Depression: at the Black Gate with Anton Chekhov and Leroy Jenkins

I admire Chekhov, and not just for his writing, and not just because he was startlingly hot either. To paraphrase Ivan Bunin, Chekhov was not a little bitch. Even when he knew he was dying from TB, he didn’t whine hysterically from the pages of Russian literary journals. He didn’t ask his readers for hugs. His last words were, “I haven’t had champagne in a while,” as opposed to “OMG OMG IS DYING HALP.”

Dear sheepie, won't you hold me tighter.
Dearest sheepie, won't you hold me tighter in this winter of discontent (and sketchy hot water issues)

As you can guess, I admire Anton Pavlovich for qualities I lack. It’s like admiring a purse on someone else’s shoulder – a heart-patterned Moschino, maybe – something you couldn’t afford if you pimped yourself out to every halfway-decent publication in this city. It’s not jealousy per se, it’s more like awe. “Anton Pavlovich, where did you get that heart-patterned… I mean, Anton Pavlovich, how on earth did you manage to keep your cool like that? Is it a genetic thing? An ancient art?”

Because of passport issues, I’m grounded in Ukraine right now. On one hand, this is good, as it forces me to save money. On the other hand, this is bad, because there is nothing that I can physically do to escape the soul-crushing, cold, deep, starless darkness that blooms in vivid, elaborate splotches all over my being, like the bubonic plague. I’ve been depressed since last year, since moving to Amman. But it’s like a fever that’s spiking now. I knew I’ve lost some weight recently, but nothing could have prepared me for the actual numbers when I finally stepped on a scale. It affords me with an excuse to go shopping, and I can’t even muster up enough energy to rejoice about that. Unmoved by bright-lit shops and the swish of plastic. The seventh seal has been opened.

A Vulcan would be bemused by depression. There’s nothing logical about it. Friends will say, “you have a job, a family, and your tits are still fairly perky. Snap out of it.” By all rights, you should. The world does not suffer from lack of tragedy. Your grandmother is in hospital with a crusty rash on her skin that makes it hard to move. Someone tried to rape your friend, and there will be no legal repercussions. Your aunt’s heart has been reduced to a vaguely pitter-pattering piece of gristle after her daughter’s death. Ralph Lauren is threatening people for making deserved fun of its “X-Files”-inspired Photoshop disaster. “Peace is an illusion, says Israel FM.” And so on.

Ultimately, it’s hard to get depression to kick off the blinders and be appraised of its own insignificance. Pain is narcissistic. It’s the belle of the ball. It’s a douchebag with spiky hair, a miasma of Axe, and a publicist.

I have a friend who told me that at 50, he’s going to duel this other dude. Why? Because he’ll be 50. This set me to wondering. Why is 50 the magic number? Why can’t it be 25? What’s the difference? Your cells will be older. You would have seen more, I guess. Maybe experienced some fleeting happiness, or written something halfway decent, or learned, finally, how to cook shrimp in spring onion sauce. Does any of it matter? I mean, sure, for other people, it does. But when you know that you will always be cycling back to this one point – this mixture of dread, cowardice, longing, failure and a profound desire to start screaming your head off in a public place and giving the babushkas simultaneous heart attacks – how do you live with yourself then? How do you even begin to justify passing on such genes to any potential offspring?

Smiling babies make me cry right now. They have no clue how evil world they have recently entered actually is, and they don’t even have teeth to bite back at it. Most of all, I am afraid that if I ever have one, I will give it an inheritance of the “crying at smiling babies” gene. No smiling baby deserves such horrific injustice.

Magnificent animals. Reduced to absurdity by t-shirt makers and Amazon customers alike. Alas, this cruel age.
Magnificent animals. Reduced to absurdity by t-shirt makers and Amazon customers alike.

I know you’re rolling your eyes right now. There’s a great scene in a Mikhail Bulgakov story, where the protagonist’s sled is being chased by wolves in the night, and he takes out a gun and can’t fire it out of fear, and then he tells himself, “this is cowardice” (or, in the exact Russian, it’s something called “small-soulness,” malodushie, when your spirit is too small to deal with whatever crap has just come up) and fires the gun, and the wolves get the message. I know that I should fire the gun as well, eventually. In the right direction. It’s just hard when you don’t see the point. When you’re thinking, “wolves are an endangered species, and who the hell am I?”

