“The tears of the world are a constant quality," according to Samuel Beckett. So does it matter what we call them? In Spaces of Melancholy, Karin Johannisson investigates how melancholy speaks and how it's language is influenced by time and space.
In the cult television series The Sopranos, Mafia boss Tony Soprano manages to combine panic attacks, antidepressants and therapy with patriarchal status, a macho image and blatant criminality. But over the centuries, the expressions and implications of melancholy have shifted in character.
Investigating the history and names of the states of melancholy is therefore a way of restoring their ability to elucidate the cultural context. What do they tell us about their particular age? This also helps us to understand them as narratives - engaging, dramatic and often astonishing - about human vulnerability. Karin Johannisson penetrates more deeply into precisely this aspect - melancholy as an emotional state. Not the theories or the myths, but the real experience.
Franz Kafka, Wittgenstein, Rilke and Virginia Woolf all suffered from melancholy, and all of them had a strictly disciplined relationship with food. In the case of Woolf, anorexia was linked to her periods of depression. Kafka drove himself to malnutrition; during periods when he was writing, he found it impossible to eat.
Tears form the emotional language of the 18th century; they are socially regulated, and are a form of communication. During the second half of the 19th century, tears become increasingly compromised and linked to womanly or feminine weakness. The status markers of sensibility shift instead from demonstrative vulnerability to self-control - sensibility changes its language.
Spaces of Melancholy makes for engaging and captivating reading. It's an examination of the condition’s historical forms, but when Johannisson considers melancholy from an historical viewpoint, it also becomes a contemporary commentary. Today the concept of depression covers virtually every kind of sadness. But Johannisson shows us how the register of emotions has varied, but also how it has been possible to accommodate these dark feelings within the normal framework. The more our vulnerability is designated diagnostic names, the more we risk shrinking normality.