Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia and the Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche

Last night I was home alone during an odd storm which beat on my windows all night. It started as a thunderstorm of rain and developed into a thunderstorm of sleet/hail and then eventually into a thunderstorm of snow; fully equipped with lightening all the way through. It was the perfect setting within which to watch the dazzling Lars Von Trier film “Melancholia”, which portrays the strained relationship between two sisters, Justine and Claire, as an unforeseen rogue planet barrels into the solar system and heads straight for Planet Earth. The purpose of this short essay is not to give a review or a summary of the film (I am assuming readers will have already watched the film), but rather to explore a philosophical aspect of the film that I have not heard others comment on (although perhaps some have). It is my contention that this film, which examines the depths of depression, isolation, nihilism, and annihilation, is heavily influenced by Nietzschean philosophy.

During the first half of the film, Justine is suffering from a particularly intense episode of near catatonic depression, while her sister Claire, sober and stoic, helps her through it. Half way through the film though, Justine begins to slowly emerge out of her depression, just as Claire slowly descends into a chaotic panic as it becomes increasingly clear that the rogue planet “Melancholia” is on a collision course with the Earth. The sisters effectively switch emotional positions. What marks this stark role reversal is a scene in which the two sisters are out riding horses together and Justine, still depressed at this point, tries to urge her horse to cross a bridge which it refuses to cross. In a frenzy of anger, Justine beats the horse with her whip and kicks it with her feet until the horse collapses; she continues to beat him as her sister Claire, riding around in small circles on her horse, yells desperately at Justine to stop. This scene sets into motion the emotional role reverasal between the sisters. Claire, from this point forward, slowly gets more and more anxious and eventually descends into full blown panic attacks as well as completely irrational (and utterly futile) attempts to flee with her son in the face of oncoming armageddon.

The scene with the horse is eerily reminiscent of the famous story of the 19th century German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. The story goes that one day while walking in streets of Turin, Nietzsche came upon a horse being beaten by its owner. Nietzsche, in an emotional frenzy, ran over to the horse screaming, draped his arms around it desperately, and then collapsed onto the cobblestone streets. He was arrested by two nearby policemen for causing a public disturbance. But this event signaled his complete mental breakdown from which he never recovered. He lived the rest of his life under the watch of his sister, and never contributed to philosophy or literature again.

The connection seems obvious to me: just as Nietzsche went crazy after seeing the beating of the horse, so did Claire. Her usual calm and commanding demeanor slowly evaporated away (not unlike the atmosphere of Earth as Melancholia approached) until she was left in emotional ruin. Furthermore, Nietzsche’s philosophy centered around the problems of a post-god world, and the subsequent creep of nihilism into the human psyche, which Nietzsche saw as a terrible thing that humanity had to overcome; not by reverting back to the old religions, but by pushing through nihilism and transcending it (for those that were strong enough to do so). The relentless approach of the rogue planet Melancholia can be seen as a loose symbol for the approaching nihilism that Nietzsche was so concerned about: both representing the total destruction of all human values and meaning.

The connection between the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche and the themes of the movie is made even more explicit by Von Trier’s use of Richard Wagner’s music to underscore the film; namely Wagner’s famous opera, “Tristan Und Isolde” (which was inspired by Arthur Schopenhauer, another German philosopher, who was famous for his philosophical pessimism and was a huge influence on Nietzsche). Richard Wagner was a famous German composer and contemporary of Friedrich Nietzsche. In fact, Nietzsche and Wagner were, at one time, very close friends, and Nietzsche wrote one of his most famous works, “The Birth of Tragedy”, which trumpeted Wagner’s music as the “rebirth” of European high culture. Soon, though, their friendship became strained, and then ended bitterly, as Wagner moved his music in a new direction that Nietzsche hated. It is not accident, then, that Wagner’s music would be used in a film that is heavily influenced by Nietzsche. The assertion, were it to be made, that this is all mere coincidence strains credulity.

