Melancholy and The Infinite Sadness

Edgar Degas, Melancholy (1874)

Affect theory takes on sadness, but is just getting through depression good enough?

In Ann Cvetkovich’s new “critical memoir,” Depression: A Public Feeling, the University of Texas professor seeks to “defamiliarize” depression within a genealogy of spiritual despair, while attending to the relationship of the psyche to the soma as illustrated by how different cultures or the working class are more likely to somatize their depression. Can we, Cvetkovich asks at the book’s beginning, engage with depression as the “product of a sick culture”? The subhead of the book—“A public feeling”—points to the author’s intellectual alignment with such groups as Lauren Berlant’s Feel Tank Chicago, and Cvetkovich’s originary situation of depression as public and political, a loss of hope. In the richest part of the book, Cvetkovich traces this apathy to the medieval concept of “acedia,” or the spiritual crisis experienced by desert monks, which she first encountered in Andrew Solomon’s bestselling depression memoir The Noonday Demon. The fourth-century monk agitating to leave his cell mirrors, for Cvetkovich, both the experiences of the activist suffering from “left melancholy,” as well as the emptiness and restlessness of the quotidian that characterizes depression. In Depression, she situates her subject, both its malady and its cure, in the domestic, in the space of the day.

Cvetkovich’s work on political depression comes out of the cultural studies subfield known as affect theory, of which groups like Feel Tank Chicago are a part, which attempts to bring private feelings back into the public sphere. Many affect theorists are elegant essayists who interweave personal narratives within searing cultural critiques -- like Kathleen Stewart’s fragmented Ordinary Affects, the meditations of Eve Sedgwick, or Lauren Berlant’s essays on national sentimentality (as well as her blog Supervalent Thought, with its inquiry into the intimate and everyday life). Cvetkovich’s Depression can also be read alongside other recent works that seek to interrogate or reclaim so-called bad feelings, like failure (Jack Halberstam), shame (Eve Sedgwick), sadness (Sara Ahmed), and humiliation (Wayne Koestenbaum).

The author’s own hybrid project opens with almost 50 pages of what she refers to throughout the book as “The Depression Journals,” which revolve around a past-tense account of her own sludge through her doctorate work and the academic job market. (I’ve heard more than one graduate student refer to this process as the ultimate embodiment of Berlant’s concept of “cruel optimism.”) It would be generous to say that Cvetkovich’s memoir section brings to life the boringness and banality of depression with sections entitled “The New Job,” “The Grocery Store,” “The Dentist.” It’s no easy task to bring forth the state of mind of depression in a manner that both documents the tedium and provides the outside reader compelling access to it. I had difficulty situating Cvetkovich’s memoir section, as she herself suggests, within the historical context of confessional forms of feminism, which are often about a radical, embodied honesty, often using vernacular yet visceral language to describe a fraught existence and the experience of the quotidian. Unfortunately, she spends so much of the book circling around “The Depression Journals,” like the monk in his cell, worrying whether or not she should have included it, arguing professorially (and pedantically) for its inclusion, rather than allowing the writing to be its own argument.

However, Cvetkovich does convincingly argue that we need new forms of writing about depression that counter the mainstream depression memoir like Solomon’s, or Elizabeth Wurtzel’s, which conclude with the SSRI as some sort of savior, and that “consolidate” the status quo medical model. Several works of literature come immediately to mind as having better conjured the sort of drift and despair Cvetkovich seeks to portray in these journals.  In her book-length lyric essay Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Claudia Rankine conjures up the numbing experience of being an empathetic citizen, dealing with grief that is personal and also national. She narrates the experience of watching television intermittently at all hours, the constant flashes of faux-soothing pharmaceutical ads, cable Westerns undercut by a cowboy president at war, and episodic violence against black Americans. Writing after the election of George W., Rankine rewords Cornel West’s call for hope, as distinct from a fantasized American optimism, but she also acknowledges that unbearable sadness can make it difficult to be anything but apathetic. The prose comes to us in blocks on the page that parallel the photo-illustrations taken from television. The language: simple, felt, searching.

