Sunday 28 February 2010

ok then, one more Sunday

(a 'rumination' today, rather than a 'meditation' :-)
Up, Down.

“Depressed affect made people think better.”
     Paul Andrews of Virginia Commonwealth University quoted in the NYT.

Thandie Newton ShanduraiThandie Newton ShanduraiThandie Newton Shandurai

Bernardo Bertolucci's Besieged, aka 'Assedio' and 'The Siege' and 'Shandurai' and there may be more, lots could be said about how well Bertolucci tells this tale, suffice to say that he saves Thandie's puffy nipples for the penultimate thrill, second only to the final unanswered question, a truly memorable montage, I will get James Lasdun's story The Siege and scan it later on, to see if it is Bertolucci or Lasdun who conceived such remarkable wrinkles ...

Miami Vice BoobageMiami Vice Boobagea-and speaking of compelling boobs, here's another example, from Miami Vice, except in this case the trail spirals down instead of up, that's to say, into the daemonic instead of (possibly) angelic and even (dare I say?) ... redemptive? of course in Miami Vice the appeal is that the boobs are bouncing to the music, maybe it takes someone of Bertolucci's stature to raise this technique above the merely manipulative, gives added meaning to the word 'hooker' :-)

John C. OjwangJohn C. OjwangJohn C. OjwangJohn C. OjwangJohn C. OjwangJohn C. OjwangJohn C. Ojwang
then there is John C. Ojwang, a musician from Kenya - that is the extent of what I can learn about him from the Internet, some of his music can be heard on YouTube, strange that no one seems to have picked up on this John Ojwang? he is the chorous, the fool, and the oracle, no subtitles for his lyrics either and no way that I can think of to track them down (?)

Besieged SpiralBesieged Spiraland the rich architecture of this house, so gracious, and deployed around a central spiral staircase - someone may have noticed other spirals in this blog from time to time, the original (in my consciousness at least) being Ann Tyng's spatial theory, which is (again, for me) tightly interconnected with tensegrity

for our Sandurai there is a spiral development as well, whether her husband Winston leaves or waits she has become like the character in Little Gidding, arriving where she began and seeing it new, Eliot says 'first time' but I prefer 'new' :-)

what are the stages of the 'grief cycle' again? ... denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, ahh but Wikipedia tells me that this is a popular notion and not a scientific one, oh well, and I suppose that even if it were bona fide one would possibly need different cycles for death, grief, trauma and so on ... because I am wondering what it will take for the climate change team to get their collective thumbs out?

Al Gore is in the NYT today, but when Al Gore says 'we' he means 'America' ... parochial (!) ... not that far off Obama I guess though I think Obama suffers less from that particularly blinkering ailment, I don't think either of them has seen yet that they cannot both champion climate change and indulge in personal consumerism, maybe that's it do you think? ... where is our climate change Ghandi? Oh where oh where can he/she be? let's say it again ...

Where is our climate change Ghandi?

given the awful prose and structure of Tim Flannery's latest, it's not him, certainly not that airhead ranter James Lovelock, nor the over-optimistic Pollyanna Lester Brown, not Nikiforuk, not our adenoid Ed Milliband ... there is not a single k-k-Canadian politician even on the radar ... Gwynne Dyer? Mark Lynas? Bill McKibben?

I thought it was going to be Barack Obama, I truely did, until I saw him blow his load on health care & the Nobel prize & nuclear energy ...

not even a Don Quixote, hell, not even a Sancho Panza (!)

Ai ai ai!

1. We Can’t Wish Away Climate Change, Al Gore, Feb 27 2010.
2. Depression’s Upside, Jonah Lehrer, Feb 25 2010.
3. The Siege, James Lasdun, 2000.

We Can’t Wish Away Climate Change, Al Gore, Feb 27 2010.

It would be an enormous relief if the recent attacks on the science of global warming actually indicated that we do not face an unimaginable calamity requiring large-scale, preventive measures to protect human civilization as we know it.

Of course, we would still need to deal with the national security risks of our growing dependence on a global oil market dominated by dwindling reserves in the most unstable region of the world, and the economic risks of sending hundreds of billions of dollars a year overseas in return for that oil. And we would still trail China in the race to develop smart grids, fast trains, solar power, wind, geothermal and other renewable sources of energy — the most important sources of new jobs in the 21st century.

But what a burden would be lifted! We would no longer have to worry that our grandchildren would one day look back on us as a criminal generation that had selfishly and blithely ignored clear warnings that their fate was in our hands. We could instead celebrate the naysayers who had doggedly persisted in proving that every major National Academy of Sciences report on climate change had simply made a huge mistake.

I, for one, genuinely wish that the climate crisis were an illusion. But unfortunately, the reality of the danger we are courting has not been changed by the discovery of at least two mistakes in the thousands of pages of careful scientific work over the last 22 years by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In fact, the crisis is still growing because we are continuing to dump 90 million tons of global-warming pollution every 24 hours into the atmosphere — as if it were an open sewer.

It is true that the climate panel published a flawed overestimate of the melting rate of debris-covered glaciers in the Himalayas, and used information about the Netherlands provided to it by the government, which was later found to be partly inaccurate. In addition, e-mail messages stolen from the University of East Anglia in Britain showed that scientists besieged by an onslaught of hostile, make-work demands from climate skeptics may not have adequately followed the requirements of the British freedom of information law.

But the scientific enterprise will never be completely free of mistakes. What is important is that the overwhelming consensus on global warming remains unchanged. It is also worth noting that the panel’s scientists — acting in good faith on the best information then available to them — probably underestimated the range of sea-level rise in this century, the speed with which the Arctic ice cap is disappearing and the speed with which some of the large glacial flows in Antarctica and Greenland are melting and racing to the sea.

Because these and other effects of global warming are distributed globally, they are difficult to identify and interpret in any particular location. For example, January was seen as unusually cold in much of the United States. Yet from a global perspective, it was the second-hottest January since surface temperatures were first measured 130 years ago.

Similarly, even though climate deniers have speciously argued for several years that there has been no warming in the last decade, scientists confirmed last month that the last 10 years were the hottest decade since modern records have been kept.

The heavy snowfalls this month have been used as fodder for ridicule by those who argue that global warming is a myth, yet scientists have long pointed out that warmer global temperatures have been increasing the rate of evaporation from the oceans, putting significantly more moisture into the atmosphere — thus causing heavier downfalls of both rain and snow in particular regions, including the Northeastern United States. Just as it’s important not to miss the forest for the trees, neither should we miss the climate for the snowstorm.

Here is what scientists have found is happening to our climate: man-made global-warming pollution traps heat from the sun and increases atmospheric temperatures. These pollutants — especially carbon dioxide — have been increasing rapidly with the growth in the burning of coal, oil, natural gas and forests, and temperatures have increased over the same period. Almost all of the ice-covered regions of the Earth are melting — and seas are rising. Hurricanes are predicted to grow stronger and more destructive, though their number is expected to decrease. Droughts are getting longer and deeper in many mid-continent regions, even as the severity of flooding increases. The seasonal predictability of rainfall and temperatures is being disrupted, posing serious threats to agriculture. The rate of species extinction is accelerating to dangerous levels.

Though there have been impressive efforts by many business leaders, hundreds of millions of individuals and families throughout the world and many national, regional and local governments, our civilization is still failing miserably to slow the rate at which these emissions are increasing — much less reduce them.

And in spite of President Obama’s efforts at the Copenhagen climate summit meeting in December, global leaders failed to muster anything more than a decision to “take note” of an intention to act.

Because the world still relies on leadership from the United States, the failure by the Senate to pass legislation intended to cap American emissions before the Copenhagen meeting guaranteed that the outcome would fall far short of even the minimum needed to build momentum toward a meaningful solution.

The political paralysis that is now so painfully evident in Washington has thus far prevented action by the Senate — not only on climate and energy legislation, but also on health care reform, financial regulatory reform and a host of other pressing issues.

This comes with painful costs. China, now the world’s largest and fastest-growing source of global-warming pollution, had privately signaled early last year that if the United States passed meaningful legislation, it would join in serious efforts to produce an effective treaty. When the Senate failed to follow the lead of the House of Representatives, forcing the president to go to Copenhagen without a new law in hand, the Chinese balked. With the two largest polluters refusing to act, the world community was paralyzed.

