What was called melancholia up to the last centuries is today called depression. The term itself suggests the definition: a depressed patch of land is low, not as a hillside valley or low and moist meadow brightened by flowers but more qualitatively as a ditch that fills with dank water, filled with jagged rocks, a hollow or lowland that projects darkness and wariness.
A customary definition of depression is sadness that exceeds objective conditions, that is not justified by anything specific. From this general definition can be derived a distinction between a tragic sense of life and clinical depression that does not originate in philosophy. But there is much in the world and human condition that can give rise to depression, after all. One need not point to specific circumstances. The social norm for responding to doleful and cruel circumstances is anger, determination, and increasingly pitched aggression at apparent injustice or wrong. The norm is not resignation or a patterned inaction. The reactions are not born of sadness but are moral characterizations. Anger, cynicism, and violence projected outwardly against a perceived evil is not melancholia. Indeed, there is a latent optimism in such a person’s responses that reflects a will to power and a confidence in the ego.
Similarly, personalities oriented toward extroversion may experience restlessness and the desire for sociability when alone for a long time or without interpersonal exchanges. Their apparent sadness is desire, which cannot be described as depression because it deflects introspection and is focused on others. This focus does not simply preempt depression. Rather, the individual is not self-aware enough to be depressed. As with the angry and aggressive, the extrovert is less likely to be characterized as depressed because there is a confidence in self, in ego, as a potentially successful social tool that gives rise to optimism. There is an expectation of revived or restored conviviality to which solitude or even loneliness is viewed as an interruption.
When such a personality does collapse emotionally, then the facade of self-confidence is lost nd symptoms of true depression ensue. The state was probably always there, but society is quick to categorize and medicate. Biographies of melancholics of the past show this oscillation between sun and darkness, and were somehow able to ride out the darkness in an age when there were no pills. Today many psychiatrists and pharmaceutical companies recommend preventive drugs, seeing in the social collapse around us the logically resulting despondency of many people. This neither addresses the causes of social collapse nor the necessity to find an understanding of how to cope.
Whole catalogs of depressed poets and artists have been assembled, such as this one at Wikipedia: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_people_with_major_depressive_disorder). The obvious fact is that many of the names on such lists are creative people: writers, painters, composers, poets. Did depression drive them to such avocations, or did the avocations, once pursued, drive them to depression? The indubitable fact seems to be that the insightful and sensitive nature of such individuals, and their depiction of what they see or experience of life, makes their art excruciatingly personal and intense. What the brain does with the depth of this experience is a medical and not an artistic issue. But the process even today is haphazardly addressed with pharmaceuticals and electroshock, the latter historically failing many by exacerbating their condition.
American novelist David Foster Wallace (1962-2008) once said in an interview:
Reading requires sitting alone by yourself in a quiet room. I have friends, intelligent friends, who don’t like to read because they get not just bored — there’s an almost dread that comes up I think, here [in the US], about having to be alone and in having to be quiet. You see that when you walk into most public spaces in America.It isn’t quiet anymore, they pipe music through. … It seems significant that we don’t want things to be quiet, ever, any more.
Contemporary novelist Jonathan Franzen remembered David Foster Wallace when Franzen visited an obscure and solitary island off the coast of Chile. Franzen and Wallace, as fellow-novelists of similar age, were fast friends. On one of their last visits, Franzen busily admired the hummingbirds everywhere around the back patio of Wallace’s house, adding to his ornithological knowledge before an upcoming study trip to Ecuador. But Wallace could not appreciate the birds, or much else about nature or anything else at this point. Wallace suffered from depression. When he found his pharmaceutical no longer worked, he dropped it, didn’t follow up with a replacement, and committed suicide. Franzen visited Wallace’s widow before leaving for the Chile, and she unexpectedly gave him some of her husband’s cremation ashes to deposit on that lonely deserted island, thinking he would have liked that.
The island was named by the Chilean government Alejandro Selkirk, after the marooned sailor taken as the model of Robinson Crusoe in Daniel Defoe’s famous novel. But the locals still called the island by its original name, Masafuera, meaning “Farther Away.” The New Yorker essay of Franzen titled “Farther Away: Robinson Crusoe, David Foster Wallace, and the Island of Solitude,” makes for reflective reading about solitude, wilderness, friendship, and the origins of the novel.
None should disparage sufferers of depression. Melancholy reaches back to the most ancient of literary records. The tragic sense of life is often bottled up in single souls and leaks out like a poison until it consumes. Pharmaceuticals help many people today but research fails to serve them and conventional palliatives for depression are clearly still elusive when, for example, seasonal affective disorder can largely be addressed with full-spectrum lighting and vitamin D. If conditions and circumstances are the triggers of depression, then humanity would always be melancholy, yet clearly that is not the case. (Nor, necessarily, is heredity.) More immediate conditions and circumstances are clearly the case in the depression suffered by writers like Ernest Hemingway and Ezra Pound, due not to nature’s aberration but to horrific electroshock treatments administered by arrogant technocrats. The fullness of solitude eludes the electrical and chemical mechanisms of brain and nervous system. The fullness of solitude eludes depression.