Tag Archives: Melancholy

Rainer Maria Rilke: Whoever is alone now will remain alone

27 Sep

Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “Autumn Day”, from his poetry collection “The Book of Images” has been in my thoughts every autumn ever since I discovered it a few years ago, and the last stanza is particularly beautiful to me. I love how Rilke combines the richness of autumn “command the last fruits to ripen (…) and chase the last sweetness into the strong wine”, with the introspection in the last verses, for, after all, autumn days are the best for writing letters and enjoying the long walks and the music of fluttering leaves. In these early autumn days, everything seems so fragile and ephemeral; the last rose, the last warm day, the last rose-gold sunset, or so it seems. It’s only after I realise that the richness, warmth and vibrancy of summer is soon to be gone, that I cherish it the most. Rilke is a perfect poet for these days of changes.

Armand Charnay, Park of Sansac (Indre-et-Loire), 1885

Autumn Day

Mister! It’s time. Summer was awesome.
But now you’ve got to cast your shadow on the old clock.
So, let the wind blow in the fields.

Command the last fruits to ripen.
Grant them two more southern days.
Press them to perfection.
And chase the last sweetness into the strong wine.

Because whoever has no house now will build no more.
Whoever is alone now will remain long alone
to wake, read, write long letters,
and wander in the alleys, back and forth,
restless, as the leaves flutter.

James Tissot, The Letter, 1876-78

Bat and Moon in Japanese Ukiyo-e Prints

22 Jun

Yamada Hōgyoku, Bat and Moon, 1830

I recently discovered this simple yet charming woodblock print of a bat and the moon by a Japanese artist Yamada Hogyoku. As you may already know, I am quite a fan of Japanese Ukiyo-e prints, they are so interesting and exotic to my western eyes, but also I love bats (and vampires too) so seeing this handsome bat on a Japanese print made my heart flutter. I am in a phase of melancholy reminiscing these days and seeing this bat made me think of the bats I saw two summers ago in my small home town. July was nearing its end, dusk was setting, bright pink and purple, as I was descending down from the old graveyard in the hills, and there, by a beautiful and large weeping willow tree, I saw them in all their splendour; bats dancing in the air, chasing one another, fluttering their delicate wings, dark as the night, delicate and fragile, and so beautiful. I stood there amazed at the sight and nearly had tears in my eyes from seeing that beauty. I had seen bats before that day and after too, but that moment stayed etched in my mind because it was just perfect, just like a scene out of a novel; the pink dusk sky, the weeping willow, the warm and long July night that was upon me. I remember it as if it happened yesterday; the bouquet of wild flowers I carried in my hand, the dress I wore, the hat with long dusty pink ribbons. And indeed, I felt as if I were a heroine of a novel!

Seeing this woodblock print made me daydream of those wonderful summer nights which I know were beautiful, but I also know I have idealised them in my imagination, just as I do with each moment of my life that passes. I wish to see a bat again soon and feel that ecstasy filling my body and soul, and I wish to fly away with them, to some more joyous place, I wish to be as free as them! I’ve also included two more Japanese woodblock prints with the same motif. What I admire the most about these artworks is the simplicity; on the first one by Hogyoku the moon is barely visible, so light and ethereal it is, and the bat is captured in a seemingly swift determined way, edgy and sharp, with a gradient colour scheme, from greys to a deep black. I think it would be much fun to recreate these prints in watercolours. And now, to end, here is a poem called “Bat” by D.H.Lawrence who seems less enthusiastic about the beauty of bats:

At evening, sitting on this terrace,

When the sun from the west, beyond Pisa, beyond the mountains of Carrara

Departs, and the world is taken by surprise …

 

When the tired flower of Florence is in gloom beneath the glowing

Brown hills surrounding …

 

When under the arches of the Ponte Vecchio

A green light enters against stream, flush from the west,

Against the current of obscure Arno …

 

Look up, and you see things flying

Between the day and the night;

Swallows with spools of dark thread sewing the shadows together.

 

A circle swoop, and a quick parabola under the bridge arches

Where light pushes through;

A sudden turning upon itself of a thing in the air.

A dip to the water.

 

And you think:

“The swallows are flying so late!”

 

Swallows?

 

Dark air-life looping

Yet missing the pure loop …

A twitch, a twitter, an elastic shudder in flight

And serrated wings against the sky,

Like a glove, a black glove thrown up at the light,

And falling back.

 

Never swallows!

Bats!

The swallows are gone.

