On Indexing Melancholy or, Why We Long for Things


Of course I could see nothing but the items on display in the windows, which can have amounted to only a small part of the junk heaped up inside the shop. But even these four still lives obviously composed entirely at random […] exerted such a power of attraction on me that it was a long time before I could tear myself away from staring at the hundreds of different objects, my forehead pressed against the cold window, as if one of them or their relationship with each other must provide an unequivocal answer to the many questions I found it impossible to ask in my mind. […] They were all as timeless as that moment of rescue, perpetuated but forever just occurring, these ornaments, utensils, and mementos stranded in the Terezín bazaar, objects that for reasons one could never know had outlived their former owners and survived the process of destruction, so that I could now see my own faint shadow image barely perceptible among them.
—W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz

An apposite beginning for this text might be a definition of melancholy, the word responsible for igniting the conversations that would become this collaborative book and exhibition project. But which definition? A nameless longing; an atmosphere of sorrow; the exquisite pleasure of sadness or of pensive contemplation; a sense of impending loss, doom, or of endless, inexplicable waiting—there is seemingly no end to the whimsical phrases that have described this term. Even the most “medical” of studies dedicated to the condition, Robert Burton’s meandering, encyclopedic Anatomy of Melancholy, first published in 1621, reads—at least to twenty-first century eyes—as a capricious attempt to encompass the world in its entirety.1

A leaf through the Anatomy’s index suggests that a descent into melancholy could be brought upon by almost anything, from a bad love affair to immoderate exercise to a meal of beef. In the sui generis that is this tome, melancholy assumes the role of an open aperture through which all of human emotion, life and thought may be examined. For me however, and though it never mentions the word melancholy outright, it is the passage that opens this essay, drawn from W.G. Sebald’s final novel, which best embodies the nature of this malady, and which draws a thread of connection through this project and the many layers that have given it form. The aim of my current task of writing is to uncover why.

By the time Sigmund Freud famously pathologized the condition in 1917, melancholy had long since detached itself from Burton’s scholastic method and had, at least on the surface, assumed a more circumscribed—if still shadowy— silhouette.2 Divested of its physical features, the affliction was now understood to exist firmly within the realm of the mind. For Freud, melancholy was a pathological response to the experience of loss. While normal, healthy mourning is undertaken in order to come to terms with a lost love object, he argued, melancholy describes the circumstances of mourning gone awry. Here the object is not properly severed from the self and is instead internalized,3 resulting in a peculiar self-impoverishment: “in mourning it is the world which has become poor and empty; in melancholia it is the ego itself.”4 Curiously, however, Freud goes on to confess that the nature of the loss in melancholy may not be that clear at all. “The patient is aware of the loss which has given rise to his melancholia,” he explains, “but only in the sense that he knows whom he has lost but not what he has lost in him.”5 In contrast to the work of mourning, which follows an actually endured loss, the melancholic suffers from an “unknown loss” or an “object-loss that escapes consciousness.”6 The defining feature of melancholy, then, appears to be a despondency that arises from the anticipation and dread of loss, and from an inability to define that loss, rather than from the experience of loss itself. (Indeed, it is not difficult to imagine Freud so afflicted, writing the first draft of “Mourning and Melancholia” as Europe descended into the war he feared would claim both his sons.)

This experience of a possible, irreversible loss—or more precisely the anticipation of that loss—has itself been posited as a defining aspect of modernity, and central to the formation of modern consciousness.7 Motivated by a profound sense of historical rupture and an awareness that the world had somehow decisively changed, this thoroughly modern malady, as historian Richard Terdiman has suggested, produced two effects. The first was to establish the remembrance of loss as an imperative, linking European identities to the recollected past. The second was to induce a “crisis of memory” at both individual and collective levels, leading to the proliferation of institutions of preservation, collection and recall—museums, archives, photography, historiography—and ultimately to the exaggerated historical consciousness that Nietzsche condemned in On the Use and Abuse of History.8 It was, of course, the new discipline of psychoanalysis, developed largely by Freud himself, that identified memory as both the source and salve for this so-called memory crisis.

