The Full Picture of Experience: Joshua Wolf Shenk

The writer of the beautiful "Lincoln's Melancholy" and "Powers of Two" discusses his books, his connection with George Valliant, and his current work.

The above painting is entitled “Rätsel der Psyche” by Margaret Hofheinz-Döring and is from 1970. The title translates as “Mystery of the Psyche” (Galerie Brigitte Mauch Göppingen).

“The inclination to exchange thoughts with one another is probably an original impulse of our nature. If I be in pain I wish to let you know it, and to ask your sympathy and assistance; and my pleasurable emotions also, I wish to communicate to, and share with you.” —Abraham Lincoln, as quoted in Lincoln’s Melancholy

Mr. Shenk has written two books, both of which have been extremely well received: Powers of Two and Lincoln’s Melancholy. In addition, he has contributed to The Atlantic and Harpers Magazine.

Mr. Shenk is also on the Programming Committee of The Moth, an organization devoted to advancing story-telling where he was also one of the founding advisors; he is the Executive Director of the Black Mountain Institute, which supports bringing writers into public life; and he has also taught creative writing in the past at The New School, NYU, and Washington College.

Photo courtesy of Joshua Wolf Shenk.

Visit Josh’s website: www.shenk.net

Buy Josh’s books:

[Note: This interview was conducted on March 31, 2017]

OR: Josh, a very sincere thank you for giving us part of your time. I was hoping to start by discussing your book Lincoln’s Melancholy. Your approach is quite eye-opening. For many years, depression was viewed as a character flaw, today it’s mostly seen as an illness to be cured. But, you seem to take the position that it’s an aspect of personality and that not only did Lincoln learn to accept this aspect of himself, but that his greatness was in many ways because of his depression and not in spite of it. Would you say that that’s an accurate summary? And if so, what led to your developing this mindset?

JWS: It’s something that I’ve had an increasingly difficult time with over the years. To the extent that depression is only seen as an illness to be treated and cured, then, yeah, we need to appreciate the way that it is intertwined into character. To the extent we appreciate Lincoln as a character, we have to appreciate all of his dimensions. That said, we can easily make the mistake of going in the other direction and romanticize this suffering. I think it’s important to not do that.

When I wrote the book, I was primarily interested in, and remain interested in, a full understanding of the way that the things we care the most about and admire the most are bound up with the greatest difficulties that we face as a species. I think that Lincoln is an embodiment of that linkage.

Abraham Lincoln on May 16, 1861. Two days later, Union forces made their first formal attack on Confederate forces in Virginia. The photo was taken by Matthew Brady.

My real priority as an artist and as an intellectual is to explore these linkages. I think the formulation that you articulated is, in fact, a formulation that is associated with the book, but it really feels more like a marketing line than it is the real truth of the book. The truth of the book is this paradox that the man who gave us our civic scripture also was personally tortured. I don’t know just what we do with that. Any kind of triumphalist argument that says, “Oh, depression is some aspect of greatness,” I think that it may not be inaccurate, but it doesn’t cover the big picture of this extremely challenging reality that what we care most about is often bound-up in pain. It often leaves us befuddled about what we make of that.

I’m a lot more humble now than when I published that book. I also think that I have a different relationship toward my work now I’m less interested in trying to convey some inspirational message to readers. I’m more interested in trying to just be with the conundrum that Lincoln and many other lives present.

OR: Would you say that the conundrum is that nobody would wish to have this as part of them, but we don’t get to make the choice and so if we’re able to understand it we do have the possibility of taking that suffering and allowing it to be put to use?

JWS: I think the conundrum is that the aspect of life that we most appreciate and long for and try and hold on to is bound up with the aspects of life that we most want to make go away.

OR: I think there were two major depressive episodes in Lincoln’s life. The first was after Ann Rutledge died when he was still pretty young. The second was just before he married Mary Todd. These were incredibly serious, he was suicidal. But, when he gets to the White House, he is under constant stress and endures personal pain – primarily through the death of his son – yet, he doesn’t seem to experience a depressive episode despite having a fairly melancholy temperament. Was that due to him maturing? Or finding effective means to cope?

