Anatomy of Melancholy


Back in 1998, David Foster Wallace published a vicious but hilarious monologue satirizing the mind-set of someone—referred to only as The Depressed Person—possessed of “a pathetically starved and greedy omnineediness.” In endless late-night phone calls to acquaintances, the title character entangles herself in a Möbius flystrip of self-analysis so sticky that she ignores a listening friend’s terminal cancer in favor of pressing the friend relentlessly for feedback on her own lack of empathy.

It was one of the least sympathetic portrayals of depression ever, and certainly—insofar as a work of fiction can be unfair to a class of suffering people—unfair. But for all its biliousness, the story did prick on a legitimate problem: a strain of grandiosity, of romanticized narcissism, in the recent flood of therapeutic first-person accounts of mental illness. Two new books—Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon and the essay collection Unholy Ghost— attempt, in differing ways, to take a wider view.

Solomon’s book is the more successful of the two—remarkably enough, since it is based on a first-person memoir (published in The New Yorker in 1998) that might have served as the case study for the syndrome described above. Despite its vivid storytelling, the original essay was frustratingly solipsistic and opaque. Certainly, Solomon himself is a peculiar bird: The hyperintellectual scion of a pharmaceutical fortune, he’s the sort of person who breezily refers to his postgraduate decision, “almost on a whim, to become an adventurer.” (He lived in romantic squalor in Moscow, played in a rock band, left his “repressions and erotic fears” behind, and so on.)

But this oddball, independently wealthy dandy turns out to be an excellent guide to an extraordinarily complex subject. Noonday Demon‘s scope is almost laughably ambitious: In fewer than 500 pages, Solomon takes on pretty much every major debate, including the role of psychopharmaceuticals; class, cultural, and gender differences; the nature of the self; addiction; and suicide. In one chapter, he cogently summarizes the history of depression in Western culture, documenting the disparate philosophical lenses through which sufferers were viewed (as sinners, as weaklings, as geniuses) and detailing time-specific manifestations. (Dutch depressives in the 18th century, for example, often had anxious delusions that they were made of glass or butter.) In other chapters, Solomon wrestles with the politics of mental-health funding, the link between poverty and depression, and even possible evolutionary explanations for melancholy. Woven throughout is an opinionated overview of every major treatment, from Prozac to Outward Bound expeditions. It’s a compendium; it’s a think piece; it’s both!

A few themes stand out. Solomon persuasively argues for long-term drug treatment for many depressives, bemoaning what he regards as a wrongheaded puritanism that encourages sufferers to cycle on and off medications. At the same time, he thoughtfully critiques any too-simplistic insistence that depression is merely a physical disease and nothing more. ” ‘I’m depressed but it’s just chemical,’ ” he writes, “is a sentence equivalent to ‘I’m murderous but it’s just chemical’ or ‘I’m intelligent but it’s just chemical.’ Everything about a person is just chemical if one wants to think in those terms.”

Some of the most remarkable chapters feature the author’s visits to non-Western cultures. There’s a taint of fairy-tale paternalism to some of his descriptions: Cambodians, he enthuses, are “soft-spoken, gentle, and attractive.” But Solomon also has a killer eye for detail, as well as curiosity and compassion. In Korea, he visits a woman who has survived almost indescribable atrocities, only to create a treatment center at which women can learn to “forget, work, and love.” And in the most outrageous sequence in the book, Solomon is treated with an African shamanic ceremony that involves him being bound to a bleating and defecating ram, and then coated from head to toe in its blood.

If there’s a weakness here, it lies in Solomon’s sometimes bathetic insistence on the specialness and courage of each and every depressed person he profiles (including, in a more self-flagellating way, himself). Solomon himself acknowledges this tendency. “I have chosen to write about people I admire,” he notes. But in the end, his initially absurd-seeming persona—the world-traveling flaneur of melancholia—pays off. “I began by writing about my depression; then about the similar depression of others; then about the different depression of others; and finally about depression in completely other contexts,” he writes. Perhaps, as with the white middle-class men who spearheaded the early ACT UP protests, his very sense of entitlement was the perfect fuel for his project: Solomon expects proper treatment, and is willing to throw a tantrum if he (and the world) does not receive it. There are worse motives for such good work.

Nell Casey’s Unholy Ghost, an anthology of first-person essays, also tries for a diversity of perspectives (some writers take medication, others oppose it, and there are essays that specifically focus on African American andfemale perspectives). But in contrast to Solomon’s project, the book seems slenderer than its actual pages. The problem is a monotony, a drizzly dimness—the result, perhaps, of the prevailing tone of measured, literary-minded bittersweet. The standouts are those in which the writer simply stamps through this mist. Lauren Slater’s “Noontime,” for instance, is a tour de force, a vivid account of her attempt to go off pills during her pregnancy—and her eventual decision to keep taking them. “Let the brain bloom. Let the tongue form,” she prays. “Let whatever she says be sane.” Virginia Heffernan’s “A Delicious Placebo” starts out slightly drizzly, but quickly becomes a wry, moving account of her own mind’s tortured logic during the severe breakdown that followed a romantic disappointment, and ends with a complex nostalgia for the “whole weird internal theater” of her own illness.

Perhaps Casey’s most intriguing experiment is her inclusion of three sets of “companion pieces”: an excerpt from William Styron’s justifiably praised Darkness Visible and an essay by his wife, Rose; linked contributions by poet Chase Twitchell and her husband, novelist Russell Banks; and essays by the editor and her sister Maud Casey. To read two sides of a breakdown seems terrifically promising, but sadly, it doesn’t really pay off. Though Banks’s account of empathically “catching” his wife’s depression has some powerful moments, none of these essays stick to the bone. Still, despite these flaws, the book is worth reading—both for the insights and for a few exceptional pieces. Together, the two volumes (Solomon’s encyclopedic, Casey’s episodic) form interesting companion pieces of their own.

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