Before our contemporary salves and self-helps, there were the arts, foremost among them philosophy. Jeremy Brunger uses a range of media to process his own melancholia.
Surely I am not the only person whom the holidays depress. My gift to myself for 2014 was not seeing my family this Christmas; I will not see them for the New Year, either. I worked Christmas Eve, suppressing tears behind my eyes as the retail lines seemed to lengthen endlessly. On Christmas day my dinner plans fell through. I was beat; I am beat. Tonight at work a meth-head threatened to rob me with a pistol after I found a joint behind the cash register. The way we refer to how I feel, whether or not you feel the same way, is “depressed.” To consider depression is to consider our minds spatially, as if there were naturally an upper limit and a lower, within it; but it might just be that to be depressed is to be intimate with the real, while being ecstatic is to be intimate with the fictitious. These are separate spheres, not to be confused in a blurry middle, which we usually call the humdrum of everyday life. “I am of two minds,” some people say, perhaps not knowing the total truth in such a statement. There is, I think, no third.
In the early 17th century, the Englishman Robert Burton published his Anatomy of Melancholy. It was among the first modern theological-scientific treatises on the subject of what we would now recognize as depression. It is an admixture of poetic description and ancient quotation. The Roman philosopher Seneca himself, whom Burton quotes, taught his Stoic followers to “rehearse death” if they would have a good life, for the prospect of the end of life should educate the process. Burton was astute in recognizing death as the keenest relation of depression: it is what it uses to teach the victim what he might be grateful for. Depression has a long history; indeed, it has a long culture, and certain of the 20th century philosophers thought it co-incidental with culture itself. Michel Foucault thought madness, a form of which is depression, to be a powerful symptom of how human beings have come to live since their departure from the Rousseauist paradise, that state of nature unbothered by civilization, meth-heads and drone warfare included. Perhaps the most potent of the melancholic theorists was Arthur Schopenhauer, the 19th century German philosopher whose ceaseless march towards all that was depressive informed a whole generation of pacifists, anarchists, and modernists. His second in command was, no doubt, the queen of blues-jazz, Billie Holiday. Lady sang the blues how Schopenhauer wrote it.
I played a Billie Holiday song at my aunt’s funeral several years ago: “God Bless the Child.” Hers remains one of the finest renditions of the song, much how Saturn devoured his children in one of Goya’s famous Black Paintings. It has been covered nearly a hundred times. I do not often delve into music. When I do, it is necessarily memorable for me. I am an atheist whom blues can make religious, if only for a short time. Billie’s chorus concludes:
“Them that’s got shall get
Them that’s not shall lose…”
Karl Marx might have written that, had he lived to squint his ear at the advent of Delta blues and the beautiful pieces of music that the successors of the American slaves, about whom he wrote to President Lincoln regarding their emancipation, made during the century proceeding his. The finest thing to my mind if not my ear about jazz and blues is not the simple bars it features, its acoustic deliciousness, or the finely-wrought poetry that it substitutes in place of mere lyrics: it is the class-inspective nature of the music that draws me in. In the arts misery is almost edible. In every blues song there is poverty. In every jazz song there is need.
Billie died in poverty how she lived in wealth: material and linguistic, no doubt, because she sang so very much, cursed so very much, and made so very much money delighting America and abroad with her talent. Nevertheless, her life was depressive. This was above all else her chief characteristic. James Baldwin, a black American writer whose renown is particularly well-deserved, mentioned her life in his book of cinematic criticism The Devil Finds Work. Billie was raped as a child, lived in a mysoginistic, racist society, had a middling education, and had no working skills save those she applied to her music and its double, the presentation of it on the stage. She was the lucky representative of a whole swathe of America, only she, at least, is now remembered; most in her era died as miserable as she did with little beyond phantoms to represent them to posterity. God bless the child. Most people have talent and never show it, beyond their own select audience: Billie had the country at her command, how too few since have held its ears, or its eyes. Despite her enormous success she died a melancholic, a poor one at that. Many Americans have; most have lost, and lost much that had been heretofore dear.
