Depression, Writing, and Love

Image for post
Image for post

- The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, by Andrew Solomon

These insightful words made complete sense to me as I sat down to read them in the bustling lobby of the hotel. Lo and I had gone to NYC for a conference. I was supposed to present a paper I had written recently on Empedocles. It was Sunday and my panel discussion had been on Saturday. Since the previous Tuesday or Wednesday I had felt the descending blade of the guillotine called depression beginning to drop down on my bare neck. Now that I had accomplished my task, all my defenses against the impending disaster were depleted and the depression fell upon me full-force. By a happy coincidence, someone who was familiar with some of my other work at the conference passed along to me the aforementioned book and, feeling unable to join my colleagues at the bar to make small talk and banter, I sat in the oversized leather lobby chair and began to read.

Empedocles, the ancient Greek philosopher, had a simple, yet very plausible theory about how the physical world worked. He posited four basic elements — fire, air, water, and earth — and two active agents that caused the elements to combine or separate: love and strife. At times, it often seems to me that Empedocles got it right. Reading the passage above from Solomon, I think that with a tiny bit of nuance we can understand not necessarily how the physical universe works, but how we, as humans, apprehend that physical universe. There are the elements out there in the world. But in here, in us, in our psyches, there are two simple active agents: love and melancholia. The former is the agent of connection, synthesis, and meaning-making. The latter is the agent of disintegration, separation, analysis (as in the original Greek sense of unraveling) to the point of total loss of meaning. Under the sway of melancholia, the pieces of life, like the pieces of a puzzle, just don’t fit together and so the big picture cannot be seen and meaning cannot be derived from the fragments.

Empedocles’ dramatic death — throwing himself into the fiery volcanic pit of Mt. Etna — has always tantalized me with its ambiguity. Did he throw himself in due to the overwhelming sense of melancholia (or “strife,” as he called it) that unraveled the text of the world until it made no more sense to him, or did he offer himself in an act of self-immolation because, through his overwhelming love of the All, he sensed the imminent oneness of the universe and wished to merge with it wholly and completely? Or, perhaps even asking this question is as nonsensical as asking if upon death people have a vision of an immense and blinding white light or a vacuous and impenetrable black void — for isn’t there a point where the whiteness of the light and the blackness of the dark become interchangeable and indistinguishable?

In the hotel lobby I was feeling the melancholic force pervading my formerly meaningful universe. Yes, my paper had been warmly received. Yes, by all objective standards my career was going along just fine. Yes, I had friends and family and Lo who loved me. But none of it seemed to fit together in such a way that I could find any meaning in it or significance to it. And, further, under the influence of melancholia, my connection to it all, my ability to find love and feel love and give love diminished to such a degree that I was isolated — from others and from myself. The integrity (oneness) of “me” was lost and I was alienated even from “me.”

I’m not sure how this all started, but sometime last Monday or Tuesday my creative spark began to sputter. Long ago I owned an old American-made car from the 70’s. It was one of those road-hogs that has so much room under the hood that if you ever needed to fix anything in it, you could almost climb right in next to the engine-block and work on it from there. Every 1000 miles or so it would start running rough and would occasionally stall out. I’m not very mechanical, but this beast of a machine was so simple, so primitive, that even I could figure things out and fix it. I discovered quite quickly that the problem was in the distributor cap. The six sparkplugs it had to keep the six cylinders running would become gunked up with detritus and they wouldn’t spark and so every 1000 miles or so I would have to replace all six sparkplugs to keep the behemoth moving. Well, I feel like that relic of a car. Every so often my sparkplugs get gummed up with something such that I can’t write, I can’t think, and I certainly can’t get it up.

[Excerpt from the story, “Beauty & the Beasts,” from the blog:]

Written by

Just your average nymphomaniac next door. I love fan mail:

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store