I am reading two books concurrently, one on my various bus and train commutes, and the other before I go to bed, that are rather interesting in terms of melancholy. I’m not one for self-help books (although there are exceptions), and I find a lot of “self-help” present in things not labeled as such. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. They have everything in them. They are like the Psalms in the Bible. Open a page randomly, and something in a passage will reach out to your own experience, reflect it, illuminate it, confirm that you are not alone, you not the first to feel such things, you have company.
I read Joshua Ferris’ extraordinary first novel Then We Came to the End in 2008. It’s one of the best novels I’ve read in years (and certainly one of the best FIRST novels I have ever read). Then We Came to the End received a lot of praise. How could this young author follow up such an awesome debut? His second novel is called The Unnamed, and my sister Siobhan, who had told me to read Ferris’ book had told me a little bit about the second. The main thing I remember her saying is, “It’s really sad.”
And it is. The sadness is relentless. The Unnamed tells the story of a partner in a successful law firm, wife, kid, home in Connecticut, who is afflicted by the desire to walk. He could be in the middle of a trial when the affliction comes over him, and it doesn’t matter: he will turn, walk out of the courtroom and continue walking until he collapses. He walks miles and miles. He gets frostbite. Toes are amputated. His wife is devastated. They go to specialists, they consult yogis and crackpots, he has to wear a helmet at one point to monitor his brain waves. No one knows what it is. Is it physical? Is it neurological? His wife, desperate, handcuffs him to the bed, so that at least he will be safe. But that is not a sustainable solution. I haven’t finished the book yet. It is short but it feels long. This is not entirely a complaint, although I do want to put this poor man out of his misery. This is a sentiment I relate to, and find disturbing – also, one might say, triggering, and I have been doing my best to avoid triggers. The Unnamed, so far, is the brutal journey of a man who cannot stop walking, and it destroys his career, his marriage (although the wife hangs in there, she starts drinking as a coping mechanism), and also the possibility of any relief. If they can’t tell you what’s wrong with you, if it can’t be seen on a CAT scan, then what are you supposed to do? In this, the book feels like a long metaphor for depression, or melancholy (a word I prefer).
The following passage is one of the best I’ve read, in terms of describing what it actually feels like, to be overtaken by depression, as William Styron called it in his memoir of madness Darkness Visible: “the despair beyond despair.”
He was informed that Jane was on vacation and wouldn’t be returning for another week. Did he care to speak to a different broker?
“How nice,” he said. “Where on vacation?”
“I want to say Paris, but don’t quote me,” said the voice. “The south of France, maybe?”
He stood in the snow-patched prairie with the ice-blue brook running toward the rafting centers and trailer parks, far from the south of France, far from Paris, and a wave of death washed over him. Not biological death, which brought relief, but the death that harrows the living by giving them a glimpse of the life they’ve been denied. Its sorrow was a thousandfold any typical dying.
The other book I am reading is The Anatomy of Melancholy, by Robert Burton. First published in 1621. I had heard about it. People reference it all the time. But it’s, like, 40,000 pages long. Who is gonna read it? Well, clearly many people have. It went through five printings (or something extraordinary like that) in Burton’s lifetime. It’s still in print today. It is gigantic, it is true. But it’s amazing how readable it is, how almost CHATTY it is. I will have more to say about it, but I am tearing through it. His references are daunting (he is a curator of quotes, that’s for sure), and his interest in the affliction of melancholy, something he is open about suffering himself, although he says that no man will ever go through life without being touched by it somehow. Nobody can escape. It is a medical book in many ways, which is really interesting, because it talks about the “humours” and all that. It is a grand accomplishment, and often quite funny. The preface, which runs 124 pages, is satirical (Burton was a big fan of satire, and his other published works are satirical in nature). It goes into the causes of melancholy, the “catch-22” theory of life: that life is crazy in and of itself, and so of course everyone is crazy, and the one sane person who stands up and shouts, “THIS IS NUTS. LOOK AT HOW WE BEHAVE” will be seen as the craziest of them all. So it’s a given that Melancholy afflicts all, to some degree. He has a 5 page treatise on “if you don’t like what I have to say, then don’t read it”, which made me laugh because he does go on and on in almost a defensive tone, addressing his readers and potential criticism in a “let’s cut you off at the pass” kind of way. How many bloggers out there have railed at their own readership, saying, “This is free content. If you don’t like it, don’t read it.” I myself have said such things. Or, more accurately, if someone moans about how they don’t like one post I’ve written, I will say, “Is the scroll function broken on your computer?” I have never gone as apeshit as this blogger, who was rightly criticized for her ridiculous essay. Seriously, hon, if people criticizing you bothers you that much, then stop writing publicly. Honestly. Or, close the comments section. You should be glad that people are reading you at all, frankly. But it made me laugh, Robert Burton’s insistence that if you don’t like what he has to say, then no one is forcing you to read it. Some things never change.
Who knew that a giant tome about “Melancholy” could be so entertaining. It’s actually a page-turner. Who knew??