Depression vs. melancholy


I was reading Peter Kramer’s article “There’s Nothing Deep About Depression,” from his book Against Depression.  He attacks the romanticization or idealization of depression and melancholy, and specifically calls out the Renaissance “cult of melancholy” which associated melancholy with artistic talent and mystical insight.

He brings up one of the common arguments against treating all “depression” simply as a disease (and not a romantic one), in the specific form of a question about Van Gogh: should Van Gogh have been treated for depression?  The implication is that a happy Van Gogh may not have produced the same works of art, and so the world would have been deprived of something lasting and beautiful.

His response is simple — yes, Van Gogh should have been treated for depression.  He isn’t really philosophical about it, he just sounds frustrated that depression is the only medical condition that people qualify in such a way.  House invokes the same argument.  When House is “healed,” he loses his edge, his special creative capacity.  Once in a while, the show tries to break through this cliche and show that the character’s gift isn’t tied to his pain or his dysfunction, even if he believes it is.  But this is rare.

Kramer also acknowledges that alienation, sadness, disillusionment may be proper responses to specific situations.  Depression is something clinical, a pervasive feeling of lack — a missing self, the inability to fill or heal the soul.

I like his ideas.  I think he’s right, and his argument against “heroic melancholy” is a good one.  That doesn’t mean that melancholy isn’t a powerful artistic idea.  Holden Caulfield is lost, and it’s an existential kind of loss, just as much as Hamlet’s.  I disagree that the projection is really heroic; Caulfield has a nervous breakdown, and Hamlet loses his mind.  There’s this sense in both tales that the character is ill-suited to the world, and by showing that, the creators are able to cast those very human attributes — self-awareness and sensitivity, longing for wholeness — into sharp relief.  If it’s true that the Renaissance “scholars” confounded melancholy with other characteristics — alcoholism, actual madness, misogyny — then it’s also true that our response to projections of melancholy is confounded.  It isn’t Hamlet’s inaction or brooding that excites us, but the sharpness of his mind.  And it isn’t Caulfield’s rejection of the world that captivates us, but his yearning for something pure.

In any case the melancholy I’m thinking and writing about isn’t depression.  It’s something that colors the world without making the world inaccessible or unbearable.  And the argument I would make is that, properly understood, it is an appropriate response to the world.  But don’t I really want to show what comes after?  That a disposition toward melancholy is just one side of the coin, and the other is the possibility of great happiness and personal insight?

I don’t know if those things have to be spelled out, and maybe it’s best if they aren’t.  But I don’t want to create a character who stays lost.

About the author

Tom Howard

Tom Howard is the author of Fierce Pretty Things (Indiana University Press, 2019).

He received his MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Fierce Pretty Things won the 2018 Blue Light Books Fiction Prize, and his individual stories have won the Ninth Letter Literary Award in Fiction, the Indiana Review Fiction Prize, the Robert and Adele Schiff Award for Fiction, the Carve Magazine Prose & Poetry Contest, the Tobias Wolff Award in Fiction, the Innovative Short Fiction Prize, the Willow Springs Ficiton Prize, the Rash Award in Fiction, and the Robert J. DeMott Award for Short Prose.

He lives with his wife in Arlington, Virginia.

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