Sunday, July 25, 2010


[image: Odysseus as a beggar in Ithaca]   

           . . .  and so the swineherd
Led his master, looking like
An old, broken-down beggar, leaning
On a staff and dressed in miserable rags.
. . .

           While [Odysseus] spoke
an old hound, lying near, pricked up his ears
and lifted up his muzzle. This was Argos,
trained as a puppy by Odysseus,
but never taken on a hunt before
his master sailed for Troy. The young men, afterward,
hunted wild goats with him, and hare, and deer,
but he had grown old in his master’s absence.
Treated as rubbish now, he lay at last
upon a mass of dung before the gates –
manure of mules and cows, piled there until
fieldhands could spread it on the king’s estate.
Abandoned there, and half destroyed with flies,
old Argos lay.

But when he knew he heard
Odysseus’ voice nearby, he did his best
to wag his tail, nose down, with flattened ears,
having no strength to move nearer his master.
And man looked away,
wiping a salt tear from his cheek: but he
hid this from Eumaios, and said to him,

“Eumaios, this is amazing, this dog that lies on the dunghill.
The shape of him is splendid, yet I cannot be certain
whether he had the running speed to go with this beauty.”

[Eumaios speaks, describing Argos]

“If this old hound could show
the form he had when Lord Odysseus left him,
going to Troy, you’d see him swift and strong.
He never shrank from any savage thing
he’d brought to bay in the deep woods; on the scent
no other dog kept up with him. Now misery
has him in leash. His owner died abroad,
and here the women slaves will take no care of him.
You know how servants are: without a master
they have no will to labor, or excel.
For Zeus who views the wide world takes away
half the manhood of a man, that day
he goes into captivity and slavery.”

Eumaios crossed the court and went straight forward
into the [Great Hall] among the suitors;
but death and darkness in that instant closed
the eyes of Argos, who had seen his master,
Odysseus, after twenty years.

~ Homer, The Odyssey, Book 17, translated by Robert Fitzgerald; except for the first four lines here, translated by Stanley Lombardo, and the three lines spoken by Odysseus to Eumaios, translated by Richmond Lattimore.


In her sequence, “Re-reading the Odyssey in Middle Age,” (The Imperfect Paradise), Linda Pastan has a poem in the persona of Argos.


Shaggy and incontinent,
I have become the very legend
of fidelity. I am
more famous than the dog star
or those hounds of Charon’s
who nip at a man’s ankles
on is way to the underworld.
Even Penelope wanted
proof, and Eurykleia
had to see a scar.
But I knew what I knew –
what else are noses for?
Men are such needy creatures,
Zeus himself comes to them
as an animal. I’ll take
my place gladly
among the bones and fleas
of this fragrant dung heap
and doze my doggy way
through history.

            ~ Linda Pastan


This is perhaps the least successful poem in the whole sequence, and no, it’s not fair to present this weak poem after quoting a moving passage in The Odyssey – but I am glad Pastan reminds the readers of this touching scene of recognition, the first one in the Odyssey.

For the Western reader, the dung heap calls to mind Job, in his poverty and sickness, sitting on a dunghill, scratching his boils with a broken potsherd. It is also interesting to ponder the parallel between Odysseus, returning to his palace in a beggar’s rags, and the wretched circumstances of his old dog, once the best hunter. Argos on the dung heap is almost a symbol of Odysseus, who gets rough treatment as a beggar, except from the swineherd Eumaios, who believes strangers and beggars come from the gods.

We know that Odysseus is not a beggar; the rags are only a temporary disguise. Later, the “divine Odysseus,” the “godlike survivor,” will be restored to his glory. And Argos too is momentarily restored to his former glory, in the account of Eumaios.

Note that the recognition is mutual; Odysseus tears up at the sight of the dying Argos, who wags his tails and flattens his ears, trying to greet him, but has no strength to approach him.

John Guzlowski commented about Pastan’s “Argos”: “It feels like a betrayal of the original poem, something that is good and true.”

Since the sequence is titled "Re-reading the Odyssey in Middle Age," we must assume that Pastan had Homer's version still vivid in her memory. The dog's thinking, Oh, I'm so famous, I'm the most famous dog in history, feels utterly false. Anyone who has ever experienced the warmth of a dog's affection when the animal greets you knows a simple, all-forgiving love that's beyond human capacity, except for saints and little children.

And this is in fact a heart-rending scene, both Odysseus and the dog "in rags." It reminds me of another touching scene, when the blinded Cyclops speaks to his favorite ram. Is it the affection and empathy that can exist between humans and animals? Is it the richness of detail? Both scenes have a soulfulness that resists intellectual theorizing; in a mysterious way, they let me know that the poet has known the depths of suffering. 

I hasten to say that Linda Pastan has written many excellent poems, including "Circe" in the Odyssey sequence. And, to reiterate, I am grateful even for "Argos," because it made me re-read Homer.

As for the death of Argos, I can’t help thinking of yet another biblical parallel: the “nunc dimittis” scene of old Simeon being able to die now that he has seen the promised savior (Luke 2: 29-32).

The name Argos means “bright” or “shining.” How simple great poetry can be! The wagging of that tail, the flattening of those ears – immortal now, shining. 


As an aside, I want to draw the reader’s attention to this passage in Homer:

You know how servants are: without a master
they have no will to labor, or excel.
For Zeus who views the wide world takes away
half the manhood of a man, that day
he goes into captivity and slavery.


