Being Under The Bell Jar: An Existential Analysis of Depression

The most devastating blow depression imparts upon its victim is depriving him of his will to die. Depression is a parasite that is inextricably tied the survival of its host. By eradicating his will both to live and to die, it destroys his capacity to resist so that it can continue to feed off of his thoughts. Yet even as it puts the burden of a thousand Atlases on the victim’s shoulders, so long as he lives, it cannot deprive him of that which makes him human: his freedom. For all the abuse that depression gives him, he remains a for-itself who transcends his situation. Establishing depression as a facticity that futilizes action by undermining the will to seek possibility, existentialist ontology shows that the depressive constantly negates his illness by disclosing it as something which he is not, demonstrating that by acknowledging it, he can consciously separate it from himself, interpret it, and find meaning beyond it.

Before discussing the changes depression effects on its victim, it is necessary to (briefly) establish the ontological foundations of their relationship. Depression is not something which a conscious being chooses to live with. Rather, it is a situation he is thrown into. Sartre might call depression a facticity, a “perpetually evanescent contingency of the in-itself which, without ever allowing itself to be apprehended, haunts the for-itself, and reattaches it to being-in-itself” (131). As a being-for-itself, man constantly discloses these beings-in-themselves which stand apart from him as something that he is not, thereby exercising his existential freedom through his nothingness and projecting his own signification onto the world. Yet he is also limited by his facticity, because as a free agent, he must always be interpreting something. At times, that something will force himself to reinterpret it, resulting in the negation of his former projections and the establishment of new ones. There is a tension here as the nothingness of the being-for-itself, making the movement of freedom, thrusts itself upon facticities which, in turn, reestablish themselves and pull it towards the in-itself. Beauvoir adds another layer to this dialectic by contrasting spontaneous freedom, “an upsurging as stupid as the clinamen of the Epicurean atom which turned up at any moment whatsoever from any direction whatsoever,” and willful freedom, an active and “creative freedom” which allows man to act with intentionality toward a certain fluid aspiration, thereby positively establishing a positive meaning to life which gives him satisfaction (25, 28).

Thus, two dichotomies come to light: the in-itself and the for-itself, and spontaneous freedom and willed freedom. Depression enters into this dynamic as a deceiver. The for-itself may have a will, whose end he wishes the reach by thrusting intentionality into his actions. But depression works to undermine that will by obscuring the end’s realizability or making the end seem insignificant, adding a layer of futility under every action. Clinical Psychology Professor Andrew Solomon writes, “in depression, the meaninglessness of every enterprise and every emotion, the meaninglessness of life itself, becomes self-evident. The only feeling left in this loveless state is insignificance” (39). The exciting end which the for-itself pushes towards starts to lose its projected meaning, as it seems less attainable or less valuable an enterprise. Finally, the will to thrust oneself toward it decays to a point where the person becomes a meaningless spontaneity, living with no intentionality. Beauvoir writes,

“In case [man’s] transcendence is cut off from his goal or there is no longer any hold on objects which might give it a valid content, his spontaneity is dissipated without founding anything. Then he may not justify his existence positively and he feels its contingency with wretched disgust” (31).

In this state, man’s freedom is not taken away, as, with or without his will, it is still tied to his existence. But instead of being a way for him to create satisfying meanings, freedom becomes solely a condemnation, something which he merely sees as a curse which forces him to project hopelessness onto his world. This is when the depressive, in his all-consuming futility, loses his desire to remain free. It is a situation where the “return to the positive is impossible, where the future is radically blocked off. Revolt can then be achieved only in the definitive rejection of the imposed situation, in suicide” (Beauvoir 32). Some, in this haze of purposelessness, are able to reclaim enough of their will to make the fatal leap of obliterating their freedom. Others descend even further, to a point where their will becomes altogether invisible to them. They cannot bring themselves to end their freedom, yet they do not wish to prolong it either. Sylvia Plath writes, “I felt very still and empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo” (3). The depressive projects no satisfying meaning into the world, only an acknowledgement of its grotesque existence and his imprisonment within it.

