking in a way that melancholy is not. In fact, melancholy is often triggered by forward-looking deliberations about, say, one’s own mortality or the oblivion that awaits us all. Secondly, nostalgia standardly comes with bitter feelings towards the present, whereas melancholy does not. Melancholy is often accompanied by an attitude of acceptance and appreciation towards the present. Thirdly, because nostalgia idealizes the past and embitters the present, it is sometimes considered categorically inappropriate. On the other hand, the melancholy expressed in those passages from Chekhov and Tolstoy does not appear inappropriate at all. It is not a distorted picture of the past, but rather a truthful picture of reality that seems to bring those experiences about. I revisit this notion in section 6.
So, the theory that Brady and Haapala propose does not adequately distinguish melancholy from nostalgia or a brooding jealousy. Even the distinction from sadness, as drawn by Brady and Haapala, appears questionable. Melancholy is supposed to lack the immediacy and brevity of sadness. But, one may wonder, is sadness necessarily brief and immediate? Brady and Haapala argue that melancholy, in contrast with sadness, does not involve crying. But, as we have seen in the case of Prince Andrei and Natasha, melancholy can manifest itself in tears. Sadness, on the other hand, does not always express itself in crying. Brady and Haapala go on to suggest that melancholy is more “refined” than sadness, but we never get a compelling case for why that is so. They make the general claim that it is the reflective nature of melancholy that makes it so refined. But oftentimes sadness will also be conducive of a reflective state. So, again, the distinction appears not to be so clear cut.
To sum up, Brady and Haapala’s account of melancholy is in some ways too broad, as it cannot properly distinguish melancholy from sadness, nostalgia, or a brooding jealousy. In other respects, their account proves too narrow, for instance, in the role it accords to memories and reflection. In the next section, I will examine Brady and Haapala’s views on why certain places are particularly conducive of melancholy and what the role of solitude may be.
4. Solitude and self-indulgence?
Brady and Haapala rightly observe that some places more than others elicit a melancholic frame of mind. A church, for instance, with its open interior and abundant light; the vast ocean; a desolate moor. Why is it that such places invite feelings of melancholy? According to Brady and Haapala, it is “because they provide the solitude that forms the characteristic backdrop for melancholy. Solitude can be both cause and effect of melancholy … when we find ourselves in quiet, deserted places we may become melancholic. When we already feel melancholy we seek solitude, perhaps to fully feel the emotion.”
There is much to agree with here. Still, the explanation is not entirely satisfactory. To begin with, some locations offer solitude but are not normally conducive of melancholy. One may be walking through a pleasant, sunlit landscape all by oneself and not at all feel drawn to melancholy. Or, one may arrive early at the office, before anyone else shows up, and spend a quiet hour there without feeling the pull of melancholy. So, it is not just solitude that makes those other settings — the desolate moor, the vast ocean — conducive of melancholy.
It should be clear, moreover, that solitude is not a prerequisite for melancholy. In the examples I cited at the beginning of this paper, never is the melancholic person alone: Prince Andrei is at a soirée talking to people and listening to music; Gurov is sitting on a bench next to his lover; and Natasha is surrounded by other people in church. Such instances go to show that, while solitude may be “the characteristic backdrop for melancholy,” it is by no means a necessary condition for its occurrence. Some of the typical locations that have proven fertile ground for episodes of melancholy — churches, churchyards, war memorials — are, in fact, often visited in conjunction with other people.
Instead of solitude, it could be suggested that it is actually loneliness that is the main driver for melancholy. For one can feel lonely even when one is not alone. Indeed, that might be how Natasha feels, surrounded as she is by the judging eyes of other people. But, while Brady and Haapala make a similar observation in a footnote, it is not as simple as that. Gurov, when staring out at the sea, does not feel lonely. If anything, he feels more connected to the woman sitting beside him. Prince Andrei, too, is precisely drawn out of his loneliness by Natasha’s singing. Melancholy, it appears, can lead to a deepened appreciation of and a stronger bond with other people.
