Ironic dismissal of passionate commitment to ideals, or indeed to anything, is as unsophisticated as anything on earth—simply a sneering “Huh-uh, no you can’t” with more syllables. Beyond being lazy, it is cowardly: the tacit acknowledgment that someone’s commitment, passion, and action have called you out, and cast your ironically superior pose into the light for what it is.
—Jonathan Bellman, “On Disparagement,” posted on Dial M For Musicology, September 19, 2014.
[dedicated to Alice, with gratitude]
Peter Sellars On Art, Ethics, and Opera*
Department of Music at Princeton
March 30, 2013
[I remember one year ago today: temperature in the 60s, or 70s even, blossoms effortlessly and joyously emerging. Today, I see a crocus here and there, a mangled snowdrop, and the spring seems elusive still, hard won. But the birds persevere, beckoning into the next season.]
Peter Sellars—I first heard tell of his legendary Adams House swimming-pool extravaganza thirty years ago when I was a freshman and years later had something of a fit when I saw his Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez during my first years of graduate school—darts in and begins by honoring his hosts, referring to musicology as a “place to create a zone of integrity,” saying that “the story behind the story is going to save the world.” He describes the value of many minds, rather than a single authoritative one, and speaks in favor of reciprocity and inclusion. He acknowledges the physical body that creates the music and describes Bach’s as a “music of questioning,” noting that the texts of Bach’s works are discussed less fully than are their ostensibly abstract principles. I think of the lecture hours my undergraduates and I have been spending just upstairs considering the norms and questions that inhere, but do not quite cohere, in Bach’s chorales, stripped of their texts and contexts.
[Three hundred sixty-four days and nineteen hours ago, in a theater across campus, I picked up my bass clarinet to sound the first notes of my opera, Weakness.]
Sellars speaks of ritualization, cooperation, reciprocity, inclusion, and the involvement of the “congregation” (audience).
[Weakness concerns trauma and healing, and the entire process of putting the work together was blessed by mutuality and cooperation even as it was bedeviled simultaneously by thoughtlessness and disregard. The final two weeks of preparation go beyond the expected pre-premiere strain, past the irritating but inevitable underfunctioning and jockeying, to insupportable dysfunction and outlandish aggression. And, as I warned at the time would happen, the damage is still resounding a year later. I have spent much of the last twelve months lathering, rinsing and repeating, but despite all my elbow grease and scrubbing, my opera remains grimy.]
Mr. Sellars—I think it’s time I call him Peter—speaks of the St. Matthew Passion: “Two weeks ago you thought you were going to change the world, and now you are standing around a tomb. What happened in these last two weeks?”
[Indeed. One year later, I am no longer surprised that a staging of the unspeakable conjured up more of same offstage, but I do still mourn it, and I think how after all this time, I am still recovering from the trauma attendant upon the trauma. I marvel at my profession’s expectation of constant activity (often confused with productivity, which is not at all the same thing) and the disinterest in addressing what has been damaging in favor of getting the next gig and making another mess. My naïve youthful belief in the academy as a sanctuary for contemplation, in the arts world as a setting for what Keats called “a vale of soul-making”—
—But here I veer dangerously toward taking others’ inventory, which is never a good idea, so I’ll just leave it at this: In a conversation with a cherished colleague, months after the beauty and horror that was Weakness, I found myself saying, “You say you have not had a moment to reflect in the past few months, and that is all I have been doing; you have reached outward, while I have been looking inward.”]
Peter speaks of the Passion inspiring one to look inward rather than outward. He speaks of Dorothy Day—I mentioned her to Charles just yesterday, and though I know little of her, she has always intrigued me with her compassionate Catholicism, so different from the one I was indoctrinated into and to which I am now violently allergic—and her growing dissatisfaction, many years ago, with the “emptiness” of the worlds of arts and politics.
There is talk of mutual dependency and of Haydn and Mozart constructing a model of democracy in the configuration of the string quartet, where every voice is essential. “What would equality look like? What would it sound like?”
