Now up on the MIT Press blog, Mitchell B. Merback provides a short interview unpacking his new book Perfection’s Therapy: An Essay on Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia I. Click here to read the full interview. Click here to learn more about the book. An excerpt appears below:
Q: “Perfection’s Therapy takes a new approach to a very canonical image, perhaps the most heavily discussed image in European art: the engraving Melencolia I by Albrecht Dürer. How would you characterize the state of Dürer studies today? Also, can you describe what it’s like to work in a field that might look incredibly specific, if not narrow, to outsiders?“
A: “Art historians in established fields often have to face down an accumulation of collective knowledge that is, in practical terms, beyond the reach of the individual scholar. This is certainly true in the study of Dürer, who has been the subject of an almost non-stop production of knowledge for decades, and especially true in the case of Melencolia. When I decided I was serious about taking on the engraving, I met this situation with a mixture of excitement and dread.
Any over-specialized discourse will produce a certain amount of pedantic, dreary, and inaccessible writing; one simply has to forge a path through it. What kept me going was the experience of finding, among all that, scholarship that is truly inspiring, full of insight, experimental thinking, and the kind of old-school erudition that can make your head spin. A study like Saturn and Melancholy by Klibansky, Panofsky, and Saxl (1964), for instance, has to be read to be believed – truly it’s a mighty mountain of learning, as inexhaustible as its subject. Even with this kind of encyclopedism, however, no one is ever in a position, intellectually or ethically, to declare theirs the last study that needs to be written on a given subject, Dürer’s Melencolia least of all. And thank goodness for that. For us mere mortals, in situations like this, the most productive attitude comes from that medieval adage about ‘standing on the shoulders of giants.’”