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Some other books on melancholy in literature might just be depressing, but Starobinski’s prose is marked by good-humored, Mozartian elegance. The charms in his work are also reflected by the man himself. So zesty is Starobinski, known to his intimates as “Staro,” that acquaintances might even be surprised to find that he elected melancholy as a subject for professional expertise. I well recall meeting Starobinski in Geneva just over 20 years ago, when he was an astonishing, vivacious septuagenarian. I mentioned a thrice-obscure rare book which I had read at Paris’s Bibliothèque nationale, about an 18th-century blind traveling musician, and Starobinski discussed it as if it had been his bedtime reading the night before.
Until 1958, Starobinski humbly and diligently combined medical practice with literary investigations. Then he finally retired from medicine, after a stint as a visitor from 1953 to 1956 at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University, where he was impressed by the German Jewish neuropsychologist Kurt Goldstein (1878-1965) as well as the Austrian Jewish stylistic critic Leo Spitzer.
Through contact with such individuals, Starobinski honed his own skills through his gift of intense empathy, whether for people, patients or literary figures. “Rousseau is my most famous patient,” he once declared. In “The Ink of Melancholy,” Kafka, whose stories, including “In the Penal Colony,” Starobinski translated and prefaced in 1945, is described as frozen in melancholy, as opposed to Walter Benjamin, who wandered city streets endlessly in an obsessive expression of his own melancholia. Both writers evolved a Jewish response to contemporary history which might be summed up as the joy of being sad. As Starobinski notes, the “contemplative immobility” of a writer fixed in somber thoughts which prevent movement, is another side of the “two aspects of melancholic experience: endless wandering and the confinement which interrupts all active engagement with the outside world.”
This engagement has been a constant ideal of Starobinski’s, as he noted in a 1957 article: “Were it not for my good fortune in being born in Geneva, I would have died at age 22 in a crematorium furnace. On occasion I have committed the impropriety of reminding people who would have sent me there about this, people who today have become as gentle as lambs, eccentrics, pretending that now they are ones who are targets of persecution.” In 1946, when Starobinski spoke at a Geneva conference of intellectuals including Hungary’s Georg Lukács and France’s Raymond Aron, the French Jewish historian Pierre Nora wrote that Starobinski was the only speaker present at the conference “who mentioned the extermination of the Jews.”
Benjamin Ivry writes frequently about the arts for the Forward.