Tag Archives: Melancholy

Medicina Mentis

A visit from the Groke (original  name Mårran in Swedish or in Finnish,  Mörkö) over the past couple of days has driven me in search of some medicine for the mind. With little give and take on terminology,  I’m warming to Monsieur Descartes‘ latest book, The Passions of the Soul, published in 1649. Much of it comes out of the correspondence he had with Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia, herself a sufferer from melancholia who hoped to find a remedy for her disease in the study of philosophy.

He seems to capture something essential about the physical, embodied nature of emotions, the phenomenological nature of their arriving in the soul/self from or via the body, rather than originating in thought.

If I understand him correctly, this would be in opposition to the modern cognitive approach to understanding emotions and their more persistent cousins moods. But I somehow doubt that this reading is correct, and so I’ll continue to wrestle – and I’ll let you know who wins.

Meanwhile, to be getting on with, here is Descartes’ definition of sadness (article 92):

Sadness is an unpleasant languor, wherein consists the distress which the soul receives from the evil or defect which the impressions of the brain represent to it as belonging to it. And there is also an intellectual Sadness, which is not the passion but which hardly ever fails to be accompanied by it.

Moomintroll encounters the Groke

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The lighter side of darkness

A second traditional Winter in Finland gives us a fairy-tale Christmas  up in the wilds of Kainu. Thick snow encasing the trees got us asking why  we find this kind of scene so beautiful. I wondered how much it came down to some kind of conditioning. Brought up on storybook images of snowy landscapes, experiencing it for real is like entering a childhood dream. Perhaps a people who had never seen snow, the Pirahã of the Amazon Rain Forest for example, witnessing such a scene unprepared and for the first time, would find it just plain spooky, threatening even.

So for want of any available evidence, I turn to a fictional case, that which takes place in Tove Jansson’s Moominland Midwinter. Moomintroll wakes up during his winter hibernation and unable to get back to sleep goes out into an unwelcoming dark and cold world. At first he undergoes  feelings of melancholy and even anger at the sun that refuses to rise above the horizon. Always lurking in the background is the gloomy Groke, who sits on the Midwinter bonfire to warm herself only to extinguish it completely.Some suggest that the Groke (Mårran in Swedish and Mörkö in Finnish) is Jansson’s symbol for Nordic Melancholy. In fact the whole book can be read as a journey through malignant sadness.

The Groke

But it has a happy ending. Eventually Moomintroll finds a way to accept  Winter in the midst of a blizzard:

Not until then did Moomintroll notice that the wind felt warm. It caried him along into the whirling snow, it made him feel light an almost like flying.

And here Moomintroll has his satori:

“I’m nothing but air and wind, I’m part of the blizzard,” Moomintroll thought and let himself go.

Of course, no season (of the world or the heart) lasts for ever. Eventually, Spring returns. The wise Too-ticky says,

“When the summer’s hot and green, and you lie on your tummy on the warm boards of the landing stage, and listen to the waves chuckling and clucking…”

“Why didn’t you talk like that in winter?” said Moomintroll. “It’d have been such a comfort. Remember, I said once: “There were a lot of apples here.” And you just replied: “But now there’s a lot of snow.” Didn’t you understnad that I was melancholy”

Too-ticky shrugged her shoulders. “One has to discover everything for oncself,” she replied. “And get over it all alone.”