Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Why Mad Melancholic Feminista?


Why is my blog called "Mad Melancholic Feminista" you asked? Fair question. To answer it though (this is a warning), I have to give you a bit of the history or melancholia and how it intersects with both philosophy and gender.

In a book attributed to Aristotle (Problemata), he takes up an investigation of black (melas) bile (khole), which is the humor from which comes the term melancholia. In this treatise, he asks:

"Why is it that all men who have become outstanding in philosophy, statesmanship, poetry or the arts are melancholic, and some to such an extent that they are infected by the diseases arising from black bile, as the story of Heracles among the heroes tells?"

This question inaugurates a 2000+ year tradition of associating melancholia with brillance. Dark, brooding, and black moods are a mark of genius; profoundly melancholic moods are the sacrifice for intellectual greatness. Melancholics are Promethean men.

During the Renaissance, Marsilio Ficino (1428) offers an explanation for why philosophers fall vicitim to melancholia:

"But of all learned people, those especially are oppressed by black bile, who, being sedulously devoted to the study of philosophy, recall their mind from the body and corporeal things and apply it to incorporeal things. The cause is, first, that the more difficult the work, the greater the concentration of mind it requires; and second, that the more they apply their mind to incorporeal truth, the more they are compelled to disjoin it from the body. Hence their body is often rendered as if it were half-alive and often melancholic."

The sunken-in eyes, emaciated bodies, and pale skin so often associated with academics is a product of too much abstract thought (applying their mind to "incorporeal things). This turning inward and away from the body, according to this Aristotelean tradition of melancholic genius, is one of the culprits. However, Ficino also marries Plato's notion (in the Phaedrus) of "divine madness" with Aristotle's more hard-nosed medical account of black bile. The effect of this is the forging of a tradition that sees melancholics as not only made miserable by intense intellectual effort, but chosen to live that destiny from birth.

If you subscribe to this tradition, either consciously or unreflectively, having absorbed it from the culture you live in, then you might find some comfort in the belief that your bouts of depression are a sign of your genius. However, here is the rub: you can only take such comfort in this if you are a man. The tradition was pretty clear that male melancholics are genius. If you were female and melancholic, either the physicians renamed your disease (e.g. hysteria) or they argued that too much black bile had a different effect on women: it made them mad.

Consider, for example Johann Weyer's treatise, Of Deceiving Demons where he argues that melancholics are corrupted by the devil:

"Most often, however, that crafty schemer the Devil thus influences the female sex, that sex which by reason of temperament is inconstant, credulous, wicked, uncontrolled in spirit, and (because of its feelings and affections, which it governs only with difficulty) melancholic; he especially seduces stupid, worn-out, unstable old women."

Alas, if you are of the female sex, then you are just plain nutty. You don't get that extra bonus of philosophic genius. The truly great depressives, so the tradition goes, are men.

The juxtaposition of Hamlet and Ophelia is an excellent beginning for illustrating the different gender assumptions packed into the cultural juxtaposition of the wise melancholic man and mad melancholic woman. Both Hamlet and Ophelia suffer, fall into pathological depressions, and tragically die in Hamlet, yet their expressions of despair are quite distinct. Hamlet’s grief for his father, which eventually turns into a vengeful rage toward Claudius, his treacherous, murderous uncle, make Hamlet an archetypal hero.

When we first meet Hamlet, he is sullenly withdrawn from Claudius’ coronation. Both Claudius and his mother, Gertrude, entreat Hamlet to end his mourning for his father and to “let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark” (I.ii.69). Hamlet is not only grief-struck by his father’s death, but horrified by his mother’s marriage to his uncle so soon after his father’s death. He curses Gertrude for her weak and all-too-womanish actions—“ O God, a beast that wants discourse of reason would have mourned longer . . . – but then with an attempt at manly restraint says “But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue” (1.ii. 150-151, 160).

In Hamlet’s opening soliloquoy, Shakespeare establishes Hamlet’s melancholy as acute, yet reasonable grief. Hamlet is mourning not only to his father’s untimely death, but the weak and rash actions of his mother. Claudius’ attempt to reproach Hamlet’s unmanly grief seems too cold and insensitive to the audience after Hamlet explains that his father has been dead less than two months and his mother has already remarried: “With such dexterity to incestuous sheets! (I.ii.156). Moreover, when the ghost of his father appears to reveal that in fact Claudius has murdered him, the audience all them more empathizes with Hamlet’s dejected state.

In a famous soliloquoy, now definitely representative of the ponderous, philosophical melancholic in Western imagination, Hamlet considers
. . .To die, to sleep—
No more; and by a sleep say we end
The heartache and thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to—‘tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished; to die, to sleep (III.i. 61-65)

Pained by the betrayal of his mother and uncle, disgusted by the rottenness of such deception, Hamlet is arrested by his melancholy. His weariness of the world has turned him inward, made him circumspect, rather than spur him to avenge his father’s wrongful death:

And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn away
And lose the name of action. (III.i. 85-89).

Eventually, however, Hamlet overcomes his “pale cast of thought” and becomes the tragic hero whose tale Horatio must tell. Hamlet moves from contemplation to action and roots out all that is rotten in Denmark.

Ophelia’s fate, however, is less magisterial. The loss of her father, Polonious, at the hands of Hamlet coupled with his earlier withdrawal of affection for her make her mad. Horatio describes her melancholic nature to Gertrude:
She speaks much of her father, says she hears

There’s tricks i’th’ world, and hems, and beats her
Spurns enviously at straws, speaks things in doubt
That carry but half sense. Her speech is nothing;
Yet the unshap├Ęd use of it doth move
The hearers to collection. They aim at it,
And botch the words up fitu to their own thoughts,
Which, as her winks and nods and gestures yield them,
Indeed would make one think there might be thought
Though nothing sure, yet much unhappily (VI.v.3-13)

Laertes, Ophelia’s brother, when he witnesses her deteriorated state refers to her as “a document in madness . . .” (IV.v.179).

If you have made it this far in the post, you might be gathering why I call myself the Mad Melancholic Feminista. The epidemiological facts on depression (our modern day, unromantic, clinical term for melancholia) reveal that women are at least twice as likely to be depressed as men are. Yet, women's depression is more irritating, culturally, than melancholic men.

We don't have enough cultural iconography depicting melancholic women as our brooding, intellectuals or artistic heroes (unless you count Sylvia Plath or Billie Holiday). So, I have appropriated this loaded cultural term--melancholia--and juxtaposed it with two other terms--mad and feminist--that call into question the male privilege it has been used to glorify. Of course, being tongue-in-cheek I called myself a feminista rather than a feminazi. I think feminista is more up-to-date.

So, I am blogging for all the unsung melancholic females out there.