The Thinking Man's Curse


Every job has its risks. In Eastern Java men work on the crater of Mount Kawah Ijen mining sulphur for a living. They are surrounded by poisonous gases that eat away their lungs and lead to an early death. They carry baskets of sulphur up and down the slopes for $2 a day. The sulphur is sold to factories and used to process rubber and manufacture pesticides.

Writers, too, pay a price for plying their trade. Nothing as horrific as bleeding lungs or mercury poisoning, but sometimes just as final in its outcome. There’s a price to be paid for inventing, analysing and dissecting human beings and the society they inhabit.

A quick search of the internet reveals a list of 400 writers who have committed suicide. We can assume there are hundreds of others who did themselves in without being noticed by the wider literary community.

The list goes back as far as Seneca the Younger, Nero’s tutor, who (on Nero’s orders) committed suicide by severing his veins and submerging himself in a warm bath. Nero suspected him of plotting a coup he probably had nothing to do with. Overcome with grief, Seneca’s wife also cut her wrists but was bandaged up before dying. There follows a list of writers from every nation who over the years have hung, poisoned, overdosed or shot themselves.

It goes to show that a little bit of insight can be a dangerous thing. Somewhere in our evolution, it seems, the brain just got too big too quick and started coming to non-useful conclusions that (although probably true) were just too depressing to live with.

I’d like to know if there’s a connection between the process of deep thinking, melancholy, depression and in some cases, suicide. I’d like to know if melancholy is natural, discrete, or a transition stage on the way to depression. I’d like to know if depression itself is symptomatic of our age or whether it dates back to Neanderthals staring into a fire and wondering why they bother hunting. I’d like to know if suicide is something you’re born to face, in time, or whether it’s a form of learned behaviour.

Having spent a few years as a writer of literary fiction, columns, essays and short stories, the revelation that deep thinking might be bad for you is fully dawning on me. We all know that Virginia Woolf drowned herself in a creek, that Hemingway blew out the back of his head with a shotgun and that Charmian Clift overdosed. We know about Sylvia Plath and her oven, John Kennedy Toole, Hunter S Thompson and maybe even Yukio Mishima, a writer who committed ritual suicide in 1970. We guess that they either took things too seriously or that, in many cases, they suffered from depressive conditions such as bipolar disorder.

On 12 September this year the American essayist and novelist David Foster Wallace walked out to his back patio, strung up a length of rope, put it around his neck and ended a long battle with depression. He had been taking an antidepressant called Nardil. Having come off and back on to this medication over time he found that it was no longer helping. It seems that for Wallace there was no lightness of being, no hope and ultimately no point living

Wallace was a tortured soul, and there was nothing forced or put on about his "deep-thinking-writer" persona. When he was interviewed on television he always looked down, apologised for sounding stupid, was uncomfortable with the questions and (you got the feeling) surprised that anyone would want to hear anything he had to say.

Wallace wore a trademark bandana and he once said it was to stop his head exploding.

I wasn’t really surprised when I heard that Wallace had killed himself. Referring to people who do commit suicide he once said, "All these people have already killed themselves, where it really counts … when they ‘commit suicide’ they’re just being orderly."

It was almost as though he was saying that suicide is not so great a tragedy for some as others. For the family left behind, of course, it is devastating, but was Wallace arguing that for some it is a release? And was he saying that this is because depression comes well before a single word is written on a page, painted on a canvas or scribbled as a song lyric on the back of an old gas bill?

Is depression triggered and encouraged by the world we live in? Does it begin with melancholy or is melancholy a natural, positive, warm-hearted condition? I believe the best diagnostic tool for human melancholy is to quantify a person’s sense of irony. Ironic people are always melancholic, obvious people generally aren’t.

Melancholy is the ability to see sadness in things other people think are ordinary, funny, unremarkable. Zoos have this affect on me — animals out of context, being watched by people who don’t see this as a problem.

Melancholy has always been with us. In 1889 Adelaide’s Register newspaper reported on a vaudeville put on by an act known as the American Midgets: "General and Mrs Mite, the smallest people in the world, made their bows to an Adelaide audience in the Town Hall… Having been introduced they promenaded amongst the audience, shaking hands and conversing as they moved around." The General sang songs and recited Hamlet’s soliloquy and Mrs Mite joined him and they rode a Rudge convertible bicycle around the stage.

If I’d been in the Adelaide Town Hall on that night I would have been "melancholied" not only by the Midgets’ spectacle but by the applause and laughter (I suppose) that accompanied this "clever exhibition". You could argue that this is a modern perspective on an old problem, but I disagree. Sad is sad.

