Melancholy, said Wordsworth, is a "luxurious gloom of choice". Unlike depression, we choose to be melancholy, paradoxically deriving pleasure from feeling faintly sad. "Melancholy slows things, allows for percolation, facilitates solitude and solace for imagination," says Jacky Bowring in this dispassionate defence of the malady, madness, affectation - melancholy has been called many things over the centuries, but somehow eludes definition.
Is melancholy a sickness of the west, something we bequeathed to the rest of the world, like smallpox? Not at all, says Bowring, who reveals that melancholy is universal. Alongside the more familiar ennui of the French and Weltschmerz of the Germans, she looks at the Chinese bei qiu, the Japanese kanashii, the Portuguese saudade, the Russian toska, the Spanish duende and the Turkish hüzün. It appears that every culture knows what melancholy means, even if it's hard to pin down in any one language.
This thoughtful and sensitive book remains a survey of the scene rather than a definitive study. However, Bowring has succeeded in her aspiration to create something like an Observer's Guide to melancholy. Melancholy assumes many guises, she explains, each anatomised here: religious melancholy, love melancholy, the melancholy of nostalgia or of boredom (acedia), and a whole tradition of "heroic melancholy" of which Batman is a recent exemplar. There is even what Walter Benjamin called "Left melancholy", whereby a leftist with a mournful attachment to a dead idea becomes an in-activist.