The ancient Greeks highly admired areté, or excellence (sometimes translated as “virtue” or “manhood”). The word is related to aristos, “best” – the root of “aristocrat.” It seems obvious that a slave would not be motivated to excel, since he labors under duress, for the benefit of someone else. I found the passage very striking because it always puzzled me why some people had the will to excel, while others, generally the majority, did not. I observed this not only as a teacher, but also at any job I ever held, or, in the realm of leisure, in any exercise class I ever took. There were those who worked hard and aspired to excellence, and those who tried to get away with doing the least.

What Homer illuminated for me is how freedom enters into this “will to excel” or its absence. Slaves have no will to excel; they will not work a minute more than required; they try to minimize effort, and no one can blame them. But why do so many people behave as though they were slaves? They do not see themselves as free agents. Striving for excellence presupposes freedom. I feel the most free when I work the hardest – given that no one is forcing me to work with dedication, to “walk the extra mile.” There is a pleasure in doing something at the level of excellence. But perhaps the underlying and more basic pleasure is in knowing yourself to be free. 

                                [ Arete in Ephesus: Arete personified as a goddess ] 

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Grant Wood, 1930

This famous painting has become an icon of the Puritan strain in America. The poems below hardly need any commentary. Both of them are essentially humorous; both point out the echoes contained in the painting; both get inside the minds of the models, making us see the process of posing (and by extension, the painting itself) as somewhat absurd rather than solemn.


Just outside the frame
there has to be a dog
chickens, cows and hay

and a smokehouse
where a ham in hickory
is also being preserved

Here for all time
the borders of the Gothic window
anticipate the ribs

of the house
the tines of the pitchfork
repeat the triumph

of his overalls
and front and center
the long faces, the sober lips

above the upright spines
of this couple
arrested in the name of art

These two
by now
the sun this high

ought to be
in mortal time
about their businesses

Instead they linger here
within the patient fabric
of the lives they wove

he asking the artist silently
how much longer
and worrying about the crops

she no less concerned about the crops
but more to the point just now
whether she remembered

to turn off the stove.

~ John Stone


I particularly like

the tines of the pitchfork
repeat the triumph

of his overalls

and of course “this couple / arrested in the name of art”



We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces.
  ~ Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard,
recalling the forgotten days of silent film

Dentists don’t pose, he repeats
each time the painter pesters him
to stand in borrowed bib overalls
and stoically hold a hayfork

as if he’s a testament to honest work
being able to fight off Depression
foreclosures out on the Great Plains.
He never lets on how he loathes

the low, board-and-batten
farmhouse and its falsely pious
gothic window (from a kit
out of a Sears, Roebuck catalogue).

Never mind that lines on the arches
of that upper window repeat
in the creases in his lower face
or the upward thrust of the tines

of a common farm tool recur
in the front of a smudged denim
outfit the artist loans him
to embody a symbol in the painting

(not a portrait, the artist assures him).
Dr. McKeeby never discloses the cluster
of clear thoughts huddled inside him
as he stands in his dental office

with as much down-to-earth dignity
as he can muster after office hours
while clutching a clean hayfork
and silently staring at nothing.

    ~Lenny Lianne


Lenny Lianne explains:

It's interesting to note that the figures in Grant Wood's "American Gothic" never posed together.  The model for the female figure was his sister and the male, his dentist.  Another tidbit is that on the woman's dress is some ric-rac binding which was out of favor at the time of the painting (The artist had a hard time finding some) but, after the painting, ric-rac had a resurgence in popularity.


This is fascinating! Thank you for giving us the background of this painting. Wow! So the "farmer" really was his dentist! This blows me away. The painting will never be the same to me. Again, reality proves to be wilder than anyone suspected. 

In the poem I especially like 

Never mind that lines on the arches
of that upper window repeat
in the creases in his lower face

But more important in this poem is the revelation of how fake it all is.  This is a dentist in borrowed overalls, clutching a “clean hayfork,” and that the “gothic” church window has come from a Sears-Roebuck catalogue. All this exposes the artificiality of art. Nevertheless, this illustrates the saying that art is a lie that tells the truth.

It’s interesting that the epigraph from Sunset Boulevard reminds us that faces can be eloquent. Grant Wood wanted the faces to be solemn, a comment on the Protestant work ethic; these two poems pull us away from that dour seriousness.

This painting by Grant Wood is so well known that it has indeed become an American icon.  But it stands for a time when the idea of “pursuit of happiness,” enshrined by Thomas Jefferson as one of “unalienable rights” (“life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”) was certainly not prominent, to put it mildly. 



This is such an interesting painting.  Perfect title: "Gothic" and the church window, his "frock" coat. Her almost nun-like dress. The pitchfork reminds me of the trinity: father, son and holy ghost. 

I love the insights into Wood's painting – like poetic license. I guess artists bend the truth to make a point. It's so funny. Thanks.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


[the Wrathful, “those whom Anger defeated,” Canto VII, Circle 5; the post will make clear the relevance of this]

By that foul water, black from its very source,
we found a nightmare path among the rocks
and followed the dark stream along its course.

Beyond its rocky race and wild descent
the river floods and forms a marsh called Styx,
a dreary swampland, vaporous and malignant.

