Friday, May 30, 2008


JOHN PITCHER, OMAHA WORLD-HERALD Imagine that just before composing his dark masterpiece, "Nebraska," Bruce Springsteen had come across the writings of Dr. Phil.

Norwegian expressionist Edvard Munch might never have produced his most famous painting, "The Scream", if he had suppressed his existential angst and - as many people do today - simply put on a happy face. The rocker, in a melancholic mood, might have read about five easy steps to beat his depression or about the antidepressants that would cure it.

In that weird parallel universe, would Springsteen have written "Nebraska," his bleak narrative about a rampaging serial killer? Or would he have composed something lighter, happier? Something like "Muskrat Love"?

You laugh, but North Carolina writer Eric Wilson thinks America's current addiction to happiness threatens the arts. Wilson writes about it in his new book, "Against Happiness", which paints a disturbing portrait of what happens to art in a world filled with "happy types."

Melancholia, a term dating back to the ancient Greeks, is a mood disorder characterized by general sadness. The term "clinical depression" dates back only about 100 years. It refers to a psychiatric disorder of pervasive low mood and loss of interest in life.

In recent decades, laypeople have begun to use melancholia and depression interchangeably to refer any kind of depressed mood. He predicts an America of vacant smiles and bland sameness. It's a place where poetry is a Hallmark card and where music is, well, Muzak.

"I fear we're creating a country where no one would aspire to write a novel like 'Moby-Dick' again," said Wilson, . . . "No one would even want to read it, because who needs 'Moby-Dick' when you've got Dr. Phil?". . .

Dr. Thomas Svolos, an adjunct professor and the vice chairman of the department of psychiatry at the Creighton University School of Medicine, thinks Wilson may be on to something. . .

"When you're melancholy, you tend to step back and examine your life," Svolos said. "That kind of questioning is essential for creativity."

But for happy types, life's deeper meaning may not be an active question. Wilson makes that point in his book, and Svolos thinks it points to an even broader cultural concern.

Before the 1950s, clinical depression was considered an extremely rare mental illness, affecting less than 5 percent of the population. . . Currently, 11 percent of American women and 5 percent of American men take antidepressants, the magazine Scientific American reported in February.

The New England Research Institute's recent study of health insurance plans found that 43 percent of those who were prescribed antidepressants had not received a formal psychiatric diagnosis. Their family doctors prescribed the pills, and usually there was no follow-up. . .

Wilson and Svolos insist that art and happiness should not be seen as either/or propositions.

They believe that serious mental illness should be diagnosed and treated with therapy and, when necessary, medicine. Depression should not be romanticized, they say.

But they also believe that ordinary melancholy - a term that dates back to the ancient Greeks - is a natural part of life. It may not be pleasant, but it can be beneficial, because it causes an emotional state of unrest that acts as a spark plug to creative thought. . .


At May 30, 2008 1:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This reminds me of an old (well, maybe mid-eighties) PSA that used to air hawking treatment of depression: displaying a reproduction of Picasso's "Man With Blue Guitar", the voice-over suggested that had modern treatments for depression (i.e. happy pills) existed in the artist's time, he might never have experienced the melancholia that caused him to paint the pictures of his 'blue period'--never mind, of course, that some of Picasso's greatest masterpieces emerged from this period. As I recall, the figure in the painting would morph into the animated image of a cheery oldster with a big smile on his face, suddenly strumming a happy tune on his now rosy instrument. Gaghhhh!

At June 13, 2008 3:18 AM, Anonymous Merri Ellen / Depression Writings said...

I have learned that depression is our heart trying to teach us something.

It is like an inner cry desperately wanting to be heard. The key is in the journey to discover what that cry is.

Medicating the cry away does not work.

It must be written out, talked out, painted out, danced out... expressed out.

It cannot be shut up without being heard. Our hearts crave something bigger than what we have; bigger than what we are.

Creativity is only partially the way to get it out. It is the key to the locked door of the dark tunnel of depression. There is light on the other side. There is hope. I have seen it.

What one does with their creativity is another key. Does it edify others? Then do it. Does it uplift others? Then do it.

Creativity that seeks self gratification and self glorification is only temporarily. Consider a retired multi millionaire who has spent his life chasing after success. He has it all but it's nothing. It's meaningless - like chasing after the wind. He'll die and it will all be gone.

Joy and purpose is found in living a life looking outward and upward; not inward.

The self-medicating Jackson Pollock did not find it. The womanizing Pablo Picasso did not find it. They both looked in the wrong direction- desperately trying to fill the hole on their own strength; looking inward. The light shone inside them yet, thinking they were letting it out, they were extinguishing it. Did world wide fame bring them happiness? No.

I believe we will never cure world wide depression entirely (and, as suggested above, eliminate creativity) because each of us is on a journey. What I love is walking with others on that journey. Standing at the end of the tunnel shining the light for others is the most amazing thing to be a part of.

There is hope for the journey.

At June 14, 2008 9:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What's even more frightening is the fact that much depression stems from very real external causes in an individual's life, not just from wonky brain chemistry. To acknowledge this might force the further acknowledgement that we've created and are maintaining a society that dicks a whole lot of people, and gives them extremely good cause to feel miserable about themselves and their lives. Drugging large portions of the populace serves as a great way to keep the masses from facing that reality, and from possibly trying to make changes to it that might seriously upset the fatcat status-quo.


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