The English professor at Wake Forest University wants to be clear that he is not “romanticizing” clinical depression and that he believes it is a serious condition that should be treated.
But he worries that today’s cornucopia of antidepressants – used to treat even what he calls “mild to moderate sadness” – might make “sweet sorrow” a thing of the past.
“And if that happens, I wonder, what will the future hold? Will our culture become less vital? Will it become less creative?” he asks.
We can picture this in the primitive world. While the healthy bodies of the tribe were out mindlessly hacking beasts or other humans, the melancholy soul remained behind brooding in a cave or under a tree. There he imagined new structures, oval and amber, or fresh verbal rhythms, sacred summonings, or songs superior to even those of the birds. Envisioning these things, and more, this melancholy malingerer became just as useful for his culture as did the hunters and the gatherers for theirs. He pushed his world ahead. He moved it forward. He dwelled always in the insecure realm of the avant-garde.
This primitive visionary was the first of many such avant-garde melancholics. Of course not all innovators are melancholy, and not all melancholy souls are innovative. However, the scientifically proved relationship between genius and depression, between gloom and greatness suggests that the majority of our cultural innovators, ranging from the ancient dreamer in the bush to the more recent Dadaist in the city, have grounded their originality in the melancholy mood. We can of course by now understand why.
Counter arguments: Hedonistic Imperative.