Love as Melancholia

I recently watched The Paradise, a BBC series based on Emile Zola’s novel about a department  store in the late 1880’s. It is delightful, all two seasons of it before it was cancelled. There are so many things I could write about it: its cinematography, its characters, the dialogue. The moments when the heroine, a young shop girl Denise, is first falling in love with the owner of the Paradise, her employer Mr. Moray, is a poignant example of romantic love in the form of melancholia.  

Miss Denise Lovett in the BBC’s The Paradise. I give it a painted effect using the app Canvas.

Miss Audrey, head of ladies’ wear, recognizes Denise’s haunted look immediately, pulling her off the floor, down into the employee’s mess hall telling her that there are two types of girl in love, the “giddy type” and then Denise. For a forlorn type of lover, instead of the euphoria or elation of the giddy, there is mental anguish, torment. I am of the forlorn type myself. Hopeless. Haunted. 

George Romney’s “Mirth and Melancholy (Miss Wallis later Mrs. James Campbell)” painted in 1789.

In Spanish, uno se enamora. It is a reflexive verb. The subject and object are the same. The action of the verb stays with the subject. Falling in love is like casting a spell on oneself. In English, it is like jumping into a too deep hole on purpose. In both languages, the structure evokes the progression or the boundary or the tension between having control and not having control. It is born in one (the love). It is carried in one. One is the passive repository of it. It inhabits us. It haunts us.  

Edgar Degas’ “Melancholy” painted in 1874.

I remember my grandmother telling me tales when I was a little girl of young women pining away for a secret love. They could not eat. They could not sleep. I swear the stories ended with them dying. My grandmother was apparently also of the forlorn type. This type of romantic love is melancholia. Depression or some other clinical sounding name, we would call it nowadays. Love as a sickness. Lovesickness.  

Paul Gauguin’s “Melancholic” painted in 1891.

 Wikipedia gives a wonderful history of melancholy. The term comes from the Greek for black bile, one of the four temperaments in ancient medicine. Melancholia was:

“described as a distinct disease with particular mental and physical symptoms in the 5th and 4th centuries BC . . . Hippocrates, in his Aphorisms,  characterized all ‘fears and despondencies, if they last a long time’ as being symptomatic of melancholia . . . [Incurable melancholia was thought to be due] to demonic possession.”

Robert Burton, an English scholar at Oxford University, wrote The Anatomy of Melancholia

in 1621 in which he set forth an interesting concept that music and the related dance:

“is a sovereign remedy against despair and melancholy and will drive away the devil himself.”

The French philosopher Denis Diderot and his colleague Jean le Rond D’Alembert, in their Encyclopaedia, set forth the causes of melancholy in the mid-1700’s as:

“grief, pains of the spirit, passions, as well as the love and sexual appetites that go unsatisfied.”

Arabic physicians in the Islamic Golden Age also likened melancholia to a disease:

“Al-Kindi (c. 801-873 CE) links it with disease-like mental states like anger, passion, hatred and depression while the Persian physician Avicenna (980-1037 CE) diagnosed huzn [melancholia] in a lovesick man if his pulse increased drastically when the name of the girl he loved was spoken. Avicenna suggests . . .many causes for melancholy, including the fear of death, intrigues surrounding one’s life and lost love.”


William Blake’s “The Lover’s Whirlwind” painted 1824-1827.
 In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera, one of the two main characters, Florentino Ariza, becomes physically ill during a cholera outbreak with choleric symptoms:

“After Florentino Ariza saw her for the first time, his mother knew before he told her because he lost his voice and his appetite and spent the entire night tossing and turning in his bed. But when he began to wait for the answer to his first letter, his anguish was complicated by diarrhea and green vomit, he became disoriented and suffered from sudden fainting spells, and his mother was terrified because his condition did not resemble the turmoil of love so much as the devastation of cholera. Florentino Ariza’s godfather, an old homeopathic practitioner who had been Transito Ariza’s confidant ever since her days as a secret mistress, was also alarmed at first by the patient’s condition, because he had the weak pulse, the hoarse breathing, and the pale perspiration of a dying man. But his examination revealed that he had no fever, no pain anywhere, and that his only concrete feeling was an urgent desire to die. All that was needed was shrewd questioning, first of the patient and then of his mother, to conclude once again that the symptoms of love were the same as those of cholera.”

Now, our heroine Denise is not typically of melancholic disposition which makes her forlorn moments stand out all the more. They do not last long as she confesses her love to Moray rather quickly and he reciprocates. Romantic melancholia should be cured when the love is requited. Garcia Marquez already took us down the path of the romantic melancholia or mania of unrequited love, finally requited after 70 years. What about a character in which a lover’s melancholia when requited love does not resolve?  Perhaps a more subtle take than demonic possession would be possible. Do you know of such a character?

Vincent Van Gogh’s “Melancholy” painted in 1883.


The featured image is a photograph taken by me overlaid with a second photograph taken by me and heavily edited with Perfect 365 and Enlight.

All works by George Romney (1734-1802), Edgar Degas (1834-1917), William Blake (1757-1827), Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) and Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) are in the public domain. 


I write abecedarian sequences

2 replies on “Love as Melancholia”

A fascinating look at melacholy/melancholia and the origin of the word from the Greek for black bile. I particularly enjoyed reading about Florentino Ariza’s symptoms and the practitioner’s conclusion the the symptoms of love were the same as those of cholera! The art works you have used are wonderful.

Liked by 1 person

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