Depression: A Public Feeling (Duke University Press, 2012) is Ann Cvetkovich’s exploration of cultural and social causes/influences on depression, which she offers as an alternative to the medical model of depression (which emphasizes medication). She combines a memoir (Part I) that discusses her experience of academic depression (writing her dissertation, working in her first job, writing her first book), with a critical essay (Part II) that touches on spiritual despair, colonialism and slavery, queer culture, and crafting.
Cvetkovich’s suggestion that a cure for depression is rooted in creativity, along with her inclusion of “The Depression Journals” (or, memoir) in the text, caught my attention immediately because it relates to my research into writing as a means of addressing psychological, emotional, and spiritual crises. My dissertation was a Jungian investigation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita, which he composed during a twelve-year oppression that left him unable to produce plays and publish prose works from 1927 to 1940. My thesis is based on a Jungian and Russian Orthodox religious/philosophical outlook on creativity, which argues that creativity is a psychological and spiritual catharsis that allows us to return to the depths of suffering, enter the crisis objectively, and resolve the crisis through the creation of art. Cvetkovich’s definition of creativity as something that can help move the mind around, into, or through an impasse (21) fits well with a religious and depth psychology perspective, even as she points out the existing tensions a creative-spiritual perspective has in academia. Cvetkovich also reminds me of the work done on the moral imagination, in particular, of Paul Lederach’s The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. For Lederach, transcending conflict comes through transforming anxiety and/or fear into hope through artistic means. Cvetkovich also implies a connection between creativity and hope in “The Depression Journals.”
Recognizing creativity’s connection to hope, Cvetkovich explicitly ties creativity to impasse, which implies that creativity exists along a spectrum between hope and despair, with “impasse” somewhere in between. Creativity cannot be removed from the equation, though its existence may be ignored, and the individual can adjust the use and influence of creativity, if she chooses. At the end of her memoir (Part I), Cvetkovich suggests that the creative solution to depression (for herself) does not lie in the external expression of the creative as an object outside the individual (i.e., the medical creativity it takes to build a drug that rebalances the brain). Rather, the solution lies in the experience of stepping creatively into the crisis and working with the chaos to alleviate feelings of anxiety and depression.
A medical perspective of depression conveys the idea that the depression happens to the person, while Cvetkovich’s approach to depression as a cultural product suggests depression as something done with and/or in the individual. A difference between these two views may impact the likelihood of resolving the depression: if medication does not work (and medication is what you believe will cure you), dealing with the depression might become more overwhelming. That is, if an individual places all hope in medication as the conclusive end of depression, and it doesn’t work, the individual’s experience of depression may worsen. On the other hand, Cvetkovich’s discussion of creative ways in which people handle living with depression (where depression is a part of the individual and life) offers a way of seeing the depression as something less like an enemy that needs defeating, and more like the annoying relative with whom you have to engage, even if you would rather not. You cannot get around it, so you might as well develop coping mechanisms that make depression’s presence more palatable.
Reading the options Cvetkovich presents for tending to the public/cultural aspect of depression in Part II, I felt a warming sense of “my academic research interests are not crazy.” Cvetkovich mentions the hostile trend toward the spiritual in academia. Coming from a religious studies background myself, the trend toward finding the spiritual in everyday activities is met with a similar hostility that I still don’t understand. Rather than being accused of bringing religion into a secular humanities subject, I have been confronted by demands to know where the spirituality/religious is in everyday activities like writing or reading. “What’s theological about it?” is a frequent question tossed to me, even though theology itself is done in artistic ways (i.e., iconography). It’s an odd thing to consider: neither side can find itself in the other. The location of the spiritual within the creative realm, I feel, is a great approach to dealing with either the private or public feelings of depression. I’m not sure if my random digression makes sense, but the crux of the point is: I strongly agree with Cvetkovich’s spiritual approach to the utopia of ordinary habit.
I see how the drudgery of everyday, ordinariness creates depression and anxiety in a population bombarded with messages that our lives should be X, Y, and Z. I certainly feel it, and know other people do. When I watch a movie or TV show, the ridiculous questions I keep coming back to are: Does this action hero go to the bathroom? When does that stylish woman do her laundry or clean her toilet? How does this twenty-something with that job pay for that apartment? These mundane yet necessary tasks make it seem like our lives are shabby in comparison to the glamorous figures onscreen. There is an odd need to “Keeping Up With the Jones’,” yet no recognition that the Jones’ are not real people.
At the same time, those tasks that seem mundane to one person are infused with an entirely different significance if they make up the content of someone’s professional life (i.e., maid, servant, cook, and housekeeper) and they remain things a woman has to do at home for herself and her own family. Does that professional experience increase the depression and anxiety brought on by ordinary habit? Cvetkovich does not say, but it could be worth exploring.
The areas of artistic expression that Cvetkovich offers (writing and crochet) as examples of the utopia of ordinary habit are exactly what I have encountered in my life. I see writing (i.e., fiction, memoir, journaling) as a form of therapy that offers a spiritual connection, if the writer is paying attention. Funnily enough, I am also a crocheter. I have an Etsy shop. My stock consists of projects I make when I’m trying to unwind (no pun intended—although I am cognizant of the bizarre process of taking a ball of yarn and purposely tying it into knots as a form of stress relief). The original stock for my Etsy shop came out of the crochet breaks I took while writing my dissertation in 2011-12. I started the shop in 2009 but it was empty until 2011—just when my stress of the job search and writing began. Last year, I starting investigating crochet as a form of meditation, and wrote a (still homeless) freelance article about meditative crochet as a daily, ordinary habit the average crocheter could convert into a calming spiritual exercise. I appreciate her including crafting in her book, because I think it too often gets overlooked as something women do to keep busy or to be domestic. The new approaches to crafting (particularly in the most recent feminist wave) represent a cultural reversal: taking the very tasks that were meant to confine women (which lead to “hysteria”) and transforming them into actions of freedom (which alleviate depression).
Cvetkovich touches on the public nature of crochet as a form of performance art, although I wish she had discussed the social significance of crafting as well. For example, coded messages female slaves incorporated into imagery on quilts used by the Underground Railroad, or quilting bees and sewing circles, which provided times for socializing and creating solidarity among women.
I would have liked Cvetkovich to include play/sport in her discussion of creativity and of the utopia of ordinary habit. She mentions individual exercise (i.e., yoga), but not group play or organized sports as a means of participating in the ordinary. Anyone with children knows that play is part of their day. We’ve done much to cut play from life as we age, and many women have told their children “I don’t have time to play with you now” when they are tackling household or work-related duties. As much as the brain needs crafting, the brain also needs play. Play creates solidarity and emotional bonds, and increases endorphins, which are important for emotional health. Play and participating in organized sport is not just about exercise, since play allows us to escape the bubble of cultural conformity that might contribute to depression. Play and sport also provide a means of approaching impasse creatively and in the spur of the moment, which might be helpful when confronting an impasse such as depression, both privately and publically.