Why Not?

By Ray Robertson

There are days when I despair of melancholy. Depression today has become so readily identified as a medical condition, it’s an effort to remember that it was once considered more of a spiritual malaise. For writers and middle-aged men it has also long been a rite of passage, best summed up in the line “Something terrible happens to a man when he turns forty.” And so when Ray Robertson begins Why Not?: Fifteen Reasons to Live by diagnosing his depression as a by-product of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and explains how he dealt with the matter through medication, I confess my heart sank just a little. Leaving aside the question of their actual efficacy (a matter for increasingly heated debate), I think that pills have probably been a net loss to literature. Yes, shovelfuls of amphetamines kept Philip K. Dick and Ayn Rand manically banging away at the keyboards, but, as a selfish reader, I prefer tortured authors to guide me through their dark nights of the soul without such aids, at whatever expense to their own well-being and mental health.

Robertson recognizes the double-edged nature of “intoxication” (a heading which includes pill-popping). And, happily, for the most part he avoids our contemporary medical consensus in order to engage with the great tradition of essayists who have analyzed, and self-analyzed, their own depression. What we have here is depression as muse and literary construct, that melancholic state of mind that compels us to tackle fundamental questions for which there are no easy answers or prescriptions. What makes human beings happy? What makes life worth living?

Though without prescriptions, the essays do come with a critical agenda. Robertson’s previous collection of essays, Mental Hygiene, took a similar stance, explaining how readers could improve their intellectual health by sharpening their response to literature. A philosopher whose main interest is in practical, moral philosophy, nearly every paragraph Robertson writes here is buttressed with a quotation. (And it is no small relief to find a book like this free of the wisdom of The Simpsons.) A lifetime of reading has given Robertson a full and ready mind, and he seems to have a line fit for every occasion, especially from favourites like Seneca, Montaigne, and Nietzsche.

These authors are representative of the sort of ethical philosophy that is sometimes likened to today’s self-help industry and advice columns, but they aren’t as easy as that. For one thing, they are full of doubt and awareness of the doubleness I mentioned earlier. Seneca, for example, could lecture others on what constituted a properly stoic life while admitting that he didn’t live up to his own precepts. Far too rich not to want to enjoy life to the fullest, he claimed not to be equal to the best, but only better than the worst. Montaigne was also, famously, a writer who contained contradictions. And in the case of Marcus Aurelius, Robertson misses an easy trick by quoting his line about how “sexual embrace can only be compared with music and prayer,” without adding a better known aphorism from the same source: “As for sex, it is the rubbing of a woman’s innards, followed by the spasmodic secretion of a bit of slime.” The subjects treated by Robertson are all capable of such antithetical interpretations. As for a topic like Robertson’s lead-off “Work,” the best encapsulation of the concept’s doubleness was that expressed by John Kenneth Galbraith:

The word “work” embraces equally those for whom it is exhausting, boring, disagreeable, and those for whom it is a clear pleasure with no sense of the obligatory. . . . “Work” describes both what is compelled and what is the source of the prestige and pay that others seek ardently and enjoy. Already fraud is evident in having the same word for both circumstances.

One can see how the language itself defies any attempt at neat resolutions. Work can be either a curse or a blessing, or sometimes both.

“As with most of the big questions,” Robertson writes, “I don’t have any definitive answers. Or if I do, they’re prone to change from one week to the next.” Despite adopting this attitude, however, there is still much to take note of and disagree with along the way. For example, Robertson opines that even an “approximation” of a lasting romantic relationship “is better than the lonely alternative.” As a married man, how does he know this? On balance, most of the couples I know seem more miserable in their partnerships than I think they would be alone. Personally the single life suits me better than the conjugal alternative. And sticking with the subject of relationships, why is it that Robertson’s prime examples of “Love” and “Friendship” are provided, respectively, by parents and a dog? Granted, I would have gone with the same, but these are examples of relationships where those involved can’t help but love and be friendly to us, either out of a sense of duty or sheer necessity?

This is a reflection that doesn’t cheer me, and I have to say that Robertson’s book didn’t finally convince me of the value of going on. But then there isn’t much choice. Unlike work vs. unemployment, or marriage vs. the single life, there is no alternative to life but not life, which is nothing at all.

Review first published online February 13, 2012.

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