Monday, March 1, 2010

Reflection, Rumination, Depression, Melancholy, and the Pointlessness of Human Life

This is Albrecht Dürer's Melencolia I from the 16th century.  I like it so much I have a large framed print of it above my desk at home.  I don't know how well you can see the details (there's a better version here); the woman is surrounded with all the items of learning and science -- she's got a compass, that weird polyhedron, a scale, and so on -- but she is resting her head on her chin in a mode of utter discouragement, disengagement, and sadness.

I like it because even though it was made so long ago I feel I can identify with its sentiments immediately.  In fact, I know about this engraving I because I had a tendency, while doing my intellectual work, to occasionally put my own head on my chin with such an expression.  One day my friend said, "You look just like Melancolia!"  I did.  And I do.

I've always found that certain kinds of intellectual reflection lead me to sad and melancholy feelings.  Why is this?  Maybe it's that if you're thinking about why people are the way they are and why life is the way it is, you're dangerously close to that weird vertigo you can get where life seems meaningless and pointless.  Or maybe it's because intellectual reflection requires you to quiet the strong emotions that tend to connect you most obviously to caring about things and being all engaged in them.

Yesterday, The New York Times ran an article in the magazine exploring the idea that depression might be useful -- that it might have been selected for in evolution for reasons.  I read it with the usual mix of open-mindedness and skepticism 'til I got to this passage, which I must say caught me up a little short because it seemed so apt.
 "It doesn’t matter if we’re working on a mathematical equation or working through a broken heart: the anatomy of focus is inseparable from the anatomy of melancholy."
The broader idea, though, I found less intuitive.  This broader idea is supposed to be that rumination is the activity common to both, and that ruminating is useful.  Ruminating, reflecting, turning something over endlessly in your mind -- these are activities that 1) are good when you're trying to figure out what to do 2) are costly and boring and not things we're apt to just take up and 3) are encouraged by a depressed state of mind, in which eating sleeping sex and work lose their ordinary appeal.

This broader idea struck me as implausible, on grounds mentioned by some critics cited in the article.  If you're really depressed, you do actually do things that are disastrous from an evolutionary point of view.  You fail to take care of your children, or you fail to eat, or whatever.

The other thing I found puzzling is that the article treated depression as if often a person who is depressed is so because they have some unresolved thing they have to sort out.  Like there's an example of a guy who is unhappy in his work but can't decide whether to leave his job. Eventually he decides to leave, and then his depression goes away.

I don't think I've ever been really depressed, so I don't know, but I can tell you that almost none of my sad thoughts arise because I have some unresolved thing I have to figure out.  My sad thoughts have to do with things like the fact that I am going to die, and the fact that the people I love are going to die too, and that even during this brief life there is so much pain and suffering for so many people.  And that life, when you look at it too analytically, can just seem really pointless.

This morning I was having some sad thoughts.  But then the weather cleared, and the sun came out, and everything had that peculiar very early Spring time look you see in the Northeast, where slight differences in the angle of the sun make the season's lights all so different.  The snow everywhere was melting with that drip drippy sound of warm weather.  People were out. Suddenly, I was awash in happy feelings.

So I think it's complicated, this melancholy thing.


Daniel said...

I'm sorry to comment on something besides your main point, but did you know that this Melancolia (and the numbers on the wall) features prominently in the latest Dan Brown novel, which is hoky?

Patricia said...

No, I didn't know. Here's how much of a culture snob I am: not only haven't I read Dan Brown, I couldn't even watch the movie of the Da Vinci code. I walked out after ten minutes.

I used to feel bad about my culture snobbery but now that I'm old I'm just learning to live with it.