‘Melancholy’ is in and of itself a fascinating word. Visually, at least, it could be like a homophone of ‘symphony’, as in an assemblage of beautiful instruments, as it ends in the same sometimes-vowel and contains the same orchestra of consonant blends, the sort that migrate softly from the wet and rarely-used places of the tongue. They are words meant to be aspirated; ‘melancholy’ involves a softness in the throat, and to vocalize it is to sigh, a little bit, which is fitting.
‘Melancholy’ is separate from ‘sadness’ [if there is anything to be learned from puerile Smashing Pumpkins memories it’s this fact, preserved like an ant in amber in the album title involving ‘and the’]. The concept of ‘sadness’ implies grief and a certain hopelessness, while ‘melancholy’ implies a sorrow with purpose, an emotion with which one can be swathed as if it were a shroud. Swathed – no, more like ‘swaddled’, and in that regard melancholy is comfortable, a lozenge to be masticated for a reason, a sadness that has pensive pleasure melted into it, something it’s comfortable to suckle and to be wrapped in.
Melancholy is like a silvereen sky-blanket shot through with shafts of light, like the sun after a storm; a dismal image that is nonetheless hopeful. To be swallowed in melancholy is to immerse in conscious, intentional unhappiness, the sort that, perversely, makes one happier. Depression is numbness, and melancholy is a comet-trail purity of feeling to be grasped like a stellar ribbon, tied around a moment, burning it bright into something fleeting and directionless but no less purposeless for that fact. Melancholy is as formless and rare as a pale nebula-cloud against the backdrop of infinity; it wants to be held, against all of the laws of physics.
The slender hairline between melancholy and all other feelings is impossibly personal, highly subjective, but as a rule it can be identified by its romantic beauty, and by the fact that despite its void of purpose, its emptiness of reasoned direction, it is anything but empty.
Your moments of melancholy are the most swollen of your life, and they may arise at any one of the following times:
You are walking home alone at night. The season is early summer, and it was warm earlier, but now you are walking in a night that is best described as mild. One, two hours ago, in the crepuscule but before the dark, you could have been described as tentative or even hopeful; you went to a local gathering-place, or you visited a friend you are in the habit of visiting. You know the way back to your residence with sense-memory, a place you have not left for long enough.
The hard intrusion of earbuds nudges at the airlocks to either side of your head. You have the inexplicable urge for the kind of song you only rarely entertain. Such songs are personal and while not depressive, are nonetheless invested with some swell of emotion you would not call wholly positive. You become aware of the place you live, and the path your feet follow feels like a sad little sliver of the larger world, a segment in an enormous viral civilization, a solitary mousetrail through a place where life is happening on the fringes beyond your vision. You are bordered by familiar and yet meaningless facades, night-burnished brickfronts, the lonesome haloes of inconsistent lamps.
There are trees, as bordered by their impotent miniature fences as you are by the bubble-drift that carries you instinctively homeward, and their purple, blue and black leaves shimmer in the dark. They arch over the sidewalk, forming an inexorable tunnel. From here, the block on which you live is an indistinct singularity. You will walk into its mouth to reach the same door you left just hours before, lit only briefly by the accusatory lights of a passing car. You are enclosed.
You are looking at your ex’s Facebook page. For the purposes of discussion, let’s say you are a solitary woman, and your ex is a man who once loved you until you could not breathe at night – you literally could not breathe, the crisp suffocation of cheap sheets dampened by your shallow exhalation pressing with something like violence against the fragile corner of your mouth. But you held still and you did not want to move, because he had his weight draped on you, a superheated frame heavier than yours, glued there by warm weather.
You didn’t know then if he was asleep, or whether he thought you were, whether he was as hyper-conscious of the ways in which you did not fit together (your knee at an awkward angle with his leg tangled round yours, his inner elbow misaligned to your floating rib) as you were. Your word for love then was holding still, allowing, possessed nonetheless of a poignant fullness – the early stirrings of melancholy – in your chest that provided you the fuel not to move, even when the noise in the street outside your open window (with a screen full of bug-holes) surged in to help suffocate you.
It is years later. You breathe freely. He hosts his life in a place that does not concern you any longer in the slightest. He is smiling with people you do not know. His eyes no longer love you. You know you shouldn’t play particular songs at this moment, but you do – the siren’s lure of melancholy calls you, and you look at his life without you. It’s not regret, exactly, just the queer little memory-stir of fullness in that same breastbone spot as you read, with guilty compulsion, Wall correspondences that might as well have been written in another language. You go to bed alone. It feels good because of the pain – present-moment pain, not a memory associated with this person, but a subtle feeling, like a letter opener slipping between leaves of brittle paper, that belongs very much to the now.
