Against Sayings

November 26, 2018

 

Originally from Arkansas, Charles Green teaches writing at Cornell University. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The New England Review, Salt Hill, and Tar River Poetry, among other venues.

Green's nonfiction, “Against Sayings,” was originally published in The Southeast Review Volume 34.2.

 

Against Sayings

 

 

There may be nothing new under the sun, but that doesn’t mean we’ve seen or said it all.

 

Humans see three primary colors; the butterfly perhaps five; the mantis shrimp, a radiant and violent sea creature, perhaps twelve. Bees can detect ultraviolet light. The Himba people, an indigenous group in Namibia, can distinguish between shades of green that other humans can’t.

 

I was first diagnosed with depression at 21.

 

I don’t remember how I learned of the Himba, what accident of clicking or reading brought me to them. I also can’t imagine the shades of green they see.

 

We miss more than we see; even what we see we miss.

 

I didn’t go to the doctor because I was depressed; I went to the doctor because a friend had cast me in a community-theater play, a role I’d taken as a favor to her, and from the hour before rehearsal until a half-hour after, I thought I’d throw up. I just wanted a pill to calm the oceans.

 

Our recording of history oversimplifies, but so does our sense of the present.

 

When therapists try to discover when I first felt depressed, I can tell them only that I think I’ve always felt this way.

 

There is no such thing as oversimplification: or, there is only oversimplification. All simplification is over, which is not to say unnecessary.

 

The word depression, in meaning a pressing down, suggests a status quo in which one is not depressed. Lift up your spirits to the norm.

 

In a cognitive process called “sensory gating,” the pulvinar nuclei edit out unnecessary stimuli. Pulvinar comes from the Latin meaning cushion; those nuclei soften the world so we can sit comfortably.

 

Of course, it’s not true to say “I’ve always felt this way.” I haven’t always been pressed down.

 

The pulvinar nuclei are cushioned deep in the thalamus, which is itself cushioned between the cerebral cortex and midbrain.

 

Aphorism comes from the Greek aphorizein meaning to define. Define comes from Latin, meaning to bring to an end or to limit completely.

 

I mean that I have felt depression—the physical exhaustion, the loneliness that seems beyond limit—at times in every age I can remember.

 

Each aphorism is a pulvinar nucleus, editing out the world.

 

In Ancient Rome, the pulvinar was an “empty throne” for a deity. Not an emperor with no clothes, but a cushion for no emperor.

 

Imagine your sensory editor taking the day off and letting the world write itself entirely on you.

 

I don’t believe in god, but I thank god for limits.

 

For most, depression has no cure. It simply is. It also leads those of us who have it to experience it as drama and melodrama; sometimes we see it as it is, and sometimes it is our only primary color.

 

The unattainability of a goal should not preclude it from being a goal. Or, as Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in another context, “The question is unanswerable, which is not to say futile.”

 

I forget, in the present tense, is a lie: I can’t watch my past unhappen.

 

MIT and Berkeley researchers found recently that one’s “continuity field,” or sense of the present moment, is roughly 15 seconds long.

 

Each moment ghosts the prior one.

 

My depression, diagnosed fifteen years ago, was melancholy a couple of centuries ago and will be another thing entirely in another century.

 

Diagnoses fail the future, just as futures fail diagnoses.

 

I medicate, I exercise. I meditate—sit on a cushion and breathe to open my senses. I’m better now. Not healed, but healthy.

 

But in six months, a year, ten: what then?

 

 

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