Skip over navigation

Emblematic and Literary Figures

The section on emblematic and literary figures represents illustrations of famous literary and philosophical figures affected by melancholy. More than ever, melancholy here has two faces: it is, on the one hand, a negative force driving these literary figures to depression and despair, but it is also, on the other hand, a creative force, an inspiration, a state of despair that, ultimately, is also capable of inspiring genius.


"Zénon méditant sous le portique d’Athènes"

"Zénon méditant sous le portique d’Athènes"
In: Physiologie des passions, ou Nouvelle doctrine des sentimens moraux / par J.-L. Alibert, chevalier de plusieurs ordres, premier médecin du roi, professeur a la faculté de médecine de Paris, médecin en chef de l'Hôpital Saint-Louis, etc.
Seconde édition, revue, corrigée et augmentée.
A Paris : Chez Béchet jeune, libraire, place de l'École de médecine, no 4., M. DCCC. XXVI. [1826] (A Paris : de l'imprimerie de Crapelet, rue de Vaugirard, no 9.) Starred Books Collection

In his book Physiologie des Passions ou nouvelle doctrine des sentiments moraux, Alibert tries to analyze passions and feelings in so far as they influence moral behaviors. It is neither a scientific treatise nor a religious one, but rather a compilation of moral examples and counter examples.

The print above represents the philosopher Zenon, a figure that Alibert chooses to illustrate his chapter on Courage. Zenon of Citium (334-262 BC) was born in Cyprus, and moved to Athens where he became the leading philosopher of the Stoïcist movement. Alibert sees him as an example of humility and courage, and describes him as a heroic figure for the influence he had on the men of Athens, and for his praise of patience, virtue, liberty, and honesty. The print in itself may be more interesting than the text, because it shows the philosopher in what is commonly recognized as a melancholic position. He is sitting half in the shadow, with his hand and the parchment he is holding in clear daylight, suggesting perhaps that the melancholic state enables the work of genius to come forth and develop.


"Le fou ambitieux"
In: Physiologie des passions, ou Nouvelle doctrine des sentimens moraux / par J.-L. Alibert, chevalier de plusieurs ordres, premier médecin du roi, professeur a la faculté de médecine de Paris, médecin en chef de l'Hôpital Saint-Louis, etc.
Seconde édition, revue, corrigée et augmentée.
A Paris : Chez Béchet jeune, libraire, place de l'École de médecine, no 4., M. DCCC. XXVI. [1826] (A Paris : de l'imprimerie de Crapelet, rue de Vaugirard, no 9.) Starred Books Collection

In this chapter of Physiologie des passions, Alibert tells the story of Anselme, a patient at the Bicêtre Hospital who was nicknamed Diogenes. Anselme’s unrealistic ambitious drive and inflated ego make him behave erratically. He is convinced that he has a philosophical calling, and dresses as a Greek philosopher. Obsessed by the “idée fixe” that he can save others, he displays traits of excessive pride similar to those of Don Quixote and eventually retreats into isolation. For Alibert, melancholy is the ultimate explanation for this behavior: while for Zenon, melancholy was a source of genius, for Anselme it is the cause of his hubris which eventually leads him to madness.

Anselme était, comme tous les mélancoliques, très inégal dans son humeur. Tantôt, il parlait à ne jamais se taire; dans d’autres cas, il avait des réticences qui duraient plusieurs jours. On l’a vu passer des mois entiers dans un silence meditatif ; mais à peine avait-il desséré les dents, que sa physionomie s’enflammait comme celle des enthousiastes. Ses gestes avaient quelque chose de théâtral et d’animé; sa voix surtout, dont il variait agéeablement toutes les inflexions, intéressait singulièrement en sa faveur.

Anselme, like all melancholic people, was of an uneven temper. Sometimes, he talked without ever stopping; other times, he was quiet for a period of several days. You could see him spend entire months in a quiet meditative state; but as soon as he opened his mouth his physiognomy perked up like that of enthusiastic people. His gestures had something theatrical and animated; his voice in particular, whose inflections he could pleasantly modulate, in an odd manner, played in his favor.

"Gilliatt" by Victor Gabriel Gilbert

Gilbert, Victor Gabriel, 1847-1935
"Gilliatt
"
In: Œuvres complètes de Victor Hugo. Roman X, Les travailleurs de la mer.
Édition définitive d'après les manuscrits originaux.
Paris : J. Hetzel & cie, 1880-[1889?]
Starred Books Collection

Les travailleurs de la mer is a novel set in Guernesey, where Hugo was in exile for more than 15 years. It tells the story of Gilliatt, a social outcast, who falls in love with the daughter of a ship owner. Hugo describes Gilliatt as an ambiguous solitary figure who reads books by Voltaire and Tissot (a XVIIIth century French scientist), but who is considered as a lunatic by the rest of the village. Gilliatt, it will be revealed, is in fact a sublime solitary figure.

