On English melancholy

An academic got in touch with me last week, inviting me to a seminar on Stoicism, which was nice of him. On the seminar programme, he described me as ‘an author of books on happiness’. Alas I’ve only written one book (one that was published anyway), and it’s strange to have it described as ‘on happiness’. My friends, when they’re introducing me, also often say something like ‘he writes about well-being’, or ‘he writes about happiness’. And at the philosophy festival, How The Light Gets In, I was actually described as a ‘happiness guru’, which sounds pretty horrific – I think if I ever encountered a ‘happiness guru’ I would shoot them on sight, then mount their head on my living room wall.

I suppose I did have a blog called The Politics of Well-Being, and I do run something at Queen Mary called The Well-Being Project, and I have written quite a lot about the fad for measuring happiness (though usually from a sceptical point of view). It’s strange, anyway, to be thought of as a writer on happiness, as I’d say I naturally have quite a melancholic disposition – and I’m OK with that, and feel no need to try and dispel the occasional mists of melancholy so the sun shines unremittingly.

I believe there is a fine English tradition of melancholy. You see it particularly in English music – many of our greatest pop musicians are deeply melancholic. Think of Damon Albarn, who has described himself as ‘an English melancholic’, and songs of his like The Universal or End of the Century (or the wonderful album title ‘Modern Life is Rubbish’). Albarn even wrote a song called Melancholy Hill (Oasis, by contrast, don’t seem a melancholic band at all).

Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker also has a wonderful melancholy streak in him, so does Pulp guitarist and mournful crooner Richard Hawley, so does Badly Drawn Boy. Further back, Morrissey discovered a rich vein of poetry in English melancholy – and also discovered the humour in it, the reveling in the downbeat (‘I was looking for a job and then I found a job, and heaven knows I’m miserable now’). Paul Weller, Elvis Costello, even Sting all tap into that melancholy vein. Pink Floyd had it in spades – particularly the song Time, which, if you think about it, is an incredibly downbeat song for a rock band at the height of their popularity:

Every year is getting shorter
Never seem to find the time
Plans that either come to naught
Or half a page of scribbled lines
Hanging on in quiet desperation
Is the English way
The time is gone
The song is over
Thought I’d something more to say

Alison Goldfrapp, mistress of melancholy

The uber-melancholist of the 1960s would have to be Ray Davies of the Kinks – I wonder if English melancholy in pop was in some ways a rebellion against US culture? The Beatles could tap into it too, particularly John Lennon, though Paul McCartney’s For No One is sublimely melancholic, as is Eleanor Rigby of course. The Stones seem much less in tune with that mood. Nick Drake is a perfect embodiment of the melancholic bard.

And then there are all those melancholic minstrelettes: Amy Winehouse, Adele, Alison Goldfrapp, Laura Marling – compare them to, say, Rihanna, Avril Lavigne, Lady Gaga, or Katy Perry. Their American counterparts don’t do melancholic. American female singers used to be able to do melancholic – think of Carole King or the Carpenters – but seem to have lost the capacity some time around the Reagan era. Lana Del Rey tries but comes across as mawkish. OK, some contemporary American female singers are masters of melancholy, like Cat Power. But they tend to be at the margin of American pop. In British pop, they’re front-and-centre.

'Always Dowland, always miserable'

English song-writers have themselves traced this melancholic vein in English pop back to the Elizabethan era. Damon Albarn, for example, looks back to Dr John Dee, and the link between Saturnian melancholy and creative power. Sting has performed a concert of the songs of John Dowland, the famous melancholic bard of the Elizabethan era, whose motto was ‘Semper Dowland, semper dolens’, or ‘always Dowland, always miserable’.

Why does this strain exist in our culture and temperament? It could be connected to the weather, to the seasons, and particularly to this time of year, when summer changes into autumn (‘it is November when the English begin to hang themselves’ was apparently a common saying on the continent in the 18th century). Robert Hooke, one of the founders of the Royal Society, believed he could plot his melancholy by tracking it against weather patterns.

But there are melancholy strains in other cultures too – think of German Romanticism and The Sorrows of Young Werther, the ennui of Baudelaire, the Jewish tradition of kvetching, the strain of Japanese melancholy found in the novels of Haruki Murakami, the Russian melancholy of Chekhov and Lermontov, or the blues of African-American music.

Anton Chekhov: 'A fine day to hang oneself'.

Really, then, melancholy is a sort of patchwork global construction, and English melancholy has certainly drawn on these other national variations (English pop drew heavily on American rhythm and blues, English comedy has drawn on Jewish kvetching, and English literature has drawn on Russian and German melancholics like Chekhov and WG Sebald).

Nietzsche may have famously declared that ‘humanity does not strive for happiness, only the English do that’, but I’d suggest English melancholy is much older and more prevalent than the Benthamite cult of happiness to which Nietzsche was referring. And I like the melancholy strain in our national character. I like the poetry it has led to, the humour, the mysticism. I like the scepticism of melancholia – the wise sense of human limits, human fallibility. The melancholy awareness of death and impermanence make life more beautiful, more poignant. I don’t think we should try and drive it out of our national psyche, like St Patrick driving out the snakes from Ireland.

At the same time, of course, you can indulge in too much melancholy and it turns into the sort of crippling depression that hit Coleridge, for example, and disabled his creative powers. Melancholy’s a bit like drugs – a little bit of it appears to be good for creativity but indulge too much and you incapacitate yourself (or even kill yourself). I think one can celebrate English melancholy, and also celebrate therapy. I don’t see Cognitive Behavioural Therapy as some sort of American invasion, some attempt to transform our national psyche and turn it into one big smiley face. After all, CBT came from Stoicism which is, let’s face it, a fairly melancholic philosophy. That’s probably why melancholy English thinkers like Matthew Arnold are so fond of it.

CBT prevents the mists of melancholy from turning into the storm-clouds of violent depression, when our negative beliefs turn into prisons, and (in the words of Thomas Gray in 1742), our mind “believes, nay, is sure of everything that is unlikely, so it be but frightful; and on the other hand excludes and shuts its eyes to the most possible hopes, and everything that is pleasurable; from this the Lord deliver us!” Amen to that.

Anyway, here is a Spotify playlist I have made of English melancholy pop. What have I missed out?

One thought on “On English melancholy

  1. Robert Burton (Anatomy of Melancholy, 1621) would have added a peculiar diet to the problems of English melancholy, one heavy on the onions perhaps. But what he calls ‘windy melancholy’, or ‘hypochondriacal’ (as in, under the cartilage) melancholy, also seems still to be a solid part of the everyday English experience, which Burton, perhaps singularly, acknowledged could be fun. Toot, toot.

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