Melancholy as Heroism

Another fragment from Peter Kramer’s eloquent There’s Nothing Deep About Depression article:

Through the “anxiety of influence,” heroic melancholy cast its shadow far forward, onto romanticism and existentialism. At a certain point, the transformation begun in the Renaissance reaches completion. It is no longer that melancholy leads to heroism. Melancholy is heroism. The challenge is not battle but inner strife. The rumination of the depressive, however solipsistic, is deemed admirable. Repeatedly, melancholy returns to fashion.

I hope this taste will tease you into the article. It’s a great read.

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Hamlet as the Ideal Depressive

From Peter Kramer’s There’s Nothing Deep About Depression article, which appeared a while back in the New York Times Magazine. He lays out his argument brilliantly — during Shakespeare’s time it was trendy to romanticize depression — and Hamlet is “arguably the seminal text of our culture.” His point being, romanticizing depression is ingrained in the culture to a point not often acknowledged. Interesting.

In dozens of stage dramas from the period, the principal character is a discontented melancholic. “Hamlet” is the great example. As soon as Hamlet takes the stage, an Elizabethan audience would understand that it is watching a tragedy whose hero’s characteristic flaw will be a melancholic trait, in this case, paralysis of action. By the same token, the audience would quickly accept Hamlet’s spiritual superiority, his suicidal impulses, his hostility to the established order, his protracted grief, solitary wanderings, erudition, impaired reason, murderousness, role-playing, passivity, rashness, antic disposition, “dejected haviour of the visage” and truck with graveyards and visions.

“Hamlet” is arguably the seminal text of our culture, one that cements our admiration for doubt, paralysis and alienation. But seeing “Hamlet” in its social setting, in an era rife with melancholy as an affected posture, might make us wonder how much of the historical association between melancholy and its attractive attributes is artistic conceit.

Peter Kramer on Romanticizing Depression

And why it’s so pernicious. Brilliantly stated:

Other questioners set aside that van Gogh was actually ill. They took mood disorder to be a heavy dose of the artistic temperament, so that any application of antidepressants is finally cosmetic, remolding personality into a more socially acceptable form. For them, depression was less than a disease.

These attributions stood in contrast to my own belief, that depression is neither more nor less than a disease, but disease simply and altogether. Audiences seemed to be aware of the medical perspective, even to endorse it — but not to have adopted it as a habit of mind. To underscore this inconsistency, I began to pose a test question: We say that depression is a disease. Does that mean that we want to eradicate it as we have eradicated smallpox, so that no human being need ever suffer depression again? I made it clear that mere sadness was not at issue. Take major depression, however you define it. Are you content to be rid of that condition?

Always, the response was hedged: aren’t we meant to be depressed? Are we talking about changing human nature?

I took those protective worries as expressions of what depression is to us. Asked whether we are content to eradicate arthritis, no one says, “Well, the end-stage deformation, yes, but let’s hang on to tennis elbow, housemaid’s knee and the early stages of rheumatoid disease.” Multiple sclerosis, acne, schizophrenia, psoriasis, bulimia, malaria — there is no other disease we consider preserving. But eradicating depression calls out the caveats.

To this way of thinking, to oppose depression too completely is to be coarse and reductionist — to miss the inherent tragedy of the human condition. To be depressed, even gravely, is to be in touch with what matters most in life, its finitude and brevity, its absurdity and arbitrariness. To be depressed is to occupy the role of rebel and social critic. Depression, in our culture, is what tuberculosis was 100 years ago: illness that signifies refinement.

There’s Nothing Deep About Depression

From an old Peter Kramer New York Times Magazine article. You may recall that Kramer was the author of the bestseller, Listening to Prozac. He found the response to his book highlighted many curious attitudes toward depression:

Like tuberculosis 100 years ago, depression today carries with it an element of refinement, of sacredness. Kramer writes, “We idealize depression, associating it with perceptiveness, interpersonal sensitivity and other virtues. Like tuberculosis in its day, depression is a form of vulnerability that even contains a measure of erotic appeal.” He goes on to say that “Depression is not a perspective. It is a disease…We should have no trouble admiring what we do admire – depth, complexity, aesthetic brilliance – and standing foursquare against depression.

If you’ve ever struggled with depression, did you ever idealize it? Even once? It’s a fascinating read, explores the way depression has been romanticized. Kramer knows his stuff and writes persuasively and knowledgably. Worth a look. You can read the article here: There’s Nothing Deep About Depression.