Friday, November 04, 2005

Better Living Through Chemistry?

Slate and The New Yorker both have compelling pieces this week (here and here) about Joshua Wolf Shenk’s new book, Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness.

Slate’s analysis includes a comparative look at Peter Kramer’s recently published Against Depression, which argues that our culture is dangerously insistent on romanticizing the illness, believing that intractable melancholy can enhance artistic greatness, emotional sensitivity, and any other number of things we value, instead of treating it like other diseases outside of the mind and unsentimentally trying to eradicate it. Kramer’s argument is convincing. If you’ve ever known anyone, or been anyone, who is truly depressed in the long- or short-term, it’s hard to believe that eliminating the condition isn’t in his or her or your best interests.

But taking into account something like Shenk’s portrait of Lincoln as somehow fueled by his depression (I can’t elaborate past the reviews linked to here, because I haven’t read the book), a more complicated picture emerges. One of the best popular science books I’ve read is The Undiscovered Mind by John Horgan, which is perhaps too strenuous in its anti-pharmacology stance (though Horgan is pretty convincing on whether medications work as well as the vaguely worded television advertisements of people skipping around would have us believe). Horgan does capture, though, the general weirdness – to use a scientific term – of the human brain, and how the varieties in that weirdness from individual to individual (much less across all humanity) make it exceedingly unlikely that we’ll ever understand the brain as comprehensively as, say, the inner ear.

All of this is a bit more timely for me because I'm just a few pages into Kay Redfield Jamison’s Exuberance, which examines melancholy's understudied opposite sensation, though I have a sneaking suspicion that by the end of the book I’ll see depression and exuberance as more closely related. Jamison refers to this quote from Louis Pasteur:

The Greeks understood the mysterious power of the hidden side of things. They bequeathed to us one of the most beautiful words in our language – the word ‘enthusiasm’ – en theos – a god within. The grandeur of human actions is measured by the inspiration from which they spring. Happy is he who bears a god within, and who obeys it.
Bearing "a god within" is a fitting etymology for enthusiasm (I guess that’s the point of etymology, isn’t it), but depending on the god’s mood, and what he or she is whispering in there, it seems obeying could just as easily lead to the dampening effects of the blues.

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Blogger Dezmond said...

I am a firm believer that most great art (or even just great pop culture) comes from discontent and melancholy. It is just more compelling. Take a look at Bruce Springsteen, for example. When he was a loner and unsettled, he created some of the greatest rock and roll in existence. He got married in the mid-80's and put out a record inspired by his new life, and it stands as one of the great, mature looks at relationships in all of rock. Why? Because his marriage was falling apart and he dealt with it through the tunes (especially the killer second side of the record). He got remarried and was truly happy for the first time in his life. He released the most boring music of his life. Just a fact, nobody wants to hear tunes about loving your kids and marrital bliss.

2:56 PM  
Blogger helen_boyd said...

i think of melancholy & euphoria as mental states (which are occasionally good for art), but depression as caused by an imbalance in body chemistry.

melancholy's a good day; depression is just listless and unfocused.

2:20 AM  

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