It’s a similar feeling to sitting watching mid-morning infomercials on commercial telly. The scripted host and his scripted guest. Fake smiles. In this case it was a handbag with a "hidden secret". This accessory, the presenter insisted, was about to start a fashion revolution. Not only did the bag have a special mobile phone holder ("isn’t it frustrating when you search your bag for a ringing phone?") and a lippy holder, but it came with special "changeable shells" that allowed you to have three bags instead of one, all for the amazing price of $99.90 + $12.95 postage and handling. Of course, there was a 30-day money back guarantee but the marketers had probably worked out that anyone lazy or stupid enough to ring wouldn’t have enough energy to repack the classic-black-crocodile/brick red/ leopard skin bag, take it to a post office and send it back.

Non-ironic types try to manufacture happiness. There are dozens of books available that will help cleanse you of your irony/melancholy. These are a how-to guide for attaching changeable shells to your personality. But there are no money back guarantees. These books argue that it’s bad to be sad, and especially to cultivate and encourage sadness. They are an Original Hits compilation (As Seen on TV) of emotional retrojunk. But they sell, and sell, and sell.

Take, for instance, Richard Carlson’s You Can Be Happy No Matter What! (The exclamation mark’s mine). Says Carlson, "Once understood these principles allow you to feel happy and contented regardless of your problems — really!" (The exclamation mark is his). Really!

Carlson promises 24/7 happiness, in the same way the K-Tel announcer Bob Washington spent his career promising amazing, life-changing items such as the Record Selector, Micro Roast and the Tote-a-Tune portable stereo. This view of the world makes me feel ultra-melancholic, almost depressed, but I have a valve that limits my exposure to John, Richard et al. Perhaps Wallace had a faulty BS valve, and perhaps this is what kept feeding the darkness in his head. Maybe this noise, this colour and whirr of images overloaded the free-flowing electricity crossing his synapses.

Recently my wife came home with a barbecued chicken with a "Reduced to $3.99" sticker on the bag. I found this depressing. To think that this six-week-old chicken with its throat freshly cut and its feathers freshly plucked could be sold off for the price of a bus ticket. She pulled the chicken apart. It was small and the meat fell easily off the bone, as if it had been engineered to help us eat it quicker and more efficiently. I wondered if the chicken ever felt melancholy as it tried to move in its cage or in the few centimetres it had to live out its six weeks. The small pieces of meat made me feel sad, and they didn’t taste like anything — just some pressed, dyed and coloured protein supplement. Hardly anyone thinks about chickens, and I’m a hypocrite for eating them, I suppose. But life is shit for chickens.

You have to have an irony/melancholy filter or else, like Wallace’s head, you might explode, constipated with indignation. This filter may account for our selective rage over certain issues. Why, for instance, does a politician’s taxpayer-funded junket annoy the hell out of us while we ignore the thousands of kids in the world who die every day from preventable disease? Why do many people respond to the present economic downturn by buying cheap real estate? Why not give more (or something) to charity?

The reason may be, as Darwin explained (and I paraphrase) that we’re just arseholes worried about our own survival, and now survival has come to mean plasma tellies, imported four-wheel drives and three-way handbags. If this is the case, things may be irretrievable for us humans. As the resources dwindle we buy, fight and rage. And there’s another reason writers kill themselves — it’s like Popeye discovering that Olive was just a cartoon character. So we accept our present reality. We watch A Time for Drunken Horses and feel sad that crippled orphans die early through lack of medicine, but like the $3.99 chicken, we realise that life is shit for Persian orphans.

Some of us wonder if there will be a more radical shift in human consciousness in the next 100 years, but I think not. According to Richard Carlson (and his millions of readers) even Persian orphans and starving African babies can be happy — no matter what! I have an acquaintance who’s not bothered by any of this since she knows God is returning soon to save selected members of the human race. She tells me how she speaks to Him about this and how nothing can make her sad anymore. I quickly work out that as an atheist I’m damned to rot in some hell of 24-hour infomercials as she gets to collect flowers. I’m itching to tell her what a complete bitch/idiot she is but my parents brought me up to be nice to everyone, regardless of their lack of irony.

Maybe we can do a few things to ease the pain. Unfortunately no one can write a user’s guide to irony as that itself would be too ironic. But we could encourage the study of ironic texts in our schools. All of the great suicidal writers could be studied. Imagine that, 12 years of The Bell Jar and For Whom the Bell Tolls. And we could encourage comparative irony. Students could read texts by Virginia Andrews and Kathy Lette and compare them to Dostoevesky and Kafka.

On average 5.4 Australians kill themselves every day. For every person who’s successful there are 10 other attempts. The Australian Bureau of Statistics recorded 2098 suicides in Australia in 2004 but there were probably many more not recorded as suicide. In a society that promises anything for anyone, this is an ironic statistic.

What might be done to stop or slow this loss of life? All of our antidepressant and antipsychotic drugs can’t stop the problem. But maybe without drugs and psychotherapy things would be a lot worse. I’m no expert, I can’t offer clinical solutions, all I can think is that we need to teach our kids balance between happy and sad, hopeful and realistic, real and imagined. We have to teach them that no one’s coming to save them from themselves.

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