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Down But Never Out

by Nicci Gerrard


“Depression is the flaw in love. To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose, and depression is the mechanism of that despair,” says Andrew Solomon at the start of his magnificent book.

In his first sweeping sentences, he gathers up the themes and even the words that will resonate through the following pages of linked autobiography, history, science, analysis, wrenched and luminous meditation on life and pain. Love, loss and despair ring out their melancholy notes. In depression, he says over and over again, life loses its meaning; the “only feeling left in this loveless state is insignificance.”

Yet The Noonday Demon stands as a testament to all those qualities that are lost during times of deathly meaninglessness: it describes numbness with vitality, wretchedness with poetry, lovelessness with passion, fear with exuberance, slack-jawed horror with wit and tenderness, deadly silence with this fervent outpouring of words. Depression is a country that the undepressed can’t enter, but Solomon, who has travelled there and knows it well, bends all his energy and talent as a writer to sending us snapshots from this terrifying land (mood, he writes, “is a frontier like deep ocean or deep space”). The result is scary but far from dispiriting; at times, Solomon’s voice, calling to us from beyond the frontier, achieves a lonely rapture.

…Solomon’s experience of depression, which comes like a gale force wind and departs quietly, forms only part of The Noonday Demon, though it is the emotional undertow through the whole of it. He portrays the pain of others, in different cultures and histories, showing that far from being a disease of the wealthy and the leisured classes and of modernity, it has always been with us under different names…. He looks at the medical and alternative cures – anti-depressants, anxiety controllers, St John’s Wort, exercise, work, food, massage, homoeopathy. He tries out different therapies (psychoanalysis, he says, is good at expressing depression, not good at changing it – it’s like firing a machine gun at an incoming tide). He goes to talk groups. He gathers stories from all over the country, from sufferers and doctors, from people who have cut their flesh to ribbons and drunk themselves into stupors, from people who have been terribly abused, from people who have come out the other side.

…What Solomon unequivocally and with a raw, sometimes disturbing, romanticism, believes in is the authenticity, even the gift, of his endured pain. To be happy all the time is a spooky, even terrifying idea or a form of idiocy. He quotes a Russian expression: if you wake up feeling no pain, you’re dead. He quotes Ovid: “Welcome this pain.” He believes his own grief and darkness have shown him the “acreage and reach” of his soul. He writes that “the individuality of each person’s struggle is unbreachable” and that depression, “like sex, retains an unquenchable aura of mystery. It is new every time.”

It is “fire in the blood”; it nearly kills him but it produces from him words and poetry that he would not otherwise have uttered, and teaches him a better way of living and loving.

By the end of the book’s long journey, he claims that he has learnt to love his depression as a way of learning to love himself. He knows it is lurking inside him still, and will one day probably ambush him again, but he closes with ardent, melancholy optimism: “Each day I choose to be alive. Is that not a rare joy?”