In their proposed definition of melancholy, Brady and Haapala state that the emotion is bound up with a “solitary state of mind.” But, is that what counts instead of actual solitude or loneliness? This cannot be right. Not only are Prince Andrei and Gurov left with warm thoughts towards other people, but it is even possible, it seems, to share a moment of melancholy with someone else or with a group of people. An example that comes to mind, from the film Before Sunrise (1995), is the bittersweet feeling that descends over the two young protagonists when one of them recites W.H. Auden’s poem, “As I Walked Out One Evening.”
As I mentioned in the Introduction, experiences of melancholy may not occur very often, but because of their powerful and profound nature they are bound to be memorable. We often savor those moments and wish to prolong them. Brady and Haapala point to this, too: “The desire to prolong the emotion is strong, and you indulge in the rich feelings by cultivating the mood and lingering in it.” But why exactly do we cherish such moments of melancholy? What makes the experience so valuable?
One may think the answer is straightforward: Pleasure is involved, and it is only natural to wish to prolong a pleasurable experience. But the matter is more complex than that. For it is not just the sweet aspect of melancholy that we value. We value the bittersweet experience as a whole and tend to rank it above many experiences that are unambiguously pleasurable. So, the value of melancholy cannot be identical to its pleasure value. What is it, then, that makes it such a valued emotion?
Brady and Haapala do not explicitly answer this question, but one does find two suggestions in their essay. To begin, they repeatedly stress the calming effect of melancholy. They call it a “mature emotion in which reflection calms a turbulent soul.” Melancholy, they argue, allows us “to take some distance from our previous experiences; we have given them a place in our own history.” Granted, something of the sort does seem to take place in the example of Gurov. However, this calming aspect is absent in the examples of Prince Andrei and Natasha. In both cases, the emotion is intense and even shattering. Prince Andrei feels “tormented,” and Natasha overwhelmed by a “joyful and agonizing feeling.” So, the bittersweet experience of melancholy does not always offer comfort or calm.
Another suggestion one finds in Brady and Haapala is that melancholy “provides an opportunity for indulgent self-reflection.” Or, as they also put it, “there is another more important layer to this positive feeling, that is the self-indulgent, almost narcissistic pleasure which is a felt feature of the emotion.” But, while there may be an element of self-indulgence in some melancholic musings, there does not seem to be any of this in the experience of Prince Andrei, Natasha, and Gurov, at least not if self-indulgence is understood as the excessive or unrestrained gratification of one’s own appetites, desires, and whims (Merriam-Webster). The musings that Prince Andrei, Natasha, and Gurov engage in are not gratifying, in any straightforward sense. Quite the contrary, they each face up to some difficult truths, such as the complete indifference of the universe to the life and death of each of us or the inescapable judgmental nature of human beings. It should be noted, furthermore, that ‘self-indulgent’ and ‘narcissistic’ are not terms of praise, but typically terms of rebuke. So, casting melancholy in this light is not helpful in explaining the positive value of melancholy.
In section 6, I will present an account of melancholy that does not have the above shortcomings. But first, I want to examine Brady and Haapala’s claim that melancholy is an aesthetic emotion per se.
5. Aesthetic emotions
As the title of their article suggests, and as the abstract explicitly states, Brady and Haapala consider melancholy to be an aesthetic emotion. Here is what they say in justification of this claim: “One feature that makes melancholy an aesthetic emotion […] is its dual nature. There are negative and positive aspects in it which alternate, creating contrasts and rhythms of pleasure. These aspects combine with the reflectivity that is at the heart of melancholy, and the particular refined feeling of the emotion.” However, it seems that this cannot be sufficient to make melancholy an aesthetic emotion. There are other reflective and dual-natured emotions that are not normally considered aesthetic emotions. A case in point is the type of brooding jealousy I referred to earlier, where painful suspicions of unfaithfulness intermingle with gratifying fantasies of a reckoning.
Brady and Haapala add that, “Like every emotion, melancholy arises out of a particular context, but with melancholy its various aspects come together to create an aesthetic situation around itself that gives the context a new aesthetic dimension.” But, what exactly does it mean for an emotion to create an aesthetic situation around itself? As this remains unclear, it might be helpful to compare Brady and Haapala’s account of melancholy to contemporary philosophical accounts of aesthetic emotion. Let me begin with Joerg Fingerhut and Jesse Prinz’s account.
