The Consolation of Literature
Around the time Andrew Solomon’s essay on depression, “Anatomy of Melancholy,” appeared in the New Yorker, a neighbor jumped from the roof of my apartment building. All that winter afternoon, policemen came and went with a loud offhandedness; suicide is part of their job, after all. Today, I read “The Noonday Demon"--the book that grew from that magazine essay--haunted by that neighbor I saw but never spoke to, another example of the grief of being that drives so many to death, and so many others to hide from it, fight it, attempt to cure it--or write about it.
Solomon’s book quickly became a bestseller; last fall, it was honored with the National Book Award for nonfiction. Writing “The Noonday Demon” (the title comes from the 90th Psalm) became, for him, a way of reaching out to his fellow depressives and to the undepressed. In every chapter, our guide remains close. The horror of his personal ordeal (days spent in bed too despairing to move) should be enough to make any reader understand why he writes of himself so incessantly.
But “The Noonday Demon” is not content to remain a personal study: It’s also the most ambitious recent book about a subject that has long been ceded to psychiatrists and social workers. Solomon even encroaches on their territory, skillfully interpreting medical texts and studies. He evaluates treatments, from new pharmaceuticals to older methods like shock treatment, as well as New Age alternative approaches.
Solomon is sometimes too willing to trust the medical and pharmaceutical professions. He discloses that his father’s company (Forest Laboratories) is the American distributor of Celexa, one of several antidepressants Solomon takes. But Solomon never fully focuses on the underside of treatments--the miserable side effects and misprescriptions of medications; the terrible powerlessness the depressed often feel at the hands of health care workers--and his sunniness can get irritating. “Take your pills,” he advises his depressed readers.
“The Noonday Demon” is on the whole a generous, intelligent, worthy study, not only ranging through hundreds of books and thousands of years of history, but exploring geographical worlds of depression: visiting Iceland, where the depressed must live for long periods without sunlight, and Cambodia, where women survivors of genocide receive beauty-parlor cossettings and a recipe of “forgetting, working, and loving.”
Yet why is it that Solomon never truly explores the site where depression has expressed itself most completely, provided sanctuary, enlightenment or at least occupation for its sufferers and benefits for succeeding generations--in literature? What we now call depression has an older, richer name, “melancholy” (from the Greek melaina kole, “black bile,” perhaps first written about by Aristotle). So frequently present in the lives of artists that its absence is often more notable than its appearance, melancholy is most powerfully put to work in art and most fully communicated there. There is something about melancholy that, under the proper nurturing circumstances, all but bounds into imaginative expression, despite the agony it wreaks on its creators. (“They could not help it if their laments sounded so beautiful,” Franz Kafka once wrote about the sirens whose singing lured sailors to their deaths.) This is a literature not of madness, but of supreme lucidity, a covert tradition that dares to state the highest truths of existence from the deepest afflictions of sorrow: Call it the literature of consolation and courage.
In “The Noonday Demon” Solomon often quotes literature, but usually in support of his own opinions or when summarizing a historical school or period (not always fairly). Yet a less constricted search into the figures and landmarks of the kingdom of words leads one to discover melancholy in every age, every form, gliding within the shadow of many characters, empowering growing piles of plays and novels, animating rhythms of countless poems. What greater solace or community might there be? Following the reign of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, King of Melancholics, 17th century England (to start in the middle of the journey) was the summit of melancholy creation. John Donne’s poetry and his fierce argument over the efficacy of suicide compete in plangency with the prose masterwork of the heavy-hearted, Robert Burton’s “The Anatomy of Melancholy.” Solomon gives this book far too little homage: It is in fact a staggering triumph of education and artistry, at once a treatise on the medical, historical, philosophical and spiritual aspects of melancholy, a pep talk for fellow sufferers and a meta-fictional challenge leagues more daunting than any Melville or Thomas Pynchon crafted centuries later.
The depressive torrent continued through the Romantic age: Wordsworth and Shelley and Byron and Blake, Keats’ “Ode on Melancholy,” Dickens’ Miss Havisham (among many others), the Brontes’ sisterly misery in life and letters, advancing to American literature’s new continent of literary guilt and despair, from the New England metaphysicalism of Emily Dickinson to the Post Modern digressiveness of David Foster Wallace.
Why has melancholy revealed itself so outspokenly, so passionately, in literature? Perhaps because it allows readers and creators afflicted by life to send and receive messages to and from each other. Direct social speech about such suffering was seldom possible. The information of melancholy, its irrefutable faith in despair, could, when translated by imagination, be made bearable to the reader (and the culture) by beauty and the belief its message was only “fictional.” Long suspected the work of the devil, or (at least) a social malignity, or (today) a pathology, depression in poetry, in drama, in narrative, in allegory, in metaphor, could be shared completely, without prohibition. And when melancholy overwhelmed words, song stepped in: In “The Plaint,” from Henry Purcell’s baroque opera “The Fairy Queen,” the singer sighs a few moribund phrases, “Ah, let me weep, forever weep!”, passing repeatedly into silence; the violin takes over, its variations flooded with additional sorrows. Back and forth voice and violin go, until there is simply no more to say, play, or feel.
Such excess is characteristic of melancholic creation, which usually occurs post-prostration: Coleridge gratefully regains his powers of composition, Charlotte Bronte repairs to her writing desk, Virginia Woolf to her diaries, essays, novels. But many sufferers also experience appalling eruptions of their depressions into disobedient speech, and there are instances when “the shadow mouth” (Andre Breton) directly strikes at literature. Two examples familiar to readers are Edgar Allan Poe and Sylvia Plath. The ghastly claustrophobia of an ultimate, terrible meaning permeating Poe’s most sinister work bears the howl of the melancholic at his most unendurable. The defiant relish and fateful candor in Plath’s final poems probably accounts for her still-scandalous reputation.
It is not only Solomon who misses the potent wisdom of melancholy literature: Our entire culture flees from it. Many critics and artists today dismiss or even ridicule any notion of the therapeutic, even redemptive potential of art. I am not suggesting healing and enrichment are literature’s only values. But to claim that pages full of melancholic wisdom shouldn’t console, inform, even inspire readers to take action (in addition to being works of the highest quality) is to miss a fundamental reason literature exists, and has always and should still exist. Underestimating or belittling its nourishing, even transfiguring powers is a major reason literature plays so diminished a role in the culture today. Literature as a formal or critical object, or as a mere commodity, is a literature not worth a damn.
If we can come to revalue melancholy’s place in literature, we can do the same for melancholy itself. I am not suggesting we turn away from the true and horrible suffering that creators (and others) endure on its account; many more have perished since the day my neighbor jumped from our roof, and more always will. Honoring melancholy means attending to its uncomfortable truth, a truth the literature of melancholy more than demonstrates its bearers and hearers must possess, even if it’s one they would prefer never to know. Some of its sufferers view melancholy not as the final abandonment of hope but as the forging-place of a hope that can withstand the worst the world can hurl at it. (Hope is the last spirit left in the box Pandora opened, and it pleads to be let out, not for its own sake, but for the world’s.) The literature of melancholy reminds us that the depressed exist in part to give us reasons to live we must hear--and frequently can only hear--from their doubting, bitter, yet perpetually reimagining and enduring voices.
Patrick Giles is associate editor of Interview magazine.