I’d like to twine two recent essays from separate authors into a whole (hopefully) thought-provoking diary. These issues are almost too germane to what so many of us are facing now, given what many call ‘end-state capitalism and end-state Western Imperialism/neoliberalism’. Since I love the painting, and the first author’s M-term is a bit more gentle than the other, I’ll start with:
Kernan had subtitled his essay: ‘Without knowing the extremes of sadness and joy we can never fully know or feel all that life is’, which concept we’d been batting around here recently. He veers briefly into a consideration of behavioral epigenetics (or ‘How Nurture Shapes Nature’, a worthy topic, but beyond the reach of what I’m borrowing from him for now: the benefits of melancholia in the abstract, not possible ‘generational melancholia’.
The author brings in any number of philosophical quotes and Buddhist traditions to ballast his thesis; allow me to bring a few:
“There is something so enchanting in the smile of melancholy. It is a ray of light in the darkness, a shade between sadness and despair, showing the possibility of consolation.” Leo Tolstoy
“Philosophers have long entertained the idea that melancholy and creativity are inter-connected. Friedrich Nietzshe said that the suffering brought on by melancholy—“this evening twilight devil” as he called it—was vital to the mind and soul, even sacred. Suffering and difficulty, he thought, must be embraced, cultivated, and carefully crafted.
Without some kind of torment present in the soul, nothing of real or lasting value or beauty can be created. Without that dichotomy of emotional experiences; without knowing the extremes of sadness and joy, we can never fully know or feel all that life is. Similarly, Soren Kierkegaard wrote that melancholy was his “intimate confidant,” his “most faithful mistress,” and a place where he found “bliss.” Like Nietzsche, he thought that the suffering brought on by angst—melancholia’s more animated cousin you might say—was a necessary prerequisite for creativity.”
“In the Buddhist tradition, Avalokiteshvara, the “Buddha to be” who is worshipped in both male and female forms has vowed to postpone enlightenment until s/he has released all sentient beings from Dukkha, the Sanskrit word for suffering. Suffering in Buddhism is understood as one of the four great Noble Truths. In the Fire Sermons, preached over two and half thousand years ago, the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, said that we live with delusion or avidya caused by suffering, and as a result we are “burning:”
“The mind is burning, ideas are burning, mind-consciousness is burning … Burning with what? I say it is burning with birth, aging and death, with sorrows, with lamentations, with pains, with griefs, with despairs.”
Hence, suffering and the sadness it brings is a universal part of human experience—a visceral part of who we are at our very core. We can run from this truth if we want to, but it will catch up with us in the end. There is no hiding place, and no amount of 21st century consumption or other distractions will douse our burnings.”
His link above goes to the Secular Buddhist Association’s ‘What’s Burning in the Fire Sermon?’, a more complex and nuanced take on Gautama Buddha’s sutras, including form-and-name as underpinning consciousness, etc., and the need to abandon those pre-conceived beliefs. But I digress.
Karnan goes on to separate melancholia from depression, quoting Susan Sontag’s having noted that ‘depression is melancholy minus the charms’. His link opens to a long and worthy essay by Carina del Valle Schorske on ‘Melancholy and the Examined Life’ in which she wonders if all ‘melancholics’ are indeed ‘charming’. But this passage struck a major chord for me (perhaps a minor one, given that those are so often the chords of grief, reflection, and pain), and I’ll amplify on the reasons later on.
“The pharmacological discourse of depression has not entirely replaced the romantic discourse of melancholy. But on the whole, contemporary American culture seems committed to a final solution.
Both stigmatization and sanctification come with real ethical dangers. On the one hand, there is the danger that hidden in the wish for the elimination of depressive symptoms is a wish for the elimination of other essential attributes of the depressed person—her posture of persistent critique, her intolerance for small talk. On the other hand there is the danger of taking pleasure in the pain of the melancholic, and of adding the expectation of insight to the already oppressive expectations the melancholic likely has for herself. But these ethical dangers are not simply imposed on the unfortunate person from the outside. It is not only the culture at large that oscillates between understanding psychological suffering as a sign of genius and a mark of shame. The language used in both discourses bears a striking resemblance to the language the depressed person uses in her own head.”
