Hal Niedzviecki

Hey. I'm Hal Niedzviecki. I live in Toronto and I grew up in Maryland. I write about contemporary life and I try my best not to be afraid.

Jul 11, 2013
Published on: Broken Pencil
4 min read

Non-fiction depression literature is a pretty lame genre filled with personal accounts, self-help programs, inflammatory warnings, and many many patronizing titles like: Helping Your Depressed Teenager (that book was checked out when I looked for it at the library). Typically, these texts diagnose depression, bandy around statistics, impart on the seriousness of the problem and offer up anecdotes about people who stop eating, lose their jobs, get taken to the hospital and find help in a successful regimen of mind numbing drugs and counseling. In these books, depression is largely a personal matter. It has nothing to do with society, and even less to do with desire and desire’s ultimate expression: creativity. Here’s a sample quote I culled from a psychological textbook. It comes from a passage entitled Suicide Among the Young.

“Since the mid-1960s,” it says, “the suicide rate among young people aged fifteen to twenty-four has climbed steadily. Psychologists and other observers have suggested a number of factors: effect of parental divorce, fears about the future, stresses stemming from school or parental pressure.” Wow. That’s about as insightful as it gets when the depression cannon makes connections between the strange world we were born into, and the way we find ourselves squirming around in it. Nevertheless, it is from texts like these that we (and television writers) establish our highly developed sense of cliché. So our stereotype of depression is what? Wane people who don’t even have the will to sit up in bed long enough to eat six handfuls of pills? Confused adolescents penning bad poetry, listening to Marilyn Manson, being ignored by their fighting parents and moving zombie-like toward their fateful end as either prozac or suicide statistics? For the most part, the writings on depression obligingly put forth by the profit-minded textbook and self-help publishing industry refer to the “psychoneurotic order marked by sadness, inactivity, difficulty in thinking and concentration, a significant increase or decrease in appetite and time spent sleeping, feelings of dejection and hopelessness, and sometimes suicidal tendencies.” This kind of depression is seen in 1 to 2 percent of men and 3 to 4.6 percent of women in North America.

Now, while I might make the occasional glib reference to pills, carbon monoxide poisoning and counseling, these sarcasms are not meant to make light of the serious nature of major depression or suicide. Rather, my comments are an attempt to put some distance between the societal archetype of depression (as documented in the writings on the subject which run the gamut from hysterical to hopelessly dry) and the actuality of the experience of young people in Canada (and, by extension, in North America). In other words, depression is a serious illness, but it isn’t what most young people mean when they say that they are depressed. “I’ve been doing zines for eight years and the main reason I started was because I was depressed,” says Brandon of St. Catharines, whose current zine is called All Day I Dream About Suicide (a.d.i.d.a.s.). “Beside the music stuff, all the writing comes from being depressed. When I’m in a good mood I hardly work on it. The last month has been great, I haven’t written anything except CD reviews.” What Brandon calls depression, I would describe as “a vague sense of mental or moral ill-being.”

This is not just another definition of depression. It’s the dictionary definition of my favourite noun: malaise. Malaise is a much more useful term by which to attempt to make generalizations on the relationship between mental state, society and culture. The beauty of malaise is that it carries few connotations – it isn’t an instant stereotype, it’s an evocative and complex word that could and does mean more than its dictionary definition. Would it be fair to say that the majority of people under thirty frequently give voice to malaise? Brandon isn’t depressed ~ neither according to the textbook definition, nor according to the collective image we have of depression as being a paralyzing force unlikely to be the impetus for creative endeavours like zines.

So forget depression. Let’s make the word malaise ours. Let’s adopt it as the one truth everyone between the ages of thirty to fifteen can share. Let’s all join hands and shout it out together: We are the malaise generation! Whee, didn’t that feel good. Of course we never would join hands. We are too self conscious, not to mention too busy. We are busy being jealous of our friends, bickering/working our mindless low-wage jobs, doing drugs, drinking booze, dealing with the burden of our barely acknowledged lusts and going to school (or trying to get into a school to go to). We are busy looking good with our toques pulled down over our greasy hair. Those of us who feel particularly loopy and outside the trade-school attitude overtaking our universities and colleges are busy indulging in various creative endeavors. These creative acts typically involve some form or other of pop art: writing, drawing, painting, film- making and otherwise giving voice to our malaise. Malaise culture is not a culture where people sit around and talk about how pointless it is to do things.

