The Depression Book Blues

In Against Happiness, Eric Wilson argues that melancholia can produce joy. But his is a joyless book.

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“I start to get the feeling that something is really wrong. Like all the drugs put together – the lithium, the Prozac, the desipramine, and Desyrel that I take to sleep at night – can no longer combat whatever it is that was wrong with me in the first place. I feel like a defective model, like I came off the assembly line flat-out fucked and my parents should have taken me back for repairs before the warranty ran out.”

So began Elizabeth Wurtzel’s 1994 bestselling memoir Prozac Nation. What followed was a flood of depression memoirs. Writers like Andrew Solomon, Jeffrey Smith, Mary Karr, Mark Vonnegut, Susanna Kaysen, and John Falk told their stories of pain, isolation, and eventual recovery.

Peter Kramer had in some ways paved the road for these memoirs with his 1993 book Listening to Prozac, which had gone a long way to de-stigmatizing the use of antidepressants. In 2005 he decided he wanted to put an end to them. It wasn’t just that depression is often boring to read about — a lot of lying in bed or the bathtub, eating Doritos, crying — or that it’s fertile ground for tedious metaphors involving storm clouds, darkness, and the underworld. Kramer instead worried that the romantic tinge of the stories might keep readers from seeking treatment if they needed it. He decided to write his own depression memoir, Against Depression.

Kramer never suffered from depression himself, but he believed he had seen enough of it in his treatment of the mentally ill at his private practice. “The memoirs made depression seem ennobling,” he wrote. “Depression has no saving grace.” It is a disease, it leaves patients broken and with permanent physical damage, and it is neither glamorous nor romantic. It should be treated with therapy and antidepressants swiftly and thoroughly.

Against Depression was only published three years ago, but it already feels outdated. Kramer’s defense of psycho-pharmaceuticals almost reads as naïveté now that books like Christopher Lane’s Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness and David Healy’s Let Them Eat Prozac: The Unhealthy Relationship between the Pharmaceutical Industry and Depression lead the anti-depressant backlash. They tell horrifying tales of the manipulation of doctors and patients, the invention of disorders (social anxiety disorder, meet pre-menstrual dysphoric disorder), and the hiding of data that links teen suicide and SSRIs — antidepressants that affect serotonin levels in the brain. These books should make pharmaceutical execs pray there’s no such thing as reincarnation, lest they be kicked down to the insect realm the next go-around.

Now Eric G. Wilson joins in the backlash, but with a personal rather than scientific approach. In Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy, he worries that with every prescription for Prozac, we are destroying “a major cultural force, a serious inspiration to invention, the muse behind much art and poetry and music.” It is melancholia, he argues, that drives innovation and makes people strive for something better.

In his introduction, Wilson is careful enough to note that he is not talking about severe depression. SSRIs like Prozac and Zoloft have helped a lot of people, and if someone is seriously ill, they should seek medical attention. Too bad then that he goes on to rhapsodize about famous suicides like those of Rothko, van Gogh, and Hart Crane. “People must suffer for beauty. This treasure comes at a serious price… [D]urable beauty must be broken and wrung, squeezed until its very life comes oozing out.”

Wilson loves melancholia. He wallows in it. He seems to want more of it for himself, breathlessly telling sad tales of artists more melancholy than he. If only we could all be this sad, this damaged, just think of the art we could produce.

He’s forgetting a few things. First, not all creators are insane. Some are quite stable and happy. As Phillip Larkin once said in an interview, “There certainly is a cult of the mad these days: think of all the boys who’ve been in the bin – I don’t understand it. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Hardy – it’s the big, sane boys who get the medals.”

On the other hand, depression does not always bring wisdom. Sometimes it just brings pain and Doritos dust on your pajamas. (I know Wilson swears he’s not talking about mental illness, but since the examples he uses of those who have benefited from melancholia include suicides, the seriously ill and even epileptics, he destroys his own argument.) There are certainly writers and artists who became so caught up in their own insanity that their work suffered. As Kramer wrote in Against Depression about its role as an artistic muse, “If we want to be more specific, and a little mean spirited, we may say that depressives are successful at composing depressive verse, or depressive memoirs, or philosophical works that turn on depression.” Those are exactly the works that Wilson praises. He is only interested in Coleridge’s ability to accurately describe depravation and despair. He only sees George O’Keefe’s skulls and desert landscapes, not the flowers.