To take my theory about the connection between Nietzschean philosophy and this film a step further, I think it is worth noting that another fundamental element of Nietzsche’s philosophy (which was thematized in “Melancholia”) was a skepticism of scientific truth and human reason. He appreciated science and he clearly used reason, but he was intimately aware of their innate limitations and criticized those who had too much faith in them. This is reflected in the film in the form of Claire’s husband, John, a rationalist, who is hyper-confident throughout the entire film that “the scientists” are certain that the rouge planet will not collide with Earth, but rather perform a safe fly-by; it will appear beautifully in the sky, but humanity is not in danger. He carries a telescope, a scientific instrument and a symbol of the scientific method and worldview, around with him most of the film, through which he gazes at Melancholia amusedly and excitedly. For him, it is just a spectacle of science. Later, when he realizes that the scientists were wrong, and that Planet Melancholia is in fact going to collide with Earth, he commits suicide by swallowing poison in the horse’s stable. The certainty that science and reason had provided for him evaporates, and the existentially destabilizing pain caused by the catastrophic failure of his faith in science proves too much to cope with. His very identity was tied up in his belief in science, reason, and order, and when those broke down, so did his entire sense of self. When his wife, Claire, finds his dead body, she covers him with a thin layer of straw from the floor of the horse stable. He dies an animals death.

To conclude, the beating of the horse which leads to Claire’s emotional breakdown, the exploration of nihilism and the (literal) destruction of all values, the use of Richard Wagner’s music throughout the film, and the depiction of a dogmatic faith-in-science, and its tragically complete failure, all stand as strong evidence that there is, in fact, a clear and distinct strain of Nietzschean philosophy that Von Trier consciously put into his film.

I love this gorgeous and melancholy film. It is, like all of Von Trier’s work, as beautiful and emotional as it is intellectual. It is a true masterpiece of cinema and of art generally.

 

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House of Leaves: Decoding Pelafina’s letter to Johnny (pgs 620-623)

In the back of the House of Leaves, following footnote #78 on pg. 72 to Appendix II-E., there are dozens and dozens of pages of letters to Johnny from his mother, Pelafina, who is writing her son from a mental institution. Over the course of her letters, her mental illness (schizophrenia?) intensifies, along with a chief symptom of her mental illness: paranoia.

On page 619, her letter to Johnny reads:

“Dear, dear Johnny, 

Pay attention: the next letter I will encode as follows: use the first letter of each word to build subsequent words and phrases: your exquisite intuition will help you sort out the spaces: I’ve sent this via a nigh nurse: our secret will be safe.

Tenderly,
Mom”

(Notice the misuse of colons. I think its safe to say the breakdown in punctuation symbolizes or tracks the breakdown in her mental health. The letters that follow this one, including the coded one I am about to decode, display a total breakdown in proper punctuation, grammar, and epistolary structure.)

The following letter, decoded, is as follows:

My Dearest Johnny,

               They have found a way to break me.  Rape a fifty-six year old bag of bones.  There is no worse and don’t believe otherwise. 

The attendants do it.  Others do it.  Not every day, not every week, maybe not even every month.  But they do it.  Someone I don’t know always comes when it’s dark.  Late.  I’ve learned not to scream, screaming gave me hope and unanswered hope is shattered hope.  Think of your Haitian.  It is far saner to choose rape than shattered hope.  So I submit and I drift. 

I let caprice and a certain degree of free association take me away.  Sometimes I’m still away long after it’s done, after he’s gone-the stranger, the attendant, the custodian, the janitor, cleaning man, waiting main, dirty MAN-the night tidying up after him. 

I’m in hell giving into heaven where I sometimes think of your beautiful father with his dreamy wings and only then do I allow myself to cry.  Not because your mother was raped (again) but because she loved so much what she could never have been allowed to keep.  Such a silly girl.

You must save me Johnny.  In the name of your father.  I must escape this place or I will die.

                                             I love you so much.  You are all I have.

P.”

Is she actually being raped? Are her paranoid fantasies and hallucinations getting the best of her? Is she lying in a last ditch effort to be taken out of the hospital? We do not know… But imagine being in Johnny’s position…

House of Leaves, Chapters 1-5: Fractured Narrative.

Recently, me and a couple of close friends discovered House Of Leaves, a 600 some odd page novel, and decided to read it together in a small book club. After reading the introduction and the first four chapters, I’ve decided to blog about the book. So this entry will be the first of multiple short essays investigating aspects of the book that I find particularly interesting. I am not interested, however, in summarizing the book, just in analyzing or exploring parts of it.

