Dear Édouard: I’m dreaming of depression
by Brett Derouin
Édouard Levé killed himself on October 15, 2007. I was fourteen years old and had never heard of him. Ten days before, he’d given Suicide, his last book, to his publisher. I’d discover him seven years later. Levé’s work as a writer and photographer probed the inherent artificiality of art. Barefaced as his final work’s content and title was in conjunction with his suicide, another work of his, Autoportrait, is as compelling in its conceptuality.
Autoportrait is published by Dalkey Archive, a press from Illinois specializing in experimental literature that is most often in translation from Western European languages. To lose the title in translation would’ve been a shame, and so we can be thankful to the publishers once more. A portrait of the self, done by oneself. The thin book’s monochrome cover is a pointillist self-portrait of Levé. Small white pocks over a matte black rectangle, like a dark mirror obfuscating the light into its most concentrated details. It’s not an autobiography – at least as far as that genre’s conventions are concerned – the novel is one unbroken paragraph of personal details that range from the mundane, like: “when it comes to food, I prefer the savoury to the sweet, the raw to the cooked, the hard to the soft, the cold to the hot, the aromatic to the odourless;” and develop within a strange anti-syntax into details like how “a woman came to meet me in a distant country after a month and a half apart, I hadn’t missed her, within seconds I realized I didn’t love her anymore.” The declarative sentences are arranged in non-sequiturs often as potent as the two former quotations. Here’s a banal hypothesis: Édouard Levé was depressed. And a similarly banal divulgence: I am depressed.
I was once comfortable with almost every part of my body, except for my stomach. The space made by a pillow between my legs when I am in bed is necessary for me to go to sleep. When I was a young child I begged my parents for an older sibling, when I grew a little older I became silently angry with them for the absence of one, and then as a teen I came to terms with the desire’s impossibility and imagined certain others as my older siblings. I’ve never liked wine but often prefer it to beer because it doesn’t bloat me as much. But I like to be bloated when alone. When I was six, my dog chased a small sparrow out of the backyard into the front where I was playing. It landed next to me in shock and I killed it with the plastic tomahawk in my hand. I’ve never gotten over this. Inside, I compare myself to everyone else unabashedly. The sound of breath is unbearable to me. Both my own, and anyone else’s.
Levé’s prose reads like an impossibly disciplined attempt at self-actualization. Depression is in one sense an inability to self-actualize. From an unfamiliar vantage, the book could be imagined as a desperate attempt to piece together a self. However the way that sentences fasten together in this novel creates a unique phenomenology that escapes all notions of desperation. It is a collection of details we don’t normally tell one another. In this way, the book is a successful stratagem against depression. It is a dream that the reader can move through to displace or project their own attempts at this praxis onto. Autoportrait, despite the novelist’s eventual suicide, which I was aware of before I read the book, in all sincerity delivers me from the gloaming of depression. The book is not a bible, it is not a singular artifact. What it did for me is show me how the literature of depression can in fact help me in the struggle. For this, the book is a friend. It is an entity that for me exists as more than a book. Along with pills, counselling, and the endless attempt to create healthy habits, books are the medicine that holds most steady and reacts most adeptly to the changes in my environment and within the immeasurable chemistry of my brain.
In The Noonday Demon, Andrew Solomon – who is otherwise, and thankfully so, sparse with statistics – quotes that around three percent of Americans are depressed. Now that mental health is a topic ostensibly forced into the public coliseum of discourse, it’s hard to imagine who isn’t depressed. Its definitions are inexhaustible, and the diversity of its symptoms defy attempts to quantify and place across a hierarchy of seriousness. What constitutes depressed-enough to need intervention?
Solomon’s book deals with the sheer prevalence of depression cross-culturally and works hard to dispel the myth that it is the product of bourgeois ennui. In some sense, this is ironic since he himself comes from an extremely privileged background. Solomon grew up with the opportunities of ivy league education, and probably lives within the kind of economic safety net that characterizes the bourgeois sphere that he argues depression is not isolated to. His father is the chairman of Forest Laboratories, a pharmaceutical company that developed the SSRI antidepressant Citalopram, which I have been on for three years. He has spoken about depression for at least two Ted Talks, the pseudo-intellectual institution of our generation. In these talks, he eschews any colloquialism and presents himself with a formality too committed to be ironic. This style transfers into his prose also. Solomon is not in any way a bigot arguing for the authenticity of his own cultural experience, what he’s done in the writing of The Noonday Demon and the awareness of depression that he’s advanced around the world is impressive and highly necessary. It is however important to note the place from which he’s been able to discuss these issues. An accomplished novelist and journalist with languid prose, where I imagine depression as a descending twilight, he comments upon the pervasive definition of the illness as an abyss that one harries against the precipice of:
I think depression is not usually going over the edge itself (which soon makes you die), but drawing too close to the edge, getting to that moment of fear where you have gone so far, when dizziness has deprived you so entirely of your capacity for balance.
