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Monday, December 19, 2016

Even Optimists Get The Blues–Keeping The Black Dog Away From The Door


Albert Bolton knew depression – or at least what Styron’s full-blown,  Black Dog pall that comes unexpectedly and completely might be.  He had known only funks, temporary episodes where it felt good to be mean; and however ultimately unsatisfying it might be to relive resentment and insult, it juiced enough bile  to relieve the boredom and enough epinephrine into the limbic system to jolt him out of temporary despair.

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Meanness served him well as an anodyne  - a behavioral drug  that lifted the closing curtain for a last, shabby encore. 

There is no psychoanalytical literature on the phenomenon of meanness as asylum for depression; and in fact Albert himself wondered why relieving himself from the consequences of a life incompletely lived had to involve others.   Why couldn’t he simply feel remorse for his mistakes and regret at his missed opportunities? Why did his black dog need to feed on others food?

One psychologist had suggested that repair from depression was a zero sum game.  Self-cure, epiphany, and revelation could only be salves while cure or relief could only come from sacrificial blood.

Albert had married his wife less for love than for financial and practical convenience as the sturdiest architecture to house  uncertainty.

Albert had had previous marriages and  lovers, but had long ago decided that duplicity, deceit, and disrespect were not worth the effort.  After a certain point he ceased his infidelities and returned home.

To be sure the hearth was not all it was cracked up to be especially since recompense had to be exacted for his dalliances. Yet it was still a consolation.  Aging and death should never be faced alone so why complain about the shutters and furniture when the building itself  was solid ?

Albert’s late middle age was at best cyclical  - periods of mild depression encircling more serious episodes of funk and despondency.  He dispelled the darkest funks through irony, cynicism, and habitual meanness, self-medicated his way to routine, and had his moments of satisfaction.

It was only when he was gifted  ‘the best Christmas present I ever got’-  a young women thirty years his junior, as hungry for a meaningful and promising relationship as he was for one final psycho-sexual fling. 

Albert had long before given up any thought of real sexual adventure. Yes, there were hundreds of women of a certain age who would have been delighted with an affair with a still attractive, well-travelled, senior professional; but his sexual interests were only in rejuvenation, not mature relationships, and so he always demurred.

When Libby came along – bright, moderately ambitious, still working out her failed relationships with her father and her farmland past , blonde, and sexually alluring – Albert was besotted.   This was the epiphanic, final and conclusive love affair of his life.  The liaison to dispel all black funk depressions. The one last and lasting sexual encounter which would affirm his manhood,  validate his self-worth, and send him off happy and content.

They met in Haiti, romantic enough with its Voodoo, gingerbread houses, Tonton Macoute intimidation and violence, tom-toms, and marimba; but even more so because of its outlaw sexiness.  It was one thing to have a liaison in Guadeloupe or Martinique; another thing altogether to spend nights in the Olaffson in the Graham Greene suite, overlooking the pool where the dead body had been found, listening to the tom toms in the hills below Kenskoff.

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The affair lasted long enough time for the romance to fade, enough time for Libby to realize that her life was not to be with a still vigorous but rapidly aging lover and for Albert to retreat to the welcome and necessary confines of accompanied old age.

Now what? wondered Albert. He was still young enough for another affair, but the wind was out of his sails.  Had he not taken sexual desire to its limit? Had he not satisfied every fantasy, submerged psycho-sexual fantasy of his past?  Had Libby not regressed to her childhood obsession with her father, her pre-teen sexual fantasies, and her self-conscious intellectual doubts?  What was left?

Of course there were hundreds of women waiting for a suit0r, as romantic and perpetually hopeful as he, but ‘existential depression’ had no over-the-counter remedies. As enticing as a cinq-a-sept liaison might seem, it would be no more than parchment sex, foundering, ultimately ending with very unromantic good-byes.

No, Albert would have to face the Black Dog without female company.

He tried everything – a Tolstoy-esque search for meaning and purpose; a Nietzschean arrogance, a Schopenhauer determinism, even an Aquinian  faith-with-reason – but came up far emptier than his departures from Port-au-Prince and his Belgian paramours. 

