Exploring Melancholy

“So if you want to listen, it is not enough only to hear.  You must first find your melancholy.  And music is the best of all possible means to do this. … Listening is a practice, not merely an activity.  By listening, our melancholy can be attuned” (Matthew Del Nevo:  Art Music:  Love, Listening, and Soulfulness, 2013, 62-3).

From the first time we met, Fotini Tsalikoglou (Panteion University, Athens), Pantelis Polychronidis, and I have been discussing a possible appearance in the series she runs at the Athens Concert Hall (“Megaron”). The idea is that the three of us will collaborate in an evening-long program on the notion of melancholy in art.

Professor Tsalikoglou will speak as a psychologist about the connections between melancholy and creativity, Pantelis will play the piano, and I will speak about 19th-century fiction. Since Pantelis has an extensive familiarity with, and deep admiration for, Fotini’s work on pain and art, the idea of such a collaborative program emerged quickly from our conversation. Furthermore, our psychological, literary, and musical interests converge on a certain German Romantic disposition and its aesthetic legacy, and we can combine them to reflect on modern melancholy from complementary angles.

Our common point of reference might be the paradigmatic figure of Robert Schuman (1810-56) – novelist, critic, magazine editor, composer, lover, friend, thoroughly immersed in the entire artistic repertoire of anxiety, split personality, suicide, and madness. Like many of his contemporaries, he was obsessed with the elements of dispersed multiplicities – carnival masks, fictive characters, allusive names, literary references, witty riddles, and musical cryptograms. A particularly productive thematic focus for our program would be the two figures that Schumann conjured as each other’s Doppelgänger, and in turn as his own double double, Florestan and Eusebius.

Schumann worked unsuccessfully on a novel centered on Davidsbündler (The League of David), an imaginary secret society of friends opposing philistinism, which was modeled on Die Serapionsbrüder (The Serapion Brotherhood), a literary circle formed in Berlin in 1818 by E. T. A. Hoffmann. Schumann invented the League’s two most eminent members in 1831, when he was 21, drawing on the musician Vult and the poet Walt, the twins in Jean Paul’s novel Flegeljahre (The Awkward Age, 1804-5). They were opposite in every respect (impulsive vs. pensive, passionate vs. gentle, volatile vs. introspective, active vs. passive, wild vs. mild, cerebral vs. emotional, pragmatic vs. idealistic) yet Florestan and Eusebius did many things together, such as writing different reviews of the same composition and writing different parts of the same composition.

Though he never finished his novel, Schumann surrounded himself for years with many of its characters and interacted with them on various levels. Thus, in addition to signing fiction and criticism, Schumann’s two alter egos appear in his piano compositions Papillions (1830-31), Carnival (1834-39), Sonata No. 1 (1835), and Davidsbündlertanze (1837). A collaborative program where Pantelis would play selected character pieces from these four compositions, I would talk about the double in literature, and Fotini would trace melancholy from Freud to Kristeva’s Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia (1992) would probe the dual inclinations of personality – the notion that humans are whole when they are split, they become unified by being divided, and they form an identity by having two selves.

Fotini could also trace “left-wing melancholy” from Benjamin’s 1931 review to Wendy Brown’s 1999 paper “Resisting Left Melancholy” and engage directly with Konstantinos Tsoukalas’ critique of self-victimizing left defeatism; I could  comment on “1837: Of the Refrain,” the dazzling Schumann chapter of the philosophical treatise A Thousand Plateaus (1980) by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari; and Pantelis could close the event by illustrating Roland Barthes’ seminal essay “Rasch: A Reading of Schumann’s Kreisleriana” (1975). Planning our appearance together opens many exciting interpretive possibilities.

December 23, 2014

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