The Depressives

Disclaimer: this post is not about running -- it's been over a year since I've run! But it was motivated by a perfect evening for running, as the Tennessee summer somewhat incredibly loosened its grip, letting the crisp of fall in through the cracks in the clear sky.

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It's come to me slowly and over time that almost all of my literary/philosophical heroes have been depressives. The three philosophers I've spent the most time with -- James, Emerson, and Nietzsche -- all struggled with and at moments succumbed to depression. There's a way in which their depression is a key to their writing, particularly Nietzsche's writing. Much of his work on human motivation -- the will to power -- could be seen as motivated by the depressive's question: how can I will myself to will?

James' philosophy as well so often rotates around questions of what makes experience flow and run. Depression is like a large and stagnant body of water, and we see James through the sort of effort of his prose make the water run. "The Will to Believe" is the text of a depressive trying to develop habits of mind that keep the water flowing. Belief for James is not about truth, but about continuing to survive and pursue an active life: this is the depressive's challenge.

We don't often think of Emerson as a depressive; the stock Emerson is the Emerson of "Self-reliance," an essay often (mis-) read as having the view that the individual could through force of will somehow wrest hold of his destiny and live according to it. The deeper argument that Emerson urges throughout his work is that the self must find deeper and more substantive sources of energy: the divine, genius, the universal. The Emersonian self is always losing itself in larger flows. The essay that unlocks this message is "Experience," in which Emerson fails to find the flows of experience, in which he lays out the fundamental nature of reality as melancholic:
"...we cannot shake off the lethargy now at noonday. Sleep lingers all our lifetime about our eyes, as night hovers all day in the boughs of the fir-tree. All things swim and glitter. Our life is not so much threatened as our perception. Ghostlike we glide through nature, and should not know our place again."
In The Noonday Demon (a book which anyone who is interested in depression should read), Andrew Solomon argues that depression has been with us, manifesting itself in various cultural forms and under various understandings, but persisting as a quality of the human animal. These days, of course, depression is understood medically as a type of disease along the lines of alcoholism or perhaps diabetes. There are people who have a propensity towards depression that can be activated by their environment or their biology (and also deactivated through medical and talking therapies.) Solomon's take is that depression is a type of chronic illness and should be treated as such -- through ongoing and constant treatment. Depression is a flaw in the wheel of character, and it can be lived with, but only through steady work.

When we read philosophy as young people, we often do so in order to lend authority to our own relatively new impressions of the world. When I read these depressives as a young man -- James, Emerson, Nietzsche -- I recognized their problems and my reaction was to say: aha! -- some truth, and carried them close to my heart as encouragement that the shade in which I saw the world might have some merit.

As we get older and more settled in our views, we need the affirmation of philosophy less. We see the philosophers that we clung to so urgently in our adolescence as thinkers as deeply flawed and even embarrassing. This happened to me most specifically with Nietzsche, who I find I can hardly read any more, and when I do so now, it's mostly to extract something banal and ordinary like: the guy was a depressive, rather than a nugget of indecipherable prose that reflected back to me something undecipherable as well.

But just in this way the philosophers return to us, less as sooth-sayers and more as representative types. The depressives, I can say at least, resonated with me in a time in my life when I needed them. They were friends, fellow travelers, strange men from the beginning of the 20th century who seemed to be speaking in an untimely present to me. As a young man, the concept of depression was totally foreign to me, but I understood these problems all too well: The Nietzschean question: "what is the source of human will?"  The Jamesian question: "How does intellectual rumination touch reality?" The Emersonian question: "How can the individual tap into the spark of divination?"

My use for philosophy had little to do with truth and much to do with companionship and friendship around a certain set of questions. Or, perhaps better put, the truth I found in the depressives was in their struggle, which seemed to take place alongside mine. It's impossible to imagine my young adulthood without these ideas and thinkers; that's how deeply they affected me.

In the larger culture wars, battles rage on about the value of the humanities, the purpose of philosophy, literature, and other less practical pursuits. For my part, it's sad to think that someone like me might not have had the chance to encounter those traveling companions who shepherded me into adulthood. Who else could it have been? The transition certainly would have been made, but less richly, less articulately, and with fewer memories and understanding of myself.

So, I'm grateful for my youthful courage to study philosophy and for the teachers and professors and friends and family who encouraged me to go digging into books to see what strange riches I might find.


  1. Thank you for the insights Jeff. It always gives me pleasure to read your writings. Keep them coming even if they aren't about running! You have reminded me of something that Roger Shattuck said about books and reading as a younger and older person. I'll try to find the quote later. But he said something about reading as a young person sort of adds to our life experiences and provides a map of what is ahead while reading as an older person helps one to look back and read one's own life into the books and understand where we have been. Or something like that. Anyway, thanks again!

  2. Not exactly a quote but more like a chapter in a book, this section from Shattuck's book struck with me as true: Literature, as one among the arts, acquaints us with a special and intensified repertory of feelings and events and possibilities. Later, when we ourselves encounter an event similar to one of them, we may have a counterpart already at hand, forgotten, but available. And the movement of our mind is to say, 'Here it is.' For we have virtually experienced it already (...) Literature, then, like all the arts, plays a formative or preparatory role in training our sensibilities. In a limited way it supplies the first beat of a duple rhythm of existence. It offers not true life, but the potentiality of true life if we go on to complete that rhythm. The Search and War and Peace do not represent the wasted effort of authors who can offer us no more than skillful diversion (...) The great books affect the economy of life for many individuals by allowing them to achieve personal experience sooner, more directly, and with less groping. This sense, this secret, is what allows certain people to live life at all times as an adventure...

  3. Hi Jeff! I agree with Joann--keep writing even while not running. As you feel about philosophy, I feel about literature. I am re-reading East of Eden, having not read it since I was 16, and I am amazed at how a timeless work can speak to a person on different levels at all stages of life. Also, like you, I'm more skeptical about some aspects (the virgin/saint Mary/Eve falsehood when looking at women in particular with this book), but it still has a lot to teach me.

    As for depression, I think a lot of runners have a touch of it (including me, though I'm by no means clinical). As Mumford & Sons says, "There is no way out of your only life/So run on, run on."

  4. Thanks for your insights, as always. I always saw my academic heroes as friends, in a way, similar to what you describe here. You make a wonderful argument for the value of humanities - I may borrow it, as someone with humanities degrees and a career revolving around history, who always feels compelled to stand up for these studies. Sending healing thoughts to you.


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