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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Political Organizing, Organic Community, and Meaning

When people organize politically, like many of us are doing now, we do so for obvious reasons at first: to resist injustice, to push toward some political goal, etc.
 
But by meeting face to face over and over again and cooperating towards shared objectives, something new arises: a sense of community.
 
What starts off as a means to an end (namely: organizing), becomes a microcosmic outline of the sort society we want to build together. Comradery, solidarity, and a sincere feeling of love, care, and trust emerge among us. Friendships blossom. We hit the streets together, and we inevitably have each others backs if something goes down; and we do so without hesitation or second thought. We were total strangers a few months ago, but now we are willing to fight and put ourselves in danger to protect one another.
 
Trying to create political change is immensely difficult, and only a very specific sort of person engages in such activity, but organizing with like-minded people creates links of meaning and purpose; which is why many of us are drawn to it in spite of the difficulty, stress, and discouragement which inevitably spring from such attempts. We cooperate, not because we are trying to earn a wage and happen to be hired at the same company, or because we are motivated simply by self-interest, but rather because we share a vision of what human life COULD be, and we are willing to do what we can, in our limited and humble way, to try and move closer to that ideal.
 
There is something sincerely beautiful and moving about that…

The Embrace Of Sadness And The Deepening Of The Self

At the core of my being is a profound sadness. I would say that my predominant life-emotion is sadness; melancholy representing it in its most beautiful and poetic form, and clinical depression (from which I suffer intermittently) representing it in its most explicitly bleak form.

I’m not sad person in the sense that I’m outwardly and obviously sad all the time, but it’s always just below the surface; bubbling. My eyes well up with tears on a near daily basis, and have my entire adult life. Anything can provoke it, from a random lyric in a song, to a news story, to mere moments of silence. I view life as fundamentally tragic. And it is.

Our lives are fleeting, fragile, largely meaningless, and marked by violent injustice and personal loss. In our personal lives, we are forced to watch as everyone we love grows old, gets sick, and eventually dies. The older we get, the more funerals we attend. Life is a waiting room where, one by one, we watch everyone we care about march into their graves while we wait for our turn; a macabre conveyer belt of death. Zooming out and looking at civilization as a whole, we realize that we live in a society which elevates the shallowest aspects of our nature to the level of what we blindly call “culture”: from endless, vacuous consumerism, to soul-crushing and time-stealing wage labor, to the obsessive and ubiquitous focus on hyper-individualism, selfishness, and competition, which destroys any semblance of community and leaves us feeling isolated, alienated, and perpetually dissatisfied. Add to that the constant barrage of natural disasters, mass shootings, war, and disease, and life, both personally and generally, is often overwhelming in its wretchedness.

To open your eyes to the world is to open them up to abysses of despair and mountains of triviality.

For sensitive, intellectual people our world is a monstrosity, punctuated only far too rarely by brief moments of elation and happiness. Moments which fade quickly, and serve only to remind of us of their oppressive infrequency.

My personal transition from adolescence to adulthood was defined by a long period of clinical depression. The naiveté and sense of joy that had marked my childhood crumbled into dust when I first had to get a shitty job and I realized that this was what the rest of my life, and all of our lives, consisted of: going to work, coming home, paying bills, and going back to work. That revelation was so disorienting and dark that I fell into the worst depression of my life, and stayed there until I had to be hospitalized for it. I was admitted into a psych-ward for a week, while a team of psychiatrists and doctors tried to figure out how to treat me. There solution of medication worked long enough for me to get out of the hospital, but soon failed miserably. The sadness I had, while partially neuro-chemical, was fundamentally existential, and there is no treatment for that. When the disease is life itself, what pill could I swallow to make it better? The answer was then as it is now: none.

I do not want to sound hyperbolically bleak. All things considered, I am a very blessed man. I have a nice apartment, two wonderful, healthy kids who I love more than I could put into words, a fiancé, and a great set of family and friends who love me deeply. I am not in desperate poverty. I do not have any serious health problems. And my job, while utterly meaningless and morally unfulfilling, grants me a surplus of downtime in which I can read and write (and get paid for it!).