According to Fingerhut and Prinz, aesthetic emotions are emotions that underlie evaluations of artworks, as opposed to emotions that may merely be elicited by art. “To qualify as aesthetic, an emotion should pass an intuitive test: if a work elicits that emotion, the work is in that respect good (or bad), ceteris paribus. One cannot call a work pleasing, interesting, or sublime, without praising it, unless there are overriding factors that impact the overall assessment.” Fingerhut and Prinz discuss more than ten examples of aesthetic emotions, including the beauty response, attraction, a feeling of fluency, interest, engrossment, the emotional response of sublimity, awe, wonder, admiration, and adoration. But their list does not include melancholy.
It seems that melancholy would not count as an aesthetic emotion for Fingerhut and Prinz because it would not pass the intuitive test they propose: that one can, in fact, call a work melancholic without praising it. Moreover, Fingerhut and Prinz are quite clear that aesthetic emotions only arise in artistic contexts; that is, an emotion will only be labeled aesthetic if it underlies the evaluation of artworks. Brady and Haapala, by contrast, argue that melancholy “seems to create an aesthetic context of its own” and what is unique to melancholy is “the role it can play in our everyday life.”
A different contemporary account of aesthetic emotion is offered by Jenefer Robinson. She proposes that aesthetic emotions are “positive, pleasurable, consummatory … emotions of appreciation—which are noninstrumental and which take as their intentional objects the intrinsic qualities of an artwork, more particularly, its formal interrelationships and the way that the overall formal structure of an artwork molds its content.” Examples listed by Robinson include awe, wonder, bliss, ecstasy, enthusiasm, exhilaration, and being moved. But, again, no mention is made of melancholy.
Melancholy, as conceived by Brady and Haapala, would not count as an aesthetic emotion for Robinson. Firstly, the emotion is not unequivocally pleasurable. Secondly, Robinson insists that aesthetic emotions necessarily have artworks as their intentional object, whereas Brady and Haapala explicitly deny this. Moreover, when melancholy arises in an artistic context, Brady and Haapala locate the intentional object of melancholy in the “narrative content” of a film or the “artistic content” of a painting, whereas Robinson maintains that the intentional object must be the form or structure of an artwork and how that structure molds the content of the work, if there is any content.
Robinson also takes aim at two assumptions about aesthetic emotions that seem to be at play in Brady and Haapala’s account of melancholy, namely that aesthetic emotions are a special kind of distanced emotion that are particularly refined. Robinson devotes a whole section debunking these ideas (section IV). The notion of psychical distance, she argues, has effectively been abandoned since George Dickie’s scathing critique of Bullough. Following Richard Lazarus, Robinson thinks that distancing can be better understood as a form of cognitive coping or as a shifting of attention, which in no way implies that the emotions involved themselves are distanced. Similarly, Robinson does not consider it helpful to think of aesthetic emotions as particularly refined. The latter suggests an Apollonian conception of aesthetic emotion that does not do justice to its more Dionysian aspects, that is, the fact that it can be unrestrained, undetached, and genuinely emotional.
According to Robinson, there is no reason for distinguishing emotions as intrinsically aesthetic or aesthetic per se. Take the example of bliss or being moved. One can be moved by a friend’s courage in dealing with their cancer or be blissful after an amorous encounter. There is nothing particularly aesthetic about these emotions, says Robinson. Emotions such as bliss or being moved only qualify as aesthetic when they take as their intentional object an artwork’s form and content and the relation between them.
Robinson’s point is a valid one, it seems to me. The fact that particular emotions often occur in artistic or aesthetically rich contexts should not lead one to assume that they are aesthetic emotions per se or inevitably create an aesthetic context of their own. This is true of bliss or being moved, but also, I believe, of melancholy. Melancholy is not always or necessarily aesthetic in nature. Consider one of Brady and Haapala’s key examples: “as the narrative of a past love affair unfolds in memory, a negative feeling, a tinge of sadness, comes when reflecting on the bitter end of the affair; longing and pleasure are felt as we recollect the various pleasures of being with that person; while the dread comes in one sharp moment of recapturing the feeling of loneliness felt without that love.” Leaving aside that this may be more an example of nostalgia than of melancholy, one could wonder what, if anything, is particularly aesthetic about such an experience?
