Philosophy, music and visual art: too many engagements? Too much on my plate? Years ago, I decided not to choose anymore, but to accept that, with working on these parallel tracks, things would move slow. The reason I decided not to choose anymore was not to make it myself easy, on the contrary: I had realised that the transversal between the tracks was a meaningful focus as such. Moving from music through visual art to philosophy and philosophical activism and back is moving between atmospheres and arguments, between the ethics of aesthetics and the aesthetics of ethics. One cannot understand rationality if not also perceived from the perspective of emotions – and the other way round. One cannot understand the meanings and functions of words, reason and dialogue without exploring how to express yourself facing speechlessness and the unpronounceable.
atmospheres < > arguments
the ethics of aesthetics > < the aesthetics of ethics
If holism is the way to look at ourselves ‘being in the world’ (both nature and society), then we should understand that this ‘bigger picture’ of how things relate to each other can never be fully rationalised. It will always be a synergy and a clash of reasoned insights and feelings; a ‘picture’ we can never fully grasp, let stand jointly understand. That is no defeatist vision, but the ultimate argument for the value of and need for human ethical and aesthetic interaction.
The Institute of Idle Curiosity for Elements of Seduction is at the same time a metaphor for this exploration of the spectrum ‘between atmospheres and arguments’ and a framework for my activities. The ‘meta’ level, transgressing this move between atmospheres and arguments, is a state of reflexive melancholy (or melancholic reflexivity) which is for me the ‘highest’ intellectual state of being a human can reach. In the text below (which I wrote in 2016 for a workshop at the Rijksakademie Amsterdam) I explain why I think this is the case, and why I think this is meaningful for our human condition and for our living together today and in the future.
Robert Burton published the first edition of his magnum opus ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy’ in 1621. His aim was to write a definite and comprehensive study of the meaning of melancholy. His book promised to explain ‘.. What it is: With all the Kinds, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes, and Several Cures of it. In Three Maine Partitions with their several Sections, Members, and Subsections. Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically, Opened and Cut Up…’. What looks at first sight as an exhaustive analysis of melancholy as a disease to be cured is in fact much more. Burton uses melancholy as a perspective to inquire into all human emotions and thought. In that sense, the Anatomy can also be seen as a total encyclopaedia of the human condition of that time.
Our modern times may now inspire us to re-read that meaning for the contemporary human condition, although not through a systematic re-interpretation of the encyclopaedic classes and categories, but on the basis of one simple idea….
Melancholy is not depression neither pessimism. Drawing on interpretations from the pre-modern Romantic and Decadent Era, it can be described as the aesthetical consolation that comes with the awareness of the impossibility of pure beauty, unity and harmony, and of the inevitability of imperfection, decadence and uncertainty. The idea however is that melancholy is not a detached but an ethical experience, and that this became apparent with modernity: melancholy is the human condition resulting from a deliberate awareness of the limits to rational instrumental reason in a context of social appeal. That social appeal may either be love, friendship or lust, or social or political engagement. The implications of modernity rendered melancholy with a social meaning: the impossibility of pure beauty, unity and harmony, and of the inevitability of imperfection, decadence and uncertainty, is not experienced by way of detached observation, but in a reflexive way in social interaction.
In this vision, the ‘end state’ of melancholy is still aesthetical consolation. But that state is not passive, as it arises from an ethical demand. In its recognition of the intrinsic ambiguity of human interaction and of the inherent complexity of social organisation and cohabitation, it is an intellectual withdrawal from the delusion of grandeur of a society obsessed with rationality, security, efficiency, predictability and competition. In its disdain for complacency, it is a consolatory practice of leaving the comfort zones constructed around strategies of conformism, positivism, populism and profitism. But as an active state of resignation, melancholy is not evasive. Its decadence is in the eyes of the conformists. Layered on reflexivity as an ethical experience, it feels the anger towards the detached. And as a meta-state of concern, it is aware of the fragile potential of intellectual solidarity among the capable, and of the melancholy of the capable as vulnerable.
Melancholy is practicing the aesthetics of imperfection, decadence and uncertainty, although with a constant awareness of – and care for – the possible of human possibilities.