In Barbara Browning’s I’m Trying to Reach You, the Internet replaces Rankine’s television in more contemporary accounts of the awful quotidian. The main character works on his dissertation in performance theory at NYU by sitting at a computer every day, rearranging punctuation marks, “cheating” by reading affect theory, and becoming obsessed with a conspiracy theory discovered on YouTube.

Although not as profound as Rankine’s text, Cvetkovich’s most compelling chapter is on race, looking at the “emotional inheritance” of a psychic trauma of a history of slavery and colonialism, as well as the ordinary experiences of racism and alienation, that is often omitted from a mainstream narrative of depression. She quotes Cornel West on “black sadness,” an experience of alienation and loss of hope that white people cannot access. Unfortunately she makes a quick transition to what she finds a more relatable sadness. Reading West, Cvetkovich locates the depression of white people as “a failure of the American dream,” performing a reading of Sharon O’Brien’s memoir The Family Silver as writing to its “crushing pressures,” and O’Brien’s theorizing of depression as resisting the work ethic. Cvetkovich also engages with David Foster Wallace’s famous graduation speech, where he describes the paralysis of going to the grocery store after the matriculating class’s imagined alienating 9-to-5 work day, being overcome with everyone else’s narratives of miserabilism, noting briefly “his brilliant ability to describe the numbing effects of normative white middle-class life suggests why he might have gone under.” And yet I wish that Cvetkovich had written more to the embodied experience of despair, linked it to the often humiliating experiences of capitalism. She neglects to explore how masculine training is bound up in this concept of the American dream, how this might have something to do with the suicide of men who are viewed or view themselves as failures, who are overcome by such pressures.

It is unfortunate that such a generous and complex reading of race and depression leads in the rest of the book to a simplistic diagnosis of some depressives as performing a privileged apathy, especially the unsympathetic white girl. She references the “infamously whiny” Elizabeth Wurtzel, mentions the “challenges of making links between the world of depressed white girls and national histories of trauma and mourning.” None of this stops her from then invoking the spectacle of despair, of the girl in bed, sung about by Kathleen Hanna of Le Tigre (who blurbs the book), while including riot grrl and zine culture in her “depression archive” of cultural objects that bring her pleasure and community.

The “stories of anxieties of middle-class women” are both fetishized and disowned as narcissistic in our culture, and Cvetkovich’s slight dismissals is somewhat surprising coming as it does within her own work of self-described confessional feminism. In her reading of O’Brien she notes that the author is reading her own depression as resistance to the tyranny of niceness, but Cvetkovich does not say enough about depression as a means of resistance (albeit possibly futile) for daughters against their gender roles. Being gendered feminine often is a poisonous education in passivity, of being nice, good, of not exhibiting anger, of internalizing society’s violence or experiences of oppression in mundane or spectacular forms, -- a compelling line of argument in Sara Ahmed’s idea of the “feminist killjoy,” which illustrates the potential political usefulness of anger or unhappiness. In Ahmed’s reading of the Friedan-era, American suburban feminism came about because (middle-class, white) housewives were depressed, and refused to keep and cultivate others' happiness, unlike Cvetkovich’s version, in which the second wave feminist revolution agitated these privileged women out of their depression. This is a narrative annoyingly repeated in articles about the recent 50th anniversary of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, like those by Jeanette Winterson or Lena Dunham. They perpetuate another sort of feminine myth: Sylvia Plath narrowly missed happiness, that feminism or politics or psychotropics would have saved her somehow. Certainly another traditional Boston housewife—Adrienne Rich—did leave her husband, leave the suburbs, radicalize. Yet this is a happy-world supposition—right now you can be a feminist, even potentially on psych drugs, and still be depressed, maybe even because one is politically aware or aware of being stuck and unable (because of emotional or economic reasons) to become unstuck. The messiness of lived-in lives and desires can sharply diverge from ideology or politics.

Cvetkovich’s prescription for getting out of stuckness is that of a “slow life” (in opposition to Berlant’s idea of a “slow death,” through food, sex, romance, all the sometimes self-destructive things that can give us pleasure). Cvetkovich calls for a life of contemplation and action as opposed to apathy and passivity. This is achieved through daily activities and “somatic therapies” that are meditative, like writing in a journal, yoga, knitting, or crafting -- what she calls the “utopia of everyday habit.”

