University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020, 224 pp., $27.50
In 2005, the literary and political critic George Scialabba suffered a major depressive episode that required him to take a three-month leave from his clerical job at Harvard University to undergo electro-convulsive therapy. Scialabba later described the experience as a kind of midlife crisis—he was 57 at the time—brought on by what he perceived to be his professional failures. Though a long-time contributor to publications like The Nation, Dissent, and the Boston Globe, for most of his career Scialabba has remained an unsung hero of the book review. He has never been on staff anywhere or held an academic post at a college or university; until 2006, he’d never published a book. It is only in the last decade or so that he has begun to enjoy something like a reputation, eliciting fulsome praise from James Wood, Vivian Gornick, and the late Richard Rorty, not to mention the admiration of a generation of younger writers. (In 2012, I was present at a gathering in a not-secret bookstore on Manhattan’s Upper East Side when Scialabba, ensconced by young admirers like myself, was celebrated and interviewed by The New Inquiry).
The five volumes of Scialabba’s essays published by Pressed Wafer, a now defunct small press out of Cambridge, Massachusetts, is the least expensive and most accessible crash course in modern intellectual history I know of. There are few ideas, thinkers, or writers that Scialabba does not engage with, even fewer philosophical concepts he hasn’t mastered, and almost no major political or intellectual trend he doesn’t address. And though he suspects that the ideal of “the intellectual as ‘anti-specialist,’ uniting political and aesthetic interests and able to speak with some authority about both,” may now be obsolete, Scialabba’s own essays prove otherwise. His lucid, expository prose and wide range of reference call to mind many of those anti-specialist intellectuals he writes about so penetratingly, from Lionel Trilling and Irving Howe to George Orwell and Dwight MacDonald. Yet far from being a throwback, Scialabba is a deeply engaged interpreter of the political present; a committed radical whose eloquence and erudition make him, or should make him, required reading even for those who may not share his political views (or his admiration for Noam Chomsky, say). When he won the National Book Critics Circle Citation for Excellence in Reviewing in 1992, he said in his acceptance speech that what he prizes above all in the writers he most cherishes is their disinterestedness. “I mean that rare and (for me, anyway) supremely difficult ability to care more for getting things right than for winning arguments, for understanding rather than for being admired,” he explained. In a culturally and politically divisive time, Scialabba is a model of what intellectual inquiry should look and sound like. In a better world, he would merit the prestige and devotion heaped on flabbier thinkers.
All of which conspires to make his latest book, How to Be Depressed, such a mixed reading pleasure. On the one hand, one is grateful for the characteristically insightful and socially committed thought that Scialabba brings to the thorny issue of clinical depression. In the book’s opening chapter, for instance, originally published as a standalone essay in The Baffler, Scialabba considers various ways in which a government could do more for its chronically depressed citizens, including giving them some form of financial assistance. “Chronic depression is very hard on lifetime earnings; and like many other people’s, my retirement account is in trauma just now,” he writes. I suppose one could question just how seriously Scialabba means us to take this—to put it mildly—naïve idea, but one is less likely to dismiss it out of hand given the description of depression that precedes it: “The pain of a severe clinical depression is the worst thing in the world. To escape it, I would do anything.”
Yet the pleasure, if we can call it that, of reading How to be Depressed becomes more vexed in the book’s second, and longest, chapter, “Documentia.” It is an account of the author’s mental life viewed through the treatment notes of the many psychiatrists and therapists he has been a patient of since 1969, when he experienced his first depressive episode. In an introductory note, Scialabba refers to these records as “a form of anti-writing,” since they were never meant for publication and can hardly be said to have been written in any literary sense at all. Usually no longer than a paragraph or two, they oscillate between the impersonal and the personal, from referring to Scialabba simply as “Patient” to noting that “Mr. S had a new haircut, which also seemed to be a source of some anxiety.”
From these medical missives the reader gradually begins to piece a life together. George Scialabba was born in East Boston, the son of Italian immigrants, and grew up a devout Catholic. He went on to attend Harvard, where he joined Opus Dei, a religious order within the Catholic Church whose orthodoxy ran contrary to Scialabba’s burgeoning intellectual ambitions. In August 1969, while debating whether to attend Harvard Law School or Columbia University in New York, a religious crisis precipitated his first major depressive episode. Scialabba sought professional help and was described by a doctor at the Psychiatric Clinic at Harvard University as “often paralyzed by self-doubts and unable to be decisive.” He went on to attend Columbia but soon suffered another breakdown and dropped out. Upon returning to Cambridge, he was pronounced “a very troubled man [with] borderline personality with obsessive-compulsive features.”
Scialabba’s next major depressive episode occurred in 1981, when he was a 33-year-old receptionist at the Center for International Studies at Harvard, as well as a contributor of book reviews for The Village Voice. A “neatly groomed, articulate young man,” he was nevertheless anxious, sleepless, and occasionally impotent, not to mention “unable to decide about anything,” including whether to continue with therapy. He feared that breaking with his religious upbringing had been a mistake, and worried that he had not accomplished enough, a source of anxiety that only intensified with age. By 1987, a doctor noted that Scialabba “has had a variety of low-level jobs and although he functions adequately in them, he is certainly not living up to his intellectual potential at all.” He was often envious of friends who published in more prestigious magazines or taught at elite universities. In contrast to his peers, Scialabba saw himself as a “dabbler” and as “butterfly-like,” floating from one thing to another without being able to commit. There was occasional talk of obtaining a teaching position or of writing a book, but nothing ever came of it.