One of the most beguiling voices to give shape to this sense of loss is for me W.G. Sebald, the contemporary German writer who died suddenly in 2001 as the English-speaking world was only just becoming familiar with his work. Sebald’s enigmatic, brooding novels—part memoir, part fiction, elusive of any clear categorization—are permeated with a melancholy that is the inconsolable sorrow of modern existence.9 As the narrator of his final book, Austerlitz, ruminates, grasping at a memory made dim with time:

Even now, when I try to remember […] the darkness does not lift but becomes yet heavier as I think how little we can hold in mind […] how the world is, as it were, draining itself, in that the history of countless places and objects which themselves have no power of memory is never heard, never described or passed on.10

Objects which themselves have no power of memory: this phrase has lingered with me from my first reading of the novel years ago, and returns to me now as I write. Objects populate Sebald’s books. Things, along with the places—museums, curios shops, flea markets, archives—in which they languish and gather dust, play an important, if enigmatic, role in communicating the author’s sense of living amidst a visible, yet inaccessible past. They carry his narrators (and his readers) across time and geography, threading one story to another. “In melancholy,” Freud states, “the shadow of the object fell upon the ego.”11 He is speaking of a love object, a person, of course. But what if we stretch his intended meaning to encompass the material object, that assembly of things folded into our daily habits, that we make, find, buy, inherit, love, disregard and live alongside? What role might objects play, as they seem to do in Sebald’s project, in the melancholy that permeates modern life?12

Late capitalist culture, to quote Bataille, is a condition characterized by “an unreserved surrender to things.”13 Indeed some of the past century’s most original cultural critics and theorists—I am thinking here of Georg Simmel, Gaston Bachelard, Siegfried Kracauer and Walter Benjamin—have looked to things themselves, “the congealed facts and fantasies of a culture, the surface phenomena”14 for the clues to unpack the fetishistic logic (and illogic)15 of industrialized society. Benjamin was himself attempting to formulate nothing short of a history of modernity. His magnum opus, left unfinished at his death in 1940, was a vast collection of fragmented observations, reflections and quotations about urban life in nineteenth century Paris.16 “The method of this study: literary montage,” Benjamin explains. “I have nothing to say. Only to show. I will not appropriate any intellectual formulations, not steal anything valuable. But the rags, the refuse: I will not describe but rather exhibit them.”17

Benjamin was performing an archaeology of sorts, an extensive, methodical excavation to unearth and study the material remains of consumer society in order to reveal the history of modernity to itself. Archaeology—the study of human activity through the recovery and analysis of material culture—is one of many disciplines born out of modernity’s “crisis of memory;” its resultant desire to recollect, classify and record, is stubbornly committed to dealing with things. Like the method of loci, that ancient art of memory in which an orator mentally retraces his steps through an imagined architecture, retrieving “objects” previously deposited in order to recall a lengthy speech, archaeology offers a path backwards in time, seemingly connecting our present to an otherwise murky and inaccessible past (see fig. 1).

But just what is it about things? What accounts for their magnetism? Maurice Merleau-Ponty posits that the phenomenological sense of one’s body as an entity “in the world” depends upon the body’s being precisely situated among that world’s objects.18 The body itself is manifested as such an object, among other objects. After all, he argues:

We grasp the unity of our body only in that of the thing, and it is by taking things as our starting point that our hands, eyes and all our sense organs appear to us as so many interchangeable instruments. The body by itself, the body at rest is merely an obscure mass, and we perceive it as a precise and identifiable thing when it moves toward a thing.19

“Things in the world are the most obvious and the best hidden,”20 Henri Lefebvre offers. Objects are everywhere and yet invisible in their everydayness; they are domesticated, part of the routine of our lives and as such become custodians of our memories. “Things outlast us,” Sebald muses. “They know more about us than we know about them: they carry the experiences they have had with us inside them and are—in fact—the book of our history opened before us.”21 Objects may well be the book of our history and—as in Proust’s madeleines—occasionally reflect our own image back to us ourselves in profoundly meaningful ways,22 but the text of this book is most often written in an foreign script and resists translation. An object can really only ever reveal our investments in it, never itself: “the thing holds itself aloof from us and remains self-sufficient…a resolutely silent Other”23 (see fig. 3).