I do not walk around life with my head down in a state of indefinite emotional despair. In fact, most of my adult life has been a project of learning how to live in the midst of this tragedy. Without recoiling into medication or therapy, I’ve been able to cobble together some basic strategies for living with my head above water, appreciating the small things in life, and keeping my sanity. In my personal life, I’m extremely lighthearted and often humorous. No one who interacts with me on a daily basis would use the term “sad” to describe me. But that is not because I hide it from people, its because, all things considered, I am fairly well-adjusted and have been able to put together an assortment of mechanisms by which I can live. Humor, parenthood, and a handful of hobbies are primary ways that I cope with life.

But the sadness is always there. The darkness is always there.

But accepting this, and even embracing it, has allowed me room to exist. In fact, I would argue that there is beauty, and the promise of growth, in the embrace of one’s own sadness. Sadness, when not violently catapulted into clinical depression, is actually a very gentle, often sublime emotion. When we stop resisting it, or trying to escape it, we can allow it to operate within us and therefore to deepen us.  Sadness, once embraced, can function like a rain that, over time, erodes away the hardness of our internal lives and carves out room for empathy, gentleness, and even love. It can soften us, and through that softening, it can make us better, more connected, more authentic human beings. When we come face to face with the tragedy of our own life, we can see the tragedy in everyone’s life. Our sadness is the sadness of being human, and by extending that realization outward, we foster compassion and love for other human beings. And that, perhaps, is the foundation on which a better world can be built…

Pessimism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Buddhism: Ancient Philosophies For The Modern Soul

As a life-long student of philosophy, I often turn to the subject in times of uncertainty or despair. Often the subject of philosophy, thanks to academia, gets a bad reputation for being pedantic, obscure, overly abstract, and even elitist. However, this bad reputation is totally unfair. Philosophy, perhaps more than any other subject, has the ability to teach us the most about life and how to live it. In particular, the converging (and often heavily over-lapping) philosophies of Stoicism, Buddhism, Epicureanism, and Pessimism, when combined, offer a unique and rather simple set of strategies for living a good life.

I will not go into the fine details of each philosophy here, I merely want to highlight some basic tactics that these philosophies offer us with regards to how a human being should live their life in order to squeeze the most happiness (or at least the most contentedness) out of it.

Lower Your Expectations

Coming mostly out of the Pessimist tradition, this idea is as simple as it is effective. Too often in life, especially in our modern American culture which inculcates in us from an early age that we are special and “can be anything we want to be”, our expectations grow out of proportion with our reality.  We are often raised to expect a morally-uplifting and meaningful career, a happily-ever-after romantic life, a comfortable income, etc. However, all too often, these things fail to pan out as we would have hoped, and the disparity between our expectations and our realities can cause us serious despair and even self-loathing (as if its *our* fault that these expectations haven’t come to fruition).

However, by being conscious of these overly-optimistic expectations, and bringing them down to more reasonable levels, we reduce the inevitable disappointment that results when we realize that life is a lot harder and shittier than we were brought up to expect. This does not mean that we stop trying, or that we give up. To the contrary, we should still try our hardest to find a career we enjoy, a partner we want to grow old with, and enough financial resources to provide for ourselves and our families. But by lowering our expectations as low as we can, we can be happily surprised when things go well, while never being overwhelmed with disappointment when things go badly. The truth is, most of us won’t have jobs we love, our relationships with our loved ones will often be strained and difficult, we will likely have plenty of money troubles, and, ultimately, everyone we care about will suffer greatly and then die, one by one, until its our turn. But this reality need not make us tremble with sadness, rather by appropriately and maturely orienting ourselves with it, we steel our minds against these inevitabilities and therefore can maintain some semblance of mental and emotional balance when they occur; as they almost certainly will.

Control Your Emotions

Our emotions come and go like weather pattners. We can be happy and optimistic in the morning, tired and deflated in the afternoon, and riddled with anxiety in the evening. The external world cares not at all for our internal emotional states, and is constantly infringing on our ability to maintain emotional balance. To grab and hold onto any sense of inner tranquility in today’s world is a Sisyphean task, indeed.

The ancient Stoics took this problem on, and concluded that by gaining control over your emotions, you can diminish the chaotic negativity that can result from having your emotions blow to and fro without an anchor. A primary method that they employed were thought experiments. By constantly thinking about worst case scenarios, the logic went, one could build up their powers of emotional control and not be as flustered when things went wrong. Holding, for example, the thought of death in your mind constantly tends to strengthen you against feelings of fear and anxiety. Reflecting often on the fact that the people you love are going to die tends to strengthen you against feelings of sadness and despair. Reflecting often on the ultimate meaningless and pettiness of human squabbles tends to strengthen you against feelings of anger and hatred.