Surprisingly, even though her prescription is basically the same, the author doesn’t link her ideas to the overwhelming influence of Marsha Lineham’s dialectical behaviorial therapy, a way for those in often overwhelming psychic pain to learn life skills and ways of coping, such as mindfulness, as well as compassion for the self and others (the great majority in DBT are still girls diagnosed in the more taboo Axis II of personality disorders, the cutters and cut up who are Plath’s descendants). While the practice of mindfulness, or as Cvetkovich puts it, a “slow life,” so in vogue in the current therapeutic culture, can be useful, I wonder at this focus within mindfulness exercises, as well as Cvetkovich’s meditative therapies, on what amounts to housekeeping. Are we reclaiming the happy housewife by being encouraged to take pleasure and care in housework? What distinguishes these “somatic therapies” from traditional women’s work seems to be the expensive equipment or classes and a lack of necessity.

Depression’s epilogue consciously approaches folksy self-help. Cvetkovich quotes a friend’s advice about recovering from depression: “1) Keep moving. 2) Help other people.” This advice smacks of moralizing. And I find the supposition that depressed people are unempathetic or not thinking of others to be inaccurate. Some actually suffer from profound, debilitating empathy. This is the kind of advice that mothers have been lecturing depressed daughters with for centuries, daughters who are supposed to be self-less and help other people (think of Esther Greenwood’s mother in forcing her to work on the maternity ward). Cvetkovich all-too-briefly mentions the “gendering of mental health,” but doesn’t note how girls and women historically have been diagnosed as mentally ill when rebelling against their gender. The author’s conclusion is still bound up in Victorian ideas of moral insanity, and the idea that an unwell person needs to just stop having too much ego, and return to traditional roles/work. The practice of manual activity that Cvetkovich recommends, hearkening back to the discipline of the medieval monk with its focus on Christian morality and “occupational therapy” as a way to save oneself from too much self-involvement/empty time, is also nothing new in this parallel history of the modern asylum. Nearly every narrative of a psych patient will tell you that the supervised craft hour is a commonly prescribed part of the day (see Shulamith Firestone’s wonderful documentation of her career as a psych patient in Airless Spaces, for one of many examples of a life that negates the notion that a radical feminist, one who exhorted women to stop smiling, cannot still suffer severely). Reading this book, now a few times, I cannot shake the worming notion that Cvetkovich is telling depressed women to smile, be happy, and try to find joy.

Some or all depression derives from political despair, as Cvetkovich rightly situates it —although I would have liked for the book to have carried through on its original promise, to look more closely and critically at the cultural components of depression, at how it really is a public feeling (as opposed to keeping depression, as Cvetkovich mostly does, inside). Depression can be political, can be a process of breaking through. What others—family members and bosses, in television commercials—see as depression can be in fact the use of one’s own body as a site of refusal to participate and function fully in capitalism, (hetero)normative social behavior, or gendered labor: an ongoing space to cultivate one’s self as a political and sovereign subject by shutting down. Why is Cvetkovich in such a hurry to get over depression? Perhaps what appears as a space of nonaction and passivity, is actually a site of activism, a strike of sorts, of bodily contemplation, of working through. The girl in bed can be a type of activist. Perhaps there is something worthwhile in her failing and flailing and documenting it. In Cvetkovich’s reclamation of the “girl culture” of diary writing, she notes rightly that this practice now most often happens on the Internet, yet in this wild confessionalism of Tumblr girls, both white and of color, I see the potentially radical that diverges from Cvetkovich’s project. Online I see contemporary examples of the agitated and restless and hopeless, of Ahmed’s “angry black woman” and “feminist killjoy” who are well-versed in the discourse of therapy and sometimes refuse rehabilitation -- “self-care” being an ambivalent, popular hashtag. These are girls who have come of age reading feminist confessional literature and affect theory, and they’re performing this constant awareness of the self in their diary entries and selfies, performing rage and sadness as if against the culture and all its desirous consumers and consumptives. They posit that the petty too, and all of our tremendous feelings, can be political.