We were having brunch at the Brussels Hilton one Sunday at a longish, noisy table with some people we knew—and some people we didn’t—when one man we did know, having finished his cake, smiled, leaned back and said, “I’ve been depressed recently.”
“Look at him,” the woman to my right said in French. “He says he’s depressed with a big smile.”
“No, no, no, I assure you,” he answered. “I’ve been very depressed.”
His name was Daniel and he earned his living by buying and selling paintings of the 18th and 19th centuries Dutch and Flemish Masters and sub-masters. He had a small gallery on Avenue Louise, the big deal Brussels Avenue. He had recently decided to close it down because it took too much time. From the beginning of the year he was a going to work selectively: select paintings, select customers.
“I want to become less materialistic. I find it depressing to be busy with money, and phone calls, and contacts. No, I’m going to get rid of my big car and get a small car. It is all depressing.”
He did not look particularly depressed. His brown eyes gleamed, his ironic smile was quick to surface on his face, and he spoke with an easy earnestness that made his unsought confession of depression difficult to sympathize with.
I looked for the typical signs of depression we Westerners have refined: the ringed eyes, the slumped shoulders, the silence.
He was nearing forty, he was living with a pretty mother of three, none of whom were his children. He was having brunch with close friends at the Hilton on Sunday. He had spent his summer in Turkey and was planing to spend Christmas holidays in Naples, with other friends, and they knew a good place for water sports in February. And he was depressed.
I did silent writer’s musing at him. What was the nature and extent of this depression? Was it only the nagging doubts of material comforts? Affluent anguish? Mid-life? Perhaps he was in the process of rearranging his priorities and was sorrowful for lost time and wrong directions taken?
He was giving no details. I continued looking at him as he made a joke about something. People laughed. They liked laughing. It’s why they came to brunch with friends.
Depression. I knew about depression and I was interested in depression. Whenever people mentioned the magic word “DEPRESSION” in my hearing, I gravitated toward the emotional mess. Depression is often the meat and matter of much modern fiction. One needed conflict in stories, just as many people needed conflicts in life, and some, who had no material or personal conflicts, gave way to mental conflicts. Mental anguish as higher, spiritual needs remained unfed
Maybe he was feeling existential anguish. That self-made hell. Full bellies, painful heads. But I’d seen enough existential anguish claimed by people who simple wanted to be romantic and forlorn. They know the words, they had the terms (and the time); they put intellectual labels on emotional turmoil.
Many people, by naming their misery, hoped to tame it.
But Daniel didn’t name anything beyond using the word depressed. He chatted, allowing me to continue bringing out my handy mental file, supplying private suppositions, imaginary and real cases, cause and effects, but all that was nothing compared to the immediate real thing before me. What’s really with this guy? Depression’s a serious business. I looked across at him, wished he’d give more explanation, an expansion, about this depression that allowed him to smile so often.
Friends chatted; the conversation moved on; Daniel talked but I couldn’t hear what he was saying. I leaned toward him, trying to make out his French from the surrounding hubbub.
He was discussing Naples in December with his neighbor.