Beyond that, though, I would argue that by OBSERVING your emotions as they arise, and detaching yourself from them in order to study them, has an even bigger effect on your ability to control them. When anger arises, for instance, simply letting it play itself out and observing how it makes you feel tends to dissipate the feeling rather quickly. Instead of justifying your anger to yourself with white-hot inner dialogue, and thereby elongating that emotion’s lifespan, try taking a deep breath and feeling what anger feels like, especially in your stomach. Anger sits in your stomach like a hot ball of iron, and it has a distinct feel to it. By detaching from the emotion in order to watch it dispassionately, you rob it of its momentum. When a strong emotion arises, you immediately have two options: 1) succumb to it, fall into it, and talk to yourself in you own head about it or 2) stand back from it, observe it with full attention, and watch it as it runs its course and fizzles out. With time, employing the latter tactic over and over again gives you steadily increasing control over your emotions, and allows you to live a slightly happier, more balanced, internal emotional life.

Take Pleasure In The Small Things

The Epicureans believed that much of our unhappiness comes from hoping for the big things in life, while ignoring all the little things. We are so obsessed with achievement, money, fame, and status that we neglect the small things in life that make life worth living. We may never obtain the “big” things in life, but we can and do engage with a plethora of wonderful little pleasures on a daily basis, and by orienting our attention to those small pleasures, we create a happier life from the bottom up.

The way coffee warms your chest and stomach on a cold winter morning, or the way your child slips their little hand into yours on a walk, or the way wine and cheese mix together on your pallet, or the way the spring sun feels on your exposed skin; these are the little wonders of life. In the rat-race that is our modern lives, these things often get passed over with little to no appreciation as we dash from our jobs to school to home and back to our jobs again. We are constantly bombarded by stimulation (visual, audio, etc.) as well as by cultural ideas of achievement and social status. Those things lash out at our attention ceaselessly. But by becoming aware of that, disengaging from it as much as possible, and taking time to consciously appreciate the little things in life, we can build up a mentality and a focus that is far more cohesive with our own happiness than our default orientation towards big dreams and future hopes could ever be.

Focus On The Present Moment

The idea that our minds (and by extension our emotions and expectations) are perpetually being pulled away from us, and tossed around chaotically, was something that the Buddha himself was very cognizant of. In Buddhist traditions, the default state of our constantly chattering, chaotic mind is known as “monkey mind”; swinging from emotion to emotion, from thought to thought, from external stimulus to external stimulus. By constantly talking to ourselves in our own heads all day long, we disconnect from the present moment in favor of reflecting on past events or anticipating future ones. This produces in us a sense that life is passing us by, as well as a nagging sense of never being fully satisfied. We satisfy one urge only to quickly discover that a new desire has arisen in its place. This pattern of “desire, satiation, desire, satiation, desire” plays out indefinitely in our minds, and is not at all conducive with lasting peace and tranquility.

To combat this tendency of the human mind, Buddhism stresses the concept of mindfulness: of consciously bringing your attention into the present moment as often as possible. By fully and deeply focusing on our breath, or on what we are doing at any given moment, we slowly train our brain to slow down and to engage with the present moment, which, if you think about it, is all we really have. When the past occurred, it occurred in the present. When the future comes, it come to us in the form of the present. All we have is the moment in which we exist. That is all we will ever have. By training our minds to focus on the present moment, often through mindfulness meditation, we come to appreciate that fact intimately. This ability to live in the present moment decreases feelings of regret and anxiety, since those emotions are about what HAS happened or what MIGHT happen. It also allows us to take in life *as it happens* with a sense of equanimity and patience and inner balance. Happiness is a natural outgrowth of this mind-state. After all, happiness is not something that needs to be hunted down and obtained, rather its like the blossoming of a flower when the proper conditions (sunlight, moisture, oxygen) are present. Orienting your mind to the present moment is how you cultivate the proper conditions in which happiness can blossom.

Conclusion

By understanding and integrating the lessons taught by these four schools of philosophy (Pessimism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Buddhism), we can create space in our lives and in our minds for true contentedness. There is, to be sure, significant irony in the fact that, in our 21st century world, it is the philosophies of the ancients that continue to prove to be the most relevant with regards to how we should live.

