In Albrecht Dürer's engraving "Melencolia I," executed in 1514, Melancholy sits staring into space, her head leaning on her left fist, her left elbow resting on her knee. Her right hand, lying in her lap, holds a pair of compasses. Her face is dark, in shadow, the whites of her eyes showing starkly. About her head is a laurel wreath, so she is not sad, as the observer might believe; rather, she is lost in thought — a poet, perhaps. She appears to be blonde. At her left shoulder a bird with a long tail is perched.
Her gown is long — only her bare toes show beneath it. At her feet there is a plane, a rule, some nails and other tools of the artisan, cast aside. A large white ball is before her on the floor as well, perhaps a crystal ball, and a censer — or is it an ink pot? Between it and her right leg a starved hound is curled up: it is the emblem of the physical body for the moment forgotten. Behind the dog there is a large polyhedron, and behind that a ladder stretching up a column and out of sight overhead. It is the ladder of Jacob, the ladder of aspiration. On the column there is a set of scales hanging, an hourglass, and a bell suspended over a square on which are graven numerals and cabalistic symbols.
In the background there is a body of water, parts of a coastline, and on the horizon, shining out of a black sky, a sunburst beneath a rainbow. The only other figure of significance in the engraving is a cherub sitting on what looks like a smooth stone with a round hole struck through it.
In the early 1960s I was teaching at Fenn College, at that time a private, downtown engineering school located in Cleveland, Ohio; it has since become Cleveland State University. The instructorship in English was my first job after finishing graduate coursework in the Writer's Workshop of the University of Iowa, and it was at Fenn where I first met a colleague in my department whom people called "The Cherub," because of his surname, Cherubini, which in Italian means “cherubs.” He was anything but. Tall and thin, with a saturnine face, he was clearly a votary of Melancholy. He became my familiar.
People assume, perhaps, that melancholy is the state of the depressive personality, and to a degree this is true, but it's also the state of creation. In the Dürer print Melancholy is in what used to be called "a brown study." Her trance is caused, not by dejection, but by contemplation, the condition of the artist or philosopher. Her eyes are focused not outward, but into herself where she sees the condition of mankind, of the world lost in the vacant regions of the universe.
As the occult philosopher Agrippa saw it, the humor melancholicus, when it takes possession of a soul, creates the furor poeticus which leads to revelation and wisdom, in particular when the influence of Saturn combines with it. The melancholy humor attracts demons that enable the possessed person to prophesy or create. The force of melancholy takes three forms. When it is concentrated in the imagination, its possessor will be a poet; when it is epitomized in the reason, he or she will be a philosopher; in the intellect, a prophet.
Artists of all kinds are generally what we call today bipolar or "manic depressives," but those terms ought to be reversed, for the "depression" or melancholy comes first — the inward gazing, the contemplation. Then the physical act of creation takes over, and the artist puts visions on canvas or paper, or works it in stone or some other substance; hence, the tools lying unused, for the moment, at Melancholy's feet.
I've been contem-plating The Cherub for many years now, and I feel the time has come to put him into words, yet I still don't know at this moment exactly what it is I have to say about him, nor why he has for so long inhabited my imagination, for he wasn't a major portion of my life in those old days, yet he is today much more vivid to me than most of my other colleagues at Fenn.
The Cherub had a particularly trenchant way of putting things into words himself, but when I quote him to myself I realize that it was not so much his words as the manner in which he delivered them that made them memorable. For instance, one day we were talking about someone we both knew who was in the hospital, as I recall (probably our department chairman, Randolph Randall), and I was venting the standard platitudes. The Cherub hovered over me and said, "Life gets us all." He didn't smile, but the phrase stuck vividly in my head all day, and I had the distinct impression that he took pleasure in the thought. On another occasion he told me that his wife, whom I do not recall ever having met, had recently had to have a hysterectomy. Again I commiserated. He merely shrugged and said, "They leave everything that's interesting."