According to Jerrold Levinson, an aesthetic experience occurs only when we value our aesthetic perception of an object for its own sake, an aesthetic perception being one that typically involves an appreciation of the way higher-order appearances are related to lower-order appearances. But, in the above example there is no aesthetic perception of any object. There are only memories and sharply felt emotions. Even if one were to adopt a content-oriented approach to aesthetic experience, say, Noël Carroll’s as opposed to Levinson’s, the above would not count as an aesthetic experience, since there is no indication that the melancholic person is attending to any formal, expressive, or aesthetic qualities.
One can feel melancholic in the relevant sense, I submit, without this being in any demonstrable way an aesthetic emotion or linked to an aesthetic experience. At times, Brady and Haapala seem to acknowledge this. Or, at least they seem to move away from the idea that melancholy is an aesthetic emotion per se and towards a more modest view of the connection between melancholy and aesthetics. For instance, sometimes they suggest that melancholy is conducive of aesthetic experience, while other times they suggest that melancholy is concomitant with aesthetic experience or that the conditions for melancholy resemble the conditions for an aesthetic experience. The problem with these various formulations, however, is that we end up with a diffuse and somewhat muddled picture of the relation between aesthetics and melancholy. Ideally, what we want from a theory of melancholy is a clear and consistent account of how and under what circumstances melancholy can be aesthetic. In the next section, I will attempt to provide such an account.
6. A new account of melancholy
Grasping a harsh truth about human existence may put the precarious value of something you care about in sharp relief in such a way that you come to appreciate it more deeply. As a result, negative feelings or emotions (for example, sadness or agony) will co-occur or alternate with positive feelings or emotions (for example, joy or gratitude). That, I propose, is what the bittersweet experience of melancholy amounts to.
Some clarifications are in order. To begin, let me reiterate that this account is not meant to replace or supersede any clinical accounts of melancholia as a mood disorder or a pathological form of mourning. Rather, it is to illuminate the sort of the experience described by Tolstoy and Chekhov and that is also the target of Brady and Haapala’s analysis. Its focus is the complex and profound experience, bittersweet in nature, that people tend to positively cherish.
The existential insights that give rise to this type of melancholy can vary. They can relate to the transience of all things, the judgmental nature of human beings, the indifference of the universe to the life and death of each of us, the opposition we find in ourselves between something infinitely great and our own finite nature, and so on. But it is key that such perceived truths are not just theoretically acknowledged. For there to be an emotional response, they must be vividly grasped or, as Jenefer Robinson would put it, “affectively appraised.”
Of course, when someone really comes to grasp what they perceive to be a harsh existential truth, their response may just be one of sadness, horror, or despair. But it can also be more complex and multifaceted. That is when melancholy may ensue. The harsh existential insight may come to accentuate the precarious value of something that you (feel you should) care about — the present moment, a past friendship, your lifelong partner — in such a way that you come to more deeply appreciate that something or someone. This gives rise to more positive feelings or emotions that contrast with the initial feelings of sadness or despair. Hence, the bittersweet nature of melancholy and the sad subdued smile or tearful happiness that typically accompany it.
Moments of melancholy can be relatively brief and subtle when there’s a quick shift of the negative to the positive. But the whole process can also be protracted and very intense, with thoughts that continuously develop and overlap, affecting and even looping back on each other, resulting in a prolonged alternation of the bitter and the sweet. A famous example of this is the ending of James Joyce’s The Dead (1914), where we are made privy to the melancholic reflections of the protagonist Gabriel. He has just come to the painful realization that he has not been his wife’s one-and-only true love and they were not necessarily meant to be together, since she loved someone else long ago. But “as he thought of what she must have been then, in that time of her first girlish beauty, a strange friendly piety for her entered his soul.” Gabriel continues to ruminate on the events of the day, on his own foolish pretensions, and on the sickness and death that will inevitably come upon his family. And then: “The air of the room chilled his shoulders. He stretched himself cautiously along under the sheets and lay down beside his wife. One by one they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live. Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes.” The story then ends with one of the most beautifully melancholic paragraphs in world literature: “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
Melancholy, according to this new proposal, is not always or necessarily aesthetic. But it may be considered such in cases where melancholy leads to a deeper aesthetic appreciation. That is, if reflection on a perceived profound but harsh truth about human existence puts the aesthetic or artistic value of something in sharp relief in such a way that one comes to appreciate it more deeply, we may speak of aesthetic melancholy. With that qualification in mind, it seems that the characters in the passages I quoted from Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Joyce are indeed experiencing aesthetic melancholy. Prince Andrei appreciates the beauty of Natasha’s music and is deeply moved in virtue of it. Gurov is aesthetically savoring his surroundings while being in the thralls of melancholy. And the same goes for Gabriel in The Dead. He is not only moved by the beauty of his sleeping wife, but also by the beauty of the silent winter evening. Moreover, readers of Tolstoy, Chekhov and Joyce may also experience aesthetic melancholy in savoring these beautiful passages. When one reads about the world’s “complete indifference to the life and death of each of us” or hears Raymond van het Groenewoud sing about old age inevitably creeping up on us, one is invited to contemplate these existential truths. And, doing so may put the precarious value of beauty, and particularly the beauty and artistry of the prose or the song, in sharp relief in such a way that one comes to appreciate it more deeply.