JWS: I think that he had matured somewhat and he had developed adaptations to express his suffering in different forms. I don’t think he was suffering any less. Whether he was depressed, it really depends on your definition of depression. Certainly, the clinical criteria are easy to see in the early episodes and are not so clear in the Presidency, because he continued working and we know he was never disabled for long periods of time. But, I don’t know that you could say that he wasn’t depressed. Again, it’s a question of how you define depression.

OR: Obviously, though, he managed to get on a more even keel…

JWS: I’m not sure that’s the case either. We have an understanding of depression where it is very hard to account for the subtleties and nuances of depression and in the chronic cases how it becomes entwined with character – thinking and feeling. Something way beyond simple checkmarks on a diagnostic sheet. This is another place where my humility in understanding depression has grown over time.

The simple answer to your question is that Lincoln was not experiencing the classic clinical symptoms of depression that would have led him into treatment were he alive today. Anyone who saw him when he was in his mid-20s or early-30s would have, any modern clinician would have, wanted to bring whatever treatments at their disposal to bear. During the Presidency, it’s a lot murkier. But, we’re presented with characters like Lincoln in the Presidency all the time, where there is some psychopathology, but it is co-occurring with very high function. That kind of jams the machine of considering what mental illness even is. I don’t know how you even talk about that in the context of illness and health. Because it’s both.

Lincoln on August 9, 1863. About three months later he would deliver the Gettysburg Address. The photo was taken by Alexander Gardner.

OR: If Lincoln was alive today and treated with anti-depressants, how would he have changed? Do you think he would have been just as effective as a President?

JWS: I don’t know. The question of anti-depressants is an extremely difficult one. How effective are they? And, what do they do? Counterfactuals are a very abstract exercise. I don’t, in my gut, believe that modern anti-depressants would have made much of a difference for Lincoln, but I could be wrong.

OR: The last thing on Lincoln I wanted to ask you, is whether or not there is a specific takeaway for people that have depression? Is it that there are specific strategies that you can employ to help you cope and that you can still be highly functional? That it’s possible to make creative use of your own suffering?

JWS: Yes, I think there are takeaways. Number one, just recognizing that this exists. A lot of people who have appreciated the book have appreciated just the acknowledgment. Number two, I think you can take away that if you have a kind of depression or if you see depression as a lifelong challenge of character, not just an acute and discreet illness, then the choices that Lincoln made to orient himself towards meaning and service and his coping strategies with humor and poetry…these can be very effective. You admire that path of his life and certainly find things to adopt.

Finally, the ultimate question that Lincoln’s life begs is ‘How does one bind up suffering to some higher meaning?’ What does that look like for us? None of us are going to be American Presidents in the Civil War. What does that look like in our much more mundane lives? So, that take away is a question, not a conclusion. But, generally, good stories leave you with more questions than answers.

OR: I agree.

You also wrote a very good book called Powers of Two. It examines the role partnerships play in creativity, in contrast to the stereotype of the lone genius. I wanted to ask you specifically because you talk at length about the songwriting partnership of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. I’ve always been told as a Beatles fan that they were more or less independent and didn’t have a true partnership. But, you take the position that they had a true collaboration. What did you see that others didn’t that allowed you to take that position?

JWS: The idea that they work separately is not inaccurate, but all meaningful creative relationships have strong elements of autonomy. To say that John and Paul weren’t a real collaboration and that they worked separately is like saying, “Oh, you know I heard that those guys were married, but they’re not. And I’ll tell you how I know they’re not because he goes to a different place all day and so does she. It’s not just any day, it’s every day. They go to different places.” It’s a naïve understanding about the way relationships work. We are that naïve with creative relationships, because we have so little context, in part because of the lone creative genius myth. We don’t even think to ask the question about the nature of the relationship. That is silly and problematic because that’s the way meaningful work always gets made.

