The Academic’s Book Shelf, Plus Depression

“4 homeless people die in what girlfriend refers to as ‘cuddle weather'”

THAT’S ME. I am an asshole.

Well, we had an intense week that I can’t really talk about because it involved job interviews. Just know that it was intense, and our house was fully destroyed both in the sense that we were both prepping/researching constantly yet to our chagrin we employ no full-time archivist to keep things organized for us, and in the sense that we pulled everything out of my office and built a fake film set for our interviews, which were over Skype. Also we each needed a different film set, due to being in different fields. The old man certainly does not want a bunch of weird Mozart books looming behind him, nor do I wish to be questioned about the preponderance of Marxist film theory looming behind me. And probably neither of us wants anybody to see the collection of Very Short Introductions we have amassed in our efforts to pretend we know about stuff we know nothing about.

Today we are re-organizing and putting everything back on shelves. The academic has a largely fetishistic relationship with her books, feeling at some subconscious level that they represent the conscious brain externalized. If she can just keep her books in order–and if she can just accumulate, though not necessarily actually read, the correct books–her brain itself will be ordered, coherent, wide-ranging. When she re-organizes her books she is saying, this was once important to me, now this is more so, first this, then this. Should the to-reads go on the left or the right? Should the shelves be ordered by subject, conceptual genre, vibe, or alphabetical by author last name?

I usually go in broad vibe-blobs with no additional inter-blobbal order. The old man is so rigorously alphabetical that he once tried to go beyond alpha into the realm of dewey decimal. Lacking a card catalogue, though, that system quickly crumbled.

Our books are still only about half put away. My old man is standing in the center of the living room with his arms akimbo, swaying gently from side to side, assessing his domain. If we were monetarily rich, instead of just rich in the sense of being intensely privileged, the first thing we would do would be to have custom-built bookshelves placed on every available wall space. There are never enough book shelves. “Have you read all these books?” a non-academic friend once asked, wonderingly. “Sort of,” we said.

I think you would all like this. It is the program for the presidential inauguration of 1901. Every page is wonderful, particularly all the advertisements (so many ads for pianos and whiskey!), but I especially draw your attention to page 85, where someone has written a fanciful account of the presidential inauguration of 2001.

“At the close of his address, President Barrington was escorted to the Mansion of the States by the Governors of the 118 States and 99 Territories. Here a great banquet was spread in the main hall, covers being laid for 25,000 persons. All of the Government officials and the heads of the Army and Navy were present, and many notable addresses were delivered through the phonelegraph.”

“Four great automatic bands were placed in the corners of the space and, operated by buttons, simultaneously rendered a programme of popular music.”


There is also an advertisement for STRAWS. Drinking straws.

Abrupt change of topic:

Why do you think everyone is depressed? I feel like all around me are people with varying degrees of clinical depression, whatever that means, apparently it means something much more intense than just being intensely sad all the time, which sounds intense enough on its own. I know so many people on medication, so many people who are really struggling. Struggling! It seems grinding and exhausting and I really don’t understand it, completely. Or, maybe I understand it all too well, but the truth of it is itself so depressing I can barely face it for fear of becoming depressed myself. Read on, what a cheery Saturday morn it is!

There was just a thing on the Awl where two depressed people talked about how hard it is to be depressed and how expensive it is, because not only do you have to pay for therapy and meds but you are also apparently constantly going on shopping sprees trying to cheer yourself up, and then your parents have to pay for your therapy, and that makes you feel even worse about yourself, which means you need to go on more shopping sprees.

This latter issue gives me pause. The shopping spree issue. Surely 200 years ago the world was not filled with people with clinical depression who could not get out of bed in the morning due to ennui and sorrow and self-loathing, right? And who then tried to cheer themselves up by buying a bunch of meaningless garbage. This seems like a deeply modern (and, it would appear, upper-class) dilemma. So what is it about our era that makes this so common? Is it that we are squeezed so tight by late capitalism that there is no way to build a meaningful life among the ruins of culture? Is it something about money itself–look how people are trying to plug holes in their lives by buying new shoes, because we are indoctrinated by consumer culture to believe, even if subconsciously, that acquiring the right product will make us feel awesome/empowered/beautiful/happy/desirable, and then that effort fails and they just feel worse about themselves than they did before, because the consumer culture we are all supposed to at least implicitly ascribe to and believe in has failed them at their darkest moment?

I asked the old man, “why is everyone so depressed? Is it us or is it the world?” and he said “What would Freud say,” which he knows is my life motto, and then I had my answer, because obviously Freud would say it is the world. Or, it is the world as we have made it. No one can be content within the ever-increasing demands of western civilization, is his premise. Freud says that in order to live in groups, we have to resist our instincts. The primary instinct we have to repress, for Freud, is AGGRESSION. We resist our instinct toward aggression, then, by turning it inward, directing it at ourselves. It becomes the judgmental, tormenting super-ego, or conscience. To help us repress our instincts so that we can have civilization, we must create more and more civilization–more rules, more restrictions, more laws, more social taboos. According to Freud’s theory, the more civilization we create, though, the more aggression we have to repress, thus the more aggression we have to direct inward, wounding and rending our relationship with ourselves, and thus the more dissatisfied and, in his word, neurotic, we will become.

It is very hard to read this stuff Freud said nearly 100 years ago, because you would really like to come to a different conclusion than he does, but you can’t. As much as my students balk at his dreary pronouncements, because they are young and full of idealism, when I ask them to disprove them, they ultimately can not, and they leave my classroom beaten down and worried. VICTORY IS MINE

Is there a way out? Freud says no, and he’s a lot smarter than I am. But he also had horrible tongue cancer and was observing the rise of European anti-semitic fascist political movements that would lead quickly and seemingly inevitably to the Holocaust, plus he’d just finished living through World War I, so, I guess we can hold out hope that he was just unusually pessimistic. Perhaps American product innovation truly WILL deliver us to utopia, finally. I can’t wait. Lets all buy Kindle Fires and FINALLY start reading all those books we keep saying we’ll read someday.




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