Mark Taylor on melancholy

Mark Taylor

Paul Auster calls Mark Taylor’s Field Notes from Elsewhere: Reflections and Living Dying “an intoxicating whirl of a book, an engine of thought and feeling that touches on everything that counts most to us: living and dying, families, faith, friendship, and the quest to ground oneself in the real.” Auster continues, “To the best of my knowledge, it is a work without precedent.”

In the book, Taylor recounts being diagnosed with cancer, his morning-to-evening experience with sickness and convalescence, mingling humor and hope with a deep exploration of human frailty and, conversely, resilience. Taylor combines theological and philosophical reflection as he examines the meaning of mortality, sacrifice, solitude, and abandonment, along with a host of other issues, in light of modern ways of dying.

Taylor talks about the book in this interview and below is an excerpt from Taylor on melancholy:

There is a melancholy of things complete that arrives unexpectedly. Fulfillment does not fulfill, and the end so eagerly anticipated proves disappointingly empty. The deal is closed, the book finished, the class graduated, the career complete, and it is finally time for celebration. When family and friends gather, there is, however, an uninvited guest. Melancholy disrupts the moment—the person in its grip can never be fully present. While others are immersed in the moment, the vision of the melancholic is split, his consciousness always double. The most profound melancholy is invisible to the eyes of others. The melancholic spirit travels incognito—while seeming to be absorbed in the moment, he floats above, watching from without, knowing the moment will pass and uncertain it will ever arrive again. In melancholy the present is never fully present but always already past—even before it arrives. This trace of this impending past is most haunting in precisely those moments that are supposed to be complete.

Melancholy is never a matter of will. It settles like a mist that cannot be dispersed and, as long as it remains, shades every corner of life. The color of melancholy is neither the black of bile nor the gray on gray of a winter day; rather, it is the glow of late August light playing on goldenrod. Melancholy reflects the beauty of summer’s last flower, which is almost perfect because it is already fading.

For those devoted to living in the moment, there is a sadness about melancholy that inevitably leads to mourning. And yet . . . and yet, there is also something strangely sweet about melancholy. Far from prompting flight, melancholy has an allure that coyly attracts even the most resistant. That is why Kierkegaard called melancholy “my most faithful mistress.” While undeniably disturbing, melancholy does not necessarily agitate; it often brings a sense of calm and serenity that allows pensive reflection—perhaps even contemplation. Though I often curse her for it, melancholy was the most precious gift my mother left me.

Leave a Reply