Some analysts attribute the failure to an inherent flaw in the design of the chosen solution — arguing that a cap-and-trade approach is too unwieldy and difficult to put in place. Moreover, these critics add, the financial crisis that began in 2008 shook the world’s confidence in the use of any market-based solution.

But there are two big problems with this critique: First, there is no readily apparent alternative that would be any easier politically. It is difficult to imagine a globally harmonized carbon tax or a coordinated multilateral regulatory effort. The flexibility of a global market-based policy — supplemented by regulation and revenue-neutral tax policies — is the option that has by far the best chance of success. The fact that it is extremely difficult does not mean that we should simply give up.

Second, we should have no illusions about the difficulty and the time needed to convince the rest of the world to adopt a completely new approach. The lags in the global climate system, including the buildup of heat in the oceans from which it is slowly reintroduced into the atmosphere, means that we can create conditions that make large and destructive consequences inevitable long before their awful manifestations become apparent: the displacement of hundreds of millions of climate refugees, civil unrest, chaos and the collapse of governance in many developing countries, large-scale crop failures and the spread of deadly diseases.

It’s important to point out that the United States is not alone in its inaction. Global political paralysis has thus far stymied work not only on climate, but on trade and other pressing issues that require coordinated international action.

The reasons for this are primarily economic. The globalization of the economy, coupled with the outsourcing of jobs from industrial countries, has simultaneously heightened fears of further job losses in the industrial world and encouraged rising expectations in emerging economies. The result? Heightened opposition, in both the industrial and developing worlds, to any constraints on the use of carbon-based fuels, which remain our principal source of energy.

The decisive victory of democratic capitalism over communism in the 1990s led to a period of philosophical dominance for market economics worldwide and the illusion of a unipolar world. It also led, in the United States, to a hubristic “bubble” of market fundamentalism that encouraged opponents of regulatory constraints to mount an aggressive effort to shift the internal boundary between the democracy sphere and the market sphere. Over time, markets would most efficiently solve most problems, they argued. Laws and regulations interfering with the operations of the market carried a faint odor of the discredited statist adversary we had just defeated.

This period of market triumphalism coincided with confirmation by scientists that earlier fears about global warming had been grossly understated. But by then, the political context in which this debate took form was tilted heavily toward the views of market fundamentalists, who fought to weaken existing constraints and scoffed at the possibility that global constraints would be needed to halt the dangerous dumping of global-warming pollution into the atmosphere.

Over the years, as the science has become clearer and clearer, some industries and companies whose business plans are dependent on unrestrained pollution of the atmospheric commons have become ever more entrenched. They are ferociously fighting against the mildest regulation — just as tobacco companies blocked constraints on the marketing of cigarettes for four decades after science confirmed the link of cigarettes to diseases of the lung and the heart.

Simultaneously, changes in America’s political system — including the replacement of newspapers and magazines by television as the dominant medium of communication — conferred powerful advantages on wealthy advocates of unrestrained markets and weakened advocates of legal and regulatory reforms. Some news media organizations now present showmen masquerading as political thinkers who package hatred and divisiveness as entertainment. And as in times past, that has proved to be a potent drug in the veins of the body politic. Their most consistent theme is to label as “socialist” any proposal to reform exploitive behavior in the marketplace.

From the standpoint of governance, what is at stake is our ability to use the rule of law as an instrument of human redemption. After all has been said and so little done, the truth about the climate crisis — inconvenient as ever — must still be faced.

The pathway to success is still open, though it tracks the outer boundary of what we are capable of doing. It begins with a choice by the United States to pass a law establishing a cost for global warming pollution. The House of Representatives has already passed legislation, with some Republican support, to take the first halting steps for pricing greenhouse gas emissions.

Later this week, Senators John Kerry, Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman are expected to present for consideration similar cap-and-trade legislation.

I hope that it will place a true cap on carbon emissions and stimulate the rapid development of low-carbon sources of energy.

We have overcome existential threats before. Winston Churchill is widely quoted as having said, “Sometimes doing your best is not good enough. Sometimes, you must do what is required.” Now is that time. Public officials must rise to this challenge by doing what is required; and the public must demand that they do so — or must replace them.

Al Gore, the vice president from 1993 to 2001, is the founder of the Alliance for Climate Protection and the author of “Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis.” As a businessman, he is an investor in alternative energy companies.

Depression’s Upside, Jonah Lehrer, Feb 25 2010.

Ben WeeksThe Victorians had many names for depression, and Charles Darwin used them all. There were his “fits” brought on by “excitements,” “flurries” leading to an “uncomfortable palpitation of the heart” and “air fatigues” that triggered his “head symptoms.” In one particularly pitiful letter, written to a specialist in “psychological medicine,” he confessed to “extreme spasmodic daily and nightly flatulence” and “hysterical crying” whenever Emma, his devoted wife, left him alone.

While there has been endless speculation about Darwin’s mysterious ailment — his symptoms have been attributed to everything from lactose intolerance to Chagas disease — Darwin himself was most troubled by his recurring mental problems. His depression left him “not able to do anything one day out of three,” choking on his “bitter mortification.” He despaired of the weakness of mind that ran in his family. “The ‘race is for the strong,’ ” Darwin wrote. “I shall probably do little more but be content to admire the strides others made in Science.”

Darwin, of course, was wrong; his recurring fits didn’t prevent him from succeeding in science. Instead, the pain may actually have accelerated the pace of his research, allowing him to withdraw from the world and concentrate entirely on his work. His letters are filled with references to the salvation of study, which allowed him to temporarily escape his gloomy moods. “Work is the only thing which makes life endurable to me,” Darwin wrote and later remarked that it was his “sole enjoyment in life.”

For Darwin, depression was a clarifying force, focusing the mind on its most essential problems. In his autobiography, he speculated on the purpose of such misery; his evolutionary theory was shadowed by his own life story. “Pain or suffering of any kind,” he wrote, “if long continued, causes depression and lessens the power of action, yet it is well adapted to make a creature guard itself against any great or sudden evil.” And so sorrow was explained away, because pleasure was not enough. Sometimes, Darwin wrote, it is the sadness that informs as it “leads an animal to pursue that course of action which is most beneficial.” The darkness was a kind of light.

The mystery of depression is not that it exists — the mind, like the flesh, is prone to malfunction. Instead, the paradox of depression has long been its prevalence. While most mental illnesses are extremely rare — schizophrenia, for example, is seen in less than 1 percent of the population — depression is everywhere, as inescapable as the common cold. Every year, approximately 7 percent of us will be afflicted to some degree by the awful mental state that William Styron described as a “gray drizzle of horror . . . a storm of murk.” Obsessed with our pain, we will retreat from everything. We will stop eating, unless we start eating too much. Sex will lose its appeal; sleep will become a frustrating pursuit. We will always be tired, even though we will do less and less. We will think a lot about death.

The persistence of this affliction — and the fact that it seemed to be heritable — posed a serious challenge to Darwin’s new evolutionary theory. If depression was a disorder, then evolution had made a tragic mistake, allowing an illness that impedes reproduction — it leads people to stop having sex and consider suicide — to spread throughout the population. For some unknown reason, the modern human mind is tilted toward sadness and, as we’ve now come to think, needs drugs to rescue itself.

The alternative, of course, is that depression has a secret purpose and our medical interventions are making a bad situation even worse. Like a fever that helps the immune system fight off infection — increased body temperature sends white blood cells into overdrive — depression might be an unpleasant yet adaptive response to affliction. Maybe Darwin was right. We suffer — we suffer terribly — but we don’t suffer in vain.

ANDY THOMSON IS a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia. He has a scruffy gray beard and steep cheekbones. When Thomson talks, he tends to close his eyes, as if he needs to concentrate on what he’s saying. But mostly what he does is listen: For the last 32 years, Thomson has been tending to his private practice in Charlottesville. “I tend to get the real hard cases,” Thomson told me recently. “A lot of the people I see have already tried multiple treatments. They arrive without much hope.” On one of the days I spent with Thomson earlier this winter, he checked his phone constantly for e-mail updates. A patient of his on “welfare watch” who was required to check in with him regularly had not done so, and Thomson was worried. “I’ve never gotten used to treating patients in mental pain,” he said. “Maybe it’s because every story is unique. You see one case of iron-deficiency anemia, you’ve seen them all. But the people who walk into my office are all hurting for a different reason.”