Additionally, there are the many medications Scialabba’s doctors have plied him with: Wellbutrin, Zoloft, Effexor, Parnate, Serax, Prozac, Ativan, Klonopin, Zyprexa, Valium. (In a later entry on drugs, Scialabba writes that the only people to have benefited from antidepressants are “pharmaceutical executives and investors,” a disappointingly unjust claim.) For whatever reason, Scialabba has not had luck with any of them, and at age 57 felt that his depression was “worse than ever.” A string of romantic relationships had gone nowhere and his professional career was stalled. Eventually, as a last-ditch effort, he signed up for electro-convulsive therapy treatment. It quite possibly saved his life. “If you are in unbearable distress, you should consider it,” Scialabba later writes.
Such are the contours of Scialabba’s mental life as seen through five decades of doctors’ notes. I can’t say it’s something I particularly enjoyed reading, but I don’t regret it either. It conveys an accurate sense of the sheer tedium of depression and the desperate and unwavering desire on the part of the sufferer to be rid of it. This will be familiar to anyone who has read the “classics” of the depression memoir genre, such as William Styron’s Darkness Visible or Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind. What makes Scialabba’s account stand out is that it shows just how incommunicable a disease depression is. It is an affliction that monstrously consumes narrative, making it almost impossible for the sufferer to explain his plight. There is no sense of narrative order in “Documentia,” no beginning or end, no trajectory of progress or remission. There is just the aimless repetition of one day feeling awful and the other day slightly less awful, without hope of one day feeling cured.
But the human proclivity to narrative is irrepressible, and surely one way of dealing with depression is to counterbalance its incomprehensibility with, precisely, narrative. For Scialabba, that narrative begins with his religious crisis at age 21. In a conversation with his friend Christopher Lydon, which makes up the third chapter of How to be Depressed, he describes it in the following terms:
Before I left Opus Dei and the Church, I thought it was a great gain rather than a great loss. I thought I had discovered the truth about the universe, and that by leaving I would be placing myself in the ranks of a great army of liberation going all the way back to the first modern philosophers and especially the philosophes of the Enlightenment. I felt tremendously lucky and proud to be a drop in that great wave of progress and truth. And then, when I actually did it, walked out the door, I discovered that religion had been a kind of drug for me, or a safety net or scaffolding. And the reaction I felt was one of agitation and anxiety. Now I was to be on my own for a lifetime—and possibly eternity, just in case I happened to be wrong. I was terribly frightened.
In one of his essays, Scialabba describes the thrill of first encountering Kant’s famous definition of Enlightenment as “humankind’s emergence from its own, self-imposed minority,” and as a progressive he is necessarily proud to be modern, if by modern we mean valuing democracy, individual autonomy, and the freedom to question tradition and authority. These achievements of modernity—not to mention more tangible ones like sanitation, agricultural innovation, and modern medicine—should not be taken for granted. But as Scialabba writes elsewhere, being a modern individual also brings its own difficulties: “In one perspective, modern intellectual history seems a kind of ascetic frenzy, a continual renunciation of consoling, structure-providing, community-creating illusions.”
Scialabba is deeply sensitive to what is too often the exclusive province of conservative thinkers: religious belief, metaphysical suffering, and communal loyalty. (He writes brilliantly about anti-modernists like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Christopher Lasch.) In an essay on the Australian sociologist John Carroll, he goes so far as to entertain the idea that modernity may have been a mistake. During the second half of the 20th century, he writes, “an epidemic of spiritual emptiness descended: alienation, consumerism, and the loneliness of mass society. Perhaps, as a minority of modern thinkers have always believed, we cannot live by reason alone.”
In other words, we may have acquired more freedom than we know what to do with. To be modern is to suffer from an abundance of choices (and I don’t just mean choosing which movie to watch on Netflix). Making the difficult choice not to believe in one’s childhood faith, as Scialabba did when he was a young man, is one of those modern choices, and without question one of the more difficult. The vacancy left by that decision, and the lifelong struggle to fill it, is felt, not just on every page of How to be Depressed, but on almost every page Scialabba has ever written. To say that this is to the benefit and enrichment of his readers will surely be scant consolation for the suffering author.
Is it going too far to suggest that Scialabba’s depression could be interpreted, at least in part, as a response to the vertigo of modernity? Another way of framing the question might be: Is depression solely a matter of chemical imbalances or altered neural circuits? If so, one imagines treating it would be fairly straightforward, yet that is clearly not the case. (Anyone who has suffered from depression, or lived with someone suffering from it, knows that it is never simply a case of administering the right dose of medicine.) The afflicted is thus condemned to look beyond a strictly medical treatment, but what that means exactly remains stubbornly elusive for most. In the interview with Christopher Lydon, Scialabba quotes D. H. Lawrence: “Man has little needs and deeper needs. We have fallen into the mistake of living from our little need until we have almost lost our deeper needs in a sort of madness.”
Whatever else Scialabba has achieved during these difficult decades, I can only hope the knowledge that he has taught his readers to live with greater awareness of their deeper needs has made at least some of that pain worth it.