Eva Meijer’s richly referenced musings illustrate the gaps in language when trying to distil the depressive experience.
Content warning: reference to mental health conditions, suicide, depression, and eating disorders.
In this slim volume, Meijer uses her experiences of depression and anorexia as stimuli to be examined through a series of philosophical, psychological, and artistic lenses. In acknowledgement of its title, The Limits of My Language (translated from the Dutch by Antoinette Fawcett) flits between meptahors in an attempt to pin down the condition that affects 264 million people of all ages globally. Meditations is an accurate description for these cyclical thoughts, which often conclude with vague refrains of encouragement that are as much a reassurance for the reader as they are for Meijer, who, somewhat sadly, acknowledges the statistical likelihood of her depression returning.
As the title suggests, the major theme of this work is language and the gaps that emerge when trying to describe an exact experience. Meijer, for the most part, presents her mental health in a matter-of-fact fashion, as she admits writing about herself is challenging: “I can only follow the story that presents itself and I never have a complete grip on it”. This is perhaps why she leans on other analytical frameworks as narrative entry points. She cites depression memoirs as “a kind of war reporting” — dispatches from the brink of depression that recollect, in unflinching detail, the unending struggle to stay alive in a major depression. A limitation, she suggests, of these types of memoirs is that they use language as an instrument to evoke a particular emotional response — they tell rather than show. Meijer’s work, in contrast, is cooly analytical, perhaps because she has found adequate coping mechanisms, including exercise, animals, and working as pillars to structure her life against, but still seemingly struggles to articulate her mental health experiences in a way that is satisfactory to her.
She leans on Wittgenstein’s idea of words as signposts to meaning and the notion that “language is always necessarily public”. This shared lexicon means that while we can use it to articulate our experiences, we are limited by the cultural and social definitions of the culture in which we find ourselves. Additionally, the selves that we shape through language are not fixed, but the manner that we have available to describe and be understood in a psychological context is. The reclamation of language from dominant structural powers to describe conditions or intersections of identity that have historically been Othered is an important angle, particularly in terms of madness, which Meijer briefly explores through Foucault’s Madness and Civilization. Enlightenment’s impact on psychiatry saw mad people placed in direct opposition to principles of reason and rationality, and facing archaic cruelties as punishment for being deemed incapable of rational thought. The legacy of this manifests in the medical model of mental health which views the patient as an individual with an illness to be cured, rather than taking into account the societal factors that contribute to their ill health.
Further to this, a second clear thread Meijer brings to her meditative table is her connections with the non-human, including her animal companions and the natural landscape. On the latter she says, “A landscape can console you precisely because it lets you see and sense your own significance.” Many of us will have experienced this feeling, the sublime removal of oneself from one’s problems — however temporary — when encountering a vast and beautiful natural wonder. She also highlights that mental health is not specific to humans; animals, too, can experience depression when their living conditions are cramped or cruel, which has been documented in the widespread use of intensive farming. In a footnote, she highlights how a rescue dog she lived with bore the marks of his experiences on his physical body, which also manifested through his behaviour — such as fear of cigarettes or abrupt movements. Meijer points to the psychological wellbeing that companion animals bring to humans, and moves away from a language of ownership when discussing the animals with whom she shares her life. She counters the “western image of autonomy” based on the cult of individuality by emphasising that a culture of independence is, in fact, quite damaging. Thinking about the care webs — as per Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s definition in a disability justice context — in the pandemic, it has been made clear to those who would not have believed it otherwise how interconnected society is. In a time of separation, how much we rely, and are in turn relied on, by our loved ones and those in our community is paramount to survival. Beyond this, Meijer encourages expanding empathy beyond our singular species to allow for a more integrated, harmonious relationship with the world around us, not only to ensure the very continuation of our survival, but one which is indivisible from the wellbeing of our individual mental eco-systems — this latter point is deftly explored throughout Rebecca Tamás’ lyrical essay collection Strangers: Essays on the Human and Nonhuman.
Happiness is not the goal of these musings, rather it is learning how to bear life in times of acute psychological distress and how Meijer, ever practical, sees unhappiness as a part of life. While this is true, her claims that it is unwise to “build a life on the pursuit of happiness” and that “No one has the right to happiness, no one can force it; the question is whether it is even worth pursuing” are jarring. As someone who has also experienced their fair share of poor mental health, who admittedly is not a philosopher, I believe joy is an essential part of human existence that everyone deserves. Otherwise, how can a barometer be established for its opposite? Moreover, this attitude feels removed from a thoroughly intersectional analysis of the prevalence of depression and other mental health conditions in individuals and communities with poorer socio-economic circumstances. Perhaps this is why the book — despite its brevity — felt difficult to get through. At times, big ideas are stuffed into footnotes that can leave the reader wanting a more concise exploration in the main body. That said, while Meijer’s work may not wholly resonate on an individual scale, the fragmentary ideas on language and the non-human in relation to the collective are the highlights.
Feature image: Eva Meijer, courtesy of Pushkin Press.