I believe The Cherub wanted to be a poet himself, a condition that all my life I'd known was to be mine. He had half of what he needed, the contemplative half, but he lacked the physical portion, the ability to sit down and put the words on paper. I think I must have fascinated him as much as he did me. He was for me a mirror.
Looking at him, I could see one part, the foreview, of Melancholy. He could see me in the round, both front and back, as though I were a hologram. I could walk forward and touch the surface of the mirror, and it would be solid, if flat, but when he walked around me and reached out to touch my three-dimensional image suspended in the air, his hand went through it. He couldn't grasp it. All he could do was apprehend it with his eyes. The creative act was insubstantial for him.
Perhaps what he lacked was a sense of humor, though he certainly didn't lack a sense of the cynical. There was a story about him among the faculty that was hilarious. It was not apocryphal, however, as one day I dared to ask him whether it were true. It pained him to admit it, but he couldn't lie, for the cynic must see and say things as they are, unvarnished by romance or any other ameliorating quality.
Fenn College was essentially three buildings — a skyscraper, a smaller building beside it on Euclid Avenue, and a block-long building across 24th Street. Beside Fenn Tower there was a parking lot facing the long building — formerly an automobile showroom — where most of the classes were held. The Cherub, like all of us except the few students who lived in the tower dorm rooms, would drive to school in the morning, park, walk through the lot, cross the street and go to his first class. One particular morning he got out of his car and went to class as usual.
The Cherub had a routine he followed in class. When he got into the room he would take the chair out from behind the desk, place it to one side, sit down, cross his legs, and teeter back precariously. He would begin to teach, and as he did so he would wiggle the toe of the leg that crossed. As he sat there lecturing on this notable occasion uneasiness began to manifest itself in the room. The Cherub noticed students' faces turning red with suppressed laughter, or going white with shock. Titters rippled through his audience, and then guffaws.
"All right," he said, "what's going on?" No one answered, but the disturbance continued. "Then we'll sit here until someone tells me what the joke is." A truly painful silence ensued, but The Cherub had decided to see it through, and the atmosphere became tenser and denser as people tried without success to smother their laughter. Finally, one person could take it no longer. He got up, walked to the front of the room, and bent down to whisper in The Cherub's ear, "Professor, there's a condom stuck to your toe."
The Cherub's foot stopped twitching. He looked down. The class erupted. Suddenly, he got up and raced from the room, the condom slapping the floor with each step, leaving the uproar seething behind him. He didn't return to class that day.
At the next session he came in through the door grimly, stood behind the desk, and said, "The first person who refers to the situation the other day in any way will be ejected from this class with a grade of F." He sat down and began to teach. The incident entered into the mythology of the school.
I was younger than most beginning instructors because, having finished the course work for my M. A., I had decided not to work toward a Ph.D. At my interview I had told 'Dolph, the chairman who was considering hiring me, that I was a publishing writer and that I wanted to do my own work rather than some academic advisor's pet graduate project. I had thought that this would lose me the job, but I didn't at the time realize that 'Dolph had himself taken thirty years to get his doctorate and was a missionary in the Great Cause of Postgraduate Education. He evidently thought he saw in me someone whom he could eventually persuade to do the right thing, at least to make a start. 'Dolph gave me the job, and when I arrived on campus I found that the department was half full of people who had been "working on" their terminal degrees for considerable lengths of time. "In my case it would truly be terminal," I told The Cherub.
"He wants to save your soul," he replied. "He won't be satisfied unless he does." It was a true prophecy.
I hated teaching the "socially conscious" novels we had to read in the third quarter of freshman composition: McTeague, Bleak House, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Maggie, a Girl of the Streets. I had nothing against social consciousness, for I was reading James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time to my classes as it was being serialized in The New Yorker. I simply felt we ought to be engaging students with material that they recognized as applying to their lives and times, not The Great Depression of their parents. The novels had been chosen by 'Dolph himself, without consultation with his faculty upon whom he looked as "sons" — I suppose there must have been a woman or two on the staff, but I don't recall any. I wasn't alone in my loathing of these works by Lewis, Dreiser, Hardy and Dickens, but I was the only one who dared to speak up about it.
