Book Review: Against Depression (Peter D. Kramer).

Introduction:

Cover of "Against Depression"
Cover of Against Depression

Against Depression by Peter D. Kramer is an astonishing volume. It is not your standard work on a mental disorder – in fact, the title is both misleading and exactly on point. Against Depression is not so much about explaining and treating depression as it is a polemic literally against depression. Kramer effortlessly skips across a wide variety of knowledge clusters to formulate his argument, as comfortable delving into artistic exegesis of paintings to literary analysis of any of a variety of authors – modern and past, and then again into the depths of history and the cutting edge of scientific discovery – especially in the arena of the biological and physiological nature of depression.

Synopsis:

Kramer argues that (a) humanity has a bias against the curing of depression because (b) we are afraid that some positive traits/activity will be lost if the depressed are cured (e.g. moody, brooding literary and artistic works; a deep understanding of pain; alienation (against tyranny); hope for a better world) but that (c) the result of curing depression would be a fuller humanity, not a lesser one.

Literary Merit:

Kramer’s work is a piece of art. Kramer shows an almost infinite capability to string together diverse topics and observations to make cognizant arguments. He is as comfortable discussing literary and artistic analysis as philosophy, psychotherapy, and the latest cutting edge science relating to the biological and physiological nature of depression. There is the unfortunate fact that someone’s editor didn’t do the best job proof-reading in two or three chapters1The number of errors in these several chapters are almost stunning, especially in comparison to the rest of the volume. I am wondering if these chapters were inserted at the end and did not receive the same rigorous process as the rest of the book, though the chapters themselves are interspersed throughout the book, not appearing chronologically at the end.. Besides this, Kramer’s writing is much more a philosophical work than anything else and it carries a philosopher’s tone. It is not the easy reading one has come to expect from lay-illness volumes – not only in its vocabulary but in the concepts it communicates and the time and space Kramer dedicates to these concepts. Still, the volume is extremely well-done and the task which Kramer has undertaken is a massive one, which we will discuss a little later, and as such one can lend little criticism against a volume that undertakes such as an impossible task.

Do We Fear The Cure?

Kramer is able to convincingly argue that we do fear a cure for depression. We believe that depression is part of our humanity – while it may not be in every person we cannot imagine some people without it. We wonder if by curing their depression we are in fact simply muting a portion of their personality, forcing everyone into a standard definition of humanity with little room for differentiation. Kramer reports repeatedly receiving the question, “What if prozac had been available to…?” (Nietzsche, van Gogh, Poe, Woolf). In other words, would we not lose the intellectual and artistic drive that this depression caused?2Neither Kramer, nor I in my agreement with him, believe that treatment can be pursued without any consideration for its effect on the personality. In fact, Kramer acknowledges that treatment can affect the personality – but suggests that this is because we have blunt treatments, not the fine surgical ones we need. His polemic indicates a desire to carefully advance the treatment of depression with consideration for the larger dangers of affecting personality. At the same time, he (and I, following after in his shadow) would suggest that depression itself is a disease and that the treatment of a disease with the right tools is the right thing, without question.

But It Isn’t Honorable…

Kramer goes on to argue that we don’t give other diseases this distinction – we don’t suggest that individuals should keep their cancer or their heart disease. We don’t claim that there is something inherently valuable that adds to a person’s personality in the illness. Yes, there may be something that the individual learns, but this is not inherent in the illness itself. He suggests that we can ask the question if illness is every useful, but that this question cannot be posed to depression specifically, but must be posed across the board to all diseases. In other words, it is unfair to pick out one group of sufferers who we choose must suffer so that humanity can benefit from the lessons they learn, while all other sufferers are treated.

Kramer goes on to demonstrate from cutting edge research that depression does not advance a person’s abilities to think and create but rather dulls them and that the research indicates long-term, irreversible damage to the physiological structure of the brain is caused by depression.

A Better Future…

Kramer attempts to draw a picture of a future without depression and suggests that it would create a better humanity, not a shallower, more bland humanity. He suggests that the fullness of personality is restored in healing from depression, not caused by depression. That the characteristics we see in the depressed individual while sometimes admirable in and of themselves (e.g. unrest with the current life situation) are not valuable when they come from disease rather than a person’s own personality.

Conclusion…

A fascinating philosophical read that at its deepest asks what it means to be fully human and what role depression plays in encouraging or discouraging humanity, as well as evaluating our historical literary and artistic preference for works created by and about depressive themes to those of more brightness – and whether this indicates an inherent greater value in these works or a taint to humanity that we desire such.

Movie Review: Traitor (Don Cheadle, R)

Traitor
Traitor (Image via RottenTomatoes.com)

Charity and I recently watched Traitor and thoroughly enjoyed it. Normally, I might not have picked the title up – the preview while interesting wasn’t amazing – but Don Cheadle is a huge draw for me in any film, since his amazing work with Hotel Rwanda (on the Rwandan Genocide) and his advocacy repeatedly for an end to the genocide in Darfur (Sudan).

