Melancholy, said Wordsworth, is a "luxurious gloom of choice". Unlike depression, we choose to be melancholy, paradoxically deriving pleasure from feeling faintly sad. "Melancholy slows things, allows for percolation, facilitates solitude and solace for imagination," says Jacky Bowring in this dispassionate defence of the malady, madness, affectation - melancholy has been called many things over the centuries, but somehow eludes definition.
It is not strictly grief or sorrow or mourning, explains Bowring, but a complex constellation of moods. In modern times, psychiatrists have diagnosed it as "abnormal bereavement" or "psychotic depression", inelegant solutions for something that Bowring seeks to reclaim as "a rich dimension of human existence".
She is an advocate of melancholy, convinced of "the benefits of the pursuit of sadness". She rejects the medicalisation of our mental wellbeing by health professionals and sidesteps concerns about a global increase in mental illness by insisting that melancholy is not depression. Only once does she ask the pertinent question: "Is the increase in melancholy an authentic response to the pressures of contemporary existence, where it might be considered a pervasive mood?" Could it be that the politics of fear creates a media-induced state of national melancholy? And if so, to what end? Bowring mentions several philosophers, but a notable omission is Spinoza, who regarded melancholy as evil, because it reduces our power to act.
Is melancholy a sickness of the west, something we bequeathed to the rest of the world, like smallpox? Not at all, says Bowring, who reveals that melancholy is universal. Alongside the more familiar ennui of the French and Weltschmerz of the Germans, she looks at the Chinese bei qiu, the Japanese kanashii, the Portuguese saudade, the Russian toska, the Spanish duende and the Turkish hüzün. It appears that every culture knows what melancholy means, even if it's hard to pin down in any one language.
In the arts, it would seem, melancholy reigns supreme. Thanks in large part to the legacy of late romanticism, a questionable connection between melancholy and literary genius continues to this day. It became a feigned literary affectation as early as the 16th century. "Oh, it's your only fine humour, sir, your true melancholy breeds your perfect fine wit, sir," says Jonson's amateur poet in Every Man in His Humour. "I am melancholy myself divers times, sir, and then do I no more but take your pen and paper presently, and overflow you your half a score, or a dozen of sonnets, at a sitting."
In film, Bowring singles out Antonioni, Bergman and Tarkovsky as notably melancholy; in art, Edward Hopper, and Rachel Whiteread's Ghost; in popular music, Tom Waits and Nick Cave; in classical music, Hildegard of Bingen, Messiaen and Górecki. She also discusses the highly effective use of decayed film stock in avant-garde movies such as James Elaine's Melancholia and Bill Morrison's Decasia, as well as the unique kind of melancholy evoked by literary works which employ grainy black and white photographs to evoke a mood of loss and yearning, such as André Breton's Nadja and WG Sebald's The Rings of Saturn.
This thoughtful and sensitive book remains a survey of the scene rather than a definitive study. However, Bowring has succeeded in her aspiration to create something like an Observer's Guide to melancholy. Melancholy assumes many guises, she explains, each anatomised here: religious melancholy, love melancholy, the melancholy of nostalgia or of boredom (acedia), and a whole tradition of "heroic melancholy" of which Batman is a recent exemplar. There is even what Walter Benjamin called "Left melancholy", whereby a leftist with a mournful attachment to a dead idea becomes an in-activist.