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Comfort in Melancholy

Indulge me.

For the last month or more I have been listening to the new high definition compact disc release of Joni Mitchell’s 1976 album Hejira in my car and it is beginning to dawn on me that there are some connections between the handful of artists that I really, really admire, like W.G. Sebald, Joni Mitchell, and Peter Gabriel, to name three. In Joni Mitchell’s case, that means her lyrics and her voice (not to mention her choice in musicians).


Joni Mitchell’s poetic lyrics are full of highly compact and complex images and metaphors that recall Theodore Roethke’s dictum to “make the language take desperate leaps.”She moves from the mundane to the metaphysical effortlessly, zooms between the micro to the macro in the space of a few words, and can free-associate her way from subject to subject en route to making a point that often isn’t clear until the very last moment.

In a highway service station
Over the month of June
Was a photograph of the earth
Taken coming back from the moon
And you couldn’t see a city
On that marbled bowling ball
Or a forest or a highway
Or me here least of all
You couldn’t see these cold water restrooms
Or this baggage overload
Westbound and rolling taking refuge in the roads
(from Refuge of the Roads)

Mitchell’s voice adds yet another layer of complexity to the lyrics. In songs throughout Hejira, she will momentarily do away with any vibrato, flattening her voice at critical moments in a way that undercuts even the most exuberant of lyrics, joining Jaco Pastorius’ despairing bass in what seems to me to be the epitome of melancholy in music.

Mitchell and Sebald both project a persona that is perpetually on the road, although not exactly for the same reasons.When she is “porous with travel fever” the road for Joni Mitchell usually serves as the transition between past and future lovers. It provides the physical and temporal space for reflection and wild hopes.

A thunderhead of judgment was
Gathering in my gaze
And it made most people nervous
They just didn’t want to know
What I was seeing in the refuge of the roads

(from Refuge of the Roads)

For Sebald, the road provides the transition between projects and a release from periods that sound vaguely like depression.

In October 1980 I travelled from England, where I had then been living for nearly twenty-five years in a country which was almost always under grey skies, to Vienna, hoping that a change of place would help me get over a particularly difficult period in my life. [All’estero, Vertigo]

In August 1992, when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set off to walk the county of Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work. [The Rings of Saturn]

But if there is one thing that travel represents for both Mitchell and Sebald it is their shared predilection for melancholy.Perversely, melancholy for them seems to be both symptom and cure. It permits them to peer into history’s tragedies or into a string of failed romances and it simultaneously propels them onward.In this respect, they are both heirs of Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy and, of course, Thomas Browne, whose spirit hovers over Sebald’s writings

There’s comfort in melancholy
When there’s no need to explain

[from Hejira]

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Peter Stamos #

    What sort of music did Sebald listen to?

    September 19, 2007
  2. As far as I can remember, the only place Sebald writes about music is in the wonderful essay in Campo Santo called “Moments Musicaux”. He talks about his dislike of Bavarian music, then moves to to mention various works of classical music and an opera or two.The essay is about certain kinds of experiences that are elicited by music, not really about his likes and dislikes, so he doesn’t express many opinions about the pieces he mentions. But he sounds very comfortable writing about classical music, which makes me think Sebald was not a novice in that realm.

    September 22, 2007

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