Later I thank Alice, who invited Peter, for making space for these words and thoughts. She and I acknowledge, again, the dangers of discussing openly the ubiquitous and pressing topic of trauma. I say, realizing it for the very first time as the words exit my mouth, that I have encountered more resistance, even retribution, in response to performing trauma onstage than I have when I have addressed the topic in scholarly prose.
Peter has spoken about his staging of Handel’s Hercules in Chicago—coincidentally, a work I first heard and fell in love with a month or so ago—and how the performance was attended by veterans and complemented by discussions of PTSD; he stresses (no pun intended) that the opera was meant to inform the understanding of PTSD rather than the other way around. One veteran heard a countertenor for the first time—David Daniels, to be precise—and described the sound as “blood coming out of his mouth.”
[Years ago, Tom taught me a Druidic expression: “Wisdom makes a bloody entrance.” Perhaps its exit is also messy. I excised the line from my libretto, for it perplexed my collaborators, who, while sensitive and knowing, fortunately came to Weakness from their own experience rather than mine. I appreciated their input, and I return again and again to that saying as I try to imagine my next work. I am currently editing and polishing the documentation of Weakness, so that I may share it with others in audio and video format. Nevertheless, I am leery of mounting it again, of risking that the trauma story may engender yet more trauma. I have had enough bleeding for now. Perhaps it is better to leave my four years (and more) of labor aside.]
Peter says, “Bach is an incredible composer of disappointment” and recognizes what it means to live “with your idealism in such a state of profound despair.” The first and only performance of his St. Matthew Passion was “ a mess,” and Bach, realizing his work was not meant for the milieu in which he found himself, “put it away for the rest of his life.” Somehow this bad news is good news to me, much more so than the familiar narratives of dominance, of success, of triumph over adversity.
Peter talks about one’s “moral standing as an artist,” and while that is a difficult notion to explore without seeming righteous or judgmental, without seeming to congratulate oneself, and without denying the real, tangible, practical matters of survival that can be so far removed from the luxury of the proscenium, he manages somehow to inspire rather than to preach. Likely this is in part because he himself moves between the palaces of culture and glitterless venues in a way that many of us only talk about. He expresses a desire for all of us to resist the “gossip and infighting in the classical music world,” saying that “we are actually here to do something much bigger.”
It’s one of those days when I marvel at the way strands and shards weave together unexpectedly, offering solace and inspiration when they are most desired, in ways that could not possibly be anticipated. Peter talks of magic and transcendence, but all I am seeking is awareness, good faith, and perhaps a bit of company in cultivating a more equitable and nurturing space for us all. Afterward I say to Alice that these are the most worthwhile almost-three hours I have spent in this building this year. I can’t help but feel sad that such conviction, such searching, is the startling exception rather than the norm, that this talk seems so out of the ordinary in our profession, but it’s a glimpse, at least, of something more expansive and generous, more aware and committed, and I am beyond grateful to hear some of my own values reflected and affirmed.
These simultaneous sensations of dark and light, of desolation and hope, remind me of a Hawai’ian expression Riley taught me: “liquid sunshine.”
March 31: the anniversary of the closing of Weakness. Also, Easter, a holiday I appreciate without really celebrating. The birds continue to beckon, and I think they might win out at last, for a while. I think of the volunteer chorus members who contributed so much to Weakness a year ago today, and especially of the family of three with whom I have become friendly. Yesterday they sent me dozens of candids they shot as we put Weakness together. I looked at the images as at the record of a dream, tearing up just a bit. Maybe I’ll give the chorister-alums a ring today and see what they and their new puppies are up to.
March 29: I attended Emi’s show, a musical about gender-neutral parenting. As we began working together, I explained that I do not really care for musical theater’s syntax or aesthetic, but that I was happy to mentor her, and to my surprise, I was pleased to dip my ear in to this world. Her songs are incisive, thoughtful, brave, and moving—youthful and idealistic to be sure, but also more mature and ethical than what I hear from many middle-aged artists. It’s this sort of blossoming that keeps me motivated as a teacher.
