Doctor Faustus and Depression, Ctd.

Delacroix, Mephistophilis in Faust's Study

Last week’s post on Doctor Faustus and depression drew a couple of interesting responses that have got me thinking further about the issue.  I also wanted to report further on the student who started the conversation.  In a revision of her essay, she has elaborated on her condition and found more passages in Marlowe’s play that apply.

One respondent to the post, calling herself Philosophotarian, suggested that a distinction should be drawn between despair and depression. She argued that

despair is a choice (to varying degrees) and depression is not. Despair is a rejection of hope. Depression might then be the inability to believe in hope.

She then offered the caution that

it would be uncharitable (and, I think, untrue) to hold people who are depressed responsible for their depression. The antidote to depression is medication and/or therapy.

The caution is salutary because it reminds us that it takes more than an act of will to pull ourselves out of a depression.  That being said, however, my colleague David Finkelman in our Psychology Department notes that there have been people who have indeed pulled themselves out of depression through acts of will.  A famous instance is William James, brother of the novelist and a major figure in psychology.

Furthermore, David noted, while one may well need medication or therapy, even with that assistance there are choices to be made.  For instance, one can recognize that good diet and exercise will help one better handle one’s depression.  Conversely, one can make poor choices—say, overeating when one feels depressed–and enter into a downward spiral.  So even when the depression is chemically induced, choice will still enter in.  The choices may be harder to make than they are for those not afflicted, but they are still there.

I think it is worth keeping this in mind when one listen to Kathy’s account of her childhood depression and how Doctor Faustus hit home when she encountered it in my Early British Literature survey. Here’s her account of how she turned to religious images in an attempt to figure out the catastrophe that had suddenly befallen her:

When depression hit me at nine years old, it was merely a symptom of a problem much greater—a religious form of obsessive-compulsive disorder that left my life in shambles. For the next seven or eight years of my life, I was consumed with obsessive, blasphemous thoughts that filled me with a religious terror. I feared that my blasphemy would cause demonic possession and, worse, eternal damnation, and as a result I compulsively, silently, and almost constantly would beg God for my forgiveness.

Unfortunately, the anxiety that my condition caused was too much for me to handle, throwing me into a dark pit of depression that in my early teens left me contemplating suicide daily. For a long period of time, I found myself on the losing side of my struggle with depression, and as a result I let it swallow me. While I was still petrified of the thought of being thrown down into eternal hell, the fact that I could not rid my mind of recurring blasphemous thoughts seemed to suggest that  I was the very evil that I feared, and thus I simply was not worth forgiveness and love from God that I strived for. With this one prevailing thought, I nearly gave up in my battle with depression, and in my surrender I was the most miserable I have ever been.

It wasn’t until after I was sick of the miserable life that giving up had put me into that I realized that allowing my depression to engulf me was the most painful, most difficult thing that I could have done. It was then that I realized that, while it was extremely difficult to fight against depression, to force myself to accept that I was not damned, and to believe that I could be loved and forgiven by God, doing so was still easier than enduring the pain of surrendering to despair.

What Kathy describes is very similar to Margery Kempe’s description of a mental breakdown she occurred in the early 14th century.   Depression then was defined as possession by devils, and as Kathy demonstrates this description still carries power for some.  What I appreciate in the following account is how Kathy pushed through her initial resistance to Doctor Faustus when she realized that it spoke to her case:

My experience with depression gives me a special understanding of Faustus’ plight. Upon my first read-through of Dr. Faustus, I was actually incredibly uncomfortable; almost as soon as I began reading the play I considered merely using Sparknotes (something I am steadfast against doing) for the sake of my comfort. Originally, I attributed my discomfort to the blasphemous images and content of the play, which triggered some remaining anxiety that I have about demons, the Devil, and damnation. However, only recently did I discover that the main source of my discomfort came from the fact that I was extremely empathetic towards Faustus; in reading the play, I actually felt like I was reading about my own struggle with depression, but with a different, more tragic, ending.

Both Faustus and I suffered with feeling unworthy and unloved by God. We were both thrown into great pits of depression and despair. Really, the only difference between Faustus’ struggle and my own is that I was fortunate enough to realize that despair only leads to more pain, which caused me to fight against my depression. Perhaps I realized this because I had more support in my life than Faustus, who only had the Old Man. Or perhaps my terror of damnation is what saved me from damnation after all. Perhaps in being afraid of not being loved, I was able to fight off the idea that God didn’t love me. Or perhaps I simply had more faith in the principles of God than Faustus, who found it easy to believe that God did not love him. To be honest, I’m not quite sure why I succeeded in my fight against depression while Faustus failed.

With all of this in mind, reading and analyzing the play was an almost eerie experience; I was able to see what my life might have become and what the consequences would have been if I lost my fight with depression. Reading the play makes me feel fortunate that I had the ability to fight depression and to realize that I am loved by God, and it makes me further stand by my realization that fighting, although difficult, it much easier than the pain and desolation of despair.

This is literary interpretation with something at stake, reaffirming for me once again the courage that students are capable of.  Kathy may have a harder road than that travelled by many of her classmates, but she is all the more admirable for what she has accomplished.