As it supplants the depressive’s will to achieve positive meaning, depression begins to exploit his subjectivity, deceiving him into seeing hopelessness as an absolute which he must preserve by negating his surroundings. At times, even in the midst of his deepest recesses, the depressive may disclose the faintest glimmer of hope in the world. Perhaps an inviting glance from a lost love. Or a sparkle of light dancing on the dazzling surface of a running river. Or a word of solidarity from someone else chained to the same opaque despair. But depression does not allow its host to escape it through these tight little crevices. It reanimates his will into its puppet, pushing him to seal those routes by projecting futility into them. Solomon writes, “You don’t think in depression that you’ve put on a grey veil and are seeing the world through the haze of a bad mood. You think that the veil has been taken away, the veil of happiness, and that now you’re seeing truly” (343). The depressive, rather than asserting a positive will, asserts a negative one, taking it upon himself to dispel any interpretation of the world which contradicts the seemingly absolute truth of life’s misery. In this, he reaches the state of the nihilist. Yet this attitude that the world is meaningless, that it must be so, contradicts itself. It is true that the interpretations, ends, and actions of the for-itself have no purpose in-themselves. But the nihilist “forgets that it is up to him to justify the world and to make himself exist validly… He rejects existence without managing to eliminate it. He denies any meaning to his transcendence, and yet he trascends himself” (Beauvoir 61). The nihilist, like anyone else, discloses his facticity, transcends it by expressing himself as a not, and projects his own interpretations into it. He also wills his actions towards a particular project. Yet the difference between him and one who wills positively is that he doesn’t will himself to be an honest father, a great novelist, or a humble musician. He wills himself to be absolutely nothing, and he wills for the world to be absolutely nothing. He wishes to impose meaninglessness upon it. Yet he is a paradox, because in willing everything to be meaningless, he gives it the subjective meaning of being meaningless. Depression possesses the nihilist to deny that there is purpose inherent in his existence, but clouds him from seeing that purpose is something that he must create.
So the facticity of depression acts as a murderer of vitality and a dictator of the will. But it, like any other facticity, can be consciously transcended. It may deceive the victim into believing that he is merely a subject to the world’s emptiness and that he has found absolute truth in his negation of meaning, but depression is still a facticity, an in-itself which cannot securely attach itself to the nothingness of man’s being. By projecting this mood onto the world, he still unconsciously negates it. If he is interacting with this mood, looking at his situation through it, then surely he must be something apart from it. Therefore, his nothingness and his freedom still remain, and so too does a path of escape. The first step in leaping beyond depression is to “seek an understanding of what’s happening,” then to “accept that this is a permanent situation” (419). This effectively translates to acknowledging the illness, thereby consciously classifying it as a being-in-itself, then accepting it as a facticity which tethers the depressive to the world. By making this first statement that depression is an is which he is not, man establishes that he has the ability to interpret it independently, and in that movement to transcend it. This distinction becomes clearer as the depressive, now the transcendent, discloses new interpretations of depression. Where does it come from? What other externalities prompt it? To what extent does it influence the transcendent’s actions, and how does it do this? Regardless of the answers to these questions, their very contemplation is a push by the transcendent to distinguish his facticity from himself, unraveling the blindfold of depression.

Now, as surroundings shift from meaningless objects to possibilities which he has been blinded from, he asks himself the most crucial question in reclaiming his will: what now? Then, the transcendent may look at his possibilities, and once again learn to consciously will his actions towards them making a movement that will “manifest existence as a happiness and the world as a source of joy,” and allow him to see “vitality, sensitivity, and intelligence” as a way of casting himself into the world (Beauvoir 44). Has he destroyed his facticity? No. So long as he exists, the indestructible connection between himself and depression can never be broken, and it will continue to attack his rejuvenated will. But he has found a way to give his life purpose despite its presence. Therefore, in the unending battle between his being-for-itself and his being-in-itself, he is now a consistent victor.

Though depression can never be completely annihilated, the transcendent man sheds the hopeless nihilism imposed by it in interpreting it as a facticity which he can separate himself from, gaining the ability to project meaning beyond it. Depression may crumble the victim’s positive will to the point where he is a meaningless spontaneity and reinforce a negative will to preserve itself, but it can never reach the point where it becomes him. His nothingness separates it from him such that, when consciously acknowledged, depression simply becomes another contingency which the being-for-itself can interpret freely and give meaning to. Having reclaimed the will to live, the transcendent man is thankful that he never willed himself to die. Now, having experienced being from the depths of Tartarus, he can plant his flag at its bottom and farm the land as he wills.

Works Cited

Beauvoir, Simone de. The Ethics of Ambiguity. Open Road Integrated Media, 2018.

Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. 1963, Granny Swag, grannyswag.files.wordpress.com/2016/07/plath-sylvia-the-bell-jar.pdf.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. Translated by Hazel Barnes, Washington Square Press, 1993.

Solomon, Andrew. The Noonday Demon. Vintage Publishing, 2016, epub, epdf.pub/the-noonday-demon-an-atlas-of-depression.html.

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