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Last notes on growth: Depression and fiction

in Ark Review/Essays by

Depression is a deeply personal experience, on many levels. It might be difficult to find the right, or even any words, to fully explain it. However, after a period of depression, looking back on that period as at a linear account of events from one’s life, stagnation seems to be the first word that comes to mind; depression being a state of a subjective paralysis.

It might not come as a surprise (given what I’ve just written above), that I’m writing here from a very personal perspective. Looking back at the time I was depressed, I can’t help but think about it in terms of stagnation, for very specific reasons. While neither the process itself nor the final outcome can be categorised as a decrease of my being as such, it was, rather, as a period of time in which I felt I was totally stuck in terms of personal growth. It is a time I literally can’t recall in terms of memories as I can when other parts of my life are concerned. Nevertheless, once the process of healing started, it seems that my stagnation began to fade. What followed was not yet a period of growth itself, but rather a preliminary state, the one of trying to go back to a level of mental and physical balance that would allow me once more to become a functional being (in the general and standardised sense), yet this was a different state to the one before I went through the process of stagnation. Looking back, it seems that I went through three stages: the depressed time, namely stagnation, the recovery part, being the preliminary state of growth, and a new phase of learning and growth, which I am probably still engaged in.

Fiction can be a tool for conceptualising and accepting real events, and although the interpretation of the story and its link to the person and her experience might be very personal, there is an element of universality in the relation between the use of fiction and the personal exploration, understanding, and ultimately, growth.

Talking about depression is obviously and inevitably talking about life experiences. Trying to put it in simple words, there are diverse (and very complex) levels of understanding and constructing reality: therefore many levels to process when experiencing, for instance,  events or periods of time. In the process of living across the many levels of which a human’s experience can consist, I believe literature can serve as a tool to explore and even reveal these different parts. By means of making us reflect upon them from new angles, literature can help in the process of understanding human experiences in all their complexity. Fiction can be a tool for conceptualising and accepting real events, and although the interpretation of the story and its link to the person and her experience might be very personal, there is an element of universality in the relation between the use of fiction and the personal exploration, understanding, and ultimately, growth.

Nonetheless, literary pieces can be read in many ways, and focusing on one specific aspect doesn’t reduce the book to only that. All the thoughts I voice in this piece notwithstanding, I don’t take The Bell Jar and The Vegetarian to be books about depression only, nor do I think that their dealing with depression is what makes those pieces great, or even what they are. Whatever I’m reflecting on in this piece might be actually very different from what any other reader can make out of them, and I’m quite sure those interpretations do not have to be mutually exclusive.

What is great about good books is that you can focus on one element of the piece, leaving apart the others, reaching a level of understanding totally separate from the other parts of the whole story. The first time I read The Bell Jar I couldn’t focus on much more apart from the prose; the way Plath writes captured me to a point I almost forgot about the story itself. The second time I tried to ignore the way it was written and instead focused on the story itself. In the case of The Vegetarian, it took me some interesting discussions with others who had read the book to come to the conclusion I present later, reaching a new level of interpretation, and finding a novel aspect explaining why I thought it is such a well-crafted story.

Sylvia Plath – The Bell Jar

It’s not big news that Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is a semi-autobiographical work. This lead Plath to publish the book under the synonym Victoria Lucas in the UK. Moreover, The Bell Jar wasn’t published in the US after almost a decade out of the respect for her mother’s and husband’s feelings after the publication of the book only a week after Plath’s suicide in the UK. The Bell Jar is a highly accurate description of what it is to not feel anything, to lose everything in one’s soul while not knowing why, slowly losing control of one’s life, not understanding what is eating one alive. It contains what must be one of the most accurate, realistic, and devastating written accounts of how it feel to be depressed, without ever mentioning the word.

Through the story, the protagonist, Esther, loses her grip on her daily life and near future, with no apparent solution to it. Her life is over. She is stuck in a state of nothingness, as much as sadness, although, paradoxically, her surroundings seem to see without difficulty that her life is in freefall. Reading this book is an intense experience precisely because there’s nothing to do about anything. There is no way back. There is no valid advice that Esther could take to step outside of the bell jar.