In the late 1990s, Thomson became interested in evolutionary psychology, which tries to explain the features of the human mind in terms of natural selection. The starting premise of the field is that the brain has a vast evolutionary history, and that this history shapes human nature. We are not a blank slate but a byproduct of imperfect adaptations, stuck with a mind that was designed to meet the needs of Pleistocene hunter-gatherers on the African savanna. While the specifics of evolutionary psychology remain controversial — it’s never easy proving theories about the distant past — its underlying assumption is largely accepted by mainstream scientists. There is no longer much debate over whether evolution sculptured the fleshy machine inside our head. Instead, researchers have moved on to new questions like when and how this sculpturing happened and which of our mental traits are adaptations and which are accidents.

In 2004, Thomson met Paul Andrews, an evolutionary psychologist at Virginia Commonwealth University, who had long been interested in the depression paradox — why a disorder that’s so costly is also so common. Andrews has long dark brown hair and an aquiline nose. Before he begins to talk, he often writes down an outline of his answer on scratch paper. “This is a very delicate subject,” he says. “I don’t want to say something reckless.”

Andrews and Thomson struck up an extended conversation on the evolutionary roots of depression. They began by focusing on the thought process that defines the disorder, which is known as rumination. (The verb is derived from the Latin word for “chewed over,” which describes the act of digestion in cattle, in which they swallow, regurgitate and then rechew their food.) In recent decades, psychiatry has come to see rumination as a dangerous mental habit, because it leads people to fixate on their flaws and problems, thus extending their negative moods. Consider “The Depressed Person,” a short story by David Foster Wallace, which chronicles a consciousness in the grip of the ruminative cycle. (Wallace struggled with severe depression for years before committing suicide in 2008.) The story is a long lament, a portrait of a mind hating itself, filled with sentences like this: “What terms might be used to describe such a solipsistic, self-consumed, bottomless emotional vacuum and sponge as she now appeared to herself to be?” The dark thoughts of “The Depressed Person” soon grow tedious and trying, but that’s precisely Wallace’s point. There is nothing profound about depressive rumination. There is just a recursive loop of woe.

The bleakness of this thought process helps explain why, according to the Yale psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, people with “ruminative tendencies” are more likely to become depressed. They’re also more likely to become unnerved by stressful events: for instance, Nolen-Hoeksema found that residents of San Francisco who self-identified as ruminators showed significantly more depressive symptoms after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. And then there are the cognitive deficits. Because rumination hijacks the stream of consciousness — we become exquisitely attentive to our pain — numerous studies have found that depressed subjects struggle to think about anything else, just like Wallace’s character. The end result is poor performance on tests for memory and executive function, especially when the task involves lots of information. (These deficits disappear when test subjects are first distracted from their depression and thus better able to focus on the exercise.) Such research has reinforced the view that rumination is a useless kind of pessimism, a perfect waste of mental energy.

That, at least, was the scientific consensus when Andrews and Thomson began exploring the depression paradox. Their evolutionary perspective, however — they see the mind as a fine-tuned machine that is not prone to pointless programming bugs — led them to wonder if rumination had a purpose. They started with the observation that rumination was often a response to a specific psychological blow, like the death of a loved one or the loss of a job. (Darwin was plunged into a debilitating grief after his 10-year-old daughter, Annie, died following a bout of scarlet fever.) Although the D.S.M. manual, the diagnostic bible for psychiatrists, does not take such stressors into account when diagnosing depressive disorder — the exception is grief caused by bereavement, as long as the grief doesn’t last longer than two months — it’s clear that the problems of everyday life play a huge role in causing mental illness. “Of course, rumination is unpleasant,” Andrews says. “But it’s usually a response to something real, a real setback. It didn’t seem right that the brain would go haywire just when we need it most.”

Imagine, for instance, a depression triggered by a bitter divorce. The ruminations might take the form of regret (“I should have been a better spouse”), recurring counterfactuals (“What if I hadn’t had my affair?”) and anxiety about the future (“How will the kids deal with it? Can I afford my alimony payments?”). While such thoughts reinforce the depression — that’s why therapists try to stop the ruminative cycle — Andrews and Thomson wondered if they might also help people prepare for bachelorhood or allow people to learn from their mistakes. “I started thinking about how, even if you are depressed for a few months, the depression might be worth it if it helps you better understand social relationships,” Andrews says. “Maybe you realize you need to be less rigid or more loving. Those are insights that can come out of depression, and they can be very valuable.”

This radical idea — the scientists were suggesting that depressive disorder came with a net mental benefit — has a long intellectual history. Aristotle was there first, stating in the fourth century B.C. “that all men who have attained excellence in philosophy, in poetry, in art and in politics, even Socrates and Plato, had a melancholic habitus; indeed some suffered even from melancholic disease.” This belief was revived during the Renaissance, leading Milton to exclaim, in his poem “Il Penseroso”: “Hail divinest Melancholy/Whose saintly visage is too bright/To hit the sense of human sight.” The Romantic poets took the veneration of sadness to its logical extreme and described suffering as a prerequisite for the literary life. As Keats wrote, “Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?”

But Andrews and Thomson weren’t interested in ancient aphorisms or poetic apologias. Their daunting challenge was to show how rumination might lead to improved outcomes, especially when it comes to solving life’s most difficult dilemmas. Their first speculations focused on the core features of depression, like the inability of depressed subjects to experience pleasure or their lack of interest in food, sex and social interactions. According to Andrews and Thomson, these awful symptoms came with a productive side effect, because they reduced the possibility of becoming distracted from the pressing problem.

The capacity for intense focus, they note, relies in large part on a brain area called the left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC), which is located a few inches behind the forehead. While this area has been associated with a wide variety of mental talents, like conceptual knowledge and verb conjugation, it seems to be especially important for maintaining attention. Experiments show that neurons in the VLPFC must fire continuously to keep us on task so that we don’t become sidetracked by irrelevant information. Furthermore, deficits in the VLPFC have been associated with attention-deficit disorder.

Several studies found an increase in brain activity (as measured indirectly by blood flow) in the VLPFC of depressed patients. Most recently, a paper to be published next month by neuroscientists in China found a spike in “functional connectivity” between the lateral prefrontal cortex and other parts of the brain in depressed patients, with more severe depressions leading to more prefrontal activity. One explanation for this finding is that the hyperactive VLPFC underlies rumination, allowing people to stay focused on their problem. (Andrews and Thomson argue that this relentless fixation also explains the cognitive deficits of depressed subjects, as they are too busy thinking about their real-life problems to bother with an artificial lab exercise; their VLPFC can’t be bothered to care.) Human attention is a scarce resource — the neural effects of depression make sure the resource is efficiently allocated.

But the reliance on the VLPFC doesn’t just lead us to fixate on our depressing situation; it also leads to an extremely analytical style of thinking. That’s because rumination is largely rooted in working memory, a kind of mental scratchpad that allows us to “work” with all the information stuck in consciousness. When people rely on working memory — and it doesn’t matter if they’re doing long division or contemplating a relationship gone wrong — they tend to think in a more deliberate fashion, breaking down their complex problems into their simpler parts.

The bad news is that this deliberate thought process is slow, tiresome and prone to distraction; the prefrontal cortex soon grows exhausted and gives out. Andrews and Thomson see depression as a way of bolstering our feeble analytical skills, making it easier to pay continuous attention to a difficult dilemma. The downcast mood and activation of the VLPFC are part of a “coordinated system” that, Andrews and Thomson say, exists “for the specific purpose of effectively analyzing the complex life problem that triggered the depression.” If depression didn’t exist — if we didn’t react to stress and trauma with endless ruminations — then we would be less likely to solve our predicaments. Wisdom isn’t cheap, and we pay for it with pain.

Consider a young professor on tenure track who was treated by Thomson. The patient was having difficulties with his academic department. “This guy was used to success coming easy, but now it wasn’t,” Thomson says. “I made it clear that I thought he’d need some time to figure out his next step. His problem was like a splinter, and the pain wouldn’t go away until the splinter was removed.” Should the patient leave the department? Should he leave academia? Or should he try to resolve the disagreement? Over the next several weeks, Thomson helped the patient analyze his situation and carefully think through the alternatives. “We took it one variable at a time,” Thomson says. “And it eventually became clear to him that the departmental issues couldn’t be fixed. He needed to leave. Once he came to that conclusion, he started feeling better.”