This new account of melancholy does not, I think, fall prey to the objections that Brady and Haapala face. First, this account explains the reflective nature of melancholy without relying on a predominantly backward-looking conception of reflection. Prince Andrei, Natasha, Gurov, and Gabriel are all caught up in thought, but not all of them are reflecting on the past. Each of them, however, contemplates some difficult existential truth. This helps explain, secondly, why certain reflections are typically responsible for the shade of bitterness in a melancholic experience, contrary to Brady and Haapala, who emphasize that reflection is primarily responsible for the pleasurable aspects of melancholy.
Third, the relation between the bitter and the sweet is not left unexplained in the proposed account. Instead, melancholy is presented as a sufficiently unified emotional process; we gain insight into how the painful aspects may relate to and even intensify the pleasurable aspects and vice versa. So, while the imaginary case of Ida, who is alternatingly visited by sweet recollections and bitter realizations, serves as a counterexample to Brady and Haapala’s account, it presents no difficulty to the account suggested here.
Fourth, the proposed definition can easily distinguish melancholy from other emotional states, such a brooding jealousy or mere sadness. Fifth, there is no risk of conflating melancholy with nostalgia. Whereas the latter is defined by a backward-looking longing, melancholy is not. In fact, melancholy will often involve future-oriented reflections on one’s own impending death or the bleak prospects of humanity more generally.
Sixth, this account offers a better explanation of why some places, more than others, put one in a melancholic frame of mind. Brady and Haapala pointed to the solitude of such places. But, solitude appears neither necessary nor sufficient for a place to acquire a melancholic air. War memorials, battlefields of the past, and the ruins of lost cities are often visited in the company of other people and yet are eminently conducive of melancholy. Conversely, a beautiful country walk on a sunny day can give one hours of solitude without sparking any melancholic musings. More important than solitude is it to consider the sort of reflections that are invited by a certain place. Sites or landscapes with a melancholic air are those that easily trigger existential musings on, for instance, the transience of human life, the ultimate insignificance of our endeavors, or the suffering that man visits upon man. This is in contrast with settings that, despite the solitude they provide, do not give rise to such musings. This also helps explain why the same solitary country walk that fills you with joy in spring may fill you with melancholy in autumn.
Seventh, the proposed account gives a better explanation of why moments of melancholy often acquire special significance for people — and consequently receive special attention from writers such as Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Joyce. Simply pointing to the calming effect of melancholy or the opportunities it offers for indulgent self-reflection is insufficient and perhaps even a bit misleading. Moreover, the value of melancholy cannot be identical to its pleasure value. For it is not just the sweet aspect of melancholy that people value. They value and savor the experience in its complexity — with its sweet and bitter aspects. Why that is so becomes less of a mystery if we consider the two components of the account I have proposed. When a person experiences melancholy, they come to grasp a perceived important truth about human existence that is not normally at the front of their minds and they sometimes even choose to ignore; hence, the sense of profundity that seems inherent to melancholy. These existential insights, furthermore, give a clearer view of what really matters and prompt a deeper appreciation for someone or something they care about; hence, the transformative and aesthetic potential of melancholy. Understood in this way, it is easier to see why people cherish such moments of melancholy and may wish to prolong them. Much more than pleasure, it is about insight, appreciation, receptiveness, and even transformation.