Schopenhauer’s philosophy—if not the man himself, admittedly, since he dined on crab even while renouncing the pleasures of the physical body—posited an inhuman universe composed of constantly conflicting forces, with little agreement save that reached in precisely the conflict which presented itself against itself: the self-divided Will. The German philosophy of his time was full of such speculation: Nietzsche wrote of the Will, following Schopenhauer and then later denouncing him. Sections of it influenced Nazism; other sections influenced American neoconservatism a century later, when America began to think of itself as the savior of the world because of the Will embodied in its democratic republicanism. Its chief position is that there is no harmony in the world, not even in music, nor in the social realm. There is only conflict, Schopenhauer writes, and resignation. If blues was and is not the music of resignation as opposed to revolution, I don’t know what is. I cannot help now but to listen to it. It certainly presents a splendid resignation, one that is, despite its apparent nature, heavy with the mood of conflict.
I have lived with depression for a while now. Perhaps I have lived with it for as long as I can remember, but that assertion might meet with a scoff or two, since I cannot remember beyond my age, and I don’t have particularly much of that. But it has nevertheless thoroughly characterized my outlook. I am not alone in this; it is probable that the happy man nowadays is the outlier among his kind, since even the ancient Greeks thought him the special man among the hoi polloi, that unhappy multitude which has composed the majority of our species since time immemorial. George Orwell once wrote about the religious man, in the topsy turvey curve of the 19th century becoming the 20th with much ado and groan, becoming the minority amongst atheists who have lived to witness afresh two world wars during which what was gruesome became what is commonplace. Fresh air and sunshine became mustard gas and the atom bomb in the public consciousness. The same might hold true today for the simple consciousness and the unhappy consciousness, which Hegel wrote about in the 19th century to describe the mind of the man in bondage. Now they are largely one and the same as darkness becomes visible, as William Styron had it in his memoir of depression, taking cues from Milton’s Paradise Lost.
In 2014 turning into 2015, parts of America are actually afraid of riots, because they present real threats to the social order and real symptoms of its brutal dysfunctions; other parts are afraid of the religious eschaton that will bring the end of the world as we know it (though some of us know better); other parts are afraid of an oil crisis; other parts yet scream for the sake of our collective children. The end of the year does witness such misery as to undo what good the year has brought, or rather, what good the years have brought. It invades our media, and through that, our minds, whether by television, the literature we consume, or the centuries that have come before us which continue to inform us as to our human condition. Perhaps the Bible, that collection of history and moralistic fable, is correct in saying that there is nothing new under the sun. To be depressed is, strangely, to be normal. I do not know whether to laugh or weep at such an observation, however dearly I hold it. This year, the happy man is uncanny. Misery is in, as much as it was during the old Hebraic time of “Eccliastes,” the modern time of Das Kapital, and even the contemporary time of the upcoming bloom of the New Year’s Eve Ball at Times Square. As far as melancholia is concerned the decades bequeath themselves to each other in a procession that turns into centuries, with the underlying mood of scarcity and struggle hardly changing at all. The contour changes around the unchanging substance of our human history: and our history books positively bloat with the record of brutalities we have gleefully launched against each other.
Ian McEwan, a British novelist, wrote that public misery is “the democrat’s pornography.” I came across this gleaning from McEwan through the writing of Christopher Hitchens, one of my own somewhat misguided heros of literature and the public sphere; he wrote about it in his treatise lambasting organized religion. At that juncture one is tempted to think of West African viruses and Asian-coast ecocatastrophes, though one should also think of home, where misery is rampant and sometimes lucrative. I have seen more distraught and desperate human beings in the downtown sector of my city than I have seen on the media from abroad, and this last is not for lack of exposure. I have been robbed, propositioned by prostitutes, nearly witnessed a murder save for a luckily misfiring shotgun: I’ve heard a friend tell me his uncle beat him into the Bloods gang when he was 12. The relatively new discipline of Happiness Studies suggests America, the wealthiest powerhouse of capitalism in the world, is among the most psychiatrically medicated and among the most depressed. Of course the state I live in is, in particular, one of the worst offenders.
The inhumane is what clothes all that we think of as humane: it is everywhere. If misery is the democrat’s pornography, happy families are the republican’s pornography. Both are such abuses of reality that neither deserve much attention paid to them beyond the simply neutral, since both phases of social life dialectically engender each other. Since Socrates uttered his wisdom the inutterably happy smile has not been the sheer reverse of the suicidal frown. This might be a simple image, but I do hope it is a powerful one, and only that because powerfully human.
