Blues Out of Nowhere
Photograph by Pierre Dalous
by Henry Giardina
There is an oft-quoted line out of Candide that goes, “I have wanted to kill myself a hundred times, but somehow I have never fallen out of love with the world.” Or something to that effect. In that vague period of late spring and early summer, which in Massachusetts we optimistically call the thaw, I think about the peculiar feeling of falling out of love with the world when it is at its most beautiful.
Depression is perhaps the hardest thing to describe in words, precisely because it is so internal, so vague, and so different for each person that feels it, and incomprehensible for those who have never been inside of it. Maybe this is why we tend fall back on the metaphor of weather. It’s a helpful way to think of the atmosphere of the mind, the highly visual quality of a disease that seems to drain the world of color, dimension and perspective. The depressed mind is gray, rainy, overcast: we can see it. What this doesn’t help get across is the way it can turn a person to stone despite the actual weather, or the happy or unhappy events that befall them. And in late spring I find it’s worse, as if the earth is coming out of its own depression just in time for us to sink more deeply into our own. It’s been written about before, in standard variations of “April is the cruelest month”: “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” and Lorenz Hart’s “Spring is Here.” And most notably, for me, in the Lord Chandos Letter.
Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s short story is many things: a treatise, a work of fiction, an autobiography, an apology: an explanation that explains nothing. Lord Chandos is a 17th century aristocrat writing to his friend, the artist Francis Bacon, with whom, despite his overpowering love and friendship, he fallen out of touch. He takes up his pen after a long silence to explain why he can no longer write. But he must do this through writing.
Chandos is 26, and is aware of something having changed, vaguely and suddenly, in his approach to the world and all the things that once gave him pleasure. In early youth he had been a successful writer of fiction, and had lived “in a kind of continuous inebriation and saw all of existence as one great unity.” Now he feels everything slowly breaking apart, piece by piece, to the point of his having “lost the ability to think or speak coherently about anything at all.” When he tries to take in the sight of his own finger in a magnifying glass, he is distracted by the vastness of the scene that unfolds, the “furrows and hollows” of his small patch of skin that, enlarged, resembles stretch of open land. So it is with everything: he is at once too close up and too far away.
The Chandos letter is one of the only pieces of fiction I can think of that understands the impossibility of applying any sort of narrative framework to depression. For Chandos, as for so many affected, it defies causality. His brand of it is not the rainy day of metaphor. It is not defined by numbness or lack of feeling. For him, it is a sharpening of the senses, a horrible clarity as the beauty and synchronicity of the world reveals itself to him and still, somehow, means nothing. He gets distracted by the great lie of language, stopping short a conversation with his daughter because he realizes that he can’t teach her anything about truth or honesty if he can only employ the dishonest instrument of language to convey such principles. The natural world troubles him: he surveys his fellow countrymen with a mix of fascination and disdain, and the screaming plight of poisoned rats in his cellar brings about an unpleasant surge of empathy. It is as if his emotional hierarchy has been completely overthrown and replaced by a senseless but completely passionate system. He considers the peasants who:
As they stand by with their caps off in front of their doors when I ride by in the evening, none of them will have an inkling that my gaze, which they are accustomed to meeting with respect, is passing with silent longing over the rotten boards under which they hunt for earthworms to use for bait, and ducking through the narrow, barred window into the dismal room in whose corner a low bed with colorful sheets always seems to be waiting for someone to die or be born…
For Chandos it is no longer enough to be a spectator, though of course he is one. He reads Greek myths and longs “to enter into those naked, glistening bodies, those sirens and dryads, Narcissus and Proteus, Perseus and Actaeon, the same way a hunted deer longs to wade into the water. I wanted to disappear into them and speak out with their tongues.” It is not enough to appreciate beauty — he must become one with it. “I feel,” he says “a blissful and utterly eternal interplay in me and around me, and amid the to-and-fro there is nothing into which I cannot merge.” But this empathy has left him open to a kind of emotional plunder, and now he can’t return to a place of sanity.
