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On Melancholy As The Grand Ally Of Creativity


Life is made up of contrasts, and understanding that can lead to the transcendence of frontiers.

The “melancholy” has been, at different times and amongst multiple ambitions, a companion to creativity. In the arts, in philosophical thinking, and in still more distant fields, thinking and experiencing life differently has made the melancholy temperament into an unexpected source of often risky, original, or poignant thinking.

The link, though, is not necessarily causal. That’s to say, one’s being melancholic does not translate automatically into one also being creative. It’s far wiser to think that melancholy people are not only sad or depressed, or that they have a pathological inclination towards sadness, but rather, by intuition or by decision, that they do two very precise things. First, they accept emotions as inescapable parts of what they are and how they live. Second, they take this position as the starting point from which to perform concrete and generative acts.

In our own time, such reactions to discomfort are practically unknown. If we feel sad, or we lose enthusiasm for life, or we grow discouraged, the contemporary tendency is to deny everything. We pretend it’s not happening, pretend we are well, and often enough, it’s sufficient to see a few minutes of an inspirational video to rejoice again. In denying melancholy, we cancel that other possibility: that of turning melancholy into something else – a poem, an essay, a song, a painting, or an aphorism. But why?

Among others, Eric G. Wilson has defended this stance toward discomfort, one which now seems to have fallen into disuse. Wilson is the author of an elegy for the melancholy, published now, even when so much more esteem is reserved for happiness.

Without simply romanticizing this psychological state, Wilson begins by recognizing the long tradition uniting melancholy with creativity. To annihilate the melancholy, he says, would also be “eradicating a major cultural force.” And his motives are not only creative, but also for our existential condition: life isn’t only happiness, joy or calm, but it’s also made up of “agitations of the soul.” In Wilson’s argument, trying to eliminate sadness is a bit like amputating a limb otherwise needed for survival. It means considering reality in all of its nuance, the positive and negative, and making decisions based upon all of them.

In a sense, we could say that creativity isn’t limited to but the so-called creative disciplines. Continuing along this line we might even say that it’s also possible to bring creativity into life itself, that is, it’s possible to live, creatively. It was precisely this that Nietzsche said when he called upon us to make of life, a work of art.


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