Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Keith Moxey reviews Perfection’s Therapy

Mitchell B. Merback. Perfection’s Therapy: An Essay on Albrecht Dürer’s "Melencolia I." New York: Zone Books, 2018. 360 pp.

Review by Keith Moxey

Perfection’s Therapy is an ambitious attempt to reinterpret Albrecht Dürer’s famous engraving Melencolia I. With an erudition worthy of Erwin Panofsky (one of his learned predecessors in this enterprise), Mitchell Merback follows Panofsky’s understanding that the print is an allegory of the psychomedical idea of melancholy but describes it as an active rather than a passive depiction of this subject. Wandering fearlessly through the mountainous bibliography that surrounds the image and through a maze of sixteenth-century humanist learning, Merback does unusual justice to the formal structure of the work as well as to its meaning-making potential for the original audience. Each element in the complex composition seems redolent with significance, but they are difficult to reconcile with one another. The work’s flotsam and jetsam—braziers, hammers, saws, rulers, lathes, nails, and so on—are hard to relate to the presence of the allegorical figure of Melancholy. In light of its incoherent spatial organization, the picture has often justifiably been considered inaccessible to convincing interpretation.

Unlike most other commentators, Merback resists the impulse to understand the engraving as a statement, a finished product whose intention is susceptible to determination. He argues that the process of speculative contemplation it provokes is more important than any guess as to what it might represent. The ways in which the engraving provokes the imagination to ponder its imagery, in other words, are essential to its appeal. Against a background of late medieval magical, devotional, and mystical imagery specifically designed to create a phenomenological bond with the viewer, Merback argues, this print offers a mirror before which the turbulent emotions of a melancholic temperament might find solace. “Its controlled chaos structures a restless, indeed turbulent movement across the surface of things seen, a movement that mirrors the turbulence of a psyche as it faces the challenges of experience: hardship and loss, misfortune and misery, illness and death, all of which required remediation and consolation through reason” (p. 70).

Who would have been interested in such a problematic image? Merback seeks the answer in humanist approaches to medicine. Citing authors such as Petrarch and Erasmus, Merback paints a landscape in which medical and religious thinking were fused—in which every physical remedy had spiritual implications. Merback suggests that Dürer, a member of the humanist elite of his time and a man deeply moved by religious developments such as the Reformation, created his image out of a desire to offer solace to those who like himself suffered the mental and spiritual anguish of a creative temperament. Merback characterizes Dürer as a physician of the soul, an artist who deliberately set out to create an image that might be a consolation to himself and others suffering from the pangs of artistic angst.

Responding to the interest in the agency of the image that is so much a part of current art historical discussion, Merback ascribes to Melencolia I a crucial role in its reception. But he also responds to an earlier moment in the study of art history as he seeks to see through the work into the character of the artist. In so doing he subscribes to the trope of artist as genius that has for so long marked the history of the discipline. Must the fascination of this engraving forever be laid at the feet of its creator? Is it not possible, as Merback himself suggests, that the work itself is responsible for its own fate? Whether our interest in this print should outweigh an interest in the artist who made it is, of course, a matter of opinion, but Merback offers us an extraordinarily learned, deeply thoughtful, and thoroughly contemporary response.