April 1: a good day to post at face value. Time to listen to the birds, head out, and see what sorts of blossoms are popping up.
*”Moving At the Speed of Thought” is another phrase of Mr. Sellars uttered in this same discussion, exemplifying the content in the form of his improvised paragraphs. “On Art, Ethics, and Opera” was the title of his talk.
Formerly posted elsewhere by Barbara White, October 11, 2013
Thank you for calling attention to this issue, for covering it with nuance, and for including counterexamples. This eruption has an all too familiar shape: there is the A theme (inane offending statement), the B theme (understandably outraged response), and . . . well, not a lot of development. Recapitulations abound though: Twenty-five years ago Rolf Smedvig, trumpeter with the BSO, claimed that women lacked the equipment to play brass instruments, and there was outcry; in 2013, despite certain improvements in circumstances, the nature of the discussion itself has not changed all that much.
The very question, “Why aren’t there more female conductors?” shapes the discussion by implying that there is a clearly identifiable cause for underrepresentation and that the interviewee himself possesses a sophisticated and worthy understanding of a complex societal problem; this invites him to express his unconsidered biases and just make something up. When posed to a (specific) male figure who, it appears, has had no incentive to consider his male privilege, and who does not care about the underrepresentation of women in his field, the response is more a script than an exchange: a man exposing his inadequacy by claiming (yawn) that women are “weak.”
Consider a different question: “How do you go about fostering equity and respect in the workplace to make sure that the profession can ascend to the highest possible level?” I don’t for a moment think the esteemed gents cited here would start waxing poetic about diversity and inclusion, but it would take a step away from these unwitting invitations to proclamation one’s incomparable virility: “Why no women? Because my penis rules! Only I can wield the wand!” (Yawn again.)
And why is this called a “women problem”? (I know this may not be the author’s title.) Could NPR instead dare to title this article, “Gender discrimination persists amongst prominent male conductors”? Or, “Misogyny hinders excellence in classical music”? Or, “Male privilege still enjoyed by highly paid time-beaters?”
It is heartening to read, “I would like to hear the women in our community speak up as well, without fear of embarrassment, contempt or retribution.” And there are those of us who do speak up and write about such matters; I am only one who has done so. But the sad reality is that, in addition to the necessary burden of some of us (some women and a few men) taking on a second shift by addressing and resisting unequal treatment, those of us who advocate for equity do experience retaliation every day. And women are socialized to downplay the intransigence of inequity, encouraged instead to internalize the Ayn Randian notion that those who are tough enough will succeed and those who speak up about discrimination are just whiners—to focus on individual will and determination instead of systemic mechanisms that render some more equal than others. Ask a woman in a male-dominated field whether she has experienced discrimination (another one of those cocked questions), and see whether she checks the box yes or no. It’s another script, and a reply of, “No, no, not at all; I’m too strong for that” is positively reinforced. So, inviting women to speak up without fear is laudable but may—although this is absolutely inexcusable—cause even more harm to women. Even in 2013. Sad but true.
For example, here is another prominent conductor speaking on the dearth of women in the field, ten years ago: “I personally feel that accepting the role of powerless victim can become a self-fulfilling prophecy and I am unwilling to even entertain that concept!” Who was that? Marin Alsop. It was posted on her site in 2003 as part of a
reply to the question, “Have you ever experienced prejudice as a woman in a field dominated by men?” It’s still there.
In an unsurprising development yesterday, the combined faculty of all United States institutions of higher learning voted to terminate employment of any scholar who had previously uttered the word “b—h.” This sweeping reform applies to utterances in the classroom and outside; to loud statements and to soft, tentative ones alike; and to self-scolding. The intercourse at the First National Epithet Caucus was cool, calm, and collected, the discussion genteel, peppered with academically appropriate expressions such as “gentlemen” and “esteemed colleagues.” Tea was served, with an herbal option available. There were gluten-free muffins, and no one complained about the taste.