If one has ever experienced such nothingness in her or his own life, one can easily envision the desperation caused by being in the same position. There is nothing to be done about anything, and it’s not because one is comfortable with the situation but rather because there seems to be no solution to the state whatsoever. Looking back at those times, being in this state of resignation and immobility, everything becomes blurry; looking back at those times, one can identify pain and desperation, yet memories are gone; the feeling of being a human is gone.

In this sense reading The Bell Jar can help understanding that being depressed and experiencing the helpless condition of not being in control of one’s own self can go hand in hand. To me, it filled the gap of all those memories I don’t have about the time when I was depressed, and yet not by means of some artificial construct, but rather by giving me an access to a fictionalised version of what life, under those circumstances, is and helping to reach a kind of internal peace that might not have been achieved otherwise.

Han Kang – The Vegetarian

If Plath is able to meticulously account for what it is to be inside the bell jar, The Vegetarian completes the picture, accounting for what life outside looks like from inside it.

With an extreme sensibility and presented in a beautiful prose (even though I have only had a chance to read the work in the English translation), each part of The Vegetarian accounts for a different example (strategically presented separately in three parts forming the entire book) of how people surrounding a depressed person might be perceived from the perspective of the depressed.

In the first part of the book, the narrative turns its focus to the protagonist’s husband, who can be seen as a living example of contradictions of superficially caring about someone suffering from depression. To some extent, and regardless of the protagonists’ dubious relationship, the book starts with the husband still trying to see Yeong-hye as the human being he has always known. However, depression can be draining for someone who is not able to empathise with the person who is undergoing it nor capable of recognising the fact that depression changes the person suffering from it. So, one can see the husband as a person in the life of a depressed person who doesn’t nor want to understand the depressed person.

The second part of the book focuses on the protagonist’s brother in law, who exemplifies the romanticisation of mental illness and the subsequent objectification of the person suffering from it.

There are many ways one can argue for the case that romanticizing any state in detachment from the person concerned is wrong, and the case of depression is no different. Taking into account that a depressed person might not feel anything (besides sadness, self-hateness, and some sort of nostalgia for better times), they might be even more unable to process certain external negative actions towards themselves, inflicted by others. One stops seeing their own self as human, and others do as well, which has consequences of abolishing cross personal boundaries, both mental and/or physical, and so of losing sight of what is it one wants or does not, what one deserves or does not. One of the most clear passages that shows this feeling is when Yeong-hye and her brother-in-law have sex:

“-If i painted flowers on myself, would you do it then?

She turned around and stared back at him, and he understood her gaze of one of complicity.

-And… I could film it?
She laughed. Faintly, as if there was nothing she wouldn’t do as if limits and boundaries no longer held any meaning for her. Or else, as if in quiet mockery.” (p. 107)

In this passage, the narration is totally ruled by the wish of the brother-in-law to be with the protagonist; yet it is impossible to ignore the fact that at the moment she agrees to it, she is detached from her own reality, and she seems to not have any limits and boundaries.

Finally, the third part of The Vegetarian revolves around the protagonist’s sister, In-hye. Posing it in a simple way, her sister represents a goodwill of those in daily contact with someone suffering from depression who actually care about them, and try to empathise with them. Yet they can’t reach them, because they are simply not going through what the depressed person is. The sister’s protagonist cares about Yeong-hye; she wants her to get better, and be herself again – but that is the main problem: the protagonist is not, and will not ever be herself again. At least not the self she has been and known before.

Fiction can be a tool for self-reflection and understanding, which sometimes not possible to attain by other means because of the complexity, roughness or pain caused by reality itself. Reading about similar experiences as those one has encountered might help going through the process of posterior growth, with understanding and acceptance. In the case of depression, The Bell Jar can give some readers a general account of events and comprehension of how it is to feel nothing but (occasionally) pure pain. In the case of The Vegetarian, it can give a better insight into how a depressed person might capture their closest relationships.

Neus spends a considerable amount of her time thinking about Clarice Lispector in general and Sylvia Plath’s poems in particular. She’s a firm supporter of the Weil team in the which-Simone-is-better battle. She once read Infinite Jest and still talks about it today. She’s one half of the translation column Translation Tuesday, tends to overuse the word “nice” and apparently the pronoun “she” when she writes her bio.

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