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The "Psychic Economics" of Creativity and Depression

Question: Why is there such a marked connection between creative people and depression?

Rick Moody: I think it’s in "Mourning and Melancholia" that Freud said something about melancholics having a unique perspective on civilization, but at what cost?  You know? And that’s sort of my experience too... that the unhappier parts of my career enabled me to say the more trenchant things perhaps, but I’m not satisfied with the sort of psychic economics of that because if I’m not happy enough to finish the book or too miserable to be able to want to do my job, it doesn’t matter what truths I’m capable of scaring up in my brain at that time.  

I don’t know why it is exactly that creativity and depression go hand in hand, but I’m sort of happy that they do insofar that there has to be someone who is able to stand enough outside of civilization to comment on it.  Maybe it’s just a kind of exile.  You know, when Joyce says, “Silence, exile and cunning are the ways to become great artists,” in "Portrait of the Artist as the Young Man"... I take the exile part to heart.  You need to be able to sit outside a little bit, to look clearly at what’s happening, but that also presupposes that you’re not in society and thus not part of its happy throngs.  

Question:
Have anti-depressant medications hurt our culture's creativity?

Rick Moody: I was talking to Mary Gaitskill about this, the novelist Mary Gaitskill, and we were particularly discussing the suppression of libido in contemporary anti-depressant medication.  And her theory was that, you had to be sad a little bit in order to have great sex.  So the two go hand in hand.  As you suppress the sadness, you also suppress the sexual impulse in some way and you sort of go contentedly along in life incapable of the most passionate moments, you know?  And it’s possible that something similar happens to art.  If you sort of have everybody operating at this contented mean, you don’t enable the sorts of outrage or the kinds of passionate enthusiasm that make important art happen.  

I mean I suspect, I’ve never been on Prozac or any of those kinds of medications, but I suspect that people who are still enjoy great art and are perfectly capable of liking a great novel no matter how challenging it is, you know? And they would say it’s not... that their medication is not interruptive of that experience. But then how does it work for the people who make it, you know?  

David Wallace is perhaps an example.  You know, I think his depression enabled him to be the great artist that he was.  It also was perhaps the thing that killed him, you know?  But it’s also true that he was unable to finish a novel after "Infinite Jest," and he was on medication for awhile.  So who knows, maybe there is some connection there.

Recorded July 28, 2010

Interviewed by David Hirschman

"The unhappier parts of my career enabled me to say the more trenchant things," says the novelist. But "if I’m not happy enough to finish the book ... it doesn’t matter what truths I’m capable of scaring up."

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