The object will not reveal to us its secrets, because it has no secrets to yield.24 It is, to quote Sartre, “solid (massif).”25 This indifference enables things to continually slip out from under any order that attempts to explain them. In their stubborn materiality, objects offer the possibility of an existence that extends beyond our own, though they may be long since emptied of meaning by the time they are rediscovered. Objects carry the portent of future ruins, and thus embody an anticipated loss. Like Benjamin’s angel of history, they expose the longue durée of modernity: its accumulations, its accretions, its histories both banal and violent (see fig.2). And here, perhaps, lies the object’s essential sorrow, or more properly our melancholy in proximity to it. Inert, indifferent, but charged with the weight of all our accumulated stories, even the careful excavation, retrieval, and preservation of things leads us nowhere but back to ourselves.

If the shadow of the object falls upon the ego, as Freud has posited, then at one and the same time, and after Sebald’s character Jacques Austerlitz, gazing as he does at the things behind the window of the Terezín antique shop, it is the darkened shape of our own image that falls across the object too.

Unknown Objects

This text was first published on April 27, 2013 in the publication

Edition of 200


  1. Burton, Robert. The Anatomy of Melancholy [Full title: The Anatomy of Melancholy, What it is: With all the Kinds, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes, and Several Cures of it. In Three Maine Partitions with their several Sections, Members, and Subsections. Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically, Opened and Cut Up], 16th edition (London: B Blake, 1836), www.books.google.ca.

  2. Sigmund Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia,” The Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XIV (1914—1916): On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement, Papers on Metapsychology and Other Works (London: Hogath Press, 1953-74), 237-258.

  3. Ibid., 249.

  4. Ibid., 246.

  5. Ibid., 245.

  6. Ibid., 245.

  7. Peter Fritzsche, Stranded in the Present: Modern Time and the Melancholy of History (Harvard, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 54. Fritzsche locates the beginnings of this shift in the French Revolution and the wars that followed it which, he argues, produced major shifts in historical consciousness and a heightened awareness of the need to preserve the past. The Revolution, he writes, established a common narrative within which individual experience could be understood. It was in the aftermath of the Revolution that the past was conceived more and more as something bygone and lost, and also strange and mysterious, and although partially accessible, always remote. This realization that something had been irreversibly lost produced a feeling of melancholy.

  8. Richard Terdiman argues that the origins of modernity’s memory crisis can be located even earlier than the French Revolution, in the changes wrought by shifts in production brought about by machines and the capitalization of European economies. See Terdiman, Present Past: Modernity and the Memory Crisis (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993), 5.

  9. See J.J. Long, W.G. Sebald: Image, Archive, Modernity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007). In the wake of his death in 2001, Sebald became the subject of intensive critical study. Literary scholars have identified a number of subjects in Sebald’s novels: the Holocaust, trauma and memory, melancholy, photography, travel and the nature and meaning of home, but Long identifies a wider “meta-problem” in Sebald’s work—the problem of modernity, and argues that Sebald’s project needs to be understood as a response not merely to post-Holocaust trauma but to the longer history of modernity.

  10. W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz (New York: Random House, 2001), 24.

  11. Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia,” 249.

  12. For a phenomenological reading of the melancholy of objects scrutinized through the lenses of art and literature, see Peter Schwenger, The Tears of Things: Melancholy and Physical Objects (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006).

  13. Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share: An Essay on Economy, Vol. 1: Consumption, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Zone Books, 1991), 136.

  14. Bill Brown, A Sense of Things: The Object Matter in American Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 4.

  15. Ibid., 4

  16. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, Ed. Rolf Tiedemann. Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (New York: Belknap Press, 2002). Incidentally, it was Georges Bataille who, while working as a librarian at the Bibliothèque Nationale, hid the manuscript in a closed archive at the library when Benjamin fled Paris in 1940, and where it was eventually discovered after the war.

  17. Ibid., 1030.

  18. Schwenger, The Tears of Things, 9.

  19. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (London: Routledge, 1989), 322

  20. Henri Lefebvre, “The Everyday and Every-dayness,” Yale French Studies 73 (Fall), 7–11), 8

  21. W.G. Sebald, in W.G. Sebald and Jan Peter Tripp, Unrecounted (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2004), 79

  22. Schwenger, The Tears of Things, 3.

  23. Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception, 322

  24. Schwenger, The Tears of Things, 6.

  25. Jean Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, trans. Hazel E. Barnes (NY: Washington Square Press, 1993), xlii.