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Monday, February 27, 2006

Is Depression Delusional?

For all the verbiage in your archetypical indie comic--let's just use Chris Ware as the best example ever of this--there seems to be an unasked question that's posed over and over again by the art: is depression delusional? It's something that could stand to be asked more often in other venues, because the answer would seem to be kinda yes. Depression is something that, more than anything else, changes your perceptions--it takes an object, a person, an activity, or an idea that you previously had a positive or neutral attitude toward and turns it negative, and no matter how much you might try to rationally convince yourself it's not true, it's a perception you can't shake. It overtakes your mind and refuses to leave. You perceive things--emotions, value judgments, opinions, sure, but things nevertheless--that aren't there, or that probably aren't there anyway. And it does this in a way that seems like a veil has been lifted, that a curtain has been drawn, rather than that it's simply another overlay. Before, life seemed worth living, now it doesn't, and not because anything happened--life seems like it was never worth living, or that it hasn't been worth living for some time now. You were a fool for thinking otherwise.

And so while the text of a comic might stick pretty strictly to reality, the visuals depicting said reality quite frequently diverge by depicting the interior life of the narrator or characters and then taking those to a certain conclusion while the text continues as before. It's a reliable, if greatly embellished, model of that interior life, but the way it's presented has a physicality that mere thoughts do not. This is one of the things comics do well, of course, playing with the reality of visuals, lacking as they do the full real-world correspondence of the movies but still having a lot more than regular ol' words. It registers as a passing thought but then when you turn back it's still there. The text is presenting these ideas as transitory but the art is drawing them out in such detail that they acquire a realistic force, and in this way are analagous to the "restless thoughts" syndrome of depressive lying in bed, unable to sleep--modeling it without resorting to the literalism that would require a lot more repetition and self-centered bathos than good art can support. (Most indie comics already pushing at the acceptable limits of self-centered bathos as they are.) When a depressive thinks about these negative perceptions, this is what they do--spinning out imagined situations into the worst possible conclusion, the effort of doing so imprinting in their brains, as if they were studying this worst-case scenario for a test, to the degree that it can seem, in some subconscious way, as if it actually happened, or actually could happen, and this perception overriding any subsequent ones in a frankly delusional way.

This is in its way not unlike religious belief, and more specifically like the similarly unacknowledged push-pull between "good Christianity" and "bad Christianity." Religion is a bit of a delusion too, although of course putting it that way makes it sound like a negative. Still, it's essentially an occupying metaphor that colors the way you see the world. This is something believers are happy to talk about: the way the world looks different after you accept God into your life. But it seems like American evangelicals seem to have a sort of "bad Christianity" going on that's in its way oppositional to "good Christianity" (St. Augustine, tortured faith, scholarly theologism, etc.) in the way that mainstream comics are oppositional to indie comics, or indeed the way mainstream and indie values are seen to be oppositional from the indie perspective. "Good Christianity" is valued, if it is valued at all (and I like to think that it is, though that may itself be delusional), for its acknowledgment of a broken world, of original sin, of human suffering as something that needs to be justified, not excused; lessened, not deducted for year-end faith tax purposes. American evalgelicals seem to work around this by making faith personal, a conversation between yourself and the godhead that acknowledges no one's suffering but your own, and whose ultimate goal is redemption, not acceptance.

But it's a false dichotomy, of course; seeing one view of faith as more legitimate than the other simply because it smiles less is indicative of a reductive worldview and is at least as delusional as the depressive view, although oddly enough this anti-depressive statement is in its own way just as depressive-delusional: the revelation that things are bad is not correct, the one that things are good is. Neither is necessarily true, and this is why faith seems problematic.

Declaring something delusional takes a whole bunch of issues of responsibility off the table. When your mental illness is delusional--that is, when you have full faith in the perceptions that you're basing your actions on--you become a much more passive actor, something that you'd probably want if you're depressive. If your mental illness is one that's not delusional, like, say, Tourette's Syndrome, you become open to charges of fakery and you start to think, ironically enough, that you might actually be delusional--that you are imagining your non-delusional disease. Faith seems easier, but of course when you put it in terms of mental illness, the two are clearly not comparable. Depression or delusion under this scheme is much closer to the "bad Christianity" of unquestioning faith, and the "good Christianity" of wrestling with issues of belief is, oddly enough, not depressive at all. It's declasse--pretentious is maybe more specific--to worry about the reality not of artists but of the world. Luckily, there are backhanded ways of getting at it that artists are deploying all the time.