Re: Wurtzel

“As for literature, studies indicate that an astonishing percentage, perhaps a vast majority, of serious writers are depressives. Researchers have speculated on the cause of that con-nection –– does depression put one in touch with important issues, of deterioration and loss? But no one has asked what it means for us as a culture or even as a species that our unacknowledged legislators suffer from mood disorders, or something like. If there is no inherent moral distinction between melancholy and sanguinity, then we will need to worry about the association between creativity and mood. What if there is a consistent bias in the intellectual assessment of the good life or the wise perspective on life, an inherent bias against sanguinity hidden (and apparent) in philosophy and art?

“An argument of this sort is worrisome –– more worrisome than the conundrum we began with. And yet can we in good faith ignore the question of who sets the values? I have been in effect proposing still another thought experiment: Imagine a medication that diminishes the extremes of emotional response to loss, imparting the resilience already enjoyed by those with an even, sunny disposition. What would be the central philosophical questions in a culture where the use of this medication is widespread?

“Aesthetic values do change in the light of changing views of health and illness. Elsewhere, I have asked why we are no longer charmed by suicidal melancholics –– Goethe’s Werther or Chateaubriand’s Rene or Chekov’s Ivanov. Because we see major depression and affectively driven personality disorders as medically pathologic, what once exemplified authenticity now looks like immaturity or illness –– as if the romantic writers had made a category error.

“A final thought experiment: Imagine that the association between melancholy and literary talent is based on a random commonality of cause: the genes for both cluster, say, side by side on a chromosome. And let us further imagine a culture in which melancholy, now clearly separate from creativity, is treated pharmacologically on a routine basis. In this culture, it is the melancholics manques who write, melancholics rendered sanguine –– so that the received notions of beauty and intimacy and nobility of character relate to bravado, decisiveness, and connections to social groups, not in the manner of false cheerleading, but au-thentically, from the creative well-springs of the optimistic.

“What would be the notion of authenticity under such conditions? Perhaps in such a culture “strong evaluation” would find psychic resilience superior to alienation. Even today, many a melancholic looks at Panurge or Tom Jones with admiration –– how marvelous to face the world with appetite! The notion of a sanguine culture horrifies those of us resonant with an aesthetics of melancholy, but morally, is such a culture inferior, assuming its art corresponds to the psychic reality? Is there a principled basis for linking melancholy to authenticity? Is there a moral hierarchy of temperaments?”

~ Peter D. Kramer, “The Valorization of Alienation and the Melancholic Temperament”


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