The first thing you notice when you get your hands on this book, and begin flipping through it, is the radically strange structure of it: hundreds of footnotes (some extending for multiple pages), photos and sketches in color, entire paragraphs written backwards so that the only way to read it is by holding it up to a mirror, entire pages with only a sentence, a word, or even just a letter occupying them, and the word “house” always in blue ink, even when written in another language. In short, the book is fucking weird. And that weirdness only amplifies the creepy, unsettling story found within its pages. In some ways its reminiscent of Infinite Jest: a behemoth of a novel with multiple intricate, overlapping narratives, footnotes, appendixes, etc. Both books are postmodern and both were written in the 90’s. But perhaps that’s where the similarities stop. The stories themselves are very different. Infinite Jest was a deep and sad examination of American society, and the people who populate it, at the turn of the 21st century, while House of Leaves is a labyrinthine horror story about a family moving into an old and secluded 18th century house.

Either way, the point of this blog entry is to discuss the fractured narrative of House of Leaves, and how it effects the reader.

The novel takes the form of a book written about a film by a recently deceased elderly man. The book is then discovered by a young man living in L.A. as he helped a friend clean out (or, rather, go through) the elderly man’s apartment after his death. Soon the young man, named Johnny, descends into a dark obsession with the book, which gives rise to some psychological issues which, in turn, seem to be increasing in intensity. But while the main story is the book written about the film by the old man, Johnny inserts long footnotes explaining parts of the book, the original author, and his own experiences as he delved deeper into the very story we, the readers, are now delving into. This complicated web of narrators, and meta-narration leads back to us, the readers, as Johnny often breaks the fourth wall and addresses us directly (even making wry making puns for us and immediately becoming self-conscious about it!).

So, in short, the reader finds themselves reading a story about a film, presented to us by a narrator who played no part in the creation of either the book nor the film, and appears to be slowly descending into madness. Additionally, dialogue occurs between the characters within in the film itself, which is recorded in the book being written about said film, adding another wrinkle of narrative. Consequently, we are constantly being ripped from one level of narration and forced into another without warning, then plunged back into the initial narration, only to be pulled out again, addressed as the reader, then tossed back into the Johnny’s second-level narration; then we are led to a footnote referencing a scholarly article which attempts to analyze the film that is being referenced in the book written by the old man about the film! Its as dizzying and it is exhilarating.

The effect this has is one of self-consciousness;  you are unable to dissolve yourself into any one level of narration fully, and are therefore reminded of yourself *as the reader*; and so the structure of the book begins to structure the way that the reader relates to him/herself.

But fractured narrative aside, the quality of the literature itself is dazzling. Here are some snippets I especially enjoyed:

“…So I renewed my kisses with even greater enthusiasm, caressing and in turn devouring their dark lips, dark with wine and fleeting love, an ancient memory love had promised but finally never gave, until there were too many kisses to count or remember, and the memory of love proved not love at all and needed a replacement which our bodies found, and then the giggles subsided, and the laughter dimmed, and darkness enfolded all of us and we gave away our childhood for nothing and we died and condoms littered the floor and Christina threw up in the sink and Amber chuckled a little and kissed me a little more, but in a way that told me it was time to leave.”

and:

“When confronting the spatial disparity in the house, Karen set her mind on familiar things while Navidson went in search of a solution.  The children, however, just accepted it. They raced through the closet. They played in it. They inhabited it. They denied the paradox by swallowing it whole. Paradox, after all, is two irreconcilable truths. But children do not know the laws of the world well enough yet to fear the ramifications of the irreconcilable.  There are certainly no primal associations with spatial anomalies.”

So, not only is the book a dizzying, complex web of postmodern meta-narration (a story about a book about a film); its also a wonderful achievement of literary fiction; the prose often teetering on the edge of poetry.

This is not for the weak of heart/mind; or, as the book says on its first page, “This Book Is Not For You” (me?).

Hm.

Love, Marcus

She really is a wonderful woman. I do not show her the proper appreciation. She works hard to raise our infant son, Soren, while I go out and earn a paycheck.  She also puts up with my assorted mental illnesses, including but not limited to, anxiety, bipolar disorder and manic depression. Entire weeks go by where I am despondent and brooding and impotent. But she is my safety net, even if I can never bring myself to explain just how much I need her and appreciate her.