I will tell you one thing, though: when I visited Anton Chekhov’s grave in Moscow, I had a sense of perfect, religious calm. And I realize now that it wasn’t because I was going, “oh, Anton, your suffering hath now ended, you are strumming a harp on an enormous marshmallow. Alas for those of us left behind.” It’s because I was going, “oh, Anton, you may gone and up on that marshmallow, but you don’t get any worse for wear in my head now, do you? And the world sucks a little less because of that.” Anton Chekhov would never have been able to give me that kind of momentary peace had he been, in fact, a little bitch after all. Most importantly, this Not A Little Bitch thing isn’t just something to be jealous of. It’s more than a commodity. It’s a fire that you light so that others, above all else, can get warm.

I haven’t made very many people warm, but I do amuse my grandmother when I do this really grotesque booty dance because the magazine I work for may have just landed a cool interview. I amuse my brother, because it is amusing for him to be related to someone who quotes Tolkien with a straight face and in mixed company. Maybe all of that counts for something, in the end. Maybe it doesn’t. I don’t know. I don’t know.

I’ve been thinking about the Black Gate part in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, and just how magnificently it was ruined by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens in the movie adaptation. I love the films, and understand the challenge the filmmakers faced when making them, but I still occasionally get tempestuous when remembering this scene. Whenever I’m depressed, I picture myself at the Black Gate, and wonder if Aragorn would have run away screaming like – say it with me – A Little Bitch, even though he had probably just taken the biggest risk of his entire life and couldn’t be too sure if it would pay off. I like to picture Chekhov there as well (I just came up with the most messed-up, and the most awesome idea for a slash fan-fic of all TIME), even though he’d probably just make subtly cruel fun of the impeding restoration of the snooty Numenorean line, or something. Still, Chekhov was brave, and that’s what you need at the Black Gate. The movie version screwed with my elaborate fantasy hardcore.

In the interest of, if not destroying, then at least containing, the howling wolf (with his blood-spattered muzzle and rheumy, mad eyes), I have, however, been trawling YouTube for ridiculous videos, and have come away with the following brilliant example of what it really means to go into battle against the dark armies, especially if the screenplay has just failed you:

I don’t know about Sauron, but that scares the hell out of me.

28 thoughts on “Depression: at the Black Gate with Anton Chekhov and Leroy Jenkins

  1. Natalia,
    Your blog is wonderful and I very much enjoy reading it. I know many people feel the same way. You’ve amused people and made them more aware of problems and injustices, and that should amount to something.

    Депрессия проходит и Ваша жизнь вернётся к прежнему. Всё будет хорошо… или хотя-бы более терпимо 🙂

  2. Уважаемый Наталья,

    This is the beauty of depression! That it is not logical! It is the battle of the heart against the mind! The mind says “all is well, why be sad?” while the heart screams “I am not fulfilled!” Some of the greatest comedians, poets, artists, musicians and authors reach their artist peaks during times of depression because the heart takes control over the logical mind. Not that a person should remain permanently depressed, mind you. There needs to be balance. But that balance cannot be restored until the heart finds fulfilment, regardless of what the brain or anyone’s logic says

    At 50 many people say, “well, why not?” It is a re-awakening of adolescence, a time to say “I am over half-way through life and I wish to do this…”; of the heart taking dominance over the logical mind once again. Others do not wait until 50. For some it is 40, or 30, or 25… The age doesn’t matter much.

    What is it that your heart desires for fulfilment? No one can tell you. Only you can answer that for yourself…

    Signing off for now with the closing exchange by Chebutykin and Olga:

    Chebutykin singing softly: “Let them cry… Tarara-boom-deay… sit on a tomb all day… Oh, what does it matter anyway?”

    Olga: “If only we could know, if only we could know!”

  3. Winston Churchill called it ‘The Black Dog’ and his solution was keeping pigs. When he felt the black dog approach, he would spend a few days talking to his pigs and was soon on a somewhat even keel.

