“There is something so enchanting in the smile of melancholy. It is a ray of light in the darkness, a shade between sadness and despair, showing the possibility of consolation.” Leo Tolstoy
What if melancholy can be passed down through generations? From mother to son, then son to daughter, and so on. Not just culturally (nurture), but also, startlingly, at the level of our DNA (nature), inside the neurons of our brains? The traits of the parents can be seen in the children, we’ve all heard this homespun wisdom.
The “sins of the fathers”, and mothers, is one version. But might melancholic emotions, caused by trauma and stress for instance, felt by one generation influence in some way their actual genes, and, in turn, affect their descendant’s genes? Could it be that some of us have a melancholic predisposition because of this, our personalities a consequence of our ancestor’s distress, and the biological transmission of those distressed chemicals onto us?
So, could “inherited melancholia”, that sense of indefinable sadness, interacting with the immediate life experiences of a creative genius, the death of a mother say, be a key and dynamic ingredient in the production of the melancholic works of musical brilliance? Turning pain and sorrow cathartically to healing and ultimately, an acceptance of life’s inescapable emotional wounds and sufferings? It’s an extraordinary thought, isn’t it?
Great philosophers have entertained the idea of the connection between melancholy and creativity. Nietzsche said that suffering brought on by melancholy-“This evening twilight devil”-was vital, and of great value to the mind and the soul. A sacred thing even-suffering and difficultly he thought must be embraced, cultivated and carefully crafted. Kierkegaard wrote that it was his “intimate confidant”, his, “most faithful mistress” and that he felt, “bliss in melancholy and sadness.” Like Nietzche, he also thought that anxiety, melancholia’s more animated cousin you might say, was a necessary prerequisite for creativity. The Romantic poets of the 18th and 19th centuries valorised melancholia and thought that such “emotional disturbance” was central to their creativity. Placing imagination over reason, and emotions over logic, rejecting the life-denying scientific rationalism of their day as they saw it, and instead idealising nature.
Indigenous and shamanic cultures such as the cultures of Aboriginal Australia have no problem believing such concepts, that our ancestors and their experiences, for good or ill, shape our current reality and that in some way we can be psychicly healed in the here and now by understanding this. The Aboriginies believe that the spirits of their ancestors reside in the crevices and caves of holy mountains, and that the hum of the wind, if understood, will reveal messages and signs from the dead. Not everyone can hear or perceive though. As in other shamanic cultures, shamans, Sufi mystics and other “psychospiritual travellers” have always played a special and revered cultural and spiritual role in in that they are the designated avatars who, either through rhythmic dancing, hypnotic drumming or ingesting psychotropic herbs, expand their ordinary consciousness and breakthrough into suspended time or “dreamtime”.
In doing so, they then can act as a bridge between what is percieved as ordinary reality and other non-ordinary transpersonal realms. By doing this, the “wounded healer”, the great global archetype associated with visonary shamanism, brings back wisdom and knowledge from outside of our ordinary three-dimensional space and linear time. The whole point of bringing back this wisdom from dreamtime was, and is, to heal and regenerate all of the community, on both a spiritual and a social level. Entering dreamtime is understod as a deeply creative act, but the whole point of it is social and spiritual emancipation, for all the people. Not just for personal gain.
Well, as the rational sceptic said: maybe, maybe not. In the instrumental, reductionist and rational west we have dismissed any such ideas out of hand as spiritual mumbo jumbo, or worse, as dangerous witchcraft. This is now changing, or at least that is the part about our ancestor’s experiences impacting upon our negative emotions in the here and now is being rethought. Behavioural epigenetics is according to a recent paper in the Oxford Journal of Bioscience, the study of how, “signals from the environment trigger molecular biological changes that modify what goes on in brain cells.” In other words, epigenetic marks or chemical tags attached to DNA tells a cell to “turn on or off” a particular set of genes.
More broadly understood, it is the interaction between the environment and genes. Although the central idea of epigenetics is still fairly controversial, as it was always thought epigenetic information was erased between generations-leaving a ‘blank slate’ to begin with every new generation. Transmitted genes which have been influenced by negative environmental factors (famine, conflict, slavery, even alcohol abuse) could, in other words, retain some stressful “memory” and remarkably, that memory could possibly leave molecular DNA scars on proceeding generations. It is a mind blowing thought, and a provocative idea.
The wider implications, if true, could be positive but also profoundly troubling for society as science begins to understand how it might be possible to “turn on and off” genes. Genetic engineering does not have an illustrious history, the opposite in fact. In a recent study led by Rachel Yehuda and others at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, on the transmission of stress effects of holocaust survivors to their offspring, the study claimed that the severe psychophysiological trauma experienced by the parents had an intergenerational impact on the next generation. Stress was not just culturally transmitted in other words, but also at the level of the molecular biology of the human brain. Similarly, but with mice, research led by Dr Jamie Hackett from the University of Cambridge in 2013 came to the same conclusion: the effect of stress and trauma is carried down to at least the next generation and possibly beyond. It is a tantalising idea, and that is where the main, admittedly highly speculative premise of this article comes in.