The publication of Andrews and Thomson’s 36,000-word paper in the July 2009 issue of Psychological Review had a polarizing effect on the field. While some researchers, like Jerome Wakefield, a professor at New York University who specializes in the conceptual foundations of clinical theory, greeted the paper as “an extremely important first step toward the re-evaluation of depression,” other psychiatrists regarded it as little more than irresponsible speculation, a justification for human suffering. Peter Kramer, a professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University, describes the paper as “a ladder with a series of weak rungs.” Kramer has long defended the use of antidepressants — his landmark work, “Listening to Prozac,” chronicled the profound improvements of patients taking the drugs — and criticized those who romanticized depression, which he compares to the glamorization of tuberculosis in the late 19th century. In a series of e-mail messages to me, Kramer suggested that Andrews and Thomson neglect the variants of depression that don’t fit their evolutionary theory. “This study says nothing about chronic depression and the sort of self-hating, paralyzing, hopeless, circular rumination it inspires,” Kramer wrote. And what about post-stroke depression? Late-life depression? Extreme depressive condition? Kramer argues that there’s a clear category difference between a healthy response to social stressors and the response of people with depressive disorder. “Depression is not really like sadness,” Kramer has written. “It’s more an oppressive flattening of feeling.”

Even scientists who are sympathetic to what Andrews and Thomson call the “analytic-rumination hypothesis” remain critical of its details. Ed Hagen, an anthropologist at Washington State University who is working on a book with Andrews, says that while the analytic-rumination hypothesis has persuaded him that some depressive symptoms might improve problem-solving skills, he remains unconvinced that it is a sufficient explanation for depression. “Individuals with major depression often don’t groom, bathe and sometimes don’t even use the toilet,” Hagen says. They also significantly “reduce investment in child care,” which could have detrimental effects on the survival of offspring. The steep fitness costs of these behaviors, Hagen says, would not be offset by “more uninterrupted time to think.”

Other scientists, including Randolph Nesse at the University of Michigan, say that complex psychiatric disorders like depression rarely have simple evolutionary explanations. In fact, the analytic-rumination hypothesis is merely the latest attempt to explain the prevalence of depression. There is, for example, the “plea for help” theory, which suggests that depression is a way of eliciting assistance from loved ones. There’s also the “signal of defeat” hypothesis, which argues that feelings of despair after a loss in social status help prevent unnecessary attacks; we’re too busy sulking to fight back. And then there’s “depressive realism”: several studies have found that people with depression have a more accurate view of reality and are better at predicting future outcomes. While each of these speculations has scientific support, none are sufficient to explain an illness that afflicts so many people. The moral, Nesse says, is that sadness, like happiness, has many functions.

Although Nesse says he admires the analytic-rumination hypothesis, he adds that it fails to capture the heterogeneity of depressive disorder. Andrews and Thomson compare depression to a fever helping to fight off infection, but Nesse says a more accurate metaphor is chronic pain, which can arise for innumerable reasons. “Sometimes, the pain is going to have an organic source,” he says. “Maybe you’ve slipped a disc or pinched a nerve, in which case you’ve got to solve that underlying problem. But much of the time there is no origin for the pain. The pain itself is the dysfunction.”

Andrews and Thomson respond to such criticisms by acknowledging that depression is a vast continuum, a catch-all term for a spectrum of symptoms. While the analytic-rumination hypothesis might explain those patients reacting to an “acute stressor,” it can’t account for those whose suffering has no discernible cause or whose sadness refuses to lift for years at a time. “To say that depression can be useful doesn’t mean it’s always going to be useful,” Thomson says. “Sometimes, the symptoms can spiral out of control. The problem, though, is that as a society, we’ve come to see depression as something that must always be avoided or medicated away. We’ve been so eager to remove the stigma from depression that we’ve ended up stigmatizing sadness.”

For Thomson, this new theory of depression has directly affected his medical practice. “That’s the litmus test for me,” he says. “Do these ideas help me treat my patients better?” In recent years, Thomson has cut back on antidepressant prescriptions, because, he says, he now believes that the drugs can sometimes interfere with genuine recovery, making it harder for people to resolve their social dilemmas. “I remember one patient who came in and said she needed to reduce her dosage,” he says. “I asked her if the antidepressants were working, and she said something I’ll never forget. ‘Yes, they’re working great,’ she told me. ‘I feel so much better. But I’m still married to the same alcoholic son of a bitch. It’s just now he’s tolerable.’ ”

The point is the woman was depressed for a reason; her pain was about something. While the drugs made her feel better, no real progress was ever made. Thomson’s skepticism about antidepressants is bolstered by recent studies questioning their benefits, at least for patients with moderate depression. Consider a 2005 paper led by Steven Hollon, a psychologist at Vanderbilt University: he found that people on antidepressants had a 76 percent chance of relapse within a year when the drugs were discontinued. In contrast, patients given a form of cognitive talk therapy had a relapse rate of 31 percent. And Hollon’s data aren’t unusual: several studies found that patients treated with medication were approximately twice as likely to relapse as patients treated with cognitive behavior therapy. “The high relapse rate suggests that the drugs aren’t really solving anything,” Thomson says. “In fact, they seem to be interfering with the solution, so that patients are discouraged from dealing with their problems. We end up having to keep people on the drugs forever. It was as if these people have a bodily infection, and modern psychiatry is just treating their fever.”

Thomson describes a college student who was referred to his practice. “It was clear that this patient was in a lot of pain,” Thomson says. “He couldn’t sleep, couldn’t study. He had some family issues” — his parents were recently divorced — “and his father was exerting a tremendous amount of pressure on him to go to graduate school. Because he’s got a family history of depression, the standard of care would be to put him on drugs right away. And a few years ago, that’s what I would have done.”

Instead, Thomson was determined to help the student solve his problem. “What you’re trying to do is speed along the rumination process,” Thomson says. “Once you show people the dilemma they need to solve, they almost always start feeling better.” He cites as evidence a recent study that found “expressive writing” — asking depressed subjects to write essays about their feelings — led to significantly shorter depressive episodes. The reason, Thomson suggests, is that writing is a form of thinking, which enhances our natural problem-solving abilities. “This doesn’t mean there’s some miracle cure,” he says. “In most cases, the recovery period is going to be long and difficult. And that’s what I told this young student. I said: ‘I know you’re hurting. I know these problems seem impossible. But they’re not. And I can help you solve them.’ ”

IT’S TOO SOON to judge the analytic-rumination hypothesis. Nobody knows if depression is an adaptation or if Andrews and Thomson have merely spun another “Just So” story, a clever evolutionary tale that lacks direct evidence. Nevertheless, their speculation is part of a larger scientific re-evaluation of negative moods, which have long been seen as emotional states to avoid. The dismissal of sadness and its synonyms is perhaps best exemplified by the rise of positive psychology, a scientific field devoted to the pursuit of happiness. In recent years, a number of positive psychologists have written popular self-help books, like “The How of Happiness” and “Authentic Happiness,” that try to outline the scientific principles behind “lasting fulfillment” and “getting the life we want.”

The new research on negative moods, however, suggests that sadness comes with its own set of benefits and that even our most unpleasant feelings serve an important purpose. Joe Forgas, a social psychologist at the University of South Wales in Australia, has repeatedly demonstrated in experiments that negative moods lead to better decisions in complex situations. The reason, Forgas suggests, is rooted in the intertwined nature of mood and cognition: sadness promotes “information-processing strategies best suited to dealing with more-demanding situations.” This helps explain why test subjects who are melancholy — Forgas induces the mood with a short film about death and cancer — are better at judging the accuracy of rumors and recalling past events; they’re also much less likely to stereotype strangers.

Last year Forgas ventured beyond the lab and began conducting studies in a small stationery store in suburban Sydney, Australia. The experiment itself was simple: Forgas placed a variety of trinkets, like toy soldiers, plastic animals and miniature cars, near the checkout counter. As shoppers exited, Forgas tested their memory, asking them to list as many of the items as possible. To control for the effect of mood, Forgas conducted the survey on gray, rainy days — he accentuated the weather by playing Verdi’s “Requiem” — and on sunny days, using a soundtrack of Gilbert and Sullivan. The results were clear: shoppers in the “low mood” condition remembered nearly four times as many of the trinkets. The wet weather made them sad, and their sadness made them more aware and attentive.

