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What depression is really like, Baldwin's advice to writers, Alan Lightman on the sympathies of art and science, Edith Wharton on happiness, and more.

What depression is really like, James Baldwin's advice to writers, Alan Lightman on the creative sympathies of art and science, Edith Wharton on happiness, and more. Email not displaying correctly?
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WelcomeHello, Blue! If you missed last week's edition – Keats on singledom and how solitude opens our creative channels to truth and beauty, cosmologist Janna Levin on madness and the power of obsessiveness, James Joyce's love letters, and Amanda Palmer's exquisite string quartet tribute to Bowie – you can catch up right here. If you're enjoying this newsletter, please consider supporting my labor of love with a donation – I spent hundreds of hours and tremendous resources on it each month, and every little bit of support helps enormously.

What Depression Is Really Like

In a piercing letter to his brother, Vincent van Gogh captured the mental anguish of depression in a devastatingly perfect visceral metaphor: “One feels as if one were lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep dark well, utterly helpless.” Anyone who has suffered from this debilitating disease knows that the water in that well is qualitatively, biochemically different from the water in the puddle of mere sadness. And yet, even as scientists are exploring the evolutionary origins of depression and the role REM sleep may play in it, understanding and articulating the experience of the disease remains a point of continual frustration for those afflicted and a point of continual perplexity for those fortunate never to have plummeted to the bottom of the well.

No one has captured this perennial plague of the human spirit with greater vividness and acuity than William Styron (June 11, 1925–November 1, 2006) in Darkness Visible (public library) — his trenchant 1990 memoir of depression.

Styron, who first descended into clinical depression at the age of sixty and describes himself as “one who has suffered from the malady in extremis yet returned to tell the tale,” considers the cultural baggage of this “veritable howling tempest in the brain,” propelled by “the intermingled factors of abnormal chemistry, behavior and genetics”:

When I was first aware that I had been laid low by the disease, I felt a need, among other things, to register a strong protest against the word “depression.” Depression, most people know, used to be termed “melancholia,” a word which appears in English as early as the year 1303 and crops up more than once in Chaucer, who in his usage seemed to be aware of its pathological nuances. “Melancholia” would still appear to be a far more apt and evocative word for the blacker forms of the disorder, but it was usurped by a noun with a bland tonality and lacking any magisterial presence, used indifferently to describe an economic decline or a rut in the ground, a true wimp of a word for such a major illness. It may be that the scientist generally held responsible for its currency in modern times, a Johns Hopkins Medical School faculty member justly venerated — the Swiss-born psychiatrist Adolf Meyer — had a tin ear for the finer rhythms of English and therefore was unaware of the semantic damage he had inflicted by offering “depression” as a descriptive noun for such a dreadful and raging disease. Nonetheless, for over seventy-five years the word has slithered innocuously through the language like a slug, leaving little trace of its intrinsic malevolence and preventing, by its very insipidity, a general awareness of the horrible intensity of the disease when out of control.

One of the most striking paradoxes of the disease is that despite its devastating prevalence — depression is the most common form of disability in the world today — its symptoms are so imperceptible from the outside that it is extremely difficult to tell who is suffering and who is not. And yet what goes on inside is acute and unmistakable. Styron captures it with penetrating precision:

The gray drizzle of horror induced by depression takes on the quality of physical pain. But it is not an immediately identifiable pain, like that of a broken limb. It may be more accurate to say that despair, owing to some evil trick played upon the sick brain by the inhabiting psyche, comes to resemble the diabolical discomfort of being imprisoned in a fiercely overheated room. And because no breeze stirs this caldron, because there is no escape from this smothering confinement, it is entirely natural that the victim begins to think ceaselessly of oblivion.

From visual educators at TED Ed — who have previously explored the history of melancholy — comes this animated primer on what depression really is and how to best be there for those afflicted:

For an elevating counterpoint, see Tchaikovsky — a lifelong sufferer of the disease — on depression and finding beauty amid the wreckage of the soul.