But back to Karnan:
“Melancholy is a particular kind of sadness, an emotion born of suffering but reflective rather than creating a debilitating depression. Melancholy also has a faint quality of mourning, even a kind of grief, but for what? Our lost innocence? All that is lost in the past, and all that will be lost in the future? The human condition is full of bewilderment, misunderstanding, loss and grief because we will lose the people we love, and because things will not work out in the ways we want, so mourning and regret are inevitable.”
Although he sees depression as paralyzing and causing one to live in the ‘claustrophobic confines’ of one’s head, rather than opening doors to self-knowledge as melancholy can ‘open these claustrophobic walls to acceptance and self-knowledge’, we know that the ‘depression’ is too easily diagnosed by the US medical establishment (see: BigPharma’s ‘final solution’) even when it’s of short duration, and may at other times present as mere ‘melancholia’.
But bless his heart, toward the end Karman pronounces:
“If we are to stay sane in the world we must actively seek out this kind of melancholy, for if we don’t we won’t be able to understand ourselves fully. We risk one-dimensionality and superficiality—two of the many curses brought on by 21st century capitalism. This cannot be self-indulgent, nor just another excuse to inflict even more pain on our ‘guilty,’ ‘undeserving’ and unexamined selves.”
In her introduction to the Karman’s essay, Yves Smith had linked to the pdf of a piece she’d written in 2008: The Dark Side of Optimism; Why looking on the bright side keeps us from thinking critically.
Yeah, okay; many of you may be remembering Monty Python’s ‘Always look on the bright side…♪ tra la la ♫’… Moving onward:
A friend had recently sent me the following essay from Counterpunch, knowing that it would be of high interest to me: I hope it will be to all of you as well.
From Bruce Levine, April 18: ‘Anti-Authoritarian Options for Suicidal Anti-Authoritarians’
While noting that correlation doesn’t equal causation, Levine notes that suicide rates in the US, suicide rates have skyrocketed as has the use of anti-depressants. He then wonders if ‘all people’ (meaning the mental health world) view suicide (or suicide ideation, I’d add) as being a symptom of a ‘metal health issue for which standard psychiatric treatment is the most effective remedy’, or might it be viewed in other ways?
Now straightaway, it bothers me that he equates ‘standard treatment’ with BigPharma drugs, but it seems to have been the trend for psychiatric treatment for years, if not decades. Come to think of it, since the Reagan era. “Close the mental hospitals: let them eat their pills on the street!” stuff. But still, fancy the time spent prescribing a pill-fix, compared to talk therapy/counseling.
“Or”, Levine asks, “Or, for some people, could being suicidal be regarded—and cared for—in other ways?”
He goes on to cite grisly stats such as:
“A US sub-population with an especially large increase in suicide and with high antidepressant use is middle-aged women. The suicide rate for women age 45 to 64 increased by 63% from 1999 to 2014, and by 2008, 23% of women 40–59 years of age were taking antidepressants (with more recent estimates of antidepressant use in this population stating, “the figure is one in four”).
Among young people in the US, suicide is the second leading cause of death among those aged 15-34 and the third leading cause of death among those aged 10-14; and among students in grades 9-12, 17% seriously considered attempting suicide and 8% attempted suicide one or more times in the previous 12 months. Mental health authorities tell us that the problem is that treatment is not available enough; however, among those 18 years of age and younger in the US, the number taking antidepressants more than tripled between 1987 and 1996; further increased by 50% between 1998-2002, and increased by 26% between 2005-2012.”
“Antidepressants for young people, according to the US Food and Drug Administration, are suicidogenic. Based on placebo-controlled trials of nine different antidepressants, the FDA in 2004 ordered warning labels of increased risk of suicidality (suicidal thinking and attempts) for children using antidepressants; these warnings were updated in 2007 to also include increased suicidality risk for adults aged 18-24 using antidepressants. A cautionary note: If you abruptly stop taking antidepressants or lower the dose too quickly, one of many possible withdrawal adverse effects is feeling suicidal.”
