Title: The Pursuit of Unhappiness: Melancholy Past and Present
Conference: German Studies Association (September 15-18, 2022, Houston, TX)
Paper Abstract Due Date: February 15, 2022
At least since Aristotle, melancholy has been associated with creative energy and intellectual brilliance. Far from encompassing solely moods of despondency and crippling sadness, the discourse on melancholy has integrated surprisingly positive aspects in the course of its long history - such as the Humanist figure of the melancholic genius, Richard Burton’s attainment of knowledge through “melancholizing” (Anatomy of Melancholia, p. 22), or Keats’ exaltation of suffering. With its “twin shrines of Melancholy and Pleasure” (Gittings, John Keats, p. 461), Romanticism has served to highlight the ambivalent and paradoxical nature of melancholic suffering, uniting despair and sadness on the one hand with vitality, pleasure and energy on the other hand. Pessimists such as Arthur Schopenhauer have argued that suffering is not the negation of a state of contentment, but rather a positive ground of existence. In a similar vein, Friedrich Nietzsche emphasized the interdependence of joy and despair, recognizing “the sadness of the most profound happiness” (The Gay Science, p.203-204). While the advent of positivist scientific methods in the late 19th century suppressed melancholy and negativity’s productive ambiguity, its impact may be traced in the profundity and critical force ascribed to states of negativity and suffering up to and including the present, from Adorno’s Negative Dialectics to the contemporary philosophical school of Afropessimism.
Our panel seeks to enquire into this historical and aesthetic link between negative emotions and intellectual productivity. We would like to push current formulations further and examine all negative emotions including melancholy, sadness, grief, mourning, as well as others. We are interested in the productivity of such emotions as well as what gives them positive energy. To that extent, we may investigate the following:
- What is the connection between production (artistic, emotional, economic, etc.) and negative emotion?
- Does negative emotion have a privileged position with respect to creativity?
- To what extent is it appropriate to consider the negative emotions of authors themselves in connection with their works? Can negative emotion be historicized?
- How do textual and visual forms create states of negative emotion? Do generic conventions determine a work’s inclusion of negative emotion, or is its appearance dictated some other way?
- What are tragedy and its cathartic moments with regard to productivity?
- How are dialectics of happiness and unhappiness explored by aesthetic means?
- By what metric can it be argued that either positive or negative emotions are more primary?