…are useless attempts to interfere with scientific laws. Their origin is pure vanity. Their result is absolutely nil. They give us, now and then, some of those luxurious sterile emotions that have a certain charm for the weak… They are simply cheques that men draw on a bank where they have no account.” – Oscar Wilde
“It was well said of a certain German book that ‘es lasst sich nicht lesen‘ — it does not permit itself to be read. There are some secrets which do not permit themselves to be told. Men die nightly in their beds, wringing the hands of ghostly confessors, and looking them piteously in the eyes — die with despair of heart and convulsion of throat, on account of the hideousness of mysteries which will not suffer themselves to be revealed. Now and then, alas, the conscience of man takes up a burden so heavy in horror that it can be thrown down only into the grave. And thus the essence of all crime is undivulged.”
You can postulate a couple of things. His dramatic vocab makes it sound neat, sure. The italics? That’s kind of cheating, using those; after all, if writing is strong enough, it shouldn’t need any crutches involving font to dress it up. But I’m interested in something more subtle: form, cadence, rhythm. For this I made up something I call the paragraph clause-diagram. For Poe’s intro paragraph above, it looks like this:
a — b.
a,b,c, ^d — e, f.
a, *, b.
We see here what I call an arc paragraph. It opens with shorter statements and leads into the very complex, many-claused sentence in the middle that is very characteristic of Poe. Then it winds down to a less lengthy sentence, and the end is very clearly punctuated with a one-clause sentence. Not only that, it’s a one-clause sentence that starts with the conj. “and” — which I think is an even stronger indication that a paragraph or thought is ending. If you think of the whole paragraph as one many-claused sentence, the word “and” is the indication that you are coming to the last in a long list of clauses.
My point is that clause length and punctuation, by themselves, have powers than an author can use to communicate. It’s kind of neat. And I’d wager that the arc paragraph isn’t the only shape that can work — but what it does really well is introduce, pulling you up and then setting you down. Musical phrasing works in much the same way.
I tried a funny experiment: writing a random paragraph, with no rules other than that it must conform to the above structure. Here’s what came out:
“I have only to seal the letter with its blood-colored wax — it is finished. The messenger comes tonight. He rides like the horseman from revelation, galloping down the path like a bolt from heaven, and I am always petrified at his coming — with pounding hoof-beats punctuated by a cracking whip, he breaks the vigil of my dreams so savagely. As such, always, I am unnerved by the time his wretched knock reaches my door. But I am also captivated.”
See? It kind of works. But maybe that was because I was trying to write ghoulishy. What if I write about something totally random?
“If I think about my favorite kind of duck — it has to be the mallard. Ducks are awesome. Puppies and kittens too, they’re also adorable, in a more mammalish way, and then there are scaly things — skittering lizards, slithering snakes. I want to hug all of them, but alas, snakes aren’t terribly huggable. And people would think I’m weird.”
Of course, it’s not scary anymore… What I have maintained by keeping the form, however, is a kind of conversational feeling that’s achieved by all the variation and pauses. I don’t know, it’s interesting.
“I am the descendant of a race whose imaginative and easily excitable temperament has at all times rendered them remarkable; and, in my earliest infancy, I gave evidence of having fully inherited the family character. As I advanced in years it was more strongly developed; becoming, for many reasons, a cause of disquietude to my friends, and of positive injury to myself. I grew self-willed, addicted to the wildest caprices, and a prey to the most ungovernable passions.”
— Poe, “William Wilson”
Poe’s narrators amuse me when they talk about their genetic propensity for mental illness like it’s some kind of aristocratic pedigree. I suppose because, in his opinion, only madness can take you to the heights of creativity and analysis. I’m interested in the genetic legacy of mental health — or lack thereof. For Poe, he turned his into something artistic, a tinge of perversity to bolster his charisma and image.
And what depressed person hasn’t gone through that phase of “I’m disturbed, and proud of it!”? But I’ve grown out of that, really. I’m totally ready to be less “interesting.” Maybe it’s made me wiser, more enlightened — but at a very, very high personal cost.
I’m of the opinion that the vast majority of depressed people are just ill, and it’s not a club I enjoy belonging to. Those who can recover from the disease may use what they’ve learned in an artistic fashion; but nine times out of ten, they’re just going to be tired and defeated, and accomplish less than their mentally-well contemporaries. That’s the reality — even if depression and creativity have rumination in common. Why? Because they’re sick. It doesn’t make you any more artistic than any other adversity, and illness certainly doesn’t make any artist more productive. I have no grandiose notions that since I’m descended from a lot of depressed people, that somehow I’m destined for greatness like Hemingway or Plath.
But knowing more about the condition now, I view a lot of things I’ve heard about my relatives — in particular, my female relatives — with a grain of salt. The most famous for her mental theatrics, of course, was my great grandmother.
“I was polishing the silver, and then I touched my hand to my mouth… And now my mouth is burning. Sylvia, I’ve poisoned myself!” Or the less amusing, “Sylvia, the Devil is with me…” These were, of course, tales of resentment that my Dad told me, about how his mother’s mother’s condition was such an irksome burden… How she would call his mother all the time, to vent her craziness. I’ve been told that she was narcissistic, self-involved.
Now I wonder how much of that was really true — the assault on her character — and how much of it was just the reality of a woman suffering through a mental condition, with no hope of treatment, validation, or understanding. Imagine going through your life with insane moods that drive you into pseudo-delusions, like “I’ve lost everything” and “no one loves me” — with no reason or explanation. Of course, you’re going to be painted as narcissistic and unappreciative… Not to mention insane, because no one has any idea where these emotions are coming from.
And I have not enjoyed inheriting that legacy. Particularly when the men I interact with treat me like I’m Scylla or Charbydis in rollers, wielding a rolling pin, just for expressing to them how they’ve hurt my feelings. Am I just like my grandmother, slamming doors when she got a vacuum cleaner instead of diamonds? How can my “craziness” be distinguished from my actual personality? Am I doomed to grow into an old, moody, stick-in-the-mud, resented by her husband and children for her violent emotional outbursts?
The truth is, I don’t know. Depression can make you feel like everyone is being incredibly insensitive, so then you get irate… But what if people are actually being insensitive? And what if what I have is not only depression, but also the violent desire to stick up for myself when I’ve been hurt, and the tongue to carry out that desire? Maybe I come from a family of divas — moody AND proud. So that when you’ve upset them, not only do you get a shitstorm, but a moral indictment as well.
I have yet to decide how much of this “family character” to embrace as my personality, and how much to try to heal like an inherited disorder. That, I think is the hardest part about mental health problems. The degree to which they are attached to your identity — both by other people and yourself. You can never truly be absolved for anything that happens. Were you out of your mind, or not? It’s not like there’s a breathalyzer for craziness. There will always be a cast of doubt on your credibility, your ability to be positive, your ability to accept love. And it will take someone very intelligent and caring to recognize how much of that cast you actually deserve.