Horror is beyond the reach of psychology.
Theodor Adorno wrote that at around the time of World War II. He numbered among the luckiest of his generation, because he wound up an intellectual of pessimism, rather than a man cloistered in a concentration camp, or a bystander amongst the newest Red revolution shot in the head, or an American Nisei condemned to grow up in a labor commune. Adorno died a world-famous hero of the intellect whose two most famous writings, Minima Moralia and Dialectic of Enlightenment (this last, albeit, co-written with Max Horkheimer) remain the most indicting documents of the last century in our Western civilization. If even he thought, wrote, and wasted away, what of the rest of us as the years grow fat with our constant maneuverings, with our miniscule displeasures and our unwavering genuflections which gain us naught? The modernist writer Fernando Pessoa once wrote that “could it think, the heart would stop beating.” Agreement between two theorists of misery is a hard-won agreement, no doubt. Adorno himself is famous for writing that “the splinter in your eye is the best magnifying-glass.” Some of us need glasses. The most trenchant writer of depression for the 21st century is Michel Houellebecq, winner of France’s most prestigious literary prize, whose tomes tend to put me into the blackest of moods even as they educate me.
I will end this brief essay where I began it, by pointing out that not only is depression a modern conception of an ancient phenomenon—melancholia—but that it is also an animal response to unhappy stimuli, a world of conditioning by circumstances both larger than and created by human beings. If you have not felt it this year, you have not left your house. Only a fool would think that displeasure is purely the result of his own doing, when the whole world does it, and does it wonderfully, as though it were itself the display of a maddening zoo. To wonder why is to engage in introspection, which is fine enough, but nevertheless not enough. To deny that invasive melancholia which is characteristic of the human everyday is, however, to die without first mourning our entire determinant conditions, which we ought likewise to understand even as they consequently constitute us. We are born in solitude and live in a likewise situation. News happens to us; we do not happen to the news. The only happy man is the man who has been deeply unhappy, who has since learned to swim among the depths, perhaps even learned to grow gills among the frosts and the reefs, which have conspired to extend their rough-hewn arms around him. The only Will, to spite Schopenhauer and his ilk, against that doubtful misery is an optimism based on truth, which perhaps thus far the pessimists have unfairly monopolized. The Marxist political philosopher Antonio Gramsci once suggested a “pessimism of the intellect” and an “optimism of the will” in his generalized struggle for emancipation from the common misery we all know, whether from our finances or from the basic root of our emotional makeup. In knowing this maxim I am obliged to cheer up. In 2006, about 50 years after Billie gave her song “Lady Sings the Blues” to the public, Regina Spektor wrote her answer to it, entitled “Summer in the City,” in which she croons a finer line neither Schopenhauer nor Seneca ever wrote:
And don’t get me wrong, dear, in general I’m doing quite fine.
I hope 2015 will prove decisive because its precedent years have proven equally decisive. A progressive politics is making itself a benevolent behemoth throughout the country even as corporate profits continue their increase and the vox populi grows weary. Gay marriage is legal in 35 states. Victim-free crimes are becoming further de-penalized; the great financial crimes of the past governmental regime are being uncovered and popularized amongst the public; intelligent populism is the norm once again thanks to a few intellectuals and a massive amount of regular people determining their fates with strategy and thought; the predatory elites of our economy cower, despite their power which is certainly temporary; the creative show their worth in the arts which are finally making their long-due comeback. I disbelieve in hereditary economic inequalities as heartily as I disbelieve in hereditary racial inequalities: the country’s mind is coming along in this, too. And at the tail-end of all this progress is the sweetness of the bittersweet, that bitterness which has tempered its opposite, which all of us who have thus far survived, has, in turn, tempered back on itself in order to own the future that is our due. As the architects of the Milgram behavioral program said, “the experiment requires that you continue.” The preceeding years have made us who we are, with our misery and pleasure composed together in order, after all, to finally compose us. In short, the synonyms for hope outnumber its opposites. If I have dwelt too long on the subject of melancholia it is only to relieve it for those born tomorrow, who will prove deserving of the Earth, provided we do not first succumb to a despair all too typical of the 21st century.
Photo: i could sleep through a world war/Flickr
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