    Depression is not something you ‘snap out of’. You slip into it in tiny increments until one day you realise you are utterly paralysed by sorrow and you wake up with what feels like a pile of boulders on your chest. It’s physical, and you have my permission to give the next person who tells you to ‘snap out of it’ a good hard ‘smack across the cake-hole’ as we say where I come from (yes, ‘cake-hole’ is mouth).

    What’s the weather like? If it’s cold and bright, then a good brisk walk takes the edge off it for me along with some early nights. One thing that worked for me that might work for you: if you can make yourself a routine and stick to it, it keeps your mind active. Even if you set half a dozen seemingly silly goals for a day (all the better if you know you are going to enjoy your tasks), going to be knowing you achieved something is great.

    Are you artistically inclined? I find that pouring my guts out on canvas is very therapeutic too.

    And have a dose of ‘teh kyoot’ on me.. http://cute-n-tiny.com

  4. natalia – cool essay. did you really have to use a revealing picture of yourself to prove anything though? mayeb if you ask yourself why is it that you objectify yourself so much, you will be given more wisdom on how to deal with the depression thing.

  5. Christ. What is it with this website and people taking issue over photos? What is REVEALED in that picture, you sick pervert? A SHOULDER?

    Nat, even when you’re down, you crack me up. And that counts for something.

  6. Cranky Liberal – FUCK OFF. The things that help depression are any and all of the following: therapy, medication, and getting the fuck away from judgemental arseholes like you.

    You are fucking awesome Natalia, and you know it even if you don’t believe it. Hang in there, I hope you find what works for you.

  7. Dana – well said! As someone who suffers depression myself, I can tell you and everyone else here that the last thing anyone needs when depressed is judgemental stuff being thrown at them. Nothing like being beaten down and hurting and have someone come along and start kicking you instead of helping you get up.

    And I agree – Natalia, from what I know about you, I think you are amazing! Keep searching, my friend!

    A toast to your health and strength!

  8. Thank God I’m not the only one by turns desolate and guiltily pondering why – though you express it so wonderfully that I cannot help but slap myself, swig some thick coffee and forge forth 🙂

    Lord of the Rings is the veritable fountain of comfort: forget religion – I’ll take Tolkien any day…

  9. I’m sorry, but did no one else notice the author’s very obvious references to suicide?

    Natalia. I gather from this blog that you just went through a bad break-up. We have all been there. Don’t let it consume you. I may not agree with most of the things you post here but I think you’re a valuable writer and human being and this essay proves that all over again. It made me want to laugh and cry. So. Just hang in there.

  10. That’s the sucky thing about depression. The only sure source of comfort we get is in the people around us and yet it’s designed to cut us off from that support. Hang in there, keep making the people you love smile and please, go make yourself a sammich.

    BTW, the scene they ruined for me was the high seat of Amon Hen. The book paints a great picture of the enormity of Frodo’s task and the utter hopelessness of it. Film version was a bit of a letdown.

  11. No, Tabby, not the only one. But I know you, Natalia, and I know that you are going to be fine. Write that slash fanfiction, when you have the time. I think it’s very rare to encounter writing on depression that’s very sad and very funny. It is either all dark or all fairly cynical. But you’re neither of these things, you’re an artist.

  12. Having lately been very much in the state of mind you describe here, I am amazed that you still manage to be funny and wry and insightful in the midst of it all. That can be close to impossible, and I think it means you’re stronger than you realize. Good luck.
    –Lurker

  13. Depression manages to be both dramatic and boring at the same time. Here’s my best wishes that it will go away and bother someone else. Because it’s sucky.

  14. Glad to hear that reports of your suicide are exaggerated. Are there any good resources for people with depression in Kiev? Does your family (immediate or extended) understand the illness? Короче, do you have people on the ground who can help you?

  15. I’m glad they’re helping. You’re a smart woman and I can’t tell you anything you don’t already know as far as taking care of yourself. Please do remember, though, that your loyal fans are rooting for you. Also please remember that if you get *really* down, you’re not overreacting, and it’s probably time to get to a talk therapist or a doctor who can prescribe something. Again, you’re plenty smart and I really don’t mean to patronize, I just don’t want you to unnecessarily downplay the condition.

