‘Melancholy’: nowadays, the very word has a whiff of lavender, like ‘farthing’ or ‘antimacassar’ or ‘fainting couch’ or ‘the wilts and the vapours’. And yet, as all bookish connoisseurs of gloom will be aware, this apparently antiquarian subject has become remarkably fashionable over the last few decades: think of Julia Kristeva’s Black Sun, or W G Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, or Susan Sontag’s Under the Sign of Saturn, the title essay of which is a reimagining of Walter Benjamin, the grandfather of cultural studies, as less an idiosyncratic Marxist than a grand master of melancholy.
László Földényi is a leading Hungarian academic philosopher and art critic, and his hefty addition to this modern-day canon of cafard deserves the courtesy of close attention. In some respects it is a rather fine book, closely argued (to the point of being nigh opaque at times) and full of thoughtful insights and aphorisms. Occasionally, especially in its excellent final chapter about melancholy in our own times, it attains brilliance. Most of its pages abound in curious learning and thought-provoking interpretations.
What it does not seem to offer, though, is any conspicuous modification of our received historical understanding. The 2,000-year procession sketched out here is solidly founded in three widely read books of the 20th century: Saturn and Melancholy by Klibansky, Panofsky and Saxl; Born under Saturn by Margot and Rudolf