‘Symbols do one good’ (Aby Warburg).

The new edition of Klibansky, Panofsky and Saxl’s masterpiece Saturn and Melancholy has led me to reflect on its role as a symbol for our research.[1]  

saturn and melancholyIt’s not unreasonable to say that the book was unprecedented in scope and ambition.  As perhaps the definitive illustration of the methods encouraged by Aby Warburg and his colleagues, it brings extraordinary erudition to bear on the intellectual antecedents of Dürer’s famous 1514 engraving, showing how it reflects and departs from what was already a 2000 year old tradition of thinking about the humours, and the relationship between creativity and despair.  It represents both the continuity of tradition and the transformation of ideas, even as it redefined how to do research.

Given Warburg’s own depression, melancholy was an appropriate topic.  It was also his meticulously developed collection which furnished some of the core research material.[2]  The classical tradition, as presented through the Library’s unusual organization into the categories of Image, Word, Orientation and Action, is understood as a pattern of thinking.

Warburg libraryAs the Library’s mission proclaims, the Warburg Institute furthers the study of the tenacity of symbols and images in European art and architecture; the persistence of motifs and forms in Western languages and literatures; the relationship, in Western thought, between magical beliefs and religion, science and philosophy; and the survival and transformation of ancient patterns in social customs and political institutions.  Sure enough, in Saturn and Melancholy, we follow melancholy through its medical analysis, and its association with Saturn, from Aristotelian notions of the melancholic genius to poetry, finally to arrive at Dürer’s heroic picture, which does not represent the abstract state, but the person sunk in the contradictions of melancholy – what it feels like to meet the limits of creation.


This is a very particular kind of scholarship.  The book was decades in the making, interrupted by war and exile.  It is ferociously learned, and although it touches on folklore, it has little to say about ordinary life.  It approaches the troubling issue of mental disturbance through the mechanisms of learned diagnosis and from the angle of heroic creativity, through the history of science and the doctrines of religion, through ancient astrophysics to modern poetry.  It is a dizzying dissolution of disciplinary boundaries, and in this way is a parallel to Robert Burton’s 17th century Anatomy of Melancholy, itself the product of a melancholy genius, which spares us no detail in his lengthy and learned enumeration of the ways of being miserable.  “Be not solitary, be not idle” he concludes, without much hope.


Not easy, these past months, or the months to come, to follow that injunction.  And for all the length and depth of these classic works, they only begin to touch on the complexity of the subject.  Heroic melancholy is a long way from our understanding of mental illness now.

November has become a month for thinking about male health, and I will do my best to walk and post a poem a day.  But that’s not because I think of literature as a light touch middle class therapy, or arts and humanities as no more than complex and rarefied descriptions.  Rather arts and humanities disciplines are committed to ways of talking about the unspeakable; they represent the struggle to express the complexity of our emotions and relations.

And arts and humanities does so much more, and so directly.  I have seen in the past two months projects using arts and humanities research and immersive technology to help young people in some of the UK’s more deprived regions to address mental health issues.  Arts and humanities research is right now helping communities cope with the pandemic through better targeted communication.  Arts and humanities research is searching for ways for live performance to return as soon as possible.   Arts and humanities research has underpinned the content used in online museum collections, music, and poetry.  Arts and humanities researchers are joining medical practitioners to support health initiatives among young and old alike.  The technology would have been inconceivable to Warburg, Saxl, Panofsky and others (though Klibansky died only in 2005, just short of his centenary), but the role of art and literature in describing and unlocking our fears and anxieties would have been completely familiar; indeed, it is what many of them held onto through the devastation of their intellectual community in the Second World War.

The world is no less complex and problematic for a young adult struggling to make her or his way in 21st century Britain than it was for Dürer’s stymied genius.   All areas of research will be needed to make a better, wiser society after this crisis.[4]  It is in the unending conversation of science, not in disciplinary particularity, that we are at our best, which is why it is essential that all our disciplines are able to contribute to reimagining the future.  The Warburg School knew this value of thinking across intellectual borders – there is always another question to ask, another angle from which to look which reveals a facet of our complex difficult world, another way of thinking, and perhaps that is why Saturn and Melancholy has such symbolic power.  The image or the symbol opens the way to the next question, a new way of seeing the world, and that’s why, as Aby Warburg said, symbols do us good, heal us (‘Symbol tut wohl’).

[1] R. Klibansky, E. Panofsky, F. Saxl, Saturn and Melancholy: Studies in the History of Natural Philosophy, Religion, and Art, new edition, Montreal 2019.  The original was begun in the 1920s, one version was lost, and it was not published until 1964, and then updated by Klibansky for a German edition of 1990.

[2] For a recent account of the interactions of lives and thought around the original Warburg Library, and the afterlife of the method and its proponents, see E. J. Levine, Dreamland of the Humanists: Warburg, Cassirer, Panofsky, and the Hamburg School, Chicago 2013.  The divergence of Panofsky’s methods and views from those of Warburg are an important subject which I have understated here.

[3] Robert Burton (1577-1640) produced several editions of The Anatomy of Melancholy, each more detailed than the last.

[4] See recently the British Academy report https://www.thebritishacademy.ac.uk/documents/2678/JBA-8-p167-MorganJones-Abrams-Lahiri_jAIJOay.pdf


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