  16. Chekhov meets Tolkien…!!! Too right he’d be snide. But Chekhov is indeed inspiring – I love what you say about his not-little-bitchness being a commodity. Have you been to his house in Yalta? I think I felt there something like you did in Moscow. Such a sense of the opposite of ‘malodushie’ – ‘bolshodushie’?

    I too like your blog very much and hope you keep writing and keep yourself together in grim times…

  17. Aw, Natalia, so sorry you’re so down, and I hope things turn around for you soon.

    Cranky Liberal: Judgmental people like you are one reason why so many women are depressed, so how about you shut your piehole?

    RE: Tolkien, lately, i’ve been into the Silmarillion much more than LoTR. Probably because I am channeling burned-by-the-silm Maglor a lot lately. But also because there are so many stories of human / elven failure, as opposed to the very good-vs-evil nature of LoTR.

    (and i think Peter Jackson distorted the LoTR story and especially the characters so badly that it’s not the same universe any more.)

  18. Thanks guys. And it was good to meet you today, FINALLY, Lily. 🙂 Never been to Anton’s house in Yalta. Should get my ass down there, one of these days.

    The Silm is great. Many people don’t consider it “canon,” but whatever. It’s a good read.

  19. The first time I read what appeared to be a decent translation of “Misery” it inspired me to try to teach myself Russian out of a DIY book with no audio, so I could enjoy it in its original form. That was one of the funniest DIYs I’ve ever messed up, right after my– ahem–birdhouse, and right before the sweater I tried to knit for my cat.

    I still love his work, though. It might even be worth getting some professional help with the language thing so I can learn more about that powerful presence (Bolshodushie?) Is that something like what DeNiro and Clint Eastwood have on screen?

  20. BTW, I’ve never had to deal with a real chemical depression, but when things are shitty for me and little things are tainted by my mood to a point where I’m screaming “THE BITTER IRONY OF IT ALL”, I just remember that irony doesn’t have to be bitter. It’s usually pretty funny. The “bitter” kind is actually the unusual kind of irony.

    Check out my favourite giggle: I found the first half of my first-year philosophy class annoying, pointless, insulting and sometimes even offensive, right from the first lesson (Anselm’s Ontological Argument for God’s Existence) It might not have been such a strain if I weren’t going back to school in my thirties with some pretty solid ecofeminist and evolutionist convictions, but as it was I left a lot of those classes feeling like I was about to give myself a freaking aneurysm!

    So my prof put this load of religious kife up on his slides first class and I was thinking man, did John Cleese write that? So I used a little philosopher’s trick I learned for testing an argument’s validity, and substituted the word “sandwich” for God. (I apologize to the religious readers on this site–I’m not knocking God, just Anselm’s silly words) Well I couldn’t stop there, I had to start throwing in words like “beer” and “erect**n”, make a little song out of it in the style of Monty Python, that sort of thing.

    That’s when I realized that the real value of the piece is not so much in its persuasive ability, but in its value in Latin as a Gregorian chant, its ability to create ritual consciousness–as in Spiritum contra Spiritus–or a different kind of “giddiness” which I bring out in myself as often as I can through meditation, exercise, Tarot (for focus, not fortune telling) and LAUGHTER!

    I agree with the blogger that stated that people who are prone to depression are “wired” differently, and often more creative, but on the flip-side they can also (sometimes) be more prone to lie down under paternalistic or even dangerous religious ideologies, or become substance abusers, etc. It’s even more important for people who are wired in such a way to give their “left brained”, linear, measuring thought functions frequent rest, so that they can use what comes more “naturally” for them.

    I’m not telling you to forgo medication if you have a bonafide chemical depression, I’m just saying that doctors (and churches and just about anybody with a product to sell) forget that sometimes the things we worship (including consumptiveness, beauty myths, logocentrism, or stupid boyfriends) are what’s making us miserable in the first place. More of the same is not going to fix anything.

    Try flipping the things that depress you upside-down&inside out to a “pattern” (painting, music, chanting, etc.) until you find the point where the tragic becomes comic and the comic becomes a learning process. It’s not a “cure”, but it might help.

    At the very least you might be able to catch a giggle at the absurdity of the methods of gentle leftist ideologies like mine.

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