- Male Melancholy=Genius: Lance Mannion blogged here about his friend’s refusal of the diagnosis “clinically depressed”:
However, he will admit:
This anecdote illustrates well the gendering of melancholia: men are melancholic geniuses, while women are plain mad and diseased. I wrote about this in “Why Mad Melancholic Feminista?” To be affilicted with the dark moods of melancholia is to also be compensated with intellectual greatness. That is, only if you are male. If you are female, you are depressed and thereby deprived of this heightened creativity (this is according to the history of medicine and traditional writings on melancholia).
Lance also discusses Joshua Wolf Shenk’s book, Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, and relays its central thesis: melancholia is a source of genius. In the course of Shenk’s essay in the Atlantic he mentions William Styron’s bout with depression, which he describes in Darkness Visible. I want to emphasize a different aspect of Styron’s book that resonates with Lance’s post. Styron also refuses to call his suffering depression:
Depression is just plain wimpy, it’s a girlie man disease. Real men are melancholic.
- What if the Cure is Worse than the Disease?: Shakespeare’s Sister also has an excellent post on creativity and depression, inspired by Lance’s post. Her writer friend is concerned that any treatment he may get for his black moods will deprive him of his creativity:
A discussion ensued in after this post over whether or not the belief that melancholy moods were also wellsprings for creativity was a rational belief or mere romanticization of the illness. Peter Kramer’s new book, Against Depression, was mentioned.
Kramer wrote Against Depression after years of speaking to various audiences about his earlier book, Listening to Prozac. The earlier explores the ethical permissibility of giving SSRI drugs such as Prozac to patients who are not clinically depressed, but who respond well to the drug and feel “better than well.” However, in the course of giving talks on Prozac and “cosmetic psychopharmacology (see this entry),” he discovered repeatedly that his audience had an aversion to treating even clincal depression with SSRIs, arguing that it would rob the patients of some special perspective gained through depressive episodes. This led him to debunk any claim that clincial depression is an artist’s illness. In a short piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Kramer compares depression to illnesses such as epilepsy or tuberculosis.
This romanticization follows from an incomplete scientific understanding of the illness. Once we discover the pathogen responsible for the suffering, we recognize that this illness descends upon its sufferer independently of broken hearts of magical powers, or so Kramer’s argument goes.
I am not sure that Kramer is comparing apples to apples by drawing analogies between consumption, TB, epilepsy and depression. It is less clear in the case of depression that we are dealing with something that has a disease structure. It is unclear what causes depression, what enables us to recover from depression, and what it does to us if we live with chronic depression. I am not arguing against medical intervention, nor am I arguing against a medical model, if it is helpful in treating suffering.
I do think that depression, in many cases, has made its sufferers more empathetic and sensitive to human frailty. John Stuart Mill’s descent into depression is the classic example. In his autobiography, Mill recounts that when he asked himself if he would be happy if he could bring about all the social reforms he wanted, he instantly realized that he would not. Ask yourself if you are happy and you cease to be so. Mill recovered from his depression by reading Wordsworth’s poetry, which taught him to find more happiness in the “higher pleasures” (Better to be an unhappy Socrates than a contented pig). Mill’s rethinking of pleasure in terms of the base and higher pleasures was a rejection of Jeremy Bentham’s hedonism and perhaps we are all the better for it.