The Melancholic Gaze

by Piotr Śniedziewski (Author)
Monographs VIII, 214 Pages
Open Access
Series: Literary and Cultural Theory, Volume 56

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Part I. The Outward Gaze
  • 1. To Wander and Look (Rousseau, Chateaubriand)
  • 1.1 Rousseau’s herbarium
  • 1.2 Chateaubriand’s stone
  • 2. Gazing and Writing Instead of Living (Senancour)
  • 2.1 Melancholic solitude
  • 2.2 The melancholic landscape
  • 2.3 Melancholic writing
  • 3. Looking Without Seeing (Amiel, Macpherson, Turner, Mallarmé)
  • 3.1 Sad glances
  • 3.2 Sad mist
  • 3.3 Sad world
  • Part II. The Inward Gaze
  • 4. For Only in Sadness Can Talent Be Perceived (Madame de Staël)
  • 5. To See the Nothing Inside (Amiel)
  • 6. Gazing Helplessly Through Life as It Recedes (Delacroix)
  • Part III. The Gaze out of the Window or into the Mirror
  • 7. On the Harmful Effects of Looking Through the Window (Flaubert)
  • 8. To Look in a Tarnished Mirror (Baudelaire)
  • 9. Through the Window and Back (Balzac, Baudelaire, Hasenclever)
  • 9.1 Odds and ends, and looking into the void
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Name Index
  • Subject Index
  • Series Index

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There is no Passion which is not manifested by some particular action of the eyes. This is so obvious in the case of some of them, that even the stupidest servants can tell from their master’s eyes whether or not he is upset with them. But although these actions of the eyes are easily perceived, and what they mean is known, that does not make it easy to describe them, because each of them is composed of many changes taking place in the movement and shape of the eye, so singular and slight that there is no perceiving each of them separately, even though what results from their conjunction may be quite easy to recognize.1

There are two gazes of Orpheus.

The first is well-known, almost to the point of being hackneyed. It is the gaze, full of impatience and therefore untimely, of the lover who managed to descend into the underworld, charm Charon, Cerberus and Hades himself with song, and deliver his beloved wife from eternal darkness and silence. The one condition the singer had to fulfill in order for this miracle, a miracle rivaled only by the story of Persephone, to take place may seem banal, disproportionate to the promise of future happiness. Eurydice would leave the depths of Hades with him and return to life, but during the journey home Orpheus, who had to lead the way, was forbidden to look behind him; forbidden to gaze upon his beloved. Hermes would walk behind her in order to keep an eye on the singer; to follow his movements and check his impulses, and, should Orpheus once turn around, to pull Eurydice back into the underworld. Remember, you cannot look at her! That was the condition set by Hades. It seems little enough to ask in exchange for a new life; for love regained. It seems even less when we consider the imbalance between what must have been a short journey home and the promise of a long and happy life on earth.

Indeed, it was not much to ask, except of someone who loved. Anyone who has ever loved knows that the gaze of the beloved can eclipse the whole world. What, then, could Orpheus do? He was no longer saddened by the death of Eurydice; no longer paralyzed by the fear of life, life which for him would once again soon know the delights of the past. Just then, in the moment that divides vanished pain from future joy, Orpheus was seized with the desire to see his beloved. Virgil recalls the event in the following passage from the Georgics: ← 1 | 2 →

And now with homeward footstep he had passed […],
Eurydice to realms of upper air
Had well-nigh won, behind him following –
So Proserpine had ruled it – when his heart
A sudden mad desire surprised and seized […]
For at the very threshold of the day,
Heedless, alas! and vanquished of resolve,
He stopped, turned, looked upon Eurydice
His own once more. But even with the look,
Poured out was all his labor.