The meeting was inspired by an online discussion regarding the famous and little-known “Salaita Affair,” in the course of which a bravely anonymous faculty member advised, “Perhaps a better way to look at this is to rely on George Carlin’s old comedy skit about ‘seven dirty [sic] words.’ In short, don’t use them to maintain civility.” The subtlety of this recommendation was appreciated by all, and there was a unanimous vote to adopt the “Carlin Standard” as a measure of civility on campus, which promised to ensure that all language would remain harmonious for all.
Music faculty from across the country did not mobilize, become heated, or express concern about the proper procedure for citing Miles Davis’s “B——s Brew”: they’d always been puzzled by the title’s grammar anyway, and there are plenty of other Miles albums to work with. Women’s studies professors did not raise questions about assigning B—-s, B—-s and B———–s: The Guerrilla Girls’ Illustrated Guide to Female Stereotypes.
No faculty member asked for special dispensation for a colleague who had called him or her a “b—h”: there was no report that they had later discussed the matter, learned from it, agreed that the term was counterproductive, and had gone on to teach a gender studies seminar together. Indeed, since any remedy and/or rapprochement would require both parties to utter the verbum non gratum, it seemed moot.
No professor who, upon being appointed chair of his or her department, had anointed himself or herself “Head B—h,” mentioned the possibility of reclamation or destabilizing meaning. There was no panel on socialization or Stockholm syndrome.
There was no concern about addressing the reality that coarse and crude language is ubiquitous in the culture at large or that expunging it completely could make it difficult to discuss important matters.
It was agreed that the 🙂 be included in all communications henceforth, which will allow Tweets, blogs, text messages, peer-reviewed articles, tenure statements,—as well as notices of disciplinary action—to remain free of any appearance of antagonism. All applauded demurely at the Smiley Initiative, which promises to ensure a “positive, welcoming, fair and open environment” for all members of the higher-education community. (A subcommittee has been appointed to develop a technology that will enable the Smiley Initiative to be used in face-to-face meetings.)
As the terminations were effected, there was no uproar. Petitions did not circulate. Neither boycotts nor strikes took place.
As classes began this week, students were not ill-served by finding that the vast majority of their courses were unstaffed due to the termination of the “b-worded.” It has been confirmed that there are seven professors in the nation whose records are clear and who retain their positions; they have agreed to increase enrollment in their courses in order to accommodate the students whose mentors are no longer available. It is not yet clear how this reshuffling will affect grading policies or the implementation of new measures aimed to curb sexual assaults, which are being proposed at many universities.
Students’ assigned work this week, in tweet and text-message format, frequently featured the new expression “WTF,” said to be an acronym for “Wow, that’s fabulous.” However, other interpretations have been proposed, among them “Whoa; très freaky,” and “Wonderful! They’re free.”
In response to IAmNotMakingUp’s tweet to all the nation’s faculty asking for comments, the response was a unanimous 🙂
—Guest Post by Rosie Router
Raven is a contrary spirit. on the negative side, Raven represents the profane, the devil, evil spirits, the trickster and thief, war and destruction, death and doom, the void.
Yet in many cultures Raven also represents deep magic, the mystery of the unknown, death and transformation, creation, healing, wisdom, protection, and prophecy.
Raven is both the symbol of the sun, and the symbol of a moonless night. She is the birth giving light in the center of our galaxy, and the black hole in the center of the universe, to which we are all traveling to our eventual extinction.
Raven is the fatal touch of the Calleach in winter, the wisdom of Odin, the vessel of prophecy given to a seer, the mighty protector of the Western Isles, and the healing message of an Indian shaman.
Raven is a complex bird, both in nature and in mythology.
—Rose Marie McSweeney
I was cooking right along in Robert Fink’s “The Musicology of the Present,” or so I—at least I think it was I—thought. Arriving at the end of the epigraph, I got stuck on something he did not say:
. . . the musicologists are all off doing gender studies . . .
Off where? The gender studies section is off somewhere? Where? And they’re all there? Can you point me in the right direction?
