Here, I want to tell my friend, is the crucial distinction, between depression & melancholy

October 16, 2011 § 8 Comments

Peter Paul Rubens, Saturn Devouring His Son

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.

Francisco Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son

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.

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§ 8 Responses to Here, I want to tell my friend, is the crucial distinction, between depression & melancholy

  • Ross Wolfe says:

    “The melancholy science from which I make this offering to my friend relates to a region that from time immemorial was regarded as the true field of philosophy, but which, since the latter’s conversion into method, has lapsed into intellectual neglect, sententious whimsy, and finally oblivion: the teaching of the good life. What the philosophers once knew as life has become the sphere of private existence and now of mere consumption, dragged along as an appendage of the process of material production, without autonomy or substance of its own. He who wishes to know the truth about life in its immediacy must scrutinize its estranged form, the objective powers that determine individual existence even in its most hidden recesses. To speak immediately of the immediate is to behave much as those novelists who drape their marionettes in imitated bygone passions like cheap jewelry, and make people who are no more than component parts of machinery act as if they still had the capacity to act as subjects, and as if something depended on their actions. Our perspective of life has passed into an ideology which conceals the fact that there is life no longer.” — Adorno, Minima Moralia.

    One cannot live the good life in the totality of the wrong.

    My thoughts on Occupy Wall Street and its ambitions, which I believe have been built upon the remains of what once was possible:

    “Reflections on Occupy Wall Street: What it represents, its prospects, and its deficiencies

    • Brad Johnson says:

      I used to say that Minima Moralia would be one of my so-called “desert island books.” This was, however, before I fully recognized the extent to which I already inhabited that island & had at some point misplaced my copy of the book.

      • Ross Wolfe says:

        I find Adorno’s late reflections on the decoupling of theory and praxis are more crucial to understanding our present moment than almost any text produced on the Left. Theory and practice have become estranged, to the detriment of both.

  • tom clark says:

    Mistaking stones for babies or babies for stones, rolling either or both around in the mouth like Beckett’s pebbles, and then spitting them out, might at least create a interesting diversion at that bleak, forlorn tent-and-garbage town downtown, symbol of all our ignominy, indignity, suppressed rage and confusion of hope with a three-day-old bagel.

    When Adorno died, the “student Left” (now there’s a good one) rewarded him for his pains (and perhaps, whether they knew it or not, to some degree, for his humourlessness), by urinating on his grave.

    His desk is preserved in a piss-proof glass box. I don’t know if they’ve ever washed down his grave. But they ought to. And while at it they ought to direct a cleansing torrent in the direction of the vines behind the Occupy Site. It emanates a curious rancid stench, as if Gethsemane were being converted into a toxic dump.

  • tom clark says:

    Brad, here’s that glass box.

    When one meditates upon the imperative that people whose desks dwell in glass boxes ought not throw stones, or for that matter babies, one runs upon the fraught aporia-space between the mythical melancholy rocks, yet again.

  • Diana Hereld says:

    “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.”

    -One of the most clear and concise statements on the artistic melancholia I’ve seen, to date. Beautiful.

  • […] difference between melancholy and depression that one can find in Freud and others, and beautifully written about by my friend Brad Johnson. If these theorists are correct, there is some kind of link between creativity and the melancholic […]

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