And I, intent on all our passage touched,
made out a swarm of spirits in that bog
savage with anger, naked, smile-besmutched.

They thumped at one another in that slime
with hands and feet, and they butted, and they bit
as if each would tear the other limb from limb.

And my kind Sage: “My son, behold the souls
of those who lived in wrath. And do you see
the broken surfaces of those water-holes

on every hand, boiling as if in pain?
There are souls beneath that water. Fixed in slime
they speak their piece, end it, and start again:

‘Sullen were we in the air made sweet by the Sun;
in the glory of his shining our hearts poured
a bitter smoke. Sullen were we begun;

sullen we lie forever in this ditch.’
This litany they gargle in their throats
as if they sang, but lacked the words and pitch.”

Then circling on along that filthy wallow,
we picked our way between the bank and fen,
keeping our eyes on those foul souls that swallow

the slime of Hell. And so at last we came
to foot of a Great Tower that has no name.

            ~ The Inferno, Canto VII, Circle 5,
            translated by John Ciardi

Sometimes it’s interesting to compare translations. Robert Pinsky’s version seems to me more melodious, but less powerful.

. . . We traveled across
To the circle’s farther edge, above the place

where a foaming spring spills over into a fosse.
The water was purple-black; we followed its current
Down a strange passage. This dismal watercourse

Descends the grayish slopes until its torrent
discharges into the marsh whose name is Styx.
Gazing intently, I saw there were people warrened

within that bog, all naked and muddy – with looks
of fury, striking each other: with a hand
but also with their heads, chests, feet, and backs,

teeth tearing piecemeal. My kindly master explained:
“These are the souls whom anger overcame.
My son, know also, that under the water are found

others, whose sighing makes these bubbles come
that pock the surface everywhere you look.
Lodged in the slime they say: ‘Once we were  grim

and sullen in the sweet air above, that took
a further gladness from the play of sun;
inside us, we bore acedia’s dismal smoke.

We have this black mire now to be sullen in.’
This canticle they gargle from the craw,
unable to speak whole words.” We traveled on

through a great arc of swamp between that slough
and the dry bank – all the while with eyes
turned toward those who swallow the muck below;

and then at length we came to a tower’s base.

            ~ translated by Robert Pinsky


In Canto VII, Dante makes Styx “a slough of despond” – a swamp rather than a river, at least in this circle of the Inferno. In the mud (muck, slime) of this swamp he places both the Wrathful and the Sullen. This pairing suggests that Dante regarded anger and depression as two sides of the same coin. The common modern view is that depression is anger turned inward. [image]

Reading the Inferno during the years when I still did depression, I was quite affected by the image of the sullen literally “stuck in the mud,” croaking the same dull words over and over. The image stayed with me, slowly doing its work of showing me that there was nothing noble about descending into that bog (during adolescence I picked up the idea that it was noble to suffer, admirable to be sad – for one thing, sad people looked more intelligent, sunk in thought – unlike those whose silly smile hinted at mindless happiness).

Gradually it occurred to me that Dante must mean the state of Despair, one of the Seven Deadly Sins. There is some controversy over the precise label of this cardinal sin. Wrath or Anger (Ira) is clear enough, but when it comes to “sullenness,” sometimes it’s classified as Sloth, sometimes as Acedia (which can be translated as “apathy”), and sometimes as Despair. I choose the last label as most powerful. That despair should be a deadly sin like pride or gluttony was disquieting, no matter how lapsed I was. Didn't Kierkegaard say that Despair, this acceptance of defeat in the past, present, and future, was the deadliest sin? And wasn’t that the sin against the Holy Spirit, the only kind that will not be forgiven?  

I could shrug off the teachings of the church, but it was more difficult to shrug off Dante. I knew that great writers were also great psychologists. What Dante showed through powerful imagery made me shudder. To point out the obvious, Dante sees chronic depressives as sinners, not as victims. That is very provocative right there. I don't think the shift toward the medical model has been entirely positive, except for the pharmaceutical industry. And it’s fabulous that Kathleen Norris has a new book out, and its topic is acedia (it would be too controversial to use the term chronic depression).

The pairing of anger and despair/depression also made sense. Already early on I found out that if someone managed to make me angry while I was depressed, I couldn’t afterwards slip back into depression no matter how much I wished to. I had to do something with that unwelcome influx of energy. I was forced to deal with life, with the world. Oh how I hated that!

For me yet another image for depression was a demon I called my Anti-Self, the part of me that wanted me to die. From demon it’s only a short hop to exorcism. Reading about exorcism, I came upon a statement that when the exorcism fails and the demon refuses to leave the victim, the exorcist must call upon an angel to come do battle with the demon, since an angel is more powerful than a demon.

My favorite angel was Uriel, the angel of light who is also the patron of the arts. It was all coming together.

In the image below, I know that Blake did not mean to represent Uriel battling the demon, but rather the false deity of the Old Testament creating Adam. But there is such a thing as a private meaning, different from that established by scholars, but having power for a particular person. When I saw this image, I thought of the battle between the angel and the demon. True, we don’t think of angels as bearded, but Uriel is the angel of the Face of God. The demon is coiled like a python, a snake of enormous strength. But we know that the angel is stronger yet. In Hölderlin’s uplifting words, “Where danger grows, that which will save us grows also.”