Finally, the proposal presented here offers a clearer account of how and when melancholy can be aesthetic. It will not qualify as such, I have suggested, if no aesthetic appreciation or experience is involved. However, if reflection on (what is perceived to be) a profound truth about human existence leads to a deeper aesthetic appreciation, we may speak of aesthetic melancholy. The latter notion may help to illuminate, for instance, the special allure and poignancy surrounding the work of artists who died tragically young. (Think of Francesca Woodman, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Eva Hesse, Nick Drake, Biggie Smalls, Jeff Buckley, Sylvia Plath, and so on). Their work will often elicit aesthetic melancholy, without necessarily being expressive of it, because appreciators cannot help but be mindful of mortality and transience.
A deepened aesthetic appreciation, it should be added, can take the form of an aesthetic emotion, for example, admiration, wonder, or bliss. But this need not be the case. And so, aesthetic melancholy is not necessarily a subset of aesthetic emotion. Aesthetic emotions, at least according to Robinson or Fingerhut and Prinz, only arise in an artistic context, whereas it is clear that aesthetic melancholy can also occur during the aesthetic appreciation of natural or everyday environments. Moreover, the bitter aspect, the grasping of a harsh existential truth, is an integral part of aesthetic melancholy as it has been defined in this paper, but it does not seem to have a place in the standard accounts of aesthetic emotions.
Let me conclude with two caveats. One is about the historical and cultural specificity of the notion of melancholy. As I mentioned at the start of this essay, the term ‘melancholy’ has had many different uses in the course of history, referring to illnesses, personality traits, and anxieties that are quite distinct from the experience I have been trying to analyze, though there will no doubt be interesting links between these various uses. Conversely, and no less important to emphasize, there are concepts one finds in other cultures and languages that actually seem to denote similar experiences to the one I have been focusing on, though there are bound to be subtle cultural differences. For instance, on the South Pacific Island of Ifaluk, there is the term ‘fago,’ which may be translated as ‘sad love.’ It refers to the love that a person may feel for the less fortunate. ‘Fago’ compels you to care for someone in need, but is also haunted by a strong sense that one day you will lose them. The Portuguese notion of ‘saudade’ may be another example. According to the Grande Dicionário da Língua Portuguesa, ‘saudade’ means a “sad and pleasant memory of distant or extinct persons or things.” It is a feeling that seems to hover somewhere between nostalgia and melancholy. Or, take the Pali word ‘samvega,’ which is sometimes used to denote a poignant realization of the transience of natural beauty, but can also refer to certain deeply felt encounters with works of art, when painful themes are offset by the gladdening recollection of the Buddha.
Most notably, perhaps, there is a close affinity between the experience I discuss and the Japanese notion of ‘mono no aware.’ (Hence, it may not be a coincidence that Japanese films like Ikiru and Late Spring have been such instructive examples for me). ‘Mono no aware’ has been characterized as “the ephemeral nature of beauty – the quietly elated, bittersweet feeling of having been witness to the dazzling circus of life – knowing that none of it can last.” It would be absolutely fascinating to trace the various connections between these notions and the analysis I have presented here, but I will have to leave this for future work.
The second caveat relates to the scope of my investigation. I am aware that some aspects of my account could be more fleshed out, but I want to reiterate that my aim is not to offer a fully comprehensive account of melancholy and all its artistic uses or aesthetic aspects. Rather, I want to present a framework for better understanding this profound and bittersweet experience that is often highly valued in our encounters with art and literature, and also in our engagement with nature and everyday situations. Hopefully, my suggestions will motivate further inquiry into this important but still somewhat understudied topic.
Hans Maes is senior lecturer in history and philosophy of art at the University of Kent, United Kingdom. He has authored and edited a number of books including: Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight: A Philosophical Exploration (Routledge 2021); Portraits and Philosophy (Routledge, 2020); Conversations on Art and Aesthetics (Oxford University Press, 2017); Pornographic Art and The Aesthetics of Pornography (Palgrave MacMillan, 2013); and Art & Pornography (Oxford University Press, 2012).
Published on June 20, 2023.
Cite this article: Hans Maes, “Aesthetic Melancholy,” Contemporary Aesthetics, Volume 21 (2023), accessed date.
