Is There a Melancholic Gaze? from Visual Distemper to Visionary Fancy

By Crignon-De Oliveira, Claire | Journal of European Studies, December 2003 | Go to article overview

Is There a Melancholic Gaze? from Visual Distemper to Visionary Fancy


Crignon-De Oliveira, Claire, Journal of European Studies


The aim of this paper is to show the ambivalence of the idea of melancholy in seventeenth-century England from the specific perspective of the melancholic gaze. If the perturbation of the senses and of visual perception may be seen by physicians as a pathological condition, this can also lead the melancholic to develop visionary powers, which can be understood as a remedy against melancholic distemper, as Robert Burton shows in his Anatomy of Melancholy.

Keywords: black bile; fear; imagination; melancholy; vision

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The aim of this paper is to show the ambivalence of the idea of melancholy in seventeenth-century England by discussing the specific question of the melancholic gaze. Since the very beginning of the history of the idea, there has been a close relationship between melancholy and vision. First associated with a specific colour--the darkness of black bile--melancholy, as a pathological condition, shows itself by fantastic visions and apparitions which keep the melancholic in constant fear. Since Galen, there has been a tradition of characterizing the melancholic as someone who is addicted to fantastic images. As Galen writes in On the Affected Parts: 'Fear generally befalls the melancholic patients, but the same type of abnormal sensory images (phantasion) do not always present themselves.' (1)

The melancholic is not someone who sees things that do not exist, but someone whose vision of things does not correspond to reality. He thinks that what he imagines is real and is not able to perceive the difference between fiction and reality. Therefore, his vision of reality may be seen as one of the symptoms of his distemper. More precisely, it may be seen as a possible explanatory factor for one of the typical symptoms of pathological melancholy: fear.

Is black bile really responsible for the monstrous vision of reality which keeps the melancholic in constant fear? Trying to answer this question, seventeenth-century physicians used optical analogies to explain the distorted vision of reality which is characteristic of a melancholic perception of the world. Moreover, they discovered that it was the power of imagination, rather than the colour of the bile, which was responsible for the distorted visual perception of the melancholic. This allowed thinkers such as Robert Burton, for example, to transform the evil into a remedy. While being affected by an abnormal perception of the external world, the melancholic can also learn to control his vision and representation of things by using his visionary fancy and by forging an imaginary vision of the world.

We will attempt to examine the role of vision in the explanation of fear (a typical symptom of the melancholic distemper) through a discussion of the assumption of an 'inward vision' in Andre Du Laurens' A Discourse on the Preservation of the Sight: of Melancholike Diseases; of Rheums, and of Old Age. We would like to underline the fact that, by explaining this process of an inward vision, physicians (Timothy Bright, Thomas Willis) have discovered that the power of imagination, rather than the nature of black bile, is the direct cause of the melancholic's distorted and monstrous perception of himself and of the world. This will lead us to this question: how can imaginary fancy become a remedy to the melancholic vision of the world? We may find an answer to this question in reading Burton's great work: The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621).

The soul can look into herself and be afraid of what she sees

As it is very difficult to define melancholy, physicians have chosen to characterize this state by its pathological manifestations. Since the Hippocratic tradition and the twenty-third aphorism, melancholy has been defined as a result of a long period of fear and sadness: 'if fear and sorrow remain for a long period, they denote the approach of melancholy' (Hippocrates, 1982: 170).

But why is the melancholic subject to these specific symptoms? …

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