Black swans, black pearls and darkness visible

Black swans, black pearls and darkness visible August 28, 2012

I’m with Jeff Frankel on the term “Black Swan”:

“Black swan” should refer to something else: an event that is considered virtually impossible by those whose frame of reference is limited in time and geographical area, but not by those who consider other countries and other decades or centuries.

The origin of the black swan metaphor was the belief that all swans are white, a conclusion that a 19th-century Englishman might have reached based on a lifetime of personal observation and David Hume’s principle of induction. But ornithologists already knew that black swans existed in Australia, having discovered them in 1697.  They should not have been viewed as “unthinkable.”

Woody Allen and Douglas McGrath had a fun riff on this original sense of the metaphor in Bullets Over Broadway, when mobster Nick gives his girlfriend Olive a strand of black pearls:

OLIVE: What is it?

NICK: Pearls. What the hell do you think they are?

OLIVE: Pearls are white.

NICK: These are black pearls.

OLIVE: Oh, don’t give me that. I never heard of black pearls.

NICK: Just because you never heard of them don’t mean it don’t exist.

OLIVE: What do think I am, some kind of chump? They’re black for God’s sake. They probably came from defective oysters.

My own experience with black swans isn’t metaphorical. My college campus enlisted a trio of them to mitigate the annual invasion of Canada geese. Black swans and Canada geese really don’t get along.

* * * * * * * * *

At Wonkette, Doktor Zoom is welcoming the school year by reading ahead in our Bob Jones University Press textbook. Elements of Literature for Christian Schools, Zoom says, is “a literature textbook that ultimately argues that literature is bunk.”

The Doktor cites some impressively BobJonesian passages explaining why Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, John Ruskin and John Updike are Enemies of the Tribe, and it’s all pretty funny in a laugh-so-you-don’t-cry kind of way.

But I do almost agree with one sentence from BJU’s anti-literacy text: “A comprehensive knowledge of Joyce’s writing is not a necessary or even a healthy goal.” Anyone who’s ever gotten more than a page or two into Finnegans Wake can attest to that.

* * * * * * * * *

Chris the Cynic writes about “Advice given to depressed people.” Depression is not the same as a case of the blues, or feeling glum, or down in the dumps. “If you are a healthy person, and you feel depressed,” Chris writes, “it is a mistake to assume that’s the same as what a depressed person feels.”

Read the whole thing. If you’re fortunate enough, like me, not to know what depression is like first-hand, it may be an aid to gratitude and compassion, and a helpful guide to avoiding saying stupid things.

Let me also recommend William Styron’s Darkness Visible. The novelist chronicles and describes the severe depression that nearly took his life, but never took his keen eye or writerly detachment. To me, it seemed a remarkable attempt to bridge the gap between those of us who may never fully understand what depression means, and those who know all too well. (If you’re in the latter camp and you’ve read this book, please let me know if that’s an accurate assessment.)

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  • GDwarf

    The Depression-medication comic is unfortunate for two main reasons: Because it plays to a stereotype that, as far as I know, is feared out of proportion to its actual occurrence and because it’s obviously the author’s actual experience, which means that they’ve had at least one bad encounter with meds. Given how much good they’ve done for me, I can’t imagine having to try and get through depression without them.

    I’ve had to talk a few people into at least giving the medication a shot, because they were absolutely terrified of being transformed into a Stepford pod-person, and I’ve seen plenty of people who go on and on about how medication is not really dealing with depression. The common belief now seems to be that any drug for mental disorders will destroy who you are without actually fixing the problem.

    Meanwhile, for me, I went from wrist-cutting (Want to know a great way to make depression even worse? Find out your pain tolerance is nil, so your attempts to self-harm are minuscule. Nothing like realizing you’re too “cowardly” to end it all to really kick you when you’re down) and wall-socket-jabbing to well-adjusted. The only side effects were mild nausea for the first couple days and that I’m now a lighter sleeper (which means that I can occasionally now remember my dreams. Never used to do that. Turns out my unconscious mind is pretty mundane).

    But yeah, every person is different. Every case of depression is different (I was mostly lethargic while feeling like my soul was being ground away. Not much anger, save at myself for how badly I’d ruined everything. There was lots of that. Still, I could (and did) go and do things, feel happy on occasion, etc. It’s just that my baseline was so incredibly low) and everyone reacts to different treatments differently. I suspect that Depression will end up being like cancer: You can’t find “a” cure for it because there’s no one cause. Different types of depression in different people will need different cures.