The enhancement of these mental skills might also explain the striking correlation between creative production and depressive disorders. In a survey led by the neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen, 30 writers from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop were interviewed about their mental history. Eighty percent of the writers met the formal diagnostic criteria for some form of depression. A similar theme emerged from biographical studies of British writers and artists by Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins, who found that successful individuals were eight times as likely as people in the general population to suffer from major depressive illness.

Why is mental illness so closely associated with creativity? Andreasen argues that depression is intertwined with a “cognitive style” that makes people more likely to produce successful works of art. In the creative process, Andreasen says, “one of the most important qualities is persistence.” Based on the Iowa sample, Andreasen found that “successful writers are like prizefighters who keep on getting hit but won’t go down. They’ll stick with it until it’s right.” While Andreasen acknowledges the burden of mental illness — she quotes Robert Lowell on depression not being a “gift of the Muse” and describes his reliance on lithium to escape the pain — she argues that many forms of creativity benefit from the relentless focus it makes possible. “Unfortunately, this type of thinking is often inseparable from the suffering,” she says. “If you’re at the cutting edge, then you’re going to bleed.”

And then there’s the virtue of self-loathing, which is one of the symptoms of depression. When people are stuck in the ruminative spiral, their achievements become invisible; the mind is only interested in what has gone wrong. While this condition is typically linked to withdrawal and silence — people become unwilling to communicate — there’s some suggestive evidence that states of unhappiness can actually improve our expressive abilities. Forgas said he has found that sadness correlates with clearer and more compelling sentences, and that negative moods “promote a more concrete, accommodative and ultimately more successful communication style.” Because we’re more critical of what we’re writing, we produce more refined prose, the sentences polished by our angst. As Roland Barthes observed, “A creative writer is one for whom writing is a problem.”

This line of research led Andrews to conduct his own experiment, as he sought to better understand the link between negative mood and improved analytical abilities. He gave 115 undergraduates an abstract-reasoning test known as Raven’s Progressive Matrices, which requires subjects to identify a missing segment in a larger pattern. (Performance on the task strongly predicts general intelligence.) The first thing Andrews found was that nondepressed students showed an increase in “depressed affect” after taking the test. In other words, the mere presence of a challenging problem — even an abstract puzzle — induced a kind of attentive trance, which led to feelings of sadness. It doesn’t matter if we’re working on a mathematical equation or working through a broken heart: the anatomy of focus is inseparable from the anatomy of melancholy. This suggests that depressive disorder is an extreme form of an ordinary thought process, part of the dismal machinery that draws us toward our problems, like a magnet to metal.

But is that closeness effective? Does the despondency help us solve anything? Andrews found a significant correlation between depressed affect and individual performance on the intelligence test, at least once the subjects were distracted from their pain: lower moods were associated with higher scores. “The results were clear,” Andrews says. “Depressed affect made people think better.” The challenge, of course, is persuading people to accept their misery, to embrace the tonic of despair. To say that depression has a purpose or that sadness makes us smarter says nothing about its awfulness. A fever, after all, might have benefits, but we still take pills to make it go away. This is the paradox of evolution: even if our pain is useful, the urge to escape from the pain remains the most powerful instinct of all.

The Siege, James Lasdun, 2000.

Marietta was woken one night by a rumbling sound in the wall beside her bed. She switched on her lamp and opened the door to the dumb-waiter, which she used as a clothes cupboard. Her clothes lay neatly folded on the two shelves, as she had left them. But resting on a pile of shirts on the lower shelf was a piece of white cartridge paper. The address of the house was embossed in smart black print at the top, and below this was a large question mark painstakingly executed in turquoise ink: ?

     She had no word, in English or her own language, for a dumb-waiter, and she had never considered what the original function of her clothes cupboard might have been. But it was a matter of seconds before she realised that it was in fact a small lift connecting her basement flat with the house upstairs. There was only one person living up there: Mr Kinsky.

     Marietta cleaned and ironed for Mr Kinsky, in exchange for accommodation in his basement. It was a convenient arrangement, enabling her to study, while supporting herself frugally, but adequately, with a weekend job supervising a launderette.

     She turned over the piece of paper. There was nothing there. A faintly disturbing thought occurred to her; she examined her shirts and blouses, bras and knickers, for signs of interference. Nothing seemed to be amiss. This did not greatly surprise her: she had judged Mr Kinsky to be an eccentric, overbred product of European capitalism, but not a dangerous pervert. He had treated her with impeccable courtesy since her move here over a year ago. If anything, he was a little shy of her.

     She resolved not to jeopardise her position by making a fuss. Whatever hopes and desires were encoded in that scroll of turquoise ink — and it was not difficult to guess - it seemed a harmless enough way of expressing them. She would say nothing; Mr Kinsky would understand, and that would be that.

     She threw the piece of paper away, closed the cupboard door, and went back to sleep.

     She had lectures and classes the next day, and did not see Mr Kinsky. But that night she was woken again by the rumbling of the dumb-waiter. This time it served her an orchid. Orange freckled with mauve, blue flames running along the centre of each fluted petal. Lying there naked and unadorned, curved and contorted into itself, it looked like the embodiment of an indecent suggestion. Somewhat reluctantly, she picked it up. It was cool to the touch, sprung firmly upon its involutions. She couldn't quite bring herself to throw away something so fresh and brilliant, so she stuck it unceremoniously in the chipped mug of water by her bed.

     She thought uneasily of Mr Kinsky. Was he listening at his end of the shaft, trying to decipher a response from the sound of her movements? Foreseeing that this idea would only worry her into a sleepless night, she shrugged it off and climbed back into bed resolved, as before, to say nothing.

     She was doing Mr Kinsky's ironing in the small utility room at the top of the house the following afternoon, when she heard his tread on the staircase.

     The door was open, and she could see him from above as he climbed the stairs. He was a very large man with a slow, soft way of moving. His black hair was silvering but still curly, and always unkempt. He wore a baggy black suit, a white shirt buttoned at the collar, but no tie. His broad face was almost entirely unmarked by care or suffering, which gave it a serene handsomeness.

     He did, however, look worried when he caught sight of Marietta at the top of the stairs. She smiled at him and said hello, in a perfectly nonchalant way.

     'Ah ... ' he said, coming to a standstill in the doorway. He paused there, while she aligned the. legs of a pair of pyjama bottoms and folded them up. He cleared his throat, and waggled his fingers as if trying to conjure more words from the air. None came, but still he lingered, making tortured expressions on his face, with an unselfconsciousness that suggested he had little idea how very imposing his presence was.

     Marietta spread out a shirt on the ironing board and pulled a trigger on the iron. Steam rose in a puff that clouded out her hand. Mr Kinsky stopped fidgeting and stared at the phenomenon as if he had never seen anything so odd in his life. Presently he sighed, and padded off next door, to his music room.

     Marietta smiled to herself as she heard the scales peal out from the grand piano. She had seldom managed to discourage a suitor with such ease. The key of the scales shifted up semitone by semitone, a steady spiralling ascent through the octave. The upward movement was exhilarating, and Marietta listened to it happily, confident that Mr Kinsky's affections were back where they belonged: with his Steinway.

     That night the rumbling came again. Marietta opened her eyes, more startled on this occasion than she had been before, and for the first time fractionally afraid. She lay quite still in the darkness, listening, but the house was absolutely silent. She could see the cupboard handle gleaming in the faint light that seeped through the curtain from a street lamp. She sat up slowly and stretched her hand towards it. She opened the door as quietly as she could.

     A ring lay cushioned in the pile of shirts. She held it up to the window, twisting it in the light. Dark jewels glittered; a sodium burnish slid about the gold. It was heavy, and blood-warm from a hand's prolonged grasp. She felt suddenly vulnerable in her nakedness, as if there were a hundred eyes glinting in the shadows of her room. She placed the ring beside the orchid and pulled the blankets tightly about her body.

The ring was slippery in her hands, as she climbed the stairs to return it the following day. Big chords and rippling arpeggios rained down through the house from the music room. Mr Kinsky had a taste for the rhapsodical to which Marietta, recognising it as the luxurious rhetoric of the haute bourgeoisie spirit, was more or less indifferent. She only liked it when he toiled through his scales: something in the drudgery made her uncloak her sensibility, and listen.

     She was nervous about the confrontation that awaited her. Life at Mr Kinsky's had been simple and carefree. Now she suspected her luck was about to run out. It was an object lesson in the treacherous magnanimity of the powerful.

     He continued playing, quite unaware of her as she hovered in the doorway of the music room, clutching the ring in her hand.

