May. 12th, 2017

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Jim C. Hines has been writing about his depression issues, and one point he keeps bringing up is to say "Depression doesn’t make me creative or smart. My creativity, my work as a writer, these things happen in spite of my depression, not because of it. ... Please stop spreading the bullshit myth that creativity and intelligence are in some way enhanced by mental illness."

Maybe not, at least in his case. And certainly it's better for your mental health not to believe it.

But I'm thinking of two of the twentieth century's most beloved creative artists. And while I don't know whether they suffered from clinical depression or not - and neither does anybody else, because they never got diagnosed or treated for it - they did at least both suffer from profound melancholia so severe that it crippled their social lives, and they were both absolutely convinced that it was the entire engine of their creativity. Which is why they refused to have it treated.

And they may have been right, because a deep sadness and melancholy pervades their best work, and that's what people love it for - though that's along with an equally pervasive sense that you have to accept what life deals you and keep on grappling with it, no matter what happens.

No matter how much the toad work squats on your life. Or no matter how often Lucy snatches away the football.

For the two beloved creative artists I'm thinking of are the English poet Philip Larkin and the American cartoonist Charles M. Schulz. Despite the interesting fact that they were born the same year (1922), they never had any interaction so far as I know, and it would never have occurred to me to think of them together had I not happened to be browsing through biographies of both in close succession.

Then it stunned me how much they have in common, in particular how much that pervasive sadness in their work is responsible for its distinctive character, and - from the biographies - how certain they were that they'd rather live with it than risk losing the creativity they were sure was bound up with it.

Of course, there's more to it than that. Both men's intimates testify that they could be be boon companions, riotous fun to be with; but it's also true that both were totally averse to public lives and rarely appeared there - Larkin had a particular response to the idea of speaking or reading in public; he said "I don't want to go around pretending to be me" - and tended not to travel much, preferring to hole up at home. Larkin had his job as a university librarian; Schulz, who always said he was good at only one thing, had his cartoonist's studio.

There were differences, of course. Larkin, though he never got less melancholy, dried up as a poet in later life, much to his distress, while Schulz, tied to newspaper deadlines, managed to crank them out, publishing a strip daily, with only one short break, for nearly fifty years.

Another difference is that Larkin never married, though he kept a couple of women stringing along for years thinking that he might; an aversion to domestic obligations and to children seem to have been his problems here. Whereas Schulz married twice and had five children. But here's where the melancholia theory really hits the road. Schulz's biographer, David Michaelis, while attributing much of the breakdown of his first marriage to Schulz's inertia and withdrawal, also says that Schulz considered his first wife something of a bully. She was the model for the character of Lucy. Charlie Brown was always saying, "My stomach hurts"; well, Charles Schulz's stomach always hurt. After he divorced and embarked on a much happier second marriage in 1972, his stomach never hurt again, and neither did Charlie Brown's.

But here's the thing. That's also just about the time that Peanuts lost its edge and began to turn into the random mush that disfigured its later years. Maybe he was right: he needed to be unhappy to create great work. Good grief.

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