Depression, Inside-Out

Depression—characterized by persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or alienation—afflicts one of every 10 US adults. Our guest George Scialabba, a writer and public intellectual based in Cambridge, is speaking about his decades-long bout with the illness on the occasion of an article he wrote for The Baffler magazine, called “The Endlessly Examined Life.”

One of the things that hurts most about depression is that you don’t really believe that it’s ever going to go away, get better. It just doesn’t seem like something with a plausible cause. So you can’t imagine what the remedy is. So people should tell you: “Look, eventually, everybody gets a little better. Some people are still mildly depressed, but virtually no one is acutely depressed for decades and decades — their whole life. It’ll get a little better, and probably a lot better. So hang on.”

unnamedGeorge found and published the various clinical notes that his doctors wrote about him and his condition over nearly 40 years. It’s the first publication of its kind—part personal journey, part modern medical history of depression therapy, drugs, and electro-shock treatments. We’re talking, now, about what the doctors tend not to write down: namely, what depression has to do with the deep philosophical and religious search about life.

One of the things George found in his own search was the humanism of D.H. Lawrence. As George reads from his essay collection, The Modern Predicament:

Lawrence believed that the universe and the individual soul were pulsing with mysteries, from which men and women were perennially distracted by want or greed or dogma. He thought that beauty, graceful physical movement, unselfconscious emotional directness, and a sense, even an inarticulate sense, of connection to the cosmos, however defined – to the sun, to the wilderness, to the rhythms of a craft or the rites of a tribe – were organic necessities of a sane human life. “Man has little needs and deeper needs,” he wrote. “We have fallen into the mistake of living from our little needs till we have almost lost our deeper needs in a sort of madness.”

Reading List
The Endlessly Examined Life
George Scialabba, The Baffler
The Modern Predicament
George Scialabba
The Depressed Person
David Foster Wallace, Harper's
A short story from the late author, who suffered acutely of depression. "The depressed person was in terrible and unceasing emotional pain," Wallace begins. "And the impossibility of sharing or articulating this pain was itself a component of the pain and a contributing factor in its essential horror."
Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine and Other Essays
D. H. Lawrence
A summary of the Englishman's paganism. "The most convincing philosophy of life that I know," George says.
The Soul of Man Under Socialism
Oscar Wilde (1891)
George, speaking of the "visionary utopianism of John Ruskin, William Morris, and Oscar Wilde," recommended this essay in particular.
Say No To Happiness (radio program)
CBC's Ideas
Further listening: producer Frank Faulk interviews theologians, philosophers, and writers on questions of positive psychology.

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  • Potter

    That picture of Harold Bloom says it all, don’t you think?

    Well you would think that this subject is not where you want to go in this particular winter of 2015. But it’s not about depression. Or not about only that. What it’s really about is what happened in spite of it or because of it; what happens climbing out of it, or trying to. I have had to learn and will probably have to learn again that we are not only our particular illness. It’s the illness, the suffering, the pain, which you can never convey (but need to try) even to the most sympathetic, that pain itself that is the door through which you walk to somewhere else. But also I think one needs to have something to grab onto-maybe the rope of creative expression and reaching out. Something.

    We know people who have depression. We knew a person, more than an acquaintance I would say, who suffered, had episodes of depression. It was also the dread of having another and another that seemed to weigh on him finally after what George Scialabba calls “a corker”. We could not imagine what it was like. He could not explain or convey it. One day we were meeting while he was going through this. I never saw a person look so heavy, so sunk, carrying such a burden, At the end of our encounter, wanting to help, knowing the futility of anything I could say, intuitively said what others have helpfully said to me during difficult times: this will leave, remember it has left and it will. But I had no authority with him. This happened during the 2008 economic downturn, noone could see much good ahead. He happened to be in the financial business. We guessed after we heard the news that it had tipped him over; he could not bear to go on. There were those at his memorial who were angry that he “cut out”. I could not be. All you had to do was look at him that day.

    Anyway there is so much more to this conversation,so much beyond depression, including the golden pearls of D.H. Lawrence. And Chris there are so many books you have caused me to buy, I will never have the time to read them all but I fear this will be another: “The Modern Dilemma”.

    George Scialabba has accomplished something major in himself. Bravo. And thank you for bringing this person closer least to me.

  • Jenna Wentworth

    Personal experience- Treatment of depression is a crap shoot.

  • Pete Crangle

    Chris, you’re racking up those halo’s brother. Thank you so very much for covering this topic, with such an excellent guest. Enjoyed the reading for this discussion. Best … — The Parrot

  • brettearle

    Sorry to go off topic…Couldn’t resist.

    Sterling Hayden…

    One of my all favorite actors.

    And the scene with the cigar…I just happened to have run across it the other day.

    An absolute classic.

    Do you know about his sail trip to Tahiti with his kids–in the early 60s, I think it was? He wrote a book about it. Book is hard to find. Judging from that book, he’s quite the writer. He also wrote at least one more.

    If I’m not mistaken he was in at least one more Kubrick Film–before Strangelove.

    And for me, the Strangelove film will go down as the second-greatest film I’ve ever seen…

    • essence

      Yes, it’s one of my favorite films. I did know that Hayden was a sailor and sailed all over the world. I didn’t know he had also written a book. I’ll have to look for it. The other Kubrick movie he was in was The Killing I believe.

  • Jim Bissle

    As one who endures this [depression] over 50yrs so far, I can say, without reservation, that William Styron nailed it with grace , style and technique, in his ‘Darkness Revealed’ essay-book. Especially as a tool for getting ‘it’ across to those who only know it from the outside. It is, honestly, unimaginable to them. That is not to diminish this work, in any way.