If you love a particular sad song, or somber poem, or tragic story, you’re as guilty as I am. I wouldn’t say we enjoy wallowing in misery, but sometimes it’s nice to soak in some sorrow. Some of the most beautiful things I know arise from desolation.
What brought melancholy to mind during this, one of the happiest weeks of my life? Well, in the few hours I haven’t been blogging, I’ve been organizing the disaster otherwise known as My Documents. My computer is full of fragments, things that caught my attention, things that informed a story I was writing or gripped me by both shoulders and demanded I pay attention. One of those things is a paragraph from Emyr Humphreys’s beautiful book The Taliesin Tradition, where he described the essence of Ieuan Brydydd Hir’s I Lys Ifor Hael, and said everything that needed to be said about the loss of a world:
The fact of a defeat, with the pain unassuaged by the passage of time, gives a cutting edge beyond romantic melancholy. Brambles cover the ruins of splendour, the halls of song are the haunts of the owl, and the qualities of generous noblemen and a whole way of life are less than stones in the sand.
I think that’s why we’re attracted to ruins. Each one contains a story. Each one reminds us that nothing lasts forever. We’re fascinated, sometimes elevated and sometimes humbled by the knowledge that this is all that is left of people who, like us, had hopes and passions and ordinary lives.
Berl Katznelson, one of Israel’s founders, used a wall as his example of impermanence:
You see this strong wall? Although it understands nothing, it too will disintegrate, it too will split. Disintegration has a logic of its own.
You never really think of disintegration being something logical, but Berl’s statement made me see it a different way. And it’s strangely comforting. It’s the senseless that we really have trouble with. Things that follow a logical progression can be accomodated, dealt with, even when they can’t be overcome.
And for a writer, it’s good to hear Lao Tzu remind us that words sometimes have a power that outlasts the merely physical:
The very bones of those you talk about have turned to dust. All that remains of them is their words.
The wall splits. A way of life is less than stones in sand. But the words live on. And they can mean just as much now as they did thousands of years ago. Think of Philoctetes, who was no more immune to pain and loneliness than we are, for all that he was a legend:
You jutting broken crags, to you I raise my cry-
There is no one else I can speak to.
I love that line. It reminds me that we’re never truly alone. When all else fails, a mountain can be your best friend.
Adversity brings out the worst in us, sometimes, but it can also bring out the best. Those moments of doubt and loss, suffering and melancholy, they’ve inspired us to create some of our greatest philosophies, works of art and literature that enthralled generations, and taught us how to be human. Every life should include a generous measure of happiness, but don’t knock the melancholy. It can lift you up as easily as bring you down.