Tag Archives: Marie-Claire Blais

Durer Melancolia engraving image

The Earth-Bound Angel: The Melancholy of Feminine Suppression in Durer’s Angel by Marie-Claire Blais

One of the striking profundities of the engraving Melencolia I (1514) by Albrecht Durer is the evocation of both heaviness and lightness in the image of the seated angel.  The image is emblematic of the melancholy state of being as it was perceived in the Renaissance, and harked a renewed connection between melancholy and genius in the consciousness of the age, a connection which arches over all of the vast field of the subject of melancholy.[1] The symbol of the angel in the engraving represents the potential of flight, brilliance, genius and transcendence, all of which are  weighed down by a profound heaviness, perhaps produced by the contemplation of grave spiritual and scholarly matters.  As a general symbol, an angel represents the elevated aspects of particular human existences that aspire to transcendence – whether it be artistic, intellectual, philosophical, or spiritual.  But beyond the ineffable impressions that arise from the contemplation of Durer’s image, it is difficult to arrive at a definition of melancholy.  In A Field Guide to Melancholy, Jacky Bowring writes: “Suffering and joy.  Pleasure and sadness.  Melancholy is a conundrum, a riddle of contradictions.  The latent richness of the concept grows out of these paradoxes, and three particular enigmas haunt melancholy: madness, genius and beauty.”[2]  In The Gendering of Melancholia, Juliana Schiesari describes melancholy variously as a “distinguished epithet”, “temperament”, “malady”, and (from within her feminist critique of the canon of melancholy) as “an elite ‘illness’ that afflicted men precisely as the sign of the exceptionality, as the inscription of genius within them.”[3]  With such an array of definitions, and such a vast field and long history, the nature of melancholy proves to be a culturally significant, though elusive, topic to explore.

One literary example of a human existence that aspires to lofty heights is the character Pauline Archange from Marie-Claire Blais’ novel Durer’s Angel, a work exploring melancholic themes from a particularly feminine perspective.  Durer’s Angel is deep and rich in melancholic themes to sift through, but I will explore in particular themes of suppression and elevation relative to the position of Pauline Archange as an aspiring, creative young woman living in a culture oppressive to her aspirations.  The tensions surrounding suppression and elevation in the novel invite contemplation of various questions about melancholy and femininity – whether there exists a unique sort of female melancholy that is suffused with the pain of suppression, in contrast to “the glory of male melancholia,”[4] and whether this suppression is only just finding expression in contemporary culture as a result of the emergence of women’s rights in the latter part of the twentieth century, suggesting that the great and grand tradition of melancholy beloved by western culture tells only one half of the story of melancholy.

Durer’s Angel is a beautiful, if sad, novel depicting French Canadian schoolgirl Pauline Archange’s passage from girlhood into adolescence in the mid-twentieth century.  It is filled with themes of heaviness – loss, grief, slumber, oppression.  The injustice Pauline feels in response to the suppression of her potential, however, introduces a sharp quality that sits in contrast with the novels dreamy melancholy beauty.  Although this loss could be read as the sole cause of Pauline Archange’s melancholy, the novel is ambiguous on this point, and there is also the suggestion that she is of a naturally melancholic disposition.  The novel frequently chimes with allusions to the vertical register of melancholy, such as in the image of Durer’s earth-bound angel and Pauline Archange’s walk up the mountain: brilliant, soaring heights are bound up with earth and matter.

There are several overarching literary techniques that evoke melancholic themes in the novel, in particular the theme of oppression.  There is a significant absence of orienting detail, such as date, place, landscape, and history, which makes the novel feel heavy, as it composed almost solely of the intense mass of Pauline’s inner thoughts and conversations between other characters.  The one significant exception to this is the novel’s allusion to “the dark lights of the distant storm…the bloodshed in another part of the world,”[5] which crucially orients the novel in the years following World War II, the time when women in western cultures were beginning to murmur of a serious resistance against their centuries-long suppression. The novel employs a stream-of-consciousness narration that is sometimes limited to Pauline’s perspective, and sometimes omniscient and flying freely through circumstances and the thoughts of others, and which is relentlessly intense and inward-looking.  The effect of all this is gently repressive:

‘How was I to pull myself from the dull orb of sleep when Grandmother Josette entered the room, announcing that it was time to leave for mass?  Outside, the night was cold and dark.  Dressed by those rough hands which had pulled me so rudely from the warmth of my bed, I could no longer recall why she had come for me, and a heavy sadness settled over me as I followed Grandfather Onezimon into the snowy streets…’[6]

This passage contains the evocation of heaviness – with sleep, which presses down on consciousness;  coldness, which presses itself against the senses; darkness, which presses out light; snow, which blankets the landscape; and of course, a  “heavy sadness”.  Pauline is 4 years old in this passage, and the night is Christmas Eve, and it is perhaps significant that as a small child, she is shown to be prone to feeling the weight of a “heavy sadness”.

