terrible the need for solitude:
That appetite for life so ravenous
A man's a beast prowling in his own house,
A beast with fangs, and out for his own blood
Until he finds the thing he almost was
When the pure fury first raged in his head
And trees came closer with a denser shade.
Mental meltdown is one way of describing the experience of depression. All the things in ordinary consciousness are still there, more or less. Facts, agendas, procedures, even some sense of priorities roil together, combined with a feeling of acute fatigue and an inability to make any of them come together in any meaningful way. In this state, I literally cannot remember how to handle a rake, for example, or turn a wrench. It is as if something comes between what I know and what I can do. What happens with me at least is that actions that have become second nature, like driving a car, can sometimes take over and just happen on their own, as it were. Sometimes I can even go to the grocery store and buy groceries, but following a list is out of the question.
At its worst, the state is immobilizing. Nothing works. Nothing ever will work. Nothing can happen. I will be paralyzed right here while the yard grows up, the house falls to pieces, the job undone, the bills unpaid, while they come and take the furniture, crowds come to jeer and ridicule, thrown into the street, beaten, spat on, unable even to die. Meltdown.
The agonizing state of depression is well enough known, although those who have not actually experienced it will probably never convince those of us who have that they really understand what happens, or doesn't happen. The question is, what does this state do for creative, artistic types. There is no question of a link between depression at creativity in the arts, the sciences, and politics. The link has been documented by researchers like Kay Redfield Jamison and H. J. Eysenck, but it has been known at least since the time of Dürer, one of whose prints depicts melancholy. What is it about depression that leads to creativity?
Kenneth Burke, the philosopher, talks about rhetorical analysis of a story into five aspects, his pentad: act, scene, agent, agency, purpose. These aspects clearly relate to the newswriter's questions, what, where (and when), who, how, and why, but Burke puts them to a more thorough analytical use. In an analysis of impressionist painting, for instance, agency comes to the fore in the new colors that were available to painters in the late nineteenth century, which helped to make the impressionist achievement possible. Agency here takes on some of the characteristics of agent, as does the scientific investigation of the physiology of seeing, which knowledge also contributed to the impressionist approach to painting.
However, Burke points out, "since no two things or acts or situations are exactly alike, you cannot apply the same term to both of them without thereby introducing a certain margin of ambiguity . . ." He goes on metaphorically:
Distinctions, we might say, arise out of a great central moltenness, where all is merged. They have been thrown from a liquid center to the surface, where they have congealed. Let one of these crusted distinctions return to its source, and in this alchemic center it may be remade, again becoming molten liquid, and may enter into new combinations, whereat it may be again thrown forth as a new crust, a different distinction. So that A may become non-A. But not merely a leap from one state to the other. Rather, we must take A back into the ground of its existence, the logical substance that is its causal ancestor, and so on to a state where it is consubstantial with non-A; then we may return, this time emerging with non-A instead.
This statement in a rhetorical framework echoes the phenomenological reduction, which attempts to take the objects of consciousness back to a kind of ground of being, and it echoes a great deal of other Western philosophy. But it also echoes research by H. J. Eysenck, metioned above. Eysenck suggests that what characterizes the cognitive style of psychotics, high-P scorers (a scale created by Eysenck), creative people, and geniuses is what he calls "overinclusiveness." These people do not make cognitive distinctions running through the same grooves (so to speak) that others do. Their categories of perception are loosened, and so they can combine objects in ways that are not ordinarily done. This is rather like returning perceptions at least part way to the kind of molten state that Burke describes in his metaphor. It can also be an approach to defining creativity: putting things together in a way that has not been done before.
"Mental meltdown" is clearly another metaphor, as are all descriptions of psychological states, but it reflects a state of being, a promiscuous mixing of objects (in the phenomenological sense) that seems to me an accurate reflection of what happens. At least sometimes. At least to me.
But at other times, or maybe in some interpenetration of the depressed state, thoughts, ideas, memories suddenly begin to merge, to recombine in new and startling ways. In fortunate circumstances, I am able enough to go to the word processor, or at least get some paper and make some notes, and write these recombinations down, as I am doing now.
Is this the relationship between depression and creativity? Does depression involve a return to some molten state, some ground of being, where normal distinctions do not hold? And is that molten state a necessary precursor to the recombination that we might call creativity? And is access to that state a blessing? Or is it a curse?
Eysenck, H. J. Genius: The Natural History of Creativity. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1995.