 

At a wavering instant the swallows gave way to bats

By the Ponte Vecchio …

Changing guard.

 

Bats, and an uneasy creeping in one’s scalp

As the bats swoop overhead!

Flying madly.

 

Pipistrello!

Black piper on an infinitesimal pipe.

Little lumps that fly in air and have voices indefinite, wildly vindictive;

 

Wings like bits of umbrella.

 

Bats!

 

Creatures that hang themselves up like an old rag, to sleep;

And disgustingly upside down.

 

Hanging upside down like rows of disgusting old rags

And grinning in their sleep.

Bats!

 

In China the bat is symbol for happiness.

Not for me!

Katsushika Hokusai, Two bats flying, c. 1830-50

Biho Takashi, Bat Before the Moon, c. 1910

Giorgio de Chirico – Melancholy and Mystery of a Street

14 May

In this post we’ll take a look at Italian Metaphysical painter Giorgio de Chirico’s perhaps most well-known painting called “Melancholy and Mystery of a Street” and the way its portrayal of space and mood connect to some scenes from Vítězslav Nezval’s Surrealist novel “Valerie and her Week of Wonders”.

Giorgio de Chirico, Melancholy and Mystery of a Street, 1914

When we think of melancholy, mysterious and lonely streets and squares in art, Chirico must be the first painter to come to mind. He painted many such scenes with cold sharply precise architecture and a strange almost sinister mood, and a well known example is the painting above called “Melancholy and Mystery of a Street”. I hesitate to call it an urban scene, even though it is a city and not countryside, because it belongs completely into a world of its own, with unique logic and moods which have nothing in common with our world. At first sight, his paintings look similar to the world we live in, but then the strangeness start lurking from the shadows and we cannot help but notice the isolated and creepy mood of the street. A white building with a repetitive row of arches, disproportions, shadows… One can almost feel a deep layer of silence and then a strange giggle coming from afar, as the shadow starts growing bigger until it covers the whole square. And yet, Chirico’s paintings manage to stay lyrical despite their coldness. Another work of art which has a world of its own is Vitezslav Nezval’s novel “Valerie and her Week of Wonders” written in 1934, at the height of Surrealist movement in Czechia, and published a decade later. Partly inspired by Surrealism and the dream theory, and partly by the tradition of the Gothic novel, Nezval’s novel is a beautiful contradiction in mood and themes. While some motifs are ever so romantic and gloomy such as the vault, long corridors, crypts, burial sights, others brings an anxious mood of dreams that is more reminiscent of Chirico’s paintings, especially the beginning of the Chapter V called “Losing the Way”:

Valerie had lost her way. For the third time, without knowing how, she had entered a deserted square that seemed to be enchanted. When she glanced at one of the locked gates, a missionary appeared to her standing in front of it. She left the square and entered the square. Her legs were tired and were leading her on her own, while her spirit wandered like that of someone sleeping. Over one doorway she noticed a cluster of grapes held in the beak of a dove. Then she was alarmed by four windows that seemed to have been forged from a storm. She thought she heard a groan. Her eyes settled on a tall gas lamp with moths fluttering around it. But the groan came again. Having circled the square, she suddenly found herself just a few steps from the lamp and saw to her amazement a terrifying image: tied to the lam’s base was a girl, emitting plaints from deep in her throat. As Valerie stepped up closer, she recognised her clothes, which were torn in several places.

Scene from Valerie and her Week of Wonders (1970)

Naturally, the small square of a picturesque Czech village that Valerie has found herself on has nothing to do architecturally with Chirico’s classical and monumental Italian squares. It’s Valerie’s inner state, her emotions, fear and curiosity which give the square a slightly nightmarish mood. It’s not what she sees in front of her, it’s how she feels within that is projected on on the outside. Space in Chirico’s paintings is illogical to the eyes of grown ups, but to Valerie it isn’t unusual because she still sees things from children’s point of view, or rather, she is in the middle; just like the girl in the painting, childhood is behind her and she is walking slowly towards the shadowy figure; the adulthood. This connects to something that Chirico himself said: “To become truly immortal, a work of art must escape all human limits: logic and common sense will only interfere. But once these barriers are broken, it will enter the realms of childhood visions and dreams.

