The Crack-Up

The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression

by Andrew Solomon
Scribner, 571 pp., $28.00

Where the Roots Reach for Water: A Personal and Natural History of Melancholia

by Jeffery Smith
North Point Press, 292 pp., $13.00 (paper)

Andrew Solomon
Andrew Solomon; drawing by David Levine

Our times have been called, among other things, the Age of Depression: incidence seems constantly to rise, laboratories to bring out more and more new medicines. But in Where the Roots Reach for Water Jeffery Smith argues that it is more an Age of Anti-Depression. The old illness of melancholia, as Jennifer Radden’s collection of readings, The Nature of Melancholy, shows, could formerly be taken seriously for its religious or moral meanings. But with religion went some of the legitimation of private grief; instead, what William James (with some skepticism) called “the religion of healthy-mindedness”1 has made headway for at least a century, from Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science to New Age fads. (What William could have made of them!) In the cold fluorescent light of the modern workplace, melancholia is unproductive, subversive, anti-capitalist even. “Cheer up, it may never happen!” is the jocular shout common here in Britain, one directed at me more often than I care to remember. In radio programs of popular classics, Smith notes, movements in a minor key even tend to be deleted (can this really be so?). “In spite of all available evidence,” he goes on, “modern-day Americans keep trying to convince ourselves that happiness is the natural state of our species. Our kind was meant to conquer and work and laugh and spend, we believe; not to sit about head in hand.” The stigma of depression is as bad as it ever was.

It is a real breakthrough, then, to have two such outstanding books as Smith’s and as Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon coming out at around the same time. Both are wonderfully well written, in quite different ways. Both, as well as recounting their own experiences of depression, look at history, causes, treatments, and social attitudes. The Noonday Demon, as its subtitle says, is something of an atlas, wide-ranging and comprehensive. Solomon has read hugely, but because he has the gift of the gab (novelist, New Yorker contributor) he is seldom boring, wherever you choose to open a page. He says that he didn’t write the book as therapy for himself, found it in fact a painful task, but wanted to spread knowledge; so he is owed thanks. He has gone the extra mile, too. Though from a comfortable metropolitan background himself, he has talked to Inuit people in Greenland and to trauma survivors in Cambodia, as well as to horrifically deprived depressed patients in poor regions of the United States. (When he first submitted material on these latter people to an editor, he was told to lighten up—nobody would believe the stuff.) He says he really minds that, without any real understanding or treatment, the “terrible, wasteful, lonely suffering” in these dark corners will go on and on. Those who don’t live on the margins of society, who can read a newspaper and more or less pay their bills, don’t of…

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