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A Spiritual Answer to Depression

In Gina Berriault’s luminous story “God and the Article Writer,” journalist James G. Burley is swamped with suicidal dejection after his marriage ends. He’s moved into a shabby residence hotel where he finds himself haunted by thoughts of his grandfather, who’d committed suicide in another hotel. As a teenager, Burley had visited his grandfather almost every day:

By impressing the old man with life’s wonders, he developed his powers of persuasion over his own future. The old man never bathed or changed his clothes and hardly ever spoke, but the boy sat by him faithfully, attempting to engage him in conversation about politics, great discoveries in medicine, and historic battles. The old man had been an electrician, and one night he did away with himself in that hotel room. Not much knowledge of electricity was required to accomplish that deed, but, for the boy, the act was a prodigious one. Almost twenty-five years later, Burley, lying on his bed, was urged on to his own end by the suspicion that this was his last chance.

His last chance! Berriault lays out here with a grim comic irony the way that depression and anxiety can ravage our reason. Unless we’re incapacitated or restrained (or, uh, dead) we’ll always have another chance to kill ourselves—which is also, fortunately, another chance to go on living. But the disease can make us feel, as poor Burley does, too desperate, too cornered and set upon to recognize such obvious truths.

Burley’s is a reactive depression. It starts after he wakes up in the middle of the night to find his sixteen-year-old son aiming a shotgun at him. The boy is treated in a psychiatric ward and recovers, but Burley’s marriage doesn’t. He lets his wife have the household possessions, pays child support, and scrapes by on what’s left of the chickenfeed income from his articles. He cooks rice and bony stews on a hotplate in his squalid room. He writes at the same table where he eats, and where sometimes “the thought of suicide snaked over the page, like a glittering viper.”

Anyone branded by depression will recognize the Big D’s earmarks all over this story. Every ambiguous event in this downhearted scribbler’s life gets interpreted as misfortune. He snares a magazine assignment to interview a Nobel-winning physicist named Ancel Wittengardt—a heady gig, but Burley feels nary a proton of gratitude. When the elderly laureate, rather than conducting the interview in his study, serves Burley milk and cookies in the kitchen, he feels slighted. Small problems take on massive significance as he sees them following a dark design to undermine him. When he discovers his pen has run out of ink and then stains his fingers removing lint from the tip of the spare he’s brought, his reaction is to feel that “lately, he was without protection against contempt, real or imagined.”

The physicist, whose wife died a few weeks earlier, surprises Burley with his bouncy demeanor and bright Hawaiian shirt, the curtains parted to let sunlight suffuse his house, a canary warbling ecstatically. When we’re not depressed, out-of-left-field behavior like that can intrigue or delight us even as it balks our wit. In the article writer’s state of mind, though, Wittengardt’s conduct just confirms the impression of a cosmos not merely indifferent but hostile: “Anything contrary to Burley’s expectations seemed a deliberate attempt to humiliate him.”

Wittengardt seems to have undergone some sort of mystical experience, and is still too enraptured by it to focus on providing what Burley wants from the interview. When Burley asks for an explanation of the physicist’s lauded new theory of the universe and the equation that generated it, Wittengardt says he’s forgotten the equation:

“Something so apparent requires no equation. So I let it go. For over fifty years I worked it out by logical progression, and then—whoosh! In an instant I realized I had known it all before I began.”

Such bizarre responses might make some journalists salivate over the prospect of a colorful profile; Burley just steams with aggrieved frustration. He thinks Wittengardt is being obstinate, and asks him again to explain his theory. Wittengardt responds by quoting a 13th century Sufi text:

“There is no existence except God. He is and there is with Him no before or after, nor above nor below, nor far nor near, nor union nor division, nor how nor where nor place…He whom you think to be other than God, he is not other than God.” Wittengardt clapped his hands once, a gesture of surprise beyond all other surprises of his life. “An Arab fellow, a poet. He beat me to my theory by seven hundred years…”

Burley, assuming the quote has no relevance for his article or his life, despairs of finding anything useful in the physicist’s words. He follows Wittengardt outside into his garden, and feels even more troubled there:

The flowers were so profuse, their fragrance and colors so varied and so mingled, the entire garden so lush and so involved with its own growing and blooming, that he felt himself under attack. The beloved persons in his life who had brought him pain had assaulted him in just this way.