Against Happiness is not a cultural critique, it’s a love letter to Wilson’s own emotional state. As the book progresses, the potential audience gets smaller and smaller. It opens talking to all Americans, but by the second chapters he has narrowed his focus to “we melancholics,” and later to “melancholic intellectuals.” By the end he’s just curled up with his aloneness, and we somehow stumbled into his interior monologue.

He sees himself as apart from and superior to all others, referring to the American culture with a sinister “they.” “They haunt the gaudy and garish spaces of the world and ignore the dark margins… They adore the Lifetime channel. They are happy campers. They want God to bless the world. They want us to ask them about their children… They join Book-of-the-Month clubs and identify with sympathetic characters.” These happy types are to be despised and avoided. Wilson turns away from America to take long walks in the woods and contemplate dead sparrows. “I must admit then that regardless of my own efforts to take flight through many escapes America offers, my basic instinct is toward melancholia – a state I must nourish. In fostering my essential nature, I’m trying to live according to what I see as my deep calling. Granted, it’s difficult at times to hold hard to this vocation, this labor in the fields of sadness.”

After reading Against Depression and Against Happiness back to back, it’s difficult not to use Kramer’s book to diagnose Wilson’s book. Kramer wrote, “In the grip of mood disorder, a patient may allude to a sense of superiority. The resilient are missing something; they do not get it.” At times, Wilson’s book – and not just because of the title – seems to be a direct response to Kramer’s thesis that depression is a worthless malady that should be eradicated. Kramer’s name does not appear in the main body of Wilson’s work, although in the Notes section Wilson credits Kramer as an “influence on my ideas.” If Wilson did write Against Happiness in response to Against Depression, Kramer wins this round. Even though Kramer is dismissive of the well-documented links between strife and creativity, as well as pretty much all Jungian theory, Wilson comes off as unfocused and out of touch.

Even though Melville was able to use his melancholia to write Moby-Dick, to insist that people trying to hold down jobs and relationships submerge themselves in melancholia because it might lead to great works of art is not convincing. Wilson’s example of his own ability to turn pain into beauty is that once he wrote three sentences about the color purple while he was sad. Other authors, particularly Kay Redfield Jamison and James Hillman, have written convincingly about the link between melancholia or mental illness and creativity. Wilson is too caught up in his own brain to add anything noteworthy to the discussion.

Many of the mid-’90s memoirs may have been exercises in narcissism, but they seem downright cheery next to Against Happiness. Andrew Solomon, who suffered three breakdowns before writing the beautiful Noonday Demon, looks forward to new medical advances that will alleviate suffering. “On the happy day when we lose depression, we will lose a great deal with it…[but] much will doubtless be gained.” Wilson, who swears there is nothing wrong with him, views all treatment — and not just therapy and drugs, but also yoga and prayer — as crutches only needed by the weak.

Wilson talks about melancholia’s ability to become joy, but Against Happiness is a startlingly joyless book. Wilson seems to have no libido, no drive. He writes:

“I live in a house built in 1920. Its bricks are beginning to crumble away, and its roof needs work. The furnace in the basement is big and brown and lumbering and often in need of repair. The house’s floors are worn and stained. The windows in winter barely resist the blasts of freezing air. The place is frigid most of the time, even in summer… I love this old wreck of a building. I’d never trade it in for one of those warm and efficient prefabricated houses in the suburbs. I enjoy its sweet decadence too much. When I come home from melancholy walks in my neighborhood – near the city and the oldest in town – I love to stand in front of my decomposing abode.”

Continuing his metaphor, I would agree that Kramer’s prefab house in the gated community is too scrubbed and shiny. But Wilson’s enthusiasm for decay is disturbing. Perhaps some renovations, Mr. Wilson? At least some energy efficient windows? No matter how much you love your little house, if it falls into such a state that the city comes by to condemn it, it won’t do you much good. • 5 March 2008

 

Jessa Crispin is editor and founder of Bookslut.com. She currently resides in Chicago.

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