Melancholy: Early Modern and Modern
Melancholy has been a central idea in Western history and culture that has alternately focused, explained, organized, and formed the way people see the world and frame epistemological norms. While melancholy has been discussed and diagnosed since Aristotle, Albrecht Dürer’s 1514 engraving Melancolia I will bookend this course as both a product of its own historical moment, and as an emblem of Modernity stranded between past and future – a Modernity helpless in its own creation. In between the century of Dürer and our present Modernity, we will examine selections of Robert Burton’s dizzyingly encyclopedic Anatomy of Melancholy, Sir Thomas Browne’s meditative Religio Medici and Urne-Buriall, the poetry of Baudelaire and Marianne Moore, and W.G. Sebald’s allusive Rings of Saturn. Sigmund Freud’s definitive 1917 essay, “Mourning and Melancholia” will act as the transition to Modernist iterations of melancholy such as Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood. Finally, Giorgio Agamben’s Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture will invite us to consider melancholy as a potential space of the imagination.
Widely divergent (as the reading of this course will attest), melancholy has been seen as the product of bodily imbalance (black bile), the immoderate effect of astronomical movement (the Saturnine), the work of the Devil, and flatly, the fate and state of the artist and scholar. Whether melancholy is an affliction of the soul, the mopes, or how one feels on Mondays, the variety of its expressions demands we read and think in a variety of artistic and formal mediums. Melancholy is not limited to affect – it moves, ponderously, across the spaces of culture. It does not belong simply to a knowing subject surrounded by objects. Its proper place is the imagination confronted by and conceiving unattainable objects. Like the artist and the lover, the melancholic is paradoxically driven and defeated by the unattainable.
This course fulfills the University of Washington’s W credit, and will require students to write two 5-7 page revisable papers. Students can also expect to write several informal reading responses. **Please note that students are expected to keep up with the weekly reading and are expected to come to class prepared to discuss and engage with the texts**
• Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici and Urne-Buriall (ISBN: 978-1590174883)
• W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn (ISBN: 978-0811214131)
• Djuna Barnes, Nightwood (ISBN: 978-0811216715)
• Giorgio Agamben, Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture (978-0816620388)
• Course Packet