Feeling low and bleak in this winter that’s been keeping cold and dark into March, I went to an Allman Brothers concert. Gregg Allman (only his friends call him Gregory), a man not at all young, close to frail, powered by the liver of a stranger who is certain to be still mourned, rang out a fine Tears of Rage on March 5. He matched word after word of this long and unsimple song with more heart and breath than robuster bodies could have summoned–he filled the old Beacon with the very sound of keepin’ on keepin’ on.
Tears of rage is already a state of being that demands heart and breath that have little to do with a body’s strength. Tears of rage demand a set-to with something in the world worth the rage to shake tears out of you. Withdrawal, bleakness, retreat–you can’t know tears of rage from down in those ditches. And remember that Tears of Rage is simply about saying I know, and meaning it, to the suffering caused by falseness and cruelties and errors.
Bleakness and falseness. Have you come across this book helpfully diagnosing Bob Dylan as a depressive? Have you ever seen what happens when you Google *Bob Dylan Autism*? The result is the search engine equivalent of overturning a log in the forest and disturbing a nest of centipedes.
Pros or amateurs diagnosing in public any man who hasn’t called their receptionist for an appointment are just etiquette problems. But if Dr X or just-plain-Joe try to take their blunt tweezers to the old chestnut *Mental Illness and Art* then we have philistinism, which for me outplays rudeness.
Above is Van Gogh’s first portrait of a Dr Gachet. The white-scored blue world that can only carelessly be called a background because it is actually above, behind, and within Dr Gachet, is why I like this version best: it is one of Van Gogh’s places where gravity fails and negativity don’t pull you through. You stop for this painting because you see not that the quiet and dignified pain in this man’s eyes exceeds his body’s strength but that this body has very long been unable to scaffold this sadness, as strong as his hands seem to be, this is what they do–they hold on. And you see that the flower seems to lean along with the man in some kind of organic sympathy, it may actually, while its own vigor has to be ebbing away in that glass, be desperately reaching towards those golden books mistaking them for the sun. And you see that the blue around Dr Gachet is waves or skies or planks, the blue can be inside or outdoors, it can be layers of heaven growing lighter as they rise or just an old wall behind the cafe table; and you see that the scoring on the blue seeps from the scoring on Dr Gachet’s jacket–the world above and behind and of him is the same sorry stuff all atomic and restless. And you see also a world that’s concrete, jubilant, and promising in the cheery green and red tablecloth and those glowing buttery books whose facts or philosophies or verses seem not just inviting but edible. They are what this cafe is serving up! And there’s really nothing here but Dr Gachet’s eyes whose sadness beats out of the canvas like a color of its own; and the sadness is Dr Gachet’s blindness to this entire world he’s holding on to without seeing. Van Gogh gives equal weight to the yellow and blue and red and purple real outer world of upright tables and walls, and to the power of the inner world to obliterate and derange the concrete and the upright stuff and the whole spectrum as well.
Van Gogh’s vision can do both, without canceling itself, and without redeeming. He finds the way to give equal weight to the real out here and the disordered in here, without insisting that you choose. And the punch line, if you don’t know it, is even better than you could have expected: this Dr Gachet was Van Gogh’s own physician who gave the painter digitalis for his epilepsy, which proved not a remedy. The artist examines and tends to the doctor who could not cure him. We carried you in our arms on Independence Day.
Insanity smashing against my soul, Bob Dylan the Singer sings in a song that’s such a requiem for the spirit that I wasn’t surprised to learn I was not the only person to go cold all over when hearing that Bob Dylan the Person had bought a tract of land in the Scottish Highlands: the Romantic Gloommeister, the fearful fatalist in me imagined this real estate investment was A Sign of the Final Retirement.
What’s not a clinical symptom in Highlands? Pessimism. Self-loathing. Inertia. Isolation. Loss of libido and appetite. Moral indifference. Purposeleness. Humorlessness. Vain fantasies of escaping an unendurable present. Inability to experience pleasure. Highlands the song is an ordered and vivid and vital and droll thing that describes a bitter and dark and life-denying vision. Bob Dylan’s care in singing it should not be able to exist in the heart of the narrator he created.
So be very careful when talking about depression–anyone’s–and art. Dr Gachet and Highlands are precious and abiding things in the world that deliver pretty indelible experiences of the uniquely human ability to feel the world darkly and worthlessly. To take these things as either symptoms, or as redemption is both all wrong. All they can do is give you a place to stand and for a moment feel that the disordered, dark, and worthless in here is somehow made of the same stuff as the precious and abiding out here. Hold that mystery. . .just one more moment…then as you were.