But it’s another day, and another long drive home during rush hour. I swear this is the worst time of the day for me.  I work in the middle of the city, but live on its edges; making my daily commute to and from work long and unbearable. And since I work the classic 9-5 shift, I am inundated with heavy traffic every time I am in the car.  The smog, the over-population, the honking horns, the panhandlers; it all culminates in a sordid cacophony of sensory irritation and overload.

I do not feel good today, again, but I am determined to make Katherine feel appreciated, so I am stopping by the store on my way home to buy her flowers and write out a card explaining my appreciation. It is always easier to write these things down and hand them over instead of trying to remember what you wanted to say and articulating the message correctly, on the spot. This will take an extra 20 minutes or so, but that is fine, because Katherine thinks I have a meeting after work.  She isn’t expecting me home for a few hours still.  It will be a nice surprise to hand her the flowers and card, take over baby duties (changing diapers, feeding, putting to bed), and let her relax. I figure I could even draw her a bath and make dinner tonight.  I have been so caught up in my latest dreary depressive episode over the past few weeks that I have been exceptionally self-centered.  Mental illness has a way of turning otherwise balanced people into narcissists because we are expending tremendous effort every waking minute of our lives dealing with our own cognitive fall out. The morbid thoughts are circuitous and agonizing. The anxiety is ever-present, and when it does die down, an anxiety concerning its inevitable return keeps the nervous system on edge.  The mood swings are extreme and not connected in any sensible way to external conditions.  All of this piles up and locks us inside ourselves.  Medicines help a little bit, but at the cost of feeling real.  Medication completely levels out the peaks and valleys, and makes me feel like a member of the walking dead. Instead of intense mood swings, I flat line; which in many ways is just as bad, if not uniquely worse.  And when, for want of money for example, I cannot afford the prescription refill, the withdrawals are nightmarish. Therefore, I put myself at the mercy of my disorders and blow, to and fro, in the internal winds of my mind.

But Katherine is innocent, she never signed up for this. When we met I was far more stable, and have only descended into cognitive chaos in recent years. I love her so deeply, and her loyalty to me is profoundly moving; although, again, I have the constant problem of not being able to articulate to her just how much she means to me. She has the stress of a newborn child to deal with as well, and I know I multiply that stress tenfold on a daily basis. Whether it’s on account of a hysterical fit of sadness and anger or a weeks-long despondency where I barely speak to her, let alone show her the affection she deserves.  However, she is my lifeline.  Without her, without my family, I would be nothing and suicide would be inevitable. Even in my darkest moments, I know I can lay my head on her lap and weep, and I know she is taking care of Soren no matter how dysfunctional and disabled I am.  Knowing that I have this nest of a home to collapse into every night truly gives me the only shred of hope and comfort I possess in this world.

So I walk into this beehive of a grocery store to buy her flowers and a card, and my anxiety skyrockets.  I hate people, I hate their meaningless chatter, their shallow desires, and their blindness to what really matters.  But most of all, I hate how they take their mental health for granted.  One of my favorite games to play when I am in a busy public place like this is to try and remember what it was like when I had my mental health.  I try to remember what it was like to be normal; and I end up envying everyone around me. The longer any specific bout of depression or anxiety lasts, the harder it is to remember what it’s like to be healthy. But I garner an odd sort of comfort from trying to remember, and getting stabs of insight into what it’s like to be okay. Lightning flashes of remembrance. It keeps my mind occupied as I pick out the flowers, and buy a cheap card, and stand in this horrific check-out line. My heart is racing, my mind is spinning, and I feel like I might pass out if I have to stand here for another second. But eventually I get to the cashier, put on a brave face, engage in that awkward small talk (“Hello, did you find everything you were looking for?”; “Yes, I did. Thank you.”; “Paper or plastic?”; “Paper, please”; “Okay, here you are. Have a nice night”; “Thank you, you too.”), and finally make it back out to my car, where I scribble the following into the card:

Dear Katherine, I now I am the worst. I am so sorry that I have become what I am. But please know how much I cherish and adore you. Please know that you and Soren mean everything to me, and one day I will be okay again, and we will travel and have guests over for dinner, and go out on the weekends like normal people. In the meantime, I want you to know how much I love you, how much I need you, and how much I appreciate all the work you do to raise our son, and, in a way, to raise me too.  I love you more than I could ever put into words, and I will get better. Just please stick with me.