I was very lucky to have an angel to do battle with my demon; I had creative work to turn to. Such work is far from being pure joy, but each day can bring a little progress. “It is there for me” like a steady rhythm, and it brings all kinds of rewards. In fact, it’s not only creative work, but work in general – even housework can be healing. (Saint Anthony of the Desert healed his acedia when he followed the angel’s advice to keep busy plaiting rope.)

In simple words, don’t brood – work. Don’t ask what’s the point – just work. At long last, embarrassingly late in my life, I understood that overthinking was an addiction just like overeating (gluttony – we are back to the Seven Deadly Sins!). “Eating, Drinking, Overthinking.” I didn’t have to read the book – the title told me everything. I could hardly believe it could be that simple. It still feels like a miracle.

You may ask, but wasn’t work always there for me? It was – I had the ability to work hard since childhood. But before I made the commitment not to be depressed, I used to waste a lot of time brooding on all my failures and disappointments, having crying fits, wading into the marsh of Styx, there to rehearse the dull litany of the sullen. 

Dante uses the term "sad" (tristi) for the "sullen" and accidioso fummo – the smoke of acedia, a medieval term for apathy or “sloth.” This is a controversial post, because of my view that there is a large volitional element in depression (except for depression clearly caused by physical conditions such as being hypothyroid, menopausal, socially isolated, etc). There is also a huge self-centeredness to it. Perhaps Saint Augustine is right when he claims that all sins stem from pride, depression being an extremely disguised and inverted form of pride. One reason that it was so easy for me to descend into the mire of depression whenever I wanted to was that secretly I felt entitled to a “larger life,” a special destiny.”  If that’s not pride, what is?

(By way of a PS: 1. recent studies confirm that exercise – intense exercise in particular – is an excellent anti-depressant. 2. InWatermark, his wonderful book of essays about Venice, Joseph Brodsky writes: It is a virtue, I came to believe long ago, not to make a meal out of one’s emotional life. There’s always enough work to do, not to mention that there’s world enough outside.)
I realize that what I say is controversial, but, as always, I don't expect to have more than a handful of readers. I still think of my blog as a beautiful secret. 

Michael Peterson:

An important insight for anyone wanting to become psychologically adept, or able for soul-work, is to understand that we need to hear how others manage their travels across the soul. Yours is one tale, mine another, each tale as varied as fingerprints and snowflakes, both are important. We need to be like travelers exchanging travel tips and information about road conditions. I appreciate hearing your experience. Dante's experience is worth noting but I shy from simple explanations, knowing the complex relationships between the body's nervous and chemical systems. Weave these strands into the psychological system and we can stand slack-jawed, silently in awe humans function as more than statues. Trying to unravel the psyche, or soul, with certainty, isn't possible. I am wary of simple explanations because I know this -- depression is one way the unconscious speaks. Dreams are good, images, visions, intuition, the writing process -- and if the unconscious wants or feels its needs to use depression, I want to be open to this possibility. How do we know if our depression(s) is neurological or chemical or psychological or spiritual or?? I don't know. Experience and knowledge gathered over time can help. The bottom line is: I advocate patience with all psychic phenomena. Rarely does any psychic movement need to be understood immediately. Listening, patience, living in the present, honoring the self like a good host, these are all good components of soul-work.     

Thank you, Michael, for a fine comment. I don't object to anyone's "listening to depression." Nevertheless, in my own case, I am SOOOO happy to have decided to put an end to decades of that listening. I finally heard that those thoughts were not profound, as I supposed in adolescence. They were closer to repetitive garbage. I became embarrassed when I saw what garbage I kept recycling over and over. I'd been patient long enough, though "patient" isn't quite the word for such a waste of time, of life. Patiently listening to decades of chronic depression -- now there is an inferno! And what an escape from engaging with life's challenges. I'm not saying that this is everyone's case. It's interesting, however, that the term acedia is being resurrected.

And I am grateful to Dante for having helped me out of the Marsh of Styx, the Marsh of Death. He wasn't of course the only writer pointing the way, but the first jolt came from him (in Ciardi's translation). I am also particularly grateful to my best friend for having treated me with "tough love," and to another friend for her reminders about exercise; to yet another for stressing the need for more socializing; to a very special friend who happens to be a therapist for taking the time to present the findings on happiness and achievement; and to other supportive souls who knew I could climb out of the mud if I tried (I am still stunned when I ponder how easy it turned out to be) – and for their cheering me on when I announced my decision.

Basically, I agree with the position that you don’t get anywhere by asking, “What’s wrong with me?” You need to ask, “What’s right with me?” For decades, I asked the first question, and the Anti-Self/Depression would reply that I was worthless and it would be best if I died. Only when I began to listen to a different self (one I like to think of as Oriana, “the rising mind,” as Jane Hirshfield helped me translate the name) that assured me I had unique gifts to give, gifts I could give only if I made an effort to live, and live fully, that I could leave the marsh of Styx.


I was very interested in your thoughts on depression being like an addiction. Although I had an emotional and physical breakdown once, I still feel, and this is a personal philosophy, that depression is selfish.


This is a very valuable observation. Depression IS selfish -- or at least extremely self-centered, which ends up being the same thing, since the energy of the depressed person goes into brooding about herself; it does not go into being kind and loving toward others. When depressed, if I thought of others at all, it was about how so-and-so had hurt me.

