Here, I want to tell my friend, is the crucial distinction, between depression & melancholy
October 16, 2011 § 8 Comments
Elsewhere, a dear friend of mine has written a contentiously confessional post detailing his conflicted feelings about the current Occupy Wall Street protests filling the streets of our cities (if not our headlines news). Though I very much sympathize with his well-articulated piece (esp. the brilliant parenthetical “the cultural nihilism of neoliberalism has made masochism a symptom of political awakening”), I do wish he would be more careful in the too-quick equivalence he draws between depression & melancholy. It’s the least we can do for our mythological forebears.
The link between Kronos/Saturn and melancholy, of course, is well-known and time-honored. But it is interesting what revisiting it from time to time reveals. To re-rehearse: Kronos, we will recall, was a particularly naughty boy. Killing one’s father tends to earn that label. Castrating one’s dead father and casting his testicles into the ocean, that just makes one disturbed. Such being the happy accidents of mythology, however, this insult upon injury at least gave rise to Aphrodite/Venus & the nymphs, which at last gave the world somebody to blame when its lust was too often excessive and its love too seldom returned. As naughty as he was, neither was Kronos a fool: if he could do in daddy, surely his own children would eventually desire to do the same to him. So, naturally, he ate them.
Down the hatch, one, two, three, four, five times, until finally, when the sixth was born, Rhea managed to convince him that, yes, a rock and a baby do in fact taste very much the same. And so it was that Zeus was spared because of his father’s undiscriminating palate.
Most of us know the story from here. Zeus eventually manages to induce in his father a profound bout of nausea the likes of which the world has never before or since known, causing him to spew out, newly living, with nary a chew mark even, Zeus’ siblings. And so began the war with the Titans from which Mount Olympus would arise.
Unlike with his father, in the case of Kronos’ overthrow the insult was the injury. Whether he was spared his testicles (and instead cut into a thousand pieces) or he was castrated (and remained otherwise intact), the stories vary, his defeat made him subject to everything his peculiar taste in baby had allowed him to avoid. Namely: the onslaught of time. Time/chronos, we might say, finally caught up to Kronos — the cycle of create-to-consume was ended. The specter of death, or at least of life’s limits, had dawned.
And thus, too, was born melancholy, that most heroic of the temperaments, we’re told, of which Aristotle writes:
“Why is it that all those who have become eminent in philosophy or politics or poetry or the arts are clearly melancholics . . . ?”
Not all melancholics are creators, but there is surely a sense that all creators are melancholics. Because to create is to submit to creation, whether it be by castration or a thousand some cuts beyond the bone; to beginnings that beget endings; to the presence of as many middles as one might imagine along the way, all haunted, like the one promise that can never be kept, always endings still.
Kronos could not, properly speaking, create at all until he no longer could. This, I suggest, not unlike our present world, makes him a depressive. Self-perpetuation, particularly when in the form of a self who at all costs seeks expansion or extension, only gets one so far — which is to say, if the myths are to be believed, nowhere at all. Something always slips between the cracks, as it were, and only by way of this mistake or deceit — stones mistaken for babies — depressives almost always end up creating something in spite of themselves. The unfortunate thing is that, like Kronos, and, yes, like our present world, this “something” is too often their only creation: the means of their destruction.
This is why what is classically exemplary of Kronos is not to be found in the monstrosity of his depressive cuisine, which quite frankly is all too natural, perhaps even the default, to non-creators — all of us some of the time and most of us all the time — but in the melancholic realization of (&, if we are lucky, abiding) in its failure. Here, I want to tell my friend, is the crucial distinction, between depression & melancholy. There will be some blurring of the lines between the two, but they are not, indeed must not be, the same if anything is ever to have been or be created. Zeus has seen to that.
To what end this creativity of the melancholic, though? Oh, who knows? The only guarantee: it is rarely in the service of making things, in any kind of ultimate sense, better. No, that’s the lot of the depressive. Of which this world will insure there are plenty.