     The grand piano was positioned against a huge, gilt-framed mirror. Mr Kinsky and his reflection conferred closely over an operation in the bass regions, then parted company for the upper extremities of their respective keyboards. The instrument itself, its lid propped open for maximum resonance, was doubled into a gigantic butterfly.

     When finally Mr Kinsky registered her presence, he stopped mid-cadenza and blushed, quite unashamedly. Can a blush be executed unashamedly? Yes, in that Mr Kinsky appeared entirely unconscious of it: the blood came flooding into his cheeks, but he looked Marietta in the eye as if nothing were out of the ordinary, nothing at all.

     'Ah... hello, he said.

     Marietta walked briskly across the cork-tiled floor and placed the ring on a stack of yellow Schirmer's Library scores piled at the front of the piano.

     This is yours I think?'

     He looked impassively at the ring - a big oval emerald garnished with diamonds and gold filigree. His look was so inscrutable that for a moment Marietta wondered whether he was going to disclaim it.

     'My aunt's,' he said at last. He looked down at the keyboard and pressed a white note with a long, powerful-looking forefinger, so gently that although the leverage was visibly transmitted to the felt-covered hammer beneath the exposed strings, no sound was produced.

     Marietta stood in the opulent curve of the instrument, waiting.

     She knew that Mr Kinsky had been brought up in this house by his aunt, a sparky-looking woman whose resplendent portrait hung in the dining-room. She had wanted him to be a concert pianist. She drowned in a yachting accident when Mr Kinsky was nineteen. I found I couldn't perform after that, Mr Kinsky had said, but then again she left me the house and enough money ...

     'I was rather hoping you'd hang on to it, you know ... 'he said finally.


     He stood up and lumbered over to the room's balcony window. Facing out of it, he began a long, meandering confession of love.

     His shadow trailed out from his heels across the cork tiles. The floor surfaces in this house! Black and white chequered doorsteps, herring-bone wood in the hall, cold granite flagstones in the kitchen, rush matting, goat skins, Friesian cowhides clouded symmetrically like Rorschach blots, deep pile, junkers, Persian rugs so lustrous still that filaments of precious metal must have been twisted into the weave ... It was dizzying to think that the man who trod them carried in his mind an image of her which, if she caught his drift correctly, he had been worshipping in secret and with mounting fervour from the first week of her instalment in his basement.

     He turned to her - 'I do love you though, Marietta. I absolutely ... ' he waggled his fingers in desperation ' ... love you. I'm in love.' He faced her with a trance-like stare, relishing the word as if it were some exquisite delicacy he had never tasted before - 'I love you.'

     She felt mildly intrigued by the emotions of this peculiar man, but could not in any way connect them with herself.

     He looked so innocent, and clownish, buttoned up like a schoolboy waiting for mother to tie his tie and comb his straggling curls ...

     But then she happened to glance down at the piano-top, and notice a piece of manuscript paper with a bass and treble clef immaculately scrolled in turquoise ink at each stave, and back with a jolt came the question mark, the orchid, the ring, the dumb-waiter's rumbling underscore to Mr Kinsky's quaint declaration ... She decided it was time to retreat.

     'I think I should go.' She made for the door.

     Mr Kinsky strode across the room to intercept her. He caught her wrists.

     'Would you like to marry me?'

     She could feel the beat of his heart pulsing through his big hands, and she could smell him too, a sweet rich tang.

     'I couldn't possibly marry you!' She said it with a laugh that came out as a shrill, nervous giggle.

     He was serious, he said; he had never had such feelings before. Marietta was determined not to let indignation, or embarrassment, or fear get the better of her, but she could feel herself shaking in his grasp.

     He pulled her close to him and asked if she believed he was serious. Yes. Did she love him? No, please let me go ... Was there anything he could do to make her love him? No, release ... Anything at all, was she sure? Let go of me!

     'Anything, Marietta ... '

     She wrenched herself free. A furious glare burst behind her eyes, and before she could stop herself she shouted at him. In doing so, she revealed a secret she had been guarding since her arrival in London: 'Get my husband out of jail!'

     A pause.

     'Your husband.' Mr Kinsky sat down on the piano stool. 'I didn't realise you had a husband.'

     Marietta stepped back, and watched him with the nervously satisfied eye of someone who has dislodged a small, critically placed stone, and set off an avalanche.

     'May I ask what he is doing in jail?'

     She emptied the bucket of water down the front steps. Steaming suds cascaded over the black and white chequered stone and slithered out on to the pavement, darkening it. She picked up the mop and began to clean, leaving the front door open. Pale sunlight glistened on the bubbles of soap. Scales poured down from the music room, a torrent of sound streaming out of the door and down into the street.

     There had been a shift in the atmosphere of the house. It was like the modulation from major to minor in Mr Kinsky's scales, which always gave Marietta a feeling of foreboding, a premonitory tingle, when she heard it. The incident in the music room had pitched them into a sombre, melancholic key. To be sure, the dumb-waiter no longer rumbled in the night, and she had not been asked to leave. Nevertheless, she and Mr Kinsky were no longer comfortable with each other. For weeks now, Mr Kinsky had been conspicuously avoiding her when she came upstairs to his part of the house. She didn't mind this, but it coincided with a growing anxiousness on her part. She had begun to wake up in the mornings feeling worried and unrested. Certain questions about her life, which she had succeeded in shelving since her arrival in England, were now stirring again, clamouring for an answer. These questions concerned her husband, from whom she had not heard since his incarceration in the military barracks of her country's capital city four years ago. She had no idea whether she would see him again, or whether he was even alive.

     She was a conscientious worker. The steps were dazzling by the time she had finished them. She went indoors and set to work on the shelves and niches in Mr Kinsky's drawing-room.

     She was deep in thought as she moved about the room. Four years and an ocean away from a husband who might or might not be alive, she had remained wedded to the idea of him. It was surprisingly easy to consecrate oneself to such a mystery, like falling asleep in snow. It formed a backdrop to her life in London that made this life less purposeless than it might have been otherwise, though it did so only because she took pains not to examine it too closely. But since she had revealed its existence to Mr Kinsky, the mystery had begun to appear once more in the foreground of her thoughts, and when it did it was like one of those vast unanswerable metaphysical questions that creep up and stun you into panic at the sheer unlikeliness of your being alive, here, now.

     There was one shelf which Mr Kinsky had asked her to take particular care over. It contained a number of objects that were without exception, he said, quite priceless. Her hands were long accustomed to the shape and weight of them all, so that she could give each one its due care without needing to break out of her reverie. Scarcely seeing what she was doing, she steadied and dusted a winged grey bust of Mercury, an art nouveau vase fashioned from the attenuated bodies of a man and woman entwined, a frail and worn fragment of an ancient ivory horse ... absently she put out her hand to grasp the little statuette of shepherds and nymphs that had always stood next in line. She found herself grasping at air. The statuette was gone.

     The absence stalled her for a moment, but she gave it no further thought.

     Until a week later, when she noticed that a framed original manuscript, signed by its composer, was missing from the upstairs landing. She wasn't inquisitive by nature, but her curiosity was aroused, and she kept her eyes open for other disappearances.

     She came upon four square patches of paler paint on the wall in one of the spare rooms; memorials to a row of watercolours depicting scenes from Kiev, one for each season. A circular imprint on top of a corner cupboard was all that remained of a large oriental vase. And hadn't there been a little clutch of enamelled lockets in that wicker basket?

     She had never been greatly interested in Mr Kinsky's affairs. She assumed he lacked for nothing. He lived off a private income, from which she deduced he had money invested in countries such as her own, where governments could be relied upon to keep wages negligible, and profits correspondingly enormous. This made him reprehensible, though in too passive a way for her to be able to maintain an individual grudge against him. She merely hoped, and believed, that his breed would one day vanish from the face of the earth.

     But the disappearance of these objects conferred an air of mystery upon him. Was he simply bored with them or did he need money? If the latter, then... It was good to be able to think about someone not connected with her own affairs. Mr Kinsky was out at the moment. The only sound was of the spring wind rattling windows in the big, airy rooms. She began to search the house. An ornamental silver bowl was missing from the dining-room table. Was he in some sort of trouble? She went into his study. Where was the chair with lion paws at its feet, a gilt lion head carved at the front of each armrest? What was going on?

     She began to feel uncomfortable lingering in Mr Kinsky's private study, so she turned to go, but as she left she glimpsed something in the wastepaper basket that made her stop in her tracks. It was an envelope, crumpled but with part of the stamp still showing. She picked it up and smoothed it out. It was addressed to Mr Kinsky. The stamp, as she had suspected, was familiar to her, more than familiar. It bore the face of a man with a general's hat and a thick-jowled look of military displeasure. He was the president of her own country. She looked at him in wonder, and as she stood there thinking, her wonder turned to amazement, and finally to a kind of helpless awe as a suspicion of what Mr Kinsky might be doing, or trying to do, assembled itself from the evidence in her hand and all around the house, and rose up within her, creeping under her skin, like a blush ...

Mr Kinsky was learning a new piece. He started practising it in the morning before Marietta went to her classes, and would still be at it when she returned in the afternoon. Day after day he played nothing but this piece.

     It began with a childish melody, a simple nursery tune of no particular distinction. The tune was played again and again, but at each repetition a new element was added to the accompanying harmonies, deepening and darkening its resonance, so that it was gradually transformed from its bland cheerfulness into something haunting and disturbing, in the way that a child's toy might be if you were to see it in a series of successively gloomier backgrounds, beginning with a nursery and ending with a graveyard. Then when it had reached its graveyard phase, the tune was abandoned, and the piece burst into the most voluptuous, ecstatic progression of pounding bass notes and dazzling runs cascading down from higher and higher.

     She heard the piece now as she sat at her desk by the window, trying to gain a foothold in the huge textbook that lay before her. Through sheer force of repetition, the music had begun to get the better of her customary immunity, and steal its way into her system. Here was the tune again - la da da da -de-da ... Here was that first hint of shadow in its harmony, then another, deeper, deeper ... She stared out of the window and watched the breeze winnowing white blossom from an almond tree. Flurries of fallen petals were swirled up into ghostly tops and sent spinning across the street... Here was the tune in its twilight stage; she felt her body tensing up in expectation ... There! The first pounding volley as the piece exploded into rhapsody - bombs and shrapnel, starbursts of sound.

     It was impossible to work. Like Mr Kinsky's confession of love, the discovery of her president in the wastepaper basket had transformed the atmosphere around Marietta. She had begun to feel peculiarly sensitive, alert to every movement and disturbance. And there was a profusion of disturbances, of stirrings and awakenings ...

     The house was steadily being denuded. Every time she went upstairs something else was missing, and each time she noticed it her heart gave a jump. She was in a state of mild, but continuous trepidation. One by one the prize possessions had disappeared from their special shelf. Now only the grey bust of Mercury remained. Seeing him standing there alone, she had been struck for the first time by his beauty. He had clusters of curls under his winged helmet. His face had been sculpted with great delicacy — a trace of Olympian amusement on his lips, his cheeks cool and smooth to the touch ...

     And yesterday an unsigned letter had arrived for her. My dear Marietta, news of your husband: he is alive. He has been transferred from the barracks to an ordinary prison. I shall write again as soon as I know what is happening.

     Mr Kinsky stumbled over a note, paused a moment, and returned to the beginning of the piece - la da da da-de-da ... How unnerving it was to be at the centre of all this activity, but not its source. The powerless-ness of her position made her feel by turns blissful and resentful. Several times she had been on the point of confronting Mr Kinsky with her discovery, but to confess that she had guessed what he was doing would oblige her either to tell him he shouldn't, or else to acknowledge herself massively indebted to him. It was easier to pretend she knew nothing. Besides, Mr Kinsky had become less communicative than ever. When he wasn't at his Steinway, he would be sitting in his unlit study, gazing into space with an air of broody preoccupation. She did not like to disturb him: she had begun to find his presence daunting, almost forbidding, as if with the disappearance of each possession, a commensurate space had been hollowed out in him and filled with shadow. He loomed large in her imagination.

     She could not concentrate. She took her finger from the left-hand corner of the enormous book. The thin, silky pages bulged towards the centre. Four or five of them slid in succession from the sprung sheaf and swung through the air in a lazy arc, settling gently on the other side.

     It was raining. Thin drops crackled against the window. Water trickled in plaited sluices from the gutters. She shuddered. Her room felt sparse and constricting. She had an urge to move.

     She went upstairs. Today was not one of her working days, but she could always find some task. For a while she wandered aimlessly over the rugs and mats, the wood floors and stone floors ... She opened the drawing-room door to look at Mercury. When she saw the gap where he had stood she had to steady herself against the door-frame. Wind made rumbling sounds in the windows, playing them like kettle drums.

     She climbed upstairs to the utility room. La da da da-de-da ... Here it was again, at full volume now, percussive chimes so bright and loud the space about Marietta seemed to be occupied not by air but by sound. She set up the ironing board and switched on the iron. Above her, suspended from the ceiling, was a cradle of bars over which the two large white sheets of Mr Kinsky's double bed were draped. She reached up and pulled one towards her, furling it in as it slid free of its bar. It smelt sweet and clean. Bunched against her breast it was like a colossal almond flower. She laid it over the ironing board. It was satisfying to cleave the iron through the linen waves and see the smooth white wake stretch out behind. She moved her arm in time with the music. She was thinking of her husband, or trying to: it was difficult to focus her thoughts while the music was swirling about her. A long swelling crescendo brought it to a pitch where it no longer sounded like a single piano, but a whole orchestra. She glanced through the open door of the music room. There he sat, lost deep inside his broad bulk, pouring out music like some mythical hoof-struck spring. And as she returned to her thoughts, the sound became a stream flooding down through the house, bearing a flotilla of enamelled lockets, silver bowls, water-colours, Persian carpets, statuettes, engravings, jewels, furniture ...

It was like a forcible initiation. Day by day the music inducted her further into its secret language of nostalgia and desire. She had always considered it the height of decadence to have one's emotions tickled and stroked and cosseted in this way, for the sake of nothing more than a series of fleeting sensations. But as she became increasingly attuned to the nuances of the piece, so it grew more difficult for her to recall with any conviction the context within which the pleasure it gave was corrupt. She observed herself succumb to it with a certain mortified fascination.

     She sat in the Blue Ocean Launderette. Her duties here were minimal - dispensing change, tending the occasional service wash, sweeping the floor, closing up.

     The machines were like a row of submarine portholes, looking on to a sea swirling with bright clothing. The melody was playing in her head - la da da da-de-da. She looked absently through the portholes ... Another letter had arrived that morning-My dear Marietta, your husband has been granted a trial...

     As she stared at the machines she tried to imagine what it would be like to start living again with a man she had not seen for four years. But she found herself instead remembering Mr Kinsky's confession of love - the turquoise question mark, the orchid, the ring ... turning from the balcony -1 do love you though, Marietta, I absolutely .,. waggling his fingers, grimacing, lumbering across the room - would you like to marry me? Grasping her-wrists - anything at all ... anything, Marietta ... Clothes tumbled round and round. Lacy white suds splashed against the glass and slid away. Glissando runs echoed in her memory ... She had a sudden desire to be back in the doorway of the music room, watching Mr Kinsky play. She closed her eyes. She realised that she could hardly wait to lock up and go home. A strange feeling ran through her: it had in it both exultation and dread.

     It was still light when she locked up. It had been raining, but now a chink of blue had opened up in the clouds, and the sun was shining through, reflecting in gutters and puddles. She walked briskly along the street. Everything looked very clean and shiny. The buses seemed a brighter red, the taxis a glossier black. There was a bracing, astringent smell, like the smell of a new leaf crushed between two fingers. She felt almost light-headed among the jostling pedestrians who were afflicted by a rare and visible exuberance of spirits. A chef stood in the doorway of his restaurant, sharpening a knife and looking critically at the sun. He was dressed in spotless white, a white scarf knotted at the side of his neck, and a lop-sided hat. Every time he brought the blade down against the honing bar, it came out of the shadow of the doorway and flashed brilliantly in the sun, as if repeatedly puncturing a vein flowing with light. He smiled at Marietta as she passed, and without thinking she smiled back. Pigeons were strutting about, surveying the pavement cracks for the rainfall's harvest of worms. They cocked their heads and swelled their necks in jerky spasms; and when a puffed-up throat twisted in the light, the modest gloss of green and violet made Marietta think of a black and white photograph puffing and straining to be colour, and she giggled to herself at the thought. She had an urge to run. How peculiar this feeling was -a strange, aching elation. She turned into her road. The almond trees were sparkling with waterdrops. They had been stripped by the wind of all but a few tight white bunches of blossom that clung like crowns of fleece to the shiny black twigs. The trees gleamed in their mantles of water like moss in agate.