Pauline Archange is preoccupied with loss, both the specific losses of people through death – her grandmother, her uncle Sebastien – and loss as a more general philosophical idea, but the larger loss depicted in the novel is the loss of her freedom to fulfil her potential, as a result of her family culture’s suppression of her aspirations to be a scholar and writer. The following passage shows the weight of her father’s expectations, and its effect on her:

‘“It’s very simple,” added my father.  “Next year she’ll have to go to work full-time and sweat a little for the food she’s always ready to stuff into her mouth!  No more studying!  No more fancy dreams!  We’ll see who’s so smart!”

A heavy anguish invaded my thoughts, then, the words I was reading suddenly vanishing in the fog that lay all about me and that constricted my heart.’[7]

This passage contains the essence of the heavy-handed, male authority that determines Pauline Archange’s fate. This example shows the relationship of earth-bound practical matters (stated quite coarsely – work, sweat, food being stuffed into mouths) to Pauline’s ‘fancy dreams’, her aspirations.    Like in Durer’s engraving, Pauline’s current reality is to be ruled by heaviness, though she has the potential for flight.  And, like the angel, heaviness and potential brilliance are housed in her one being.  One of the significant differences between the characteristically male tradition of melancholy alluded to in Durer’s Renaissance engraving, and this twentieth-century female literary character, however, is that the novel sharply portrays that a large portion of the oppression weighing down Pauline’s flight is a male-dominated culture satisfied with committing the moral wrong of female suppression, and asleep to the resulting psychological injuries to the women.

Sigmund Freud’s essay ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ (1917) attempts to describe the state of melancholia from a clinical psychoanalytical perspective, and uses mourning to help delineate the different characteristics of the two closely-linked conditions.  The salient points of the theory that apply to Pauline Archange have to do with loss and the nature of the lost object.  Freud explains that in normal mourning

‘the testing of reality, having shown that the loved object no longer exists, requires forthwith that all the libido shall be withdrawn from its attachments to this object.  Against this demand a struggle of course arises…  This struggle can be so intense that a turning away from reality ensues, the object being clung to through the medium of a hallucinatory wish-psychosis.  The normal outcome is that deference for reality wins the day.’[8]

Freud goes on to describe that melancholy’s difference from mourning is based around the nature of the loss, and the patient’s unconsciousness of what has been lost:

‘…it is evident that melancholia too may be the reaction to the loss of a loved object; where this is not the exciting cause one can perceive that there is a loss of a more ideal kind.  The object has not perhaps actually died, but has become lost as an object of love (e.g. the case of a deserted bride).  In yet other cases one feels justified in concluding that a loss of the kind has been experienced, but one cannot see clearly what has been lost, and may the more readily suppose that the patient too cannot consciously perceive what it is he has lost…this would suggest that melancholia is in some way related to an unconscious loss of a love-object, in  contradistinction to mourning, in which there is nothing unconscious about the loss.’[9]

This psychoanalytic theory of melancholy offers valid points, but it doesn’t seem to have a room in its house for the type of melancholy experienced by Pauline Archange.  The nature of Pauline Archange’s loss is the freedom to pursue her own aspirations.  Freud’s theory, although alluding to the possibility that what is lost can be an idea, is somewhat reliant on the lost objects being more human, as well as the  identification of self with the lost other, and the hatred for the lost other (resulting from ambivalence in the relationship with the other) turning back onto the self.  Pauline’s loss, and therefore the nature of her melancholy, do not quite fit into this paradigm.  Pauline does identify her miserable real self with an idealised other – a fulfilled other that she was occasionally free to be as a schoolgirl (“that person I had been and that I still cherished so deeply”[10]).  But this ephemeral relationship is of a different sort to the type drawn by Freud.  Pauline’s adolescent relationship to her free, fulfilled, other self is more simple and pure than a love relationship between adults filled with ambivalence, imbalance and woundings.  Pauline is clear about the fact that her loss is the result of suppression that comes from outside herself.  Freud’s theory would say that Pauline has ambivalent feelings towards her lost object, resulting in hatred toward the lost object, which then transforms into hatred for her self.  It is very clear that Pauline does not hate the idea of her own freedom to fulfil her potential.  The novel paints a vivid picture of her simple, pure yearning to be free to write.  She describes “…the sublime peace which settled over me the moment I closed the door of my room and sat down before the [typewriter], facing the window.”[11] She is also painfully conscious that this freedom should be hers, but that it is not.  She thinks, watching students from l’Ecole des Arts from a window, “What could be more excruciating…than this spectacle of a capricious liberty which always lay just out of reach?”[12]  Her relationship to her loss is conscious, and her relationship with her other, fulfilled self is simple and uncluttered with ambivalence, so Freud’s theory comes short of being able to comprehend and describe the particular type of melancholy she experiences.