There is mild chronic depression, which is bad enough, and then there is severe depression. In severe depression, thinking is completely irrational, so “listening to depression” is pointless. One might as well “listen to arthritis” rather than apply Penetran (a very effective salve, even when the pain is severe) and do the special physical-therapy exercises (also amazingly effective).

Recognizing that my depressed thoughts were pure irrational garbage was a very big step for me. I went through periods when my thinking, mainly about my past, was definitely delusional! To give one example, I couldn't -- I absolutely couldn't -- recall a single positive thing that ever happened in my life. Besides, one can go so far down that there is no thinking -- just stupor. Not a single thought crawling across the mind like a dying fly. Only sitting on the bed and staring at the wall for hours. It’s scary even to remember this.

Now that I can calmly think back about my depressive years, here is another surprise. The stage when I blamed America and my mother for all my misfortunes was actually a step forward for me! Before then, I blamed only myself, which increased self-loathing. Once I decided to drop depression, my attitude toward mother, America, and the world in general instantly became balanced. This restoration of rationality didn’t take any effort, since the healthy neural circuits already “knew” that nothing is black-or-white. (Oh, that's another thing about depressed cogitation – “shades of gray” are completely lost.)

To get back to your point about selfishness: yes, depression is selfish. It's also boring. Depression-caused thoughts are definitely not exciting.

To get more extreme, I think suicides are ultimately disappointing people. No matter what hits you, it's more INTERESTING to try to cope with it. Of course I understand all too well about pain, both physical and emotional, and about wanting to die in order to end that pain, but in retrospect that is not an interesting reaction. Trying to cope, no matter how bad the situation, is an adventure. Depression is similar to suicide in that you just sit there brooding instead of coping. The immobility is like death. Or even pointless, agitated mobility. I went through a phrase when I used to pace in circles, which only looks like an activity (fortunately it’s better for circulation).

I think I must have walked thousands of miles in the shoes of depression. At first depression was definitely not boring -- it was an unfolding drama, and the part of me that wasn't depressed, that was a witness, seemed fascinated to watch where this was going. The calm witness in me watched these hysterics – or that stupor – with ruthless curiosity. I am amazed how long it took before I finally knew it and said it: This is boring. It's boring, year after year, this mourning for the “larger life” I "should" have (my birthright, I guess) as opposed to my limited but lively real life. Finally, finally I said: depression is boring, and I don't want to do it anymore.

Note how little time Dante devotes to the sullen. Let’s face it: there is only so much to say. These are perhaps the most boring of all the inhabitants of Hell. 

Homer says we are like leaves on a tree whose trunk we cannot see, though dimly we know our autumn will come. We are of the moment. Woe to him who ignores the riches of that moment, preferring to contemplate his misfortunes, as though those were greater than anyone else’s. We are of the moment, and living well really is the only revenge. 
Wow, that's a fascinating and powerful piece of writing. I particularly like the Brodsky quote.
I don't know enough about the topic to have an informed view or professional opinion, but my suspicion – based on my own experiences, and what I know of those of others – is that there are probably lots of different phenomena that get lumped under the heading of "depression" nowadays. I would also guess that "depression," like happiness, is only partly a chemically induced brain state, and that a lot goes missing when we ignore its conceptual surroundings and the various circumstances that occasion it. And of course, these change over time, so it is almost certainly a mistake to treat acedia, despair, melancholy, existential angst, etc. as equivalent to each other and identical with whatever it is that anti-depressants are meant to cure. "Despair," for instance, seems to be a religious category (a sin), whereas that wasn't how the Romantic poets viewed melancholy, which wasn't a vice. 

There is nowadays a tendency to pathologize whatever responds to pharmaceuticals, but there is also a lot of horrible stuff going on in the world, and something in the vicinity of depression might sometimes be a perfectly rational response to it. Of course, none of this is to deny that there are real medical/psychological conditions from which people suffer for no redeeming purpose and that ought to be treated.

It does seem to me, though, that at least some of the forms of malaise that get labeled as “depression” do involve self-centeredness, and that sometimes the way out of the woods is to stop focusing on one's emotional state and start involving oneself in life. Put the other way around, happiness doesn’t strike me as a worthy or attainable goal to aim at, so much as something that supervenes on people who are doing what they take to be meaningful work in the world. 



Thank you for an excellent, well thought-out response. I agree that there are many types of depression. This post is concerned chiefly with chronic depression, whose symptoms strike me as identical with those of acedia. 

I wonder whether any form of depression is ever a rationalresponse – though it may be an inevitable NATURAL response when we are truly overwhelmed, without the emotional and conceptual support available to ardent religious believers, or those who have a truly effective life philosophy to protect them, or – and this is the most important point here, brought up in the post above – a meaningful task at hand (for instance, I was deeply impressed by an American surgeon after the recent Haiti earthquake – when I saw him on TV, totally concentrated, doing surgery at no fee, I thought he was the happiest man in the world; another and more common example wd be a mother who has to be strong for the sake of her children).

While it makes sense that happiness should not be a goal, but a by-product of  meaningful work, oddly enough, studies show that people who are most successful at work are those who were happy to begin with. The happiness came first, the success later. I had a fascinating interchange with a therapist-friend on that, with specific examples. (A mystical digression: "Be happy, and the beloved comes.") Maybe "happiness" is the wrong word; an attitude of contentment? Jack Gilbert's words, "It's too late for discontent" also had a deep impact on me.

