The season of bright berries and early morning mists near at hand, dogs barking at frogs in wet ditches. Sinking into Proust and wishing I had understood what I intuitively know now when I first read A la recherche du temps perdu at university, aged 19 and ignorant beyond my knowing. Looking up words in my Larousse dictionary and wishing the sentences were shorter. I was moved by the beauty of the writing though, copied out some of those labyrinthine, melancholy sentences into my guarded diary. As with Montaigne and Pascal, happy to think I would be able to go on reading these writers and thinkers all my life, that they would become akin to close friends, that I would go on learning from them. And so it has been.
And reading too all the British debate around where the bones of Richard III might be buried for the second time, wincing as I saw skeletal images of the twisted spine, radical scoliosis. Shakespeare’s troubled historical character entering modern history. He was the last of the Plantagenet kings and with his death in battle on Bosworth Field, the Middle Ages ended. Lines from Geoffrey Hill’s Funeral Music run through my head
For whom do we scrape our tribute of pain—
For none but the ritual king? We meditate
A rueful mystery; we are dying
To satisfy fat Caritas, those
Wiped jaws of stone. (Suppose all reconciled
By silent music; imagine the future
Flashed back at us, like steel against sun,
Ultimate recompense.) Recall the cold
Of Towton on Palm Sunday before dawn,
Wakefield, Tewkesbury: fastidious trumpets
Shrilling into the ruck; some trampled
Acres, parched, sodden or blanched by sleet,
Stuck with strange-postured dead. Recall the wind’s
Flurrying, darkness over the human mire.
For a few weeks now I’ve been thinking about the nature of ‘illness’ or ‘disorder’, wondering about the role this has played in my own life and the lives of friends, the years of therapy, the effort to understand what is really wrong, what needs to be done, the struggle against anxiety and depression that characterises so much of how we deal with life, not just ‘in recovery’ but all of us, the labelling of moods, the uncertainty about diagnoses, the uncertain management of emotional stress and desperation with medication. Via Jess Crispin at Bookslut
I found reviews of and an extract from Ann Cvetkovich’s Depression: A Public Feeling
, in which she looks at the role played by culture and society in producing widespread states of depression, how failures at work and economic pressures, the unresolved tensions between creative work and the work done to earn a living, the demands of the culture around us as regards performance, self-improvement, notions of perfectionism, all contribute to our feeling bad about ourselves much of the time. What will future generations think of our epidemic of emotional distress in a largely heartless society? Sorry about the length of this quotation, but I found it worth exploring:
I’m interested in how, for many of us (an “us” that includes a range of social positions and identities in need of specification), everyday life produces feelings of despair and anxiety, sometimes extreme, sometimes throbbing along at a low level, and hence barely discernible from just the way things are, feelings that get internalized and named, for better or for worse, as depression. It is customary, within our therapeutic culture, to attribute these feelings to bad things that happened to us when we were children, to primal scenes that have not yet been fully remembered or articulated or worked through. It’s also common to explain them as the result of a biochemical disorder, a genetic mishap for which we shouldn’t blame ourselves. I tend to see such master narratives as problematic displacements that cast a social problem as a personal problem in one case and as a medical problem in the other, but moving to an even larger master narrative of depression as socially produced often provides little specific illumination and even less comfort because it’s an analysis that frequently admits of no solution. Saying that capitalism (or colonialism or racism) is the problem does not help me get up in the morning.
Thus I’ve been looking for forms of testimony that can mediate between the personal and the social, that can explain why we live in a culture whose violence takes the form of systematically making us feel bad. Ideally, I’d like those forms of testimony to offer some clues about how to survive those conditions and even to change them, but I’d also settle for a compelling description, one that doesn’t reduce lived experience to a list of symptoms and one that provides a forum for feelings that, despite a widespread therapeutic culture, still haven’t gone public enough.