Anatomy of Melancholy

by James Greer


A squib of coincidences nudged a thought to the forefront of my brain yesterday. Spurred by this post on Andrew Sullivan’s site, I began to reflect on the banality of the idea of the “sad genius,” as the term is used by Sullivan or his reader. I had thought that we were done with that idea. I had thought we had grown smarter and moved on. I was wrong.
The idea of melancholic-as-creative-genius is attractive because it is romantic, and while not all romantic notions are harmful and stupid, this variety is, at least from my spot in the crow’s nest. To address this particular post: (I’m not going to get into a discussion of aesthetics, much as I’d like to, but) Nick Drake, for example, long before that really dispiriting and creepy Volkswagen ad (“Pink Moon” is about death), was having a perfectly fine posthumous career. The ad boosted his sales to hitherto unknown heights, especially here, in America, but sales as an indicator of anything other than sales is dangerous territory. Drake was B.V. (Before Volkswagen) and still is revered, hallowed, untouchable, iconic. His worst album was the stripped down mostly-acoustic Pink Moon. His best song is “Northern Sky,” from his second-best album Bryter Layter. He’s not nearly as good as, for instance, Bert Jansch, who is alive and well and relatively obscure because he didn’t die young, or Richard Thompson, who is less obscure but also ungodly talented and very much alive. Jansch directly inspired Drake. Thompson’s songwriting I would argue is by a fair measure more depressed/depressing than anything in the Nick Drake canon. Both were and are better players and songwriters than he was. (Okay, it looks like I am going to get into a discussion of aesthetics. Sorry.) Finally, it’s not entirely certain that Drake committed suicide.

That he was clinically depressed, there can be no doubt. Depression, real depression, is debilitating. It’s an awful thing. It is also entirely unrelated to creativity, except that sometimes having a creative outlet helps a clinically depressed person cope. And sometimes, too many times, it’s just not enough. Elliott Smith opened for Guided By Voices when I was in the band for about a week on the West Coast. He seemed like a nice guy. His music wasn’t very interesting. A lot of people hold a different opinion (about his music, I mean). He was, by every account I have read and from everything I’ve heard from people who did know him, clinically depressed and fighting addiction. I very much doubt that the miserabilist streak in his music contributed to his suicide (if it did, we would not be able to explain Morrissey).

My own experience with depression, both personally and as witnessed firsthand, has been jarring. I’ve written about this in both fictional (Artificial Light) and non-fictional ways (in an article for Spin‘s 25th anniversary, unavailable online as far as I can tell), but as some of you know, when Kurt Cobain killed himself, on April 5, 1994, I was there. In Seattle. I mean, I was already there, on other business. After his death, I went to his house, talked with his mom, and his sister, and his understandably loopy widow, and several other people, some of whom had flown in for the private ceremony that was held later that day in a small Unitarian church somewhere downtown. The ceremony was deeply weird in ways that I still don’t want to think about, but it was also sweet, confused, and tremendously moving — much like Kurt. His death was, to those who knew him, almost anticlimactic. He’d joked about it, talked about it, threatened it, sung about it, and actually tried it so many times already that all you could really do was what we did. Which was to be profoundly sad. But his depression was unrelated to his “genius,” if you believe in his genius, and though I did and do not, a lot of very smart people did and do. His depression was a bio-chemical condition, most likely inherited, exacerbated by his addiction to heroin, which addiction was, in the first place, a symptom and not a cause of his depression.

The same day as the anniversary of Kurt’s death, I received in the mail the unfinished novel of another suicide, David Foster Wallace. If I were David Foster Wallace I wouldn’t have wanted anyone to publish The Pale King. But I didn’t know him, and I don’t know what instructions, if any, he left for his family and friends. Maybe he wanted his book published. His battle with depression, and with addiction (you see how often the two go together) is carefully and convincingly examined by Maria Bustillos in The Awl here. The story is uncannily similar to that of many other depressive/addictive people I know and have known. Some of those people are dead, too, but because they weren’t famous, no one except their family and friends knows.
Because of these two coincidental events, and the post at Sullivan’s blog on The Daily Beast, the last couple of days I’ve been contemplating death. Suicide, more specifically. Not my own, although, sure, that, too. My doctor once asked me, “Do you ever have thoughts of suicide?” I said “Every single day of my life.” Because, I told him, I think everybody does, even if they don’t admit it. He said he could have me committed for saying that — not the part about everybody else, the part about myself — but I laughed it off as a joke.

It wasn’t a joke. I really do think about suicide every single day of my life, and I’m almost certain everybody else does, too. Even if only on a subconscious level. I’m on an antidepressant medication (Kurt refused to take antidepressants, except heroin, which is very common with clinically depressed or bipolar people), but my particular chemical imbalance manifests more in a kind of social anxiety bordering on agoraphobia that I used to self-medicate with alcohol. I sometimes still do, because (for instance) as a novelist I’m obliged to do readings in public to promote my books. My bio-chemical problems on the spectrum from slight to severe edge much closer to the former, but it’s still not unicorns and rainbows. And that’s just me.

An artist — of genius, of talent, of modest gifts, — or even a hybrid hack like me has to access the full range of human emotion in his or her work. Those who focus on the melancholic aspects of life are not necessarily depressed, just as those who are less relentlessly downbeat are not necessarily happy. The illness is unrelated to the art. Romanticizing the notion of the “sad genius” is only going to produce more sad geniuses, and while I have nothing against sad geniuses as such, I don’t like losing friends. I would prefer we treat people who present with depression and addiction, frequently both, as suffering physical or at least psychological ailments rather than the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Poetry is not treatment. It’s poetry. However much I might want to believe in the healing power of art, I have seen too much evidence to the contrary. And it hurts.