Melancholia and the Imaginative Fire of Sadness

You’re certainly clear about one thing, and that is the fact that you will see for yourself what all the fuss is about. You make your way on foot after maneuvering your car into a makeshift spot, rereading the street signs and crossing your fingers for good luck. Inside there’s a buzz, a curiosity that radiates when, say, a bona fide celebrity—more Dalai Lama than Brad Pitt—is about to enter a room you’re in.

When you get there and are finally standing in front of it, there’s only one thing that you can think about, but the truth is no one knows what has gotten the figure so upset. It might be the reaction to a terrible dream or forgetting to take the kettle off the fire. It might be the end of Romanticism (“the horror, the horror!”) or a glimpse of the coming of the twentieth century’s most mischievous thieves, those dastardly cubists. It might be the stench of a putrid passerby. It might be the faint hint of sadness juiced up and jailed and bursting at the seams. It may be a memory relived, a monster revived, the wrecked dimensions of a lost chest of treasure bubbling gently at the bottom of the sea. It may be the miles of lines traversed to get to wherever we’ve gotten to, the realization of that and the dissatisfaction that comes with getting there (wherever “there” is) as well. It may be ending itself that troubles the creature. And it, in turn, troubles us. Deeply. And we can’t resist it.

The world’s most famous treatise on the debilitating effects of anxiety is on display right now in the world’s most bustling city of orderly disorder. It’s behind glass and its childlike deadly brilliance beckons you to lean in for a closer look. Spend some time staring at its sinuous shock. Study the strange men in the background. Hunt for meaning in this peculiar mirror for modernity that, remarkably, still resonates a hundred years (and some) after its inception. It still reflects our fears. It still shakes us to the core, though we laugh at it and pose in front of it and make funny faces and create new memes to mask our reverence.

If a god were to take the shape of a painting for a while, then Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” might be the perfect temporary residence. Call it a kind of artist’s retreat. What better way to get familiar with the architecture of one’s work? Frozen in between the sky and the land is a bridge, and on that bridge is that which we run away from and everything we can’t leave behind.

Edvard Munch’s famous painting as well as other related works are on display at MoMA through April 2013.

alan semerdjian

Alan Semerdjian is a writer, musician, English teacher, and occasional visual artist. Besides LI Pulse, his work has appeared in Newsday, Adbusters, Chain, The Lyric Review and numerous other print and online publications, anthologies, and chapbooks. His first full-length book of poetry is In the Architecture of Bone (Genpop Books 2009). You can visit him digitally at and find out about his music at