“When […] I first dabbled in this Art, the old Distemper call’d Melancholy, was exchang’d for the Vapours, and afterwards for the Hypp, and at last took up to the now current Appellation of the Spleen, which it still retains, tho’ a learned Doctor of the West, in a little Tract he hath written, divides the Spleen and Vapours, not only into the Hypp, the Hyppos, and the Hyppocons; but subdivides these Divisions into the Markambles, the Moon-palls, the Strong-Fives, and the Hockogrokles.”
–Physician Nicholas Robinson, 1732
FREE ME OF THE HOCKOGROKLES. … Isn’t that what we all wish when the sadness hits again, no matter how justified the emotion is in response to external events?
I came across these inventive nomenclatures for depression when reading up on a 17th and 18th century English woman poet, Anne Finch, who took the topic of melancholy, solidly in male hands at the time, and ran with it. Wrong word. She didn’t run with it. She inspected it, talked to it, turned it inside out, related it to science, and, in the end, seemingly threw up her hands in resignation and surrender.
I had dug out her poem on melancholy, among other reasons, to reaffirm the notion that artists across history resort to creative action when grappling with hard times. Clearly, I was wishing for company in my own attempts to integrate current events, and the feelings they incite, into my artistic practice, with the latest results shown in today’s photomontages.
“Ardelia to Melancholy”
At last, my old inveterate foe,
No opposition shalt thou know.
Since I by struggling, can obtain
Nothing, but encrease of pain,
I will att last, no more do soe,
Tho’ I confesse, I have apply’d
Sweet mirth, and musick, and have try’d
A thousand other arts beside,
To drive thee from my darken’d breast,
Thou, who hast banish’d all my rest.
But, though sometimes, a short repreive they gave,
Unable they, and far too weak, to save;
All arts to quell, did but augment thy force,
As rivers check’d, break with a wilder course.
Freindship, I to my heart have laid,
Freindship, th’ applauded sov’rain aid,
And thought that charm so strong wou’d prove,
As to compell thee, to remove;
And to myself, I boasting said,
Now I a conqu’rer sure shall be,
The end of all my conflicts, see,
And noble tryumph, wait on me;
My dusky, sullen foe, will sure
N’er this united charge endure.
But leaning on this reed, ev’n whilst I spoke
It peirc’d my hand, and into peices broke.
Still, some new object, or new int’rest came
And loos’d the bonds, and quite disolv’d the claim.
These failing, I invok’d a Muse,
And Poetry wou’d often use,
To guard me from thy Tyrant pow’r;
And to oppose thee ev’ry hour
New troops of fancy’s, did I chuse.
Alas! in vain, for all agree
To yeild me Captive up to thee,
And heav’n, alone, can sett me free.
Thou, through my life, wilt with me goe,
And make ye passage, sad, and slow.
All, that cou’d ere thy ill gott rule, invade,
Their uselesse arms, before thy feet have laid;
The Fort is thine, now ruin’d, all within,
Whilst by decays without, thy Conquest too, is seen.
– From: Anne Finch, The Poems of Anne Countess of Winchilsea. Ed. Myra Reynolds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1903. 15-16.
FINCH HAD HER SHARE OF DIFFICULTIES in her lifetime, including a predisposition for depression, perhaps even bipolar disease. She was exposed to political storms that threw her and her husband from comfortable positions in monarchic circles into an unsecured existence when they distanced themselves from the ascendance of William and Mary after the revolution of 1688 deposed King James.
She was also keenly aware that women writers in her times were at best tolerated, mostly ignored, and at worst ridiculed. To pick up a topic like melancholia, firmly seen as a gendered disease reserved for highly sensitive, artistic or creative men, required strength. I value strong women. As I value realism, which Finch’s poetry exhibits in spades: She tries all kinds of things, friendship in particular, poetry, what have you, and just can’t get a grip on the darkness experienced with bouts of serious depression. She describes as it IS, not as it should be, well anticipating how women would be labeled as hypochondriacs or hysterics down the historical pipeline. I also value finding voices that tell of shared experiences, even or particularly if centuries apart. It never hurts to remind ourselves that we are not the first or only ones going through difficult times.
I am not an expert on poetry and I have no clue whether her poems attack the patriarchy, or create religious parallels to the world as perceived, or any of the many other things written about her. I just read the poem and multiple things rang true, hundreds of years later.
Ardelia, who Finch uses as a pseudonym, seems to be a victim of melancholy, unable to shake it across the years. But she also calls on it not just as an adversary, but as a power source, addressing it as a challenger, gaining intermittent control over the sadness by being able to harness some creativity from it.
You cannot or should not pretend the sadness doesn’t exist. Many of us ARE fraying around the edges. It does not help to favor rejection of those feelings over acceptance; however, acceptance cannot mean to be engulfed, allowing ourselves to be paralyzed. There is such a thing as resistance, claimed for both the private and the public sphere. And creativity, art – in Ardelia’s case, poetry – is a form of resistance. The fact that she in the end declares resistance as futile cannot mean that we should.
Why do I say that? Because some 300 years later, science has enabled us to treat the clinical forms of depression, the endogenous ones due to the physiological disfunction in the neurotransmitter systems, depression that paralyzes indeed. Medications and/or ECT treatments can work wonders, particularly for people living with bipolar disease.
