As Kurt Cobain sang in “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle,” that he misses “the comfort in being sad.” I can understand that line, to an extent. There’s an emotional ease and simplicity in melancholy, an excuse to shut down and shut off.
Montaigne has a far more complex take on melancholy:
There is an element of purpose, consent and complacency in feeding oneself on melancholy – I mean, quite apart from ambition, which can also be mixed up with it. There is some hint as of delicate sweetmeats which smiles at us and flatters us in the very bosom of melancholy. Are there not some complexions which make it their only food? There is a certain pleasure in our tears.
Montaigne throws several ideas at us simultaneously in this paragraph, I’ll try to take them one by one. Melancholy has a purpose … yes, I understand that. I think that’s Cobain’s thought, the comfort in being sad. The purpose of melancholy is to create some emotional space.
The second element is consent. That’s a little more difficult … but I can see Montaigne’s point. Disconnect melancholy from depression and it makes sense. Depression lacks consent, you are sad and absent some therapy or biochemical change, you’re going to remain sad. But melancholy is a consensual sadness, one you’ve agreed to carry.
The third point is complacency, a little more difficult. I think the word smugness might be more appropriate. There’s an element of superiority to melancholy, it creates a self-centered universe. Suffering in the middle of the world still puts you in the middle of the world.
There are two other elements thrown in as well — one is ambition. For the life of me, I cannot understand what Montaigne is talking about. Critical to any ambition is striving, hard work. I don’t see melancholy as a form of hard work, more like an excuse to avoid it. It seems to me that Montaigne is merely restating in ambition his belief in melancholy’s purpose.
The word “sweetmeats” is the centerpiece of the final element. It’s an archaic word that probably best translates as desserts. Here Montaigne is talking about the seductiveness of sadness, which I find astute. To give in to complete self centeredness is highly seductive. It’s empowering to feel oppressed, there’s an undeniable power to considering yourself so important that people or forces are conspiring against you.
So that’s how Montaigne dissects sadness — but this essay is actually about the opposite emotion of joy. I focused first on the negative aspect because often you can’t fully understand Montaigne’s ideas unless you understand the connections he sees in opposites. In fact, in describing deep joy, he uses a word more often connected to depression:
Deep joy has more gravity than gaiety; the highest and fullest happiness, more calm than playfulness.
By this description, it might be hard to tell the difference between someone who is melancholy and one who is deeply joyful. But while melancholy is seductive and can be acquired easily, joy requires sacrifice:
Ease crushes us. That is what is meant by that line of ancient Greek poetry: ‘The gods sell us all the pleasures which they give us’; that is to say, none that they give us is pure and perfect: we can only buy them at the price of some suffering.
To picture what Montaigne is describing here, think of a sports franchise celebrating winning a title. Think of Michael Jordan crying as he clutches his first NBA championship trophy. Think of how many Olympic athletes collapse to the ground in joy in victory:
When I picture a man besieged by all the enjoyments which he could desire – say that all his members were forever seized of a pleasure equal to that of sexual intercourse at its climax – I see him collapsing under the weight of his joy; and I can perceive him quite incapable of bearing pleasure so pure, so constant and so total: truly, once there, he runs away and naturally hastens to escape from it as from some narrow passage where he cannot find solid ground and fears to be engulfed.
So that idea makes sense to me, pure joy is a hard won and difficult. But there’s one more idea in this essay and it’s the most slippery one. Montaigne refers to the corruption of human beings and how they need to supplement their natural elements with some kind of alloy to be more complete:
Plato, even in his most flourishing virtue if he had put his ear close to it (and he did put his ear close to it) – he would have heard in it some sinister sound of a human alloy, even though it were a muffled sound which only he could detect. Man, totally and throughout, is but patches and many-coloured oddments.
I understand the metaphor, but not the particulars. What are these alloys that improve the character of humanity?
We must weigh down our wits and blunt their edge to render them more obedient to precedent and practice; we must coarsen them and darken them to give them the proportions of this earthy darksome life. That is why the more commonplace and less tense of wits are more appropriate to the conduct of affairs and more successful.
So Montaigne is back to recommending a form of common wisdom — peasant wisdom — as a way of creating more complete people. That doesn’t quite work for me, it’s a bit cloying. But later, Montaigne comes on a description of this common wisdom that actually sounds quite a bit like Heideggerean philosophy, finding ultimate happiness by reaching a level of practical mastery that defies description:
Those who best manage their estates are the least able to explain how they do so, while the most skillful talkers are as often as not useless at it. I know one man who is excellent at talking about all kinds of estate-management and at describing it but who has let a hundred thousand pounds of income slip through his fingers. I know another who speaks and deliberates better than any man in his council-chamber; never in the world was there a more beautiful display of intelligence and of competence: yet when it comes to practice his servants find he is quite other than that – I mean, even leaving aside bad luck.