La solitude fait des gens à talents ou des idiots. Gilliatt s’offrait sous ces deux aspects. Par moments on lui voyait « l’air étonné » dont nous avons parlé, et on l’eût pris pour une brute. Dans d’autres instants, il avait on ne sait quel regard profond… En somme, ce n’était qu’un pauvre homme sachant lire et écrire. Il est probable qu’il était sur la limite qui sépare le songeur du penseur. Le penseur veut, le songeur subit. La solitude s’ajoute aux simples, et les complique d’une certaine façon. Ils se pénètrent à leur insu d’horreur sacrée.

Solitude either develops the mental powers, or renders men dull and vicious. Gilliatt sometimes presented himself under both these aspects. At times, when his features wore that air of strange surprise already mentioned, he might have been taken for a man of mental powers scarcely superior to the savage. At other moments an indescribable air of penetration lighted up his face… After all, he was but a poor man; uninstructed, save to the extent of reading and writing. It is probable that the condition of his mind was at that limit which separates the dreamer from the thinker. The thinker wills, the dreamer is a passive instrument. Solitude sinks deeply into pure natures, and modifies them in a certain degree. They become, unconsciously, penetrated with a kind of sacred awe.

"A Albert Dürer" by Victor Hugo

Hugo, Victor, 1802-1885.
"A Albert Dürer"
In: Œuvres complètes de Victor Hugo. Poésie III, Les voix intérieures.
Édition définitive d'après les manuscrits originaux.
Paris : J. Hetzel & cie, 1880-[1889?]
Starred Books Collection

This excerpt of “À Albert Dürer,” a poem from Les voix intérieures, praises Albrecht Dürer as a visionary artist. The poet strongly identifies himself with Dürer, since they share a common "visionary" quality. The painter and the poet both find inspiration in the shadows of the "noirs taillis" and "sauvages lieux," and both of them can see through this very shadow. The "vieux peintre pensif" (“deep in thought”) is a figure associated with uncanny woods, but also with a visionary quality. The print on the left illustrates the horror felt by Dürer in these dark woods, a horror that we can also see as a metaphor for inspiration.

To Albrecht Dürer

In the old forests where huge sap-waves roll
Through pallid birch-trunk and dark alder-bole,
How often, past some patch of open ground,
Fearful, not venturing to look around,
You must have scurried, pale and growing fainter,
Old master Dürer, you reflective painter!
In your illustrious scenes we too can see
What your prophetic gaze saw vividly:
In that dark covert veiled by shadows lies
The webfoot faun or sylvan with green eyes,
While Pan adorns your haunt with floral sheaves,
And ancient dryads fill their hands with leaves.

A forest is a dreadful world to you;
There the fantastic merges with the true.

Selected poems of Victor Hugo, translated by E. H. and A. M. Blackmore.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Gavarni, Paul, 1803-1852.
"L’Abbé Faria"
In : Le comte de Monte-Cristo / par M. Alexandre Dumas.
Paris, Bureau de l'écho des feuilletons, 1850. Vol. 1
Starred Books Collection

Le Comte de Monte-Cristo is one of the most famous works by Alexandre Dumas. It tells the story of Edmond Dantès, a young man unjustly imprisoned for many years. Once he escapes from his dull and depressive prison, Dantès will take his revenge on those who are responsible for his incarceration.

This print illustrates an early episode in the novel: next to Dantès’s cell, lives another prisoner by the name of Faria. He is nicknamed “l’abbé fou” (the mad priest). When the prison inspector comes to visit him, he is sitting in a circle sketched on the floor, and he is busy drawing geometrical figures around him. His obsession for geometry and mathematical problems, in conjunction with his solitude and the incomprehension he meets in others, makes him a figure of melencolia imaginativa, a creative melancholia that Dantès will later recognize and value. What is mistaken for madness by the prison staff is in fact a lucidity that Dantès will not fail to see.






"Confession d'un enfant du siècle." by Adolphe Lalauze

Lalauze, Adolphe, 1838-1906.
"Confession d'un enfant du siècle"
In: La confession d'un enfant du siècle / Alfred de Musset. Avec un portrait de l'auteur, dessiné à la sanguine par Eugène Lami, fac-similé par M. Legenisel et une eau-forte de M. Lalauze d'après Bida.
Paris, G. Charpentier et E. Fasquelle, 1893.
Small books Collection

The Confession of a Child of the Century (published for the first time in 1836) is Alfred de Musset’s most famous prose work. It is an autobiographical novel about his famous love affair with George Sand. The novel stages Octave, a young man whose state of mind stands for the emblem of “Le mal du siècle” that afflicted a whole generation. His depression is for Musset emblematic of a “désespérance” that affects France after the Napoleonic Wars.