Vancouver cartoonist Brad Yung portrays young hipsters actually practicing their apathy skills. “I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care,” one bespectacled young man repeats to himself over a cup of coffee. Such an act – no* to mention imagining that act and drawing it ~ tells us that malaise is a proactive affliction; it isn’t something that just happens, but something you have to work at. This also tells us that malaise culture views expression as paramount, particularly creative expression. Much of this creativity, however, is interpreted by those outside the culture as depressed or angst-ridden. But is it? Or are these apparently angst-ridden creative acts actually attempts to say something that is not at all about depression? Angela, creator of the suburban Toronto zines Happy Nightmare Baby and Hope’s Spanish Eyes, explains it this way: “I think for me being negative is much more accessible than writing something positive…I don’t think our arts, books and movies are meant to be depressing, but they do result in a pattern of frustration and rejection leading to depression. All of us try to make things positive in the process of doing what we do. Sadly it disintegrates because it never ends the way we had hoped. We are caught up in the outside world and it affects what we do.” As Angela perceptively suggests, many malaise creators are expressing sentiments that go beyond society’s ability or willingness to understand them. As such they are labelled weird (a common term for work that appears negative or depressing). But much of this work is actually quite positive in that it supersedes the limits society places on creativity and, in the process, reorders social conceptions around personal and shared experience.

To show you what I mean, I’ll quote from a song written by Toronto singer-songwriter Kathy Goldman, The tune is called Prozac Song and is sung by Goldman with a jovial, repetitive lilt that the words as they appear on the page can only hint at. Still, you’ll get the idea: “Its been years of stupid tears/I felt quite low/who wants to know?/ but the psychiatric team said it would raise my self esteem and give me a second chance to live and grow/and I am lovedy dovey dovey dovey dovey dovey dovey dove/I had bad R.E.M./ so I tried TM/I was disturbed/so I tried herbs/it’s really very popular just ask your family doctor but don’t expect a new job or a raise/and I am loovey doovey doovey etc./now there are those/who criticize/but they don’t know/till they’ve been through it themselves/qr until they’ve tried…/for when I am really groaning it will raise my seratonin etc.” Goldman’s stark honesty about her depression and her use of prozac is wonderfully offset by her joking attitude. No doubt that for the Goldman the song marked a crucial transition out of being seriously depressed and into being a proud progenitor of malaise culture. The song also demonstrates how it is that malaise culture turns the stereotypes of depression and prozac into highly personal satire. Robert Hughes, author of the book Culture of Complaint, would probably argue that Goldman’s song, and Angela’s zines, are prime examples of a culture of whiners.

However, I would argue that Goldman and Angela are using malaise culture (highly intelligent, self aware pop art) to reflect the conflicts in their lives and the way in which mainstream culture seeks to turn those real conflicts into surreal, ungraspable pastiche. “I find it tedious when older adults say my zines are very angst- like,” says Angela. “There’s a big FUCK YOU to loser psychologists who may consider me some sort of manic depressive because I tend to be dramatic in my zine. If they think I’m depressed, then everyone is depressed because there are lots of people going through these kinds of things…My zines represent my feelings of resentment and denial at becoming someone or something. People are always surprised when they meet me after reading the zine. They assume I’m a depressed girl holding a candle with satin around my bloody wrists.” What is surprising about malaise culture is not that so many young people are caught in the slippery grip of their insecurities. As Angela points . out, everybody is. But it is in younger generations that malaise is articulated – – as opposed to being ignored. In articulating our malaise, we accomplish a number of things: We successfully weed out our insecurities before they take root and we become — you guessed it — depressed. (Malaise, however, is never gone for long.) As well, the creative act of articulating malaise is, in itself, a fixture of malaise culture; We revel in each other’s vague unease: pronouncements of doom, general feelings of unhappiness concerning the course of the world and one’s life as it fits into that course — these are the issues we put forth in our zines, music, films and even more esoteric art forms. Malaise is a shared truth. It is an expressed truth. It is also a self- fulfilling truth because by its very existence it insists on failure. (The band Everclear sings: “We can live beside the ocean….and watch the world die.” More on that later.) But because malaise is an open and communal celebration of our inadequacies and despairs, it comes as a welcome contrast to depression. Depression is the point at which things become solitary and desperate and altogether beyond the reach of the creative act. Depression, you see, is not fun. But malaise – as cartoonist Yung, singer Goldman and many others demonstrate — malaise is fun. Malaise is way more fun and playful than its predecessor, angst.