(This was a while ago, and third-hand, so I realize it may be difficult.)
And then, there was something he did say but really didn’t:
. . . we became caught up in gender . . .
Gender is something that one can “[become] caught up in”? Does that not mean it is something one can refrain from getting caught up in? Or become not caught up in? I suppose one can avoid going off, then. Where they all are.
Speaking of where, I suspect that this subject, “we,” is decentered. But I’m not sure, since I got my Lacan from “Žižek”—understandably, because Lacan tells me I do not exist. I think it has something to do with “the subject [referring] to some decentered other to whom he or she imputes this belief.” This sometimes gets confusing, because the externalized statement is mistakenly read as an earnest statement of the speaker rather than an implicit attribution to an absent but existent “we.”
Are you with me?
I predict there will be replies attributing this statement to Robert Fink. Yup, there’s one.
But he did not advocate this statement; rather he inferred it,—or, better identified it—as something that seems to be here and there. It can be worthwhile to reach out and grab these notions that float unacknowledged in the aether.
On the other hand, this he did say they said:
Richard Taruskin, like the equally prolix J.K. Rowling, has been adamant that the long narrative arc of his series is over, and there will be no sequels.
Well if the history of Taruskin is ended, we can at least probe a couple of years earlier into the history of musicology in order to consider the eminent scholar’s critique of John Adams’s “crybaby role.” That is a statement this subject did pronounce. More than once.
(Has J.K. Rowling weighed in on this yet?)
Kyle Gann reports a discussion about “narrative history”:
. . . there won’t be any contemporary accounts of history for future gender studies scholars to work from.
From accounts, to where? I am still finding it hard to locate things. I gather we (whoever that is) record the data here (wherever that is) and now (this concept I think I understand), and later on (got it), the gender studies crew (the ones who are all off somewhere) comes in (here? or do they stay over there?) to do the gender part. (Will there be gender studies scholars in the future? And off where will they be? [For that matter, will there be scholars in the future?])
There is a good example of this division of labor—accounting and gendering—close at hand. Of Gann’s excellent book, “No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4′33”,” Branden W. Joseph writes,
Refreshingly, Gann casually and straightforwardly acknowledges Cage’s homosexuality, although he relegates any reading of 4’33” as an act of thwarted expression in a period of widespread homophobia—as argued by Caroline Jones, Jonathan Katz, and, most recently, Philip Gentry, among others—to a footnote.(4)
“Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” Gender is not where Gann’s silence is, but it is where some other subjects are speaking, and Joseph can point the way.
Cage, the man, is unlikely to have been glimpsed in person by anyone now under thirty, and few now living were present at the premiere of 4’33”, so he hardly counts as a present-day figure, except in his reverberations, which are loud. This makes for an interesting compositional and musicological circumstance. (Yale University Press anoints 4’33” an “icon”—alongside Wall Street, Joe DiMaggio, and the hamburger. I think the word “icon” may have had a different constitution when they instituted their series.)
It is getting harder and harder to tell where “here” is and who “we” is,—I mean, are—and how, if “all” are “off” it could be considered “off” at all. While I await further clarification on the topography, though I suspect it will change again before it is explained, here (!) are a few tidbits from my (I think) reading list:
Robert Fink on minimalism and opera; Kyle Gann on John Cage; Yayoi Uno Everett on Louis Andriessen; Naomi Cumming, and Sumanth Gopinath, on Steve Reich; Lydia Goehr on American opera (and John Cage); Michael Wyatt on Messaien; Majel Connery on Peter Maxwell Davies (and Thomas Adès); Lisa Coons on Laurie Anderson (and Diamanda Galás, and Antony and the Johnsons). There is also Alice Miller Cotter’s current research on John Adams; Stefan Weisman’s dissertation on Yoko Ono; and more. Oh, I have a few little things too, but I would not want to appear self-aggrandizing by recommending them. Plus, there is the Internet. And regarding 4’33”, don’t miss Branden W. Joseph’s “White on White” in Critical Inquiry, though it is not, strictly speaking, musicology (which one could say some of the others also are not). I am not sure where to put it. But I am glad to have it.
