Friday, October 7, 2011

The Magic of Melancholy II: the Art of Melancholy

In 1774 Europe's literary world was taken by storm by Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther), a slim volume by the young German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The novel describes, in extensive detail, Werther's unfulfilled love for young Lotte and the sufferings engendered thereby. Too sensitive to face the demands of daily life and unable to bear the heartbreak of Lotte's engagement to another man, Werther ultimately shoots himself.

Werther made its 23-year old author the first literary superstar: translations into various languages soon followed, while fans emulated Werther's style of dress. (No eyeliner or frilly black shirts, alas – young Werther was famous for his yellow leather waistcoat and blue coat with tin buttons). Then Werther was banned in many cities, as authorities began receiving reports of a sudden increase in young men following Werther's lead. Goethe, who had written the novel to purge himself of his own suicidal impulses, became convinced that his tale was responsible for a continental wave of suicides, complaining 'My friends were confusing themselves by believing that they had to turn poetry into reality, enact the novel and shoot themselves!"

(In the 1970s a psychiatrist named David Phillips gave a name to this phenomenon: the Werther Effect. He found that massive media attention and retelling of the specific details of a suicide could increase the number of suicides. In the month after Marilyn Monroe's 1962 suicide, 197 individuals committed suicide in a manner which suggested they had used the star's death as a model for their own: throughout the US, the suicide rate for that month increased by 12%.)

Since young Werther's untimely death and subsequent rise to fame, many performers and artists have taken on his mantle of misery. The "Goth" and "Emo" movements have inspired a whole new generation to share their sadness with their black-clad community. While there is a great deal of camp and tongue-in-cheek role-playing involved in these scenes, there is also a recognition of the powers of darkness. In a world of positive thinking, where everything can be solved with a smile and an affirmation, Goths and Emos recognize that there are wounds which cannot be healed and injustices which go unpunished. Their artifice points to uncomfortable realities which many would rather ignore. It seeks to transmute ugliness into beauty and, like art and religion, gives meaning to suffering.

Instead of emulating Marilyn Monroe, Kurt Cobain or other self-destructive stars, try following the example of musicians like Frank Sinatra and Robert Smith. Sad songs and a good wallow in self-pity can be great therapy, so long as it's followed by dusting yourself off, picking yourself up, and starting all over again. Millions of country music fans can't be wrong: sometimes you need to cry before you can laugh again.