Chandos finds an unlikely companion in the real letters of Crèvecœur, writing in the real 18th century in a similar vein. The French born Crèvecœur served as a lieutenant in the French and Indian war before settling with his family in Goshen to farm and to write, as an expat, about American life. The idyll came to an abrupt end when the Revolution came and his politics (British-leaning) forced him to return (alone, for some reason) to France for the interim. By the time he returned to the United States, his farm had been raided and torched, his wife had died and his children been taken in by a kind stranger. It seems unusually fitting that the Crèvecœur name, colloquially, stands for ‘broken heart,’ or the very different ‘bursting’ heart, depending on who is translating.
Despite having a life story that reads like the plot of The Searchers, he was quite a boring man, content with extremely little in the days before the revolution, when to sit and rest and watch the quails is enough. Early on in Letters From an American Farmer he describes having watched as swarms of bees were swallowed by a predatory bird. Crèvecœur’s sympathy is with the hunted: he kills the bird to release the 171 bees (54 of whom survived) back into the world to tell the other bees “of such an adventure and escape as I believe had never happened before to American bees!” It’s a strongly anti-Darwinian image, like Chandos with his rats. To Crevecoeur, the bees are somehow more important than the one bird that had to die to free them, and Chandos, too, is haunted by the randomness of emotional connection. He relays the story of the Roman orator Crassus and his absurd attachment to a lamprey eel, and how he was said to respond, when his grief over the death of his pet was mocked by a fellow politician, by pointing out that he grieves the eel more than another senator was able to grieve for his dead wife. It is the things which should have no power over us that end up making us go to pieces, and when we do go to pieces it is over something so trivial that to attempt to explain makes us utterly ridiculous. It’s part of the work of a disease that distorts our center of communication: it is also that to be able to describe and identify a problem is to be halfway out of the woods.
J. Hector St John de Crèvecoeur. From Lettres d’un cultivateur américain, 1784
This is part of the Chandos conceit: to write about depression you have to be experiencing a period of respite from it. It’s said that the composer Harold Arlen was like this — miserably depressed and down until he caught a bit of a break and inside of that small window wrote all of his songs — songs largely about depression and misery. The blues from out of nowhere. Wilfred Sheed, in his book about early American standards, calls manic depression “the occupational disease of songwriters,” and it doesn’t seem far wrong. In fact the most elegant phrase I’ve heard to describe the condition of being depressed comes from Oscar Levant, the 20th century pianist and composer who spent a good part of his life institutionalized for psychological ailments that contemporary medicine did not yet have the tools to understand. The problem, as he puts it, is not being able “to meet the world on the world’s terms.” Which are, what, exactly?
Like many Americans, I’ve always associated depression (wrongly) with privilege, and with a sort of vague European-ness. Perhaps because as Americans we spend a lot of time thinking about why people take their own lives, as if causes actually matter or even figure into it. We are, on the whole, a very depressed nation, unable to understand the nature of our disease. Chandos is to the manner born, an intellectual of noble origin. Crèvecœur is an emotional writer in a different tradition, a European trying to cast off his European-ness by engaging with the tactile, the life of the earth. And the earth, characteristically, is the thing to bring them back to it again. But the American understanding of the problem feels too focused on causes and cures. To us, it feels better to admit personal fault than to recognize that no matter what might have happened differently, no matter the weather was like, the song would remain the same. “There would still have been Crassus, crying over his eel.”
I don’t remember who it was that first pointed it out to me — a professor, a critic — that the Chandos Letter was, for all intents and purposes, a suicide note. Chandos tells Bacon that he suspects this is the last letter he will ever write him, despite the love for his friend that he will continue to carry in his heart “until death bursts it.” This event feels like it’s coming sooner rather than later. By the time he writes this letter, the disease has already spread — the world has become too brittle to hold him.
We don’t ever really know why people take their own lives, but we just as little know why people don’t. When talking about depression and suicidal feelings, usually the fact that someone is still alive to talk about it makes us take them less seriously. Perverse, but true. But talk might not be the most important thing when language itself so often fails us. When I think about the problem so many of us have with talking honestly about bad feelings, I think of an invisible network of people who have pulled back at the last moment, despite everything, and not for any real reason, but because of some insignificant detail at the last moment, completely divorced from ideas of God or reason or earthly ties. Because the weather changed, or because it didn’t: because someone was suddenly and randomly able to live in spite of pain.
Cover image by Jack Wolf
About the Author:
Henry Giardina is a writer living in London. His work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, New York Magazine, The Paris Review Daily, The Believer, and The Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications.