Are We Really Depressed?

b y Ha l Medzvieck i  Non-fiction depression literature is a  pretty lame genre filled with personal  accounts, self-help programs,  inflammatory warnings, and many  many patronizing titles like: Helping  Your Depressed Teenager (that book was  checked out when I looked for it at the  library). Typically, these texts diagnose  depression, bandy around statistics,  impart on the seriousness of the  problem and offer up anecdotes about  people who stop eating, lose their jobs,  get taken to the hospital and find help  in a successful regimen of mind  numbing drugs and counseling.  In these books, depression is  largely a personal matter. It has  nothing to do with society, and even  less to do with desire and desire’s  ultimate expression: creativity. Here’s a  sample quote I culled from a  psychological textbook. It comes from a  passage entitled Suicide Among the  Young.

“Since the mid-1960s,” it says,  “the suicide rate among young people  aged fifteen to twenty-four has climbed  steadily. Psychologists and other  observers have suggested a number of  factors: effect of parental divorce, fears  about the future, stresses stemming  from school or parental pressure.”  Wow. That’s about as insightful as it  gets when the depression cannon  makes connections between the strange  world we were born into, and the way  we find ourselves squirming around in  it.  Nevertheless, it is from texts like  these that we (and television writers)  establish our highly developed sense of  cliché. So our stereotype of depression  is what? Wane people who don’t even  have the will to sit up in bed long  enough to eat six handfuls of pills?  Confused adolescents penning bad  poetry, listening to Marilyn Manson,  being ignored by their fighting parents  and moving zombie-like toward their  fateful end as either prozac or suicide  statistics?  For the most part, the writings on  depression obligingly put forth by the  profit-minded textbook and self-help  publishing industry refer to the  “psychoneurotic order marked by  sadness, inactivity, difficulty in  thinking and concentration, a  significant increase or decrease in  appetite and time spent sleeping,  feelings of dejection and hopelessness,  and sometimes suicidal tendencies.”  This kind of depression is seen in 1 to 2  percent of men and 3 to 4.6 percent of  women in North America.

Now, while I  might make the occasional glib  reference to pills, carbon monoxide  poisoning and counseling, these  sarcasms are not meant to make light of  the serious nature of major depression  or suicide. Rather, my comments are an  attempt to put some distance between  the societal archetype of depression (as  documented in the writings on the  subject which run the gamut from  hysterical to hopelessly dry) and the  actuality of the experience of young  people in Canada (and, by extension,  in North America). In other words,  depression is a serious illness, but it  isn’t what most young people mean  when they say that they are depressed.  “I’ve been doing zines for eight  years and the main reason I started  was because I was depressed,” says  Brandon of St. Catharines, whose  current zine is called All Day I Dream  About Suicide (a.d.i.d.a.s.). “Beside the  music stuff, all the writing comes from  being depressed. When I’m in a good  mood I hardly work on it. The last  month has been great, I haven’t written  anything except CD reviews.”  What Brandon calls depression, I  would describe as “a vague sense of  mental or moral ill-being.”

This is not  just another definition of depression.  It’s the dictionary definition of my  favourite noun: malaise.  Malaise is a much more useful  term by which to attempt to make  generalizations on the relationship  between mental state, society and  culture. The beauty of malaise is that it  carries few connotations – it isn’t an  instant stereotype, it’s an evocative  and complex word that could and does  mean more than its dictionary  definition. Would it be fair to say that  the majority of people under thirty  frequently give voice to malaise?  Brandon isn’t depressed ~ neither  according to the textbook definition,  nor according to the collective image  we have of depression as being a  paralyzing force unlikely to be the  impetus for creative endeavours like  zines.

So forget depression. Let’s make  the word malaise ours. Let’s adopt it as  the one truth everyone between the  ages of thirty to fifteen can share. Let’s all join hands and shout it out together:  We are the malaise generation!  Whee, didn’t that feel good. Of  course we never would join hands. We  are too self conscious, not to mention  too busy. We are busy being jealous of  our friends, bickering/working our  mindless low-wage jobs, doing drugs,  drinking booze, dealing with the  burden of our barely acknowledged  lusts and going to school (or trying to  get into a school to go to). We are busy  looking good with our toques pulled  down over our greasy hair. Those of us  who feel particularly loopy and outside  the trade-school attitude overtaking  our universities and colleges are busy  indulging in various creative  endeavors. These creative acts typically  involve some form or other of pop art:  writing, drawing, painting, film- making and otherwise giving voice to  our malaise.  Malaise culture is not a culture  where people sit around and talk about  how pointless it is to do things.

Vancouver cartoonist Brad Yung  portrays young hipsters actually  practicing their apathy skills. “I don’t  care, I don’t care, I don’t care,” one  bespectacled young man repeats to  himself over a cup of coffee. Such an  act – no* to mention imagining that act  and drawing it ~ tells us that malaise is  a proactive affliction; it isn’t something  that just happens, but something you  have to work at. This also tells us that  malaise culture views expression as  paramount, particularly creative  expression. Much of this creativity,  however, is interpreted by those  outside the culture as depressed or  angst-ridden. But is it? Or are these  apparently angst-ridden creative acts  actually attempts to say something that  is not at all about depression? Angela,  creator of the suburban Toronto zines  Happy Nightmare Baby and Hope’s  Spanish Eyes, explains it this way:  “I think for me being negative is  much more accessible than writing  something positive…I don’t think our  arts, books and movies are meant to be  depressing, but they do result in a  pattern of frustration and rejection  leading to depression. All of us try to  make things positive in the process of  doing what we do. Sadly it  disintegrates because it never ends the  way we had hoped. We are caught up  in the outside world and it affects what  we do.”  As Angela perceptively suggests,  many malaise creators are expressing  sentiments that go beyond society’s  ability or willingness to understand  them. As such they are labelled weird  (a common term for work that appears  negative or depressing). But much of  this work is actually quite positive in  that it supersedes the limits society  places on creativity and, in the process,  reorders social conceptions around  personal and shared experience.

To show you what I mean, I’ll  quote from a song written by Toronto  singer-songwriter Kathy Goldman, The tune is called Prozac Song and is sung  by Goldman with a jovial, repetitive lilt that the words as they appear on the page can only hint at. Still, you’ll get  the idea:  “Its been years of stupid tears/I  felt quite low/who wants to know?/  but the psychiatric team said it would  raise my self esteem and give me a  second chance to live and grow/and I  am lovedy dovey dovey dovey dovey  dovey dovey dove/I had bad R.E.M./  so I tried TM/I was disturbed/so I  tried herbs/it’s really very popular just  ask your family doctor but don’t expect  a new job or a raise/and I am loovey  doovey doovey etc./now there are  those/who criticize/but they don’t  know/till they’ve been through it  themselves/qr until they’ve tried…/for  when I am really groaning it will raise  my seratonin etc.”  Goldman’s stark honesty about  her depression and her use of prozac is  wonderfully offset by her joking  attitude. No doubt that for the  Goldman the song marked a crucial  transition out of being seriously  depressed and into being a proud  progenitor of malaise culture. The song  also demonstrates how it is that  malaise culture turns the stereotypes of  depression and prozac into highly  personal satire.  Robert Hughes, author of the book Culture of Complaint, would probably  argue that Goldman’s song, and  Angela’s zines, are prime examples of a  culture of whiners.

However, I would  argue that Goldman and Angela are  using malaise culture (highly  intelligent, self aware pop art) to reflect  the conflicts in their lives and the way  in which mainstream culture seeks to  turn those real conflicts into surreal,  ungraspable pastiche.  “I find it tedious when older  adults say my zines are very angst- like,” says Angela. “There’s a big  FUCK YOU to loser psychologists who  may consider me some sort of manic  depressive because I tend to be  dramatic in my zine. If they think I’m  depressed, then everyone is depressed  because there are lots of people going  through these kinds of things…My  zines represent my feelings of  resentment and denial at becoming  someone or something. People are  always surprised when they meet me  after reading the zine. They assume I’m  a depressed girl holding a candle with  satin around my bloody wrists.”  What is surprising about malaise  culture is not that so many young  people are caught in the slippery grip  of their insecurities. As Angela points .  out, everybody is. But it is in younger  generations that malaise is articulated – – as opposed to being ignored. In  articulating our malaise, we  accomplish a number of things: We  successfully weed out our insecurities  before they take root and we become —  you guessed it — depressed. (Malaise,  however, is never gone for long.) As  well, the creative act of articulating  malaise is, in itself, a fixture of malaise  culture; We revel in each other’s vague  unease: pronouncements of doom,  general feelings of unhappiness  concerning the course of the world and  one’s life as it fits into that course —  these are the issues we put forth in our  zines, music, films and even more  esoteric art forms.  Malaise is a shared truth. It is an  expressed truth. It is also a self- fulfilling truth because by its very  existence it insists on failure. (The band  Everclear sings: “We can live beside the  ocean….and watch the world die.”  More on that later.) But because  malaise is an open and communal  celebration of our inadequacies and  despairs, it comes as a welcome  contrast to depression. Depression is  the point at which things become  solitary and desperate and altogether  beyond the reach of the creative act.  Depression, you see, is not fun. But  malaise – as cartoonist Yung, singer  Goldman and many others  demonstrate — malaise is fun.  Malaise is way more fun and  playful than its predecessor, angst.

Like  Angela, I reject the angst label for  young generations in North America.  Angst emerges from an existential  position where one ~ having  discovered that god, country, and  relationships are meaningless ~ is  forced to face the solitude of the self in  all its horrible emptiness. In other  words, for us to be angst ridden would  mean that we would be casting off our beliefs in, among other things, the  awesome power of the almighty, the  irrevocable primacy of family, and so  on. However, since we did not grow up  harbouring such convictions, we no  longer have much, if anything, to  reject.  Quebec filmmaker Anne-Claire  Poirier recently made a film called Tou  As Crié Let Me Go (You Cried Out Let Me  Go), a fictional feature based on the real  events which led to the murder of her  twenty-six year-old daughter who was  a herion addict and courted  destruction. “If only I had been able to  offer you a belief in God,” says Poirier  in the film. As seen by the middle-aged  filmmaker, it was her daughter’s  failure to find the values the  existentialists rejected that resulted in  her death. Had the film been made by a  contemporary of Poirier’s daughter it  might have been less a lament and  more a twisted celebration (a Quebec  Trainspotting?). Malaise – our affliction  and our benediction — is truculently  jovial about even the most devestating  events. This is different from the post- WWII angst which can be better  located in the cultural tornado of the  sixties and early seventies. For an all  Canadian angst primer, check out the  short films of the National Film Board’s  ground-breaking Arthur Lipsett.  Masterful film collages like Free Fall  and Very Nice, Very Nice demonstrate  that in the sixties great visionaries were  still essentially grappling with  existentialist conflicts.  An example of good time malaise  culture is to be found in the campy  shrouded gloom of Goth.

Goth is an  interesting phenomenon, a mixture of  sixteenth century European  sensibilities, certain kinds of electronic  music and a congenial interest in death  and the occult.  “I discovered Goth and became  drawn to all of its beauties,” explains  Milena, who produces the Ontario  based sometimes Goth zine Sombre  Souls on Prozac. “Its dress, literature,  music and its fine arts. Sure, I had an  ongoing romance with death, and  perhaps the fact that Goth embraces  that was a connecting force, but  essentially I don’t think it was the  ‘romance of death’ which led me to  actively seek a subculture that I felt a  part of.”  The message in Milena’s statement  is clear: Goth, like many alternative- music subculture scenes, does not  romance death, just its trappings. In  other words, Goth culture nicely  embodies another important tenet of  malaise culture: Malaise is demonstrably egotistic in nature. The  products of malaise culture (and its  various subcultures) are concerned  with the style of substance. How much  style does it take to make substance?  Despite stating that she was  chronically depressed throughout her  adolescence and up to age seventeen,  Milena argues that Goth is not about  depression.  “There are many Goth-inclined  people who do not experience  depression«/’ she says. “They are drawn  to its theatrics, its grace and love for  the past. Some people simply love the  music and dress in homage to their  favourite bands. I think most people  who are depressed are feeling too  apathetic to go out and find something  that interests them anyway. The  seeming connection between Goth and  depression is undeniable, but not the  only truth.”  If Goth is not about death or  depression, is it about malaise? All that  dressing up, enacting rituals, swaying  to vacuous music, it certainly suggests  malaise to me. And if Goth, which is  both the most entertaining and the  most overtly obsessed subculture, is  not about depression, then it is not  hard to apply what Milena tells us  about Goth to a variety of subcultures.  (How about punk’s suburban brother,  grunge?)  Goth is malaise culture all dressed  up, and, as we see from the tongue-in- cheek title of Milena’s zine, it has a  sense of humour. In Goth, as in malaise  culture in general, the intention is to  join together and give voice to unease.  In that sense, malaise culture is more  about catharsis than it is about finding  solutions or becoming active in curing  society’s problems. Screw that. Malaise  is about individuals caught in a social  situation where everything is massed  together to deny individuality. As such,  malaise is a complicated mixture of  group dynamics and individual  pioneers.

When I try to explicate this, I  keep coming back to a particular image  by Toronto artist Eric Aurandt. There is  a film he made which shows himself  reclining in a coffin-shaped, slatted  box. As he rests there, seemingly on guard against nothing, he calmly  smokes cigarettes, eats crackers and  levels his rifle through gaps in the box  and out at the unfriendly world. The  message is one of sublime  anachronism: as we seek to move back  into ourselves and escape the world,  we find the world’s violent, passive  and malignant trappings within  ourselves.  A guy in Regina, Saskatchewan  named Daniel occasionally sends me a  batch of his tiny zines, really an on- going series of his own cryptic  drawings and writings. (“—Sick,  walking in summer stomach something  the painting in Vancouver. Looking  gone. Feeling well.”) Why does Daniel  put these books together and send  them off? He says this: “Basically,  making things makes me feel better. So  that as little as I’ve done, it’s not a  complete waste.” There is the belief  that our lives are wasted before they  have begun. This holds true until we  manage (despite our dumb jobs and  dim futures) to express ourselves in  such a way that we are lifted into a  community of our own making, one  which is capable of understanding our  concerns and validating our way of  thinking.  Thematically, malaise captures the  disdain, disregard and disgust that  both hides and points to our serious  anxieties about the future. Perhaps that  is why malaise product is generally  funny, contemplative, sarcastic, non- profit, superficial, deep, and  profiteering all at the same time. As  zine-maker Angela stated, malaise  culture does not exist in a vacuum.  While textbooks on depression might  not want to make many connections to  society’s dysfunctions, malaise creators  cannot escape doing so. They are  trapped in the confusion of values  apparent in overall society. There is  obviously a link between a pervasive  feeling of malaise in younger people  ‘ and how lame the so-called ‘real’ world  really is; the link exists whether you  are fifteen and looking toward the  future, or twenty-five with two degrees  and waiting for the future to look for  you.

“Good job news excludes youth,”  states a January, 1997 headline in  Canada’s national newspaper the Globe  and Mail. That article goes on to say that  the unemployment rate in Canada for  December 1996 was 9.7%. However, for  those aged 15 to 24 it remained almost  double that at “above 16%”. In 1996  “more than 200,000 jobs were created for  people over age 25, but employment  among youths fell 20,000.” As well, the  number of people between the ages of  15 to 24 actually looking for work (71%  in 1989) has dropped to 61%. So, to  translate, the evil thirty and forty year- olds are throwing us out of even the few  jobs which should be ours. Meanwhile,  we’re heading back to school and will, of course, graduate in time to take the  lame jobs of the kids who are now  thirteen. What a cycle. What hopes,  what promises, what dreams await  fulfillment in this great country of ours!  Um, while we are at it let’s just throw  something in about how completely  destitute every attempt at creating a jobs  plan for youth has been, and how  evident it is that democracy and  leadership are in pretty short supply in  Canada at this juncture in history. I  won’t even go into details about all that  right now.  Our view of the world – such as it  is – is certainly related to our dim  prospects. Whether we are aspiring  artists or aspiring chemical engineers,  things suck.

The rising suicide rate  among young people is the clearest  evidence we have that lack of  opportunities and a breakdown in our  belief structures (family, god, state, or  the rejection of these things) creates a  cycle that starts with malaise, moves on  to depression and ends, for some, in  suicide. Malaise culture breaks that cycle  by creating a cultural space that allows  for and insists on doing and creating  outside of the commercial sphere. In  such a space, we articulate what we feel,  and cannot be told that it is unimportant  or unappealing to the target market.  Perhaps we should be glad that  our leaders are clueless, the economy is  stagnant and we will never have full- time jobs the way our parents did.  Freed from these increasingly dubious  trappings we can and are slowly  beginning to commit to other  endeavors and ways of living. Now,  these endeavors might seem pointless – – obscure zines, indie tapes few ever  hear, barely readable comics, grainy 60  second movies — but when considered  collectively they are infinitely more  resonant than the bigger culture they  are both opposed to and consumed by.

Malaise culture is everywhere. Its  surface message has already been  taken up by huckster ad companies  and cynical music executives. Warily,  we play along, secretly pleased to  finally be getting some attention. But in  our hearts we know it doesn’t matter.  Malaise culture will never be  invalidated by the pseudo cultural  space of consumerism. Built into  malaise is a profound and eternal  distrust. Think of the Super-8 Aurandt  forever guarding his shotgun coffin  failure. Imagine what Brad Yung’s  hipster cartoon character would say (“I  don’t care!”). And does anybody who  hears the band Everclear sing “we can  live beside the ocean….and watch the  world die” really give a fuck?

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