We’re So Alone. And Life Is Brief


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

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.



8 thoughts on “We’re So Alone. And Life Is Brief

  1. This was great.

    1. Thanks so much for reading this. I think that there is so much more to say about art and depression than the usual stories: art as a symptom of the artist’s depression; depression as a special portal to depth or inventiveness; misery loves company. All of these do everything wrong. These stories turn depression into some kind of shamanism, and they do the opposite and declaw potent art with the ideology of pathology, or the infantilism of therapy (have you ever seen the literature of Art Therapy–oh god, you’d rather be gelded by Nurse Ratched whatever your gender). I just want a whole new language for the way great great strong art embodies that condition of being on that razor’s edge of the real world of tables and subways and jobs and marriages and then darkening and souring and dooming the real all from inside. What art can let people like, er, me, stand upright and gravitated and know this?? What’s the art to Be in Being with?? I want to know who that is for other people. OK! I guess I’m done when perhaps you weren’t going this far to the Dark Side at all! 🙂 I am, though, hoping that someone got the image of my sad lonely little mushroom. (Allmans. . .mushrooms…ok now I’m really done…)

  2. Wow, thank you for this wonderfully written entry. I happen to be someone diagnosed with severe, chronic major depressive disorder & anxiety NOS (“not otherwise specified”) (I had to share that diagnosis with you, because I personally find that diagnosis way funny…when I asked the doctor what “anxiety NOS” meant, he said, “you have anxiety, but it’s so intertwined with your depression & we can’t entangle it to find out what *kind* of anxiety it is, so the NOS is our category for when we can’t categorize a disorder” which means, to me, “you have anxiety but f*** if we know what the f*** kind it is!” which is TOO funny).

    Anyway, I’ve read some stuff on art & mental illness, especially art & bipolar disorder (which seems to be very en vogue) and art & depression. And this you said in the comment ~ “I think that there is so much more to say about art and depression than the usual stories: art as a symptom of the artist’s depression; depression as a special portal to depth or inventiveness; misery loves company” ~ I couldn’t agree with more! I’m kind of still digesting what you wrote, so I don’t think I can say anything else, especially anything really intelligent or insightful.

    But I took your advice & googled “bob dylan autism”. Wow. Why do so many of us feel the need to diagnose artists? I think one reason is because we need to be able to do something with genius other than apply the term “genius” to it – to *explain* it in some way. Because when confronted with genius, we often feel inadequate or even envious. “Well, why did THAT jerk get all the talent & here I am, a nice person, with not a smidgeon of the talent God gave THAT guy!” To be able to point to the person & say, “Well, his genius comes from a mental illness!” is very convenient. It both “explains” it & it then puts us back on equal – or even superior – footing to the genius. Because we’ve just labeled “the genius” as “a defective”. So, I may not be a genius, but I’m not a defective either. There. Done. That’s what I think is (partially) behind that urge to diagnose artists.

    1. Thank you for writing this–I am sorry for your troubles. Depression is much about losing one’s own borders–you don’t know that you have a shape of your own and you seem too permeable to the outside–rather amoeba-like but amoebas seem quite bold and content in their protean and mobile blobbiness. And engaging with art isn’t a therapy for this no-self problem, instead it makes it real and felt and parsable for a few moments–like invisible ink seeping into view, the very condition of what’s me?+what’s other? seeps into view when you open your attention to art that does capture very strong feeling and sensation. It’s a kind of intimacy, not a kind of intoxication or escape. This isn’t a therapy, as I said, and it’s not a method, and it’s not science, and it’s not psychology, it’s just a way to think about something that’s provoked too much scientistic unethical philistine shite. Genius, defective–shite shite shite. Good luck to you.

  3. Anybody who’s not to some degree autistic and/or depressive these days, has not got their eye on the ball. Remember Dubya started out as a cheerleader in college, and kept on being one. To ever greater acclaim.

    Psychiatrists who prescribe Pharma-approved pills for what ails ya, those guys are the definition of what’s normal. And what’s not. As the very planet upon which we all stand and depend gets defiled, raped, injured before our very eyes, then yes — tears of rage and grief are entirely appropriate.

    The “dear daughter ‘neath the sun” is the promise of the USA, that it once had, the Enlightenment….. and the father is God himself, dreadfully disappointed.

    Aww this is just bullshit. Just one of many interpretations of this deeply painful song. It’s kinda universal.

    1. “Anybody who’s not to some degree autistic and/or depressive these days, has not got their eye on the ball.” I think you’re totally right, schuyler lake. I’m sure I wasn’t alone last week, anxiously watching the events unfold in the wake of the Boston marathon bombing, in having random crying jags & feeling utterly bereft & despairing at times. In fact, I *know* I wasn’t alone. Very well said. (BTW, I especially loved your point about Dubya being a cheerleader. I’d never thought of that before!)

      1. I have to disagree that depression or autism are a kind of moral activism, a righteous response to corruption or violence. Feeling “tears of rage, tears of grief” as a witness to suffering, destruction, and more suffering–that’s what can lead to reaching out, to feeling outwards and rather than inwards. Depression and autism are not healthy and meaningful conditions; they’re much more likely to result in inertia and pessimism. Gandhi’s lovely exhortation to “Be the change you want to see in the world,” is meaningless, just another reason to give up, to anyone suffering depression.

  4. I know it’s late to jump in to this discussion.
    Depression is a real chemical disorder, but I also think that the brain is a physical organism,
    and people can re-train themselves to be a happier person.
    A book written by the HH the Dali Lama called ‘The Art of happiness” was very helpful to a friend of mine who suffered from depression and anxiety, most often the two go together in varying degrees of influence. How indeed can a psychiatrist really get to the bottom of any of it.
    When they don’t include faith and disbelief as part of the problem. What ever you believe in, including in yourself as a useful and desirable entity, you need faith to hold it together.

    I suffer from acute optimism, and believe it or not, it can be just as dangerous.
    You can find yourself believing everything will be alright under the most un-acceptable circumstances and finally wake up one day and realise you were way wrong, and you sould have done something a long time ago. I do thinkit is easier than being unhappy by nature and not having a real answer for why.

    I will say that under the worst of emotional conditions, having lost my husband, Bob’s music was one of the only things that brought me back to that state of happiness and laughter that I’m most comfortable in. And for that I’m grateful.

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