Jean Baker Miller, who is considered to be a cultural feminist, is a psychologist who has written on women’s depression.  She writes, “…psychological problems are not so much caused by the unconscious as by deprivations of full consciousness… Lacking full consciousness, we create out of what is available.  For women only distorted conceptions about what is happening and what a person can and should be have been provided.”[13]  Miller is writing here about women who are asleep, along with the culture, to the nature of the suppression of women, and its effects.  Pauline Archange is strikingly, sharply conscious of what she wants, therefore she feels the full weight of heaviness descending upon it from her culture.  Her awakened consciousness, her genius perhaps, makes her more able to comprehend the true nature of her circumstances, the true height of her aspirations, the true depth of the loss of them, the true heaviness of the oppression surrounding her, and this is an important aspect of her particular kind of feminine melancholy.

Freud’s description of mourning sheds light on the nature of Pauline’s loss. Freud writes, “the testing of reality, having shown that the loved object no longer exists, requires forthwith that all the libido shall be withdrawn from its attachments to this object.”[14]   Pauline sees that in reality, her family culture is suppressing her freedom to pursue the life she wants.  This reality contains an inherently unjust aspect.  Mourning requires that “all libido be withdrawn from the object”; if Pauline’s nature is to be a writer, then the suppression of her urge to write is like asking a wild animal not to hunt for food.  She knows instinctively that writing is her business.  The withdrawing of libido from the pursuit of her dreams is therefore unnatural.  In the case of mourning, releasing a loved one into a new reality in which they are dead is natural.  The constraints thrust upon Pauline are unnatural, and she knows this, and the tensions and struggles of her situation are therefore different than in cases where the deaths of people, ideals, or relationships are natural deaths.  This is another aspect of Pauline Archange’s particularly feminine type of melancholy.

In “A Room of One’s Own”, Virginia Woolf’s ponders the question of what women writers would have written through the ages if they had the practical means to develop their art, in an exploration that joins the earthy, practical matters of art production necessary for the creation of flights of artistic achievement, in order to secure an artist’s readership and place in the canon.  She writes:

‘…fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners.  Often the attachment is scarcely perceptible; Shakespeare’s plays, for instance, seem to hang there complete by themselves. But when the web is pulled askew, hooked up at the edge, torn in the middle, one remembers that these webs are not spun in mid-air by incorporeal creatures, but are the work of suffering human beings, and are attached to grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in.’[15]

Pauline Archange’s web is torn and askew.  She reflects at one point, after she has been forced to quit school and take a job as a bank clerk: “I no longer dreamed of improving my mind, for too many things about me seemed to contribute to its abasement.  There was, above all, my hunger, an incessant hunger which, like an attack of dizziness, prevented me from reading or thinking clearly, opening great holes in the fog of my mind.”[16]

The result of this state of affairs in terms of melancholy is that women’s genius, and a particular type of female melancholy, are largely absent from the map of great artists and thinkers who have worked the colours and sounds and atmospheres of melancholy into their art and writing[17]Durer’s Angel is a powerful melancholy novel by a women writer, and it is significant that the main story told in the novel is of the injuries to Pauline Archange’s spirit, resulting from her imprisonment in a life she doesn’t want as a result of being a woman.  The novel also contains the sadness that this grave wounding goes unremarked in her culture at large.  In the novel, the passionate priest, Benjamin Robert, who roams the streets of the city helping  homeless children, says angrily, “…nothing is more dangerous than these sleepy, self-satisfied consciences!  These hard, reasonable consciences from which all life has been slowly drained…”[18]

