Melancholy is a word that has fallen out of favor for describing the condition we now call depression. The fact that our language has changed, without the earlier word disappearing completely, indicates that we are still able to make use of both. Like most synonyms, melancholy and depression are not in fact synonymous, but slips of the tongue in a language we’re still learning. We keep trying to specify our experience of mental suffering, but all our new words constellate instead of consolidate meaning. In the essay collection Under the Sign of Saturn, Susan Sontag writes about her intellectual heroes, who all suffer solitude, ill temper, existential distress and creative block. They all breathe black air. According to her diagnostic model, they are all “melancholics.” Sontag doesn’t use the word depression in the company of her role models, but elsewhere she draws what seems like an easy distinction: “Depression is melancholy minus its charms.” But what are the charms of melancholy?
There is a long history in Western thought associating melancholy and genius. We have van Gogh with his severed ear. We have Montaigne confessing, “It was a melancholy humor … which first put into my head this raving concern with writing.” We have Nina Simone and Kurt Cobain, Thelonious Monk and David Foster Wallace. We have the stubborn conviction that all of these artists produced the work they did not in spite of, but somehow because of, their suffering. The charms of melancholy seem to be the charms of van Gogh’s quietly kaleidoscopic color palette: in one self-portrait, every color used on his face is echoed elsewhere in the surroundings. His white bandage complements the canvas in the corner, his yellow skin the wall, his blue hat the blue window. The charms of his work become the charms of his persona and his predicament.
But there’s another kind of portrait possible: the melancholic has not always and everywhere been cast as the romantic hero. In fact, Montaigne’s discussion of melancholy was meant as a kind of Neoplatonic corrective to the old medieval typology of the four humors which cast the “melancholic,” choking on an excess of black bile, as an unfortunate miser and sluggard, despised for his unsociability and general incompetence. That sounds more like it. Indeed, the medieval portrait of melancholy seems to have something in common with our understanding of depression today—or at least of the depressed person we see in pharmaceutical advertisements, whose disease seems to be lack of interest in the family barbecue. We do have our share of romantic geniuses—the suicide of David Foster Wallace is a dark lodestar over recent generations of writers. The pharmacological discourse of depression has not entirely replaced the romantic discourse of melancholy. But on the whole, contemporary American culture seems committed to a final solution.
Both stigmatization and sanctification come with real ethical dangers. On the one hand, there is the danger that hidden in the wish for the elimination of depressive symptoms is a wish for the elimination of other essential attributes of the depressed person—her posture of persistent critique, her intolerance for small talk. On the other hand there is the danger of taking pleasure in the pain of the melancholic, and of adding the expectation of insight to the already oppressive expectations the melancholic likely has for herself. But these ethical dangers are not simply imposed on the unfortunate person from the outside. It is not only the culture at large that oscillates between understanding psychological suffering as a sign of genius and a mark of shame. The language used in both discourses bears a striking resemblance to the language the depressed person uses in her own head.
When I was a child I had a strong curiosity regarding depression, as well as a disdain for it that I learned from my family the way other children learn disdain for the poor. All of my grandparents were either medicated or self-medicating for mood disorders, and my mother watched me tensely, my crybaby ways on the playground, the grave faces on my colored pencil portraits, my mock burials in the sandbox. No shadow that crossed my face escaped her eye: “Well, why are you being bullied? And did you tell the teacher? If you’re unhappy, we’ll switch schools. Do you want to stay somewhere that makes you miserable?” I think she meant to soothe my natural sadness before it had the chance to trigger the brooding alcoholic latent in my genome. Solutionism: mostly practical, but also spiritual. Both my mother and father were heavily engaged in a religious community that promised nothing short of enlightenment, and my earliest picture book—What to Remember to Be Happy—was authored by their guru. I preferred Snow White and Rose Red, the mesmerizing tale of an ungrateful gnome and a girl who falls in love with a bear.
