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Curiosity Killed The Cat? January 25, 2011

Posted by The Typist in The Narrative, Toulouse Street.

Why is the time line of modern literature line with the cold bodies of so many depressives who could not cope? Everyone needs an impetus to write and is depression one of those drivers? The quote below raises an interesting question: is there a point where depression expressed as excessive introspection flips into an insatiable curiosity, one that is informed by the writer’s own plumbing of his or her own motivations, mistakes, doubts, the question of where these come from and how these play out, that are in large part the stuff of narrative?

Consider this from an interview with David Lipsky of Rolling Stone discussing an interview with David Foster Wallace conducted in 1996 that has just now seen publication. Wallace was a chronic depressive who took his own life in 2008. There is a link on the Rolling Stone site but it’s currently broken.

There’s a very funny remark that Elizabeth Wurtzel made: she said that the flip side of depression is curiosity. I don’t know if she’s right, but I could see what she meant: I think depression is examination you can’t turn off: Once you start the examination you can’t stop it, and it kind of settles on you. But if you can somehow change the spigot you get incredible curiosity. Because if you’re examining things all the time, when you’re depressed, the hard thing is you’re examining yourself and your life and how many things can fail. The Nardil let him turn that outward. The one thing I think is reductive about that thought is I don’t think Wallace’s talent had anything to do with being medicated.

I would agree that talent is key, but whether that talent finds an outlet is the issue. I wonder how many depressives started out as quiet children obsessed with books and themselves. Wallace, the longer interview points out, was not. He was a tennis star and a popular kid. He was not apparently the classic melancholic. What interests me is Wurtzel’s take on it, the idea that there is a connection between the excessively introspective person and a curiosity that becomes a drive to write. I think somewhere in there is a third component, the need for the perhaps obsessively introspective person to try and organize their thoughts through writing or some other medium of art. This is what I think turns the spigot. Talent is simply a matter of how easily one masters the outlet, through native talent, obsessive persistence or both.

Excessive self-examination without the curiosity, now that’s probably a problem. I have tended both, combining a melancholic introspection with a curiosity about the world, one I filled as a child as much by taking radios apart as by reading constantly but the strongest inclination was toward myself, and toward the world as portrayed in books (itself a form of self-obsession, an opposition to going out and examining the world around you). Couple that with a fly away mind, one that latches onto some thought and cannot stop running with it and you have a volatile mix, one that’s gotten me into some sort of trouble ever since the first school teacher called me out for day-dreaming, or caught me with another book behind their text.

After decades of trying to suppress the natural working of my mind as unhealthy and unproductive, I started writing again in direct response to the events of Hurricane Katrina, an act which turned Wurtzel’s figurative spigot. By starting on a blog that suddenly got a lot of attention because of it’s subject, rocketing up the Technorati stats pole, I was forced very quickly to begin to discipline my thoughts, to lasso chaos and structure it, stringing sentences together that were compelling and sensible to an audience not familiar with the reality of the subject of Hurricane Katrina and the Federal Flood or who held romantic and foolish notions about New Orleans. I found it is possible to take that excessive self-examination and channel it, to redirect the the flow into a critical dissection of the world.

Over time my initial posture of journalist, a natural one having spent more than ten years in that business, turned into a more reflective if not introspective one. I ended up doing on Wet Bank Guide what I have done here, to spend my time like the protagonist of Walker Percy’s Lancelot mentioned in my last post, ruminating on the nature of New Orleans and its people and our own place in that scheme. I turned back inward to process the material I wrote about, in the classic nature of first person essayist. At the same time, that turn led me back into the dark corridors of excessive self-examination, down the paths tread by the likes of Sylvia Plath and John Berryman. I must confess I prefer the tragi-comic mask of vaudeville in which Berryman dressed up his own confessional monologues but in both their cases the destination is the same.

And lately things got might quiet around here for a bit, in case you hadn’t noticed.

I don’t want to buy into the whole tortured artist mythos. That way madness lies, quite literally. The question is, do you become like William Styron who went on to acclaim after publishing Darkness Visible, or do you end up like Wallace or John Berryman, swallowed by your disorder rather than embracing and managing it. I’m not suggesting you can write your way out of depression or any other ilness but at a certain level clinical disorder is — as Lipsky interprets Wurtzel in the quote that started all this — a different way of looking at the world. When it becomes pathological, the solution is to see someone about it just as you would about anything else not right with your body. At the margins, however, is is a place where compulsively taking the world and its people (and your own self) apart to figure out how each works (or rather, why it doesn’t) and putting it all back together in ways that make a new kind of sense is where art is born. Medication may only be necessary when you suddenly are so paralyzed that you can’t act, and for me the gauge of that is the inability to string sentences or stanzas together.

Then ask yourself: can you write yourself into depression? I wonder sometimes when I look back at some of my posts about the Counting House, or some others on the nature of art by such cheerful fellows at Charles Bukowski, Henry Miller and William Burroughs. “Nothing better fits a distracted and melancholic have-another-drink funk than Bukowski: pure despair for the savor of it, like a cheap cigar” I once wrote.

Consider the question posed by Maud Newton [sigh] on her blog this week: whether an artist should be feeling the emotions of her characters, especially if these characters are particularly unhappy.

I asked my friend Alex Chee in email this weekend, after reading a new story of his that powerfully evokes the kind of moony, depressive, sickeningly self-reflective state I’ve been in. “Because the end of this novel is completely kicking my ass. I hate what I’m learning about myself as I write it, but the dissociated part of me is fascinated that I’m learning so much about myself by writing something that is not literally about me at all.”

Moony, depressive, sickeningly self-reflective state. Yep. I’ve got all those checked off on this list right here.

Perhaps that is why I spend so much time here, because if there is one thing we learned from the experience of 2005 is that blogging writing is therapeutic. So many people started writing public journals of some sort after the storm and flood, not just topical comment and reporting but their visceral experiences. I got to know a good many of them and one thing I think they would agree with to the last man and woman: writing about what they were going through helped their sanity. (Revisiting what they wrote is another experience entirely, as we learned at the reading/launch of A Howling in the Wires. Lets just say it took some coaxing and a lot of alcohol to get everyone through that night. Don’t let it discourage you from the book, which is fascinating. Just imagine having to stand up and read some of those pieces from five years earlier in front of an audience.

I should end this on a happier note, perhaps a borrowed photo in which the cat haz her cheezburger and eats it, too, or a You Tube of crucifixion sing along from Life of Brian but that’s not why we’re here. We are here to open the spigot wide, to let all the steam go howling up the chimney pipe before the boiler goes. I was going to quote some of my favorite lines by Everette Maddox, the famously alcoholic poet laureate of New Orleans, but most people won’t find it uplifting. Instead, I think we’ll finish with this, the poem I send to people who need cheering up with its wonderful line “…ultimates and ultimates buoy him up.”

He will leave in the morning
by the ordinary door
and walk in the shrill gray streets
in the old soot and sunshine.
He has learned all he needed to know,
what he already knew, that he is happy.

Walking out the door with that poem ringing in your head instead of the other I did not quote: now that’s something worth fighting and writing for.



1. Marco - January 26, 2011

Say it, reverand, say it.


2. There Is No Point « Odd Bits of Life in New Orleans - July 19, 2011

[…] close to me. I was diagnosed with depression, but I often wonder about that diagnosis. I wrote on ToulouseStreet.net a while back about an article discussing depression in writers, David Foster Wallace in particular. […]


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