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The Consolation of Literature

THE NOONDAY DEMON: An Atlas of Depression, By Andrew Solomon, Scribner: 570 pp., $28; THE ANATOMY OF MELANCHOLY:, By Robert Burton, New York Review of Books: 548 pp., $22.95

January 06, 2002|PATRICK GILES

Around the time Andrew Solomon's essay on depression, "Anatomy of Melancholy," appeared in the New Yorker, a neighbor jumped from the roof of my apartment building. All that winter afternoon, policemen came and went with a loud offhandedness; suicide is part of their job, after all. Today, I read "The Noonday Demon"--the book that grew from that magazine essay--haunted by that neighbor I saw but never spoke to, another example of the grief of being that drives so many to death, and so many others to hide from it, fight it, attempt to cure it--or write about it.

Solomon's book quickly became a bestseller; last fall, it was honored with the National Book Award for nonfiction. Writing "The Noonday Demon" (the title comes from the 90th Psalm) became, for him, a way of reaching out to his fellow depressives and to the undepressed. In every chapter, our guide remains close. The horror of his personal ordeal (days spent in bed too despairing to move) should be enough to make any reader understand why he writes of himself so incessantly.

But "The Noonday Demon" is not content to remain a personal study: It's also the most ambitious recent book about a subject that has long been ceded to psychiatrists and social workers. Solomon even encroaches on their territory, skillfully interpreting medical texts and studies. He evaluates treatments, from new pharmaceuticals to older methods like shock treatment, as well as New Age alternative approaches.

Solomon is sometimes too willing to trust the medical and pharmaceutical professions. He discloses that his father's company (Forest Laboratories) is the American distributor of Celexa, one of several antidepressants Solomon takes. But Solomon never fully focuses on the underside of treatments--the miserable side effects and misprescriptions of medications; the terrible powerlessness the depressed often feel at the hands of health care workers--and his sunniness can get irritating. "Take your pills," he advises his depressed readers.

"The Noonday Demon" is on the whole a generous, intelligent, worthy study, not only ranging through hundreds of books and thousands of years of history, but exploring geographical worlds of depression: visiting Iceland, where the depressed must live for long periods without sunlight, and Cambodia, where women survivors of genocide receive beauty-parlor cossettings and a recipe of "forgetting, working, and loving."

Yet why is it that Solomon never truly explores the site where depression has expressed itself most completely, provided sanctuary, enlightenment or at least occupation for its sufferers and benefits for succeeding generations--in literature? What we now call depression has an older, richer name, "melancholy" (from the Greek melaina kole, "black bile," perhaps first written about by Aristotle). So frequently present in the lives of artists that its absence is often more notable than its appearance, melancholy is most powerfully put to work in art and most fully communicated there. There is something about melancholy that, under the proper nurturing circumstances, all but bounds into imaginative expression, despite the agony it wreaks on its creators. ("They could not help it if their laments sounded so beautiful," Franz Kafka once wrote about the sirens whose singing lured sailors to their deaths.) This is a literature not of madness, but of supreme lucidity, a covert tradition that dares to state the highest truths of existence from the deepest afflictions of sorrow: Call it the literature of consolation and courage.

In "The Noonday Demon" Solomon often quotes literature, but usually in support of his own opinions or when summarizing a historical school or period (not always fairly). Yet a less constricted search into the figures and landmarks of the kingdom of words leads one to discover melancholy in every age, every form, gliding within the shadow of many characters, empowering growing piles of plays and novels, animating rhythms of countless poems. What greater solace or community might there be? Following the reign of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, King of Melancholics, 17th century England (to start in the middle of the journey) was the summit of melancholy creation. John Donne's poetry and his fierce argument over the efficacy of suicide compete in plangency with the prose masterwork of the heavy-hearted, Robert Burton's "The Anatomy of Melancholy." Solomon gives this book far too little homage: It is in fact a staggering triumph of education and artistry, at once a treatise on the medical, historical, philosophical and spiritual aspects of melancholy, a pep talk for fellow sufferers and a meta-fictional challenge leagues more daunting than any Melville or Thomas Pynchon crafted centuries later.

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