Later Burley is driving home from Wittengardt’s as evening descends, and “passing motorists signaled to him by blinking their headlights, and after many miles he realized at last that he had neglected to turn on his own lights.” Back at his hotel that night, bedeviled by thoughts of his grandfather, Burley is tempted to reprise the family tragedy. He carries his hotplate to the communal bathroom, plugs it in, fills the tub and disrobes, ready to skip the world wearing nothing more than what he arrived in. He picks up the beaming hotplate and lifts his foot to step into the tub. But then something happens—the first surprise in the story that does not somehow pain Burley:

At that moment he began to consider the possibility that suicide was not what it used to be. An authority figure, bearing an evanescent resemblance to Wittengardt, was denying him a way out. Without bothering to dress, carrying his clothes and hotplate, he stepped out into the hallway that had become, easefully, surprisingly, like one in his own home, and passing down that hallway he nodded on his way to an elderly woman returning from a late-night television show down in the lobby.

I’ve always loved the way Berriault’s rapier comedy, and the truth that has forged it, slash through her character’s despair in this passage. The suggestion—at once lightsome as Laugh-In and sober as a monk—that suicide is old-hat, self-harm outmoded! The image of Burley, reborn and no more aware of his nakedness than prelapsarian Adam and Eve, nodding blithely to the shocked old woman in the corridor!

This article writer’s spiritual rebirth gets him kicked out of his hotel (the woman has apparently complained), but he finds a better one for only six dollars a month more, and the story closes with a portrait of a man transformed:

If rain was pouring down the panes of his windows, he fixed his gaze on the streetlamp’s shimmer between the grimy strips of venetian blinds. And, with morning, he was always surprised by the everyday sight of his naked feet setting themselves down on the threadbare rug. He desired nothing, neither the return of his wife nor his son’s love. He was in a state of astonishment but he did not yet know over what.

Before this epiphany, Burley seems only a vaguely, opportunistically religious man. He desperately wants to reconcile with his wife, and, as long as that wish is granted, anticipates feeling “eternally grateful to Whoever took care of his wishes.” The possibility that his desire to reunite with his wife would vanish never occurs to him.

Just when he’s ready to sizzle off his mortal coils, Burley instead plugs in to some teeming preternatural power grid; his bathtub awakening pulses with an energy unfathomably wilder and more potent than the stray voltage he’d hoped would end his life. Without a trace of soap or water, he’s suddenly cleansed of all his grubby despair.

What kind of cosmic current does it take to zap away our grabby sad-sack ego like that? Is it God that saves the article writer? Berriault’s wry, understated prose conveys her character’s sublime sea change without a hint of sententiousness or saccharine piety.  Still, religion saturates this story, from the title to the radiant closing lines. Wittengardt’s mystic gab and garden tour somehow sow in Burley a faith (perhaps even knowledge) that blossoms at the last minute, just when all hope of harvest has fled. The article writer’s buzzer-shot awakening can be read as an encounter with an archetypal deity called forth from his subconscious by Wittengardt’s words and the immense pressures Burley himself struggles under. Or it can be read as an actual connection with the numinous transcendent—with God, who wants Burley to carry on and vouchsafes him the strength and equanimity to do so.

This story knocked me out when I first read it twenty-five years ago. I’ve reread it often since, sometimes when I was so low that suicidal ideas snaked across my mind, and I couldn’t figure out how to turn on my own lights. Its effect on me then echoed the latent shazamming impact that Wittengardt’s words have on Burley.

Carl Jung’s thoughts seem so apt here, I’ll give him the last word:

Religious experience is absolute. It is indisputable. You can only say that you have never had such an experience and your opponent will say, “Sorry, I have.” And there your discussion will come to an end. No matter what the world thinks about religious experience, the one who has it possesses a great treasure of a thing that has provided him with a source of life, meaning and beauty and that has given a new splendor to the world and to mankind…Is there, as a matter of fact, any better truth about ultimate things than the one that helps you to live?

 

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