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The exhibition “The Demon of Melancholy: Geneaologies, Modernities” was held April 14–May 16, 2008, in the Lownes Room of the John Hay Library. Sponsored by the University Library and the Department of French Studies, it was curated by Pauline de Tholozany and Dominique Coulombe. The web exhibition was designed by the Library’s Integrated Technology Services.

From antiquity to modern times, from the confinement of enclosed spaces to open-ended journeys of displacement, as part of an individual or collective experience, melancholy has been a source of inspiration and contemplation for philosophers, aesthetes, writers, artists, and scientists. At the crossroad of the fields of philosophy, occultism, literary arts, visual arts, and medicine, the theme of melancholy lays a fertile ground for an abundance of literary and artistic creations.

How has Melancholy been perceived and represented across the centuries?

The displays of this exhibition, originally designed to accompany the conference “The Demon of Melancholy: Geneaologies, Modernities” held April 24-25, 2008 at Brown University, attempt to provide a partial answer to this question. While it would be an impossible task to give justice to such a rich and vast theme in a small exhibit, works selected from the collections of the John Hay Library and Rockefeller Library offer some insight into the complexities and paradoxes of the theme of melancholy and illustrate its dialectic nature: on one hand a debilitating and paralyzing force that can lead to asthenia, inhibition, or even mental illness; on the other hand, a nurturing, creative and restorative power capable of unleashing artistic creation, healing the wounds and renewing the will to survive.

Mais tandis que le sang, la flegme et la bile jaune s’épanchent visiblement et sévacuent sans trop de difficulté, la bile noire, humeur captive et morose, ne trouve guère d’issue…
— Jean Starobinski, "L’encre de la mélancolie"

"Melencolia I" by Albrecht Durer

Dürer, Albrecht, 1471-1528
“Melencolia I”
In: Albrecht Dürer's sämmtliche Kupferstich / Mit Text von Wilhelm Lübke ... Nach den Besten originalen des Königl. Kupferstichcabinets in München, durch unveränderlichen Lichtdruck in originalgrösse Reproducirt von J.B. Obernetter.
2. Aufl.
Nürnberg : Soldan, [n.d.]
Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection

This engraving by Dürer is a fundamental reference for the study of melancholy. The title, "Melencolia I," refers to a classification created by Cornelius Agrippa in his work, De occulta philosophic. The reference is specifically to the first type of melancholy, melencolia imaginativa, a creative melancolia. The feminine figure representing melancholy is sitting with geometrical instruments at her feet; she seems to have abandoned these instruments for a thoughtful, perhaps resigned contemplation. The allegory has been interpreted in many ways and still remains a puzzle today. The 19th century romantic movement interprets the print as an expression of a disenchantment with the limits of human condition. In a same line of thought, Panofsky and Saxl see Melencolia as a resigned figure, sinking into depression because she is realizing the limitations of her knowledge. More recently, Jean Clair in his book Mélancolie : génie et folie en Occident,published in 2005, interprets her as a humanist figure: her attitude is not one of laziness and resignation, but one of wisdom. She has accepted the limits of her own reason, and that knowledge comes with a “non-savoir,” a non-knowledge.

"The anatomy of melancholy" by Robert Burton

Burton, Robert, 1577-1640
The anatomy of melancholy : vp. What it is, with all the kinds, cavses, symptomes, prognostickes, and seuerall cures of it. In three partitions with their seuerall sections, members, and svbsections. Philosophically, medicinally, historically, opened and cvt / By Democritvs Junior. ; With a satyricall preface, conducing to the following discourse.
The sixt. edition, corrected and augmented by the author.
Oxford : Printed for Henry Cripps., [1651]
Albert E. Lownes Collection

Burton’s work tries to synthesize and compile previous theories about Melancholy. He quotes extensively from Aristotle, Hippocrates, and more contemporary sources, giving a complete approach, with lists of physical and mental symptoms, astrological influences, as well as examples that, in some cases, read like case studies. His approach is at the same time scientific, literary, religious and moral. It deals with Melancholy as both a sickness and an occasional source of genius.

On this front-page, Burton, calls himself a “Democritus Junior,” referring to a famous episode written by Hippocrates: as Democritus was working on a treatise about melancholy, his compulsive laughter and irrational behavior started to worry the people of Abdere, and they asked Hippocrates for help. Contrary to what he expected, Hippocrates found that Democritus was not mad but very lucid. He claimed that his laughter was provoked by man’s inconsistencies and vain ambitions. His melancholy was linked to a visionary quality. Democritus is represented here right above the title, sitting in a typically melancholic position suggesting that he is deep in his thoughts, his head resting on one of his hands, while, as the poem on the facing page explains, other figures represent different types of melancholy.

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