Wait for the Blackout: Melancholy in Goth Culture

Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided exposed a prevalent cultural practice in America: that of compulsory positivity. As a society, we expect negative emotions to be cured, suppressed and otherwise cleansed from our neat little psyches so we can continue to be the exceptional individuals it is our God-given right to be.  We believe in the pursuit of happiness as a duty. This manifests itself quite often in the platitudes that one can accomplish anything if only one remains positive and believes in oneself.

What a load of shite.

As Ehrenreich discovers, this cult of positivity leaves people feeling embittered and powerless, as though their losses are the result of insufficient self-esteem. The bind is that one cannot reject the exhortations to be positive without being seen as damaged somehow.  Your negative thoughts are “unhealthy,” “toxic;” you need to “heal.” The cult of positivity permeates our language until there seems to be no acceptable way to be unhappy.  What’s the naturally melancholy person to do with all this relentless cheer? Goth and other darkly-oriented cultures offer more than a language that allows the expression of negativity, they offer an alternate world in which the negative becomes valued. The ability to mine the hidden psychic corners of our society is part of what makes Goth appealing to people of a more thoughtful bent. But the focus on negative emotion is often mistaken for “depression” and misconstrued. My aim here is to explore, albeit perhaps more shallowly than I’d like, the difference between what we label “depression” and melancholy.

I admit this will be a shallow inquiry because I just recently acquired Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and have yet to read it. I am also looking into Emo music, as it gets lumped in with Goth so often when the subject of melancholy in popular culture arises. From what I’ve gleaned so far I’d hazard to say that there are some serious differences and the main thing both aesthetics have in common is that they descend from punk.  I’ll return to the issue of Emo later.

Melancholy Babies

Depression is an illness. It’s something that—we believe—can be treated and cured. In past times, perhaps, depression would have been taken to be the same thing as melancholy, but as our concept of the psyche has grown toward the empirical, we increasingly view depression as an affliction that can be alleviated. Melancholy is an artistic stance. By that I mean that melancholy encompasses a point of view that is primarily fueled by the subject’s penchant for introverted thought. Melancholy describes a personality—one who is introverted, tends toward self-scrutiny, prefers thought and silence to action.    The tendency to turn thoughts inward has yet to be (fully) pathologized. It is possible to be melancholy without being depressed. By that token, plenty of people outside of the melancholy personality may experience depression. One of the defining features of depression is a lack of desire—the desire to connect or engage with the world. If I may get Freudian, what’s being “depressed” is the libido in the sense of the will for life. Melancholy is not an undesiring void. It contains yearning and fascination. Consider Poe’s narrators and their dark obsessions. Pining over the dead Ligeia induces a desire for her return so powerful that the narrator wills her into the dead body of Lady Rowena. There is desire and will of supernatural strength. I might add that a story in which the narrator gives up all hope and passively detaches is not a recipe for narrative success (in most hands) so that may account for the ascendency of depictions of melancholy over true depression in art.

Here’s an example from masters of melancholy, The Cure.

I’m going to refer to the singer here as a “persona” because I want to separate the artist from the art. The situation in this song is that the persona is holding these objects (pictures) that serve as the last remaining connection to a lost other. It appears the other that the song is addressed to could be a former lover, but it’s left intentionally vague. The persona blames himself for driving the other away. In the persona’s memory, the other was “crying for the death of your heart.” Here is an example of the fear of loss of desire.  It’s the other’s lack of emotion that causes him/her to mourn here, and, as the song hints, ultimately drives the other from the persona. The photos have frozen the other in an idealized state. They allow the persona the luxury of “remembering you how you used to be,” instead of dealing with the reality of who the other becomes. The real object of mourning here is not the other him/herself. All we know about the current state of this other is that their relationship with the persona is severed. The song hints (“If only I’d thought of the right words”) that the split is due to the other’s rejection of the persona. The persona is not significant to the other anymore, he tells the other he could “never hold on to your heart.” The pictures fetishize the lost other and serve as the new focus for the persona’s fear of loss. The other has become the pictures. The true fear expressed in the song is that even the desire attached to the pictures will fade.

