Melancholy, Angst and Music

I, like many others, am very attracted to angst ridden, melancholic music. But what is it that draws me and others to this kind of music? It would seem that this music would be unattractive as it seems to glorify suffering, loss and pain, and it seems bizarre that a seemingly normal person would be drawn to an art form that is devoted to displays of misery. Furthermore, why would anybody want to listen to such a form of music, as how could such an art form be anything but depressing? In answer to the preceding questions I can think of two sources of the attraction that many have to melancholic, angst ridden music. For the sake of brevity I will refer to music that is either angst ridden, melancholic or depressive as “dark music”. The first source is the more obvious fact that dark music can help people who are dealing with certain feelings to recognize that they are not alone in having these feelings, and in so doing help them to deal with those emotions. The less obvious source of the attraction of dark music is the sense that dark music discloses a significant truth about human life that is ignored by society and most other forms of art. It should be noted that I am not arguing that these are the only two sources of the attraction of dark music; rather the argument is being made that these sources contribute to our attraction to dark music.

When a person is melancholic or angst ridden their melancholy or angst is not some additional feeling added on top of their regular feelings and way of operating in the world. Rather, both angst and melancholy shift our entire way of seeing the world. For example, angst makes us see life and the world as void of meaning. For the angst ridden nothing seems worth doing, but when angst ridden people are confronted by music that objectifies their angst this has the therapeutic quality of making that angst ridden person realize that there are others who see the difficulty of seeing anything as worth doing, and this can help people deal with their angst. Recognizing that others deal with angst shows us that there is nothing peculiar about feeling this way, and thus allows us to recognize that angst is a typical human feeling, and one that we need to deal with. Similarly, in the case of melancholy, any person who has been mourning a loss and then listens to a captivating song that represents this loss in an interesting way will know that through listening to this piece of music one will feel that one’s melancholia has been alleviated to some extent, such that it is easier to continue living one’s life. Consequently, it seems that the first source of the attraction of dark music lies in its ability to perform the therapeutic function of helping us to deal with our angst, melancholia or depression. In a way, this is simply a restatement of conventional wisdom, but that fact should not prevent us from recognizing it as a source, as it seems to fit with our experience.

The second source is not recognized as commonly as the first. This source is the fact that dark music reveals some truth that most of art and most of society does not want to speak about or acknowledge. There are many unpleasant truths that are revealed through dark music. They range from the truth that the only thing we can be certain of is death and that we are born and die alone, to the less melodramatic idea that the cosmos is utterly meaningless. Whether these “truths” are actually true is an open question, but for many who are attracted to dark music, one of its most attractive qualities is that it confronts these truths head on rather than trying to avoid speaking about them. Put slightly differently, dark music does not try to comfort its audience by telling them pleasant stories about life, rather it says to them “as much as you do not want to hear this, life is miserable in many regards.” Music with this sort of meaning is attractive because it is not deceptive; instead, it is deeply authentic as it will not shy away from saying things that are horrifying, unsettling or upsetting. People are attracted to this authenticity as it means that the music that they listen to is more than a commodity, because even though the music is a commodity it is also something more in that it speaks honestly about the world.

There are surely other sources of the attraction that many have to dark music, but the two sources elucidated above surely help explain why so many seemingly normal people find themselves drawn to music that seems committed to glorifying loss, misery, pain and dread.

Loneliness in Post-Industrial Society

It is quite common to hear that there is an epidemic of loneliness within post-industrial societies. Yet, this seems odd as inhabitants of post-industrial societies seem to have a great deal of contact with others. However, on reflection this is not odd, because loneliness is a form of alienation that results from an unsatisfied general human desire, and a large amount and variety of social contact does not satiate this desire. Furthermore, while loneliness may be a problem for post-industrial societies, it is unclear if it has been a problem for other societies, such that loneliness may be a part of the human condition, rather than a historical contingency.

Post-industrial societies are overwhelmingly urban and thus it seems odd that people would be lonely as inhabitants of these societies typically are surrounded by other people. Unlike the subsistence farmer who would often only have contact with his family, the typical city dweller within a post-industrial society will have contact with neighbours, clients, colleagues, vendors, family, and friends on a regular basis. Furthermore, the development of technologies has made it far easier to contact others. The fact that nearly everyone has a cell phone and is on social media means that we can easily stay in contact with other people even if they live on the other side of the world. So, it seems that our loneliness is not an effect of not being in contact with others or not being able to easily contact others, as post-industrial societies far surpass other societies both in terms of the amount of contact that people have with one another, and the ease with which we can contact one another.

Loneliness is a species of alienation. The lonely, like the alienated, feel displaced; the particular variety of alienation that the lonely person encounters is that they feel isolated from those they should be connected with. This does not mean that the lonely know who in particular they should be connected with, but rather that they have a sense that they are not connected to the right people or connected to people in a proper way. What lies behind loneliness is a general human desire to connect with something beyond oneself in a substantial, meaningful way. This is not a desire for any particular social relationship, but rather to be engaged with something other than ourselves in a substantial way. This is why a vast network of social contact does not protect against loneliness, as the desire to connect meaningfully with something beyond oneself is not satiated by the fact that one has a large amount of social contact. Some might question the existence of such a desire, but if the desire did not exist then the sense of loneliness we feel would likely be nonexistent, but yet we feel or typically know someone who feels this sense of loneliness. Furthermore, it seems plausible to construe this desire as a general feature of humanity rather than something particular to post-industrial society, as many cultures that have developed independently seem to speak to the presence of this desire. The notion of connecting meaningfully with something beyond oneself is vague, but it is purposefully so, as this desire is meant to cover both our desire to develop friendships and find romantic love, as well as our desire to connect with something like God. I construed the desire in this way as I think loneliness can result both because of a sense of disconnection from God, and from a sense of lack of meaningful connections with other people. The believer who feels disconnected from God would surely feel lonely, as they have found themselves in a situation where they are disconnected from a being that deeply matters in their life.

I have assumed throughout this entry that loneliness is a problem for post-industrial societies and I have no intention of arguing against this thesis, as it fits with my own anecdotal experience, although I recognize that this thesis may be discredit by empirical evidence. But simply saying that loneliness is a problem for post-industrial society raises the question of whether loneliness has been a problem for other societies. The answer to this question is not something that I can answer as I do not have the historical knowledge to speak to it conclusively, but we do have reasons to think that loneliness was a problem in other societies. In the Symposium Plato has Aristophanes say that erotic desire is rooted in the general human desire to find the other half of their true nature, and this is surely related to the desire that underlies loneliness that has been elucidated above. There are surely other examples like this, so while loneliness may be a problem for post-industrial societies this may also have been an issue within other societies as well. So, in the case that it turns out that loneliness is a problem for other societies we may need to accept that loneliness is a central aspect of the human condition, rather than a historical contingency.