Depression and Alienation
Frustration and worry set in quickly. The page might well have been blank or written in Greek. I had just read four paragraphs, but couldn’t remember any of the themes or words. Depression is insidious. It tightens its grip around my life gradually, mildly, almost imperceptibly, squeezing out my strength and desire to live. I’m usually able now to recognize the early stages of depression and stave off the more severe symptoms, which include sadness, trouble sleeping, lack of appetite and energy. Concentrating and thinking are difficult. Isolation is often a way of coping. Family and friends are alienated. But the key to breaking the cycle of depression is often the most difficult, which is to focus on outside sources such as God, other people, literature, my creative talents.
Literature offers insight into a writer’s life. It also offers insights into our own lives. I’ve read stories and reached passages that appeared to be mirror images of myself. Now, I have not done an extensive study of T.S. Eliot, but it appears as though he could have suffered from depression. Many great writers have suffered from mental illness including Charles Dickens and Samuel Johnson. It’s difficult to tell with any degree of certainty whether Eliot’s hollow men suffered from depression, but comparisons can be made between their despair and a depressive episode, including both the effects the disease has on a person and what is required to escape the malady.
Depression can be described in any number of ways. It is despair, often accompanied by denial and alienation. A person feels empty, inept, debased, and guilty. It can be physical and spiritual detachment. On the other hand, physical and spiritual suffering is common among people who suffer from depression. There is literally only one way for a person to recover from depression. They have to visualize life without misery. In other words, they have to believe a life with meaning and void of suffering is possible. This is not easy to do and can be done either on their own, with the help of other people, or with the aid of medications. If it can’t be done, one grisly alternative often becomes plausible.
T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men are portrayed in a negative sense, as are life and God. But reading through the poem it becomes obvious that the men eventually see God as a way out of their “meaningless” and empty existence.
Eliot introduces the reader to the hollow men in the first part of the poem. He portrays them as scarecrows leaning together and with heads stuffed with straw. Eliot’s language throughout the poem is ambiguous and we never do learn how many hollow men there are. We do know that they are basically huddled corpses harboring little or no hope of escaping their bleak circumstances.
Eliot is a skilled writer, and he uses many literary devices in his poetry. Consider his use of binary oppositions to describe the hollow men: “Shape without form, shade without colour, paralysed force, gesture without motion.”
Paradoxical terms indeed. How is it possible to have shape without form or shade without color? Depression is a life of paradoxes. Imagine a person or an object such as a lamp two feet from you but its form is indistinguishable. Now, imagine a person standing next you waving a hand past your eyes. You see it at its starting point. Then you see the hand at its end point. There is no in between. It’s best describe as a surreal experience. The fusion of a dream and reality where life is going on around you but it’s impossible to interact with it. At its worst it’s a catatonic condition.
The hollow men are living in a dead or dying land, as Eliot suggests in part three of the poem. “This is the dead land/this is cactus land.”But each of the first four parts of the poem has a reference to death or dying. In part one it’s “death’s other kingdom.” Part two it’s a fading star. In part three it’s the “dead land.” We read about “the valley of dying stars in part four. Eliot also introduces the reader to the hope of empty men, which is an external world.
In part one of the poem the men deny their significance and are alienated from other men and the world of hope. They’ve debased themselves and view their worthiness on the same level of rat’s bloodied feet. They want to be remembered “not as lost—Violent souls” but as hollow men who have no souls. The men are spiritually inept and at this point in the poem blind to the external world they must connect with.
Depression usually brings on the feelings of worthlessness and ineptness. Sometimes it even becomes a struggle with death. Fortunately, it’s not always a struggle with suicide, but more of coming to terms with mortality. Life isn’t worth the fight because death is the inevitable end result. If death is the end of all existence, then why go through the motions and struggles living. Life is meaningless and hollow. When I start to view life this way, despair takes the form of poor little me, and it then deepens. As a result, I hide.
Look what Eliot says in part two of The Hollow Men: “Let me also wear such deliberate disguises.” His hollow men are hiding. They are trying to blend in so they are no more noticeable than the wind.