Levé too, comments on the metaphorical heights of despair: “If I lean off a balcony with the desire to kill myself, vertigo saves me.” Within the grips of depression, which I still struggle to define, there are natural feelings within us that defend our existence. If instinctual powers spring forward to save us, where then is the logic that explains the mere existence of depression? Often it feels like it comes from the same place, somewhere below the sternum and always pressing, or even in the back of the head curdling our thoughts and letting through only those that seek to negate us. Solomon posits that “all the strong emotions stand together, and every one of them is contingent on what we commonly think of as its opposite.”
Not everyone that experiences depression attempts suicide, but most people that are depressed experience thoughts that, if properly stimulated by the right environment or experience, have the ability to become catalysts for suicidal thoughts. My suicide attempt erupted after nearly a year of varying emotional factors, violently intersecting and coagulating into a concentrated burst. But before this, my daily mental stream was often a constant flow of self-deprecating jokes about what happened around me. ‘I woke up late again, I may as well stay here in bed until I die of dehydration. I forgot to respond to a friend, we’re all going to die anyways.’ Often these statements made it out to my friends when I wasn’t alone, and they laughed with me, and I honestly felt better, but the attitude always carried forward into solitude where it lists into the unconscious and festers. This offhand treatment of thoughts makes its way into Levé’s Autoportrait forebodingly:
My father gave me a .22 rifle when I turned thirteen, which scared the rest of the family. I loved the shape of my rifle, but I was sorry it could only shoot one at a time, and I imagined that if our house was attacked I would have to think up a way to make the assailants think it was an automatic. Actually, my rifle only fired lead shot, not cartridges, which made it less injurious to human beings, including potential assassins. Although I don’t hunt, my father gave me my grandfather’s shotgun, I have sometimes considered using it to kill myself.
This passage is an example of the translator – who is the editor of The Paris Review – Lorin Stein’s exceptional work at retaining the rhythmic and simple style of Levé’s tone which arrives at such wrenching humour. The prospect of suicide is the punchline to a cute anecdote of objects moved through families. And like the potential genetic qualities of depression, the instrument of killing is passed down generation to generation. This is about as long a segment of related sentences gets in Autoportrait. The prodding of memory will not withstand the discipline of Levé’s self-actualization. What’s most interesting about this book – and present in the former quotation as well as the previous one concerning Levé’s feelings towards balconies – is the intensity with which the author individuates these details. He may mention his father, his grandfather, past lovers, former friends, but none of them will become more relative to the final statement he makes in each declarative statement than he himself is. Ultimately, each and every detail is singularly about himself.
A divergence. I am not yet able to isolate my thoughts from my suicide into an insulated ideal like you have. In this is a difference between you and me which I’m not yet sure is positive. I cannot casually mention that I once thought of using my grandfather’s shotgun to kill myself and not think about all the people that would stop me from doing it. I look forward to graduating from the sense that it was not I that stopped myself from ending it all, but those around me, because it needs to be me that says yes to existing, because I can no longer be sick of myself to that point of illness. When I elaborately planned to inhale nitrous oxide until I passed out, with a plastic bag fastened around my head so that my body’s natural reaction to breath would be obstructed, I stopped because my best friend lived in the bedroom next to mine, and my partner was waiting for me to call her, and my parents were planning to visit in a few weeks. What stopped you when you looked at the thick silent barrel of your grandfather’s shotgun? Was there anybody nearby? What did you read?
One of the most latent feelings about depression is the sense of being sick of oneself. As if the cartesian dualism were borne of depression, a divide occurs within the self and we become tired of being around oneself when we are depressed. We overanalyze everything we say to the point that we’d rather say nothing, we brutally critique the way we look until mirrors become oblique because we’re past the point of avoiding them and instead become masterful at looking past our own faces.
But like the dark mirror of Autoportrait’s cover, there are points of light within us that can be seen through those we care about, and inside the books we read and the art we experience. The literature of depression spans every genre and should be pushed towards bounds as seemingly ejected from sentimentalism as Edouard Levé’s work because it characterizes the experience of depression like no other form of discourse. Although Andrew Solomon’s work is indisputably important to the conversations of mental health in an increasingly globalized world, it is sometimes art as formalistically oblique as Levé’s that discusses the subject most effectively.
Brett Derouin is a writer in Calgary, Canada. He’s a founder of Nudity House.