Where is “the near blackout of attention to contemporary composing?” Is it here, or is it off somewhere? How do I find it? And when you throw a spitball, is it from here to there, or there to here? I really want to know, because I’d rather not find one stuck on the back of my head.
Has anyone written about Laura Kaminsky’s opera “As One,” yet? (Or Susan Narucki’s multiply authored Cuatro Corridos? Or my Weakness, for that matter?)
Where is the data? Where is the gender? I do understand it comes second; that’s good to know. Does the second shift pay time and a half? And what comes after?
—Barbara A. White
“I object to the hegemonification of the verbed noun.”
“Shouldn’t that be hegemoni—?”
“I love it when you talk sub-altern-dirty.”
“Shall we interrogate the ‘cleanliness’ construct?”
“As long as we problematize the discursive paradigm.”
“No worries, I’ve got my arsenal of non-binary identity-destabilizing implements handy.”
“Would ‘bouquet’ be better?”
“Still too dualistic. Supply?”
“Age construct. Infantilization and projection.”
“Ah, let’s just watch Fox.”
“Transactional term supporting the dominance of the market state.”
“OK, ‘Finding Nemo’?”
“I love the turtles.”
“They go all the way down.”
—Posted by IAmNotMakingUp
My Harvard Facebook group has been discussing an article Ellen Jovin shared: Nothing Says Over 40 Like Two Spaces after a Period!
I was blissfully unaware of this seismic shrinkage until a month or two ago, and several months before my fall from grace, I was reading student papers and observing that the use of just one space after a period looked underwhelming (all the more so when there were other infelicities in the writing). I had no idea that it was the new normal. Thus, having brought the two-space-embrace with me into the computer era—twenty-five years ago!—I am having a hard time adjusting to my sentence, to this notion that I should halve my space. And it has thrown me to think that I had failed to notice the new standard.
And, my spacing shows me to be . . . over 40! Bless me, youngster, for I have sinned. By surviving four dozen years without dying. (My shame was eased ever so slightly when I read that I have classmates who, like me, prefer the two-space program.)
A couple of weeks ago, I read another account of the same phenomenon. When first I heard, I figured it must have been a Twitter repercussion, a capricious notion arising from that character-meter that tells you how many spaces you have left in your microtext.
At last having time to satisfy my curiosity, I just now took a moment to look at some academic journal articles, choosing one by Harvard’s Daniel Albright—and, well, I remained vexed, because academic articles are right/left justified! (In addition, there is approximately one punctuation event per paragraph, so the data set is unreliably small.) No wonder I had not noticed the disappearance of the sous-space. So, am I now to understand that these articles circulating and proselytizing about saving space apply only to texts such as this blog, type[sic]scripts, and the like? And æther-mail? It seems odd for dual-spacing to be considered such an offense when people are hyphenating adverbs and using colons after verbs and stuff. Not to mention all the nouning and verbing that I see every single day. (It’s a fail-ure, not a fail!) I just don’t get it. Why is there suddenly so much attention to decreasing the space between words when the words themselves are so often shabby?
And how is it that being over forty has now become a sign of being a poor writer? I thought we were the ones always telling the hipsters to shape up. On the contrary! This new generation is so judgmental:
And yet people who use two spaces are everywhere, their ugly error crossing every social boundary of class, education, and taste*. . . . What galls me about two-spacers isn’t just their numbers. It’s their certainty that they’re right.
—Farhad Manjoo, “Space Invaders”
*I have yet to receive word of the fate of the four-dot ellipses used at the end of a complete sentence. Did anyone think about that before they voted to semi-space all sentences? Does a proportional font—the reason given for the new zoning regulation—obviate the need for a distinction between the end of a sentence and an unfinished sentence? The marker of omission—the series of three mute dots—has already been brutally smooshed together . . . as if the mysteriously unstated is merely nonexistent. Do I understand correctly that it is of urgent importance to save a space after every sentence, while it is acceptable to use three question marks just before??? And what about the poor em dash—which has so often suffered drafts from either side, not to mention getting replaced inexplicably with the inadequate little hyphen?
And how is that the space between sentences is getting all the funding for repair, when there are still so many extra spaces between words within so many sentences? We seem to be losing sight of the everyday here, focusing on the dramatic, to our detriment.
I cannot help but think that this coup de point arises from broad cultural shifts. Bad ones, of course. Do we want to give in to them? We complain about being busy and rushed—and people write about our complaints with sentences that I now realize are granted only a single space to breathe before the next begins. Is that really a coincidence? And more and more people are staying single. Could they be behind this eschewal of the paired space? On the other hand, our culture seems to have trouble with boundaries, and we are flirting dangerously with word disindividuation here: how long will it be before we abandon punctuation altogether and every sentence is one breathless portmanteau word with indistinguishable syllables?
I get it.
It doesn’t matter whether what I write is intelligible, or meaningful, as long as it looks good.
Now, that makes sense.
There is no penalty for describing oneself as “reticent” to adopt a dog. As long as the dog gets one space and one only. Consider this pair of sentences: “Old Québec, a UNESCO World Heritage treasure, is walkable and safe. Stroll the only walled city North of Mexico and its cobblestone streets.” I gather no one will be confused about the location of those cobblestone streets as long as they don’t wait too long after the safety announcement before commencing their stroll.
And to make it worse, I look at this absurdly long disquisition and now think there is too much space after my sentences. I have been tamed. But, before letting go the second space, I’ll remember these words:
When I write, therefore, I enhance the meaning borne in my sentences—not only in dialogue but in narrative—by imposing on them silences tailored through heavy use of commas, semicolons, dashes, ellipses, and line breaks. It is something that gives my copyeditors hypertension, yet I encourage students to write this way, and to read their pieces aloud as often as they can, to an audience if possible. An audience furnishes feedback, tells you by its response how well your scansion’s working. Thus, I tell my students, silence boosts the import of the words you write.
—George Michelson Foy, Zero Decibels: The Quest for Absolute Silence
Of course, the book where I read this is also fully justified.
—Posted by IAmNotMakingUp
The wound and the eye are one and the same. From the psyche’s viewpoint, pathology and insight are not opposites—as if we hurt because we have no insight and when we gain insight we shall no longer hurt.
—James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology, 1975.
First, a recollection:
About seven years ago, I began taking an anti-cancer medication, Tamoxifen, after months of fretting about whether or not to do so. I had learned that in a very small percentage of patients, it could kindle or worsen depression. Although it was very rare for that to happen,—my surgeon had never seen a single case, my oncologist maybe one or two—I was indeed one of the “small percentage” to be felled. It took me some time to identify what was happening, but it really hit me that January when I caught a bad cold and had to stop my vigorous daily exercise routine. That habit was likely what had been keeping me afloat, and the sudden need to forgo it was devastating. After a period of perilous despair, during which I felt increasingly disinterested in the next week, day, and hour, I realized that the medication I was taking in the hope of staving off a life-threatening illness was itself life-threatening. For me. (Those last two words are crucial.) Fortunately, my doctors understood this and supported my choice to discontinue the medication. Any doubts I had ever had about the chemical aspect of mood were dispelled that January. There are so many debates and opinions in the offing about whether medication is necessary, helpful, virtuous, and so on. Having had such a severe depressive episode instigated by medication—the inverse of the usual—proved once and for all to my bodymind that chemistry can drive mood. I was not as in charge as I would have liked to think. I could not just repair my mental state with talk, toughness, or the right course of action. Sometimes there is no best course of action available. Sometimes one engages in revivifying exercise and finds it helps. And sometimes one gets a cold and realizes that the bank of endorphins has been used up for the time being. Sometimes Whole Foods runs out of fish oil.