Love,
Marcus

I put the pen back in my glove box, pull out of my parking space, and head home; happy with myself that I mustered up the emotional fortitude to make the purchase and express my feelings.

———————————————————————————

I pull into our driveway, grab the bag with the flowers and the card, and walk inside.  I set my keys down, and hear my son upstairs cooing and gurgling. I walk upstairs, assuming Katherine is with him, turn the corner and walk to our bedroom and open the cracked door all the way.  Katherine is not alone. She is on her back, legs spread out to her sides, and a man that is not me is on top of her, plunging in and out of her body as she moans emphatically. I can only see the man’s hairy back and ass, violently entering my wife; and her face is shielded from mine by his body. The bedding is completely off the bed, leaving only the sheet and one pillow under Katherine’s head.  I notice, between the moist pumps, what I assume to be ejaculate dripping down the crevice of her ass, creeping slowly and viscously over her asshole and then down onto the bed, puddling grotesquely. They have been at it for a while. I glance down at Soren, laying on his back, like his mother, under his playpen, making various infantile sounds; completely unaware of the horror happening all around him.  My wife and the mystery man are so enthralled in the act of betrayal they do not notice me standing there, nauseated and deranged, too stunned to speak or act.

After what feels like 5 minutes, but is probably no more than 30 seconds, I walk out of the room and to the hall closet, reaching up into the top shelf and pulling out the gun that Katherine and I had bought for protection when we purchased our house. I calmly, serenely even, loaded two bullets into the chamber of the gun. I am not even thinking; my mind is Zen quiet. Not a singular linguistic line of dialogue bubbling up into conscious awareness; just dead inward silence. I feel the weight of the firearm in my hand, moving it up and down a couple times in my palm, surprised at how heavy it is.  I cock the gun, flooding the chamber with the first bullet, which makes a satisfying metallic sound. I stalk back into the bedroom, where the nightmare is taking place. I point the gun at the back of the man, and pause for a few seconds, wondering if they will notice me standing there.  They do not. They have no idea what is happening.  I almost feel bad. They are having such a good time, and what I am about to do is going to drag them out of their ecstasy and directly into this nightmare. I press, ever so gently, on the trigger, not enough to fire a shot, but enough to begin that process. Then, with my arm outstretched holding the gun, and without even the slightest tremble in my hand, I drift my aim upwards towards the ceiling and squeeze the trigger, firing a shot into drywall above my head.  A brief snow storm of white debris falls around me.  The man leaps upward, emerging violently out of my wife’s body, and I notice a thin spider-web string of bodily fluid attached to the man’s penis, connecting him still with Katherine’s cunt. They are both sitting up, retreating fearfully back up against the headboard, looking horrified in a way that kind of scares me too for a second.  Soren is frightened and howling hysterically, but I block out his screams; my mind is still wonderfully silent. I see the man’s face now, and notice, dispassionately, that he is the neighbor. Of course he is.  He also has a wife and a child, I know. Of course he does.

I know they are waiting for their bullets, or at least he is waiting for his.  They are deer in headlights, and I prolong the awkward, terrifying silence; pointing the gun again at the man, calmly.  He is as quiet as a mouse, eyes wide and unblinking, and she is pleading with me; empty, desperate words of remorse and supplication.

I say sternly, and rather coolly, “any last words”.  Her begging reaches a higher, more precarious pitch, and he sinks backwards into his body and into his silence, waiting for the death he deserves.

I turn the gun around suddenly and shove it into my own mouth; I make deep, insane eye contact with Katherine, and pull the trigger.  I feel the hot explosion in my mouth and nose, but no pain.
Then nothing.

—————————————————-

The flowers and the card sat neatly in the paper bag by the door. She still deserves the appreciation.

I hope she knows I love her.

