The Secret Life of Saturn: Melancholia and the Warburg Institute

P.S. Makhlouf on a classic reissued

Saturn and Melancholy: Studies in the History of Natural Philosophy, Religion, and Art. Raymond Klibansky, Erwin Panosky, and Fritz Saxl. McGill-Queen’s University Press, November 2019. pp.632 $65.00 (hardback)

A pernicious threat looms on the horizon. If, following Marsilio Ficino’s prescriptions, you are sure to arise an hour or two before the first light of dawn, when the air is thinnest, massage your entire body, scalp included, and spend thirty minutes meditating while combing the hair from forehead to neck about forty times, then you may make a valiant effort towards the avoidance of black bile. This ritual might grant a morning of lively thought: chapters read, ideas generated, words on the page.

But warding off an attack of that most malignant of humors—”melancholia”—is a constant struggle in Ficino’s eyes, one recounted in depth in the text that was to be central to the re-emergence of melancholy’s place in the intellectual culture of the modern world: De vita triplici or Three Books on Life. The entire day takes on the guise of a military regime, a clearly demarcated set of strategies for warding off the looming presence of black bile: avoiding eggplant, meat of the hare, solitude, darkness; incorporating clear, light wines, scenic walks, music, coitus. (Others suggest flogging as a remedial tactic.) But the palliatives mitigate at best. For those in its thrall—”melancholics”—there is no ultimate answer, Ficino concludes, other than headlong submission to Saturn: dreary hunchbacked hours spent attempting to exorcise the phantasmatic demons of depression through creative production. Time coagulates; the infinite expanse of empty days does not present the unobstructed path to the Idea, but an arduous trail, uphill both ways.

Those for whom this experience is an all too familiar exertion may count themselves as part of a tradition. This tradition is documented as far back as the earliest pre-Socratic texts, a tradition that counts as its initiates all those pinioned between the proud daring of the mind’s flight and the near irredeemable hubris of its audacity. Those privy to this experience may also now spend the dead patrol of quarantined hours immersed in the new edition of Raymond Klibansky, Erwin Panofksy and Frits Saxl’s epoch-making Saturn and Melancholy: Studies in the History of Natural Philosophy, Religion, and Art, reprinted in an edition that augments the long out-of-print classic.

If melancholia may be “[s]ometimes painful and depressing, sometimes merely mildly pensive or nostalgic,” then this new edition is, in its own right, a melancholic exercise, a wistful homage to the once-world in which the book was produced. It is also melancholic from the perspective of the contemporary reader who is able to fathom the shear catholicity of mind necessary to produce a Meisterwerk of this sort. But it is in fact that very nostalgia that is in question in the book proper, for the study lays out just how persistently the posture of scholar, artist and anchorite alike has been one of despair at the path that separates them from the great transcendence lying on the horizon, whether that goes by the name of God, the eternal intellect or the Mallarmean “Book.” And in this respect, the history of melancholy itself joins up with the story of the long, arduous path by which the book came into being.


The story of melancholia begins circa 400 B.C. with the Greek philosophers usually called “the Presocratics.” Empedocles had already claimed that just as the universe is made from earth, air, water and fire so too was the human body. The relation between the macrocosm of the universe and the microcosm of the human would persist throughout melancholia’s entire tradition but only with Hippocrates at the dawn of medicine do we find the body’s composition broken up into four humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile, the last of which, melaina cholē in Greek, gives us “melancholia.” The principle of harmony which governed the universe and the human body would be one of the principles upon which Greek medicine was based. Upset one and human functioning runs amok. But there is a difference between the preponderance of a humor and disruption. Preponderance would be expressed through various four-fold schemata whether the seasons (beginning with spring and ending with winter) or the cycle of age—”sanguine” youth, “choleric” prime and “melancholic” old age. This overall framework was to persist all the way though to early modern times but would be paired with two epoch-making shifts in the concept of melancholy.

