Five Minutes with Mitchell Merback on Perfection’s Therapy: An Essay on Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia I

Perfection’s Therapy takes a new approach to a very canonical image, perhaps the most heavily discussed image in European art: the engraving Melencolia I by Albrecht Dürer. How would you characterize the state of Dürer studies today? Also, can you describe what it’s like to work in a field that might look incredibly specific, if not narrow, to outsiders?

Art historians in established fields often have to face down an accumulation of collective knowledge that is, in practical terms, beyond the reach of the individual scholar. This is certainly true in the study of Dürer, who has been the subject of an almost non-stop production of knowledge for decades, and especially true in the case of Melencolia. When I decided I was serious about taking on the engraving, I met this situation with a mixture of excitement and dread.

Any over-specialized discourse will produce a certain amount of pedantic, dreary, and inaccessible writing; one simply has to forge a path through it. What kept me going was the experience of finding, among all that, scholarship that is truly inspiring, full of insight, experimental thinking, and the kind of old-school erudition that can make your head spin. A study like Saturn and Melancholy by Klibansky, Panofsky, and Saxl (1964), for instance, has to be read to be believed – truly it’s a mighty mountain of learning, as inexhaustible as its subject. Even with this kind of encyclopedism, however, no one is ever in a position, intellectually or ethically, to declare theirs the last study that needs to be written on a given subject, Dürer’s Melencolialeast of all. And thank goodness for that. For us mere mortals, in situations like this, the most productive attitude comes from that medieval adage about “standing on the shoulders of giants.”

So how does your approach differ from what has come before?

I’ve approached Melencolia,first of all, from the arch-skeptic’s viewpoint, the one that doubts whether a maximum of iconographic knowledge will ever bring about a “solution” to the puzzle of meaning. After so many failed attempts at exegesis, it’s unreasonable to expect we’ll someday arrive at an interpretation so complete, so satisfying, so conclusive, that it will convince everyone and bring the collective project to some perfect, shining fulfillment. My project attributes this open-endedness to the engraving itself, and considers it part of Dürer’s intention – if you like, the conceit of the image. This has been said several times before in different ways, but always with an allegorical ulterior motive. For me the next step is simply to ask, what kind of experience was the print really meant to offer? My answer is both simple and complex: simple, in that you can capture it in a single word (as the essay’s title does), and complex, because works of art are never straightforward agents of, or resources for, therapeutic action.

For all its darkness and the depressed mood of the scene, Melencolia I is an utterly fascinating image and can be a real delight to look at. Can you talk about what you enjoy most about the picture? Among the strange objects and figures that occupy the space, do you have a favorite?

In the book I talk about the sense of visual chaos that keeps the eye moving from zone to zone and object to object, but there’s an added impetus, I think, for the eye to stick to the surface of things rather than contemplate their depths: it’s Dürer’s audacious display of mark-making prowess. You can see this best when you scan horizontally across the middle section of the print. It’s as if he wanted to catalogue every known type of engraver’s mark and show its potential for describing forms and textures, imitating light effects, and so on. A similar bravura occurs throughout Dürer’s work as a printmaker, but here I find it more mesmerizing than anywhere else.

As for individual objects, I must confess to being most fascinated with the hourglass above Melancholy’s head, especially for the way Dürer has described it – placing its lower edge directly at the viewer’s eye level, and then letting the glass capsule rise majestically from an ornate classical base into a Gothic “canopy” above – it’s really perfect. I would also single out the small syringe-like object in the lower right, just peeking out from under Melancholy’s robe. Some see the tip of a bellows, relating it to the smelting crucible in the farthest opposite corner of the building site where the figures are sitting. Others (myself included) see in this half-hidden object an enema syringe, suggesting a very different kind of therapeutic intervention! Not sure that can ever be proven. We’ll see.

Your book shows that, in ancient and medieval medicine, there were several different and sometimes competing frameworks for understanding melancholia as a mental state. What were the most important, and which ones did Dürer likely have in mind when he was composing his picture?

One of the fundamental truths about the history of western science – and truer for medicine than any other discipline, I would say – is that, during the long pre-modern era, paradigms overlapped and informed one another. For centuries, doctors were quite baffled by melancholia, a syndrome named for the organic substance that causes it (black bile). Efforts to chart its countless and contradictory symptoms and manifestations led to some very creative thinking about the anomalous character of the melancholic humor, the way it interacts with the other substances, the way it’s produced, absorbed, and channeled through the body, and so on. Depending on these interactions, especially with the body’s “animal heat,” you could have anything from the simple moodiness we all experience to a full-blown manic-depressive psychosis; you could manifest the inspired “furor” of artistic genius, or the cold torpor of creative paralysis. This was the humoral-pathological viewpoint, and it was a mainstay of naturalistic medicine at least from Aristotle into the early modern period, and beyond.