The Creative Sympathies of Art and Science: Alan Lightman on What the Exhilarating Mystery of Creative Breakthrough Feels Like

“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious,” Einstein wrote, “the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.” Hardly any contemporary writer has done more to illuminate that cradle than Alan Lightman. A physicist and a novelist, and MIT’s first professor with dual appointments in science and the humanities, he is one of those rare intellectual amphibians who inhabit the worlds of art and science with equal grace. In his incomparable writing, Lightman continually uncovers what he calls the “creative sympathies” between these two worlds — sympathies nowhere more similar than in the singular scintillation of creative breakthrough common to both realms, which he articulates beautifully in the opening essay from his altogether magnificent 2005 collection A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit (public library).

Reflecting on his first love affair with original research as a 22-year-old graduate student at Caltech, Lightman recounts a trying project aimed at procuring “a giant umbrella theory of gravity” by writing down countless equations. However much he toiled, the calculations just didn’t add up. For months, his pencil trembled with the sense that something was off, but the source of the error evaded him.

And then, much like the periodic table arranged itself in Mendeleev’s unconscious mind during a dream, the breakthrough arrived in accordance with Lewis Carroll’s remedy for creative block. Lightman describes that miraculous moment:

One morning, I remember that it was a Sunday morning, I woke up about five a.m. and couldn’t sleep. I felt terribly excited. Something strange was happening in my mind. I was thinking about my research problem, and I was seeing deeply into it. I was seeing it in ways I never had before. The physical sensation was that my head was lifting off my shoulders. I felt weightless. And I had absolutely no sense of my self. It was an experience completely without ego, without any thought about consequences or approval or fame. Furthermore, I had no sense of my body. I didn’t know who I was or where I was. I was simply spirit, in a state of pure exhilaration.

One of William Blake’s drawings for Dante’s Divine Comedy

Psychologists have termed this state “flow.” But although the resulting breakthrough is the fruit of the lengthy labor preceding it — one ripened by what T.S. Eliot called the “incubation” at the root of creativity — when it arrives, it feels like an unmerited grace. Lightman captures this intoxicating feeling:

The best analogy I’ve been able to find for that intense feeling of the creative moment is sailing a round-bottomed boat in strong wind. Normally, the hull stays down in the water, with the frictional drag greatly limiting the speed of the boat. But in high wind, every once in a while the hull lifts out of the water, and the drag goes instantly to near zero. It feels like a great hand has suddenly grabbed hold and flung you across the surface like a skimming stone. It’s called planing.

That Sunday morning, he woke up planing:

Although I had no sense of my ego, I did have a feeling of rightness. I had a strong sensation of seeing deeply into the problem and understanding it and knowing that I was right — a certain kind of inevitability. With these sensations surging through me, I tiptoed out of my bedroom, almost reverently, afraid to disturb whatever strange magic was going on in my head, and I went to the kitchen. There, I sat down at my ramshackle kitchen table. I got out the pages of my calculations, by now curling and stained. A tiny bit of daylight was starting to seep through the window.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Hemingway’s admonition to work alone, Agnes Martin’s assertion that “the best things in life happen to you when you’re alone,” and Keats’s exaltation of solitude as the seedbed of the imagination, Lightman adds:

Although I was oblivious to myself, my body, and everything around me, the fact is I was completely alone. I don’t think any other person in the world would have been able to help me at that moment. And I didn’t want any help. I had all of these sensations and revelations going on in my head, and being alone with all that was an essential part of it.

Art by Lorenzo Mattotti for Lou Reed’s adaptation of Poe’s The Raven

At that solitary kitchen table, Lightman finally solved his problem and proved that that the conjecture at the heart of his theory was true. He would go on to have similar revelations over the years, not only in other scientific projects but also in his work as a novelist. He writes of this supreme testament to the common creative force animating art and science:

As a novelist, I’ve experienced the same sensation. When I suddenly understand a character I’ve been struggling with, or find a lovely way of describing a scene, I am lifted out of the water, and I plane. I’ve read the accounts of other writers, musicians, and actors, and I think that the sensation and process are almost identical in all creative activities. The pattern seems universal: The study and hard work. The prepared mind. The being stuck. The sudden shift. The letting go of control. The letting go of self.

