On Melancholy and the Fantastic

As the days get shorter (no thanks to Daylight savings), those of us who suffer from seasonal affective disorder start to become nervous. Trees are becoming bare. Temperatures are dropping. Birds are getting the hell out of here. Winter is coming.

But I take comfort in the fantastic.

The fantastic has been frequently called upon to describe experiences that are otherwise difficult to describe, such as depression. There is the black dog, first used by Churchill. (Nick Drake wrote about the “Black Eyed Dog” that called at the door, that called out for more. It’s one of the saddest songs ever.) In Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, depression-like symptoms are the result of faerie enchantment. Lady Pole lapses into “a lassitude” of which no doctor can cure her because every night she is stolen away to a ball in the Faerie Kingdom of Lost Hope, where she is forced to dance all night long. Depression is often referred to as a demon or a haunt. But there is one monster of the fantastic that is not usually linked with depression that should be. The vampire.

In most vampire lore, a vampire cannot enter your home uninvited. He comes to the door, and at first he looks kind of kind of sexy — dark, contemplative, brooding, like vampire Jason Patric in The Lost Boys — but once you let him in you can’t get rid of him, and he will drain you of all the vitality you have in you. In my experience, depression is like this. There is something appealing about it at first — the melancholic mood is kind of beautiful and comforting. At first it feels like an old friend, a warm hug, sometimes even love . . . then it drags you under and consumes you.

I’m not trying to say being sad is something to be afraid of, just wary.

In 1621 Robert Burton published a book on melancholy (that he wrote to keep from being melancholy). It’s 2000 pages long and describes all the different kinds of melancholy (e.g., religious melancholy, lovers melancholy) and its cures (e.g., fishing, drinking, being not solitary). In the first few pages Burton describes melancholy as “a habit, a serious ailment, a settled humour, as Aurelianus and others call it, not errant, but fixed: and as it was long increasing, so, now being (pleasant or painful) grown to a habit, it will hardly be removed.” Back in the day melancholy was considered one of the four humors that ran in the blood, along with the sanguine (optimistic and social), choleric (irritable), phlegmatic (peaceful). The perfect person had a balance of these humors, but if one of them grew to excess, a person could become sick. And I think this is a nice way of looking at things. Because the problem isn’t with melancholy itself, the problem with excess and letting sadness become fixed and habitual. And one way we do this is by feeding it.

In some ways, the black dog is a similar trope to the vampire. In stories of the black dog, it appears outside and just starts hanging around like a typical stray, but if you feed it and let it inside, it won’t ever leave. It grows bigger and bigger and it’s just always there with you, like a giant Eeyore-like Clifford dog that you can’t hide . . . or worse.

The origins of the black dog are Faustian. Goethe’s Faust brings a stray, frisky black poodle inside his home and when the dog won’t stop snarling and barking, he shows it the door. But the dog won’t leave. Instead, it becomes the devil Mephistopheles and Faust can find no spell to drive him out. Just as the Coreys (Haim and Feldman) find out only too late, “Don't ever invite a vampire into your house, you silly boy. It renders you powerless.”

I think what these stories teach us is that major depression is not like other diseases that come from out of nowhere, like Leukemia or Lou Gehrig’s disease. It’s more like alcoholism. We are complicit.

But enough of making ourselves feel even worse. So what do to when we do let it in, when melancholy becomes fixed and habitual? How does one get rid of it?

Here’s where the imagination can save us, and by imagination I’m talking about the fantastic, specifically, escape into the fantastic. Sure, escapism is often viewed as a way of not dealing with problems, but I think there is another way of looking at it. Eric Rabkin who wrote The Fantastic in Literature, argued that “the fantastic signals a psychological escape, often from boredom, to an unknown world secretly yearned for, whose order, although reversed, bears a precise relation to reality.” This is why fantastical allegories can be so affective as ways to gain distance from our difficulties, to even have fun with them a little, while still dealing with them.

Sure, when you’re depressed, I mean really in it, like not able to function, the last thing you may feel like doing is reading. (Though poetry is good. The memoir Black Rainbow includes a great anthology.) But the best thing is to get your mind active again. I don’t mean read the classics. You have to keep it light and easy. For me, last spring it was Neil Gaiman’s Ocean at the End of the Lane. Reading this book was like a reordering shock to the brain. Suddenly, all my neural passageways were open again. Where I had been stuck walking a singular path around and around, suddenly there were highways everywhere, and many that hadn’t been there before. It was like, “oh . . . yeah . . . there’s all this too”.

A depressed person invents a reality, and that reality is incredibly limited. Everything is sad. Alarm clocks, toasters, the sky. In Ocean at the End of the Lane Neil Gaiman invents a world inhabited by three women who can cut and mend the fabric of time, removing bad memories from peoples’ experiences seamlessly, so they don’t remember the bad things happened at all. (Though they feel a void they can’t explain and are unable to ever find true happiness.) Also, in this world there is a monster causing suffering and chaos by giving everyone exactly what they most want. It’s all fantasy, sure, but it bears a "precise relation to reality", and it’s so much more fun and expansive than a world of sad toasters. Unless, of course, those toasters could talk and then that would be pretty funny. I guess the book was an important reminder that the world isn’t “doing this to me” . . . because I am the inventor of the world.

There's a great TED Talk given by Andrew Solomon on depression. In it he says a lot of wise and beautiful things, but one thing he says stood out to me. He says "the opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality". And so, as winter sets in, I take comfort in the fantastic . . . and vitamin D. And if anyone wants to join me in a fight to end Daylight savings I'd be down for that too.


Post script. "Ah . . . Is this not happiness?

The Idler.com started a column called "Ah . . . Is this not happiness" last fall. The idea comes from a 17th century Chinese critic who believed that happiness is not a constant state of being but something that occurs to us in moments. People wrote in about things that made them happy, if only for a single brilliant moment. So here is mine.

An old friend recently read my post on the Green Man and sent me this picture. In this post I wrote about the beginnings of my Green Man obsession, and the first Green Man I ever saw. It was in a garden statuary store. What I did not remember is that I bought that Green Man, and I gave it to my good friend Chuck. Twenty years later, and he still has it. 

Chuck's Green Man