There were three key alternatives to this medical framework: the first was astrology and the occult sciences derived from it. Here it was astral influences that were thought to affect the mind and the body’s systems in a microcosm / macrocosm relationship. Melancholics were considered the special victims of Saturn, and the planet’s “darkening” influence on terrestrial life. The second alternative was the Christian theological perspective, deriving largely from Paul and Augustine, which insisted that certain physical, mental, and spiritual infirmities were the inheritance of a fallen humanity, that is, the result of Original Sin. Within this perspective, melancholia, which was closely related to the sin of acedia, spiritual sloth, developed in persons of particularly weak will. Finally, it was long conceded that melancholic “delusions” could also be the result of demonic interventions (or, conversely, that humoral imbalances in the body could produce delusions easily mistaken for demonic assaults, or fantasies about witches).

What’s crucial to realize is that these explanatory frameworks were mutually exclusive only for an educated few, and only at certain moments in their history: as paradigms of a more or less “scientific” nature, they tended to overlap and borrow from each other. And I would say that the heyday of their cross-fertilization was the century or so before the Reformation, that is, before naturalistic medicine began the long process of edging out other explanations.

The question of where, specifically, or from whom, Dürer got his advice about melancholia still can’t be answered conclusively. To my mind it’s clear that, for Dürer as for his humanist colleagues, the humoral account provided by naturalistic medicine was fundamental, even as it was interlaced with astrological knowledge and fascination with “white magic,” while also being informed by a Christian anthropology, and perhaps demonology as well! To the extent that Melencolia poses as a “diagnosis” of melancholic distress, it assembles symbols and references from all four traditions, but does so in a totally eclectic way.

It’s surprising how contemporary some of the issues in the book feel. For instance, the ways in which people grappled with mental health, tried to overcome distress and anxiety, and pursue a kind of inner peace still resonates today. What are the differences and similarities that you see between how people in the sixteenth century took care of their minds and their souls, and how we do it today? Are there lessons from the past that you think might be important to relearn now?

Despite the orthodoxy of historicism that says people’s ideas about “the self” before modernity, for example in Dürer’s time, were necessarily different from ours, I’m tempted by the thought that there really are more similarities than differences, especially when it comes to attitudes toward therapy. We may have developed a more diverse menu of therapies, to be sure, but we’re not necessarily more accomplished when it comes to the care of the self. We’re definitely more narcissistic about it, and consumer society renders the Stoic ideal of virtuous detachment impractical, to say the least.

Our modern notion of selfhood is so highly mediated, so saturated with advertising slogans, that any therapy aimed at a “return to self” is bound to be a bit confused, if not self-defeating. The availability of pharmaceutical solutions make it easier to question whether psychotherapy or philosophy or meditation are seriously worth the effort they require. But underneath the fads and the misguided thinking about happiness, I think, is a genuine and enduring desire to progress beyond a certain inauthentic condition of life, however defined.

So much of the book is about the challenges of looking: the way viewers would approach a visually and symbolically complex picture such as Melencolia, the learning required to make these aspects of the work appealing, if not fully explicable, and the willingness of beholders to work through something perplexing. It seems that the way we look at pictures today is very different. Do you think we are able today to get the same benefits from looking at pictures that people did in the sixteenth century? Can modern works of art be therapeutic in similar ways?

The regrettable truth, in my view, is that we’re no longer capable in the way you describe. This can only be a sociological generalization. That is to say, the social conditions under which we look at and discuss pictures – whether its going to a museum or a gallery or a sculpture garden, studying art history at the university, admiring art in books, consuming it with your smartphone – all these rituals militate against the potential images have to serve authentic therapeutic goals. Just a few years ago, you might remember, the philosopher Alain de Botton, in collaboration with John Armstrong, took aim at the anodyne nature of the museum experience with the claim that art can be therapeutic. His argument involved a kind of stripped-back version of the 20th-century avant-gardists’ claims that art would remedy the deprivations and pathologies of capitalist society, but now tailored to the first-world problems of the hetero-normal Everyman (money stresses, time-management, relationships, electronic distractions, etc.). The exhibition and accompanying book were full of consoling messages for those invested in the care of the self, but I’m not sure it all amounted to much more than art appreciation for conflicted narcissistic personalities – and art-historically, well, it was rudderless.

Nevertheless, de Botton’s attempts to bring art back within the ambit of moral philosophy and the spiritual care of the self are steps in the right direction. Art is indispensible for us; and it can be a fulcrum for all kinds of therapeutic thinking and acting. One of these therapeutic functions, de Botton realized, is utopian – the modeling of the not-yet, the effort to imagine beyond what is possible today, so long as society remains untransformed. Art alone won’t ever bring about that transformation. Perhaps it can aim for a new kind of “cure of souls,” but artists alone won’t be able to make that happen. The patient has to want to be cured.