Orpheus forgot about the command not to look, and his desire got the better of him. He gazed at his beloved, wanting to enjoy the sight of her and to reassure himself that she was there, walking behind him. The moment is preserved in the work of a nameless sculptor from the fifth century B.C.E., a relief depicting Hermes, Eurydice, and Orpheus. The winged god and the woman walk behind the poet, who, overwhelmed by his passions, has already stopped and turned to look at his beloved. This relief is strange indeed. We cannot tell whether the tragedy has already happened or is just about to happen. Eurydice’s left arm rests on Orpheus’s shoulder, as if she never wanted to leave her lover again. Yet her right arm is nervously reaching out for Hermes, which may indicate that Eurydice has had a premonition that she will never get out of the hellish underworld. Eurydice and Orpheus keep their gazes low, crossing at the level of their lips. Perhaps this is a reflection of the legend according to which Orpheus wished not only to look at his beloved, but also to kiss her. Virgil alludes to precisely that story in the Culex: “But cruel, more than cruel, Orpheus, thou, / Desiring kisses dear, didst break the gods’ / Commands.”3 In the relief, they appear still not to have looked into each other’s face, since they are standing opposite each other. Will these faces catch the glimpse they seek? Will they gaze into each other’s eyes? When will Hermes intervene and interrupt this foretaste of happiness, transforming it into the pain of everlasting loss? Will Orpheus’s gaze touch, even fleetingly, on Eurydice’s face? Will it meet her gaze? No one can answer these questions; Eurydice wonders aloud in the Georgics, with a note of indifference that presages the ← 2 | 3 → melancholy to come: “once again / The unpitying fates recall me […] / Girt with enormous night I am borne away […].”4

Orpheus’s beloved thus had an acute presentiment of what he would only come to realize in that later instant. His first loss, the death of Eurydice, was a painful experience, after which he “wrung by his minstrelsy”5 tears from hell itself its chance nature brought him a grief that was almost unimaginable,6 but that he was able to master through the process of mourning. The second loss, however, eludes the scope of any kind of funereal practices, since no one could have envisioned the correct response for a man who loses the same beloved person a second time.7 The second death is an epistemological scandal; no one is capable, perhaps, of imagining it; no, no one could live through it. Eurydice in this scene is filled with resignation, sadness, and apathy, while Orpheus, in the world of the living, faces the challenge put to him by an unacceptable death. No less striking is the question that stubbornly returns in this context: who did Orpheus really lose the second time? Eurydice? Might it only have been her phantom, used by the gods of the underworld to deceive him? Robert Graves recalls the singer’s doubts, mingled with despair: “at the last minute Orpheus feared that Hades might be tricking him, forgot the condition, looked anxiously behind him, and lost [Eurydice] forever.”8 That second loss is illogical, because it is impossible. Orpheus was supposed to recover his beloved in defiance of life and in defiance of the implacable law of death. There is therefore no way to ← 3 | 4 → master or rethink that loss or drown it in tears of forgetfulness. Ovid even wrote that “the double death of his dear wife” deafened Orpheus: “Seven days he sat upon Death’s river bank, / in squalid misery and without all food – / nourished by grief, anxiety, and tears.”9 According to Virgil, “Alone he wandered, […] / Lamenting.”10

Astonishingly, however, none of the above-quoted authors even tries to describe the gaze of Orpheus after the loss of Eurydice. What happened to that gaze full of longing, a gaze seeking not only the eye of his beloved, but also her lips? What became of the gaze that sought to regain presence and turn hesitation into certainty? How did the gaze of Orpheus appear when all hope had departed, and not even he himself knew whom he should be weeping for: the real Eurydice, following in his footsteps, or the phantom who had held him up to ridicule before the gods? Virgil and Ovid remain silent on this point. Yet that gaze, lost to literature, must have been equally dramatic, full of pain and horror; it must have been a melancholy reversal of the hopeful gaze that sought to confirm the presence of Eurydice. Jan Parandowski only mentions the way the lonely, despairing Orpheus “looked all around him in vain: [Eurydice] was nowhere to be found.”11 Wanda Markowska adds: “From then on, with wild eyes, with yearning and sorrow in his heart, Orpheus wandered about the mountains and forests of his chilly homeland.”12