The first comes with “Problem XXX, I” of the pseudo-Aristotelian Problēmata, which Klibansky calls “the most important document for the history of the concept and its later connection to the idea of genius” in his preface to the 1990 German edition, here reproduced in English for the first time.

The general understanding of madness’ association with black bile already existed, and a positive valence lent to it could already be found in Socrates’s claim in the Phaedrus that “in fact we receive the greatest benefits through frenzy” (his frenetic hymn to love in what followed was case in point), but the definitive connection between the medical notion of melancholy and the Platonic frenzy of the lover, poet, and seer would only begin with that thirtieth Problem which opens with the question: “Why is it that all those who have become eminent in philosophy or politics or poetry or the arts are clearly melancholics, and some of them to such an extent as to be affected by diseases caused by black bile?” Whether the text was actually written by Aristotle or not, or rather by one of his students, remains a question, though one which now benefits greatly from the “Addendum” by Georges Leroux published in this new edition, which details not only the existing state of scholarly discussion on this problem but also the degree to which its philological fate has been bound up with Klibansky et al.’s book.

Though numerous distinctions proliferated, the gradation posed in the thirtieth problem between melancholic genius and outright sickness was to be the most important one. Too cold, and black bile produces weak, languid idiots.  Too hot, and nymphomania is the result. Treatments depend on the gradations. While the melancholic is often tortured by sexual life (for black bile produces air and thus an inflation of the genitals), only in some cases does sex provide relief—in other cases it produces suicidal despair. For some, the heat of wine helps provide circulation and thus a quickening of the stagnant black humor, while for others, it only worsens the despondent frenzy.  Ultimately though, there was to be one aspect of this doctrine that was perhaps the most important, and that was the melancholic’s propensity for phantasmata, “mental pictures” or “images” retained in the “pneuma” or “spiritus”, that subtle medium between body and soul that performs the work of the mind. It is for this reason that the melancholic is subject to the most harrowing tribulations of inner life. That Lars von Trier’s “Depression Trilogy” includes the phantasmatic torture of the Antichrist, the Wagnerian longing for the unattainable of Melancholia and the hot frenzy of Nymphomaniac is proof of the coherence and persistence of this doctrine into our culture even until today. And the persistent assault of these phantasms brought about by melancholia would also be why the melancholic is gifted with a prodigious memory and capacity for artistic work and the life of the mind.

From its pinnacle in ancient Greece, the doctrine was then to be transmitted to the Arabic middle ages, through Rufus of Ephesus’s second-century treatise On Melancholy. While extensive and unimpeachable in its own right, with this text something constitutive is lost: that important distinction between acute illness and the ethos of the genius became the distinction between an inborn and an acquired melancholy. However, that distinction was irrelevant because, to the eye of a doctor such as Rufus, both required the same treatment.

The Arab physicians, Avicenna foremost among them, were to persist in this medicalization of melancholy, but they were also to develop it in new directions. The erotic aspects of the disease became crucial, as the Greek doctrine Neoplatonizing theory of divine love was already extant in Arabic culture. The subsequent translation of and commentary on these Arabic texts on melancholy into Latin were absolutely foundational to European culture from the 12th c. on, and one of the few identifiable flaws of the study is its neglect of these texts that focused more on erotic melancholy. One thinks of Constantinus Africanus’s Viaticum and its various commentaries, along with the work of the Montpelier school of medicine. The love poetry of Guido Cavalcanti, Dante and the troubadours would all be read through the lens of the Viaticum textual tradition. And in the century that produced that patron saint of all melancholics, Robert Burton with his Anatomy, one also finds Jacques Ferrand’s monumental 1610 De la maladie d’amour ou melancholie erotique (On the malady of love or erotic melancholia).

While those developments transpired in the Arab world, monks throughout the Latin world were engaged in close combat with the incubus known as the noonday demon: acedia. Acedia is itself caught in the same tense dialectic between torment and transcendence as melancholia, and while typically translated as “sloth” it much more fittingly designates the mind stamped with the ennui that is the mark of the loftiness of its aims. The medieval iconology of acedia was to persist and later join up with that of melancholia. The iconology of the god and planet Kronos/Saturn would also join up with that of melancholia and it is to that convergence that Part II of the study is devoted.