In the print exhibited here, Octave lies in bed after having been deceived by his mistress. His deception crushes his idealism and leads him to face a general void of belief. His materialist friend Desgenais (the character sitting next to the bed on the print) is pleading for cynicism, in a world that has lost its values and in which “L’amour n’existe pas.”






Image courtesy of Wikipedia.


I have pursued, las, philosophy,
Jurisprudence and medicine,
And, help me God, Theology,
With fervent zeal through thick and thin.
And here, poor fool, I stand once more,
No wiser than I was before.
They call me Magister, Doctor, no less,
And for some ten years, I would guess,
Through ups and downs and tos and fros
I have led my pupils by the nose –
And see there is nothing we can know!
It fair sears my heart to find it so.

— Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, 1749-1832. Faust : a tragedy : interpretive notes, contexts, modern criticism ; translated by Walter Arndt ; edited by Cyrus Hamlin. New York : W.W. Norton, 2001.

These opening lines of Faust express the character’s lament at the vacuity of his knowledge: “there is nothing we can know,” says Faust, and his despair at the impossibility of knowing shares similarities with Dürer’s vision in Melencolia I. But Dürer’s interpretation of melancholy can also be analyzed as a humanist’s version of wisdom, a judicious and prudent resignation in front of what cannot be known. Faust’s despair will not lead him to such an insight, but on the contrary to a pact with Mephistopheles. Delacroix’s illustration depicts Faust looking at a skull, thus emphasizing the vanity of the scientist’s task and the looming presence of death.


"Original portrait of Baudelaire." by George Rochegrosse

Rochegrosse, Georges, 1859-1938
Original portrait of Baudelaire.
In: Baudelaire, Charles, 1821-1867.
Les fleurs du mal
/ nombreuses illustrations de Georges Rochegrosse gravées à l’eau-forte et sur bois.
Paris : Librairie des amateurs, A. Ferroud, F. Ferroud, successeur, 1917.
Starred Books Collection

Baudelaire is represented here in a meditative pose by the artist Georges Rochegrosse. Jean Clair, in his seminal book Mélancolie, génie et folie de l’Occident, refers to Baudelaire as the “poet of melancholy par excellence” and stresses the predisposition of major artists to find a refuge in solitude, and to transcend their ennui and depression through their artistic creations.














Spleen
Je suis comme le roi d'un pays pluvieux,
Riche, mais impuissant, jeune et pourtant très vieux,
Qui, de ses précepteurs méprisant les courbettes,
S'ennuie avec ses chiens comme avec d'autres bêtes.
Rien ne peut l'égayer, ni gibier, ni faucon,
Ni son peuple mourant en face du balcon.
Du bouffon favori la grotesque ballade
Ne distrait plus le front de ce cruel malade;
Son lit fleurdelisé se transforme en tombeau,
Et les dames d'atour, pour qui tout prince est beau,
Ne savent plus trouver d'impudique toilette
Pour tirer un souris de ce jeune squelette.
Le savant qui lui fait de l'or n'a jamais pu
De son être extirper l'élément corrompu,
Et dans ces bains de sang qui des Romains nous viennent,
Et dont sur leurs vieux jours les puissants se souviennent,
II n'a su réchauffer ce cadavre hébété
Où coule au lieu de sang l'eau verte du Léthé.

Baudelaire, Charles, 1821-1867. Les fleurs du mal. Paris : Gallimard, 2004.


I am like the king of a rainy country,
rich but powerless, young and yet very old,
who having tutors contemptuous of curvets
suffers ennui with hounds, as with other beasts.
Nothing can cheer him, not game, not falcon,
not his people perishing under his balcony.
A grotesque ballade from his favorite fool
no longer relaxes the brow of this cruel invalid;
his lilied bed becomes a grave and his ladies-in-waiting,
for whom every prince is a beauty,
can no longer dress indecently enough to draw a smile from this young skeleton.
The mage who makes gold for him has never managed
to expunge the corrupt element in his makeup,
and in those baths of blood that come to us from Rome
and which the powerful bring to mind in their final days,
he cannot rekindle that dazed cadaver
which runs, not with blood, but with the green waters of Lethe.

Baudelaire, Charles, 1821-1867. The Flowers of Evil, translated by Keith Waldrop. Middleton, Conn. : Wesleyan University Press, 2006.

→ Next: Humanism and Occultism