It was this rhetorical environment that made me think of depressed people as those sorry souls who refused heaven, who didn’t want to find solutions for their feelings. Or else people who, through no fault of their own, lived lives so freighted with violence, responsibility and structural inequality that any resolution would require a revolution. My mother suggested that her own mother—an orphaned immigrant—fell into this category. I did not. On the whole I wanted to be a good girl, and grateful. I didn’t want to be an impossible problem. But it didn’t seem to me that feeling a little sad, or even very sad, made me a problem, and I was both eager and afraid for the day when I would be free to allow my melancholy to play itself out on its own schedule.
In high school I loved Joni Mitchell, her face all mountain crag and shadow on the CD jacket for Blue. And on the title track, her lyrics: “Everybody’s saying that hell’s the hippest way to go / Well I don’t think so / But I’m gonna take a look around.” This is a cautious woman, skeptical of the melodrama of melancholy, its “hipness.” Even though I felt at home in those words, I hated the lost, spiraling minor descent her voice made into the void. In his first published short story, “The Planet Trillaphon as it Stands in Relation to the Bad Thing,” David Foster Wallace describes the feeling of depression as “like being underwater, but maybe imagine the moment in which you realize, at which it hits you that there is no surface for you, that you’re just going to drown in there no matter which way you swim.” Joni Mitchell’s voice was adrift in the world Wallace describes. I couldn’t get my bearings, even when I tried to hook my ear to a note in the middle, the way you’re told to spit if you’re caught rolling in a riptide and don’t know which way is air, and breath, and life. So I would usually listen to the first few seconds and skip to the next track, called “California,” which reminded me where I was, just north of San Francisco. And even though I couldn’t stand listening to “Blue,” I envied its making, which I fantasized as a radical gesture of emotional independence.
Indeed when I (inevitably?) fell into a “clinical depression” myself, one of my few pleasures was the imperviousness of my pain to my mother’s advice. Alone—and with my long-distance boyfriend, who was saved from my vacant gaze by the pixelated imperfection of our Skype connection—I was classically self-loathing. Freud noticed that the melancholic “has a keener eye for the truth than other people who are not melancholic. When in his heightened self-criticism he describes himself as petty, egoistic, dishonest, lacking in independence, one whose sole aim has been to hide the weaknesses of his own nature, it may be … that he has come pretty near to understanding himself.” And indeed, I spoke with a kind of confidence to my mother regarding my condition, demonstrating the “insistent communicativeness” of the melancholic, “which finds satisfaction in self-exposure.” This is the kind of meaning words like “satisfaction” come to have in this state of emergency. “Satisfaction” is the right to remain underwater when your mother is fishing for you with her golden line.
The state of emergency lasted for about twenty months. Even now it’s hard to say when it began, and harder still to say when it ended—the psychic pain has subsided asymptotically, and today I hover near normal like a high-speed train over electrically charged tracks. But I know better than to minimize the difference between those twenty months and a bad mood now. When I think about that period, I don’t remember much beyond my bedroom. I remember the bedbug infestation. I remember how the pictures shook on the wall when the policeman came knocking at my door to make sure I wasn’t “missing.” And I remember the window, especially at night when I couldn’t see past my own reflection through to the elm tree outside. I remember enough to feel afraid of going back there; even writing much about that period seems inadvisable. And yet I see my mind circle the scene, as though there’s something to be scavenged. As though the depression could show me something other than my weaknesses.
Freud was not a romantic, despite his affection for the poetry of Goethe and Rilke, and he was certainly not a romantic in his vision of psychological suffering. Many of his patients were in serious trouble—the kind of trouble that prevents you from shitting without the aid of an enema, or makes you think you’re pregnant when you’re a virgin (these examples, it bears mentioning, come from his early cases). Freud’s aim was to cure—to alleviate the symptoms that his patients dropped like dead birds at his doorstep. But he knew that his patients, the sort of people that didn’t feel they “fit in” with Viennese society, were not the only ones leaving morbid gifts. Freud didn’t romanticize sickness, but much more radically, he didn’t romanticize normalness: “Every normal person, in fact, is only normal on the average. His ego approximates to that of the psychotic in some part or other.” He placed every human psyche on the same continuum; in his estimation the “normal” fascination of the lover with an article of his beloved’s clothing shades into the shoe fetishist’s obsession. Insofar as any of us are capable of insight or knowledge, the crazy are just as capable as the sane. We all have reasons for doing what we do, however buried or byzantine.
