Depression presents itself as an illness of responsibility in which the dominant feeling is that of failure. The depressed individual is unable to measure up; he is tired of having to become himself.
– Alain Ehrenberg, Weariness of the Self
David Foster Wallace once jested that depression is the “logarithm of all suffering” (Infinite Jest, 504). It pervades our world like an undetected virus or dark meme slowly sucking the joy out of life. Everywhere we are being told that the self is an empty sign without content, a vacuum that is less than nothing, an sphere without center or circumference inhabited by spectral memories and fitful dreams, a wasteland of impossible objects and frozen fears. Maybe Hamlet was right and our hollow lives have in this apathetic age of late capitalism and neoliberal implosion truly become “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.
Alain Ehrenberg in a useful ethnographical study of depression in our modern era, taking the society of France as his test case, asks us to question the culture of medication, of false hope, of cures by drugs and linguistic tricks:
Is suffering useful? If so, what is its use? Are we moving towards a society of comfortable dependencies in which each person can take a daily psychotrope? Are we not mass-producing hypochondriacs? Can we still make the distinction between the unhappiness and frustrations of everyday life and pathological suffering? Is this distinction necessary? (6)
I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition, that this goodly frame the earth seems to me a stale promontory, this most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.
Depression is no laughing matter, is it? It eats up life like a black hole that has no bounds. It sucks the life force out of even the happiest of beings. Someone once said that happiness is a state of mind. Milton said: “The mind is its own place, and in it self / Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” How do we survive in a wasteland of our own making? Samuel Beckett once told us that “nothing is funnier than unhappiness, I grant you that. Yes, yes, it’s the most comical thing in the world (Endgame).” Someone asked Ken Bruen, the Galwegian Crime Writer: “How do you define humor?” His response to this was: “It’s our way of getting even.” Maybe that’s the key. Maybe that’s the only way we can confront our despair of existence – the darkness within and without. Getting even. Laughing till the pain and bleakness disappear under the burden of darkness. As David Foster Wallace says it: “You are a trained observer and there is nothing to observe” (The Pale King). That’s DFW to a tee. A man all guzzied up ready to take on the whole world who realizes at the last moment that the world he’d take on resides in his own brain pan all curled up like the Cheshire cat winking back at him with the feint smile and gnomic wisdom of a Dostoevskian idiot. A gentle giant of a man whose compassion and passion gave us the Infinite Jest.