Monday, March 1, 2010

Artistic Grief

The New York Times Magazine this week reported that “sadness makes us more aware and attentive.” I.e., there is an evolutionary reason for depression. Or at least some kinds of depression.

The article goes on: The enhancement of these mental skills might also explain the striking correlation between creative production and depressive disorders. In a survey led by the neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen, 30 writers from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop were interviewed about their mental history. Eighty percent of the writers met the formal diagnostic criteria for some form of depression. A similar theme emerged from biographical studies of British writers and artists by Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins, who found that successful individuals were eight times as likely as people in the general population to suffer from major depressive illness.

The article brought to mind a poem written by Philip Larkin in 1954 and dedicated to Sally Amis, the third child of Larkin’s lifelong friend Kingsley Amis. In the poem, Larkin runs through the clichéd gamut of wishes for his friend’s daughter—beauty, innocence, love. But, if those things are not possible, then he wishes for her to be dull because, he seems to say, dull might be another word for what we call happiness.

Born Yesterday

           By Philip Larkin

Tightly-folded bud,
I have wished you something
None of the others would:
Not the usual stuff
About being beautiful,
Or running off a spring
Of innocence and love -
They will all wish you that,
And should it prove possible,
Well, you’re a lucky girl.

But if it shouldn’t, then
May you be ordinary;
Have, like other women,
An average of talents:
Not ugly, not good-looking,
Nothing uncustomary
To pull you off your balance,
That, unworkable itself,
Stops all the rest from working.
In fact, may you be dull -
If that is what a skilled,
Vigilant, flexible,
Unemphasised, enthralled
Catching of happiness is called.

This written by a poet who critic Eric Homberger called "the saddest heart in the post-war supermarket"—Larkin himself said that deprivation for him was what daffodils were for Wordsworth.

I don’t know. I refuse to believe that creativity and depression are so tightly entwined. Or at least that the treatment of one means the loss of the other. But then I’m only in my sixth week of therapy.

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