One last note: Kathy has now given me a new perspective on a passage that has always intrigued me.  At one point in the play, Faustus talks about how the arts are all that have prevented him from committing suicide:

My heart is harden’d, I cannot repent;
Scarce can I name salvation, faith, or heaven:
Swords, poisons, halters, and envenom’d steel
Are laid before me to despatch myself;
And long ere this I should have done the deed,
Had not sweet pleasure conquer’d deep despair.
Have not I made blind Homer sing to me
Of Alexander’s love and Oenon’s death?
And hath not he, that built the walls of Thebes [Orpheus]
With ravishing sound of his melodious harp,
Made music with my Mephistophilis?
Why should I die, then, or basely despair?

In the past, I have read this passage as Faustus using art as a kind of sedative for his depression rather than addressing the key problem.  But now I wonder if we should applaud him for having discovered that beauty can help him address his crippling illness, even though it does not provide an all-out cure.

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  1. farida
    Posted May 18, 2011 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    I’ve enjoyed these posts and the comments. I haven’t read Doctor Faustus but it is always heartening to hear someone speak of the connection between their lives and literature.
    I applaud Kathy’s courage. Her words (the constant need to repent) and the issue of “worthiness” that you both raised in the last post, reminded me of Mary Oliver’s poem Wild Geese. I’ve posted a bit of it below. The first five lines seem to encapsulate the deep anxiety of not feeling that one is good enough, worthy enough or simply enough. And for me the line “You only have to let the soft animal of your body /love what it loves”, is about simply accepting yourself as you are, weaknesses, flaws and all. And I like that the latter part of the poem draws on how lonely one can feel in the state of despair and depression, a loneliness that both you and Kathy speak of in relation to the issues in the play. We so easily forget, especially when one is depressed, that we all have our place “in the family of things”.

    Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

    You do not have to be good.
    You do not have to walk on your knees
    for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
    You only have to let the soft animal of your body
    love what it loves…….

    ….Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
    the world offers itself to your imagination,
    calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
    over and over announcing your place
    in the family of things.

  2. philosophotarian
    Posted May 18, 2011 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    I’m enjoying all of this conversation, and it is certainly the case that I am not qualified to talk about depression. I entered the conversation primarily because I think that it is very important that Faust’s despair not be collapsed into depression.

    I can see how my earlier comments weren’t sufficiently clear. Of course it is the case that depressed folks make choices. I meant to suggest that no one chooses to be depressed. People do choose (in a Kierkegaardian sense) to despair when they reject faith, or when they refuse to do the work involved in being a self (in a Beauvoirean sense).

    Maybe there are metaphysical and ontological elements to depression that I’m not aware of.

    In any event, thanks for taking my comments seriously and addressing them. I rarely get to experience such a thing and am honored.

  3. Barbara
    Posted May 18, 2011 at 3:09 pm | Permalink


    That is one of my favorite Mary Oliver poems, along with The Deer (below). Thank you for the reminder!

    The Deer

    You never know.
    The body of night opens
    like a river, it drifts upward like white smoke,

    like so many wrappings of mist.
    And on the hillside two deer are walking along
    just as though this wasn’t

    the owned, tilled earth of today
    but the past.
    I did not see them the next day, or the next,

    but in my mind’s eye –
    there they are, in the long grass,
    like two sisters.

    This is the earnest work. Each of us is given
    only so many mornings to do it –
    to look around and love

    the oily fur of our lives,
    the hoof and the grass-stained muzzle.
    Days I don’t do this

    I feel the terror of idleness,
    like a red thirst.
    Death isn’t just an idea.

    When we die the body breaks open
    like a river;
    the old body goes on, climbing the hill.

    ~ Mary Oliver ~
    (from The House of Light)

  4. Posted May 19, 2011 at 5:34 am | Permalink

    To Robin and all,
    Love and lovable people that have compassion for others are very much needed in one’s life. One has to associate with people like this as often as possible. I have only been here on this planet for 40 years, and it’s rare to find such people. Now, I know today is hard and gets harder, and I think it may always be hard and always has been. But there are gifts and resources out there. One must struggle to find these things and people.
    Faith is something. When one loses sight, faith will come back and tap you on the shoulder saying, “Hey, you are walking too fast ahead of me.” Thinking positive helps extremely although that is hard also. We are balls on a billiards table, or marbles upon the floor— we are all affected by one another–so doings things that are beautiful and kind pulls on the depression or despair. Speaking for myself, I have faith no matter what. I have never abandoned it, it is like a spiritual organ. So it’s hard for me to see non-faithful people’s perspectice, but I try. I just go day by day trying, and yes, sometimes I get sidetracked, because of the cause and effect thing. People are a gift to us, and knowing when to have a joke or two helps as well to lighten the load. Laughter is a key. Great post, and I admire Kathy’s victory. It’s an on-going battle for all of us, so stay strong and smiling. Here is a video about when people come into your life that helps us see how important we all are to each other. It stands in Truth, the Great Teacher of Love. Good day, WS

  5. farida
    Posted May 19, 2011 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    I discovered Mary Oliver through Robin and I have come to love the few poems by her that I know. I didn’t know The Deer. Thank you for adding it to my “canon”. I have to say that more than any fervent animal rights protests, the way Mary Oliver uses animals in her poetry reminds me that all creatures great and small are all a part of “the family of things”. And I love her constant call to us to live our lives fully. The Swan is another favorite.

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  1. By Classic Lit and Transformative Epiphanies on June 2, 2011 at 3:19 pm

    […] one who wrote the essay about her depression and Doctor Faustus, which you can read about here and here.  I have been calling her […]


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