Embracing the waves of melancholy (So…I shot my first film and why it took 15 years – part 6)

5. Embracing the waves of melancholy

“I have absolutely no pleasure in the stimulants in which I sometimes so madly indulge. It has not been in the pursuit of pleasure that I have periled life and reputation and reason. It has been the desperate attempt to escape from torturing memories, from a sense of insupportable loneliness and a dread of some strange impending doom.”

(Edgar Allen Poe)


Melancholy (Edvard Munch: 1894)

Feeling shrouded by melancholy, has meant being haunted by ghosts of past, stifled by regret , an inexplicable and insurmountable sense of loneliness and longing, a perpetual uneasiness with the crude and selfish ways of the world, an overwhelming burden to pursue truth, meaningfulness and destiny, while accepting the futility and insignificance of my existence, and a dream of a dawn that I know will never arrive.

This is of course not a chosen state of mind or personality. Nor is the daily reality of living with it, anything like the romantic depictions of the tortured artist. But, in simple terms, experiencing more moments of ‘sadness’ than ‘happiness’, is something that I began to notice in my late youth . With the advent of a loss of innocence and the burden of experiences and memory, this melancholy has grown in intensity over the years.

Melancholy and creativity seem to have been inseparable for many creative personalities throughout time.

But when this state of melancholy is allowed to become so powerful and overwhelming that it is debilitating. And, in spite of the presence of an irrepressible and innate urge to create, no effort can be devoted to nurturing it. When lethargy and pain get the better of me, and they inhibit the consummation of the creative process – which itself is a necessity in order for me to aspire to live a meaningful, or a life less ordinary – I find myself in turmoil.

Only since 2013, did I learn to accept and understand the melancholy that had engulfed my soul for so long. I also began to realise that I would have to find a way to embrace these waves, or risk being drowned by them.

If I wanted to create, I had to try to stay afloat in these waters, even if at times I felt I was choking. Because this melancholy was an inexplicable force that actually gave birth to all of my creative thoughts. Fighting against this would only lead to my destruction, I had to make peace with it.

Melancholy as the Source of Comfort and Inspirations

Sadly, my formative years were mostly spent away from literature as a source of pleasure and inspiration, and instead consumed by the memorising of textbook knowledge for the purpose of schooling and examinations.

Over the past few years, I have struggled to renew my relationship with reading and reverse years of conditioning. The few novels that I have come across have been of grand thought and emotion, their words have spoken to me and I have recognised and shared the pain of the writers. These men and women have been a source of comfort, companionship and inspiration through the passages of time and left me feeling less lonely in this world.

Yet, despite feeling illiterate at times, I now believe that this accidental distance from books – specifically, those which attempt to theorise and explain human existence – during my youth has not left me handicapped today. Nor had this time been wasted. In its place, I was able to spend years pondering, melancholising and formulating my own thoughts and ideas.

In fact, just a few weeks ago, I came across a brilliant quote which I found as being true of what I felt.

“That which others hear or read of, I felt and practised myself; they get their knowledge by books, I mine by melancholising.”

(Robert Burton)

Truly, melancholy and pondering have also been the original source of my inspiration. Film, literature, and music as inspiration came quite later in life…

The vast periods of time I was granted to ponder on my own, kept me unadulterated during the years when the mind is impressionable and easily led down the path of imitating the words of others as if they are authorities. This saved me from being irreversibly infatuated and influenced by the myriad of texts and their authors (many of which are acclaimed in academic circles and have a tendency to over-theorise) and then simply regurgitating the theories and knowledge contained within them.

After all, how much can one gain by rote-learning the words of another and then repeating them?

Instead, I treasure the time, space and freedom that I had in those years to be able to question everything, to be able to observe my world around me through my eyes (and not the eyes of someone describing their world to me) to smell and taste the despair in the air. To arrive at my own naive answers, and then to realise that there is no answer in a world of many truths – that is at the heart of my philosophical and artistic vision today.

What piece of art and literature can be more authentic and illuminating than actually experiencing the world through one’s own senses first?

