The Bittersweetness of Melancholy

( Sky Landsacpe  | Cactus-shi)

(Sky Landsacpe | Cactus-shi)

When I think melancholy, rather than thinking night-black, I see sky-blue...

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

In a conversation with my wife Michelle, the topic of melancholy came up. Having come from South Korea as a teenager, there are words she understands through context, but the nuances can be lost in translation. I find myself having to explore certain words and their meanings when I explain it to someone for the first time. Through context, she understood melancholy to mean sadness but wasn't sure of its full gravity.

I could explain melancholy as a sorrow that involves deep or serious contemplation, sometimes without an apparent cause. It could be likened to angst: a dark unfocused anxiety. I contrast angst and melancholy because they are both young feelings — cousins of idealism — more familiar in our adolescence. And if they persist and grow severe, perhaps we call it something else, something clinical.

Angst is aggressive, like an angry tattoo. We feel trapped and bound, so we express freedom through the only means we believe are at our disposal, our bodies. Then perhaps melancholy is not the freedom to express but the freedom to think.

People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.
— Søren Kierkegaard

We do not wish to be told how to think. We want the freedom to explore unhappy thoughts, the wholeness of our being — to enjoy its richness. And hidden within melancholy is ideal — existing only in the imagination; the anguish that comes from a perfect desire that is not likely to become a reality. We understand it will cause us pain to think about, but the beauty within still makes it worth considering. From there, thoughts arise.

Melancholy is a poetic, lovely, type of sadness, I suppose. When I think melancholy, rather than thinking night-black, I see sky-blue... I told Michelle melancholy is a beautiful sadness filled with nostalgia and longing. They are the songs we are drawn to in our youth. On the surface, they can seem sappy. Under closer inspection, there is a yearning to be filled.

A sappy love song is a willingness to do: they are willing to walk five hundred miles. Melancholy is for those who have metaphorically walked five hundred miles and are no closer to their destination. In Korean, we would say this is "달콤하다," roughly "bittersweet."

The Sore Feet Song

If you listen closely, what appears to be a sweet love song, hides a desperate loneliness. Some of you will remember this as the theme song to award-winning anime, Mushishi. Song by Ally Kerr.

I walked ten thousand miles, ten thousand miles to see you,
And every gasp of breath I grabbed it just to find you,
I climbed up every hill to get, to you,
I wandered ancient lands to hold, just you.

And every single step of the way, I pay,
Every single night and day,
I searched for you.
Through sandstorms and hazy dawns I reached for you.

I stole ten thousand pounds, ten thousand pounds to see you,
I robbed convenient stores because I thought they’d make it easier.
I lived off rats and toads, and I starved for you.
I fought off giant bears, and I killed them, too.

And every single step of the way, I pay,
Every single night and day,
I searched for you.
Through sandstorms and hazy dawns I reached for you.
I’m tired and I’m weak, but I’m strong for you.
I wanna go home, but my love gets me through.
— Ally Kerr

Melancholy, the word itself is grave yet oddly romantic. When we see a melancholy face, we are strangely attracted to it. It is the model, wistful yet alluring. We are drawn to it because it is the understanding of some deep truth, of experience, and perhaps even pain. We've been there, too, and the recognition of it lets us know that we are not alone. That makes us delicate but also exquisite.

And what is experience? It is that loss of naïveté — that we can never turn back — and that causes melancholy. We realize this when we first begin to experience, when we venture into adolescence, when we discover our individuality.

Why is it that we often cry when we are at our most happy? Because happiness is a rich experience with multiple layers. The end of a terrible period is not sad; the end of a wonderful time is sad. In the same way, helping a rich person does not make us happy; however, helping a person in need brings us joy. The moments that are richly textured and complicated are what give us meaning, for those are the moments that most resemble us.

Melancholy is not the opposite of happiness nor is it sadness; it can run parallel with any feeling. It is not something to be cured but rather endured.

That is the strange coupling of melancholy, it is equal parts beauty and surrender. It can be so ubiquitous that we can easily miss the melancholia in everyday words of those around us. In their depths, there is more to it. That is part of melancholy, it is sadness we want others to work to discover. A whisper for connection.

In writing, we are told to use an active voice, never the passive — for the passive voice weakens the agent of action. "We are going to watch the sunset tonight." This is both active and immediate, we are the agents of action. "A sunset will be watched." This is passive. We aren't sure when this will happen, we don't know who will be watching the sunset. The agent is not important. Yet, it is strangely lonely and pretty. Rather than committing the action, we yield to the action. That is melancholy — a whistle against the storm.

However, I disagree with my English teachers — for the passive voice can be profoundly elegant. Much of Asian writing, poetry, and philosophy is written in the passive, yet still very much expressive and indicative. The strength lies not in the action but in the ideas.

Michelle said melancholy reminded her of the poems she wrote in her teens where she ended each line with an ellipsis. (And some of us still write in this way.)

Yes, that is melancholy...

Useful Companions (Improve Your Education and This Site by Buying a Book):

  • You can find Mushishi streaming on Hulu and Netflix, I highly recommend it
  • Works of Love - Søren Kierkegaard