The Melancholy Assemblage by Drew Daniel

In The Melancholy Assemblage, Drew Daniel claims that melancholy in the early modern period constitutes an epistemological-affective assemblage, a collection of factors that is always plural; it emerges in individuals and yet is also a “social and material assemblage of bodies being together” (15). In being both interior and exterior, melancholy can be recognized but not explained, faked but not verified. Being melancholy occurs when it is recognized; “one signature from someone”, the self included, can make it happen, but can’t prove it.

Daniel begins with an outline of the landscape of melancholy in Early Modern England, arguing that it was a back-and-forth between two approaches; the Galenic, which diagnoses melancholy as an illness and a medical condition, and the Aristotelian, which is associated with scholarly seriousness and treats melancholy as an affectation, orientation, or gift. The attempts of writers like Richard Burton to synthesize these two approaches, and the lasting tension between them, help to explain why there is such an interest in verifying melancholy, and why melancholy is still so present now.

He goes on to note that melancholy is cumulative: Hamlet is a collection of actions and feelings that make up a melancholy person, a melancholy assemblage in one individual. I am also compelled by his prompt to consider London itself (30) a melancholy assemblage, fashioned by plagues and print-capitalism. His point is that there are many ways to express melancholy as catalogues of symptoms, collections of social, physical and political factors. This squares with premodern disability theory and the social model: there is not one unified experience of disability, but many individual, localized experiences made up of social and political and medical factors. In summary, melancholy is:

  1. the melancholy body as a legible site for interpretation
  2. the social network that makes the melancholy body available for diagnosis
  3. a text (like Burton’s) that puts fragments together to create the affect of melancholy, or force the reader to read melancholically
  4. A community or audience that participates in the feeling or knowledge of others, identifying with and also being skeptical of the melancholy they see.

Melancholy assemblages can be bodies, symptoms, texts, communities, and relationships between them. It is made of too-muchness, overproductions of social knowledge which can then become subject to scrutiny.

Melancholy is always in danger of being faked; each time we encounter someone exhibiting the signs of it, they are subject to scrutiny. In a similar way, anyone claiming to be melancholy has to be verified to make sure their melancholy is genuine. When Hamlet claims “that within which passes show” (with Daniel claiming the “that” is melancholy), others see his outward form and diagnose it as misplaced grief; he, and the audience he shares his asides with, are the only ones with access to the truth, and the audience’s access is only partial.

Taking a cue from object oriented ontology’s claim that anything (thoughts, or faked thoughts) can be matter, melancholy is “matter” in the early modern period because it depends on something which doesn’t literally exist (black bile) but which is an important, literal part of experience. Melancholy is a “fugitive matter” which is a medical reality, a social fake, and a modern fashion all at the same time (240). In early modern thought, it is an epistemological effect that cannot actually be seen but which is constantly felt and identified. This helps to explain its current power: because melancholy can’t be located, it persists and currently defines a sorrow at the world’s transience, or a social commodity, or a scholarly affectation, or….

Melancholy is an interplay between depth and surface. It is also a profoundly social emotion, because it requires being recognized, by the self or by another person (or in the case of a play, by the audience). The melancholy subject has an affect that can never be completely known, but can be seen. He covers melancholy posturing/propping as a convention signifying melancholy, which prompts the viewer to decide if the emotion is genuine; the use of (melancholic) asides in Hamlet to allow audiences special insight into melancholy without revealing it (despite the implied association of the aside with truth, and that of melancholy with untrustworthiness) and asserting that melancholy comes between the public and the private; and reads Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy as a text that uses “melancholy structure” to curate “too much” and make the reader follow along by “melancholizing”, i.e. making the experience of reading the work mirror the experience of melancholy. In all these cases, a reader or author is given some amount of perceptual experience with melancholy, an “intimacy with the unknown” (154) that then has to be unpacked.

Daniel is especially useful to my project because he provides me with a foundation from which to assert that medieval melancholy as an aesthetic does, in fact, exist. He briefly goes into an investigation of contemporary styling of early modern melancholy, which he identifies in the Lars von Trier film Melancholia and in black metal “melancology” (a theory connecting melancholy to extinction and to an earth hostile to life, which is very useful for my interests in apocalypse fiction and the imagined medieval, as is the note on p.72 that melancholy is associated with the center of the earth). This investigation is brief and never quite explains why these are specifically resonant with early modern melancholy, although it’s clear why they are connected to humoral theory. However, he specifically stops short of identifying other modern melancholies that are especially connected to his subject material, or of asserting that the relationship between the contemporary and the early modern is melancholy itself. The closest he gets is the note about “the ambivalent terms of survival offered to the past by the present” (235); i.e., when we look back at the past, it is tempting to either try to assert dominance over it or use our contemporary outlook to change it. While this is a judgement about our relationship to the past, it stops short of claiming anything about the affect of melancholy and its relationship to the early modern period.

There are also several collections of affect that I want to track as I begin my project, including his idea of accumulative “melancholy structure”, and his compelling question “how does melancholy speak?” (i.e. can melancholy participate in discourse?). I am most interested, though, in continuing to investigate the transmission of ideas about the medieval period through the lens of melancholy, and feel more confident in asserting that melancholy has had affective potential even in the medieval and early modern period, in addition to its Galenic, humoral status.