Of course, art and literature can also inspire us in strange and incomprehensible ways at different times in our life. Certainly, the creative process cannot be rationalised. But, for myself, it came into my life at the ‘right’ time – when I had reached a philosophical maturity and needed something beyond my own personal melancholy. It came at a time when I needed more inspiration and needed to know I was not alone. This is when film as art was destined to come into my life.

I discovered great poetic filmmakers (who are by nature philosophical, as all great melancholic artists are) who inspired me with their visual works of art which transcended the man-made boundaries which had been compartmentalised by society. They showed me how poetry, philosophy, sociology, photography, history, psychology, existentialism and everything else, belonged together and fused into one.

Melancholy was, and is still always the source. But having reached some idea about how I see the world at this moment in my life, I also have the added companionship and inspiration of auteurs, artists and writers whose work is also brimming with melancholy. My pain is soothed, even pleasured for a while as I find solace in the mysterious beauty and romanticism of melancholy that underlies all great works of art.

Melancholy as Truth as Despair

Many fools will tell you how constantly being in a state of euphoric, artificial optimism is good for you. And how it will prolong your life on this earth.

To them, I ask of what great value is a hundred years of selfish, delusional optimism?

Actually, to be affected by melancholy is to face reality – a reality where there are no simple and comforting boundaries between ugly and beautiful. And where terms like ugly, beautiful, and evil have little use beyond judgement.

As frustrating as it is to live in a beguilingly crude world, and to be overwhelmed by anxiety, suffering and despair for the human condition – all of this means one has not desensitised themselves to it all. I am not able to, or refuse to, find a gimmick – some kind of Soma to deceive myself so that I can escape guilt-free to a world of unicorns and rainbows. Unlike masses of people, I can actually see and feel the shackles tightening around me, and I refuse to accept this imprisonment as my fate. While they snore soundly, I cannot sleep because I am disturbed. The despair in the air makes me alert and more awake.


The Desperate Man (Gustave Courbet: 1845)

And it is only from the depths of this never-ending despair (not from being in perpetual states of comfort) that the possibility of unconventional, eccentric and timeless thoughts, art and revolutions have been born.

Let me suffocate in despair,

Let me become an object of ridicule,

Let me fail miserably and fall on my face.

But spare me from your delusions of comfort.

“Despair is not a bad thing. He or she who has never despaired has never lived. Anyone who looks at the history of the world and doesn’t have some element of despair—something’s wrong with you. Despair means you have a sensitivity.”

(Cornel West)

Melancholy and Action

“The only sober man is the melancholiac, who, disenchanted, looks at life, sees it as it really is, and cuts his throat.”

(W.N.P. Barbellion (Bruce Frederick Cummings: The Journal of a Disappointed Man)

I can only sympathise with the physical suffering that led to such anguish for Cummings. But even if this is taken as a metaphor for inner turmoil, it is essential – even as crippling as melancholy can be, and as painful as sobriety is – that it does not ultimately paralyse me to the extent that all creative action stops taking place in my life.

This first short film of mine, was a result of my first steps to wade through the waves. One that emerged from utter desperation, fear and love.

I wrote and made this film in desperation and a fear that these thoughts and dreams of mine that I have caged inside my heart for so long would end up being suffocated and dying a lonely death. Unheard and unseen by anyone else. What a tragedy for my existence!

But also out of love. Love for being granted the capacity to be inspired. Love for my soul, for it would be a gross injustice to deny my soul the chance to express itself. If I had nothing to say, it would have been so much easier to do nothing. But, as I am gripped with the belief (or delusion) that I have something to say – it simply must be expressed… out of love for what I am, if nothing else.

Certainly, melancholy is, and will always be a part of me. A source of inspiration, and a means to get closer to truths. But, I must be careful to not become motionless in this ocean of melancholia, no matter how much I am tempted.

Or else these waves will surely drown me.

Crippled by self-doubt (So…I shot my first film and why it took 15 years – part 7)