Was the aesthetic wonder of the Beatles music in some way influenced by the trauma of their grand-parents and even great-grandparents? Could the melancholy brought on by the stress experienced by their immediate ancestors have influenced in some way the musical force they became? Reality is for the most part about loss and the sadness it brings, and learning to come to terms with this deep realisation. If we don’t get what we want, or think we want; we’re left with feelings of anxiety, confusion, ennui, and finally even anger. But, eventually, no matter how hard we try, we will suffer.
Many great ethical traditions teach this ultimately unassailable truth. Buddhism and the Western Stoic tradition have understood this reality for millennia. “Anger”, the great Stoic Seneca said, “Is brief insanity”- and repressed anger, turned inside, leads to depression. In the Buddhist tradition, Avalokiteshvara, the “Buddha to be”, worshipped both in male & female form, has vowed to postpone enlightenment until she, or he, has released all sentient beings from Dukkha, the Sanskrit word for suffering. Suffering in Buddhism is understood as one of the four great Noble Truths. In the Fire Sermons, preached over two and half thousand years ago, the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, said that we live with delusion or avidya caused by suffering, as a result we are “burning”:
The mind is burning, ideas are burning, mind-consciousness is burning … Burning with what? I say it is burning with birth, aging and death, with sorrows, with lamentations, with pains, with griefs, with despairs.
Suffering then, and the sadness it brings, is a human universal experience. A core and visceral part of who we all are. We can run from this truth if we want to of course, but it will in the end catch up with us. There is no hiding place, and there is certainly no hiding place when our suffering metamorphoses into the “burning” of mind-consciousness.
Burning as the Buddha put it with sorrow, pain, and despair. Moreover no amount of 21st century consumption or distraction will sate these burnings. As Susan Sontag noted memorably, depression is melancholy without the charms. Sontag was no doubt correct. There is a fine line between chronic sadness (depression to give its clinical title) and melancholy: depression paralyses, inflicts inertia and often steals our ability to function; whereas melancholy can, potentially, act as a creative spur, a hard won modicum of self-knowledge to draw upon. When fully embraced that is.
Depression closes out the world, reduces our experiences of it to the claustrophobic confines of our own head. Whereas paradoxically melancholy can open up those claustrophobic walls; to acceptance, and even self-knowledge. Melancholy is a particular kind of sadness. An emotion borne of suffering; a reflective sadness rather than debilitating depression. Melancholy lies somewhere in the shade between sadness and despair to quote Tolstoy again, where the possibility of consolation lies. Knowledge lies in liminal spaces or in the barely perceptive shades between sadness and despair, in Tolstoy’s poetic turn of phrase, of our mind-consciousness. It is in those spaces where melancholy arises.
Yet melancholy also has the faint quality of mourning, even a kind of grief. But mourning or grieving for what? Mourning for our lost innocence? Mourning for all that is lost in the past, and all that will be lost in the future? Grieving because we know that loss, and the pain it brings, is all so utterly inescapable. If we are to stay sane in this world we must actively seek out this knowing melancholy, for if we don’t we risk not understanding ourselves-living with avidya or delusion as the Buddhists say. For if we don’t seek it out, we surely risk one-dimensionality and superficiality: one of the many curses of 21st century post-capitalism capitalism. We must embrace melancholy’s “knowing” suffering then, not recoil from it. Not something to be done lightly of course. It cannot be an indulgent exercise. Neither should it be just another excuse to inflict even more pain upon our “guilty” and undeserving and unexamined selves.
To be clear, it is also true that an excess of melancholy transformed into searing pain can destroy us, drive us down to a place from where it is very, very difficult to return from. Just as conversely, melancholy-creatively, emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually understood- can also be good for us. Healing from within you could say. Helping us to come to terms with the sadness and the inevitable suffering that will come our way. With stealth and compassion we might even become our own shaman. But, best to tread lightly, and with respect.
After silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.
Thankfully, and mercifully you might say, great art can console us-particularly great music. Music is surely our greatest medium of expression and if melancholy sometimes feels like a vast enveloping grief, then perhaps only music and the consolation it brings truly helps us to grieve. The melancholic note in popular music, the ‘blue’ note understood by the great African American Jazz artists of the twentieth century, heals, soothes and, if we allow it in, can transform our suffering into a kind of “knowing” melancholia as opposed to the all-consuming vortex of depression. One that leads to an acknowledgment and acceptance of our reality, and our suffering. If we accept music’s great trance-like and mysterious powers that is. Because, we don’t just hear music, we also more importantly feel it and when we are in a melancholy state we feel it even more intensely. And, if you haven’t felt music with that great intensity then Nietzsche was surely right: without that intensity of feeling, life would be a mistake.
Melancholic music adds an extra emotional texture to life which can impact upon us like little else can. It comforts, soothes, and consoles us from the suffering common to us all. Music is spiritually resonant, more than all the other artistic modes of expression. The truly great musical artists of the 20th century, from Besse Smith and Robert Johnson, to Miles Davis, to Van Morrison, and to Lennon & McCartney understood this knowing pathos, and felt and communicated it intuitively.
The genius of the Beatles’ music is that they instinctively understood this powerful melancholic truth. They turned their own suffering, and perhaps the suffering of the generations that became before them, into breathtaking, transformative musical solace; not just for their own inner peace of mind but also for all of us. They were open, decent and democratic enough to want us all to feel better about ourselves, and to recognize, through the medium of soulful harmonious notes, our own inner melancholy and embrace it. The Beatles greatest music reconciles. It reconciles us with the sadness caused by not only by our own suffering but also the suffering of all beings out there, and it reconciles that great, hard-won sadness with the entire world, and all its trials and tribulations.
The story of the Beatles has an epic and archetypal resonance. Their music was profoundly emotional. McCartney’s best music is ethereal, shot through with a deep sense of otherworldly melancholia, and occasionally, when his genius soars, it is genuinely transcendent. The same with Lennon, sometimes, incredibly, even more so. A friend of mine recently played a slow, almost lullaby-like version of Across the Universe on the piano to me. The trance-like melody floated off the keyboards and across the large dimly lit autumn room, echoing off 19th century windows and walls. Late autumn sunshine with its long melancholic shadows contributed to the effect. It was if time and space stopped, there was only now-no past, no future. It was one of those moments of transcendence, when reality becomes incredibly lucid in the present moment. Was my ordinary ego-consciousness spontaneously disrupted? Yes, it seemed so. A numinous experience in the religious sense, even? No. I don’t think so. There is no need for deities, or supernatural explanations; it was a spiritual experience though. Great art is enough, or rather, in this context, the melodic grace, harmony and the poetic yearnings of Lennon’s great heart where enough.
The story of the Beatles has an epic and archetypal resonance. Their music was profoundly emotional. McCartney’s best music is ethereal, shot through with a deep sense of otherworldly melancholia, and occasionally, when his genius soars, it is genuinely transcendent. The same with Lennon, sometimes, incredibly, even more so. A friend of mine recently played a slow, almost lullaby-like version of Across the Universe on the piano to me. The trance-like melody floated off the keyboards and across the large dimly lit autumn room, echoing off 19th century windows and walls. Late autumn sunshine with its long melancholic shadows contributed to the effect. It was if time and space stopped, there was only now-no past, no future. It was one of those moments of transcendence, when reality becomes incredibly lucid in the present moment. Was my ordinary ego-consciousness spontaneously disrupted? Yes, it seemed so. A numinous experience in the religious sense, even? No. I don’t think so. There is no need for deities, or supernatural explanations; it was a spiritual experience though. Great art is enough, or rather, in this context, the melodic grace, harmony and the poetic yearnings of Lennon’s great heart were enough.
Most of all though it was full of Irish emigrants and their descendants, most of whom congregated around the areas north of the docks and the city centre: Vauxhall and Scotland Road, creating a city within a city yards from where they landed off the boats from Ireland. Most of them were the descendants of refugees fleeing from the greatest social catastrophe of 19th century Europe: the Irish Famine. Including the ancestors of Lennon, McCartney and Harrison. Mark Lewisohn, author of the exhaustive The Beatles: All These Years, Volume One — Tune In, calls Liverpool the, “great matrix of Anglo-Celtic alchemy.”
Given all this, the trauma of cultural and social displacement, of human dispossession in Liverpool, and the scars and stresses imposed upon the grandparents of Lennon and McCartney, were they in some sense trying to understand and make sense of their own melancholy and even exercise the “ghosts” of this ancestral trauma through the creative and transformative process of music? With all its cathartic energies. As great artists, with their sponge like psychic antennas deeply sensitised to all around them, did they tap into Liverpool’s’ unique cultural diffusion with its resonant melancholic air, and, in turn, create music that was both universal and timeless? The dockside area of Liverpool with all of its history of human bondage and human suffering and the loss of emigration is full of ghosts.
Years ago, when I was, in my own life, “between worlds” I found myself there. The gap between the material and the immaterial seemed, at least to me on that night, non-existent on the Liverpool docks. The place had an eerie quality, a ghostly transience. Liverpool wasn’t so much the “pool of life” as Karl Jung famously said; rather it felt to me like a place where ghosts still had an afterlife. It was a place where millions had passed through, many in physical chains, many in mental chains, many others of course hopeful of new beginnings. Many others working, others moving on; others, staying for awhile, before moving on again. I was waiting for a boat back to Ireland, going in the opposite direction from the many millions who’d left Ireland to arrive at Liverpool. But I could feel it. It was in the air. Some places are like that, particularly transient places. There is a resonance which is almost impossible to define. Some imprint of sadness has been left over, a legacy of the trauma and stresses of the people who’d been there once, and are now all gone. An almost imperceptible sense of melancholia hangs on. But if your senses are tuned to it, you can feel it, and it feels as real as the earth and concrete you are waking on or the smell of the sea air or the 19th century brown-bricked buildings.
Could emotional trauma have been passed down to the Beatles by earlier generations? Not just by cultural means but also even by genetic transmission as suggested at the beginning of this essay. From the generation who suffered the trauma at first instance-conflict, hunger and deep emotional pain-to unaware succeeding generations. Could it be possible that in the psychic recess of a grandchild or great grandchild lies some unconscious ‘memory’, a molecular scar, of the original trauma felt and experienced by the great grandmother? Could it then be that the grandchild sensing the melancholy within them tries to express and catharise the embedded emotional and psychic wound through art, literature, or music? Despite the fact that on the conscious level, the grandchild not having any intellectual or even seemingly logical frame of reference to understand where the melancholy is coming from.
It’s a bold and perhaps even unverifiable claim to make of course but maybe there is something to it. Of course it is true that the immediate lived environment greatly influences how a person grows and develops. All of the Beatles, apart from Harrison, suffered emotional turmoil in their own childhoods, Lennon and Starr in particular. All of it extensively covered by numerous documentaries and biographers. Lennon and McCartney both lost their mothers when they were teenagers, a shared bond that brought them together.
For Lennon and McCartney, no doubt, the lonely and aching impulse of two young boys who both had just lost their mothers produced an incredible symbiotic psychic energy between them; an energy which spurred them to create something from a abrupt and searing pain, a pain diverted and sublimated by a survival instinct. Both were the creative driving force of the band. Moreover, it’s either this, Lennon is reputed to have said, or I’m fucked! Desperation can be a great motivator. And yet, can there really be something as a ‘genetic memory’ that leaves molecular scars? A kind of molecular residue imprinted onto our genetic endowment. Have all the great musical artists who’ve enriched our lives somehow had access to the great pool of sorrow that went before, and did they somehow create wondrous aural landscapes which have enriched our lives by drawing on subjective feelings informed by this mysterious process?
All speculation of course, all speculation. And yet, was not the creative process of the Beatles in large part the magical alchemic transformation of suffering and melancholy into melodic gold? In contemplating such ideas and thoughts we’ll surely always be left with much more questions than answers, science will help, but it to will surely only raise even more questions. Epigenetic “transmission of melancholy” is an incredible thought, and one rich with both extraordinary explanation, and of course unscientific misinterpretation. Still, it is fascinating to contemplate; provided of course that the above caveat is understood.
Yet still, could the sadness of their antecedent’s life experiences really have played a part in the making of their music? Even more mysterious would be the creative metamorphosis of that genetic information in the minds and souls of the Beatles which gave rise to their genius. It is a classic imponderable perhaps. Their music still resonates, it probably always will. We’ll always need it. For maybe it is that in the early 21st century we all live in a diaspora now, or even multiple diasporas, and those diasporas are both physical and metaphysical.
Either way, the Beatles have left us with some of the most powerful and soulful music of the 20th century. However they came to achieve it, whatever fascinating and complex mix of nature and nurture-across the generations- was at play in creating these melancholic, yet life-affirming wondrous sounds, we should always give thanks as those sounds make it all so much bearable for all of us. The deep harmonious blue notes and the rich melancholic chord changes of the Beatles songs , the effect on us of listening to the startlingly innovative key changes of Across the Universe, Yesterday and many others, the existential and emotionally charged yearning they express for love, wonder, healing and, finally, acceptance, point surely to some deep psychic schism in their lives. It was their genius, and luck, of course that brought it to fruition. But could it also be something else too though in their family histories which played a part in this soulful harmonious extravaganza? We’ll never really know for sure, and that is how it should be.
Mystery has its own magic. The mysterious is, as Einstein said, the most fundamental of all human emotions, and it is the on that is the beginning of true art. Finally, I’ll leave the last thoughts to the melancholic yet paradoxically effervescent lyrics of John Lennon: “Pools of sorrow, waves of joy…Jai Guru Deva” Rave on Beatles, rave on.