The second gaze of Orpheus, then, has been forgotten, in spite of being doubly unhappy. The first gaze was driven by the certainty of seeing his beloved, the belief in her presence behind him and the promise of possessing her. In this second gaze there is also certainty, albeit the certainty of loss. In this case, however, that sense of loss is unconnected with mourning in the sense which Freud gave the term in his famous work on the subject.13 What we see here is rather melancholia, since Orpheus rather than lamenting the dead Eurydice (that act of mourning having already been performed, as seen in the above-quoted words of Virgil from the Georgics) he laments the memory of her ghost, the promise of ← 4 | 5 → happiness forever squandered. Echoing Freud, it was not that the world became empty, since it had already been so after Eurydice’s death, but that this time emptiness and loneliness prevailed within Orpheus. As Maurice Blanchot writes, Orpheus is absent in his gaze; he is “no less dead than [Eurydice] was, not dead with the tranquil death of the world, the kind of death which is repose, silence, and ending, but with that other death which is endless death, proof of the absence of ending.”14 Mourning is of no use to one who has twice touched death, when it is not that “tranquil” kind, “of the world,” but rather absurd, incomprehensible, beyond the human imagination, and all of this due to the impatience imposed by love. The event is accompanied by pangs of conscience and a sense of guilt at the loss, impossible to overcome in any way, and whose object is not even clear, since in fact Orpheus cannot be sure whether he has really lost Eurydice a second time, or has merely been the plaything in a game of the gods. These interpretative intuitions harmonize perfectly with the artistic betrayal15 that Feliks Frankowski permitted himself in translating the Georgics. In Frankowski’s translation Orpheus weeps, but he is not lamenting the second loss of Eurydice; his are tears of melancholia and despair, which he cannot hold back and which wring remembrance from him: “Each day his memory of those misfortunes was renewed by his tears.”16 Thus it is not mourning for his beloved that causes his tears, but rather the torment of loneliness and tears that seek out an object and find the memory of Eurydice, the memory of a memory (the double loss of which Ovid wrote, above), though they find no memory of the person of Eurydice. Thus is melancholia born, and it resists any attempts at consolation. Thus, too, the “wild eyes” referred to by Markowska become the melancholic gaze, a gaze directed at places that have ceased to be and people who no longer exist. Orpheus strains his eyes toward something that cannot be seen.

The phenomenon of the melancholic gaze has been present in art and literature since the time of Orpheus. An impressive case in point is the sentences with which Raymond Chandler closes Farewell, My Lovely: “It was a cool day and very ← 5 | 6 → clear. You could see a long way – but not as far as Velma had gone.”17 In his book Oczy Dürera (Dürer’s Eyes), Marek Bieńczyk interprets that sentence as follows: “These eyes want to look far, but they only see here. They only see here, but they see that there is something on the horizon. They have the force of longing in them and the burden of encumbrance. They do not cross over to the other side as they have no access to transcendence, but out of immanence they make a feast of loss and, simultaneously, waiting.”18 Those who pass over the melancholic gaze in silence, Virgil and Ovid, and those who succumb to its charms, Chandler and Bieńczyk, incite us in equal measure to consider the three basic modalities of that gaze. Firstly, the melancholic looks at the world in a particular way. He looks at it passionlessly. He does so not in order to see the true nature of reality, its deep implications or hidden meaning. His gaze cannot pierce through to any kind of transcendence. It moves among objects and people, and sometimes feels that some kind of pose is possible, but is unable to catch hold of anything. Bieńczyk, in his essay on Antoni Malczewski’s Maria, rightly observed that the melancholic’s gaze differs fundamentally from contemplation.19 Contemplation is looking at people and things in a way that leads to the discovery of their unchanging essence; it is thus transcendental in nature. The melancholic’s gaze, on the other hand, does not penetrate to the essence of people or things, but only slides across their surfaces, passing through. The gaze with which Chateaubriand’s René tries to grasp the world from the summit of Mount Etna is likewise slippery. In it, rivers were suddenly transformed into blue lines on maps, and Sicily shrank to “a small point at [his] feet […].”20 The world thus became a geometric puzzle, an unfinished algorithm where disjunction, with its goal of reaching a desired result, is replaced by the principle of free choice.

This gaze drifting aimlessly can, however, be converted into an inward gaze, introspective wonder in the face of the void or its opposite, the excess of something. That is also what happens in Chateaubriand’s novel, cited above. Its hero confesses that, looking down from Etna, he had “before [his] eyes a creation at once immense and imperceptible, and an abyss yawning nearby.”21 That abyss is not only the crevasse he sees from the mountain, but it quickly becomes the ← 6 | 7 → abyss of knowledge. In this sense René is a lost being, with his gaze fixed on himself; a lost being who even questions the existence of the external world. The inward look, which transforms into the gaze of a madman, furrowing the viewer’s brow and instilling despondency in him, is particularly visible in a series of self-portraits by Charles Baudelaire, drawn by the poet in the years between 1860 and 1864, and in the self-portrait of Johann Heinrich Füssli (his chalk drawing on paper, made in the 1780s). That is the gaze that has elicited profound interest in the spheres of psychoanalysis and psychiatry. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Dr. Jean-Marie Charcot undertook to photograph his patients, in order to establish a fixed record of the physical signs of melancholia. The portraits he made of these women are powerful and frightening.22

