Michael Bettencourt

September 2005

The Fount of Melancholy

Dr. Peter Kramer, the chronicler of Prozac in an earlier book, has a new tome out titled Against Depression, in which he argues that we don't take depression seriously enough and should treat it as we would any other debilitating disease, that is, pharmacologically, that is, through the capitalist enterprise.

Kramer may be right, but the book has a reductive feel to it.  Being prone to mildly depressive sloughs myself, I would agree with him that we should not romanticize the utter bottomlessness that such a state of being inflicts on a human being.  But neither is medicating it into evenness the sole antidote.  Like all human experience, depression is serrated -- the important thing is to investigate which way the edges cut.

I say all of this because I have just come through a recent dysthemic wrestling match, and those demons of melancholia have just quit the premises (though their stink still sticks to everything), and only now does this wriggly thing dubbed the spirit do something like rise, like carbonate, behave without spitting and slashing and a surly taste for blood.

I call it melancholia rather than depression because that states its proper name.  Nothing like William Styron's darkness guts me and craps me to my knees.  Instead of the black night I have a grey dusk. Instead of paralysis I move forward on reluctant bones.  Instead of making my quietus I just hunger for unpeopled quiet.  Even the simplest act of courtesy feels like swimming through asphalt -- though I must do the act since it is easier to hold open the door, even grudgingly, than muster enough passion and focus to either execute the one who moves in front of me or collapse into an unaidable heap of jello'd plasm.  Depression enforces a kind of terrifying emancipation from the ordinary. Melancholia keeps one -- keeps me -- squarely in the human family, whether I want to be there or not.  Even if I am at the end of my tether, I am still tethered.  Even if I move in a viscous funk, I still move.

And yet --   And yet --   As much as I dread it when it flows in, I miss it when it ebbs because when the grey tide buries everything, the writing -- assuming I can drag myself to the desk to get it started -- the writing becomes charged in a way that rarely happens when God is in his heaven and all's right (more or less) with the world. 

Charged.  With what?  First, a recalling, a refreshing.  When more buoyant and panglossian, I tend to think that my writing has purpose, thatI have purpose, that purpose, in fact, suffuses and drives all my efforts. In fact, that purpose drives the world, the universe, which the Tao governs all, and balance and harmony are there, right there, reachable with just the right breathing technique and empty mindfulness.

But the demons hacksaw me free of those philosophical blinders, and their rasp reminds me of what I have chosen to forget, have avoided remembering: we are mostly a torturing and silly species, fragile bags of meat in a constant state of decay, dumped into a space and time that, as far as I can tell, has no ultimate meaning and that regards us with indifference.  We may choose to build all sorts of cushions against the facts, and may even lead exemplary lives because of them.  But the demons remind me to give that self-deluding up.  Unlike Camus, who believes that Sisyphus feels a liberation as he walks down the mountain to begin his next up-push of the stone, I believe that the rough stone gouging out Sisyphus' shoulder and the utter uselessness of his struggle upward -- regardless of how he thinks about it -- is the truer case.

One might think there would be little inspiration in such a dry landscape, but when the melancholia strips away any comforts, I feel comforted by the bare I-am-not-being-lied-to minimalism of it all. I feel released from the demands to find balance in an existence that seems to find imbalance and mayhem much more to its liking.  I am dispossessed of all urges to make the senseless make sense, to be "up beat" and "affirmative" and "to make a joyful noise."  In the end, by being so scoured, I am in debt to nothing but my own need to find and pitch my voice, and the writing comes out sharper and less ingratiating, with more punk in it and less genuflection to ordinary success.

It is not easy to stay in this desert landscape for long -- even Christ found forty days the limit of his endurance, and the prophets wandered in the desert not by choice but command.  And the body has its own habits toward comfort -- it needs a buffer against too much knowledge of its own mortality.  (And, in full disclosure, I also have my sweet Maria Beatriz, whose patience is umbilical, feeding and breathing me while I float in amniotic dismay.)  So inevitably the fog lifts, the smile returns, and I find myself moving again through space and time making gestures that look like purpose and progress and that convince everybody, including myself, that I am a man with straight-forward eyes.

And the return from the desert does not ruin the writing at all, since the release fromin extremis is also a release into the energy and lightness that can come from moderation and humor.  Things that came out sand-smeared and savage can lose some discourtesy without losing grit. And things ride smoothly until the next visitation.

I find this melancholia as essential to my well-being as some people find prayer or others some personal food vice because in it I find an unharmonized balance that keeps me tied to the only feeling of truth and solidity that makes sense to me.  Some believe harmony/balance a sweet thing, and finding it something like finding a state of original grace (that Eastern Tao thing), but I cannot wholly buy that: the assertion feels too much to me like whistling past the graveyard, too static and conservative and defensive.  To me, harmony is that checkpoint on a dark pendulum rush where the border of the desert and the border of our compiled illusions grind tectonically against each other.  Too deep into the desert for too long, and despair boils everything away.  Too deep into the cultural dreamtime, and the mind becomes embalmed.  Harmony is that moment on the pendulum's arc when the desert's arson burns off the residue of anesthesia, and the normal offers the desert some respite against its own heat.  Great human things can come out of that moment, great acts of tenderness and incision, works of art filled with a savage grace, with both reprieve and sting. It can be a moment of rest, oasis, even that rare bird happiness.

But then the pendulum continues, one way or the other, not always continuous in its arc (its physics are not Newton's).  My melancholia is the counter-weight when the dreamtime becomes too thick, when its greeds and details and endless thug-like "shoulds" threaten me with "this is as real as it gets." Rip off the caul in the rush for the desert, feel the searing heat cauterize the ragged skin-edges -- and then wait for the pendulum's tug to carry me to the border once again, eager for the arrival, eager not too arrive too soon.

This pitch and yaw is harmony and balance to me, this toss and turn gives me the only usable sense of proportion I know. In the small shack that is that checkpoint on the border is a brief desk made of cheap wood, an indifferent chair, a ream of cream paper, a fascine of my favorite pens, and steady light through two windows.  I sit, the sere desert out one window, the blue glitter out of the other, pick up a pen. And wait.  This, for me, is as closed to blessed as I think I will ever come as a writer.  Pen suspended.  Page one.

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©2005 Michael Bettencourt
©2005 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Michael Bettencourt has had his plays produced in New York, Chicago, Boston, and Los Angeles, among others.
Continued thanks to his "prime mate" and wife, Maria-Beatriz
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