Melancholia

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Melancholia I, an etching by Albrecht Durer, from 1514, arguably the most famous depiction of depression.

Scientists have been delving for years into the connections between creativity and mental illness and, while they have made some progress, there is still a long way to go. Of psychiatric conditions afflicting creative people (I abhor the term “creatives”) the most common is depression. Writers, visual artists, musicians – the list of those suffering from depression includes Tchaikovsky, van Gogh, Pollock, Sylvia Plath, Eugene O’Neill, Maurice Sendak, and many others. You may add me to that list.

My own diagnosis is mild, even reassuring: my depression is dysthymic, rather than major. It saps initiative and feed’s writer’s block – and painter’s block. As my girlfriend put it, “Depression tries to talk you out of living.” For people with major depressive disorders, this can have devastating effect on all aspects of life. For someone like me, it’s a  constant but surmountable challenge. Dysthymia is now called Persistent Depressive Disorder (PDD): the psychiatric field loves renaming things.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, “In 2014, around 15.7 million adults age 18 or older in the U.S. had experienced at least one major depressive episode in the last year, which represented 6.7 percent of all American adults. (read more here.)” PDD, being less obvious and less harmful, is harder to track.

There aren’t many great artworks about Depression. Edvard Munch, whose works are very intensely emotional, is more concerned with anxiety than depression; van Gogh was caught up in the greater maelstrom of his mental illness. You might look at Picasso’s Blue Period, with its enervated figures, as a good example, as some of the emotion is drawn from Picasso’s sadness at the death of his friend Carlos Casagemas. Despite his depression, Picasso was still able to produce brilliant works of art; for most, this is not the case.

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Pablo Picasso, Woman with Folded Arms, 1901-02

Lars von Trier’s 2011 film Melancholia mixes a mixture of symbolism and realism relating to very severe depression. The film opens with a series of gorgeous images, accompanied by rather stentorian music, which tell the whole story of the film to come. Melancholia can be trying at times; now that I know that the opening sums up everything that follows, I think I’ll just watch that part – it might make an interesting art gallery installation on its own.

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An image from Melancholia.

My own diagnosis is not really new, though it is more specific than previously. Art, as with life, is about change, whether forward or back. Even death is change. Depression is stasis, the antithesis of life. I feel fortunate to be aware of my depression, dealing with it through weekly visits with a counselor, as well as taking steps on my own, especially when I read about people with severe depression. It’s a long slog, but every step forward is a victory.

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