10. Existential Depression: A Study of Artists’ Psyche in Paulo Coelho’s Veronika Decides to Die -D.Wilfin John

“Every man has his secret sorrows which the world knows not; and often times we call a man cold when he is only sad,” says Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (web). Depression can be caused by various life events, and changes resulting in making the individual feel hopeless, sad, anxious, empty, helpless, worthless, guilty, irritable, ashamed or restless. Existential Depression is a type of depression found in many gifted individuals who have been made to part with the pursuing of their talent. It may lead to isolation, alienation, meaninglessness and even death. Paulo Coelho’s Veronika Decides to Die is a novel which portrays a young pianist Veronika who attempts suicide and is admitted in an asylum. In the asylum she finds Eduard, a schizophrenic, who encourages her talent. Eduard reveals a similar past to Veronika about his talent as a painter and how he was not allowed by his parents to develop his passion. He too suffers from the same depression and is admitted in the asylum. This paper attempts to trace the causes of Existential Depression of two characters,Veronika and Villete in the novel.

       “There is no behavior that more effectively terminates individual evolutionary fitness than suicide,” say Hergenhahn and Olson. Veronika, a young girl of twenty-four,decides to commit suicide. She is not satisfied by the life she leads as a librarian and feels it is a deadening monotonous routine: “She wasn’t killing herself because of a lack of love. It wasn’t because she felt unloved by her family, or had money problems or an incurable disease” (VDD 9). Veronika experiences purposelessness in her life. So, she takes four packets of sleeping pills, experiences a kind of nausea and loses her consciousness. When she opens her eyes after many days she finds herself admitted in a lunatic asylum named ‘Villete’ in Slovenia.

        In Villete too, her life is claustrophobic and monotonous. In addition, she is teased and humiliated by the people there. She now develops hatred towards life and decides once again to kill herself. She asks the members of the Fraternity group in the asylum to provide her with sleeping pills. However, she is not able to get the pills. This depression of Veronika is a kind of trauma associated with Existential Psychology. Persons who are depressed and find no meaning in their existence are said to experience a psychic illness called Existential Depression. Persons of higher intellectual ability are more prone to it: “…gifted and talented persons are more likely to experience a type of depression referred to as Existential Depression …. Existential depression is a depression that arises when an individual confronts certain basic issues of existence” (web).

      In the meantime, she sees a piano at the lounge in Villete. She starts remembering her childhood days and the days spent with her parents.They were very affectionate to Veronika in spite of the fact that they had fights and misunderstandings between them. When she was a schoolgirl, she was sent to piano classes by her parents. She found music to be her talent and decided to devote her entire life to her passion. But when she discussed her passion with her mother, she discouraged her. She told her that Veronika should pass her degree, get a job with good salary, and not think much about music. Veronika did what her mother told her and ended up in a job as librarian.

        Now she realizes that she simply cannot be satisfied with the life her parents have helped her to make. She wants to do something different from her routine work. She develops hatred towards her father and mother and thinks that their love is responsible for her condition, a ‘personal hell’: “She hated the love she had been given, because it had asked for nothing in return, which was absurd, unreal, against the laws of nature” (VDD 62). She realizes that this is the frustration, which has been building up all these years and has resulted in her depression. She observes,

When she had achieved almost everything she wanted in life, she had reached the conclusion that her existence had no meaning, because every day was the same. And she had decided to die. (40).

      Veronika finds herself to be a true artist who is happy only when she pursues her passion, playing the piano. She now believes that music is the only means through which she can cleanse her heart and soul. When she starts playing, she finds that the notes gracefully played from her fingers. It attracts everyone in the asylum, especially a person named Eduard who silently stands by her side and carefully listens to the music. For the first time Veronika feels an exhilaration that she has something special to do in the world she lives. She also notices that her hatred seems to diminish when she plays the piano. “She pounded the piano again, once, twice, ten, twenty times, and each time she did it, her hatred seemed to diminish, until it passed away completely” (63). Veronika soon develops an urge for living a new life because of her passion: “Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself. Such is the first principle of existentialism”(May 15). She starts loving Eduard who admires her versatile genius in playing the piano. They engage themselves in an affair satisfying all their repressed desires.

       Eduard was admitted in the asylum as a schizophrenic, but now he reveals a past similar to Veronika, a true artist who had undergone Existential depression and thus became a mentally insane person. Eduard had had a fascination for painting, but his father and mother wanted him to finish his degree in the American college and wished him to get a job. But Eduard was not able to accept his parents’ wishes and continued his passion on painting. As a result, he did not concentrate on his studies and was expelled from the college for questioning the teachers. His parents showed so much love and concern but they also demanded that he follow their status in high society. His father threatened him with his love saying, “‘If you really love us, do as I ask. If you don’t love us, then carry on as you are now’”(VDD 173).Carl Jung says, “… the cause of Schizophrenia is due to a repression of life force and the repressed emotional complexes which is caused by maladjustment with the environment”(348). Eduard was caught between the love of his parents and the passion for his art. The tough situation gave him depression and made him a Schizophrenic.

     When Veronika and Eduard find someone to share their passions with, they slowly recover from their hatred of life and start  accepting life and enjoying  the pleasures of life side by side. Cognitive-behavioral therapy developed by Albert Ellis and Aaron T. Beck, is used for suicide prevention and treatment in individuals. The chief process of this therapy is allowing the patients to freely express themselves. This is also called ‘talking therapy’. Veronika was able to express herself to Eduard with whom she found herself comfortable. Here was a person who truly understood and praised her artistic qualities. She felt the need for living. In spite of being weak, she played the piano tirelessly throughout the night for Eduard. Thus, Veronika was able to break away from her past towards a new life.

       On the other hand, Eduard is also able to recover from Schizophrenia through his love for Veronika. According to Learning about Schizophrenia: Rays of Hope, “Persons with schizophrenia should persistently try to set goals, and realistically assess progress on a regular basis” (106). Eduard now has a chance to indulge in and express his talent through his love for Veronika. Veronika motivates him and Eduard too gets a true admirer of his talent. His passion of becoming a painter is finally achieved through his love for Veronika.

       Eduard and Veronika, the true Artists recognizes their potentials in Villete, and decide to lead a life of passion. They finally escape from Villete to pursue their dreams with each other’s support. They are not bothered about the society. For the world, they are still mad people, but for themselves they are pursuing their vision. Thus, the Existential Depression in Eduard and Veronika  slowly vanishes from them through the power of love, which gives them fruitfulness in living: “Love is above wisdom, just as the Virgin is above the snake” (VDD 184).

Works Cited

Primary source

Coelho, Paulo. Veronika Decides to Die. London: Harper  

     Collins Publishers, 1999. Print.

Secondary Sources

Hergenhahn,B.R.and Olson H. Mathew. An Introduction to Theories of                        Personality.London:Pearson Educational   Ltd, 2007. Print.

 Jung, Carl. Qtd. in A Text Book of Abnormal Psychology.    Meerut: Rajhans             Publications, 1931. Print.

 May, Rollo Reese, Ernest Angel and Henri F. Ellenberger.Learning about                Schizophrenia: Rays of Hope. Markham: Schizophrenia Society of Canada,         2003. Print.

     ______, _____.Existence: A New dimension in Psychiatry and Psychology.             New York: Basic Books, 1958. Print.

Web Sources