 

 

The Cynicism Of Millennials (And Why Its A Good Thing)

The cynicism of Millennials, while often only portrayed as a negative, actually has the positive effect of making us hyper-sensitive to inauthenticity in others, but especially in people of power.

We are an extremely cynical and irony-wielding generation, for sure, but the other side of that coin is that we are appropriately skeptical, and that skeptical orientation to reality fosters in us a healthy distrust of bullshit artists of all kinds; whether in politics, in business, in pop culture, or in the people we interact with on a day to day basis.

We see naïveté as the ultimate social sin, and so we deploy irony and pessimism in order to shield ourselves from that specific criticism to some extent, but also to prod for authenticity in the people around us.

Perhaps this general trait of millennials will culminate in some interesting social, political, and cultural realities when we are the generation in power.

In Praise Of Idleness: Valuing Leisure In A Culture Of Accomplishment

I am not an “ambitious” person. I do not desire fame, wealth, or recognition. I do not want to spend 12 hours a day at any job, and I do not want to climb any professional ladders. I do not have a compulsion to achieve a prestigious professional title or to compose a great novel or album for which I will be remembered after I die. My interests are constantly shifting, and as such, I do not doggedly pursue any single thing in such a way that would make me an expert in that field or area of study.

In our culture, which values accomplishments above all else, saying what I have just said is almost taboo. It might even be seen as a clear sign by many that I am lazy. But this is not the case. I go to work everyday, I read multiple books a month, I am an attentive and caring parent, and I keep a very clean home. I am just not wired to seek “success” in the way that our society understands the word. Success, in our society, is synonymous with professional achievements, which in turn is heavily associated with wealth. Wealth is seen as an objective measure by which we analyze whether someone is successful or not. High level politicians with power and influence, highly regarded doctors who get 7 figure salaries, famous musicians who sell out huge venues, and professional athletes who spend hours every week working out; these are the epitome of success in our society. But what about those of us who aren’t wired that way? What about the introverts? What about the people who value leisure and relaxation over accomplishment? What about the people who would rather spend hours everyday building up their relationship with their children, instead of staying late at the office, trying to gain an edge on their coworkers for that promotion opportunity?

Well, I am just such a person.

I like lounging around. I like drinking good beer with even better friends. I like long walks alone in the woods. I like to read books for fun. I like waking up in the morning with nothing to do. I like to meditate. I like love to sleep. I like to go camping. I like to eat good food and then lay down for a nap. I like wrestling with my kids. I like going hunting for Pokémon. I like to drink red wine in a small theater while watching a film.

In short, I like to relax.
I like leisure.

I don’t like deadlines. I don’t like high-pressure situations. I don’t like *having* to do something. I don’t like stress of any sort.

What makes a good life? Well, people are different, and so there are lots of different answers to that question. There are people who think that a good life is one where they accomplished something great. For some people, having a PhD after their name is what drives them. For others, accumulating wealth is what compels them forward. For still others, achieving something that will outlive them is what motivates them. And that’s great! People are all different, and those sorts of motivations are wonderful. We certainly need those sorts of people in the world. But for me, what constitutes a good life is not achievements, but rather relationships. Relationships with my children, with my friends, with my family, and with my community are what motivate me. I don’t want to sacrifice a second of my time, that I could be spending with them, pursuing some professional goal. I want to live humbly, but happily; and for me that means not constantly stressing out about achievements or accolades.

When people on their deathbeds are asked what they wish they would have done differently in life, the majority of them answer that they wish they’d spent more time with their families, they wish they cared less what others, and by extension society at large, thought about them, and they wish they had spent less time at work. I take that to heart.

I won’t be a lawyer or doctor; I wont be a famous musician or artist; I wont win a Super Bowl ring or live in a mansion. I wont be remembered generations after I die. No statues will be made of my likeness, and no buildings will be donned with my name. But I will, hopefully, have the most wonderful relationship possible with my children, I will have friends who love me deeply, and I will have family who never question my priorities or loyalty. Ill have a garden, a humble home, some well-cared for cats, a library stacked with hundreds of books, a fridge full of craft beer, and a life that I can reflect on happily.

On my deathbed, I wont be surrounded with plagues and certificates, but I will be surrounded by people, by relationships fostered and carefully tended to.

In short, the goal of my life is not wealth, fame, or professional achievements.
The goal of my life is love, laughter, and leisure.

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“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”
– Henry David Thoreau

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.”

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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.