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In a previous post I started thinking aloud if my stance toward depression could change from hostility toward an invader to the acceptance of a primal force in my make-up, something that was giving me a message I was imperfectly grasping. I’ve found a remarkable book that helps me respond with new energy to this terrible condition. It is Julia Kristeva’s Black Sun. This series of essays by a prominent French psychoanalyst evokes the ways in which artists have portrayed states of depression in order to transcend the suffering of this condition. Though at times the language is dense with post-Freudian terminology, it is also beautifully evocative of the experiences of melancholy and depression and the powerful insights of creative minds in grappling with the problem of living with an illness that takes hold of the mind and feelings so pervasively.
The psychoanalytic theory that tries to explain all this is less important than the fact that it pushes my thinking in the here and now to a new understanding of the strange interplay of basic forces inside me. It helps me consider the dynamic of what I experience quite apart from explanations rooted in past family history. Though psychoanalytic theory is rooted in that history, Kristeva presents the dynamic within the psyche in symbolic terms that make it possible to separate the forces inherent in depression from the particular circumstances of loss or trauma that initially triggered them. Those circumstances, after all, cannot be changed – the family past is completely gone – but the immediate drives toward destruction or hope are the experiences I have to work with right now.
What draws me to Kristeva’s book is the focus on specific writers and visual artists who lived with this condition and tried to transcend it. Her title, for example, “Black Sun” comes from a poem by Gerard de Nerval, a French poet of the first half of the 19th century – himself a depressive and a suicide. The image is of strong, blinding light that is somehow dark at the same time. The image captures the intensity of depression at its worst and also the experience in the soul of a depressed person of terrible extremes, the great source of energy and life and its opposite of destructive darkness. The key thing is that they are combined in one image as they are in the soul of a depressed person.
Kristeva brings out the extreme nature of the experience of melancholy (a term she uses to refer to the chronic condition that is not reversible on its own) and depression (the more treatable phase of the continuum). That matches my experience that there is something almost infinite about depression. I feel deeply not only the extreme despair, or the extreme lack of feeling altogether, but generally a belief that I am undergoing a type of ultimate experience that can bring me face to face with death itself. It feels as if, buried deep within me is a loss of such vast proportions that I am never done with it, despite all explanations from the past, all theories about trauma, shame and dysfunctional families. Entwined in depression, I am gripped by a powerful negativity, at worst a despair, that focuses an energy of disintegration on all that I am. That, again, is an energy opposite to what I feel as the force of life. Instead depression is a driver to destruction – that is its only logic, that this worst of beings – me – should not live on this earth.
It is all so extreme, and Kristeva dwells on this aspect of the condition. Not only is the loss seemingly impossible to console – it has touched an archaic part of the self, something deeper than the thinking brain can influence. It is also one that generates, in her view, an equally powerful despair or depression that becomes a close possession of the sufferer, really the substitute for what has been lost. She posits a force drawn from the Narcissus myth. Depression implies a need for a love that cannot be attained, that is so perfect it cannot be achieved in real life but only draws one to drown in pursuit of the imagined ideal. There is also hatred and aggression toward the lost, unattainable one, but this is usually not acknowledged as directed outward and is instead turned in on oneself, ultimately pushing a depressed person to suicide. There are times, though, when that aggression does flow toward others in the form of rage and blame when everyone but the person himself seems responsible for the unhappiness of his or her life.
This rings true through the fantasies that have plagued me at different times of my life, fantasies of a perfect and completely unattainable passion, a love felt and returned of epic proportions, never to be satisfied by anything in the real world. Extreme too is the self-loathing that makes it hard to stay in my own skin. Or I might feel nothing, no feeling, no hatred, no nothing and so plunge into a calm depthless lake of emptiness where I feel like I’m drowning. And then there are the rages that I never realized until recently were a frequent manifestation of depression as well.
Surely the sense of vastness, the infinite pain, the endless suspension of feeling, the yearning for limitless love, the grief that is larger than life – all that suggests an inflation of the self that offers a clue on how to begin to outwit and outfeel the worst of this illness. Medication isn’t working well, and I want to find a way to understand this thing that takes me over so often. I need to be able to live, to work, to love and connect, to create what I need to bring into life, even in the midst of this long distortion that breaks me away from the living I want to do.
Kristeva finds in Dostoevsky a way out of the misery of the rhythm of hurtling back and forth from self-hatred to a turning outward of that anger usually directed at oneself, a turning that directs rage and blame often at those closest in one’s feelings. That way out is forgiveness and is illustrated through the powerful story of Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov spends his life in dejection until a preposterous theory of his own grandeur leads him to carry out a horrible double murder. So he has shifted from blaming himself and living in depression to justifying an outer directed aggression that enables him to take human life. After Raskolnikov has confessed his murderous crime, been sentenced to seven years in Siberia and completed the journey there, accompanied all the way by Sonia, the woman he has scorned but who has never deserted him, he finally undergoes a transformation.
He first forgives himself and then finally can feel the love that has been hidden under his contempt and abuse for the woman by his side. But clearly it is a wider love that fills him – it changes his outlook on everything. As Dostoevsky puts it, life had replaced logic, and he had now to get used to a rich life of feeling rather than the sterile, destructive and depressed existence he had previously known. He had still a price of seven years’ imprisonment to pay for his crime, but the first step had been taken, that of learning how to live with himself and experience an all-embracing love.
What’s interesting in this change in Raskolnikov is that it is felt, not arrived at by thinking. There is something about the suffering he has been through and the horror he has created in his life that finally transforms him. That link of suffering and love is strong in Russian culture and quite alien to American culture today. But there is a truth to it that I can appreciate: the extremes of depression have brought me closer to my feelings and away from the judgmental thinking style I had when younger. The sense of self-forgiveness, though, in the throes of depression has been harder to achieve. I know at a thinking level that I can accept myself for who I am – that is, after all, an all too glib mantra of this period – but to feel that at a level of deep belief is something like an experience of religious conversion. And that is really what Dostoevsky portrays in his novel.
Recognizing the possibility of such deep change is perhaps a first step toward internalizing a new way of dealing with depression. I’m interested to know if you have felt changes in your approach to life – in your basic beliefs about yourself – as a result of living with the chronic form of depression.