Depression and The Brothers Karamazov as Remedy

One thing I am very aware that this blog lacks is any personal narrative, a story you can latch on to and go along for the ride. My “blog” is not about my personal struggle with X disease, or my experience being of being thrust into raising quintuplets. Nor is it any other type of personal journey I am on that might be shared by some other person across the world who is searching for comfort and inspiration from others that share his/her same condition.

But of course we all have our afflictions. My ailment is probably the most common of all. The more common the condition, the less people care—understandably so. Nobody blogs about living life being 10 pounds overweight. But I’ll state my deal anyway: 5 days out of the week, I wake up and spend most of my day doing something that is the antithesis of my being. And the other 2 days of the week, I’m consumed with dread thinking about how I spend 5 days out of the week doing something that….

At any rate, I’m looking for something else, and maybe you’re an undocumented worker with three children and you pick strawberries and would kill to do what I do. Maybe you have balloons of heroin in your intestines, and whether you will survive long enough to finish reading this is up in the air. It’s true, it can always get worse.

But I digress.

A long time ago I sold women’s shoes at Macy’s and thought that job was the worst I could possibly do. Looking back, I was wrong because I at least had social interaction and became friends with many of my co-workers, but that’s not the point. The actual point of this post concerns literature as therapy. Whether it’s successful therapy or not, that depends. But before I get into The Brothers Karamazov, in Larry McMurtry’s Duane’s Depressed, which is the third book of the Last Picture Show, Texasville trilogy, Duane is prescribed to read the 3,000 page In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust to get over his depression.

I very much like to imagine the Duane in the film “The Last Picture Show” as played by the then very young Jeff Bridges, living his full life in West Texas and eventually finding himself in his 60’s reading a 3,000 page book about French aristocrats. Sorry Texas, but it’s difficult to picture any 60 year old native Texan reading Proust, although I’m sure it happens now and then. In the book Duane’s psychiatrist makes him read the incredibly lengthy book that he can barely follow, and to not give up until the end. Throughout Duane’s Depressed he cannot figure out the point in reading a novel that he doesn’t particularly enjoy, about people a half world away he has nothing in common with. It isn’t that In Search of Lost Time holds any secret, or magically administers Prozac through the eyes, but rather it is a something to separate Duane from his reality on a measured, continued basis—even if his eyes glaze over while turning the pages. And that ultimately is the revelation of the “prescription.”

Back to The Brothers Karamazov. dsc_0189I was 24, 25 when I read it. I was in one of those dead sea dating zones between having lost my college girlfriend of 4 years to someone else, and not finding a soul to move on with. I was selling shoes, as I said, living in a 1 bedroom apartment, driving a 1984 Toyota Corolla, and writing the kind of poetry I pray to God I have completely destroyed lest someone find it after I die. On my lunch break, I would walk out to my car in the parking lot, sit in the driver seat, and read The Brothers Karamazov. Usually I’d do so while eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that had reached 120+ degrees in the morning heat, washing them down with equally warmed water. Ahead of me, through the windshield, from time to time I would look up from the book and watch small birds fly in and out of a hedge. I barely remember anything about the story. I think there’s a patricide, I’m pretty sure there are three brothers, I know there’s some priest or monk that goes on and on for days on end about morality, and I vaguely recall something about someone climbing in through a garden window. That’s it. I’m not even sure if that qualifies as a claim to have read the novel.

And yet as I looking at my copy today, despite all that I have going on in my life right now, I’m thinking that re-reading this book would be just what the doctor ordered if I could simply find the time. Currently I’m the father of an awesome 7 month old girl, I work full time, I’m a husband, I’m in the midst of writing a TV pilot, I’m looking for a job, I have a yard full of weeds celebrating a healthy rainy season, I have this blog I want to maintain, I want to be active again and find time to exercise, and the list goes on. So how do I even think about committing to 1,000 pages of Dostoyevsky that I already read and didn’t all that enjoy the first time around? And why on Earth would I do that? There are so many other titles I might enjoy better and be less commanding of my time and attention.

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The Modern Library edition contains about 9 little illustrations at each part.

Well, the “why” is in part because I’m a better reader now than I was when I was 25, and maybe it will be a different experience. But even if it wouldn’t be different this time around, The Brothers Karamazov is exactly the kind of book to read without really reading, to escape daily life and scramble up the wiring of your brain trying to focus on a tedious exercise it’s only half interested in. Sure, you could get the same effect by reading the Dictionary, but this is still Dostoyevsky we’re talking about—a thousand pages you get to spend with a genius. And with great writers, even if your mind drifts while reading, there will be passages absorbed by osmosis, and sentences so expertly crafted and piercing that you are removed from your women’s shoe-selling life and transported into a Russian drawing room, circa 1878 (or whenever it is the novel taken place). So opposite are books like In Search of Lost Time and The Brothers Karamazov to anybody’s modern experience, they are the perfect remedy to sustain a continued separation from your daily experience over a long period of time. And isn’t that what any anti-depressant does—rough out those edges long enough for conditions in life to naturally improve?

As with any medicine, sometimes the hard part is simply taking it as much and as often and as regular as you have to in order to be well. In my case, I think the weeding will have to wait.

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