And there he walks. Melancholy. With happiness’ little round hand in his palm, comfortably surrounded by the big branchy fingers. For those who thought the two of them didn’t hang out with each other, look out in the streets and see them walking together hand in hand sharing their stories, the one with a tear echoing a good giggle while the other introvertly talks with a tear in his throat. They would probably marry, if it weren’t for Melancholy, who’s too melancholic to put a ring on his bubbly friend.
As clichés have always suggested, the good needs the evil and the darkness needs the light; silence shouts for music, as music whispers to silence to interrupt all the loudness, so the only entendable sound will once again be the raindrops’ drumming on our hostile windows. This is not the exact case with melancholy, though. Melancholy and Happiness live their lives together, and their household is functioning hunky dory. But when Happiness is not around, even if he’s taking out the trash, Melancholy instantly gets sad.
This way I could continue to write about the two friends, but the point I want to prove is that there exists such thing as a melancholic smile. Just think about gazing at a sky full of stars: one has to see the beauty in it, but can’t go about the fact that one didn’t appoint even one of the stars to hold their current position; say one feels like a tear in the ocean – infinitely small. The melancholic smile descends on one’s face the moment we encounter this double realization of beauty and the untwistable fact that we’re specks of sand ready to be swallowed by the forgetfulness of the constantly expanding universe.
Talking about stars, a literal example of the melancholic smile, or this feeling of the happiness contained in melancholy, is to be found in especially one song by Syd Barrett, whose stardom by the Milky Way burned out like a supernova. The song “Flaming” opens with the lines “Alone in the clouds all blue/ yippee! You can’t see me/ but I can you.” These lines at once indicate a state of melancholy (being blue) and of happiness (yippee!). In this particular case, operating in a space of isolation, but an isolation where the character singing still enjoys the fact that he’s able to see people, who can’t see him. And that is how life is: we will always carry this ambivalence in our little school bags.
There’s something very human in this doubleness and the fact that it’s tempting to find the good in the things that don’t appear so to the naked eye, and the other way around. This notion must have its roots in this basic understanding that human life is one big soup of delicious spices and pure garbage. It’s in our spines, even though we may forget it at times.
Art is a product of people who live and breathe this air of feeling, and in my opinion some of the most fantastic art could be characterized as human. One thing is its shape on the superficial level: I mean, making mistakes, drawing lines that are not straight, and likewise. What is more human than being human? Sometimes, in my vision, artists strive for perfection in such a degree that they tend to lose their immediate feel. I’m not saying that one shouldn’t make an effort, but society’s conventions regarding neatness and perfection (I would argue that we live in times where total sterilization is a major risk) can get in the way of the immediacy and personality of some artists. For me, nothing is more uplifting than a musician losing half a beat if it’s in line with the spirit of the music. Making mistakes is one thing (and a key in the making of art). Another is the actual feeling expressed in the arts. I think art is extremely interesting if it can succeed to embrace many feelings at once, even in simple pieces, because the different feelings live inside of each other, a structure that only our own superficiality won’t allow us to express. That’s also the reason I feel rather unfulfilled experiencing much of the art therapy work out there. It feels as if much of the work in this field thoroughly excludes whole facets of the human condition, shuts down areas of our emotional palette, with a lack of the correlation and interdependence between the feelings.
A good example of this ground complexity of emotion can be found in the act of dancing. One will be aware of the now when dancing, and the now that’s escaping for every step. It will remind us of all dances we’ve ever had, if one buys into the idea that the emotional memory compiles it all. This act will almost always be done with a certain affection, and will therefore provoke a certain nostalgia that dances with the immediate joy of the now: 1,2,3 – 1,2,3.
We know while dancing that we’re alive, but tomorrow we will probably be sweeping the floor to get clean, get rid of the sticky glass marks on the table and the empty bottles that once contained some magic spirits that made the shoulders lower their guards for a brief moment. The traces of the dancing and the magic euphoria seize to exist, and only in our brain the perfumes will be echoing like a shout in the valley, like a name written on a frosty window. Bittersweet – try and eat that word!
To exaggerate my point, life will have danced by our noses like the beauty who swung her dress and slowly dissolved into the morning that night. The act of dancing is no stranger in art, and no stranger to evoke the mixed, or rather complex, emotions that is this essay’s concern. In primary school I remember seeing Munch’s The Dance of Life, which I think has these feelings in its narrative. But more powerful than any experience is one I had in an art gallery, at Art Center of Tokyo, where two pairs of dancing feet in symbiosis circled appropriately on the floor— the imperfect footage suggested the scene to be a family gathering. This art film was accompanied by melancholic, yet beautiful piano music that provoked the most pure and real melancholic smile that has ever appeared on my face. Why was it so full of effect? I could ask myself. My answer would be that it was communicating in a language of feeling, but not a feeling that words can do justice. A feeling that has roots in a general understanding of life and of human emotions. Why is it beautiful to watch two people dance? It must have something to do with the things I just mapped – this feeling must live in that crossfire of the now and the eternity. An understanding that these moments are somewhat meaningful to us, and part of the collage of our lives. But they don’t matter much to the sea that keeps on floating, as waves will suggestively crash on the sand of the coast like special offers in our local supermarket.
Most beautiful things will probably have this (linguistic) “contrast” in its DNA, as many great artists have succeeded to transfer in their respectable field of creativity. That is why, in my opinion, melancholic music, for instance, is more interesting than sad or downright depressive music because it contains a subtle hope. When my friends tell me they get sad listening to what sounds like a guy strumming his hang-head chords in a basement somewhere, I have to make the point that most of the times he’s aware of his reality; his absence of good times, not having the same joy in the life he used to know – a state he knows that he can obtain once again. In melancholy lies a sense of awareness; and hence it’s isn’t obscurity or depression.
In this state where everything is subject to wonder and doubt, we are aware. Aware that the delicate blushing of the cheeks caused by a tear trying to enter the eye—and maybe succeeds in doing so—will soon be replaced by the recognition that life is one beautiful mess; and that for some reason or another happens to be in the middle of it as the sun is in the solar system. I imagine the sun to be a lighthearted figure, who can’t abstract from the fact that it’s surrounded by chaos and darkness. As the sun God certainly must feel as lonely as Syd Barrett in the clouds all alone, which is maybe why he decided to come down once. The sun though, has inevitably the problem that it simply can’t move, as the solar system would then become imbalanced; so what can it do? Make the most of it. I imagine the sun smiling melancholically from time to time. How the smile manifests itself is a good question, but couldn’t it be the weather condition of sun and rain at the same time?
Another good example of the ambiguity of feelings is humor and seriousness. Churchill once stated that “a joke is a very serious thing,” which I unconditionally agree with. I find that Humor and Absurdity always bear Tragedy and Nihil as their last names, and I recall Chaplin stating that “behind every joke lies a tear.” If satire doesn’t hold this doubleness, it doesn’t evoke as much in us, I will dare to say. Unfortunately, superficial laughter seems to penetrate modern society, but that is another discussion.
So for everyone who thinks happiness is happiness, and melancholy is melancholy, this is for you: imagine humor’s house, where the joyous laughter occupies the king-size bedroom, but tragedy lives out of a suitcase in a room in the basement. And see! There Melancholy walks, humming shyly about the confusing wonders under the sun, hand in hand with his friend Happiness, on the pavement by a little public school in the province somewhere.
Jonathan Hedegaard is a Danish writer and artist studying to attain his BFA at SVA. He has published and performed texts in both Denmark and the U.S.