Dostoevsky: Crime and Punishment – Renewed by Love

14 Feb

Dostoevsky’s novel “Crime and Punishment”, first published in 1866, is one of my all time favourite novels and I had such a blast reading it in grammar school. It’s a very long and complex novel that deals with many topics, and love isn’t even the main one but it serves to transform the characters and turn them into better individuals. The love story between the main character Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, the intelligent and poor but failed student and a later a murderer, and Sonia Marmeladova, a shy, innocent and self-scarifying eighteen year old girl driven to prostitution by poverty, is one one of my favourites in literature. I had a crush on Raskolnikov because he was as cool as a rock star; dark eyed and handsome, nihilistic and emotionally unavailable, and I had a tremendous admiration for Sonia, the most selfless creature, gentle and fragile in appearance but strong within, guided by a higher law that helps her transcend the misery of her surroundings; her poverty, horrible clients, drunkard of a father, the demanding unfeeling step-mother, the prejudice she faces due to her job. Even Raskolnikov judges her at first, and places himself as a morally superior individual, as if he forgot he was a murderer. He visits her a few times in her shabby little room and a seed of love is planted in both of their hearts; both are flawed, both are outcasts, and both are denying this newly awaken sentiment; The candle-end had long been burning out in the bent candlestick, casting a dim light in this destitute room upon the murderer and the harlot strangely come together over the reading of the eternal book.

Sonia’s blind faith, childlike figure and naivety clash with her grim day to day reality. She is a pale-faced, yellow-haired whore with the purest heart; an angel. Loyal and kind hearted she is the one who advises Raskolnikov to admit his crime and pay the price for it, because that is the only path to salvation. He listens to her and is sentenced to seven years of exile in the cold Siberia. Sonia follows him there, even though she knows she isn’t wanted. Half the time he is rude and cold towards her, and other times he just ignores her, but the persistence of Sonia’s love and her patience eventually melt the icy exterior of nihilism and apathy and reveal a kind and noble spirit capable of love and compassion, someone who has faith in brighter future. Dostoevsky’s portrayal of power of love in this novel is very beautiful and very inspiring and here is the passage from the last chapter where they finally, after hundreds of pages of the reader’s waiting, fall in love. I especially love the last lines of this passage: “He thought of her. He remembered how continually he had tormented her and wounded her heart. He remembered her pale and thin little face. But these recollections scarcely troubled him now; he knew with what infinite love he would now repay all her sufferings. Perhaps Dostoevsky was a Romantic and not a Realist after all?

Laura Makabresku, Melancholy (2017)

Raskolnikov sat gazing, his thoughts passed into day-dreams, into contemplation; he thought of nothing, but a vague restlessness excited and troubled him. Suddenly he found Sonia beside him; she had come up noiselessly and sat down at his side. It was still quite early; the morning chill was still keen. She wore her poor old burnous and the green shawl; her face still showed signs of illness, it was thinner and paler. She gave him a joyful smile of welcome, but held out her hand with her usual timidity. She was always timid of holding out her hand to him and sometimes did not offer it at all, as though afraid he would repel it. He always took her hand as though with repugnance, always seemed vexed to meet her and was sometimes obstinately silent throughout her visit. Sometimes she trembled before him and went away deeply grieved. But now their hands did not part. He stole a rapid glance at her and dropped his eyes on the ground without speaking. They were alone, no one had seen them. The guard had turned away for the time.

Photo by Laura Makabresku

How it happened he did not know. But all at once something seemed to seize him and fling him at her feet. He wept and threw his arms round her knees. For the first instant she was terribly frightened and she turned pale. She jumped up and looked at him trembling. But at the same moment she understood, and a light of infinite happiness came into her eyes. She knew and had no doubt that he loved her beyond everything and that at last the moment had come. . . .

They wanted to speak, but could not; tears stood in their eyes. They were both pale and thin; but those sick pale faces were bright with the dawn of a new future, of a full resurrection into a new life. They were renewed by love; the heart of each held infinite sources of life for the heart of the other.

They resolved to wait and be patient. They had another seven years to wait, and what terrible suffering and what infinite happiness before them! But he had risen again and he knew it and felt it in all his being, while she–she only lived in his life.

Also by Laura Makabresku

(…)

He thought of her. He remembered how continually he had tormented her and wounded her heart. He remembered her pale and thin little face. But these recollections scarcely troubled him now; he knew with what infinite love he would now repay all her sufferings.

Jan Steen – The Lovesick Maiden

13 Dec

Today we’ll take a look at a very interesting painting from the Dutch Golden Age; “The Lovesick Maiden” by Jan Steen.

