When I’m tired, songs stick in my head, and sometimes I spend the entire day hoping Frank Sinatra will really get over his little town blues or Jimi Hendrix will either give up on the wild thing or that she’ll requite his love at last and shut him up. The worst songs fold over and over until they become a throbbing plea.
I’ve learned ways to save myself. Sometimes I bring songs to an exciting and cataclysmic end, complete with sawing strings, brass blasts, and kettle drums, and then I imagine a wash of applause as the show comes to a close. Sometimes I tell someone the tune of the day and pass it on… though they usually give me another song in return.
Unfortunately this music reflects my mind’s operation, its endless recursive ruminations on aspirations, plans, concepts, issues, disappointments, grudges, worries. My brain won’t quiet down, and often my writing is nothing more than another inflated coda, an opportunity to get the fugue out of my head.
I’ve accepted the role of writing in my life. No longer part of any dream for fame or fortune or artistic virtuosity, writing is exorcism. It guards me from possession, managing personal demons by giving their eddying spirits an escape or, at the very least, by containing them in the typescript version of the Ghostbuster dustpan.
Hardly an inspiring reason for reading this blog, I know, but that’s the way I see it. I’m an old man who knows how to flex the kink in his back or make his trick knee function. Only, it’s a trick brain I’m talking about. I keep running into writers and psychologists who give my symptoms the name “depression.”
In a recent article in The New York Times (“Depression’s Upside,” 2/25/10), Johan Lehrer explored current speculation on depression’s evolutionary advantages. Darwin himself suffered from depression, and Lehrer explains his letters are, “Filled with references to the salvation of study, which allowed him to temporarily escape his gloomy moods.” He reports Darwin as saying, “Work is the only thing which makes life endurable to me.” Darwin said work was his “Sole enjoyment in life.”
Lehrer also quotes Aristotle: “All men who have attained excellence in philosophy, in poetry, in art and in politics, even Socrates and Plato, had a melancholic habitus.” Yet, Lehrer recognizes these comments as at least partly rationalization. If depression were a neutral habit of mind, if its constrictive fixations were only as problematic as a contagious tune or old football injury, it might spur sufferers as productively as it did Darwin and the rest of the famously depressed club—Lincoln, Churchill, Jim Carey. But they call them “depression sufferers” for a reason. The adaptive advantage of mulling over issues balances against the emotional pain of playing your worst worries or fears in an endless loop. I’m wondering, what is the evolutionary advantage of emotion? How does it help to be trapped in a dark closet of dismay?
Lehrer cites studies linking depression to brain activity in the left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, a zone associated with verb conjugation, knowledge of abstract concepts, and attention, and he discusses interesting experiments where subjects, after listening to sad music, analyzed complicated issues more effectively.
All of which makes me think of the best-known consolation for blindness, an acute sense of smell. You are grateful something comes of something so tragic, but no one is ready to blind him or herself to become a better chef. Lehrer isn’t out to tout depression either. He describes how it produces labored and tedious thinking. As the prefrontal cortex tires, he explains, it grows more vulnerable to distraction and gives up. “Wisdom isn’t cheap,” Lehrer says, “and we pay for it with pain.”
I’m grateful my brain is wired for obsessive thinking, especially as I know no other way of getting through my worries and disappointments. I don’t regard rumination as a superpower, however. I have no dream of being Despondent Man and know I can’t direct recursive concentration like X-ray vision. It controls me and not the other way around. Most of my thinking seems necessary, and, much of the time, I have trouble telling whether my swirling ideas will drown me or lift me away.
Nor do I like relying on a broken brain. A famous depressive Lehrer doesn’t mention, Soren Kieregaard, said, “In addition to my other numerous acquaintances, I have one more intimate confidant. My depression is the most faithful mistress I have known—no wonder, then, that I return the love.” Living with a habit sometimes turns into accepting it, embracing it, loving it. My habits become me.
Evolution has no motive, but I assume it has reason, advantages lying behind every expressed trait or characteristic. I prefer to believe I am what I need to be because, in any case, I am what I am. Maybe every writer and every artist does what he or she must do. I can at least be happy my nature has found its means, its trick to survival. Any other alternative is too dark to consider.