Jack Gilbert also said, To make injustice the only / measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.  Chronic depressives tend to erect a whole system to defend their “right to be depressed,” and can easily cite all the evil in the world. There is an interesting parallel here with what one finds in pro-anorexia websites.

I have never experienced or witnessed any form of depression (I don’t mean transient melancholy, as at the sight of withering flowers) that wasn’t self-centered. People may have a genuine emotional response to the current genocide in Africa, but that response is not depression, especially not chronic depression. The depressives who say, "Of course I am depressed; look at the horrible things happening in the world," are trying to justify their low mood and non-involvement in life. It’s a socially acceptable mask for a negative mood and inaction (what Dante portrays as being stuck in the slime of the Marsh of Death). Whatever triggers depression is personal. Of course turning on the news doesn’t help, with all the bad stuff out there. But depression is not about caring for the suffering Africans; it's about the (often narcissistic) wound to the self/ego. Chronic depression and narcissism are usually two sides of the same coin (excluding conditions such as hypothyroidism, malnutrition, and so forth).
I can see that if this Dante/depression post got to a wider audience, it could grow to the length of a book! 

And eventually I’d be getting more comments that are apologia for depression, while I am firmly against depression, at least the kind of acedia that has a large volitional component . All I achieved I owe to my being obsessive-compulsive ("extreme effort"), more than any other kind of pathology. I don't think being a depressive ever helped me write, and I'm so glad to be done with that useless suffering. Now I am eager to explore happiness.
A lot of people couldn’t care less about the right to pursue happiness; they want the right to be depressed. The Declaration of Independence needs to be revised: “Life, liberty and the right to be depressed.” The right to sulk, to be sullen, to disengage from life and wallow in negative thoughts. A short period of that is only human. When it goes on for years, for decades, for practically the entire lifetime -- what a waste. (“It’s not just that youth is wasted on the young; it’s worse: life is wasted on people” – from the movie “Greenberg”)

Of course happiness needs to be defined, perhaps the way Freud did it: "Love and work." Love is only partly under our control, and the only love we can buy is a dog. Work is always there for us. It’s not always as meaningful and rewarding as we would like it to be, but any work, performed with attention, is healing. 
This knowledge wasn't new to me; I simply lacked the motivation to cease being depressed. Happiness didn't interest me and could never be my goal. But strength of character did interest me, and finally I understood that Nietzsche was wrong: What makes me happy makes me stronger. All those years, I was gradually traveling toward that fraction of a second that changed everything: the decision not to be depressed.
Only then the first stanza of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Carrion Comfort” became truly meaningful to me, and not just a brave but futile cry.  After a year and a half of never once sliding back into even mild depression, I know the power of making a commitment.

Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist – slack as they may be – these last strands of man
in me or, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.  

That "I can" makes all the difference. The core part of us that is not depressed, the Observer, the Witness, knows perfectly well that we can; but when we cling to depression, we don't want to. 

Note also that, like Dante, Hopkins does not mince words. Despair is “carrion comfort.” Everyone loves the alliteration, but in what sense is despair “comfort”? In my experience, it is comfort because it’s total acceptance of defeat in the past, present, and future ("I will always be defeated, and there's nothing I can do about it"); its siren song is “Struggle no more.” It is comfort because if we take refuge in it (I don’t mean transient despair, a part of life, but a chronic state of mind), it’s an escape from having to cope with reality.

As for the praise of melancholy by the Romantics, it can be innocuous, as in Keats’s lovely “Ode to Melancholy”:

She dwells with Beauty – Beauty that must die;
  And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
  Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips;
Ay, in the very temple of delight
  Veiled Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
  Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine;
His soul shall taste the sadness of her might,
  And be among her cloudy trophies hung.

Yes, flowers wither, leaves fall, a friend moves to another town; we go to a movie, the hero dies and we cry. That kind of transient melancholy is part of being human. There is a sweetness to this passing sorrow. It's not self-destructive. Some Romantic writers, alas, glorified self-centered sadness and even suicide as part of having a superior, artistic sensitivity, and being a superior person in general, an exceptional being for whom nothing that life could offer was good enough. We must not listen to the ravishing voices of those Sirens.  When it comes to mental health, it’s much better to listen to Dante, that giant, who says to your (acedic) face: you are wallowing in slime. And thus, for the lucky few, he saves what remains of your life. 

Saturday, July 17, 2010


 [Image: Deer in a Forest, Franz Marc. I chose this image because of its beauty, and because the elusiveness of deer seems to match the elusiveness of Rilke's Beloved. ]

Initially I had only two of my poems in this post. Only later I realized that the first poem, Eurydice to Rilke, needs Rilke's poem about his elusive ideal beloved in order to be more fully understood. Here is the poem. I do not list the translator, since to the best of my recollection I combined Stephen Mitchell's translation with that by Edward Snow, slightly modified by me.

 [You Who Never Arrived]

You who never arrived
in my arms, Beloved,
you who were lost from the start,
I don’t even know what songs
would please you. I have given up
trying to recognize you in the surging wave
of the next moment.  All the immense
images in me – the deeply felt
faraway landscape, cities, towers, bridges,
unsuspected turns in the path,
and those powerful lands that were once
pulsing with the life of the gods –
all rise within me to mean
you, who forever elude me.