     Something seemed to be happening at the house. She could see people standing on the pavement outside. She quickened her pace. There was a small crane that had been hidden by the angle of the building. She began to run. She could hear the deep rumble of the crane's motor, and the squeak of revolving pulleys. She arrived in time to see the grand piano, trussed in thick ropes, rise up from the music room's balcony window, swing slowly away from the house, and descend majestically to the pavement, where a removal lorry awaited it.

     The silence in the house was terrible. It resonated in the big, empty rooms.

     Marietta sat at her desk in a daze. She could no longer even pretend to work. From time to time she heard the music in her head-la da da da-de-da. ... twitching like a phantom limb, and when she heard it, she was filled once more with that strange, dreadful exultation, only now the discomfort of the feeling far outweighed the pleasure.

     She had been once into the music room: where the mirror had formerly doubled the piano, it now doubled its absence, and the bareness of the place made her ache. She found herself waggling her fingers as Mr Kinsky had done when searching for words to express his feelings for her.

     The next letter to arrive was from her husband himself; a short note telling her that he was free, and that he would be arriving in England in a fortnight, five days of which had elapsed since the letter was posted. No need to meet him at the airport.

     It wasn't unexpected; all the same, Marietta was surprised at her lack of reaction. It might have been a gas bill for all the effect it had on her. She wondered if this was the numbness people are supposed to experience when they first go into shock. If so, what would she feel when it wore off?

     It occurred to her that she ought to inform Mr Kinsky. She went upstairs feeling as apprehensive as she had done months earlier, when she had climbed up to return his ring. She was struck by the peculiar symmetry of the two occasions — every aspect was inverted: anger had turned into a kind of furtive gratitude, fear into wonder, unheard music into this tumultuous silence.

     He was lying on a sofa in the drawing-room. It was a long sofa, but he was even longer; his legs stuck out over the armrest. She could see a section of very white shin between the end of his puckered trousers and the beginning of his socks. He wasn't doing anything. He looked calm and self-possessed.

     'Hello, my dear.' He used the endearment with the authority of someone who has acquired a right to it precisely by virtue of his grace in defeat as a prospective lover.

     'I just wanted to ask you if ... ' She could hear her voice wobbling like a timid child's; 'I just wanted to ask you if it was all right for my husband to move into the flat. He's been released.' She looked down at the bare floor. She could sense him staring at her. She peeped up; he was. It was a complex, eloquent stare. It invited her to divulge more about this turn of events; it forgave her if she chose not to.

     'What marvellous news. You must be very happy.' He didn't sound in the least bit surprised.

     'Yes,' she said, 'I just heard. He'll be here in a week, just over a week.'

     That's frightfully exciting.'

     'Yes.' The space in the room seemed taut, contracted: a bubble that the slightest slip would burst. She realised that this would probably be her last opportunity to acknowledge Mr Kinsky's magnanimity. The charade of ignorance she was going through would otherwise soon harden into an established version of the truth that would be difficult ever to breach without awkwardness and embarrassment. An act of monumental generosity would simply evaporate from history if she did not speak now.

     They looked at each other for a moment, both watching the opportunity go by. Then Mr Kinsky said of course her husband could move in, and that he looked forward to meeting him. She gave him the faintest of smiles, and went back downstairs, her legs trembling, ever so slightly.

     What had she been afraid of? That he would attempt to hold her to an ironic, rhetorical promise? She tried to make herself believe that this was the case. With that in mind, she reread her husband's letter, attempting to induce the rush of joy that had failed to materialise first time round. If she succeeded, then she would be able to attribute the feelings of elation that arose in her whenever she thought of Mr Kinsky, to his services in bringing back her husband; the feelings of dread to what he might ask in return.

     She did not succeed. In fact, she felt her spirits beginning to sink. How appalling ... She struggled; he's free she told herself, he's coming back to me ... She pictured him walking through the door. The first kiss... would it be passionate? Sexual? Would he want to make love before they spoke? Would she want to? Would the circumstances oblige her to? She hadn't slept with a man for four years. She imagined herself naked in his arms, his mouth at her breast, his hands sliding between her legs. Her heart burst into life, but it was not desire that beat there. It was panic; dread.

Thus it was that Marietta drifted into the realm of pure emotion. Her flat and the streets beyond were less real to her now than the shimmering landscape of feelings she found herself stranded in. She had never been anywhere so strange and treacherous. She had a clear objective: to persuade herself that she loved her husband, and that she did not love anybody else. She was perfectly sincere in her desire to do this. Her husband was a good and brave man for whom she had the utmost admiration and respect. Their marriage — an alliance of idealists against a common oppressor - had been exciting and happy. A certain anxiety was to be expected after an interval of four years. But this was much more than anxiety: this was cold sweats in the small hours when she thought of him in bed beside her; nausea at mealtimes when she considered the unending wifely devotion he was entitled to, and would certainly need after his ordeal; a sudden flushing out of all the strength from her limbs as she imagined the sheer saturation to which his presence would subject the little flat.

     The closer the day came, the worse these symptoms grew. The harder she tried to overcome them, the more exhausted she became. She had never before experienced the full waywardness of feelings. It exasperated her that an invisible, intangible phenomenon like love, which could barely be said to exist at all, could not be brought to heel.

     Love, desire, fear, revulsion ... Feelings are like a physicist's massless particles; the hypothetical agencies by which the universe coheres and makes itself visible. These miraculous phenomena combine all-pervasiveness with absolute elusiveness, ceasing to exist when not in motion. Devoid of any intrinsic qualities, their secondary effects are none the less momentous and ineluctable. A particle of desire is as improbable as a photon or a graviton; its effects are as undeniable as light, or gravity.

     In the middle of the night before her husband was due to arrive, Marietta awoke with a jolt. Her hand was at her groin, and her groin was moist. She could hear, as an internal echo rather than an actual sound, a deep rumbling, as though she had just been woken by such a noise. She opened the door of the dumb-waiter. There was nothing there. In her groggy state this seemed wrong. She rummaged frantically through her clothes: nothing at all. She felt cheated out of something. Her dream had lurched her into wakefulness just as she had reached the pitch of arousal, and it was like being lurched into a void. She remembered lying on an odd-shaped bed. There was a radial of taut silky strands running through her body from her breast. A hand touched her nipple; squeezed it gently between finger and thumb. The strands tautened, transmitting a vibrant current of desire throughout her body. The owner of the finger and thumb was in shadow. The slightest movement of his hand sent a sweet shudder of pleasure through her. She peered into the shadow. A face loomed forward. That was when she imagined the rumbling sound, and woke up. Recalling this, she could not avoid also recalling whose face it was that had loomed towards her. She closed her eyes and buried her head in her pillow, trying to stifle both the recollection and the renewed pang of desire it brought with it.

     Her capacity for self-deception, never great, was now all but exhausted. None the less, as she got out of bed she told herself it was only to make herself a hot drink. And as she went, not to her kitchen, but to the stairway leading up to Mr Kinsky's house, she told herself she merely wanted to sit for a while in his music room, alone. Even when she opened the door to Mr Kinsky's bedroom and crept in, she half-believed that all she wanted to do was look at him as he slept.

     He was fast sleep, breathing quietly and deeply. His massive body swelled and subsided beneath the pale blankets. The strands of silver in his black hair were just visible in the darkness. She felt tranquil looking at him; not in the least like an intruder. She slipped into the double bed beside him. The bed was warm from the heat of his body. She caught the soapy smell of his pyjamas, which she had ironed only that morning. She put her hand on his waist, and leaned over to kiss him on the lips. His eyes opened.

     'Marietta,' he whispered.


     He lay still as she caressed him, as if afraid that the slightest stir would make her vanish. She slid over his body, and she was astride him, sighing to herself. She grasped his wrists. The tighter she held them, the further away she was, tilting back her head, her shoulders, arcing her back like a bow, shuddering. Somewhere in her protracted orgasm he felt his own - a minor detail it seemed - drowned out by the high, inhuman cry that burst from her lips and echoed through the empty house long after she had fallen asleep at his side.

     Shortly after daybreak they heard the squeal of a taxi's brakes outside the front steps. They held each other tightly in the short pause before Marietta's doorbell rang.

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