Julia Schiesari’s book The Gendering of Melancholia raises the issue of the absence of women’s art from the tradition of melancholy.  She writes: “In contrast to the distinguished epithet by which men are called ‘melancholic,’ women who fall into the depths of sorrow are all too easily dismissed with the banal and unprestigious term ‘depression.’”[19]  Virginia Woolf, for example, is more usually described as a depressive woman writer who succumbed to the pull of suicide than a “great melancholic” in the grand, noble melancholic tradition.  So, it is significant that Durer’s Angel, a novel written by a woman in the melancholic tradition, should contain a main character whose great loss is the fulfilment of her own potential, and who contemplates the spectre of her words vanishing “like smoke.”[20]

Just as Albrecht Durer’s melancholy angel paradoxically possesses both heaviness and lightness, the unique version of melancholy presented in Durer’s Angel contains, alongside the  charged tension of cultural injustice, a quality of languorous appreciation for what Bowring calls “the pursuit of sadness”, where melancholy is “a desirable condition, sought for its ‘sweetness’ and intensity.”[21] Pauline writes in first person narration at the beginning of the novel:

‘I had wanted for so long to tell the story of my life that I actually believed at times that it was in my power to do so; but when it came to putting into words the events of my past, they vanished like smoke, leaving before me on the soiled white page of my notebook only the fleeting silhouette of that person I had been and that I cherished so deeply.’[22]

This passage contains a tender nostalgia for what she has lost and what she still longs for.  The sentence is long, gentle in its tone, and slow in its pace and progress through the ideas it is expressing.  This passage also features Pauline Archange’s consciousness of her own powerlessness, but this is bound within a dreamy modality of expression that is characteristic of melancholy.  Bowring writes of this particular aspect of melancholy:

‘The recognition of the beauty of things about to disappear, of the intensification of beauty at the approach of death, is a melancholic species called ubi sunt, Latin for ‘where are?’  The beauty of the ubi sunt moment is a version of nostalgic yearning and backwards-looking wonder at the fragility of what comes to pass.’[23]

Another example of the ubi sunt aspect of melancholy in Durer’s Angel is the novel’s allusions to The Little Prince, the children’s book by Antoine de Saint-Exupery.  Both The Little Prince  and Durer’s Angel are narrated from the first person past tense point of view of a character who has suffered a loss and is undertaking a contemplation of the past.  More importantly, The Little Prince contains a lyrical, dreamy beauty:  the Little Prince says, “It is just as it is with the flower.  If you love a flower that lives on a star, it is sweet to look at the sky at night.  All the stars are a-bloom with flowers…”[24] The Little Prince, like Durer’s Angel, contains a melancholy reminiscent of Durer’s grounded angel, and themes of lightness and heaviness.  This is enacted in The Little Prince in the way the Little Prince travels – he must shed his body, which is too heavy to allow his spirit to travel to his home, the “Asteroid B-612,” so he must make a bargain with a snake, who will “help” him travel home.  The heaviness of his body is holding down the flight of his spirit.  Durer’s Angel’s allusion to this story is another chime of the theme of Pauline Archange’s suppressed flight, along with the melancholy angel of Durer’s engraving.  Both novels contain symbols of the vertical register of melancholy, and are preoccupied with the reconciliation of duality –  exploring how flight, imagination, genius, spirit and freedom must interact with heaviness, loss, and death, and coming to tenderly melancholic conclusions that allow both spheres their portion.  At the end of The Little Prince, the pilot, who is the narrator, explains, “Now my sorrow is comforted a little.  That is to say – not entirely.  But I know that he did go back to his planet, because I did not find his body at daybreak.  It was not such a heavy body…And at night I love to listen to the stars.  It is like five hundred million little bells…”[25]

It is perhaps fitting to conclude with a meditation upon the lyrical heights of ecstasy experienced by Pauline Archange in Durer’s Angel, which form occasional, brief, yet breathtaking contrasts to the prevailing tone of oppression in the novel.  The evocation of melancholy in the novel could not be accomplished without brilliant flashes of the upper register – of flight, genius, freedom and transcendence.  The consciousness of Pauline Archange is sensitive to the highest heights and the deepest lows, and the highs in the novel are pushed higher in proportion to the heaviness and sustained quality of the lows.  Pauline’s escape from her family’s usual Sunday routine to climb a mountain provides a great release made sharper by contrast.  For example, after  33 pages filled with intense descriptions of oppression, Pauline describes her friend Marthe’s moment of reaching the summit: “she exclaimed with joy over ‘the low-lying sky…the clouds resting on our heads,’ for what she sought at the end of her climb was ‘space, the limitless horizon.’”[26] This is a phrase that invites a pause, with the alliteration of the sibilant, which aurally stretches the soundings of the words “space” and “limitless.”  The physical vertical ascent that Pauline Archange makes is symbolic of the flights of creative ecstasy she craves, and is a physical enactment of climbing up the vertical register of melancholy from her usual oppressed position.