As centuries of astrological thought passed from Babylon to Greece, from Greece to Rome, onwards to the Arabs, a gradual “humanization” process occurs in which the characteristics of the star deities are referred directly to man’s characteristics. Thus Kronos-Saturn, sad, old and malicious, came to be related to the corresponding human type: the melancholic. Eventually, the figure of the deep thinker was paired with Saturn’s supposedly contemplative nature. With the advent of Neoplatonism, “the most profound analogy between Saturn and melancholy was founded,” namely, that Saturn is responsible not for either good traits of the illustrious intellect or the bad traits of dullness and depression but both. This process in which two seemingly opposed concepts are held together in tandem results in a “polarity,” a notion pioneered by Aby Warburg, the common forefather of Klibansky, Panofsky and Saxl, and the founder of the Library (later Institute) where this work would be carried out, as we shall see shortly.

This “polarity” in the representation of both Saturn and melancholy was to reach its pinnacle in the work of Marsilio Ficino during the Italian Renaissance. But the “renaissance” of this notion was just that: a rebirth in which Ficino’s transformation and development of the link between melancholy and genius worked by a retroactive evocation of the polarity already present in the ur-text of Problema XXX, I. This notion of a cultural continuity via displacement was also an eminently Warburgian modality and held true to the way in which Warburg held the process of cultural transmission to function through the persistent Nachleben or “afterlife” of pagan antiquity.

It is to Ficino, himself born under the sign of Saturn, to whom we owe most of all the valorization of melancholy as a “unique and divine gift.” There is a sort of elective affinity that results, according to Ficino, for just as the children of Saturn are more disposed to intellectual work so are those most intensely engaged with the deepest and loftiest forms of contemplation drawn into Saturn’s sphere of influence. It is against this backdrop of Ficino’s work that the center piece, which began the authors’ entire investigation, unfolds: Dürer’s famous Melencolia I [sic] print.

What separates this engraving from all those before it is the manner in which it represents all of melancholia’s various facets through a concrete allegorization, contradictory as that may sound. It is ultimately the greatest illustration of Ficino’s doctrine that man’s desperate struggle with the dark forces of Saturn must culminate not in a flight from but a leaning into Saturn’s influence. For to dwell fully under the stigma that lacerates the mind of the genius is also to take up the tools of artistic and philosophical creation with which the melancholic is gifted. On this basis, the authors set to work explicating each detail of the picture: the hand upon which the head rests is an eager but empty fist, unable to grasp the imaginings that plague the mind and the various tools of geometry strewn about are the weapons with which the artist fights to give body to the phantom image.

And yet, in a reading that has not gone unchallenged in the intervening years, those scattered tools are taken to be the emblems of a geometric craft unable to give shape to the full breadth of the melancholic’s imagination. Because the mind’s imaginative and mathematical faculties suffer from a spatial confinement, they foreclose upon the artist’s ability to extend his or her representations into the sphere of the metaphysical, into a beyond-this-worldly space. It seems to me then that to read only one side of the equation is to miss yet another central polarity: the fact that representation at once draws one near and denies access to the celestial. The Italian Renaissance’s great development, then taken up by Dürer in the North, of making the craft of the geometer and the artist handmaidens of the same goal, to achieve a measured representation, thus also forced upon it a limitation.

