I'm catching up on a lot of things I'd always meant to read, but hadn't. No real reading plan, as the selection at my library is, um, eclectic. The two first things I read had a strange synchronicity about them that made me think about my own bouts of despair 'n' depression.
"Night" by Elie Wiesel is the memoir of a survivor of both Auschwitz and Buchenwald. When he was 15 in 1944, all the Jews in his town were rounded up, relocated to a ghetto, and soon sent by trains to concentration camps. Elie lives with his father for a year in the camps (until the liberation by American troops in 1945). His mother and 3 sisters are separated from him and his father upon arrival at the camps, and he has no way to know whether any of them will stay alive or not.
Early in the book, Elie considers throwing himself onto the electrified fence to quickly end the torments sure to come. There are many moments in the book where Elie thinks (this is my paraphrase; his prose is certainly more eloquent) "Fuck it, I'm tired of fighting. The Nazis are going to kill us through torture, starvation or bullets eventually, so why bother?".
The main point of the book is, of course, the stubbornness of humanity to perserve, even under the most inhuman circumstances imaginable. And as you might guess if you've ever read any Holocaust survivor memoirs, inhuman acts abound. There's a particularly awful tale about how Elie cleverly conspires to retain his gold tooth (to chew with, not out of avarice) while all his campmates are having theirs removed by a Jewish dentist (pressed into service by the camp guards, the dentist could not refuse). A fellow inmate in a position of menial camp responsibility later sees his tooth, covets its worth on the black market (for guard bribing) and basically torments Elie's father with overwork until Elie agrees to give up the tooth, which is then crudely removed with a spoon by the covetor. Within days, the covetor is transfered to another camp, meaning that had Elie held out a just a short while longer, the torment of dad would have ended and Elie could have kept his tooth.
The last line of the book has to do with the liberation of the camps. Elie looks at himself in a mirror, and says "I saw a corpse looking back at me".
Elie was born in 1928. He's still alive today. Along the way, he wrote lots of books and won the Nobel Peace Prize.
The next book was "The Bell Jar" by Sylvia Plath, an autobiography thinly disguised as a novel. Sylvia was born only 4 years after Elie, in 1932. She started college in 1950, and was a gifted, high-achieving scholarship student who'd been a published writer (stories/poems) before graduating. One college summer, she was an intern in NYC at a magazine, living in an all-girls hotel with other interns and women in secretarial school. The first half of the book is about Sylvia's inability to get a handle on what she wants to do with her life, creatively, academically, and socially. She has a boyfriend back home, who she realizes she doesn't love and doesn't want to marry. The whole marriage/kids thing frightens her --keep in mind, this is happening in the 50's, and she's a WASP from New England, so there's a pretty large expectation that this is her future path. She's doing well academically, but the magazine editor chides her for not having studied more languages in college- here she is, halfway done with college, and she has yet to take German or Latin? Isn't she serious about her writing career?
Sylvia returns home from the internship. When she finds a rejection letter from the prestigious writing workshop she'd hoped to do next next summer, she sinks into a bizarre depression (can't sleep, won't change her clothes, can't read). This is followed by a few suicide attempts, for which she is eventually hospitalized and given shock treatments. The second half of the book is about the hospital and therapy experiences.
Although the book ends without revealing what happens to her after she leaves the hospital, Sylvia went back to college, graduated, got a Fulbright scholarship, married a poet, had children, had her poems published, seperated from her husband, and eventually was successful in killing herself, in 1963. She was 31 years old.
Now, you might think that immediately after reading Night, my reaction to The Bell Jar would be something like "Ohhh, poor baby! Didn't get into the Harvard writing program! Yeah, that's a lot worse than being imprisioned at age 15, living on a diet of soup and bread, seeing people from your village publically executed and having your tooth removed with a spoon!"
But oddly, I almost felt worse for Sylvia than for Elie. Elie managed to make it through a terrible ordeal, while also dealing with issues along the lines of "How could God let this happen to us?" (for the record, "Night" doesn't have an answer to that question). If anyone had reason to give up and stick his head in the oven(s), it was Elie. Sylvia's main obstacle to happiness was being an intelligent, creative woman born during a time when roles for women were more rigid, and she was aware enough to know this. It's not only that she eventually succeeded in killing herself that makes the story so sad- it's that she was tormented enough at the tender age of 20 to feel like there was nothing to live for.
I guess what I took away from reading these books back to back is that depression is not a logical, cause and effect thing, and never has been. Yes, being imprisoned in Buchenwald is worse than being expected to marry the Yale medical student from your hometown who goes to your church. But the depressed person lacks the clarity to put things into that kind of perspective, which is what makes depression such an insidious, destructive thing. Elie lived through terrible things and gave insight into one of the most tragic periods of recent world history. Sylvia lived long enough to see her novel published (under a pseudonym- she was ashamed that it was a "potboiler" and thought it would detract from her reputation as a poet) and then killed herself a month after its publication.