Jan Steen, The Lovesick Maiden, c. 1660

In a typical Dutch interior of the period, a pale young woman is suffering from a terrible illness, the one for which no cure has ever been found – love! She is situated in the middle of the canvas as if she was an actress playing a role on the stage. Tragedy is the genre. On her right side is her maid servant, on her left is a doctor dressed in unusual clothes. His hat in particular is strange, and look at the way the servant is eyeing him. He is checking the girl’s pulse. The setting is the girl’s bedroom, there is a bed in the background, in the left corner there are bed heaters and the girl’s appearance reveals an intimate setting; she is wearing her white linen night cap, and she only carelessly threw on her ermine trimmed little coat to keep her warm I guess, her rounded white bosom are peeking above her garish red corset. She is too in distressed to care for frivolous matters such as clothes! Too ill to care, and still too healthy she appears to be sitting there like that instead of lying in bed. And that doctor too looks too much like a comedy actor. That’s because he is a quack doctor. Next to the girl’s feet a little dog is sleeping. In the context of a love scene, a dog usually represents fidelity. What exactly is she faithful to here; to her unrequited love, or to her love sickness?

I can really imagine her thinking these thoughts from Bob Dylan’s song “Love Sick” as she is sitting there with her head on her hand, her leg raised up, her rosy cheeks and her furrowed brow, half-lamenting and half-sulking:

Did I hear someone tell a lie?
Did I hear someone’s distant cry?
I spoke like a child; you destroyed me with a smile
While I was sleeping

I’m sick of love but I’m in the thick of it
This kind of love I’m so sick of it….

I’m sick of love; I hear the clock tick
This kind of love; I’m love sick

Sometimes the silence can be like the thunder
Sometimes I feel like I’m being plowed under
Could you ever be true? I think of you
And I wonder

I’m sick of love; I wish I’d never met you
I’m sick of love; I’m trying to forget you

Just don’t know what to do
I’d give anything to be with you

Decades before this was painted, in 1610, the French physician Jacques Ferrard published a study of this “disease of the fantasy”, named “Of Lovesickness or Erotic Melancholy: A Scientific Discourse that teaches how to know the essence, causes, signs, and remedies of this disease of the fantasy“. Here he names the symptoms of this illness that this Jan Steen’s pale girl which also have: “Lovesickness gives rise to a pale and wan complexion, joined by a slow fever that modern practitioners call amorous fever, to palpitations of the heart, swelling of the face, depraved appetite, a sense of grief, sighing, causeless tears, insatiable hunger, raging thirst, fainting, oppressions, suffocations, insomnia, headaches, melancholy, epilepsy, madness, uterine fury, satyriasis, and other pernicious symptoms that are, for the most part, without mitigation or cure other than through the established medical remedies for love and erotic melancholy… These symptoms of disease have caused many to believe that love is a kind of poison that is generated within the body itself…” (quote found here.)

Jan Steen, Physician’s Visit, 1660

In this painting, a sculpture of Cupid in the shadowy upper left corner, above the doors which lead into the outdoors stands as a symbol of love that is tormenting her. This is however just one painting in a row; Jan Steen made an entire series of paintings that portray love as an illness and a doctor as a quack. It was a comedy genre beloved in his time and especially in his home town of Leiden because the Leiden University produced many fine doctors in the country. Here is another example that he made, the same year in fact, called “The Physician’s Visit”. In this example, the painting of Venus and Adonis on the wall tell us that Steen’s girl is suffering from lovesickness. The physician is feeling her pulse because that was a way of knowing whether the patient suffers from the “erotic melancholy”. The illness could also be detected through the urine, and we can see that the maid is holding an urine bottle. Also, the little boy in the left corner is a Cupid dressed in contemporary costume, ready to shot his arrow.

Apart from doing mischief, Cupid was especially fond of idleness and even in the Ancient times Ovid wrote how avoiding idleness makes you immune to Cupid’s arrows. During the Renaissance it was thought that idleness in fact triggers erotic melancholy. “In “L’Antidote d’amour”, Jean Aubery delineates the “particular dispositions” that make one susceptible to passion and thus to love-sickness. Chief among these are idleness, youth, luxury, and springtime. When all of these factors are present, passion is inevitable. Why are artisans and laborers exempt from erotic melancholy, even during springtime and even if they are young? Because, the author concludes, they know neither luxury nor idleness.” (Virginia Krause; “Idle Pursuits: Literature and Oisiveté in the French Renaissance”)

If Steen’s lovesick maidens had been doing their embroidery regularly or had other occupations, they might have avoided the trap of pining and yearning. All in all, these painting are comedies of love and everyday life and the possible buyer most likely had a good sense of humor.