The exogenous forms of depression, the sadness many of us experience in reaction to the events in our lives and the world, are the ones that serve a more healing function and also can be harnessed. The form of resistance will be, has to be, a personal choice – your baking bread to her going to demonstrations to his meditation to their cognitive therapy to my making art. Anything that works to make our dusky, sullen foe into a companion, not an oppressor.
THERE IS A CULT GERMAN TV CRIME SERIES, Tatort, which has been running for the last 50 years, that has teams of detectives and medical examiners solve cases across the country. The one based in North Rhine-Westfalia consists of an arrogant Professor, a twit, and a disheveled, seemingly inept (think working-class Columbo) policeman.
Medical examiner Professor Boerne says: “There are some things you won’t understand.” Detective Inspector Thiele replies,” Yes, Thank God.”
That about sums up my thoughts on how my art comes into existence. Then again, I can put my finger on a few general aspects that are or are not involved. I do not, for example, subscribe to any of the claims made in Susan Sontag’s famous essay The Aesthetics of Silence (1967).
“And, in its most hortatory and ambitious version, the advocacy of silence expresses a mythic project of total liberation. What’s envisaged is nothing less than the liberation of the artist himself, of art from the particular artwork, of art from history, of spirit from matter, of the mind from its perceptual and intellectual limitations.”
I do NOT advocate silence, don’t desire liberation through ahistoricity, and am intent on raising my voice content with my perceptual and intellectual limitations.
I DO respond in my photo montages to contextual events, particularly if they are linked to themes that have a larger historical arc, often connected to my own experiences or political beliefs. That does not mean, however, that I can consciously guide and control what evolves in the work.
Take the new series of montages, for example, that I have been working on in response to the loss of life incurred by the pandemic and the ways it has been catastrophically mismanaged.
Setting Sail was in the beginning a reaction to how much silence surrounds the deaths of the pandemic. The silence of lonely deaths in homes or hospitals, foremost, punctuated only by the sound of the machines patients are hooked onto, bereft of the comfort of familiar human voices. The silence about effective ways to prevent spread of the disease, the silence about hospital statistics if those interfered with hopes for reopening. The silence in our own lives cut off from the hustle and bustle of normal social interaction.
The etymological roots of the word “silence” date back both to the Latin word desinere, meaning to stop, desist, abandon, and the Gothic verb anasilan, a word that denotes the wind dying down. Patients were separated from their families in hospitals, abandoned in nursing homes; their lives quite literally eventually stopped. My intent was to put wind into their sails on their voyage to unknown shores, where they should rest in power.
The early montages were rather abstract, keeping to the form and lines found on sails and rigging, in the light colors associated with seascapes and the white of mourning, for the 1.7 billion people of East Asia, who bore the first brunt of the virus. The Chinese color of mourning is white, grieving Hindus wear white, Islamic culture shrouds its dead in white. The European tradition to denote deepest mourning in white, Deuil blanc, started in 16th century France and became custom for the reigning queens of the time, including Mary, Queen of Scots, and later Queen Victoria, as well as the queens of the Dutch royal family, as recently as 1934.
AND THEN SOMETHING STRANGE HAPPENED to the work. The montages became darker in color, stronger in contrast, more representational than abstract and including larger sections of ships, or complete ships, instead of just sails. It dawned on me that the violence of racist action, the reaction to structural and personal racism, the absurdity of moments of silence in response to more killings, the call for breaking the silence by naming the names of the victims and shouting out the demands for change, had seeped in.
The pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement intersect, of course, with people of color bearing, as so often, the brunt of the catastrophe. Not only are they dying in disproportionate numbers, sliding faster and deeper into poverty, but whole generations of their children suffer worse effects as well. Remote education – the fall-back option after city after city had to close the schools – works for some parts of the population, but not those for whom school meant so much more than just receiving lessons: a place to get fed, wash their clothes, have structure and social services, mental health stability.
In communities where you do not have access to stable, fast Internet, online learning is problematic. For many poor people, the Internet is accessed through their phones, which means online sessions accrue more charges, money they don’t have. And in much online learning schools expect parents to hand out lesson plans and facilitate homework assignments beyond the twice-a-week 40-minute lectures, which many poor parents are unlikely to be able to do. Home environments also do not facilitate concentration needed for remote learning, if they are cramped or noisy. (Harvard Law asked students worried about these issues to rent office space – no joke!) On the college level, the vast majority, well over 60 percent, of Black and Latinx students who get degrees do so at community colleges or for-profit universities, not at four-year institutions. There has been little exploration about how these institutions are going to reopen, if at all. What works perhaps at truly wealthy institutions that have funds to spend for prevention and protection, is not going to work at the schools that serve the majority of the population. And we are not even having a national discussion about this. Totgeschwiegen, as they say in German: Killed with silence.
Intersecting topics in our contemporary existence, then, were intersecting in the emerging images as well. Thoughts of slave ships made their way into the art, unbidden, their arrival greeted with apprehension of whether I, as a white woman, had a right to that kind of appropriation. I have no answer. I am fraying around the edges, just as old sails do, but art will out. Defying silence.