Next, a reflection:
It’s easy to think we know what depression is and to think we have wisdom about what is best for another who has experienced despair and anguish. But we know little. As many point out, the casual of the use of the d-word,—“Maleficent isn’t playing any more?! I am so depressed!”—hinders understanding. The mysterious and “yin” nature of the disease does too. Its darkness is powerful and seductive. It’s resistant to illumination. Even those who spend their lives experiencing mood challenges, and treating them, acknowledge the limits of their understanding. Some say that those who die of suicide are selfish, or that they failed to ask for help. Some say that pharmaceutical companies are agents of the State, that their medications are designed to break down the body’s natural chemicals, and that they will inevitably lead to a cure worse than the disease. (Tell that to someone who’s planning to take her life this week. A decline down the road might not be a bad alternative.) That one may eschew the word “suffering” and choose spiritual practice over medication, as long as one meditates in the “right way.” These are all things I have read this week, and I have been especially disheartened to hear some who identify themselves as spiritual practitioners reveal such self-satisfaction, such a lack of humility and compassion. I remember when I was diagnosed with and treated for cancer, dealing with (some) others’ responses was infinitely more difficult than accepting my own morbidity and eventual mortality. I’ve felt similarly pained by much of what I have read this week.
I cannot help but think that the persistent misunderstanding of depression and other mental health conditions relates closely to the fear of decline and death that is so evident in US culture. There are so many claims about superfoods and antioxidants and kale. (Oh, right, kale has been dethroned; is that right? Oops!) However, such apparently “positive” possibilities to engineer über-health inevitably reveal a dark side: all too often, such a desire to be well conspires with a similarly American rush to judge others and to express opinions that arise less from knowledge than from unconsidered attitudes—and, I suspect, from fears. Why else would one police another’s kale consumption? I see this in the discussion about cancer as well: the notion that one can outrun it in one way or another, that it can be cured. I have yet to hear anyone besides me ask in response, “And then what? No death? A better one? Worse?”
I find it hard to imagine that such a “police state of mind” is good for anyone’s mental or physical health. Yet there continues to be a cultural emphasis on the transaction: do this, and you’ll get this. Thing is, there is not always a thing to do, and if there is, it is sometimes comes with a heavy tax. Risk more cancer? Or risk suicide with a drug designed to fend it off? Fortunately, I had a reasonable alternative available. But not everyone does.
Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to light . . . it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.
—Virginia Woolf, On Being Ill (1926)
For those who have not had the “opportunity” to experience depression personally, or to look into its eyes in some other way, might you consider acknowledging your unknown knowns? Might you be able to tolerate the not knowing, as in Keats’s notion of negative capability? Might you emulate my doctors, who understood that their vast experience did not grant them omniscience, and who were able to accept that, even though it was statistically improbable, a life-saving medication could cause life-threatening side effects? Had they not, I might not be here to be wondering about this.
Here is the invitation, should you choose to accept it: For every opinion you express about depression, or other mental-health issue, read one article or essay about it. Or better yet, talk to someone who has lived with mental-health challenges, and instead of nursing your own opinion about how they should handle it, ask them about their experience, choices, and outcomes. It might be good for your own mental health too.
There’s No Map, But—
Below are some links that regarding mental health, depression, and well-being. They do not all agree with one another or with what I write above. I don’t always agree with myself either.
These two posts from The Belle Jar are especially informative:
HuffPo Canada Living has had some good articles this week:
Shannon Fisher, “Suicide Isn’t A Product Of Not Trying”
Spiritual Practitioners Discuss Depression
Lodro Rinzler, Meditation Isn’t Enough: A Buddhist Perspective on Suicide
Krista Tippett discusses her experience of depression (among many other things) on The One You Feed” (podcast)
“If you know someone who’s depressed, please resolve never to ask them why. Depression isn’t a straightforward response to a bad situation; depression just is, like the weather.
Try to understand the blackness, lethargy, hopelessness, and loneliness they’re going through. Be there for them when they come through the other side. It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest, and best things you will ever do.”
—Posted by Barbara A. White