Great Wits Are Near to Madness Close Allied

  Jerome Shea       November 25, 2011      Weekend Wonk

Many years ago—so many that the card catalogue was physically a card catalogue—I was trolling through it idly and came upon the intriguing title—Gravity and Levity—of a book by a psychiatrist named Alan McGlashan. It is an interesting little collection of essays that roam the borderland between medicine and mysticism. What mystified me was that it was shelved not in our main UNM library but over in our Science and Engineering library, and then I realized that someone had taken the title literally, as in the force that large bodies exert, and its opposite, as in lighter-than-air gases. We literary types have taken those terms as metaphors for so long that it is good to be reminded where they spring from. Hugh Glass (fur trapper, mountain man) specified his standard breakfast as “Whiskey to lift me up and pancakes to weight me down,” neatly expressing both the literal and the figurative in the same phrase. Gravity and levity. This week we’ll see how they balance, or tip, the scales.

In a recent wonk, “Tears, Idle Tears,” I tried to distinguish between sadness, the melancholia that I was trying to ring changes on, and clinical depression, which I wanted nothing to do with. I called it “a thirsty leech on the soul,” and I will stand by that. But a friend took issue with that, and when Joe takes issue with something, I listen up. It’s a tricky point, but I think he was saying that clinical depression, while not something that you would wish upon anyone, is often part and parcel of genius, and in that grotesque sense it may be worth the pain. I am not won over, but I know what he means: there is a long tradition of the brooding genius who, at an awful price, transmutes his (or her) pain into great art. This was almost the defining philosophy of the Romantic period and after, and across all the arts. And it isn’t restricted to that flamboyant era. If a telltale risk for a depressive is suicide, I can think of at least three more recent writers who did themselves in—Hart Crane, Sylvia Plath, and, just three years ago, David Foster Wallace, an enormous talent who, according to reports, deliberately went off his meds and gave up.

E.A. Robinson makes a nice distinction, I think: Eben Flood, sad, will nonetheless keep on drinking; Richard Cory, clinically depressed, puts a bullet through his head.

Despite a generally happy life, I was clinically depressed at least once. It had an external cause, something to do with my job, but I was most emphatically not just blue or sad or angry. Instead, it was like swimming in molasses or trying to sail a little boat on a becalmed pond. I could not concentrate, could not focus. I had a big job to prepare for, but my imagination and my drive were absolutely shot. Desperate, I would spend a whole day in my office or in the library, but mostly just wandering aimlessly through the stacks. I would scribble out a few sentences of an idea on a note card and then tear it up and throw it away. Again and again I did that. My doctor put me on Paxil, which just made me spacey as well as depressed. And sleep most certainly did not knit up that damned raveled sleeve. As summer became fall and things got busier, the depression slowly broke up like morning fog. But what I experienced for those four or five months I would not wish on my worst enemy.

A couple of observations. I have never been accused of genius. (My IQ is respectable, but hardly off the charts.) I am just an amiable old party who likes to string words together and, on a good day, maybe channel E.B. White. I talked the other day with a friend who lived through a rock bottom year in college, the symptoms the same as mine. But like mine, it was an isolated episode. He’s been fine for years and will probably stay so. The second observation is that there is depression like mine and his—one-shot episodes with obvious causes—and then there is life-long recurring depression, something which does not so much afflict a person as be a part of that person, springing from early trauma, chemical imbalance, heredity, or whatever. Virginia Woolf . David Foster Wallace. Ernest Hemingway. Vincent Van Gogh. Between Shea and Van Gogh the difference both in suffering and in art is incalculable.

But did Van Gogh’s madness make for his great art? In other words, what about that hypothetical connection that we raised a few paragraphs back? A quick survey of the psychiatric literature suggests that the jury is still out. There have been artists who have led serene and happy lives, though they seem to be the exception rather than the rule, so there may be something to the connection. On the other hand, there is a nagging suspicion that artists—or we, their acolytes—are only too happy to propagate this myth of the tortured genius. By what perverse logic should depression, madness, somehow become a merit badge for us to pin on our heroes? This view implies, also, that your plumber or your accountant or the kid flipping burgers at McDonalds could not possibly be a victim of depression, and yet this is not just patently untrue but deeply (and perversely) condescending.

I’d better stop now. I’m beginning to feel lower than whale shit myself.

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