Another moment when Pauline experiences transcendence happens within the sphere of her own mind, when she is engaged in writing alone in her room and listening to Mozart on the radio:

‘…each word glittered beneath my eyes like a blazing comet and my intoxication was complete…I had not written a single note of the symphony…but the music momentarily lent me a power that was not my own, carrying me into a world of sublime enchantment…This graceful, energetic exaltation lifted me toward a summit of pride and hope, where I silently exclaimed: “Nothing is impossible!”‘[27]

The ending of the novel contains another moment of transcendence in Pauline’s life, the rising of her hope and courage out of her darkest hour.  While fighting her way through a snowstorm, “an ocean of fury,”[28] in search of work to satisfy her father’s demand for rent money, and crushed by her journey through various stultifying jobs, Pauline spies through the window of a butcher’s shop a young student who earlier in the novel had impressed her with his virtue,  and his “intelligence and goodwill,”[29] Andre Chevreux:

‘He approached the frosty window and smiled at me.  And there was in his smile such an affection, such a gentle valour, that I suddenly sensed my courage being reborn within me, and carrying that precious image with me through the storm, I broke into a run, exclaiming joyfully: “It’s him…Durer’s angel, I’ve seen him, I’ve seen him at last!”‘[30]

Because Durer’s Angel depicts a feminine version of melancholy that draws much of its sadness from the unrealised potential of Pauline Archange, on one level, the flights she experiences represent moments of escape from her parents’ suppression.  But the character of Pauline Archange  is a homage to melancholy, and therefore is on another level symbolic of the grandeur of the whole melancholic tradition.  Part of Marie-Claire Blais’ accomplishment is that the novel’s statement of women’s innate right to freedom is harnessed to the vast, towering edifice of the melancholic canon, and this is achieved through the virtuosity of her literary homage to the tradition of melancholy.  In the passage of the novel where Pauline Archange alludes to Durer’s engraving Melencolia I, she identifies herself with both the angel’s capacity for genius and flight, and his earth-bound heaviness: “…the Spirit of Durer seemed to me so sad, so vulnerable.  Endowed with an unearthly vigour, the angel was nevertheless tied to the earth: seated on the rough ancient earth, his wings were open but he did not fly…”[31]



      Work Cited

Blais, Marie-Claire.  Durer’s Angel (1970). Trans. David Lobdell.  Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1976.


Bowring, Jacky.  A Field Guide to Melancholy.  Harpenden: Oldcastle Books, 2008.


Radden, Jennifer, ed.  The Nature of Melancholy: From Aristotle to Kristeva.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.


Saint-Exupery, Antoine de.  The Little Prince (1945). Trans. Katherine Woods.       London:          Heinemann, 2009.


Schiesari, Julia.  The Gendering of Melancholia: Feminism, Psychoanalysis and the Symbolics of   Loss in Renaissance Literature.  Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1992.


Woolf, Virginia.  A Room of One’s Own (1928).  London: Penguin, 1945.



[1]    Bowring, p 37

[2]    Bowring, p 23

[3]    Schiesari, p 7

[4]    Schiesari, p 95

[5]    Blais, p 15

[6]    Blais, p 10

[7]    Blais, p 32

[8]    Radden, p 284, citing ‘Mourning and Melancholy’ by Sigmund Freud from The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, translated and edited by James Strachey (London: Random House, 1950)

[9]    Radden, p 284-285, citing ‘Mourning and Melancholy’ by Sigmund Freud from The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, translated and edited by James Strachey (London: Random House, 1950)

[10]  Blais, p 7

[11]  Blais, 74

[12]  Blais, 81

[13]  Radden, p 331, citing

[14]  Radden, p 284, citing ‘Mourning and Melancholy’ by Sigmund Freud from The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, translated and edited by James Strachey (London: Random House, 1950)

[15]  Woolf, p 43

[16]  Blais, p 80

[17]  Schiesari, p 3

[18]  Blais, p 29

[19]  Schiesari, p 4

[20]  Blais, p 7

[21]  Bowring, p 14

[22]  Blais, p 7

[23]  Bowring, p 42

[24]  Saint-Exupery (trans. Woods), p 82

[25]  Saint-Exupery (trans. Woods), p 87

[26]  Blais, p 34

[27]  Blais, p 75

[28]  Blais, p 104

[29]  Blais, p 58

[30]  Blais, p 105

[31]  Blais, p 76