A Woman of Compressed Power: The Redeeming Side of Depression

Last year I went with a friend to his graduate school campus. I picked up Lyn Cowan’s book Portrait of the Blue Lady: The Character of Melancholy not expecting it to be as enlightening as it was.

She opens the book up with an engraving called “Melencolia I” which features the Dame Melancholy. She calls her the Blue Lady and her muse for the book.

Melencolia I is a 1514 engraving by the German Renaissance master Albrecht Dürer.
Melencolia I is a 1514 engraving by the German Renaissance master Albrecht Dürer.

Cowan points out the similarities between Rodin’s sculpture “The Thinker” and the Blue Lady: the postures and moods are similar and not an accident. “…[S]ince both portray something of the essence of melancholy: its weight, its preoccupation with intense thought, the heavy head, and a sense of quiet power and strength which yet does not move.”

The Thinker (Le Penseur in French) is a bronze sculpture on marble pedestal by Auguste Rodin.
The Thinker (Le Penseur in French) is a bronze sculpture on marble pedestal by Auguste Rodin.

Cowan goes on to say that in the Blue Lady we find a different, “even redeeming, experience of the melancholic condition from the modern idea of ‘depression.’ With the appearance of melancholy personified as a woman of compressed power, the whole fantasy of melancholy changes. Through her we can leave the sterile, truncated modern-day conception of ‘depression’ and turn our gaze to meet hers, seeing there the intensity of feeling, the pressing need, the stillness of a moment in which nothing is happening but anything might emerge. She personifies contemplation, meditation, reflection, wisdom which knows how to wait…”

It was through Cowan’s book that I was able to look at my depression, which I now call melancholy, in a different light. Sure, I’m depressed and suffer (it is suffering) from it, but I started looking at myself differently than I had before. I am deeply emotional and often cry an embarrassing amount, especially when I write, but it’s out of those moments that I am able to write the most intense work that resonates with me and many others. And I always write alone when I’m writing these intense pieces. Sometimes I have to read those pieces again, and they still brings tears to my eyes, but had I not suffered from depression I wouldn’t be able to put all of that depth of emotion and transparency and power into the words I wrote. There is a difference between writers who can do that and writers who can’t, and I’ve learned to embrace that in moments like that I can be a woman of compressed power. My greatest weakness has reversed and I’ve embraced the strength it gives me. This is why I sometimes say depression can be my own superpower: “the clinched fist [of Dame Melancholy] concentrates grief, intensity, profound thought, and containment of energy, all of which typifies the melancholic attitude.” (Cowan 21) The depressed are humble and we don’t like thinking of ourselves as profound, but we are. We don’t like to think of ourselves as powerful because we are outsiders and our intensity of feeling is shunned by most people.

This is what it’s like to embrace this idea of a containment of energy and a compression of power and use it to your advantage. It helps to have pills…I’m not sure I could do it without…but this whole idea got me thinking about my weaknesses and how they serve me as an artist; whereas, the artists who don’t suffer, don’t necessarily get the joy of turning those struggles into something powerful that can connect with people in a fascinating way.

This is what it feels like to be depressed and to use the Blue Lady as your own muse: in your art, writing, painting, sculpting, motherhood, work, education, the day-to-day normal parts of life. Whatever you’re good at, you might not be as good at it if you didn’t suffer like you do. This came to mind even as I was watching J.K. Rowling talk to Oprah (the interview from 2010) yesterday about her mother’s death and her grief and she said, very delicately to Oprah, that the books would not have been what they were had her mother not died because her grief defines Harry’s entire life and the stories. Her grief of losing her mother is on every single page; what a person goes through when losing a parent, how the world looks through the loss of someone you love…all of that defines Harry’s world and it was through her grief that Rowling was able to write what has unquestionably become one of the greatest stories of our age.

This is what it’s like…


For more on depression, read What It Feels Like to Be Depressed, one of the first pieces I wrote about depression in 2012. 

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