The second year I taught at Fenn 'Dolph had some sort of stroke and was hospitalized for nearly the entire year. The Department got together while he was gone and reorganized the composition course. The bad novels were out. When 'Dolph returned the third year, the books were back in. He couldn't believe that his little family of scholar-sons would do something like this to him, so, irrationally, he blamed me for it. He never accused me in so many words; therefore, I couldn't explain to him that I wasn't a majority of the department in and of myself and could not have voted the old curriculum out unilaterally.
I found out in mid-year that ‘Dolph had decided to let me go. I had been slow to realize what was in his mind. The school had a rule that an instructor had, at the end of the fourth year, to be promoted to assistant professor or be let go. There were no rules about one's having to work on a doctorate in order to be promoted, but there was a section that said one could be let go for "lack of professional development." I felt that this could not be invoked against me because I had finished work on my M. A. at Iowa, and I had been successful in publishing a book and a prize-winning chapbook of poems, not to mention many poems, stories, reviews and essays in journals. I had garnered a Bread Loaf poetry fellowship and, while my chairman was in the hospital, I had founded the Poetry Center, an institution that would eventually celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary in 1986, the first time I would return to Cleveland.
Yet 'Dolph did invoke the rule when I asked him at mid-year what he was going to do, as I had to make plans for the following year if I were not going to be retained. His decision raised a furor among my colleagues and the students. My office mate that same year had washed out of his Ph.D. program for the second and final time, but at least he had tried, so the chairman retained him.
The students wanted to stage a protest in my behalf, but I talked them out of it. "I don't want to stay here if they don't want a writer," I told them, "and a protest would only make it harder for me to find another job." Still, they wanted to do something, especially Russell Salamon, the student editor of the undergraduate magazine, of which I was faculty advisor. The Cherub hovered over my shoulder during the hubbub, clearly sorry to be losing his hologram of Melancholy, but perhaps enjoying the spectacle of my fall from grace.
As events unfolded themselves, the furor poeticus asserted itself in me, and I wrote two poems. One of them was titled "Scarecrow," a satire against 'Dolph who was seen in the poem as a stick figure lording it over a field full of pumpkins, my colleagues in the English Department. The other poem, "Pocoangelini 15," was specifically about my fellow faculty in the College who were symbolized collectively as a rabbit in a desert full of desks into which surrealistically the rabbit begins to be pressed by the blackboard. The rabbit, his hide and ears caught in the cactus plants of the desert — the students, starts to fall apart. His brain is exposed as a system of "wheels, tappets and cogs, catches." His skin cracks, and out of his split paunch "a cloud of beautiful moths blooms and / dies in the desert air, like dry fire / among the desks."
Russ Salamon saw both poems one day lying on my desk. I was busy with another student, so he read them while he sat waiting to speak with me. When I turned to him he said, "May I use these in the next issue of the magazine?" I was reluctant to agree, but he was importunate, so I at last consented to compromise by letting him publish the diatribe against the faculty, but not the one against 'Dolph.
On the day that the magazine was ready at the printer's I was sitting in my office. Russ came in and said, "I have the magazines."
"Okay," I said, "give me a stack and hand out the rest." He left, and I sat back to look over the issue. Russell went across the street to distribute the magazines in the lobby in front of the large room that was the large snack bar.
It was at the moment he set up shop that an ambulance pulled to a stop in front of the skyscraper. The medics took an elevator up to my chairman's office and removed him on a stretcher — it appeared that he had had another stroke. Later that day I went to the snack bar for lunch where I sat at a table with The Cherub, and it was there that I found out what had happened, as the incident was the talk of the school. Everyone also had a copy of the magazine and had been reading it.
