There’s a general belief that depression makes you a deeper, more reflective soul. And a smarter one too. We usually hear that depression makes great artists. Especially writers. With a special emphasis on comedy writers.
I agree. And, I think it goes further than that. I’ve known five people who committed suicide. All of them were far more vibrant than the average person. They were fascinating, energetic, and engaging people who for one reason or another felt they couldn’t take it anymore.
It’s true. At least anecdotally. Only the good die young.
And the most intelligent people I know are almost universally depressed.
Think about it: we live our short lives facing death, aging, poverty, power-hungry people who are personally offended by other people’s differences; all your evolutionary disadvantages staring you straight in the face if you’re a woman. How could you not be depressed? The more you see, the more you see problems that will never have a solution.
Good art is truth. And the truth is depressing. But. Look at every brilliant bohemian who committed suicide. The ones we know about did great work. But they would have done more great work if they hadn’t checked out early. And none of the people I knew were famous. Although I think at least one could have been.
But he couldn’t see past himself enough to give his own ideas a chance to mean something.
Depression is at best unproductive. At worst, it’s the end of your life.
Whether it kills you or not.
On a less dramatic note, let’s look at the “artistic temperament.” Delicate. Self-centered. Prone to fits of rage and passion. Not really stable enough to put your nose to the grind every day. I read somewhere that they did a study on “sensitive” (i.e. depressed) musicians. Sensitive people were more likely to pursue music, but less likely to make it to Carnegie Hall.
And even if you’re a productive depressed person, all artistic fields are ruthless. Artists put the deepest, most intrinsic, most vital parts of themselves into their work. Imagine getting vicious criticism aimed right at your soul every day by people who’ll forget you two minutes later. You could spend five years writing a memoir about how your mother introduced you to cello, taught you how to play and appreciate great music and how to grow as a performer, only to die in a car wreck the night before your first big concert. Just for publishers to say “Well. This sucks. Let’s go get a sandwich.”
You think depressed people can deal with that?
Sure, it might be emotionally and intellectually honest to be depressed. You might even see it as noble. But it takes away all of your strength. Looking for the good in things isn’t lying to yourself so much as opening yourself up.
The thing is, to create quality, enduring art you need to be able to look outside yourself. Which a deeply depressed person can’t do. Whether your depression is on the personal or existential side of things -and I’m willing to bet that 99% of the time it’s entirely personal- you’re not going to be relating it to the bigger picture.
The truth is multifaceted. A deep depression isn’t. I think comedy is so attractive to sad writers because it’s one of the easier (although certainly not easy!) ways to put a different spin on painful truths. It’s acknowledging that in some way, some people are going to find them ridiculous. And then you’re forced to think about why.
Humanity is ordered towards making some kind of objective difference in the world. Whether it’s having kids or writing a book. Depression robs you of your own objectivity, so you’re not creating anything other people or even your future self will care about. Even memoirists have to create some distance from their own story to see why other people would want to read it.
It seems like the best mindset for creating art is a stoic pessimism. Which is the hardest thing in the world to have. But it’s usually necessary to tell the truth, and often the healthiest way of thinking that we depressives can hope for.
Image by echok at deviantart.