Miklós Radnóti: You held me, my love, and then went on dreaming, of perhaps a different kind of death…

13 Sep
One of my recent poetic discoveries is a Hungarian Jewish poet Miklós Radnóti (1909-1944) who died very young in sad circumstances as a victim of Holocaust. During his lifetime he worked as a teacher and translated into Hungarian some works of Guillaume Apollinaire and Jean de La Fontaine. Reading Radnóti’s many lovely poems leaves a taste of sweet memories, promises and hope on my tongue. His verses are covered with a thin dusty pink veil of melancholy, a sense of transience lingers through them, and they reveal a deeply sensitive soul and gentle nature. Many of his poems were inspired by his childhood sweetheart and later his wife Fanny. It’s interesting to see the dates of the poems, written near the end of his life, in 1941 … 1943 etc. and how unburdened they are with the events of the time. One can sense death and the ending in his verses, but the themes that occupied him poetically are of a gentle introspective nature: mostly love, kindness, hope. The war and the political situation didn’t make him bitter, as it made Georg Trakl decades before, but rather it awoke the humanity inside him. His love poems such as this one seem to say “let’s love each other while we still can, come into my arms, my sweet darling, lets sink into a sweet dream until the whirlwind of horrors and change is over, lest it should sweep us away too…” But Radnóti never saw the end of horrors, having died in November 1944. As he went into death, into a long sweet dream, he left his beloved in the wasteland of this world, and a little fragment of his soul in the verses he wrote.
Laura Makabresku, Winter sleep
***

With your right hand on my neck

 

With your right hand on my neck, I lay next to

you last night,

and since the day’s woes still pained me, I did

not ask you to take it away,

but listened to the blood coursing through your

arteries and veins,

 

Then finally around twelve sleep overcame me,

as sudden and guileless as my sleep so long ago,

when in the downy time of my youth it rocked

me gently.

 

You tell me it was not yet three when I was

startled awake

and sat up terrified and screaming.

muttering strange and unintelligible words,

 

then spread out my arms like a bird ruffled with

fear

flapping its wings as a dark shadow flutters

through the garden.

Tell me, where was I going? And what kind of

death had frightened me so?

 

And you held me, my love, as I sat up half-asleep,

then lay back in silence, wondering what paths

and horrors awaited me.

And then went on dreaming. Of perhaps a

different kind of death.

Miklós and his darling wife Fanny in 1937

Victorian Photography: Girls in Silk Cages, Pale and Fragile as Lilies

10 Jun

A friend recently reminded me of the photograph of Ellen Terry that you see below and its mood of sadness and wistfulness struck a chord with me. Naturally, I thought of many other Victorian photographs of girls in contemplation so I decided to share them all in this post; they are perfect for daydreaming.

Sadness (Ellen Terry at Age Sixteen), photo by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1864

All of the photographs here were taken by female photographers: Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) who is perhaps a pandan to the Pre-Raphaelites in the field of photography because of her inclination toward the Arthurian world and medieval romances, and Clementina Maude Hawarden (1822-1865) who often took photos of her daughters and is sometimes called “the first fashion photographer” because many of her photos feature the lovely crinoline gowns from the era, full of ribbons and flounces.

What draws me to these photographs is their dream-like quality; they are like windows to the long lost worlds, they evoke as much feelings from me as a poem can, they portray beautifully the inner world of Victorian girls and young women. Gorgeous fashions and delicacy of the fabrics, dazzling play of light and shadow, a tinge of melancholy and wistfulness. In this long lost world from the other side of the mirror long haired dreamy maidens in their dazzling silk and tulle cages are shown reading or praying, or travelling the landscapes of their thoughts, sitting by the window and gazing into the outside world of freedom and strangeness; girls as fragile as lily flower, with faces pale from the moonlight, yearning hearts and silent tears that smell of jasmine, trapped in claustrophobic interiors of damask and daydreams, touching life only through veils, “seeing it dimly through tears”, drunk, not from cherry cordial, but from the heavy fragrance of roses in their vases. Caught between girlhood and adulthood, in their dreamy interiors, with mirrors and books, they are gazing through the glistening bars of their cages, in silence, for the captive birds sing no ditties.

“I’m wearying to escape into that glorious world, and to be always there: not seeing it dimly through tears, and yearning for it through the walls of an aching heart: but really with it, and in it.” (Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights)