Tuesday, May 10, 2005


melencolia, Albrecht Durer

Black Dog Institute essay comp: the origins of the black dog.

Churchill, Johnson and Boswell, the famous trio whistled up by the metaphor of the black dog, have much in common, characteristics that go some of the way towards explaining their affliction. Dead, white pommy males, all of them are literary gents – lest we forget Winnie, astonishingly, won the Nobel prize for literature – and depression is part of the wages of creation. To a man they were overweight over-achievers who drank to excess, smoked and suffered from various dropsies and poxes and gouts. It would seem none of then much liked dogs. Sam was passionate about cats, particularly his beloved Hodge whom he immortalised. Winnie warmed to pigs, observing that “cats look down on us, dogs look up to us, pigs are our equals”. Jimmy was a gourmand who would probably have eaten any beasty with the right sauce. No doubt all of them were familiar with the homeopathic remedy of the hair of the dog, of whatever colour, that could enable them to jumpstart the long day’s statecraft and/or letters through which they tried to prove themselves to the mother by whom they were neglected.

That any of them might have coined this metaphorical slander on dogs is less likely. Nor that Goethe, Byron, Stevenson, Scott, Abe Lincoln, Jesse Winchester, Tipper Gore, or whoever else you can googlefluke, did. The phrase has been in the air, part of the cultural exchequer, for millennia. There was a black dog in the Roman poetical lexicon of Horace and it could be chased back to ancient Egypt where jackal-headed Anubis was a god of the underworld, patron of embalmers and poisoners. However the Anubis website presents him as a friendly guide, something of a blue heeler rounding up the dead. The mutt of the metaphor is more the one Webster refers to in the Jacobean play The White Devil (1612):

Keep the dog far hence that’s foe to men
Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again.

Descended from European myths and traditions of the supernatural and diabolical, a black dog was the form a witch’s familiar or the devil’s agent used to take. In Goethe’s Faust he appears as a poodle - as he should in a tragicomedy. One with two heads stood guard at the gates of hell. He is a creature, or the accomplice, of the Adversary, a figure of Negation, an immanence of Evil, darkness visible on four legs and wagging a tail running through Christian and pre-Christian imagination.

In modern, secular times the dog has got lost and shrunk into a psychological clich̩. One online shrink proffers an emblem of the inner conflict at the core of our being by replacing good and evil angels with two dogs fighting, one black and one white. The dog that wins is the dog that is fed the most Рso starve out the black dog of negativity and give that good white dog a bone. Once potent metaphors turn to bromide and give the suffering mind no succour. A suffering mind might do better applying to a poet than a doctor. To Baudelaire for example, who said he had a cat in his head and was the better for it. Imagining and eye-balling this seraphic cat, from which came a deep soothing vibration, was to him a means of steadying his judgment, a source of inspiration. He found this a better remedy than hashish or absinthe, and it has got to be more effective than an internalised dogfight.

There is, in any case, no black dog lurking in the language for a depressed Frenchman to use to embody his condition. The frogs suffer from le cafard, the cockroach. A search of the languages of the world would procure a metaphorical zoo. Hunting the snark of its provenance in English has a curiosity value. It leads one to consider the function of such a figure of speech. Since Adam and the cave wall painters, the human acts of naming and image-making have arisen from the desire to know and control. Painting the savage auroch in Lascaux was, through sympathetic magic, trying to tame it, to own it. Naming the vague but overwhelming symptoms of depression “black dog” is trying to do something similar and this personification gives us more solace than translating them into Latin or Greek. Because it is a metaphor, a Greek word meaning something that “carries over”. One thing is expressed in terms of another. Depression itself is a metaphor as used not only in psychology, but also in economics, meteorology and astronomy. The nature and power of metaphor is transformative. As a rhetorical device, it has the potential to present a new way of seeing and refresh the understanding.

The mind has mountains, cliffs of fall,
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there.

The black dog is a rundown metaphor, not of this order of suggestiveness. Still it has the effect of separating Winnie’s good self from a condition that comes and goes. It might assert a superiority, as a man is superior to a dog, friend or foe. If Tipper says she has the black dog on her back, the nightmare image, conjuring the incubus of demonology, implies the malady is not intrinsic, not her responsibility and holds out the possibility that if the right measures were taken, it can be put down. The notion of possession, if it does not relieve, excuses and simplifies the state she is in. Further behind the consolatory euphemism, if it is merely that, drifts a binary conception of the suffering mind: well/not well. Take the medication, switch off serotonin re-uptake result: happiness. The dog has become a chemical dog. General practice deals with it by means of drugs with names dreamt up by corporate namers, strange names wrought from the roots of dead languages. It can be shaken off with, say, Ancanero and with ancillary cognitive therapy retraining bad, habitual black doggy responses, one can live happier and dry-mouthed, ever after.
The black dog does not sit comfortably with an holistic approach to the problem for which it is a metaphor. It does not carry any suggestion across of depression as a bio/psycho/social/genetic complex As far as treatment is concerned, it might have us barking up the wrong tree.

For William Shakespeare and Albrecht Durer, the metaphor for depression was melancholia, that is black bile which, along with yellow bile, blood and phlegm, was one of four “humours” mixed in any human, corresponding to the four elements of nature and much else. Perfect equilibrium between humours is impossible in our sublunary world, the resultant would be characterless, a psychological blank. Who we are, or our “complexion”, depends on our singular disequilibria between the four main types – melancholic, choleric, sanguine and phlegmatic. Working within Galen’s paradigm (which survived until about the time of the American Civil War) without benefit of a cellular pathology, Shakespeare and Durer reveal more about the nature of melancholy than a wilderness of psychiatrists.

Hamlet has lost all his mirth, wherefore he knows not, though an audience can see a causal connection between the way he feels and a world that is “a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours”. Hamlet is also an unstoppable wit, quick to put on an antic disposition. He is paralysed by depression but he is the hero, the bi-polar hero, literary ancestor of the original Batman, another mourning, reclusive avenger. Shakespeare persuades us that Hamlet wouldn’t be the hero he is without his down cast of mind. The blues is part of the black prince’s genius and it might be argued, the bard’s own.

Albrecht Durer’s engraving Melencolia 1 (1514) is a riddling compendium of the hermetic tradition known to Shakespeare as The School of Night(that Frances Yates expounds in her book The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age). It prefigures the dejected/inspired genius of 19th century Romanticism. Durer has scratched out with a beauty at once sombre and luminous a meditation upon the doubleness of melancholy. Under the depressing thrall of electronic media, in these days of soundbite spin and one-dimensional hype, Durer’s engraving feeds the mind wonderfully.

Look at the picture.

A black and white picture, graven with a burin when Durer was subject to profound melencolia, as he spells it here.
There is a black and white dog. The dog and every other element of the picture will sustain a positive and a negative interpretation. They all seek to rouse inert observing minds to enquiry. There is a sturdy angel with flaxen locks crowned with a laurel wreath, or some say parsley. Her gaze is piercing, fixed and upwards. Is this a state of anomie or visionary trance? Holding a poker-sized calliper in her satiny lap, she sits surrounded by a litter of discarded tools and objects referring profusely to mysteries kabbalistic, neo-platonic, Pythagorean, Gnostic, you gname it. We are looking at a gothic Rubik’s cube.
A snaky dog-faced bat flies in the beams of Saturn, the black sun of melancholy. The black and white dog lies still at the feet of the angel. The dog seems in a bad way with its ribs sticking out, shining through its hide and its limbs locked as if in a cramp or fit. One authority has pronounced it hydrophobic. Dame Frances Yates begs to differ: the dog represents the body in perfect control and the limbs are neatly tucked under it as dogs do. The dog is ambiguous. Let us leave the dog there, poised between opposites, spelling itself backwards. The dog is not a problem. The mystic polyhedron next to it and the magic square on the wall are also chocka with potential intellectual activity, but let them be as well.
Considered as an allegory of Durer’s own psychological condition,
the heart of the problem is stasis, is being stuck. The dogbat shrieks, the sand falls in the glass and the angel does nothing. While, smack dab in the centre of the composition, another aspect of melencolia is busily at work. Above the dog on a disused millstone, next to a ladder no one is climbing, under scales empty but in balance, there is a chubby cupid. Eros. Desire. Hard to see what Desire is doing in a reproduction this size and quality but he is concentrating as only children can. Is he forming his first letters on his slate, or is that an engraver’s burin in his hand? ‘Tis. In Durer’s psychograph Eros the engraver counterpoints the disabled angel, the little cherub absorbed by his craft that, out of black, can make sensible light.

As blackdog-loving Sam Beckett put it: Imagination dead. Imagine.

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