You who are all the gardens
I have ever gazed at.
An open window in a country house –
and you almost stepped out to meet me.
Streets that I chanced upon –
you had just walked down them and vanished.
And sometimes, in a shop, the mirrors
were still dizzy with your presence and,
startled, gave back my too-sudden image.
Who knows?  Perhaps the same bird
echoed through both of us
yesterday, separate, in the evening . . .

                ~ Rainer Maria Rilke, 1875-1926


Rilke's poem presents the Magical Other who is not really out there, but only within. We suspect the speaker knows that, but doesn't wish to break the spell of waiting for this Beloved who will never come. 

In life we settle for approximations (we better settle for them if we are to have any relationships at all). Even partial soulmates can bring ecstatic joy. We believe in Rilke's longing and understand that his Beloved will never arrive, but we also nod as we read one of Rumi's best-known poems:

The moment I heard my first love story

I started looking for you,
not knowing how blind that was.

Lovers don't finally meet somewhere.
They are in each other all along. 

-- hence the feeling of recognition that new lovers often wonder at: they have just met, and yet it feels as though they have known each other for a long time. 

It could be argued that all this is delusion, and that romantic love is a mutual exchange of delusions. There is no Magical Other who will transform our life; there is no Beloved who is exactly as we imagined him or her for years. We might as well believe in Santa Claus. Disappointment is bound to follow; romantic love has to die if more mature, realistic attachment is to develop. This is certainly true of marriage: it's the victory of affection over passion. Unwillingly, we grant a good marriage more dignity than to a romantic storm not yet tested by time. Simply "being there" for another person has an enormous dignity. Ultimately, it's not about being adored; it's about not being abandoned in times of need. 

(I want to emphasize that I speak only of "good enough" marriages. Marriages conducted as warfare as a different and very sad story.)

Jungian psychologists have argued that religion has failed in the West, and the needs of the soul that used to be satisfied by religion have been transferred to romantic love, which cannot live up to such huge longings. And yet, and yet . . . someone wisely observed, "If but once you have been loved, you can never be totally unhappy." 


Religion in its usual sense may have failed in the West, but artists represent a special case of the religious impulse. Their agony and ecstasy comes from art. An earthly beloved may be very important, but ultimately art comes first. By "art" I mean not only painting, music, poetry, theater, and so on, but any creative work done with passion and at the level of excellence (at least that is the ideal). 

There is also a continuity in art, a continuity of influence. For instance, a poet finds her masters, whose words arrive in her and transform her. For me the first such great arrival was  Rilke. Rilke knew his words would live on. I think that is the meaning of his Rose epitaph, which in part inspired the poem below:

Rose, o pure contradiction:
joy, to be no one's sleep
under so many eyelids. 


Orpheus, the archetypal artist, has been the subject of countless poems, paintings, at least two operas, and even modern movies. The role of art in human life is of unending interest. By connecting us with beauty and love, art makes it easier for us to endure the dark side of life. During my worst years, I still had Rilke; I still had Mozart. 


Eurydice to Rilke
Because staying is nowhere
Your face not yet

as real as in a photograph,
your one good coat,
your pockets full of ticket stubs.

Your train is leaving soon.
The wheels groan and lurch.
I wave. You wave back,
your hand the grain of smoke.

You say the hand disappears,
only the waving waves.
When words begin to breathe,
the mouth is erased.

Everyone has his lost bride,
the beloved who never
arrived – the sleeping girl
who would not wake,

whose eyelids turned
each into an infinite rose.

Like a pietà I hold you now.
Petal by petal, your sleep
unfolds. You arrive in me.

~ Oriana



The first thing to do
is to close the eyes of the dead,
so they don’t stare like that.
We don’t want heaven,

we want life,
we don’t want oneness with All –
greeting as cosmic x and y,
without faces and arms.
It used to be more picturesque:
black sheen of a black river,
a black boat,
the dignity of twilight –

birdless, breathless air,
shadows crowding on the shore;
in their mouth, like the last word,
a coin for the ferryman.

Charon, old miser,
what did you do
with all that money
in a country with nothing to buy?
We’re told the moth blesses
the flame, the cut worm
forgives the plow.
The image of the soul

is a man walking through hell,
making music –
(and the shadows listen,
even the monsters listen;

and then follows
the memory of having been loved.)

  ~ Oriana



Thank you for the translation of Rilke. I am so grateful for translators. How else would I know what all these wonderful poets were saying. As Jane Hirshfield says I'm greedy for poems in other languages.
In your “Eurydice to Rilke” I especially like “only the waving waves.” It’s such a visual image and yet so provocative.  In “Orpheus,” my favorite lines are “black sheen of a black river, a black boat, the dignity of twilight" and “the moth blesses the flame.” Beautiful.


I knew one person who strongly opposed translating poems from other languages, not so much on the usual grounds, because the music gets lost, but because, in his view, the existing poems in any given language already said everything that poetry, with its few eternal themes, says over and over. And while there are certainly poems about spring and autumn that are not worth the hard labor that translation is, I dare say that nothing quite like Rilke's moving poem already exists in English. He expresses a universal longing, and yet does so in a unique way that merits translation. When it comes to good modern poetry, the content tends to be novel and is worth translating, even if the themes are eternal. 

I hope your "Eurydice to Rilke" has been published.  That's an amazing poem.  I especially like the ending lines:

the beloved who never
arrived – the sleeping girl
who would not wake,

whose eyelids turned
each into an infinite rose.

