Arnon Grunberg

American optimism


In this week’s New Yorker Louis Menand writes about depression: ‘Two new books, Gary Greenberg’s “Manufacturing Depression” (Simon & Schuster; $27) and Irving Kirsch’s “The Emperor’s New Drugs” (Basic; $23.95), suggest that dissensus prevails even among the dissidents. Both authors are hostile to the current psychotherapeutic regime, but for reasons that are incompatible. Greenberg is a psychologist who has a practice in Connecticut. He is an unusually eloquent writer, and his book offers a grand tour of the history of modern medicine, as well as an up-close look at contemporary practices, including clinical drug trials, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and brain imaging. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that more than fourteen million Americans suffer from major depression every year, and more than three million suffer from minor depression (whose symptoms are milder but last longer than two years). Greenberg thinks that numbers like these are ridiculous—not because people aren’t depressed but because, in most cases, their depression is not a mental illness. It’s a sane response to a crazy world.
Greenberg basically regards the pathologizing of melancholy and despair, and the invention of pills designed to relieve people of those feelings, as a vast capitalist conspiracy to paste a big smiley face over a world that we have good reason to feel sick about. The aim of the conspiracy is to convince us that it’s all in our heads, or, specifically, in our brains—that our unhappiness is a chemical problem, not an existential one. Greenberg is critical of psychopharmacology, but he is even more critical of cognitive-behavioral therapy, or C.B.T., a form of talk therapy that helps patients build coping strategies, and does not rely on medication. He calls C.B.T. “a method of indoctrination into the pieties of American optimism, an ideology as much as a medical treatment.”’

There is the right to be indifferent, but there is also the right to be unhappy.

Perhaps here we have an answer to a question I posted a couple of days ago:

Why read literature when it doesn’t make you happy?

Because unhappiness has something to offer.

There is joy to be found in melancholia.

The rejection of pleasure can be extremely exciting.