Tag Archives: melancholy

Praising Melancholy With Depressing Books

I recently stumbled upon a new book by Eric G. Wilson called Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy and thought, “Ok, here’s a guy who gets it.” Wilson’s treatise argues that some folks are simply born a little sadder than others, and that there’s nothing wrong with that.

This is a refreshing take on the matter for us melancholy types, who have been pushed and prodded by shiny, happy people all our lives to “smile” and “have fun,” “cheer up” and “stop being so morbid.” At last, we can hold up Wilson as our champion and proclaim “We’ll never change — we prefer to brood, thank you very much!”

And now, in praise of melancholy, I recommend five of my favorite depressing books:

1. Gertrude by Hermann Hesse — While all of Hesse’s work tends to be melancholy, Gertrude is especially so. Life altering injuries, unrequited love, suffering brilliance, and the tribulations of youth are all featured in my favorite of Hesse’s early novels.

2. The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald — The Emigrants tells the story of four Jewish exiles and their far-from-happy post-Holocaust fates. The autumnal feelings invoked by Sebald’s writing will linger long after you’ve finished reading this book.

3. The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq — The story of two half-brothers — one obsessed with sex, the other emotionally despondent — and their bleak treks through life and love. The world will seem just a little bit darker than usual after Houellebecq has shown it to you.

4. Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami — Murakami’s “simplest” novel, and his first big hit in Japan, is a bittersweet coming of age story about a young college student’s love affair with his dead best friend’s emotionally unstable girlfriend. This story is pervaded by a quiet sadness that makes it especially suitable for autumn reading.  

5. Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo — The classic tale of a World War I soldier horrifically wounded and left to indefinitely linger — hardly alive, but not quite dead — in a military hospital. Johnny Got His Gun will leave you with that familiar and comforting feeling of hopelessness.

Never cheer up, brave brooders!



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A Pleasing Melancholy

In The Anatomy of Melancholy, the early 17th-century English churchman and scholar, Robert Burton, wrote:

Many Men are melancholy by hearing Musick, but it is a pleasing melancholy that it causeth.¹

Someone like me, a fan of opera, black metal, death metal, punk, folk laments, early blues, dark ambient, etc., would have to agree.

Naturally, those who are intimately familiar with melancholy might also seek out the grotesque in the visual arts. So it’s no surprise that the highly neurotic and death-obsessed Austrian composer Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) was intrigued by the work of French artist Jacques Callot (1592-1635). In addition to more typical religious and theatrical images, Callot’s etchings also include a series of Gobbi (“grotesque dwarfs”), crippled beggars, and the miseries of war

Mahler1Though Mahler later withdrew the programmatic summary for his Symphony No. 1 in D major, he stated that its third movement was “a funeral march in the manner of Callot.”³ Specifically, Mahler was stimulated by Callot’s “The Huntsman’s Funeral” where a hunter’s coffin is borne by animals and accompanied by other animals bearing torches, dancing or playing instruments. The incongruity in the artwork fits well with such aesthetics as Mahler’s use of an oversized orchestra to play warped versions of simple folk melodies.4

Both Callot and Mahler’s works also demonstrate that irony and parody sometimes are the leavening that makes melancholy more pleasing to the eyes and ears.

— Tim

  1. Excerpts from Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and a list of compositions inspired by the visual arts both can be found in Herbert Kupferberg’s Book of Classical Music Lists.
  2. Brown University’s 1970 Callot exhibition catalog notes that “the Gobbi were in actuality a well known troupe of dwarfs who performed throughout Italy during the early years of the seventeenth century,” but Callot’s twisted and deformed figures were an exaggeration.
  3. A detailed analysis of Mahler’s revoked program for his first symphony can be found in Hans Redlich’s foreword to the 1966 Eulenberg edition of the score.
  4. The Pittsburgh Symphony began its 2008-2009 Mellon Grand Classics season with Mahler’s first symphony and ended it with his second symphony (“Resurrection”). More Mahler symphonies will be heard by the PSO under the capable baton of music director Manfred Honeck.


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