Semper Dolens

Old music sometimes barely survives the (spectral) reticulation culture exposes it to. John Dowland’s ‘exquisitely dolorous’ lute songs and consort music — absolutely of their time in an Elizabethan/Jacobean England where thoughtful, ponderous melancholia furnished many young men with the weeping flowers of their trade — can’t help but sound for us through many post-factum resonances: romantic transcendence, the existential sublime, folk balladry, even expressionism (in the darkening chromatics of his accompaniments). The Dowland of ‘Sorrow Stay’ and ‘Time Stands Still’ can’t help but foreshadow the wanderer of Schubert, or the sorrowful poet of Schumann.

Yet a more contemporary resonance comes to mind. Mark Fisher has written recently, with reference to Dominic Fox’s Cold World, of militant dysphoria (a productive, finally outwardly-directed despair that searches for the architecture of new Symbolic narratives). Fisher associates the condition with Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, contrasting what he understands as Curtis’ melancholia, a certainty in self-despair that is yet host to ex officio creativity, with the neuroticism of another English singer, Morrissey, which he sees as ultimately camp, a form of glum play-acting, heavily coloured by performativity and PoMo self-consciousness. Morrissey constantly appeals to outside agencies, always unsure of his own status, always looking for affirmation in his abyss (‘I am human and I need to be loved’).

The figure and music of Dowland unites these two conditions. Existentially, if one can indeed separate out this element in the work, Dowland appears shut off, resolute, frozen in his certainty (to paraphrase Fisher again). Hence, ‘In Darkness Let Me Dwell, the ground shall sorrow be…hellish jarring sounds, to banish friendly sleep. Thus wedded to my woes, and bedded to my tomb, O, let me, living, living, die, till death do come’. More: ‘Flow my tears, fall from your springs, Exil’d for ever let me mourn; Where night’s black bird her sad infamy sings, There let me live forlorn’. Despairing as these words may seem, it is hard to miss the second-person voice, the dialogic aspect of the rhetoric; ‘Let me, let me, let me’. The music, too, once taken into account, adds a sheen of commentary, adds a sometimes fey, sometimes oppressing function, that makes the competing themes of self-pity (neurotic) and despair (melancholic) slip even further into each other. The performative aspect of the work, although discretely unknowable, is transliterated in our time to a sort of metatheatre of immanent anxiety. The dissolving surface of time glasses each new melancholy with versions of its past.

Elizabethan melancholy turns out to be duplicitous; the codes of its formal schema contain a prolepsis of our modern dysphoria, yet its performing tradition (praxis), its rhetorical ambiguity, its musical semiotics, and its liminality stretching forward and back in time — unstuck in time so full of germs does it seem — all signify the neuroses Fisher identifies in Morrissey.

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