Like Angela, I reject the angst label for young generations in North America. Angst emerges from an existential position where one ~ having discovered that god, country, and relationships are meaningless ~ is forced to face the solitude of the self in all its horrible emptiness. In other words, for us to be angst ridden would mean that we would be casting off our beliefs in, among other things, the awesome power of the almighty, the irrevocable primacy of family, and so on. However, since we did not grow up harbouring such convictions, we no longer have much, if anything, to reject. Quebec filmmaker Anne-Claire Poirier recently made a film called Tou As Crié Let Me Go (You Cried Out Let Me Go), a fictional feature based on the real events which led to the murder of her twenty-six year-old daughter who was a herion addict and courted destruction. “If only I had been able to offer you a belief in God,” says Poirier in the film. As seen by the middle-aged filmmaker, it was her daughter’s failure to find the values the existentialists rejected that resulted in her death. Had the film been made by a contemporary of Poirier’s daughter it might have been less a lament and more a twisted celebration (a Quebec Trainspotting?). Malaise – our affliction and our benediction — is truculently jovial about even the most devestating events. This is different from the post- WWII angst which can be better located in the cultural tornado of the sixties and early seventies. For an all Canadian angst primer, check out the short films of the National Film Board’s ground-breaking Arthur Lipsett. Masterful film collages like Free Fall and Very Nice, Very Nice demonstrate that in the sixties great visionaries were still essentially grappling with existentialist conflicts. An example of good time malaise culture is to be found in the campy shrouded gloom of Goth.

Goth is an interesting phenomenon, a mixture of sixteenth century European sensibilities, certain kinds of electronic music and a congenial interest in death and the occult. “I discovered Goth and became drawn to all of its beauties,” explains Milena, who produces the Ontario based sometimes Goth zine Sombre Souls on Prozac. “Its dress, literature, music and its fine arts. Sure, I had an ongoing romance with death, and perhaps the fact that Goth embraces that was a connecting force, but essentially I don’t think it was the ‘romance of death’ which led me to actively seek a subculture that I felt a part of.” The message in Milena’s statement is clear: Goth, like many alternative- music subculture scenes, does not romance death, just its trappings. In other words, Goth culture nicely embodies another important tenet of malaise culture: Malaise is demonstrably egotistic in nature. The products of malaise culture (and its various subcultures) are concerned with the style of substance. How much style does it take to make substance? Despite stating that she was chronically depressed throughout her adolescence and up to age seventeen, Milena argues that Goth is not about depression. “There are many Goth-inclined people who do not experience depression«/’ she says. “They are drawn to its theatrics, its grace and love for the past. Some people simply love the music and dress in homage to their favourite bands. I think most people who are depressed are feeling too apathetic to go out and find something that interests them anyway. The seeming connection between Goth and depression is undeniable, but not the only truth.” If Goth is not about death or depression, is it about malaise? All that dressing up, enacting rituals, swaying to vacuous music, it certainly suggests malaise to me. And if Goth, which is both the most entertaining and the most overtly obsessed subculture, is not about depression, then it is not hard to apply what Milena tells us about Goth to a variety of subcultures. (How about punk’s suburban brother, grunge?) Goth is malaise culture all dressed up, and, as we see from the tongue-in- cheek title of Milena’s zine, it has a sense of humour. In Goth, as in malaise culture in general, the intention is to join together and give voice to unease. In that sense, malaise culture is more about catharsis than it is about finding solutions or becoming active in curing society’s problems. Screw that. Malaise is about individuals caught in a social situation where everything is massed together to deny individuality. As such, malaise is a complicated mixture of group dynamics and individual pioneers.