This uncertainty can be seen in the various interpretations. While the book has it as a fundamental limitation, Warburg offers a salvific account of the engraving in his famous study of pagan-antique prophecy in the age of Luther, reading Dürer’s image as a  “consoling humanistic message of liberation from the fear of Saturn.” The book is many respects engaged in an explicit dialogue with Warburg’s essay. Whom then to believe? It seems to me that one should qualify Warburg’s own statement with another statement that he makes in a fragment of the projected introduction for his Bilderatlas Mnemosyne, the project that occupied the last years of his life. There, he writes that an in-between-space (Zwischenraum) between the artist and the world permits the room necessary for thought and artistic creation (Denkraum). This space separates the two poles of the artistic polarity between, in Warburg’s words, “an anti-chaotic function” and “an abandon to the idol created.” Put clearly, what Warburg expresses here is the fact that insofar as the artist must both draw near and keep a distance from the overwhelming force of his or her impressions, the image created is necessarily ambivalent, polarized, both aiming towards while shying away from the grand vision of redemption that both promises to save and threatens to overwhelm or prove unattainable.

What is certain however is that what is novel in both Ficino and Dürer is that it is this creation, and not the numerous palliatives—both natural and supernatural—for black bile, which the melancholic must seek. Klibansky, in the new preface, notes that part of the afterlife of this all-encompassing notion of “melancholia” must include the various distinctions which physicians have created for distinct types or gradations of depression. And while there is an undeniable continuity between melancholia and our contemporary concept of “depression”—reflected upon elsewhere by Julia Kristeva—that resistance to the pharmacopoeial solution has certainly disappeared. The treatment of depression is now deeply imbricated with what one American psychiatrist called “cosmetic pharmacology,” that is, the bouquet of drugs concocted so as to return people to the professional productivity and social normalcy upon which capitalist modernity depends (the drugs are at times mandated by corporations for certain employees). While melancholia persists, Ficino and Dürer’s calls to abstinence from ready-to-hand balms and recourse to unproductive production could not be farther from our conception of how things stand today.


How the book we now hold came to be in the form in which we have it follows a trajectory as meandering and manifold as the trajectory of melancholy itself through the classical, medieval and Renaissance worlds of commentary, appropriation and revision. In writing the new afterword in which this tale is told, Phillipe Despoix draws upon a decade-long engagement with the Warburg network and Klibansky’s role in it, which he and others have taken up in a series of conferences as well as a 2018 publication (Raymond Klibansky and the Warburg Library Network), much of which is devoted to telling the history and afterlife of the book, which can safely be said to be a century in the making.

The “long and complex history of [this] Warburgian publication project” (449) really begins in 1903 with a multi-part essay written by German art historian Karl Giehlow, who was the first to explore the relation between “Melencolia I,” Maximilian’s humanist circle, and Ficino’s Neoplatonic conception of melancholia. His book-length study on the matter lay uncompleted at his death, and his friend Aby Warburg, who held his work in high esteem, began to try and complete it, traces of which remain in the already mentioned work on the afterlife of ancient astrological representations. But falling ill after the war, Warburg was prevented from completing the proposed book project, and it was at that point that Panofsky and Saxl took the reins. When the proofs of Giehlow’s book were accidentally shredded in Vienna, simply “due to the breakup of the Habsburg empire,” their book on Dürer, which was to be Volume II to Giehlow’s volume I, was then published independently in 1923 as Dürer’s ‘Melancolia. I’. Eine quellen- und typengeschichtliche Untersuchung” (A historical study of sources and types), which Warburg called “simply astonishing” (einfach staunenswert).

But a then-21-year-old Raymond Klibansky, who had already attracted the attention of Warburg and had already published with Ernst Cassirer, was also already audacious enough to write the two saying that, while impressive, their worked lacked the necessary exposition of ancient and medical accounts of melancholia. Agreeing with him, they all began working together, but the addition of a third now meant there were too many hot-humored cooks in the kitchen and a disagreement over the title that was, actually, a methodological disagreement broke out. Working through the thirties on revisions and expansions of the book, they realized that the scope was far too broad to remain focused on Dürer, but their new project had to face the disruption of no less than the rise of Nazism in Germany and the subsequent transfer of the Warburg Library to its current home in London. Finally completed in 1939, the book’s standing type was—like Giehlow’s—subsequently destroyed due to the war and the choice was made to publish an English translation of the German proofs. Saxl’s death in 1948 delayed that once again, and Klibansky continued to work on and edit the book until its eventual publication in English in 1964. Such stories were certainly not uncommon for the German scholars fleeing the bedlam produced by fascism.

