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Friday, 17 September 2010

The anatomy of melancholy

the anatomy of melancholy

Why do we love a certain kind of sadness so much that we crave it so in our music, in our books, in so much of our society? This is something that we westerners are not alone in.

The erudite anthropologist and online Guardian columnist Wendy Fonarow writes of a classic piece of ethnography, The Sorrow of the Lonely and the Burning of the Dancers by Edward L. Schieffelin:

"Now a more overt manifestation of the value of melancholia can be found amongst the Kaluli of Papua New Guinea. In the Gisaro ceremony, recounted in The Sorrow of the Lonely and the Burning of the Dancers, visiting dancers and chorus perform songs designed to bring their hosts to tears. The chorus sings of the places on their host's land and eventually about the places where loved ones have died.

Upon the experience of intense sadness, the hosts become enraged and descend upon the dancers, grabbing lit torches to burn them to avenge the suffering and pain the hosts have been made to feel. As Schieffelin puts it, "It is the very beauty and sadness that he (the dancer) projects that cause people to burn him." Sadness, here, is not an inward experience of depression, it is the encounter of grief, nostalgia, and sorrow in a public spectacle that requires violent retribution."

This reminds me of those examples of love and other emotions that we ourselves used to play out external influences and not internal feelings. When love was a sweet sickness like a malady to be cured. When anger came upon one, rather than feeling it inside. Is there a benefit to internalising or externalising our emotions? Are externalised emotions more or less sophisticated? Does internalising them lead to excessive egotism and shape the emotions themselves? what do the examples of different emotional cultures and histories tell us there?

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