You Learn Of Someone Else’s Baby. You are unexpectedly confronted with the knowledge that a peer, preferably a long-lost peer, has begun a family through the act of birthing an infant. You had not planned on becoming a parent; even if you had, they are the sort of plans that spiral away knots down a rope into the ocean, fishing the dark and frightening things that live there, deep down. You rent an apartment where the dishes are three days old and you are too shy to ask your landlord to fix the mildew-crusted gap in your living room window that admits the cold snaps for the two winters that you have lived there. Or maybe three; you are not the kind of person that can count. You are the kind of person that resents paper billing, the hated crackle of plastic windows you ignore for as long as you can; you associate the scent of fabric softener with loathsome obligation. You have cats and you are proud that they daily eat.
Yet now you know someone who Owns a House. It’s not that you wanted this living thing now given into their custody, a small-faced and muddy-eyed prehensile human with lip edges or eye lights that resemble the person you know. I mean, you don’t want a child, you think, looking at the way the sunlight of their backyard haloes the frizzy ridges of a corduroy jumper someone must have given as a Baby Shower Gift, or at the baby T-shirt no bigger than your last lover’s palm that says ‘SPECIAL KID.’ Someone called you ‘kid’ when you were small, oh, you were so small, once, and now you are very big and you work all day and you hate doing dishes.
Unbidden you remember the lancing scent of your sibling’s baby-head when he or she was newborn. Sweet grief seeds unfurl under the wing of your ribcage, its plantlike edges surging round your throat. It’s a sentiment you dismiss at worst as disdain and as best as private envy. Its spores lodge at your temple fringes. Green plants in a woodbin smell of ache when someone parks a stroller beside them at an outdoor coffee bar. You are standing beside the black lake of a life you didn’t choose, watching its ripples guzzle occluding dapples of sun.
You Are At An Alienating Social Event. When you were small you watched ants assemble dirt hills crafted from earthen popcorn crafted with impossible foreign precision; when you became older, you understood that the ants lived in cursive annals underneath those hills, tunnels whose destinations were established in a fashion in part organic, in part scientific, like a spirograph algorithm being sketched by a computer. More the former, though; you are the same, an insect in a social hive who finds your way to the places your friends congregate, to destinations established by forces outside of yourself. Facebook invites, stuff you ‘heard of’, you a cell in a bloodborne pilgrimage to the heart of whatever is important to the people you know or think you know.
Rarely does melancholy embrace you when you’re truly among strangers; the most precious and complex loneliness descends when you are in a writhing biological mass of your friends. You drank either not enough or too much. You are tired and something has happened, or a conflagration of somethings, an infernal mass that descended recently on your spirit out of view of everyone here, unbeknownst to every last pair of eyes.
This is a very specific moment, as if you only realize just then that someone has been endlessly twisting a hairpin in a lock because you heard it ‘turn over’ with a distinctive click. You view everyone suddenly as if far away, and you as if sitting or standing in a private material ‘sleeve’ of some kind. Opening up in front of you like the door that you heard unlocked is the absolute futility of this particular anthill of interactions; you suddenly realize the crowd for what it is: eyes a collection of sightless discs arrayed reflective around the room, inward-looking, oblivious to you.
You are irrelevant. Should you leave town tomorrow – no, should you leave tonight, plummeting silently into an open-mouthed and brine-flavored face full of East River perma-death, hardly anyone here would note your absence. The music of clinking glasses, the dissonant volumes of conversation spiraling ever into nonsense, are suddenly alienating, and you realize yourself a small and generally useless thing. You are a pinprick in the maze of this city, you are a dust speck against the curvature of the earth, which you can feel. You will continue to feel it when you lie on your red leather couch, which feels tonight like a huge mouth capable of swallowing up your newly-tiny frame.
You Are Awake By Yourself At 2 AM. You have had precisely the right number of drinks, like a film-noir safe combination that will unlock a special vault. You listen to the kind of song that plants itself leaden in your gut like a great-shafted spear. Your lips move soundlessly; the larval, impermanent soft of your belly swells downy and fat and then falls crepe and concave with the soft skitter of the record turning round and round, or with the labored mechanical breath of your hard drive.
You remember every place you have ever been. Sense-memory of childish kiss twines with the sharp scent of pine and you are twelve at summer camp; it makes you think of the heavy, lazy stroke of a paddle through a mosquito-pregnant lake, of someone roughly insisting with their palms that you need more sunscreen. You are thirteen at the strip mall and the sun is searing your bare shoulders because you have been walking too long (everyone told you they were going to Burger King, but no one is there and you are listening to Jane Says on a Walkman).
You are fourteen and have lost all of your friends over something you did with a boy in the woods. You are fifteen and one of those girls is hugging you because she is scared to read her poem out loud in front of the whole school and to you it feels like centuries since you last hugged her in her room watching Liquid Television and smudging orange soda glasses with the film of local pizza. You are sixteen in a numb silence, an endless tunnel of lockers that were painted yellow and then blue and then red and then gray, colors you will discover when you scratch your anger into the paint.
You are nineteen and starving but loved; you are twenty-something or anything-something and soft and melancholy. You close your eyes and prize with fierce intention the smell of ink and ruled paper. The needle of your record player ticks, arrested; your laptop stops breathing. It is dark because your eyes are closed, and bearing all its weight down onto the cage of your ribs is that sweet-flavored, intangible, beloved melancholy.