Corrections: Contemporary American Melancholy

By Toal, Catherine | Journal of European Studies, December 2003 | Go to article overview

Corrections: Contemporary American Melancholy

Toal, Catherine, Journal of European Studies

This paper examines the effect on contemporary American literature of a popular discourse on depression, looking at Rick Moody's memoir The Black Veil, and two novels, Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections and David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. It argues that, despite their differences in style and genre, the three texts gesture towards a shared set of preoccupations regarding the culture of depression, associating it (either critically or inadvertently) with the absence of coherent forms of cultural authority and processes of formation, and with a threat to masculinity.

Keywords: contemporary American novel; depression; masculinity; melancholy; pharmacology


Any discussion of the relationship between 'melancholy' and contemporary literature must take account not only of a continuing theoretical and philosophical debate surrounding the category, but of a recent voluminous expansion--encompassing, most notably for literary studies, the genre of the 'memoir'--in popular discourse on 'depression'. (1) As Abigail Cheever argues, though the development of 'cures' for depression might have been expected to dissolve its cultural importance, the resulting separation between the illness and its symptoms established it, with the help of the memoir, as 'an identity in its own right independent from any particular characteristics or behaviours'. (2) In contrast to this empty but fixed diagnostic frame for selfhood, theoretical discussions of melancholy figure a fluid and shifting concept, capable of advancing either a militant or reactionary politics, of describing the obstacles to but also the very possibility of criticism, and of exploring the fractured incompleteness of identity. (3) The two terms (the 'depression' of the bestselling 'memoir', the 'melancholy' of theory) represent an opposition between a commodified subjectivity and the promise of critical reinvention and reflection.

In this paper I will examine three narratives which, bridging the 'literary' and the 'popular', contain the imprints of a broad cultural preoccupation with 'depression'. The first (Rick Moody's The Black Veil) (4) is a 'depression memoir' by a novelist; the other two are novels (Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections (5) and David Foster Wallace's The Infinite Jest) (6) whose language and plots register the impact of therapy, pharmacology and the terminology of clinical psychology. In addition to reflecting the cultural dominion of a 'therapeutic' discourse, these texts often highlight the social preconditions both of its classificatory power, and of the inner experiences that it is supposed to characterize. Each writer's landscape contains markedly similar motifs: the grip of narcotic or media stimulation; the collapse of fatherly authority; and the rise of a dislocated, disoriented adult selfhood. However, despite their scrutiny of 'depression', all three narratives yield ground to the values and assumptions which drive its ascendancy. Their sustained engagement with the popular lexicons of mental health ultimately formulates an incapacity to claim a robust critical authority--one that might imagine identities which escape the designations of self-help jargon, or resist the malleable, vacant kind of subjectivity confected in the asocial void of 'entertainment'. The resulting impasse, in these texts by young male authors, also traces the contours of a crisis in masculinity, whose 'traditional' and patriarchal forms are seen as being--or are inadvertently revealed to be--under siege both from the reduction of the self to a set of symptoms, and the replacement of social formation with recreation and addiction. Due to their ambivalent relationship with cultural authority, the three writers are inclined to affirm and occasionally exalt the shapeless masculinity generated by the very social ills--and accompanying 'remedies'--that they resist and criticize.

I would suggest that, in their compromises with the dystopia they confront, the memoir and novels betray the symptoms of a specifically 'American' cultural ideology, which takes all processes of formation for mechanisms of control, and any advocacy of particular ones for an illegitimate arrogation of authority. …

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