Still, I’ve always found Freud’s landmark essay “Mourning and Melancholia” difficult to follow. He gets some things so right—what melancholy looks and feels like, how its symptoms show up. But the central claim is strange: Freud argues that all of the self-reproaches so typical of the melancholic, even if they seem justified, are secretly and truly reproaches of someone else entirely: “reproaches against a loved object which have been shifted away from it on to the patient’s own ego.” According to Freud, the melancholic is much angrier, and much more disappointed, by someone or something else than she is with herself. Perhaps “a betrothed girl … has been jilted,” perhaps she has been disillusioned by her mother, or by a poorly funded school. But rather than letting go, she clings to the relationship as it was through a curious mechanism. She identifies with her lost love, and even takes on its worst attributes—the mother’s impossible standards, the school’s expectation of criminality. Freud writes that “[her] narcissistic identification with the object then becomes a substitute for the erotic bond, the result of which is that in spite of the conflict with the loved person the love-relation need not be given up…” The price she pays for hanging onto her love is hanging on to her hate.
But depression is not only or always characterized by a repressed identification that leads to self-hatred; it can also be caused by unrepressed identifications that open out into an overwhelming empathy. I spent long nights undone by documentaries about factory farming, days wild with rage over the forced sterilizations of indigenous women. There is something delusional in this empathy, to be sure: we do not all have equal claim to every form of suffering. And yet, depression alerts you to an overlap between them, the same way that Freud suggests that “there is no need to be greatly surprised that a few genuine self-reproaches are scattered among those that have been transposed back” from your lost love. There is genuine empathy “scattered among” your empathetic fevers: empathy that lasts. In the afterlife of my depression, the contours of my sense of human suffering have permanently altered. I no longer have the reflexive disdain I once did for people who don’t get out of bed. I can instantly recognize a certain dilation of the pupils—what I privately think of as the “wormhole look.”
It is tempting to regard this enduring empathy as depression’s most crucial lesson, and therefore as melancholy’s most precious charm. We like to believe that suffering will make us wise because it softens us to the suffering of others. Of course, we cannot escape the deadly evidence to the contrary: the studies that warn that the hazed will haze, the abused will abuse. In her recent book of essays The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison identifies the perils of empathy even as aspiration. There’s the danger of appropriation, which I alluded to above. “When bad things happened to other people, I imagined them happening to me,” Jamison writes. “I [don’t] know if this was empathy or theft.” But Jamison also has a sense of empathy’s “impossible asymptote,” the skin that stays sticky between us. Appropriation is not only a problem because you’ve claimed someone else’s feeling as your own; it is also a problem because what you’ve claimed is probably—necessarily—not their feeling. Jamison gets at something I’d like to believe about my own depression: that it taught me something not only about empathy, but also about empathy’s limits.
Friends who are in the trenches tell me how they feel: one is half-dead with grief over the death of a distant cousin. Another cannot get out from under the apocalypse of climate change. It turns my stomach to suspect—to know—that they are, for lack of a better word, right. Suddenly I remember: just because I don’t know someone well should not make him unmournable. This is our only planet. Lars von Trier allegorizes the prescience of the disastrously depressed in his 2011 movie Melancholia. Kirsten Dunst’s character—a true basketcase—is the only one who can see that the earth will soon be destroyed by an imminent collision with an unknown planet. Like my friends, she’s right. But what haunts me is not her rightness. What haunts me is the evocation of that other planet. Sometimes depression can work like the devil’s tuning fork, pointing toward the poisoned river running beneath the surface of our society. But depression also is that river, the sign that what we cannot sense, source or solve—whether illness or sweetness, fact or feeling—retains its own reality.