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Be happy, please!

Literature — In his PhD dissertation, Mikkel Krause Frantzen has studied how depression is depicted in literature and art. The works about the essence of depression provide both insight into the disease and into the society we live in.

Depression is an endemic disease which, according to the Danish Psykiatrifonden, affects between four and five per cent of the population. Contemporary literature and art focusses intensely on depression. Writers like Houellebecq, David Foster Wallace, Tao Lin, and in Denmark, the poet Sternberg, have all portrayed the disease in their works.

In his PhD thesis, Going nowhere, slow – scenes of depression in contemporary literature and culture, Mikkel Krause Frantzen has studied how depression is depicted in a number of works by Michel Houellebecq and David Foster Wallace, the British/Italian artist duo Claire Fontaine and in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. According to Frantzen, the experience of depression in these works can be used to diagnose the present time.

“The underlying premise for my project is to perceive depression as an early pathology, that is, a loss of the future or the ability to imagine a future. In my dissertation I analyse the aesthetic works in which the depression phenomenon relates to the West, which has arrived at the end of history and, in a sense, has no future. The crisis that the depression embodies becomes in this way a symptom of a more general historical crisis,” says Mikkel Krause Frantzen, an associate professor at the Department of Arts and Culture who defended his PhD in April.

Ordered to be happy

He believes that modern society has installed a kind of ‘happiness order’ on its citizens because capitalist production and the pursuit of profit require healthy citizens that get up in the morning and go to work. But the main characters in the works he analyses in his PhD cannot live up to these norms of happiness.

The works have this in common that they do not live up to society’s demands for a happy, normal life.

Mikkel Krause Frantzen, PhD

“The works have this in common that they do not live up to society’s demands for a happy, normal life. This is a requirement you meet as soon as you land at Copenhagen Airport, where a Carlsberg advertisement proclaims: ‘Welcome to the worlds happiest nation’. And Coca-Cola tells us to ‘choose happiness’ as if happiness was a choice. There is a focus on being responsible for your own happiness. All the works I have studied question the personalization of the depression phenomenon, which is accompanied by an endless attribution of responsibility to the individual.”


Immoral to be unhappy

The ‘be happy’ order repeats itself in several of the works, but especially in Melancholia, where the focus is on happiness as a norm – to the extent that the depressed protagonist Justine is the object of moral indignation.

“The most interesting part of the movie is the main character Justine’s (played by Kirsten Dunst, ed.) interaction with the outside world at the wedding where the film takes place. All the people around her are involved in all kinds of plans for the future, but she is unable to relate to any of them. And she constantly faces a moral demand to be happy. Her sister says, for example, she should “be happy, please!” I think this is connected to the fact that it has become immoral to be unhappy or depressed today. In the film, Justine’s depression becomes a nuisance to the other people. They cannot stand her walking around, killing the party and the good social atmosphere of the wedding.”

In other works that Mikkel Krause Frantzen analyzes in his dissertation, depression is related to classical themes like addiction or a society obsessed with performance.

“Addiction plays a crucial role in David Foster Wallace. All the characters in his novels are addicted to something, whether it is TV, pot, heroin or tennis. In his works, there is what is called the ‘double demon’ in clinical research – addiction and depression.  Houellebecq’s works focus on competition. All human relationships are completely permeated by competition – of performing. The way we fulfill ourselves and the expectation that we should be happy, has us constantly measuring ourselves up relative to others,” says Mikkel Krause Frantzen.

Greater risk of failure

In depicting the essence of depression and its consequences for the people suffering from it, all the works contain a social criticism of the western world’s Post-Fordist society.

“In a way, it’s also a modern narrative of alienation that I’m recounting. There is a historical process in my dissertation behind the analysis, about a new type of society that is gradually becoming more individualized. Something happens to the welfare society of the West after the 70’s, where a much more neoliberal economy comes about. It is in this kind of society that depression emerges as a special paradigmatic disorder,” says Mikkel Krause Frantzen.

We are met with all these requirements to be innovative and entrepreneurial. But you don’t have the energy to do this when you are depressed

Mikkel Krause Frantzen, Ph.D.

The individualization of society entails the expectation that we should constantly grow to become ‘the best version of ourselves’, as positive psychology calls it. But this can be a burden for those who suffer from depression.

“Our working life is more flexible than 40-50 years ago, and there is not much separation between work and leisure, or between man and machine. As the American journalist and writer Andrew Solomon writes in his book ‘Noonday Demon’:  ‘We are not depressed because we are too far away from what we want, we are depressed because we are too close to it’. And because we are met with all these requirements to be innovative and entrepreneurial. But you don’t have the energy to do this when you are depressed. So, even though we have many more options to realise ourselves today than 40 years ago, this also creates greater uncertainty and the risk of failure.”

What can we learn from art and literature about depression?

“We can get some different interpretations than those that characterize the public debate. It is made clear to us how it feels to be depressed. And on a larger scale, we get a significant criticism of our civilization: Depressive works of art say, in this way, something important about the society we live in,” says Mikkel Krause Frantzen.