Depression, Recursive Self-Analysis and Creativity

To be depressed is to be thoroughly hollowed out, as if someone took an existential ice-cream-scoop and scraped out your insides; leaving a human-shaped cicada shell where a real person once was. Depression (actual depression, not just the periodic run-of-the-mill blues) cannot be understood by those who have not themselves experienced it.  It cannot be communicated to those unsoiled by its inky black discharge. But when it is adequately described, those who have come into intimate contact with it recognize it immediately. To say that David Foster Wallace “adequately describes” depression in the following quote from his novel Infinite Jest is to so flagrantly understate things as to almost be offensive. He describes a clinically depressed character by the name of Kate Gompert:

Some psychiatric patients — plus a certain percentage of people who’ve gotten so dependent on chemicals for feelings of well-being that when the chemicals have to be abandoned they undergo a loss-trauma that reaches way down deep into the soul’s core system — these persons know firsthand that there’s more than one kind of so-called ‘depression.’ One kind is low-grade and sometimes gets called anhedonia or simple melancholy. It’s a kind of spiritual torpor in which one loses the ability to feel pleasure or attachment to things formerly important. The avid bowler drops out of his league and stays home at night staring dully at kick-boxing cartridges. The gourmand is off his feed. The sensualist finds his beloved Unit all of a sudden to be so much feelingless gristle, just hanging there. The devoted wife and mother finds the thought of her family about as moving, all of a sudden, as a theorem of Euclid. It’s a kind of emotional novocaine, this form of depression, and while it’s not overtly painful its deadness is disconcerting and . . . well, depressing. Kate Gompert’s always thought of this anhedonic state as a kind of radical abstracting of everything, a hollowing out of stuff that used to have affective content. Terms the undepressed toss around and take for granted as full and fleshy — happiness, joie de vivre, preference, love — are stripped to their skeletons and reduced to abstract ideas. They have, as it were, denotation but not connotation. The anhedonic can still speak about happiness and meaning et al., but she has become incapable of feeling anything in them, of understanding anything about them, of hoping anything about them, or of believing them to exist as anything more than concepts. Everything becomes an outline of the thing. Objects become schemata. The world becomes a map of the world. An anhedonic can navigate, but has no location. I.e. the anhedonic becomes, in the lingo of Boston AA, Unable To Identify. . . .

It goes by many names — anguish, despair, torment, or q.v. Burton’s melancholia or Yevtuschenko’s more authoritative psychotic depression — but Kate Gompert, down in the trenches with the thing itself, knows it simply as ‘It’.

‘It’ is a level of psychic pain wholly incompatible with human life as we know it. It is a sense of radical and thoroughgoing evil not just as a feature but as the essence of conscious existence. It is a sense of poisoning that pervades the self at the self’s most elementary levels. It is a nausea of the cells and soul. It is an unnumb intuition in which the world is fully rich and animate and un-map-like and also thoroughly painful and malignant and antagonistic to the self, which depressed self It billows on and coagulates around and wraps in Its black folds and absorbs into Itself, so that an almost mystical unity is achieved with a world every constituent of which means painful harm to the self. Its emotional character, the feeling Gompert describes It as, is probably the most indescribable except as a sort of double bind in which any/all of the alternatives we associate with human agency — sitting or standing, doing or resting, speaking or keeping silent, living or dying — are not just unpleasant but literally horrible.

It is also lonely on a level that cannot be conveyed. There is no way Kate Gompert could ever even begin to make someone else understand what clinical depression feels like, not even another person who is herself clinically depressed, because a person in such a state is incapable of empathy with any other living thing. This anhedonic Inability To Identify is also an integral part of It. If a person in physical pain has a hard time attending to anything except that pain, a clinically depressed person cannot even perceive any other person or thing as independent of the universal pain that is digesting her cell by cell. Everything is part of the problem, and there is no solution. It is a hell for one.”

——————————————-

Speaking as someone who has been hospitalized for clinical depression in a pscyh-ward and has felt, on many occasions, the intricate grooves on the underside of Melancholies’ heavy boot impress themselves onto my fleshy throat, reading this description of depression by David Foster Wallace is simultaneously hair-raising and exciting.  Hair-raising because its an example of someone explaining a feeling you have had in such a way that exceeds the limits of what you thought was linguistically possible.  Exciting because its an example of radical empathy; of having the unique relief of another human being nod in total recognition of one of the deepest feelings (or, more precisely, lack thereof) that you have ever felt. And when you are struggling with a mental dis-ease whose most insidious aspect, perhaps, is its soul-crushing loneliness, nothing feels better than hearing someone else say, in so many words, “me too”.

