By Adrian West.
“La mélancolie elle-même n’est qu’un souvenir qui s’ignore.”—Flaubert. Is this an instance of the false passive, or of a genuine reflexive? Of memory neglected by an agent outside of it, or of memory ignoring its...
By Adrian West.
“La mélancolie elle-même n’est qu’un souvenir qui s’ignore.”—Flaubert. Is this an instance of the false passive, or of a genuine reflexive? Of memory neglected by an agent outside of it, or of memory ignoring itself? For while an opposition may be drawn between a subject and his own memories, which take on for him a more or less foreign appearance—the mind’s furnishings, rather than the mind itself—it remains true that without these memories he has nothing, is nothing; that his entire mode of self-presentation—that is, of being—hinges on the constant resort to memory.
The memories that provoke melancholy—neglected, overlooked, forgotten—Flaubert’s verb suggests all these—relate, however obscurely, to duties unfulfilled. The nature of what has been left undone in relation to the figures of memory is often opaque—the mere fact of my having a mother, for example, sometimes pains me inexplicably—because what we take to be the ideal form of our relation to others and to the world, our understanding of our duty to them, tends toward the vague, half-hearted, and commonplace, to the extent that it can be said to exist at all; perhaps because the enlargement of our understanding of the scope of our moral lives, of the effect our least actions have upon our social and physical environment, has been outpaced by the constantly multiplying amusements, temptations, and merely formal obligations to which we subject ourselves; we are morally confused and exhausted, overwhelmed by the variety of choices that face us and pulled at each instant toward novelty, and have shunted off our ultimate choices, to use Peter Singer’s term, those acts of moral reckoning wherein we tell ourselves the truth about our doings and their aftermath and begin at last to take ourselves seriously as moral subjects, into ever-receding tomorrow. What is due from us is never clear, and melancholy is nothing more than the intrusion of this lack of clarity, and of the vital longing to dispel it, upon life’s constant progression-into—into love affairs, into acquisitions and enterprises—adherence to which seems to preclude attention to that longing. Whereas the way is always paved for our instrumental undertakings, for our role in the self-perpetuating and self-aggrandizing impulses of society, to which everyone appears both party and partisan, when, in our hearts, it strikes us it might be better to live according to the dictates of our conscience, the path we are led to is fraught with solitude and uncertainty.
Freud asserts: “The hysteric suffers mainly from reminiscences.” Hysteria, in this sense, is the acute form of bad conscience, whereas melancholy is bad conscience in abeyance. If hysteria was once thought to be the quintessentially modern form of neurosis, this relates to the profusion of choices thrust upon modern man, virtually all of which have a moral component but which are decided according to instrumental considerations; the memory of these choices, and of the compromised way in which we make them, continues to weigh on us, along with the intimation that we may someday be made to answer for them, and for the disregard of conscience that enabled them. When the anxiety they provoke is no longer bearable, the sufferer breaks down. The attacks of nerves frequently described in Chekhov, in “Terror,” for example, are studies of this sort of hysteria.
If reading Chekhov makes us melancholy, it is doubtless because he is the writer most concerned with, and most effective at, rousing our conscience from its wonted slumber. At times we are melancholy because of our own bad conscience; but at others—when we read “Heartache” or the last paragraphs of “About Love”—we are moved by glimpses of a world in which the moral imperative has been, or might be, obeyed. A serenity pervades these examples, such as overcomes us before a painting of Vermeer’s.
Having written the foregoing sentence, I began to think of Vermeer, and then of