It's a Friday night. My printer is chugging out articles on the fin de siécle, on which I am writing an essay. I'm hoping that the print cartridge will last until I have a chance to get it refilled. I have elected not to go out because I am a) too broke b) need to get up early to go running tomorrow and c) it's too bloody cold for a Bris Vegan. How I got through four London winters with maximum 2 degrees Celcius and the light fading at 4.30pm is beyond me. Actually, I didn't really get through it, I just got depressed.
Following the standard theory that all writers need to be depressed to write well, I ought then to have been producing brilliant pieces of work. In The Anthologist, a book given to me by one of my students going back home to the States, Nicholas Baker writes:
"The rhyming of rhymes is a powerful form of self-medication. All these poets, when they feel that they are descending into one of their personal canyons of despair, use rhyme to help themselves tightrope over it. Rhyming is the avoidance of mental pain by addicting yourself to what will happen next. It's like chain-smoking – you light one line with the glowing ember of the last. You set up a call, and you want a response. You posit a pling, and you want a fring."
Yet it isn't just poetry that's a panacea. Here, Baker refers to poetry as a means of rescue from those canyons, but the canyons also give rise to creativity. The basic tenet of my thesis – which I have sunsequently worked out some two years after submission – was that loss creates stories. As Freud put it in a letter to Ludwig Binswanger, a fellow psychiatrist, in 1929:
"We will never find a substitute [after a loss]. No matter what may fill the gap, even if it be filled completely, it nevertheless remains something else. And, actually, this is how it should be, it is the only way of perpetuating that love which we do not want to relinquish."
In other words, we write to hold onto what we love. When I first moved to London, I left a boy behind, and wrote obsessively of him in order to maintain that emotion. However, that didn't result in any literary masterpieces. What did evolve was a thesis that was itself composed of loss, by interrogating how it had affected the lives of two nineteenth century women. Georgiana Molloy emigrated from Scotland to Western Australia in the 1830s and buried two children in the Australian soil, and from the deaths of her children sprung a beautiful and sensuous correspondence about botany as she collected specimens for and wrote letters to Captain James Mangles in England. Rosa Praed, who emigrated from Queensland to London, wrote persistently about the country she had left behind. When she lost her companion of thirty years, Nancy Harward, she used a medium to communicate with Nancy through automatic writing. What resulted were voluminous writings about the astral plane which certainly weren't great literature (and it's arguable if they were real at all) but which were powerful in their demonstration of Rosa's desperation to be with Nancy. And of course there has been my own loss of my hearing, which makes communicating with people difficult, and which pushed me into writing as a way of assuaging my loneliness. If I hadn't been deaf, I wouldn't have been a writer.
This is why I wholeheartedly agree with Baker when he asks, "Why would you we want to give pills to people so they don't weep?" If we give them pills, he continues, "poetry will die" (55). Sometimes I have the sense that we are being taught that it's detrimental to be sad, or to be bored. People want to be constantly happy, kids want to be constantly entertained and distracted. Yet if you never experience sadness or boredom, how can you understand what constitutes euphoria and excitement?
Of course, there are people for whom depression is utterly debilitating, and those people need the pills to function and to stay alive. An old writing friend of mine from our undergraduate days has put together an anthology of comics and short pieces about depression, from which she has suffered. You can order copies of it here for $30.00.
In one of my first lectures with my friend at uni, our teacher mused on the high prevalence of depression among writers. I initially scoffed at this – I was at that age where I was of course invincible – but having seen my friend and other people I know battle with depression and its fallout, and having brushed against it myself for such a long time in London, I am beginning to see that he's right. Yes, writers are a sombre, miserable and often lonely bunch, but they need to be to see the underside of everyday life, to give depth to their work.
They also need to be able to laugh at themselves and drink an awful lot of margaritas and write murder mystery parties, which was what I was doing the week prior to this one instead of writing my essay on the fin de siècle. Not liking any of the How to Host a Murders on the internet, and having some seventeen people in attendance, I wove together a plot that involved a supposedly virginal male in a white 70s suit, an unhinged Medieval knight, a feminist flapper, Jesus, a doll with pins pressed into it, a disco queen in her mother's hot pink post-wedding going-away outfit, a schoolgirl, a besuited secret agent, Colin Firth as Mr Darcy, a gospel singer, a marathon runner dressed as a bride and countless other characters in their various permutations.
The punk entered with a packet of chips and said, 'I brought you some dog food.' I couldn't understand a word of what the knight said until he took his visor off because I couldn't lipread him behind the metal. The secret agent had my written permission to feel up the guests, which he did admirably. The knight attempted to give Jesus some advice on how to pick up the ladies but this was countered by Jesus' admonishment that he didn't need help because, as he said, 'I know the Truth', and indeed overpowered the flapper with his religious airs. Said flapper wasn't well versed in what feminists ought to say, so I offered to lend her the contents of my bookshelf. Mr Darcy made me many a cocktail, some of which I splashed onto my cream stiletto shoes with bows, but otherwise I managed to stay upright despite the marathon runner's insistence that I wouldn't. After all, I have only fallen over once before in stilettos and that was because the ground in front of Tate Modern was decidedly uneven. Meanwhile, I laughed and laughed at my clever, brilliant friends.
And as for that endorsement of euphoria and endorphins, tomorrow there will be a run in the brilliant Brisbane sun.