Like a pietà I hold you now.
Petal by petal, your sleep
unfolds. You arrive in me.

An eyelid turning into an infinite rose might seem sentimental, but then look what you do with it: you use unfolding petals for Rilke's sleep!  That's quite a transposition.


The poem has not been published. I think it might have a chance if there was a way to bypass the young preliminary readers and place the poem directly before a senior editor somewhere, someone who happens to love Rilke, and (dream on . . . ) even knows the “rose epitaph” (Rose, o pure contradiction).

Michael Peterson:

I don't think religion has failed as long as we see it as an instinctual need of the psyche (though Christianity has failed for most). In this sense it functions successfully, as you've pointed out, through the movement of the gods, such as Eros. I like Freud's idea that all psychic energy is one--hunger, sex drive, anger, religious response, etc.

The anima and animus are paradigms of the ideal man and woman and with the intensity of a cinema projector, we light up our sought after love with our own film. Rilke had a very idealized anima, and I think, Why not? But as you've implied, balance is needed – a dialog between animus and anima. This would result in coming to the point of settling into "not being abandoned," as you so eloquently express, and sagely observe.

I am not much interested in using the word delusion for this phenomenon. Projection belongs. It is part of the sacred process of understanding mutual causality, or dependent co-arising. And being the thorough-going post-modern that I am, I am no longer interested in parsing truth and its side-kick reality. In fact, I am no longer interested in using either word but prefer to speak only of experience and knowledge.


Long live experience and knowledge!

In regard to religion, I used to think that in order to have a mystical experience one had to believe in some kind of deity. Then I realized that we can experience mystical bliss without having to believe in the Trinity, or Immaculate Conception, Jesus dying for our sins, karma, reincarnation, the necessity for making a pilgrimage toMecca, or any religious dogma whatever. We only need to "step to the right," in Dr. Jill Taylor's phrase -- meaning give dominance to the right-hemisphere through image, music, rhythmic movement, or just closing our eyes and deeply relaxing, so that the chatter of the left brain falls silent.

The right temporal lobe is our "God area." This is the area of the brain involved in mystical and erotic rapture, as well as in the delight we get from harmonious music (lovers of classical music are prone to identify music with God).

I did not mean to disparage romantic love. The enlargement of personality that happens as result of falling in love is deeply rewarding, and the whole experience is certainly one of life's greatest feasts. In poetry, however, it's often the lost or absent beloved who provides the most fertile material. As Milosz observed, "the secret of poetry is distance." Paradoxically, it's the greatest secret of love poetry. 
By the way, that insight about non-abandonment as the essence of mature love came after many years and a great deal of suffering. 
As a writer and teacher, I've learned that I can never predict which statement will have the most impact. One time I gave a few poetry workshops at Folsom Prison (located in Repressa, CA). During one of the workshop, I said, as an aside, "Anger is the emotion of a victim." The inmates filled out an evaluation form, and their comments were later conveyed to me. In the space under the question, "What did you learn in this class?" most wrote something like, "Poems need to have imagery" or "Poems need to have specific details." But one prisoner wrote, "Anger is the emotion of a victim." And that was enough: it was all the reward I needed.  
Another point about lasting love, the kind that’s deep and quiet, and makes both partners blossom. I think a person needs to be “married” to something besides the spouse or beloved. I used to fall in love quickly and vehemently, and because my inner life was practically my only life, such love was too intense and overwhelming. Once I was sufficiently engaged in writing and other activities, I became less susceptible to being the storm-tossed victim of passion. So I strongly advocate being “married” to something else, so that the spouse or the beloved is not the sole source of happiness – an unbearable burden that no human should bear. 

Yet another factor is deep respect, and being non-judgmental. How long it takes us to learn to love! It’s a lifetime task.  


Interesting how the Rilke poem triggered a discussion on religion. 

So there, I say, on the great American experiment of rational religion and turning churches into social clubs, child care centers and voting machines. The only real mystery left is what Santa might be packing in his bag this year.


The Poland I grew up in was pretty much monolithically Catholic. I was extremely curious about Protestantism, so, once I was in the United States, as soon as it was possible, I went to a Protestant service. I think it was a Presbyterian church. I was burning with curiosity about this new, forbidden (at least to Catholics) way to worship God. It was terribly, terribly disappointing: bare walls, no beauty, no mystery, and yes, the atmosphere of a social club, especially afterwards, but even during the service, I thought. 

Scientists think that socializing is the best thing that churches provide -- hence the better health of church goers. I am more interested in that aspect of religion now that I have come to appreciate people more.  At seventeen I was a fierce little intellectual who craved the transcendent. No church satisfied me. This still holds true, but I wouldn't mind a harmless New Age community, if affection prevailed, beliefs being secondary, tertiary, basically unimportant. Affection is what is important. Great love has its place, once or twice in a  lifetime; it's affection that makes us strong enough to carry on, the small daily acts of affection. I have finally come to understand people's need for belonging to a family. 

(Added later) If I were to summarize this post, I would say: in order to be successfully "married" to a person in the sense of experiencing long-term love and the security of non-abandonment, be "married" to something else as well, the way we talk about the artist being married to his/her work. That might seem like a great obstacle to being truly married, but I've come to the conclusion that it's the very best thing. At the very least, be married to your own development.