He writes that for anti-authoritarians, these drugs don’t really ease their feelings of isolation, alienation, loss, oppression in their jobs, school experiences, poverty, unemployment, etc. Yes, how well we know those feelings of not fitting in with the ‘good amerikans who devote their lives mindlessly to being amiable producers of wealth, as well as growing into avid consumers of all the newest toys, gizmos, and fashionable items that denote ‘success’. For many anti-authoritarians who haven’t quite yet twigged to the fact that it’s not them, it’s the system that’s rubbish, they’re simply apt to blame themselves for their deep societal alienation.
Now in this essay, Levine hasn’t bothered defining what he means by anti-authoritarians’, wondering if he’d meant the tragi-comical parallel ‘Oppositional Defiant Disorder’ diagnosis. Curious, I did a bit of digging, and found this clue that he’d penned in 2014 (lots of interesting links there at Z) in part:
“A frequently used psychiatric diagnosis for rebellious young people is oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). This so-call “disorder” was created by a committee within the American Psychiatric Association and listed, in 1980, in the APA’s diagnostic manual, the then DSM-III. ODD’s symptoms include “often actively defies or refuses to comply with adult requests or rules” and “often argues with adults.” Since 1980, ODD has become an increasingly popular psychiatric diagnosis for young people, with an increasing number of those diagnosed being drugged for this “condition.”
In 2012, the Archives of General Psychiatry reported that between 1993-2009, there was a seven-fold increase of children 13 years and younger being prescribed anti-psychotic drugs (which include Haldol, Risperdal, Zyprexa, Abilify, and Seroquel) and that nonpsychotic “disruptive behavior disorders”—which includes ODD—were the most common diagnoses in children medicated with antipsychotics, accounting for 63 percent of those medicated. Antipsychotics are extremely tranquilizing and subduing and they are among the most dangerous psychiatric drugs, causing obesity, diabetes, and “life-shortening adverse effects” (reported in the American Family Physician in 2010).” (ADHD as well.)
So perhaps he has meant that, at least for youngsters. Some of us, of course, will have acted out our feelings of alienation in (ahem) more covert ways, or had largely withheld them until we became ‘adults’. Remember when public schools had windows? “Stop daydreaming about what’s outside!” Even here, schools are built to resemble prisons, built of block, with small narrow ‘windows’ that look as they could accommodate gun turrets. Problem solved.
Options for Suicidal Anti-Authoritarians
“Some anti-authoritarians challenge the idea that their suicidality is evidence of mental illness. David Webb, author of Thinking About Suicide, is one of those anti-authoritarians. Webb attempted suicide several times and was psychiatrically treated. He ultimately concluded that it was unhelpful to view feeling suicidal as a consequence of mental illness, and he came to believe that the “mental illness approach” medicalizes what he views as a “sacred crisis of the self.”
For Webb, “Contrary to the assumptions behind the mental illness approach, it is possible to see thinking about suicide as a healthy crisis of the self, full of opportunity, despite its risks.” For Webb, taking the opportunity to ask questions about the self that is in crisis “has the potential to open up possibilities for a deeper experience of the self, which for some, such as myself, can be a pathway out of suicidality.”
There is little controversy that it is helpful for people who are suicidal to be open about their feelings. However, if being suicidal is viewed as a symptom of mental illness, Webb notes, “talking about your suicidal feelings runs the very real risk of finding yourself being judged, locked up and drugged.” So, many critically-thinking suicidal anti-authoritarians don’t reach out.”
He then writes that for many, being labeled ‘mentally ill’ for having deep pain and thoughts of suicide is too often counter-productive, rather than freeing, as society so stigmatizes mental illness that the formulation can drive them deeper into despair and hopelessness.
“In contrast, what’s helpful for many suicidal people is validation that their pain is evidence of their soul and their humanity. For anti-authoritarians such as Webb, it is helpful to view feeling suicidal as a “genuine and authentic human experience that is to be honored and respected.”
Perhaps one day such ‘crises of self’ might be seen as celebrated rites of passage into increased self-awareness, no? In a better, more sane world?
(Hamlet’s Ophelia, as portrayed by John Everett Mills, singing as she drowns in a river in Denmark; we can easily imagine Virginia Woolf in the River Ouse as the tragic victim.)
I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times.’
(the heart-breakingly poignant rest of her note is here.)