Triumphs of the will

by Anne Moore

I’m a bit behind on writing–as usual, the delicious passivity of reading and the pressure of everyday duties have overtaken my good intentions re: daily writing. So what I have to say today is behind where I am in the book, but whatever. The point of a blog is that I’m the boss, right?

So the bit in Swann’s Way that I’ve been preoccupied with lately is this: the narrator misses his chance to get his good-night kiss from his mother, and decides that he’s throwing caution to the wind and confronting her at the top of the stairs when she comes up for bed at the end of the night. He knows he’ll be punished–especially since it’s his emotional outbursts that get him in trouble more than anything–but he’s thrown caution to the wind. When his mother sees him there, she’s angry as usual, but his capricious father gives in, telling his mother that the boy is obviously upset, and that she should sleep in his room that night. It’s the narrator’s response that gets me:

And thus for the first time my unhappiness was regarded no longer as a punishable offence but as an involuntary ailment which had been officially recognized, a nervous condition for which I was in no way responsible: I had the consolation of no longer having to mingle apprehensive scruples with the bitterness of my tears; I could weep henceforth without sin. … It struck me that if I had just won a victory it was over her, that I had succeeded, as sickness or sorrow or age might have succeeded, in relaxing her will, in undermining her judgement; and that this evening opened a new era, would remain a black date in the calendar.

Partly, he’s sad because he’s caused her pain, but the thing that’s gotten me thinking is more his grief over the way his parents now seem to view his melancholy as an unchangeable thing about him–that it’s just part of his makeup, not something that could be trained out of him. It’s a perfect representation of the self-reflexive loop that is depression, for one thing: “If only I hadn’t been so sad, then I wouldn’t be so sad.” Part of what’s so interesting about this to me is that it offers a counterpoint to the disease model of depression (and perhaps mental illness more generally). I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of the disease model in my life–most obviously around thinking about alcoholism, but in terms of mental health as well. It does give “the consolation of no longer having to mingle apprehensive scruples with the bitterness of tears.” And when I’ve allowed myself to fully identify with those negative feelings, it’s tended to be a central step in getting past them.

But it’s this emphasis on “getting past them” that the passage makes me question. Throughout the book so far, I’ve been really interested in the connection Proust makes between depression and creativity, and it’s rung true for me. The first academic paper I wrote after returning to school, for instance, was written in a single great blast the night I ended my first sober relationship. The breakup devastated me–we’d only been dating for about three months, but I was practically bedridden with grief for six. That first night, the act of writing kept me rooted to the earth. Throughout those bleak months, my sponsor kept telling me that I’d emerge from the other side of the experience of grief with a set of spiritual gifts that I couldn’t see from within the experience, but that I had to have faith. She was right, and it’s been a story arc that I’ve held on to: “Pain is the touchstone of spiritual progress.”

But here’s the thing: I think this focus on the potential “gifts” of negative emotions sells short the experience of depression–and forces it into an upward-trending shape that denies the potential insights borne by sadness. I’m particularly focused on this question right now because I’m watching my half-sister deal with the death of her grandmother and all I want to do is jump in and try to impose some kind of positive narrative structure on her experience of grief. Or, less wonkily, I want to talk her out of her sadness by “helping” her to see how it’s a byway to creative power. She keeps a beautiful, brilliant blog (which is anonymous, so I won’t link to it here, but trust me), which started out of her anger and grief over her divorce and is now gaining new life (as it were) with her sadness over her grandmother’s death.

Is there a way to value sadness and grief on their own terms without insistently linking them to a triumphant narrative that ends in recovery and happiness? Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for recovery and happiness, but there’s something about the “pain is the touchstone of spiritual progress” line that feels at times brutally focused on self-improvement. And it ignores the truth of what being inside depression feels like. Artists like Allie Brosh and Maria Bamford (and Proust) make me believe that there are amazing things that come out of depression–insight, empathy, hard truths–but it’s so easy to get trapped in an economic way of thinking about it. That the benefits make the experience “worth it” somehow. Maybe the challenge offered here is to come up with a way of thinking about hope (and the lack thereof) that isn’t linked to winning or losing something. Maybe a more productive metaphor wouldn’t be exchange but instead connection? That all the feelings are connected to one another? One experience touches another, but the causal link isn’t so straightforward as succession in time might suggest.