As we were sitting discussing both the chairman's stroke and the magazine Joe Ink, a member of the history faculty (his specialty was the history of India, so of course everybody called him “India Ink”) walked by with a tray of food. "Congratulations," he said. "You got him."
"I got him?" I asked. "Who?"
"Oh, don't give me that," he said, "I read the poem about 'Dolph."
"You mean the poem in the magazine?"
"That's not about 'Dolph, it's about all of you rabbits," I said, for the local A. A. U. P. chapter had conducted an investigation and issued a report in triplicate saying that I ought to have been renewed; one copy had gone to me, one to 'Dolph, and the third had gone into the A. A. U. P. files. No one else ever saw it.
"Oh, sure, sure," he said. "But he's in the hospital, isn't he?" He turned and began walking away.
Furious, I shouted after him, "I thought historians were supposed to deal in facts!"
I faced back to The Cherub. "What in the hell is he talking about?"
"He thinks your poem caused 'Dolph's stroke."
"'Dolph never even saw the poem!"
The Cherub looked at me, shrugged his shoulders, and leered like a satyr. He said nothing. The import of the situation began to blossom in me like a spray of belladonna. I stared back. "But that's witchcraft," I said. "He's accusing me of witchcraft!" The Cherub merely continued to smile at me, his teeth beginning to show and his eyes to darken. His black hair fell forward over his brow.
And that was when I understood that we haven't changed. It's still the Middle Ages, even — perhaps especially — in academe. Science hasn't ousted magic from the throne of Melancholy, and the poet is still the priest who knows the secret Names of things, the formulae that will invoke the powers of darkness, even when he doesn't know he's doing it, apparently, even when he believes he's doing something else. Auden's remark that "Poetry makes nothing happen" is merely lipservice to reason.
If The Cherub had no sense of humor, the Fates do, or perhaps it's the God of Melancholy, a being whom I imagine squats over the world passing winds for us to breathe and chortling uproariously at our discomfiture, for during the next few days, after batteries of tests at the hospital, nothing wrong could be found with 'Dolph. He hadn't suffered a stroke. No one could figure out what, if anything, was the matter with him.
I left Fenn not long afterward to take another position at Hillsdale College, deeper in the Middle West, at what I hoped would be a better school but was not. It was there that I discovered that the poet is supposed to be not merely a warlock but a rallying point for revolution as well — but that's another story, though it has its features in common with 'Dolph's belief that it was I who had led the forces of evil against socially-conscious freshman composition. The Cherub would have loved it had he followed me which, in a way, he may have done, for I wrote an epistolary memoir of the events of the ensuing year, "The Hillsdale Epistles," that I sent to another colleague in the Fenn English department, Arnold Tew, and he may have shared them with The Cherub. Although I used real names and dates in the essay, and all events were factual, it read so much like fiction that, after it was published in The Carleton Miscellany in 1966, it was cited as one of the “Distinctive Short Stories” of the year in Best American Short Stories.
The thing I took with me most substantially was the look The Cherub gave me that day. I began to imagine then that I too, like Melancholy, had a gargoyle-faced bird perched on my shoulder. I think of the bird as my personal muse, whom I have named Jascha, whose feathers I stroke before the act of creation, for who am I to fight the irrational beliefs of the ages, the myths, the folkways and the traditions? I'm not really fool enough to believe in them — no more than Joe Ink was, or you are, dear reader.
From The Edge City Review, No. 17, Vol. 6, No. 1 (9/02), pp. 3-6, and reprinted in A Sheaf of Leaves: Literary Memoirs, Scottsdale AZ: Star Cloud Press.com, copyright © Lewis Turco 2004, all rights reserved.
A related book is The Compleat Melancholick:Poems, published by The Bieler Press in 1985 in two editions: a signed, limited, handbound cloth first edition and a quality paperback edition, both still in print. The sequence of poems has been gathered in a slightly expanded form in Fearful Pleasures: The Complete Poems, Star Cloud Press, copyright © Lewis Turco 2007.