Traitor tells the story of a American counter-terrorism agent (played by Cheadle) who strongly follows Islam as his religious faith and becomes embroiled in activities which point to his swapping sides and assisting the terrorists. The film excels not because of its action sequences – in fact, those looking for mindless action films should look elsewhere – but because of its flawless maintenance of suspense (is Cheadle a terrorist or a U.S. agent?) and its deep philosophical considerations of the nature of the current war on terror.

Traitor is rated R mainly for language, though there is also violence throughout. While not as heart-string tugging as Hotel Rwanda it certainly deserves an important place on the DVD shelves as yet another title that provokes wisdom inducing and positive action fostering through its faithful and honest struggles with real issues.

Movie Review: 9 (Tim Burton).

Introduction

9 is a new animated film based upon an Academy Award nominated short of the same name. The film attracts attention for a intriguing preview, an all-star cast, and (perhaps most importantly) the attachment of Tim Burton’s name to the film (as a producer). But don’t expect your normal animated tale – not even your normal abnormal tale from Tim Burton (ala The Nightmare Before Christmas or Corpse Bride).

For Children?

While the merits of allowing children to watch Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas or The Corpse Bride may be questionable at best, 9 seems to push far beyond the macabre and dark humor of these films. We should have known when the MPAA chose to rate 9 PG-13 while Nightmare and Corpse had both received only PG ratings.

The entire premise of 9 is dark – a post-apocalyptic world in which humanity has been utterly destroyed and only stitchpunk dolls imbued with a soul survive. The stitchpunk dolls stumbling over the dead bodies of humans – soldiers, women, and children – is disturbing enough but the real scares are reserved for the horrifying mechanical monstrosities the stitchpunk dolls must face.

But Is It Good?

In spite of Tim Burton’s strangeness many thoroughly enjoy his films – and his repeated pairing with Johnny Depp – but this film is so different from Burton films that one has to consider it on its own merits. It should not be considered a Burton film (and it is not, though he participated Acker is the main brains).

The film is beautifully rendered (even the dark and morbid aspects are done with artistic finesse). One is drawn into the world and with a little imagination the film world takes on a reality all its own. That said, after twenty minutes I was fidgeting and wishing, “When will this film end?” The storyline consists almost entirely of stitchpunks fighting monsters – defeating or semi-defeating monsters – and then repeating the cycle. The fight scenes are amazingly rendered, the explosions and conflicts engrossing – but while the enemies vary it feels somewhat like an old-fashioned nintendo video game in which the levels repeat over and over with little variation.

Further, the film is painful to watch – not because of the elimination of humanity but because of the constant and growing suffering of the stitchpunks. While one never gets extremely attached to the stitchpunks the minute rendering of the terror of the suffering and the mourning of those left behind is agonizing. At times I wondered, “Will this film end with defeat?” For most of the film its defeat piled upon defeat. Hope is smashed repeatedly and the world draws ever closer to oblivion. Each chance at victory is spoiled and with it another character is heart wrenchingly destroyed.

But Does It Teach Us?

A film can be painful and boring and yet still have a deeply powerful message. Unfortunately, while 9 had great potential to engage us on important cultural and spiritual topics – it falls flat. It tackles a number of interesting ideas but with such brevity and amidst so many distractions that the opportunity for discussion is nearly lost. Here are a few implications I drew from the film (I am not indicating agreement with this ideas – personally I hold a Protestant Christian worldview):

  • The stitchpunks creation/existence correlates with human creation. In this sense, we are god and god ceased to exist as a separate entity in order to create us.
  • god was/is not a greater intelligence but rather another intelligence. The act of creation was an act of survival rather than an act of infinite wisdom and grace.
  • 1 represents institutional religion/political order. These are safe but prevent us from experiencing progress.
  • 9 is a post-modern revolutionary who attempts to move humanity forward. 9’s attempts result in great suffering for mankind. While revolutionary and de-construction may result in gradual advancement, the costs are extremely high.
  • A dystopian view of technological/scientific advancement. Our advancements will one day destroy us.
  • At the same time, an endorsement of radical innovation and rebellion (as 9 epitomizes), yet seemingly with less of a focus on technological/scientific advancement.
  • The death of stitchpunks and the release of their souls is the food to renew the world, to start the evolutionary process again from the beginning.

Concluding Remarks:

9 is well-done artistically and may be viewed on these merits with enjoyment. Those looking for deep, thought provoking storylines and a enjoyable viewing will be disappointed. The worldview presented by the movie – or the extrapolations which one may carry from it – will be disconcerting to many audiences. The film should be watched with a contemplative eye that understands the worldview presented and adequately responds to the truths and untruths presented. The film is certainly not for children. It is not unnecessarily gory, but it is continually suspenseful, frightening in its tension, and dark in its portrayal of death and life.