Carina del Valle Schorske at The Point:
Melancholy is a word that has fallen out of favor for describing the condition we now call depression. The fact that our language has changed, without the earlier word disappearing completely, indicates that we are still able to make use of both. Like most synonyms, melancholy and depression are not in fact synonymous, but slips of the tongue in a language we’re still learning. We keep trying to specify our experience of mental suffering, but all our new words constellate instead of consolidate meaning. In the essay collectionUnder the Sign of Saturn, Susan Sontag writes about her intellectual heroes, who all suffer solitude, ill temper, existential distress and creative block. They all breathe black air. According to her diagnostic model, they are all “melancholics.” Sontag doesn’t use the word depression in the company of her role models, but elsewhere she draws what seems like an easy distinction: “Depression is melancholy minus its charms.” But what are the charms of melancholy?
There is a long history in Western thought associating melancholy and genius. We have van Gogh with his severed ear. We have Montaigne confessing, “It was a melancholy humor … which first put into my head this raving concern with writing.” We have Nina Simone and Kurt Cobain, Thelonious Monk and David Foster Wallace.