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, (London: Vintage, 2009), 467.
 Ibid., 661.
 Anton Chekhov, “The Lady with the Dog,” The Portable Nineteenth-Century Russian Reader, edited by George Gibian (New York: Penguin, 1993), 604.
 Jennifer Radden provides a good overview in The Nature of Melancholy: From Aristotle to Kristeva (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).
 See also, Chapter 2 in Jacky Bowring, Melancholy and the Landscape: Locating Sadness, Memory and Reflection in the Landscape (London: Routledge, 2016).
 Sigmund Freud, “Mourning and melancholia,” The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud, 14: 237-258.
 Emily Brady and Arto Haapala, “Melancholy as an Aesthetic Emotion,” Contemporary Aesthetics, Volume 1 (2003).
 I should emphasize, once more, that this new account is not meant to replace or supersede the long history of theoretical writings on melancholy. Freud’s reflections on melancholia, along with other clinical accounts, remain relevant today. See, for instance, Gordon Parker et al., “Issues for DSM-5: whither melancholia? The case for its classification as a distinct mood disorder.” American Journal of Psychiatry 167 (2010), 745-747). But, since their writings were never meant to clarify and illuminate the sort of the experience that is described by Tolstoy and Chekhov, and that I and many other people have had in response to certain artworks, I will set them aside here. (I am grateful to an anonymous referee for pointing to the continued relevance of Freud’s ideas in this area.)
 Brady and Haapala, section 4.
 Ibid., section 3.
 Ibid., section 3.
 Ibid., section 5.
 Ibid., section 3.
 Ibid., section 3.
 Ibid., section 3.
 Ibid., section 4.
 Ibid., section 6.
 Ibid., section 2.
 Ibid., section 4.
 Ibid., section 4.
 Ibid., section 3.
 See, for instance, Shen-yi Liao, “Bittersweet Food,” Crítica (México, DF) 53 (2001): 71-93.
 When talking about ruins, Brady and Haapala actually use the word ‘nostalgia’: “Here, again, we find shades of both positive and negative feeling in nostalgia for another time and place now gone, for the glory of past times, and so on.” (Brady and Haapala, section 5.)
 Some melancholy may be backward-looking. But, not all melancholy is, as is evident from the examples I have given. And even a backward-looking type of melancholy can still be quite different from nostalgia, in that it may involve no backward-looking longing, for example, when the experience is induced by reflecting on all the injustice committed in the past. (I am grateful to an anonymous referee for pushing me to be more explicit here.)
 Robert C. Roberts argues that in nostalgia there is “disadvantageous comparison that embitters the present.” Emotions: An essay in aid of moral psychology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 280. According to Scott Alexander Howard, “nostalgia is among a relatively small class of emotion types that tend to be considered categorically inappropriate, in one sense or another.” “Nostalgia,” Analysis 72 (2012), 647.
 Brady and Haapala briefly acknowledge that sadness can be prolonged, but suggest that “in this sense it will overlap with depression.” (Brady and Haapala, section 3.)
 Ibid., section 3.
 Ibid., footnote 11.
 See Hans Maes, “A Trilogy of Melancholy,” Philosophers on Film: Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight, edited by Hans Maes and Katrien Schaubroeck (London: Routledge, 2021).
 Brady and Haapala, section 5.
 Ibid., section 1.
 Ibid., section 6.
 Ibid., section 2.
 Ibid., section 3.
 Ibid., section 1.
 Ibid., section 1.
 Joerg Fingerhut & Jesse J. Prinz, “Aesthetic Emotions Reconsidered,” The Monist 103 (2020), 229.
 Brady and Haapala, section 6.
 Jenefer Robinson, “Aesthetic Emotions,” The Monist 103 (2020), 205.
 George Dickie, “The Myth of the Aesthetic Attitude,” American Philosophical Quarterly 1 (1964), 56–65.
 Richard Lazarus, Emotion and Adaptation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 112.
 Robinson 2020, 210.
 Fingerhut and Prinz also explicitly challenge the idea that aesthetic emotions should be calm, soft, or tender and argue that aesthetic emotions can be very intense indeed.
 Robinson 2020, 216.
 Brady and Haapala, section 3.
