“The Dream of a Melancholic Missionary” – New Insights On Matteo Ricci, Dante, Petrarch, Melancholy and the Expatriates
I have been studying for a while about Matteo Ricci and melancholy, an unexplored theme on which many expatriates can relate to. Ricci referred to himself as a melancholic missionary, and under a melancholic spell he had a dream which changed his life. For him melancholy was something good, while in Christian teaching it was rejected as a sinful malady of the soul.
Melancholy was born in Greece as the malady of the sad and weak. Aristotle puts it differently: many men of excellence were melancholic and “there are melancholic whose dreams are true”.
Middle Age Christians associated melancholy to sloth (acidia/accidia), a capital vice, which lead to depression and madness. Dante, who wrote a famous sonnet dedicated to devastation produced by melancholy, places the melancholic in Hell.
Significantly, one of the most remarkable pages Petrarch’s Secretum (My Secret Book), an imaginary dialogue with Augustine written in Latin, is devoted to sloth (acidia/accidia), described as a “dreadful malady of the soul”. Sloth (acidia/accidia) is described by Petrarch as a bitter taste for suffering, melancholy and sadness; an inclination for finding oneself embroiled in a troubled and unresolved psychology. While realizing its own negligence and guilt, the individual affected by such malady does not actually strives to change his attitude. Sloth is therefore associated to boredom, melancholy and indifference.
Augustine, at the end of the dialogue, reported in the second book of the Secretum, reproaches Francesco Petrarch such indolence and lack of will. Augustine: “Tell me, what is the worst thing for you?”. “All I see around, and what I hear and what I feel,” replies Francesco. “Wow! Do you really don’t like anything at all? “. “Nothing, or rather only very few things” says Francis. “This is exactly what I call sloth: that you are afflicted by everything!”
Petrarch described such malady through philosophical and moral categories. According to contemporary psychological analysis, we could define this as melancholy or depression; and Petrarch, the father of Humanism, was also one of the first modern souls. He, however, also believed that such melancholy of consciousness; such inability to work and helplessness to look at life positively, is not only an evil and a disease, it is also a moral sin. In this regard, Petrarch is still a Middle Ages man who follows Catholic moral teaching, which lists sloth as one of the seven deadly sins.
A century after Dante and Petrarch, the fate of melancholy turns for the better with Humanism, reaching its modern meaning: the aching perception of the darkness of human condition. As a spiritual catastrophe looms over Europe, the melancholy inspires artists imagining a different world and creating melancholic (anti-) heroes such as Dom Quixote and Hamlet.
Humanist Ricci associates melancholy to imagining; as he experienced practicing the exercise of ‘composition of place’. The images have the power of leading out of one’ s own world, creating a displacing of the self and the possibility of an encounter. The dissemination of sacred images and the confidence in their imaginative power were one of the most innovative features of Ricci’s mission.
Romano Guardini in Portrait of Melancholy (1928) describes melancholy as an emotion experienced by those living through borders. I find this in affinity with the melancholic missionary Matteo Ricci, who became himself a ‘living border’, as he had passed through many borders and, as he wrote from Beijing to his brother Orazio, “live in these lands as in voluntary exile.” Who, among the expatriates, haven’t experienced, at some extent, the same feeling?
There are those who experience the mystery of “a life on the border”. They are never clearly here or there. They live in no man’s land. They experience the anxiety of the one who passes from one side to the other. Melancholy is the anxiety of the one who feels a proximity to infinity which is, at the same time, bliss and threat.
“The Dream of a Melancholic Missionary”
New Insights On Matteo Ricci, Dante, Petrarch, Melancholy and the Expatriates
A talk at the Dante Alighieri Society in Hong Kong (Fri, June 12, 2015)