When I try to explicate this, I keep coming back to a particular image by Toronto artist Eric Aurandt. There is a film he made which shows himself reclining in a coffin-shaped, slatted box. As he rests there, seemingly on guard against nothing, he calmly smokes cigarettes, eats crackers and levels his rifle through gaps in the box and out at the unfriendly world. The message is one of sublime anachronism: as we seek to move back into ourselves and escape the world, we find the world’s violent, passive and malignant trappings within ourselves. A guy in Regina, Saskatchewan named Daniel occasionally sends me a batch of his tiny zines, really an on- going series of his own cryptic drawings and writings. (“—Sick, walking in summer stomach something the painting in Vancouver. Looking gone. Feeling well.”) Why does Daniel put these books together and send them off? He says this: “Basically, making things makes me feel better. So that as little as I’ve done, it’s not a complete waste.” There is the belief that our lives are wasted before they have begun. This holds true until we manage (despite our dumb jobs and dim futures) to express ourselves in such a way that we are lifted into a community of our own making, one which is capable of understanding our concerns and validating our way of thinking. Thematically, malaise captures the disdain, disregard and disgust that both hides and points to our serious anxieties about the future. Perhaps that is why malaise product is generally funny, contemplative, sarcastic, non- profit, superficial, deep, and profiteering all at the same time. As zine-maker Angela stated, malaise culture does not exist in a vacuum. While textbooks on depression might not want to make many connections to society’s dysfunctions, malaise creators cannot escape doing so. They are trapped in the confusion of values apparent in overall society. There is obviously a link between a pervasive feeling of malaise in younger people ‘ and how lame the so-called ‘real’ world really is; the link exists whether you are fifteen and looking toward the future, or twenty-five with two degrees and waiting for the future to look for you.

“Good job news excludes youth,” states a January, 1997 headline in Canada’s national newspaper the Globe and Mail. That article goes on to say that the unemployment rate in Canada for December 1996 was 9.7%. However, for those aged 15 to 24 it remained almost double that at “above 16%”. In 1996 “more than 200,000 jobs were created for people over age 25, but employment among youths fell 20,000.” As well, the number of people between the ages of 15 to 24 actually looking for work (71% in 1989) has dropped to 61%. So, to translate, the evil thirty and forty year- olds are throwing us out of even the few jobs which should be ours. Meanwhile, we’re heading back to school and will, of course, graduate in time to take the lame jobs of the kids who are now thirteen. What a cycle. What hopes, what promises, what dreams await fulfillment in this great country of ours! Um, while we are at it let’s just throw something in about how completely destitute every attempt at creating a jobs plan for youth has been, and how evident it is that democracy and leadership are in pretty short supply in Canada at this juncture in history. I won’t even go into details about all that right now. Our view of the world – such as it is – is certainly related to our dim prospects. Whether we are aspiring artists or aspiring chemical engineers, things suck.

The rising suicide rate among young people is the clearest evidence we have that lack of opportunities and a breakdown in our belief structures (family, god, state, or the rejection of these things) creates a cycle that starts with malaise, moves on to depression and ends, for some, in suicide. Malaise culture breaks that cycle by creating a cultural space that allows for and insists on doing and creating outside of the commercial sphere. In such a space, we articulate what we feel, and cannot be told that it is unimportant or unappealing to the target market. Perhaps we should be glad that our leaders are clueless, the economy is stagnant and we will never have full- time jobs the way our parents did. Freed from these increasingly dubious trappings we can and are slowly beginning to commit to other endeavors and ways of living. Now, these endeavors might seem pointless – – obscure zines, indie tapes few ever hear, barely readable comics, grainy 60 second movies — but when considered collectively they are infinitely more resonant than the bigger culture they are both opposed to and consumed by.

Malaise culture is everywhere. Its surface message has already been taken up by huckster ad companies and cynical music executives. Warily, we play along, secretly pleased to finally be getting some attention. But in our hearts we know it doesn’t matter. Malaise culture will never be invalidated by the pseudo cultural space of consumerism. Built into malaise is a profound and eternal distrust. Think of the Super-8 Aurandt forever guarding his shotgun coffin failure. Imagine what Brad Yung’s hipster cartoon character would say (“I don’t care!”). And does anybody who hears the band Everclear sing “we can live beside the ocean….and watch the world die” really give a fuck?

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