The third modality of the melancholy gaze fluctuates between the indifferent gaze that fleetingly glimpses people and objects and the absent gaze that is a consequence of gazing into the vacant depths of one’s own soul. I refer, naturally, to gazing through a window, which denotes looking at the world to the same degree as it does looking at oneself (given the narcissistic effect of seeing one’s reflection in the window). George Steiner has previously observed the potential of both window and mirror and connected both with melancholia, writing of two “philosophical-epistemological systems.”23 Discovering the world through the window, as is clearly the case in Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, is an idealistic affair and postulates the existence of a place out there towards which we are heading and which we discover through intellect or intuition. Yet – and this is the sad part – we can never reach that destination. The epistemology of the mirror, on the other hand, proposes we acknowledge the world to be a form of hypostasis, since the human being, in familiarizing himself with reality, can truly only get to know himself: his reflection in the world; hence the solitude of the human being and the void that surrounds him, about which Baudelaire complains in Flowers of Evil and elsewhere. Thus, what lies inside may encounter what lies outside through a window, a pane of glass, or in the most extreme case, a reflection in a mirror, whose place is nowhere; neither inside, nor outside.

These three modalities of Orpheus’s second gaze, so markedly present in the literature and art of the nineteenth century, will form the subject of this book. ← 7 | 8 →

1 René Descartes, The Passions of the Soul, trans. Stephen Voss (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1989), p. 79.

2 Vergil, Georgics, IV, trans. James Rhoades, in: Georgics and Eclogues, trans. Rhoades and John William MacKail (North Charleston: Mockingbird Classics Publishing, 2014), p. 78.

3 The Minor Poems of Vergil: Comprising the Culex, Dirae, Lydia, Moretum, Copa, Priapeia, and Catalepton, trans. Joseph Mooney (Birmingham: Cornish Brothers, 1916).

4 Virgil, Georgics, p. 78.

5 Virgil, Georgics, p. 77.

6 We should recall that Eurydice died as a result of being bitten by a snake, which happened when she was fleeing Aristaeus, son of Apollo and Cyrene, who was in amorous pursuit of her.

7 Similar doubts are voiced by Eurydice in a slightly different situation in Herbert’s King of the Ants as she asks: “How does one die a second time?” Zbigniew Herbert, King of the Ants: Mythological Essays, trans. John and Bogdana Carpenter (Hopewell: The Ecco Press, 1999), p. 70. In Rilke’s version, the woman, reconciled to her second death, comes “walking back by that same path, / her steps confined by the long grave-cloths, / uncertain, gentle, and without impatience.” Rainer Maria Rilke, “Orpheus. Eurydice, Hermes,” trans. Anthony S. Kline, http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/German/MoreRilke.htm.

8 Robert Graves, Myths of Ancient Greece (London: Cassell, 1960), p. 46. Leszek Kołakowski treats the same subject in a half-humorous, half-tragic fashion in his retelling of the myth of Orpheus, “Apologia of Orpheus. Native of Thrace, a King’s Son, a Singer and Jester,” in the book Talk of the Devil, published in The Devil and Scripture, trans. Celina Wieniewska (Bristol: Oxford University Press, 1973), pp. 102–115.


This book consists of nine chapters devoted to representations of melancholia in 19th-century art and literature. A noteworthy feature of the book is its use of concepts from later works by Sigmund Freud, Jean Clair, Jean Starobinski, Julia Kristeva and others. Those concepts elucidate further contexts of the notion of melancholia, which are presented not in isolation but juxtaposed with the philosophical background of the concept (starting from Hippocrates and Aristotle). Thus, the book not only provides a survey of images and modes of behaviour of 19th-century individuals, but also discusses the meanings of melancholia as they appeared in European culture over time.


VIII, 214
ISBN (Book)
Open Access
Publication date
2018 (October)
Melancholy French culture and literature Romaticism Écriture mélancolique
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2018. VIII, 214 pp.

Biographical notes

Piotr Śniedziewski (Author)

Piotr Śniedziewski is Assistant Professor in the Department of Romanticism of the Polish Studies Institute at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. He has authored Mallarmé – Norwid. Le silence et la modernité poétique en France et en Pologne, published in Poland (2008) and France (2009), Melancholijne spojrzenie (2011) and Elegijna świadomość romantyków (2015). He is Editor-in-Chief of «Poznańskie Studia Polonistyczne. Seria Literacka».


Title: The Melancholic Gaze