Mourning the Living

I began to conceive of this separation between melancholy and depression when reading Slavoj Zizek’s The Puppet and the Dwarf, in which he describes the melancholic as one who refuses to complete the process of mourning and reach closure. He writes:  “mourning is a kind of betrayal, the second killing of the (lost) object, while the melancholic subject remains faithful to the lost object, refusing to renounce his or her attachment to it.” In keeping the desire for that which is lost, the melancholic refuses healing. But as Zizek notes, the melancholic is often in mourning for objects which are not yet lost. The melancholic anticipates a state beyond that in which the object is lost to one in which the very desire for the object is gone, and it is the fear that the melancholic will lose all sense of attachment that causes the subject to peremptorily mourn that loss. In other words, melancholy is prompted by a fear of losing desire rather than a fear of losing the object.  Zizek explains: “Therein resides the melancholic’s stratagem: the only way to possess an object which we never had, which was from the very outset lost, is to treat an object that we still fully possess as if this object is already lost. The melancholic’s refusal to accomplish the work of mourning thus takes the form of its very opposite, of a faked spectacle of the excessive, superfluous, mourning for an object even before this object is lost” [italics mine]. In the book, Zizek gives an illustrative example: assume he moves from one city to another. Some time passes and he begins to feel melancholic about his old home, not because he misses that place, but because he finds himself beginning to no longer care about the old city. The knowledge that he will wake up one day with no yearning to return home is what triggers the melancholy mood. The Gothic aesthetic often falls into what Zizek calls “a faked spectacle of the excessive.”  The overwrought and over-serious nature of Goth can look to outsiders like a celebration of depression, but exists to stave off the demands of a world in which negativity itself is a lost object. The Goth mourns for a world of enforced cheer and dead senses, in which art exists only to sell you something and beauty is a cheap, shiny facsimile.

The label “depressed” as attached to the Gothic aesthetic has been one I’ve always rejected, in part, because “depressed” is our way of reducing negativity to a more pedestrian scale.  Gothic music expresses sadness and loss in a manner that seeks artistic merit in negativity. The idea of “depressing” music is also one that puzzles me. I’d consider pop pabulum depressing because it has no redeeming quality. Perky songs on the radio are depressing. Most of what’s on TV is depressing—it saps me of enjoyment and the will to live. Dark music is not depressing, no matter how bleak the subject matter, as long as it attempts to reveal the beauty in negativity.

Cheer Up, Emo Boy.

I said I’d return to emo and I suspect I’ve gone on too long already, so I’ll be brief. Emo and Goth are like chimps and gorillas. They share a common ancestor, but have totally different ways of relating. What I’ve seen of emo tends to focus on the concerns of white male adolescents and their frustrated sense of entitlement. Emo angst is the cry of the unpopular kid who still has some desire to fit in. Emo also seems to be concerned, as most pop music is, with the concept of “authenticity,” as reflected in confessional lyrics and the use of relationship woes as subject matter. These subjects are awarded greater meaning because they originate in the personal lives of the performers. Goth is more theatrical and artificial, often employing ironic distance to hold the listener back from emotional connection with the performer. Siouxsie is an excellent example of this. Her performance of icy seduction is designed to create a cinematic remove from her subject matter. Her emotional expressions are performance. Consider “The Killing Jar” in which she sings in a sighing parody of sensuality while describing sexual molestation. Even though this song is inspired by a true sexual assault, she never loses control of the narrative or expresses helplessness. How many times have you danced to this song describing the assault of a young Susan Ballion? I can see why bands like The Cure and Joy Division have some influence on Emo as their treatment of emotional subject matter appears sincere and authentic. [I have my doubts, but then, I also think Moz does about 90% of his shtick as arch irony.] Goth celebrates femininity, while Emo’s another sausage fest following in Punk’s footsteps. Emo’s adoption of Gothic signifiers such as black eyeliner, androgyny and black clothing may just be due to the perceived greater sensitivity and emotionality of Goths. I admit I need to learn more about Emo to truly flesh out these distinctions. The music is hard for me to take, though. I find it a bit dull.

That’s all the melancholy misanthropy I can muster.

See you on the darkside.

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