In the August 16 & 23 issue of The New Yorker, you can read a story of obsession, possession, excess and alienation that might fascinate or repel you. It’s the story of John Lurie, an artist whom you may remember as the hypnotizing actor in Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise and Down by Law. Or perhaps you recall him as the leader of the legendary Lounge Lizards (left). It’s also the story of John Perry, once John Lurie’s closest friend and devotee. This is the tale of how that friendship imploded (or exploded), and how Perry systematically dismantled Lurie’s sense of stability. Or not. For all we know, it may be that these no-holds-barred bad boys were playing the writer, Tad Friend, like one of Lurie’s saxophones, executing a piece of performance art whereby they co-inflated their shared history into a grift of King Kong proportions.
In the end, were it not for Daphne Merkin, the response might well be: Who cares?
Merkin’s meticulous dissections of depression have set a standard for courage in the face of the mind’s adversities. They deserve respect. They persist in the memory when reading about the mind games and miseries that these men, Lurie and Perry, have apparently inflicted on each other. (To be fair, Lurie was afflicted with an undiagnosed illness with a host of horrific symptoms that rendered him unable to leave his home for six years between 2002 and 2008. That’s enough to make anyone shaky.)
But back to Merkin. She is a cartographer in the land of those who are most dispossessed. A siren on the shore and Odysseus both—calling out to the sailors to wreck themselves on the shoals of the brittle truth about the fragility of mental health, while simultaneously sailing the demon-dominated seas in search of safe haven.
Daphne Merkin persists. In the words of the beleaguered Mrs. Loman in Death of a Salesman, she reminds us that “attention must be paid.” She is willing to risk the label ‘bourgeois’ in her quest for understanding of how each day can be borne. Frank about her upper-middle-class childhood and the more predictable milestones of her adulthood (even dropping Woody Allen’s name with a clunk), she is equally candid when she writes, “I have sat in shrinks’ offices going on four decades now and talked about my wish to die the way other people might talk about their wish to find a lover.”
In both her August 4 New York Times Magazine cover story about being a serial analysand, and in an article in the same publication on May 10, 2009 (from which the “wish to die” quotation comes), Merkin shows the courage of a burn victim on a tightrope. One wonders how she can concentrate, given the severity and visibility of her wounds. One reads and watches her keep her balance just enough to continue detailing what ails her and her relationships, trying to get to a place that might feel like the state of grace that no one is promised but so many seem, to her, to have experienced—the one where we feel seen for who we are.
Reading the New Yorker article about Lurie and Perry, one is stricken by how each man very clearly wants to control how both of them are perceived. One questions whether authenticity enters that picture. It’s hard to ignore the roles that women play in the lives of these two quasi-quasars. The point is very clearly made that both men have enjoyed the kind of downtown Manhattan celebrity that made ‘irresistible’ the starting gate for their evenings. A succession of girlfriends and co-dependents are quoted and often lauded for the ways in which they translate the language of feelings for these totems of aggression. On the other hand, Merkin writes of a solitary journey of “microdot-ing” her past and present feelings to a succession of therapists over four decades in an attempt to come to a cohesive sense of self.
The word had to be mentioned sooner or later: Self. As in self-absorption. As in self-pity. As in self-ish.
Doubtless, the discussion of all those S-words will continue as long as there is a condition called depression and as long as anyone has time and money enough to contemplate, in the company of a professional, his or her feelings about loneliness, isolation, and futility.
What prompts thoughts of Ms. Merkin in comparison to the epic of Lurie and Perry is that she confronts herself again and again—in ways that are excruciatingly revealing and painfully quotidian—with what may be a hope that by risking her audience’s disdain or, even worse, indifference, she may find her own meaning of the hell in which she has so clearly dwelled. It seems that willingness to confront self is the very thing that both Lurie and Perry seem to be avoiding while continuing their sandbox stand-off.
Is art anything more than the human response to the knowledge of death? Is devotion, bad behavior, rebellion, discipline, landscape photography, portraiture, still life painting, drug addiction, impressionism, fauvism, cubism, bungee jumping, punk rock, ekphrastic poetry, portrayals of dogs playing poker or Elvis on velvet—to name just a few human endeavors—anything more than a cry for pause in the relentless presence of personal end? Is power anything more than a flimsy fictional tool against that presence?
Are the power-questing actions of the artists that Tad Friend so surgically and seamlessly describes any match for the excruciating walkabout that Daphne Merkin is making in the book she is writing about chronic depression?
Those are, to one degree or another, questions for the ages.
At this the moment, though, and since her August 4 article’s declaration that she is going to go on without the safety net of therapy for the time being, Merkin gets the belt of heavyweight champion in the battle for connection with something larger and more meaningful. Long may she reign.