The Book Club

Martyrdom in Humanity’s Ongoing Emotional Jihad

Dear Jim,

Maybe the things that puzzled you about Solomon’s research were the same things that puzzled me. For one, the big reporting trips to Senegal, Greenland, and Cambodia don’t add much. I wrote a couple days ago that Solomon had only one agenda: to attack those who don’t think of depression as a real disease. But what gets his goat even more than those who dismiss depression is those who see it as another name for the self-indulgence of a bored leisure class. If the victims of the Khmer Rouge have it, he seems to be saying, it’s not that.

In this sense, the reporting trips don’t support–and even undermine–his point. The African visit describes a folkloric cure–interesting enough but inessential, hardly worth the schlep on journalistic terms. On the other two visits, Solomon describes populations whose “depression” is so hard to disentangle from other factors–in Greenland, isolation and the sun’s disappearance for months on end; in Cambodia, a calamity of violence to which only a handful of episodes in history bear comparison–that it’s not clear that whatever these people suffer from is the same disease Solomon has. If it is, then “disease” is the wrong word for it.

The weak link in this book is Solomon’s interviewing. One is constantly reading passages and saying: People don’t talk like this. A woman whose religion helps her keep depression at bay says, “The liturgy is like the wooden slats of a box; the texts of the Bible and especially of the Psalter are considered to be an extremely good box for holding experience. Going to church is a set of attentional practices that move you forward spiritually.” Other passages are even more marked by technical terms used with inhuman precision and dependent clauses dropped into matter-of-fact statements with inhuman tidiness.

I find myself surprised that Solomon is a novelist. As I mentioned on Tuesday, he has an excellent, interesting mind (or brain … although it seems to matter less and less the more I read), but it’s not a literary mind. The poetry he’s chosen to include here adds little, either because it’s bad (whether it comes from Jane Kenyon or his schizo-affective friend Angel Starkey) or because it’s overly familiar (“Dover Beach”) and simply shoehorned in. Virginia Woolf may have her place in a book on depression, but I distrust Solomon’s claim to “love” her writing–a follow-the-leader enthusiasm that probably no one unaffectedly has.

Still, The Noonday Demon is not an anthology but an exposition, and as an exposition, it’s rewarding. I had a hard time following Solomon’s argument about the uses of grief until I recalled E.O. Wilson’s old evolutionist speculation on why all societies have homosexuality. As I recall, it was that there were a lot of jobs for which the chief in a hunter-gatherer tribe would need a manly man who could be trusted not to sleep with the chief’s wife. In this light, the depressive–who teaches his fellow men to value one another through the depths to which loss drives him–is not just a recurring type but an important figure. One begins to see the source of the sneaking pride in being a depressive that you and I detected in Solomon. There’s something to be said for martyrdom in humanity’s ongoing emotional jihad.