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.