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Every morning he woke up wondering how life had not only passed so quickly but with so few returns.  What were the memories of Petionville, the Splendide, Macaya Beach, and the Olaffson really worth?

Vladimir Nabokov was a self-described memorist, one for whom the past was more important than the present or the future ;for it, more than any other temporal reality or possibility is real, experienced, and observed.   Memory – the retention of the past – was essential to personal identity and validation.  We are only what we were, he said.

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So Albert in his later years retreated into memory – old loves, haunts, and even disappointments – but these recollections were never enough to chase the black dog away from the door.

Nor was meanness which, attenuated by age became less nasty and hurtful.  It was little more than the eccentricity of an old man who could no longer keep his own counsel.

At times he thought that his lifelong companionship with depression – but never partnership – had given him energy and vitality.  He ran faster when the black dog chased him.   Long relationships only accentuated the boredom that led inevitably to an existential dead end.   Affairs demanded little except agility.  They never gave hope, but were not intended to. 

Hemingway had the right idea when the wrote The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber
It had taken a strange chance of hunting, a sudden precipitation into action without opportunity for worrying beforehand, to bring this about with Macomber, but regardless of how it had happened it had most certainly happened. Look at the beggar now, Wilson thought. It‟s that some of them stay little boys so long, Wilson thought. Sometimes all their lives. Their figures stay boyish when they‟re fifty. The great American boy-men. Damned strange people. But he like this Macomber now.
Damned strange fellow. Probably meant the end of cuckoldry too. Well, that would be a damned good thing. Damned good thing. Beggar had probably been afraid all his life. Don‟t know what started it. But over now. Hadn’t  had time to be afraid with the buff. That and being angry too. Motor car too. Motor cars made it familiar. Be a damn fire eater now. He‟d seen it in the war work the same way. More of a change than any loss of virginity. Fear gone like an operation. Something else grew in its place. Main thing a man had. Made him into a man. Women knew it too. No bloody fear. 
‘No bloody fear’ – a man’s way.  Ironically Hemingway suffered from depression and committed suicide and hunting, war, and bullfighting were his ways of keeping the black dog at bay.  Sexual adventure was nothing compared to a charging buffalo.  It tested manhood, validated individual worth, and defied the predictable, emasculating, and deadening routine of a more pedestrian life.



At times Albert thought that he might have been better off if he had stopped trying to outrun the black dog and faced his fear of death like Hemingway had.

William Styron who wrote about his own depression saw the melodrama in the struggle.  There was something not quite serious about a struggle with the inevitable:
“A phenomenon that a number of people have noted while in deep depression is the sense of being accompanied by a second self — a wraithlike observer who, not sharing the dementia of his double, is able to watch with dispassionate curiosity as his companion struggles against the oncoming disaster, or decides to embrace it. There is a theatrical quality about all this, and during the next several days, as I went about stolidly preparing for extinction, I couldn't shake off a sense of melodrama — a melodrama in which I, the victim-to-be of self-murder, was both the solitary actor and lone member of the audience.” ( Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness)
Everyone deals with existential anxiety differently, and as Albert had said depression was his companion but never his partner.  Styron’s psychological ‘second self’ was his intimate, giving him glimpses of the absurdity of his condition, but validating it.   Hemingway never wrote about what was driving him to suicide; and his writings give few clues.  Perhaps confronting death was indeed the only way he had of surviving, but in the end it only postponed the inevitable.

Albert like most men simply lost his gumption, meanness, and sexual adventure.  He ended his life satisfied that he had lived well, disappointed that he had not had more lovers, and unhappy that he had gotten no farther than Step One in his search for knowledge; but at rest.

He had tried to reshuffle the deck, raise the ante, change games, tables, and casinos; but with no luck.  The black dog still followed him demanding to be fed.  It was not until the compulsion to win and the anger and frustration at losing had disappeared did he settle down to play the cards he was dealt.

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