Suffering and Studying Melancholy – An awarded article
Recently the US Catholic Press Association has awarded me the first place in the Best Essay – Mission Magazines, Overseas and At Home category for the essay “The Melancholy of the Missionaries”. The article was published in the bimonthly magazine PIME World on Jan/Feb 2013. You can read the article here: pimeusa.org
It was the first essay in which I touched upon the theme of melancholy. It was an article quite personal, in which I acknowledged the melancholy I suffered as I had to leave Beijing in 2011. I quoted Etty Hillesum and Matteo Ricci, two authors where I looked for comfort and reassurance on those difficult months.
After my departure from Beijing, a dramatic turning point in my life, I started investigating the emotional infirmity of melancholy. The letters and reports by the missionaries are a special source for these studies. Matteo Ricci, the great missionary to China to whom I devoted many years of in-depth research, described his melancholic torments explicitly and unapologetically. I was particularly daunted when I realized that Ricci was mentioned at least 16 times in 1621’s The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton, the European Magna Charta on melancholy. Matteo Ricci had died in distant Beijing only 11 years earlier.
Melancholy, which means black bile, derives from Greek medicine. It was considered the malady of the weak and sad, i.e. it was a synonymous of today’s depression.
Aristotle, however, introduced a different perspective: he wondered why many men of excellence are melancholic, and he linked, forever, genius and melancholy. Not only. According to the great philosopher, the melancholic are people of great imagination and could anticipate the future in their dreams.
Middle Age Christianity associated melancholy with sloth, boredom, inertia and madness. Dante sung melancholy as bringer of extreme despair and death (One day Melancholy came to me).
But the fate of melancholy turned for the better with Humanism and Renaissance: genius, imagination and melancholy went together, and inspired the artists. Melancholy became one of the most popular literary and psychological themes. Progressively the modern meaning of this emotional malady emerged: the aching perception of darkness and of the fragility of the human condition; the desire and the imagination of other possible worlds. A perception which sensitive persons such as artists and poets are more acquainted with.
Melancholy is a malady of the soul, the spirit of the genius and the state of those who imagine and dream a different world. There is yet another type of melancholy, the one suffered by those living through borders. The missionaries, such as Ricci, suffer of this sort of melancholy, as they are men called to pass through many borders, being themselves ‘living borders’.
A substantial rendition of my studies on melancholy is included in this blog. I invite those who did not read the first time around to do it now: http://beyondthirtynine.com/the-dreams-of-the-melancholic-are-true/
I wrote the first essay for this blog on Etty Hillesum, mentioned above: http://beyondthirtynine.com/i-want-to-share-the-fate-of-my-people/
I have described all this at greater length in “I sogni dei malinconici sono veri”, an essay published in 2014 in Letteratura… con i piedi, edited by Alessandro Ramberti, Fara: Rimini.