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Organizer: Divya Menon

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What is melancholia? Is it an illness, a temperament, a mood, or something else altogether? The word derives from the classical Greek for black bile, the bodily humor ancients considered the cause of lasting sadness and erratic bouts of genius. It is a condition long associated with certain types of individuals – artists, writers, and philosophers.
One might trace a genealogy of the word back to Hippocratic humoral theory, which combined ancient medicine and natural science. Later, a student of Aristotle's approached melancholia as a temperament in Problem XXX, I. Medieval scholastics (with a few notable exceptions) considered it little more than a lamentable affliction. The Renaissance humanist Marsilio Ficino marked a transition to thinking about melancholia as a sacred temperament affecting scholars like him. Albrecht Dürer’s famous engraving, Melencolia I, gestures at the connection (recognized by Ficino) between genius and sadness in the allegory of the angel of Geometry who cannot move her caliper. Robert Burton, the early modern scholar who wrote The Anatomy of Melancholy, thought of writing as a kind of antidote to his suffering. Romantics like Charlotte Smith and John Keats regarded melancholia as the poet’s natural state. In the mid-nineteenth century, Gérard de Nerval imagined a "black sun of melancholy" in one of his sonnets. Freud's essay on "Mourning and Melancholia" speculates that pathological melancholia may be a way of coping with an unknowable loss – a withdrawal inward of the ego in identification with the unknown object lost. Reading Freud's essay today it may seem like it describes a historical malady. Which is how Nietzsche understood melancholia in an essay on the relationship between history and life in the late-nineteenth century.
Relatively more recent studies in melancholia include Saturn and Melancholy by Klibansky, Saxl, and Panofsky; Soleil Noir by Julia Kristeva; Mélancolie et opposition by Ross Chambers; Melancholy and Society by Wolf Lepenies; La femme et la mélancolie by Anne Juranville; Melancholy Dialectics by Max Pensky; Left-Wing Melancholia by Enzo Traverso; and Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation by David L. Eng and Shinhee Han.
This seminar seeks to bring together a wide variety of perspectives on melancholia to ponder the meaning of a very old word in conversation. Literary studies, aesthetic theory, philosophy, psychoanalysis, cultural studies, and other approaches from any historical or linguistic tradition are welcome.

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