Depression is multifaceted. And each individual develops his or her own coping mechanisms. While in the grip of depression it’s not uncommon for me to engage in negating and repeating. It’s almost like developing a mantra that I repeat over and over. For example, I’ll tell people I’m ok and there is nothing wrong. Repeating it over and over is an attempt to convince myself that I’m not sick and that I don’t need help. The end result is that it denies the problem and stymies efforts to get well. Eliot’s hollow men do this when they say “the eyes are not here/there are no eyes here.”
Self debasement can be accomplished in any number of ways. One of the ways is through the rejection of good things. When I’m depressed I don’t feel like I deserve good things or to be treated in a good way. In fact, if someone brings me even a simple inexpensive gift such as a book or magazine, I reject it. Food is out of the question. The consequent guilt resulting from eating becomes too much to handle and the despair deepens.
Depression is the equivalent of being blind. Maybe not in the sense of physically losing sight, but a depressed person does not see clearly the world around him or her.
In part four of The Hollow Men we discover with certainty that the men are blind to the external world: “Sightless, unless the eyes reappear.” We get a sense that they are blind early in part two when Eliot says, “There, the eyes are sunlight on a broken column/There, is a tree swinging/And voices are in the wind’s singing.” The men must see God’s external world to regain their sight and begin living again spiritually and physically. A depressed person must see the external world to do the same.
What does it take for a depressed person to regain the ability to see and begin functioning again? It’s not a sympathetic friend or family member asking every few moments if they can help nor is it someone offering patronizing words of encouragement. Tough talk and telling the person what they need to hear and do works. I had a friend open my eyes to the external world with a Bible. I wasn’t told that I should read. I was told to read it. My eyes were open to God’s world.
I’m usually my own worst enemy because I’m an idealist and live in a subjective world. As a result, I knock myself down before I get going. Let me create an analogy. A cartoon figure is shadow boxing. He’s bobbing and weaving and throwing punches at his own shadow. All of sudden the shadow retaliates and throws a violent jab that sends the unsuspecting boxer to the floor. The shadow has stopped all action. As ridiculous as it may sound, I’m the only person who can knock me down.
Now, exactly where the hollow men’s eyes open to existence of God’s world is not clear to me, but in part five we get a fleeting sense that the men are aware that their salvation rests with the acceptance of God. This is also where Eliot introduces the dangers of living in a world entirely of subjective thought.
In part five we’re introduced to the shadow. At this point, the poem begins to awaken just a bit. Earlier in the poem the verbs were sluggish and the flow was, well, dying. Now it starts to move along just a little more. Unfortunately, each time it gets started it lurches and comes to a complete stop.
Eliot gives the reader another list of subjective oppositions: “Between the idea/and the reality and between the motion/and the act.” Eliot lists several more, and it’s important to make note of them. They are: “conception/creation; emotion/response; desire/spasm; potency/existence; essence/descent.
It takes a creative, subjective mind to move an idea from the cognitive stage and into reality. It also requires a creative and subjective mind to turn a mere motion into a meaningful act. But between each of these subjective concepts “Falls the Shadow.” The shadow in this case represents complete paralysis and blocks the evolution from one concept to its natural conclusion. The idea does not become reality, and potency does not become existence.
In this part of the poem God’s external world is placed outside the main body of text and is not open to subjective interpretation: in God’s kingdom life is very long. It also places God at a distance from the hollow men. Placing God away from the men’s subjective idealism is one reason he may be able to help them. “For thine is the kingdom” is found twice in the poem and is a reference to the Lord’s Prayer.
Unfortunately, a six page paper is not long enough to delve into the all the complexities and intricacies of “The Hollow Men.” Eliot makes references to other literary works throughout the poem, and the child like rhyme at the beginning of part five is similar to the Mulberry Bush.
What is the best way to escape a life of emptiness? What is the best way to escape depression? For the hollow men death and rebirth could be the way for them to eventually see again. For me escaping depression is a rebirth of sorts. If I don’t catch the early symptoms of a depressive episode approaching, and I slip into a melancholy state, I have to be forced into an awareness of the external world. That can only happen with a bang. A whimper won’t do it.