This act of letting go, Lightman suggests, is a surrender to the mystery of life. With an eye to Einstein’s famous proclamation, he considers the meaning of the mysterious:

I believe that [Einstein] meant a sense of awe, a sense that there are things larger than us, that we do not have all the answers at this moment. A sense that we can stand right at the edge between known and unknown and gaze into that cavern and be exhilarated rather than frightened… I have experienced that beautiful mystery both as a physicist and as a novelist. As a physicist, in the infinite mystery of physical nature. As a novelist, in the infinite mystery of human nature and the power of words to portray some of that mystery.

Lightman’s A Sense of the Mysterious remains one of the finest, most poetic science books ever written. Complement this particular fragment with Hannah Arendt on the life-expanding value of unanswerable questions and Marcelo Gleiser on how to live with mystery in the age of knowledge, then revisit Lightman on science and spirituality and why we long for immortality in an impermanent universe.

James Baldwin’s Advice on Writing

In 1989, Paris Review founding editor and trailblazing interviewer George Plimpton edited a wonderful collection titled The Writer’s Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from the 20th Century’s Preeminent Writers (public library). Among them was novelist, poet, essayist, and playwright James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987), whom Plimpton had interviewed on two separate occasions in early 1984, half a century after Baldwin read his way out of Harlem and into the pantheon of literary greatness.

In a fantastic addition to the collected wisdom of celebrated writers, Baldwin looks back on his formidable career and shares what he has learned about the creative process, the psychological drivers of writing, and the habits of mind one must cultivate in order to excel at the craft.

James Baldwin with Shakespeare, 1969 (Photograph: Allan Warren)

Reflecting on what motivates great writers to write — an enduring question also addressed beautifully by George Orwell, David Foster Wallace, Italo Calvino, and William Faulkner — Baldwin sides with Bukowski and argues that the supreme animating force of the writer is the irrepressible impossibility of not-writing:

Something that irritates you and won’t let you go. That’s the anguish of it. Do this book, or die. You have to go through that. Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.

Endurance, indeed, is perhaps the sole common denominator among successful authors. Any aspiring writer, he admonishes, should have no illusion about the endurance required but should want to write anyway. A generation after Jack Kerouac considered the vital difference between talent and genius, Baldwin notes:

If you are going to be a writer there is nothing I can say to stop you; if you’re not going to be a writer nothing I can say will help you. What you really need at the beginning is somebody to let you know that the effort is real.

In a sentiment reminiscent of Joan Didion’s observation that she writes in order to gain better access to her own mind, Baldwin speaks to the consciousness-clarifying function of the creative impulse:

When you’re writing, you’re trying to find out something which you don’t know. The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway.

Much of that self-revelation, Baldwin points out, happens not during the first outpour of writing but during the grueling process of rewriting. Echoing Hemingway’s abiding wisdom on the crucial art of revision, he adds:

Rewriting [is] very painful. You know it’s finished when you can’t do anything more to it, though it’s never exactly the way you want it… The hardest thing in the world is simplicity. And the most fearful thing, too. You have to strip yourself of all your disguises, some of which you didn’t know you had. You want to write a sentence as clean as a bone. That is the goal.

But as essential as that sense of incompleteness may be in guiding the revision process, it must be mediated by the awareness that completeness is a perennial mirage. (Decades later, Zadie Smith would observe in her ten rules of writing: “Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.”) Baldwin offers:

When you’ve finished a novel, it means, “The train stops here, you have to get off here.” You never get the book you wanted, you settle for the book you get. I’ve always felt that when a book ended there was something I didn’t see, and usually when I remark the discovery it’s too late to do anything about it.


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