John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

The other basic error people tend to make is to think that there is opposition between individual integrity and relationships.

OR: What, at the root, is the basis for creativity flourishing in duos? Is it our natural desire to compete? Or are certain pairs just complimentary to each other, filling in the gaps in ability?

JWS: We are social creatures and everything we do is bound up with other people. The most nimble and properly creative, in the sense of generating something that is new and different, is a diad for all kinds of reasons. There’s a creative dynamic in all kinds of groups, but the diad is an unusual one. The beginning of the book talks in some detail about this, about the way two people can create their own reality. Two people can move between being individuals and being in a group extremely fluidly.

Ultimately, I think it probably goes back to some kind of dialogical equality in the human mind. We’re set up for exchanges, for binary exchanges. It’s a primary mode of exchange.

I’ve been talking very abstractly, but it’s also just empirically true. When you look at how creative things happen, what you hear over and over again is that there is a critical group context, but that big advances happen in some kind of a diad.

OR: I wanted to also touch on an essay you wrote for The Atlantic called “What Makes Us Happy?” It draws upon a longitudinal study of Harvard men conducted by George Valliant. How were you able to gain access to Valliant’s records?

JWS: I read George’s books when I was writing Lincoln’s Melancholy and after I published the book I found that of all the things I read, his stuck with me and felt typical to life in a way I had not experienced with Freud or Jung or any other of a dozen theorists. It felt like his framework for articulating how people are and how we do well or poorly, just really seemed to arise organically in my life. I just found myself thinking about…it just fit, it’s like if you have an onion that needs cutting and looking at all these other theories felt like having a spoon or a spatula or something. George’s work felt like a knife to me.

George Valliant speaking in Amsterdam. Photo by Vera de Kok.

I reached out to him and asked him if he was open to being written about. The situation was quite complex because it was a confidential study and he had not given any writer access to the material. But, he saw where I was coming from and that I had a very earnest and deep interest. He had read my book on Lincoln and liked it and we were able to work something out. He trusted me enough to let me read some of the files and to respect the confidentiality of the study. It was a lucky thing. I think he feels the same way, he feels that I was able to articulate his findings and that it was special.

OR: Is it fair to say that while we know certain factors contribute to happiness or unhappiness – such as having long term relationships and avoiding substance abuse – we’re all so unique that breaking into a science what makes us happy is a nonsense exercise? In the end, we just have to go live our life and “squeeze the lemon”?

JWS: That’s one way to say it, sure. I think the underlying result that we have is that happiness is not a birthright, but rather our ability to have healthy adaptations to circumstance. That’s not to say that environment is meaningless, just that adaptations seem to be a key to happiness. And as you mentioned, who has that capacity is almost impossible to predict.

OR: You also contributed a beautiful essay to the collection Unholy Ghost called “A Melancholy of Mine Own.” It’s very personal. Where does the courage come from to be so vulnerable? Did you find it challenging or have second thoughts?

JWS: Vulnerable has never been a challenge for me. The challenge is trying to organize; to write about yourself and extract from the chaos of thoughts and feelings something coherent. The challenge is to unpack the complexity of yourself, to create an “I” that’s not a made-up character. You cannot in writing truly represent the infinite complexity of the self. I’m sure in ways it can be difficult to be vulnerable. I’m sure there are some aspects of it that I have an aversion to, but it’s not the primary challenge. I want to be known and known fully, I want to be known with the full picture of experience.

OR: Can we look forward to any other works from you in the near future?

JWS: Yes. I’m working on a new book that I hope to finish soon. I have an exciting and demanding job now directing the literary center at UNLV and have recently agreed to become an Editor of a literary magazine. So, there are a lot of exciting things happening right now.

OR: We very sincerely appreciate your time today and have enjoyed all of your books. We’ll look forward to the next one we see that comes out. Thanks, Josh.

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