Does melancholy literature deepen depression?

Literature about this grim condition has a long and impressive pedigree, but I sometimes wonder what it's all for

Nicholas Lezard

Nicholas Lezard

January 15, 2008 3:52 PM

Bleak outlook ... depression over Managua, Nicaragua. Photograph: Esteban Felix/AP

About the only thing we know in this country about the French writer Henry de Montherlant is that he came up with the phrase "happiness writes white" - in other words, you quite simply don't feel like writing, or such writing makes no impression, if you're feeling fine. (Songwriting is exempt from this, I suppose, or the Beatles would never have been able to compose I Feel Fine).

Montherlant, incidentally, and so you can now double the number of things you know about him, died in 1972 after taking cyanide and shooting himself in the head, an impressive belt-and-braces approach to suicide which I should bear in mind when the time comes.

Not that depression is a laughing matter. Knowing a little bit about it myself, I have no wish to make light of this horrible condition. But still, you can't help noticing that there are an awful lot of books about depression out there. Being in the biz myself, I obviously know quite a few writers; but I know about five alone who have written about either depression, or the genre's close cousin, the I-Stopped-Drinking/Taking-Drugs-Just-in-Time book. I was recently told that a book I had reviewed was now "top of Amazon's Alcohol and Drug Abuse chart". (The book - Tania Glyde's Cleaning Up: How I Gave Up Drinking and Lived, is actually very good, and I recommend it even if you're not an alcoholic.) I had no idea that there was such a chart. And lo, it turns out that there is also a "depression" chart. Just looking at it is enough to put you a bit down in the dumps.

The funny thing, if there is a funny thing, is the pull these books have even upon the healthy. Reading is an empathetic and a sympathetic process: I had to stop reading James Salant's Leaving Dirty Jersey - "a crystal meth memoir" - because it made me feel like a crystal meth addict, and I've never touched the stuff.

And when I read an extract from Sally Brampton's forthcoming Shoot the Damn Dog (Elle magazine founder gets terrible depression), I felt the strong gravitational pull of misery: "With it came an overwhelming sense of loss, on top of all the others. I was crap at my job, I was crap at marriage, I was crap at love. I had lost at them all. A good friend had died. I had lost her too. And depression, as many experts have pronounced, is almost always about loss. I did not know that at the time."

Well, we know now.

But we have known it since 1621, when the first edition of Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy came out. This is the verse that concludes the opening Abstract of Melancholy, and you won't be able to find a better summary of the condition:

I'll change my state with any wretch,
Thou canst from gaol or dunghill fetch;
My pain past cure, another hell,
I may not in this torment dwell!
Now desperate I hate my life,
Lend me a halter or a knife;
All my griefs to this are jolly,
Naught so damn'd as melancholy.

The problem is that Burton's massive, continually-expanding work, which in its way is actually an almost complete history of knowledge up to the time of writing, did not save him from dying by his own hand. And sometimes I wonder whether or not these books encourage those who waver, like adolescents listening to emo music, between genuine and willed depression. So, what I'd like to know is: do these books help?

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