What if van Gogh took Prozac?

So begins Peter Kramer’s excellent book Against Depression. Kramer is also the author of a better known work, Listening to Prozac.

I was intrigued by the book because anti-depressants have always sort of disturbed me; I wondered if they were ‘happy pills,’ too widely prescribed, especially to women. Are Zoloft and Paxil supposed to drug people into conformity and complacency? I also wrote an op-ed for the SF Chronicle in 2001 about the dubious marketing of the drug Sarafem and the billions of dollars huge pharmaceutical companies stood to make just by essentially giving Prozac a new name.

In Against Depression, Kramer writes that during his book tour for Listening to Prozac, wherever he went or spoke, invariably, someone in the audience would smile and ask the witty question: What if Kierkegaard had taken Prozac? Hemingway? Descartes? Kant? Hegel?

Kramer argues we have romanticized depression to the extent that we now believe that great art and important thought come from the neurotic mind. Kramer believes the contrary, that depressed artists managed to create not because of their depression but in spite of it.

He also believes the foundations of Western civilization are based on depressive thinking, that the Greeks, from whom the origins of Western philosophy, art, and government all come, were depressives.

Kramer writes:

“Once the vogue of melancholy is enshrined in literature, once the depressive perspective is identified with the poetic, once the pattern of narratives of self-development is set– art accepts and plays with these forms. As depression, like dysentery and epilepsy and the rest, declares itself a disease, our valuation of depressive art might seem an anachronism, the remnant of a tradition required to mitigate and justify otherwise inexplicable sorrow.”

Kramer states that some qualities of the disease of depression– alienation, hyper-sensitivity– have been romanticized, while other common and frequent symptoms (disorganization, poor memory, irritability, difficulty changing intention into action, paranoia, anxiety, lack of resilience, vulnerability to harm, paralysis, hostility, and impatience) have been downplayed or ignored. Kramer argues depression is a disease of brain abnormalities, partly attributable to decreased blood flow to different parts of the brain.

Kramer believes that alienation– the ability to step back and look at the culture or political bodies while separate from them– can be a useful skill. But getting stuck in alienation is a sickness. Depression is a ‘stuck switch,’ an impairment in the stress/ response system. Basically he’s saying artists don’t need a little bit of depression to create art any more than women need a little bit of anorexia to be fit.

I was particularly fascinated by Kramer’s analysis of the Greeks because I was a philosophy major in college back in the nineties when post-structuralism was popular. We learned how the Greeks had sent us all off on the wrong track by dividing the world into binary oppositions such as good/ evil; right/ wrong; mind/ body etc. Science has shown the mind and body are not as separate as once believed. We now understand this kind of either/ or philosophy leads to all kinds of distorted thinking, including racism and sexism by creating perpetual constructs of the self as separate from ‘the other.’

Kramer’s polemic is similar to the post-structuralists in that he also argues the Greeks were somewhat off base. He writes that many Greeks were depressives including Heracles, Ajax, and Bellerophon. It’s interesting to think about. What if the foundations of our Western thought were created by depressives? What if it’s this kind of training (and the depressed part of your brain) telling us we need depression to make art? And finally, could these thousand year old standards of equating great art with depression be contributing to our culture’s failure to nurture and recognize women artists?

Just like male artists, many women artists are depressives, Virgina Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the list goes on and on. Studies also show that women fall victim to depression more than men. But there are also far more male artists, novelists, and writers than female ones. Perhaps, depressed men can get away with having lives, having families, and making art. Whereas depressed women are mostly just depressed. Women are well -trained to put up with the self indulgent behavior that accompanies depression, giving husbands their required space while tending to the kids. But few moms can afford to fall victim to the tortured artist prototype. Not if you have kids and want to get anything accomplished. Being healthy is your best bet.

Kramer writes that the main symptoms of health are striving to create and possessing the energy required to do so. Not getting overwhelmed or stuck. That model seems far more conducive to fostering women artists than depression.

6 thoughts on “What if van Gogh took Prozac?

  1. I have been contemplating a similar idea. I just saw Francesca Woodman’s photo retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and wondered whether madness is what we all identify with in art. The world around us, and the art that reflects it, is pretty schizophrenic. All those broken pieces in the schizophrenic are components within normal people, but the emphasis of inwardness and outwardness are reversed (i.e., the unconscious comes forward without a strong enough ego). We may resonate with an artist’s “perspective” or undiagnosed psychotic state because somewhere inside we have these feelings too.

    I came across Louis Sass’ ‘Madness and Modernism: Insanity in the Light of Modern Art, Literature, and Thought.’ Here’s a quote from Publishers Weekly (Amazon.com review):

    “Does the schizophrenic’s chaotic inner world resemble modern art and literature? Sass, a clinical psychologist and Rutgers professor, argues that schizophrenia and modernism display striking affinities: fragmentation, defiance of authority, multiple viewpoints, self-referentiality and rejection of the external world in favor of an omnipotent self or, alternately, a total loss of self. While the parallels he draws often seem superficial, there is much to ponder in Sass’s notion that schizophrenia’s core traits are exaggerations of tendencies fostered by our culture. This dense, startling work examines schizophrenic inauthenticity in light of the thought of Nietzsche, that champion of self-invention and the mask. Sass analyzes Kafka’s introversion, Baudelaire’s esthetics of disdain, Alfred Jarry’s robotlike persona and the loss of self suffered by Antonin Artaud, a diagnosed schizophrenic. Further, he likens schizophrenics’ deviant language to the prose of Rimbaud, Sartre, Beckett and Barthes.”

    In this light, the need to do art can be a therapeutic practice and therefore helpful to the mentally ill. In Woodman’s case, she was diagnosed as a depressive and was medicated, however she tragically committed suicide at 22 years old.

    Are many artists struggling with mental illness? Has depression become romanticized? Is art reflecting the illness of modern society? Yes, it seems obvious that our materialized consciousness is fracturing, and our symbolic representations (art) is illustrating it.

    But why aren’t women making art? To that question I suspect we need to discuss the role of patriarchy rather than madness (although it is infuriating).

    • Hi MLapin,

      Fascinating. You should read Kramer’s book. I think you’d like it a lot. He talks about how states may mimic characteristics of depression but that doesn’t mean those states are depression– alienation, sensitivity etc.


  2. You really got me thinking, especially with the idea that depressed men/artists have a much better chance of continuing to make art than depressed women/artists. I think that is very true and I have never heard that said before. Great point. As a woman who works full time outside the home and has two kids, I am constantly fighting against the tide that pushes me back into the home to support my husband’s career. While doing this, I also want to write/be an artist. But I am terrified that I will not be able to earn money, and therefore feel powerless and DEPRESSED. And then not be able to create anything. I know I can’t let fear dictate my choices, but it is a very powerful fear. Also, I like working outside the home and I enjoy my career, so, I have made that choice. For now, anyway.

    • Hi Melita,

      Thanks for reading and for your comments. Make your art! The world needs women to make art and you will be happier if you do (not depressed.) Seriously. Try to commit to one hour a day to start.

      Thanks for visiting Reel Girl.


  3. Ldenise,

    Agree! I guess it feels kind of heroic to survive any kind of intense pain, but getting through depression is not any more ‘artistic’ than getting through cancer.

    Thanks for visiting ReelGirl!


  4. Interesting. I’ve long thought that the idea that depression helps create great art is nonsense. It’s paralyzing, not freeing…

Leave a Reply