Since then, updates to the book have included an augmented 1989 French edition and a 1990 German edition, the latter being the form in which the book comes to us now, with Klibansky’s preface, a new Appendix on Cranach, additional notes and bibliography, and glossy new plates. The manifold citations in the original language strewn throughout the text are now marked with a manicule that direct the reader to their translation at the back of the volume. The untranslated blocks of Latin, Greek and Flemish (among other languages) strewn throughout the original edition are testament to a seemingly bygone era of prodigious learning, of scholars trained in the very best traditions of the German academy, who seemed to read the Patrologia latina over their morning Brötchen. The dissemination of these scholars-become-émigrés throughout Canada, England, and the U.S., to mention just the fates of Klibansky, Saxl and Panofsky respectively, would give birth to some of the more fruitful continuations of the traditions of scholarship begun at Warburg’s library in Hamburg.

Whatever the fate of the tradition of scholarship from which it emerged, the book has a Nachleben of its own. The writings of Frances Yates, Giorgio Agamben, and Rudolf and Margaret Wittkower, to name but a few whose work took place at the Institute itself, count Saturn and Melancholy as a crucial intertext, and the magisterial work on melancholy that was carried out by Jean Starobinski from the fifties on is unthinkable without this book. The 1990 German edition appeared in the midst of intensified interest in Walter Benjamin’s Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels (The Origin of German Tragic Drama), that had grown through the eighties, given that Benjamin invoked Giehlow, Saxl, Panofsky and Warburg, one and all, in his own discussion of melancholy. It would also be the melancholic Benjamin, whose head rests Dürer-like in his hand in the Gisèle Freund portrait of him, who was to provide inspiration for Susan Sontag’s own collection Under the Sign of Saturn.

But the book was also caught up in transmission of a different kind. As can be seen in their disagreements over the title and wariness as to whether to publish the book at all as it sat in proof-form, the underlying debate was about their significantly divergent understandings of what iconological analysis, as pioneered by Warburg, even was in the first place. The tumults were inevitable given that Warburg’s work was certainly singular and exemplary but whether it could constitute a method or, what’s more, a replicable method that could be taught to and practiced by others, is a question, in part misguided; in part, even if valid, unlikely ever to be answered. But the reference to the book as a sort of metonymy for the work of the Warburg Institute itself extends beyond the fact that the three authors were three of its most prominent members. Rather, as Warburg’s early involvement (and perpetual return) to Dürer’s print and its intellectual backdrop shows, the method and material in tandem touched upon some of the ideas most central to him and his legacy in and beyond the library, from the afterlife of classical antiquity to man’s relation to the cosmos mediated through astrology to, most importantly of all, the technē of the artist allowing for the genius’s salvation in his confrontation with the saturnine powers. Leaving aside the vexed terrain of Warburgian “method,” no one would contest that the book amounts to one of the greatest works to emerge in the Warburgian tradition, as the magnanimous Robert Klein reminds us on the inside flap (a citation from his important 1964 review of the book in Mercure de France).

With epigrammatic fervor, T.S. Eliot once defined a “living tradition” as “the good New growing naturally out of the good Old.” Noble as the sentiment is, one of the most important lessons to have emerged from the Warburg Institute’s work over the years is the degree to which the amorphous mass of ideas and sentiments that we call a “tradition” are dependent on the physical transmission of texts. There is no cultural tradition without copies, reprints, ultimately, the availability of sources. We now have this first-rate new edition to thank for the promise that work of this kind may continue into the future, under the sign of Saturn.

P.S. Makhlouf is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Comparative Literature at Princeton University. He is currently working on a projecting tracing the Nachleben of melancholia as nostalgia from the 17th c. onward.