The thing about depression is that it exponentially gains momentum.  Like a storm, slowly blowing in over your house, it creeps up at the fringes of your periphery, almost undetectable.  But as depression develops, it creates it own feedback loops in the mind; it creates its own food source in a way.  And that is what I mean by “recursive self-analysis”; the victim does the worst thing one can do when depression starts tightening its grip: they turn in on themselves and begin to try to self-analyze their way out of the labyrinth (which, incidentally, is also the automatic cognitive strategy usually employed when dealing with anxiety: depression’s fraternal twin).  This inward spiral no doubt lends itself to that overwhelming sense of loneliness described above.  This tactic is so automatic that I don’t think its even possible to not employ it; perhaps its in a strict causal relationship with depression, and for that reason, simply unavoidable. It’s a manifestation of the depression itself.

Recently I struggled with a strain of depression that was totally unique to me: existential depression.  I had suffered from depression many times in my life, but this time it was different in form and substance; it was also welded to an abysmal anxiety. It wasn’t the normal anxiety of increased heart rate, sweating, racing thoughts, etc.  It was the slow mechanical grinding sort of anxiety that churns away at the base of your limbic system, rotting just under the surface of consciousness.  The sort of anxiety that makes your mind try and run from itself; desperately attempting to avoid certain sets of thoughts, and by trying to avoid them, aggressively inviting them. This existential depression/anxiety revolved solely around compulsive thoughts of death.  In the autumn of 2014, death thoughts began creeping in at an almost imperceptible pace. I have always been more sensitive to death than everyone else around me, but this was different. The thoughts began to consume me, and by early 2015, I fell headfirst into Nietzsche’s abyss. From the moment I woke up to the moment I managed to fall asleep I obsessively compulsively reflected on not only my own demise, but the demise of everyone and everything around me. It was cognitively corrosive, and I felt my hitherto well-established grip on reality begin to loosen.  I was going insane, and the more I tried to avoid this conclusion, the more it made itself at home in my psyche. I tried to use my only weapon, my intellect, to find a way out, but the more I strained my analyticity the more I exacerbated the problem. Throwing gas on a fire in an attempt to put it out.

“It is a gift to be able to use your brain to create and not to turn it in on yourself.”

– Amy Wallace (David Foster Wallace’s sister) talking about her brother.

David Foster Wallace, the same genius who wrote the quote at the beginning of this essay, hanged himself in 2008 at the age of 46, succumbing to a life long battle with the very depression about which he so elegantly wrote. There is an unmistakable and highly significant correlation between various forms of mental illness and great works of art, science and philosophy.  Thinkers and artists like Friedrich Nietzsche, Ludwig Wittgenstein, William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Kurt Cobain, Charles Darwin, Ernest Hemingway, Wolfgang Mozart, and Walt Whitman (I could go on indefinitely) all suffered from depression, and much of their work benefited from their experiences with mental illness. Although I cannot explicate exactly how and why depression is linked with creativity, it seems pretty obvious that it is. Furthermore, it seems self evident that this connection is complex and nuanced.

In my own case, I used artistic expression to pull myself out of my existential depression. As the above quote from Amy Wallace indicates, I eventually healed just enough to take back control of my brain and re-direct my inner turmoil outwardly into creative endeavors.  Now, to be sure, I had to get well enough that it became possible for me to create.  When you are in the thick of depression, you lose all motivation, and you become a passive play-thing of life instead of an active participant in it.  And therefore the fog of melancholy has to naturally thin itself out before one is in any position to do anything other than curl into the fetal position and inwardly whimper like a wounded animal. So when my depression did begin to retreat, and mental health was on the horizon again, I immediately began composing music, reading books, learning the guitar, writing and meditating. Every single one of these activities were used as outlets of catharsis; a way for me to process my emotions and turn them into something unique and expressive.  In a way, it was an attempt at emotional alchemy; transforming the base metals of my existential despair into into gilded bars of creativity. When the mind, especially the intelligent and sensitive mind, turns concave, it tends to devour itself.  The goal then becomes to re-commandeer the mind and aim it back out into the world; to harness its intelligence and sensitivity in the service of artistic innovation and expression.

Depression seems to give us the raw material to work with, and perhaps that is one reason why depression and creativity go hand in hand; they are the respective results of the mind turned radically inward and the mind turned radically outward.