What is “a tragic life”? One thing is certain: you cannot say for sure a life is tragic until it’s definitively over. A tragic life is a life without a happy end, so you’ll have to know the end first. Tragedy exists only in hindsight: a tragic life is a life of wonderful gifts and promises that ended all in dust.
The word “tragedy” comes from ancient Greece – originally it seems to have meant “goat’s song”. Greek tragedies were sung on stage by masked actors, like a sad kind of musical. Carts were used to roll background props on-and-off stage in mid-play: for example, a cart showing the body of a slain king. A tragedy’s story always was about a tragic life or a tragic death.
When we talk about “a tragic death” this usually means the untimely death of someone loved, gifted, promising: James Dean’s fatal Porsche accident, the murder of John F. Kennedy or of John Lennon, Janis Joplin’s accidental overdose, Princess Diana in that Paris tunnel, more recently the death of actor Heath Ledger, and so on. But a tragic life is not necessarily a life cut short. A tragic life may be worse than just a tragic death. For a tragic life often is a life lived backwards, sliding down from creativity to madness, from richness to poverty, from love to loneliness.
Imagine starting as an acknowledged talent, having great success. Then, gradually, little lapses begin to creep up. The flickering of your effortless brilliance still does show promise, but somehow small disappointments grow into ugly failures, nasty incidents and disillusion. You falter, you no longer make come true what you yourself and everyone expected. Relation problems, money problems, health problems, sanity problems begin to grow over your head. You sink into ever more difficulties, you are in fact making one endless retreat until your life is slowly petering out in silence, weirdness, isolation and maybe even outright madness. Finally, you do little more than waiting for death. The tragic life of 19th-century philosopher Nietzsche is an example of this. For a more modern tragic life, think of “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski: from brilliant young Berkeley professor to disturbed-hermit-in-the-woods to mad bomber to prisoner-for-life.
The world of art and music has always had a lot of tragic lives: lives of total self-destruction, of talented heroes being their own worst enemy, succumbing to unrestrained craves and drug addictions, continually making fatally wrong decisions, indulging in incomprehensible behavior, breaking down on a concert stage for all to see, refusing proper help or treatment, alienating even their very best friends, until ending up back in their parents’ home, or as a street junkie, or in a hermit’s hut, or in a mental institution. An example from the music scene is the life of Syd Barrett, who briefly flamed as the brilliant one in Pink Floyd. He did not need an early tragic death. His life was long enough to be a real tragic affair.
The same goes for Alexander Spence, who I want to briefly highlight today. Alexander, nicknamed “Skip” Spence was one of the cult heroes of my youth: his solo album Oar has been among my favorites since forty years. He was a guitarist who in the mid-1960s played as drummer on the first Jefferson Airplane album, and moved on to play guitar in Moby Grape: he was the man behind their hit Omaha. But by 1968, due to a combination of mental health problems and drug addiction, he began to collapse. After a nasty incident involving an ax, he landed in a psychiatric hospital where he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
During his six-months stay at Bellevue, Spence wrote his only solo album Oar, which he recorded right after his release. Thanks to new mixing techniques, this also was one of the very first true multi-instrument solo albums: all instruments were played by Spence himself. But from that point he continued to slide down. For the rest of his life, he almost never played anymore (the photo here shows one of the rare occasions he did). Most of the time he lived in institutions, sometimes on the streets as a homeless junk – drugs remained a problem. Having settled in a trailer park, he died in 1999, just a few weeks before some old friends released an album More Oar that was intended as a tribute to him.
Before I focus on the relation between tragedy and depression, maybe you want to hear Alexander Spence with a song from his original Oar album:
(if the player does not work, install Flash)
Now what has depression to do with this? Depression and “a tragic life” can be related in two ways. First, any severe depression may cause us to see our own life as nothing but a tragedy. When we look back through the dark-colored obscuring glass of our present depression, it is easy to interpret our entire past as one big, dark, horrible, miserable failure. Even though we don’t know this tragedy’s end, from our depressed perspective we do think we know: surely this deplorable tragic life must and will end in suicide, yes? What else can it be? Our temporary perception, limited as it is, does not allow us to see any alternative.
Secondly, chronic depression may of course have actually destroyed our life in the past. In my own life, in the long run my depressions destroyed not just my university career, but also my family life. My depressions even robbed me – through the side effects of electroshock treatments – of many recollections which once were a precious part of my personality and identity. Sad? Sure. Tragic? Maybe. I don’t know the end of my story, but I cannot rule out that at my burial, some people will see enough reasons to call my life tragic.
Whatever, if you don’t want your present depression getting even worse, you should better avoid too-acute feelings of how your entire life might be interpreted as a tragedy, even if perhaps to some extent that is true. Whether your life is a perceived or an actual tragedy, or maybe both, it is simply not wise to concentrate your thoughts on the tragedy you think you see.
In other words, at moments when you are very depressive, it really is not a good idea too reflect much on the past. It really is not the right moment to evaluate and keep re-evaluating your entire life. Do not do such a thing. When you catch yourself reflecting on your past, on your life as whole, force yourself to stop doing it. Even thinking of good things from the past may be dangerous, because depression may make all recollections somber and dark. For the moment being, it is much better to narrow your perspective and to concentrate on the present instead of the past.
• tip: At moments when you are feeling depressed, cut short any tendency to evaluate your own life. Instead, look to concrete objects around you, the things you can touch and feel right now.
Concentrate on the present, the NOW. Save any reflections on your past for some better suited moment, such as a session with your therapist.