Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom: the depressive personality

Do you occasionally feel unaccountably ill at ease? I know I do. I usually chalk it up to the latest bad news or a low pressure system moving in with days of sunless weather. (I won’t discount the effects of the last election, but that’s not unaccountably.) Sometimes I wonder if it’s something more fundamental, but I hope it’s not in my genes.

I’ve been unaccountably content lately. Which feels good, of course, but, since I’m not certain why, I hesitate to trust it. I’m one of those who often has to work hard to see the glass half full. If it comes easily I wonder when the other shoe will drop.

I’m reading Freedom, the bestselling novel so celebrated that the author, Jonathan Franzen, made the cover of Time magazine recently and reviews bandy phrases like “great American novel” and such. I’m about a third of the way through and although the story is engrossing, my internal jury is still out; I’m not yet convinced it lives up to the hype.

But last night I came across the following passage, which struck a chord and, well, I’m hoping it doesn’t describe my personality too much! One of the main characters in the book is Richard Katz, a middle-aged musician who has been, up until this point in the story, blithely if not blissfully unsuccessful.

“Katz had read extensively in popular sociobiology, and his understanding of the depressive personality type and its seemingly perverse persistence in the human gene pool was that depression was a successful adaptation to ceaseless pain and hardship. Pessimism, feelings of worthlessness and lack of entitlement, inability to derive satisfaction from pleasure, a tormenting awareness of the world’s general crappiness: for Katz’s Jewish paternal forebears, who’d been driven from shtetl to shtetl by implacable anti-Semites, as for the old Angles and Saxons on his mother’s side, who’d labored to grow rye and barley in the poor soils and short summer of northern Europe, feeling bad all the time and expecting the worst had been natural ways of equilibriating [sic] themselves with the lousiness of their circumstances. Few things gratified depressives, after all, more than really bad news. This obviously wasn’t’ an optimal way to live, but it had its evolutionary advantages. Depressives in grim situations, handed down their genes, however despairingly, while the self-improvers converted to Christianity or moved away to sunnier locales. Grim situations were Katz’s niche the way murky water was a carp’s.”

Art imitates life – I just don’t want it to imitate my life. No, it’s not me – at least not today!

(Now, how did I get old Jim Croce’s “Workin’ at the Carwash Blues” stuck in my head?)

1 comment:

  1. I used to be very depressed and then I discovered drugs. The difference is remarkable. Depression is about more than what we focus on.