Still waiting for the copy of Lincoln's Melancholy I put on reserve at the library to come in. In the meantime I've been re-reading Joshua Wolf Shenk's article based on his book in the Atlantic, Lincoln's Great Depression, trying to decide if I completely agree with the premise.
I'm not sure that I buy that Lincoln was depressive in the way we now think of the word. I think some people are just sadder than others. They are melancholy. Just as there are some people who are temperamentally cheerful without being thought manic or delusional, some people are by nature inclined to gloominess without its being pathological or actually debilitating. I'll have to wait until I've read the book to be sure, but in his article Shenk doesn't mention any periods in Lincoln's life when his "depression" made an invalid out of him. I believe some people who are clinically depressed manage to avoid the periods of passivity and inertia that often afflict most depressives, so the fact that Lincoln kept himself moving and working even when his sadness was at its most soul-crushing doesn't mean that he wasn't depressed. But it does leave lots of room to wonder if that's what he was.
Shenk reports descriptions by Lincoln's contemporaries of apparent physical misery accompanying his attacks of melancholy. But back in the 19th Century people generally didn't feel well. They were sick in ways that would keep us in bed pretty much all the time. Lots of times when Lincoln appeared to be suffering in body from horrors of the mind and soul his body might have been undergoing its own distresses, and while Shenk implies the depression caused the physical illness, it works the other way round too.
But I like Shenk's main point, that Lincoln's melancholy was the wellspring of his greatness, and that could be true whether or not his melancholy was temperamental or pathological or the result of a toothache.
Think I'll save for a whole post of its own a meditation on the connection between suffering and compassion. In the wake of Katrina and Rita we've had to listen to an awful lot of people who have never had a moment's worry about where their next meal's coming from lecturing the poor on their lack of character and gumption. I won't mention any names. That Lincoln's personal mental hell may have made him more alive to the actual hells of slavery and war seems like a pretty good bet.
But Shenk makes the case that Lincoln's melancholy made him more than a bleeding heart. It made him smarter. Research shows that depressives are more realistic and analytical in their intellectual encounters with life.
The hunch of old Romantic poets—that gloom coexists with potential for insight—has been bolstered by modern research. In an influential 1979 experiment two psychologists, Lyn Abramson and Lauren Alloy, set up a game in their lab, putting subjects in front of a console with lights and a button, with instructions to make a particular light flash as often as possible. Afterward, asked how much control they had had, "normal," or nondepressed, subjects gave answers that hinged on their success in the game. If they did well, they tended to say they'd had plenty of control; if they did poorly, very little. In other words, these subjects took credit for good scores and deflected the blame for poor scores.
But the depressed subjects saw things differently. Whether or not they had done well, they tended to believe that they'd had no control. And they were correct: the "game" was a fiction, the lights largely unaffected by the participants' efforts.
According to the dominant model of depression, these findings made no sense. How could a mental disease characterized by errors in thinking confer advantages in perception? Abramson and Alloy pointed to a phenomenon called "depressive realism," or the "sadder but wiser" effect. Though psychiatry had long equated mental health with clear thinking, it turns out that happiness is often characterized by muddy inaccuracies. "Much research suggests," Alloy has written, "that when they are not depressed, people are highly vulnerable to illusions, including unrealistic optimism, overestimation of themselves, and an exaggerated sense of their capacity to control events. The same research indicates that depressed people's perceptions and judgments are often less biased."
I want to repeat that last sentence with emphasis.
Much research suggests," Alloy has written, "that when they are not depressed, people are highly vulnerable to illusions, including unrealistic optimism, overestimation of themselves, and an exaggerated sense of their capacity to control events. The same research indicates that depressed people's perceptions and judgments are often less biased."
Boy, if there aren't all kinds of widesweeping political generalizations to draw from that one.
First one that occured to me was that we now have a new explanation for the back and forth between periods of progressivism and reaction that have characterized American history. In a moment of unrealistic optimism, overestimating ourselves as a people, and with an exaggerated sense of our ability to control events (who needs an activist government to come save us if we will never need saving) elect a conservative President or Congress and they screw things up in their inevitable way, because they are unrealistically optimistic and have exaggerated senses of their abilities. Faced with catastrophe, the country sobers up, and sadder but wiser, we trudge to the polls and elect a progressive to come in and clean up the mess.
I'll leave that one to the historians to test.
My second thought was, Well, there's a big difference between Lincoln and George W. Bush.
And that thought was wrong. Wronger than wrong.
George Bush is clearly unrealitiscally optimistic, he overestimates himself to stunning effect (No President has done as much for civil rights as he has, you know.), and he has an exaggerated sense of his own ability, or his aides' and henchmen's abilities, to control events, but I wouldn't call Bush nondepressed.
I'm not saying Bush is clinically depressed. If I'm not sure about Lincoln, I'm certainly not about to make the case that Bush is. But he sure ain't happy.
The Media Image of George W. Bush, the regular guy, the man at home in his own skin, the kind of fella you'd enjoy having a beer with, is, as I've written before and will probably write again, really an anti-Clinton myth. That none of the qualities celebrated in the myth are qualities that any great President has possessed---except for FDR's being at home in his own skin. Lincoln we know wasn't. Describing Washington's self-command that way is pathetically and banally inadequate---hasn't seemed to have been noticed by the creators of the myth. But members of the Media Elite are apparently ignoramouses on the subject of American history, all around.
What's amazing is that they have apparently not noticed that none of those qualities actually describes George W. Bush. Particularly the one about his being at home in his own skin.
George W. Bush is and has been since he started appearing in the public eye, since his father's first steps on the national stage almost 40 years ago, an angry, volatile, mean-spirited, unhappy man.
And it's not much of stretch to conclude that a man who spent close to thirty years as a public drunk is most angry and unhappy with himself.
I don't know the roots of Bush's unhappiness. One of my regular commenters, Anne Laurie, thinks it's likely that Bush has suffered all his life with some learning disability or with ADD, and that sounds very possible to me. Would explain a lot.
But as I feel about Lincoln and as the friend I mentioned the other day feels about himself: Some people are just unhappy. There may be no psychological or pathological cause for Bush's unhappiness.
Then again. You look at the unhappiness, the life punctuated by periods of profound passivity in the face of calamity and crisis and periods of self-destructiveness and great anger, and you wonder.
In a hundred and forty years will someone publish a book titled Bush's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled his Failure?
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