26 Mar

The New Black: Mourning, Melancholia & Depression by Darian Leader – reviewed by Hilary Mantel in The Guardian

Darian Leader’s short, provocative and fascinating book casts doubt on the very term “depression”. It is too flat, too ubiquitous, and it is the invention, he says, of the modern drugs industry, which has both described the problem and prescribed the solution. Modern “depression” is like sin in the medieval church, a self-validating money-spinner. Leader prefers the older, more complex ideas of mourning and melancholia, and his book is a Freud-inflected study of human loss and how we incorporate it, how we shape ourselves around it. The person who is in mourning knows, more or less, what he has lost: his wife, his job, the argument he’s been conducting all his life. The melancholic cannot easily name what’s missing. When we are bereaved we lose ourselves, forfeit our identities, as it may be, as wife or daughter or sister. It is a simple point, but one often forgotten in dealing with those whom loss has invaded and deformed. The melancholic person has lost self-regard; he can no longer see his own shape.

Leader’s distinction between melancholia and protracted and difficult mourning may not be entirely convincing, but his book is worth an armful of vapid self-help tracts, and goes beyond the realm of psychology into sharp social critique. How do we live with loss? How do we remember the past without giving it power over us? Is mourning ever finished? Currently favoured treatments are aimed at curtailing it. They are framed to change the patient’s behaviour, not address his mental state, and aimed at suppressing symptoms rather than removing the need for them. Leader employs a brutal analogy: quick-fix remedies work in the same way as a missile strike works on a terrorist base. In the short term it looks successful, but it does nothing to alter the terrorist mindset. When loss and misery enter our lives, we are impatient to condense a process that, by nature or through talking therapies, can only be worked out over years. We want a name for our condition, and we want a timetable. Even mourning has become target-driven; we are supposed to move through loss in key stages, like schoolchildren, and to lag behind is to demonstrate a pathology.

So what’s to be done? Mass psychotherapy is by the nature of the process impossible. The problem can be reframed, though: taken away from the medics, and given back to the humanities, to the artists. The artist’s work is a protest against loss. He makes something, where nothing was there before, and often makes it out of the mourning garments of his own life, patches it together from his own losses and deficits. The “work of mourning” is about communication, Leader says, and it is about creativity. “Freud names not psychoanalysis but culture as the only possible panacea for the terrible demands that civilised life places on us. In other words, he is saying that it is the arts that can save us.”

Darian Leader presented a workshop on Mourning, Melancholia & Depression, run by the Albany Focus Group in St Albans on 17th March 2012.