I have before me the image of Albrecht Durer’s “Melencolia I,” completed in 1514 as perhaps the finest of his copperplate engravings. According to the “Britannica,” Durer (1471-1528), born and died in Nurnberg, Germany, painter and printmaker, “generally regarded as the greatest German Renaissance artist.” Durer has interested me for some time, ever since I saw his Christ-like self-portrait, an oil on wood that he painted in 1500.
It is the subject, of his 1514 copper engraving that is of interest to me, however, largely because I sometimes suffer from melancholia, a state of depression that sometimes leaves one helpless in its grip. I wonder if Durer suffered from melancholia. After all, he chose it as the subject for his engraving, and a glance at his somber self-portrait perhaps gives a further clue. Melancholia. Winston Churchill called it “the black dog.” In Durer’s engraving, a robed scholar, surrounded by symbols of alchemy, holding a pen in one hand and leaning on the other, looks off into the middle distance contemplating the depths of his despair.
The writer, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, wrote knowingly about the condition in his poem, “Melancholia”:
Silently without my window,
Tapping gently at the pane,
Falls the rain.
Through the trees sighs the breeze
Like a soul in pain.
Here alone I sit and weep;
Thought hath banished sleep.
Wearily I sit and listen
To the water’s ceaseless drip.
To my lip
Fate turns up the bitter cup,
Forcing me to sip;
‘T is a bitter, bitter drink,
Thus I sit and think, –
Eyes that look into the future, –
Peeping forth from out my mind,
They will find
Some new weight, soon or late,
On my soul to bind,
Crushing all its courage out, –
Heavier than doubt.
Dunbar has described the condition well, “crushing all its courage out, heavier than doubt.” Only someone who has suffered from depression could have written those words.
One often seeks out help in medication or therapy, and often some remedy is found there. It has to do after all with the serotonin levels in the brain, one is told. The therapist tells the patient to eat properly or slather toast with coconut oil, to walk daily, all good advice, I am sure. But still the black dog persists.
Perhaps it is a spiritual problem more than anything else, a searching for transcendence not to be found on this earth. “Eyes that look into the future, peeping forth from out my mind, they will find some new weight, soon or late, on my soul to bind.” Loved ones are concerned, but do not know how to help, except to show their love.
My message to you with this column is if you suffer from depression, get help. Find a trusted friend to talk to. Find a talk therapist who knows how to listen and not just dish out advice during the first session. You might have to do some searching and go a ways to find such a therapist in our rural area. Keep searching for the right therapist. And pray.
Duane Bolin is Professor Emeritus of History at Murray State University. Contact Duane at firstname.lastname@example.org. “Home and Away runs each Tuesday in the Murray Ledger & Times.