The seductive power of melancholy
Yesterday The New York Times Magazine featured an incisive article on depression by Peter D. Kramer (the psychiatrist who wrote Listening to Prozac). The volume of material written about depression over the past several years is staggering and much of it is of mediocre quality at best; few writers manage to say anything new or insightful about depression. This article, however, does say something insightful.
Kramer's thesis is that for centuries our culture has romanticized depression. The melancholiac has been regarded as being possessed of a deep understanding of the human condition that eludes the happy folk. The link made between melancholy and creativity goess back to Ancient Greece.
Kramer's point is, however, that we now know for certain that depression is a disease. Regarding their torment as the price of having the talents of Van Gogh or Hemingway available to us is obtuse. Wouldn't Fitzgerald have produced even greater art if he were not such a tormented soul? An artist's willingness to examine the dark side of human nature is not the same as their disease. The disease of depression debilitates people; it doesn't empower them with special insight.
Kramer cites Camus's essay The Myth of Sisyphus, which I have long admired as one of the most eloquent meditations on the seeming futility of life. As Camus wrote, "The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy."
I write this from the perspective of someone who has wrestled with depression for most of my life. Being depressed has not made me a more sensitive or insightful person; if I have those qualities it is in spite of my depression, not because of it. We need to stop idealizing a sickness. Depression is no more romantic than diabetes.
I leave with a quote from Kramer's article:
Beset by great evil, a person can be wise, observant and disillusioned and yet not depressed. Resilience confers its own measure of insight. We should have no trouble admiring what we do admire depth, complexity, aesthetic brilliance and standing foursquare against depression.