 Jerrold Levinson, “Aesthetic Experience and Artistic Value,” Hans Maes, Conversations on Art and Aesthetics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 28.
 Noël Carroll, “Aesthetic Experience: A Question of Content,” Contemporary Debates in Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art, ed. Matthew Kieren (Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2005).
 According to Jenefer Robinson, affective appraisals “are always in terms of one’s own goals, interests, wants, or wishes. I respond emotionally when my interests or those of my group (me or mine) are perceived to be at stake.” Deeper than Reason: Emotion and Its Role in Literature, Music, and Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 109. One could certainly coolly and detachedly apprehend, say, the general idea of mortality. Yet it is only when you start to grasp the implications for yourself (or those close to you) that an emotional response might ensue. Of course, there are other ways to cash out this idea, depending on the theory of emotions one subscribes to. See, for instance, Peter Goldie’s discussion of the dangers of walking on ice. Before you fall on the ice, you may only think of the ice as dangerous. But, afterwards you feel fear towards the ice. Your way of thinking of it as dangerous has changed. Now you think of its dangerousness as emotionally relevant in a special way. Peter Goldie, The Emotions: A Philosophical Exploration (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 59.
 What I am describing is a complex experiential process with affective components. Whether it can be categorized more precisely as a particular emotion (or a mood) and thus be fitted within existing theories of emotions (or moods) is something I’m undecided about. There are other phenomena — love, grief, and so on — that are not easily assimilated to emotions or moods or any such category. So, I’m inclined to leave that question aside here.
 James Joyce, “The Dead.” In Dubliners (New York: The Modern Library, 1969), 223.
 Ibid., 223
 Ibid., 224.
 For instance, it is not obvious whether Natasha’s “joyful and agonizing feeling” in church qualifies as aesthetic melancholy. (It could be, if she is moved aesthetically by the priest’s sermon. But that is not entirely clear from the description.)
 A slightly different way of making the same point would be to say that an episode of aesthetic melancholy occurs if and when an aesthetic experience is integrated into the complex emotional process described above.
 Hence, also why this essay falls under the rubric of existential aesthetics, understood as “philosophical work that investigates the various ways in which art and certain kinds of aesthetic practice or aesthetic experience can be of existential importance to people.” Hans Maes, “Existential Aesthetics,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 80, 2022, 265.
 There are many different accounts of aesthetic experience out there – I have previously cited Levinson’s and Carroll’s – but for the purpose of this paper I do not need to commit to one.
 The literature on aesthetic emotions is extensive and growing, so there may be some accounts according to which melancholy would qualify as an aesthetic emotion. But, if we are guided by the accounts of Fingerhut and Prinz or Robinson, that is not the case, as I have argued above. Moreover, Robinson points out that aesthetic emotions typically have little descriptive content (“this is pleasing” or ”moving” or “amazing”). To borrow a concept from ethics, they are thin rather than thick concepts. But, melancholy is clearly not a thin concept.
 I thank the editor and referees for encouraging me to broaden the context of my paper in this way.
 Catherine Lutz, “The Domain of Emotion Words on Ifaluk,” American Ethnologist, 9 (1982), 113-128.
 Eurico. Figueiredo, Psicanálise da saudade [Psychoanalysis of saudade], (Lisboa, Portugal: O Jornal, 1991).
 Ananda.K. Coomaraswamy, “Samvega: Aesthetic Shock.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 7 (1943), 174-179.
 Fiona Macdonald, “Seven Words That Can Help Us to be a Little Calmer.” BBC Culture (2019),
https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20190124-seven-words-that-can-help-us-to-be-a-little-calmer). See also, Lauren Prusinski, “Wabi-Sabi, Mono no Aware, and Ma: Tracing Traditional Japanese Aesthetics Through Japanese History,” Studies on Asia 4 (2012), 25-49.
 I am grateful to audiences at the University of Uppsala and the University of Oxford for constructive discussions of this paper. Nick Wiltsher and David Collins offered helpful comments on earlier drafts. I also greatly benefited from suggestions made by anonymous referees and the editor of this journal. Finally, I would like to thank two of my former students, Karolina Pospíšilová and Edward Lown, with whom I had several conversations about melancholy and who helped me to gain clarity on the issues discussed here.