    On a happier note: Geese are horrid. They have no fear of humans (I’ve had one sneak up behind me, jump into the air, and make a spirited attempt to remove my head), make a huge mess, kill grass, and are noisy. Swans, I gather, are pretty much the same, only they can break your arm. On the plus side, they don’t form the same super-flocks. Still, not sure I’d trade one for the other, really.

  • arcseconds

    I’m a pretty well read Aussie, and I’d never heard of black swans as metaphorical devices. 

    I’ve never heard of them as metaphorical devices either.

    Where I have heard of them used is as a standard example of the problem of induction, along with “all ravens are black” (which you can verify for yourself by checking everything that isn’t black to make sure it’s not a raven), and the tragic story of the Christmas goose who satisfies itself through induction that it’ll be fed at 8am every morning, until 8am on December the 24th, where its expectation is undermined in a dramatic fashion.

    So I think you’d have to be reading some unusual fare to encounter it.  Mind you, I’m not very literary, so for all I know it’s a cliché.

    There was a movie called Black Swan no? did that have anything to do with upset expectations?

  • EllieMurasaki

    From what I recall hearing of Black Swan, it got that name more because the characters were putting on Swan Lake, and the lead dancer in that ballet plays both Odette (white swan lady) and Odile (black swan lady). Haven’t seen it yet, though I mean to.

  • LoneWolf343

     Closest thing I can think of is when Chesterton once relayed an anecdote of a conversation he had with some young gentleman. The topic was whether scientific men could also believe in the supernatural, and Chesterton had listed off some names of those who did, and his opponent rejected them because they were Christians. Chesterton had described it as “being told to find some swans only to have my swans rejected because they weren’t black swans.”

  • Hypocee


    On a happier note: Geese are horrid. They have no fear of humans (I’ve
    had one sneak up behind me, jump into the air, and make a spirited
    attempt to remove my head), make a huge mess, kill grass, and are noisy.
    Swans, I gather, are pretty much the same, only they can break your
    arm. On the plus side, they don’t form the same super-flocks. Still, not
    sure I’d trade one for the other, really.

    Our</em geese are awesome :) I was skeptical about getting them, remembering vaguely from terrible days when I was as tall as a farm’s gaggle, but they’ve turned out to be enormous fun. They are inveterate bullies, but it turns out that’s hilarious when you’re bigger and meaner than them – the gander sequence is YarrI’llkillyer -> 5.7924 feet away -> Oh you are big I am so dreadfully sorry -> turn around -> Observe my bravery! I have vanquished the enemy!
    They trim and (yes, copiously) fertilize the lawn, take five delighted baths a day in a kiddie pool (sometimes slipping, flipping upside down, exploding out of it and running a lap around the barnyard), obsess over/nom poly tarps and buckets, track jets flying overhead with interest, and say hi whenever you walk by.  They’re like having a super sassy cat split up into multiple bodies.

  • Kiba

     I have some very…not fond memories of geese and swans. I was chased by more than a few of them when I was little. Demon spawn the lot of them.

  • LectorElise

     Holy shit, that is the best and most concise summery of how I experience depression that I’ve ever read. You put into words better than I ever have. Do you mind if I steal that?

  • Loki100

    Go right ahead.

    If you want to see depression in action, I have to write three pages. This is something that should have taken me, at most, three hours. It’s been two weeks and I’m still not done, because it just feels like it would take so much effort. Even though I know for a fact it would take almost no effort.

  • Anna

    “Darkness Visible” is superb, and yes, quite accurately described my own experiences with depression, so I think it’s a good window into the condition for those who haven’t experienced it.

  • AnonaMiss

    My beef isn’t with the comic itself, nor the author’s experience, nor any experiences that align with them including your own; my problem is that conventional wisdom is that the ’emotionless zombie’ reaction is the typical/normal/only way that people react to antidepressants. Normalizing the worst case reaction scares people away from seeking help, and also makes them more likely to give up after trying only one variation of a treatment.

    I definitely didn’t mean to imply that there was a ‘wrong’ way to experience antidepressants, and I apologize if I came off as calling your experiences illegitimate or scolding you for reacting poorly.

  • Random Lurker

     If you’re not feeling at all, you’re on the wrong med.  They are not supposed to work like that.  It may take six months, but work with your doctor to find one that works right.  Every brain is different after all.

    Personally it took me about 4 months, and I ended up with a combination of 3 that work pretty well.  A cure it isn’t, but it gives me an almost normal range of feeling (from “always down at pitch black bottom” to “rarely down at pitch black bottom, and sometimes even normal-ish”).  I’m currently on an SSRI, an NDRI (to counteract the energy loss caused by the high dosage SSRI), and an SARI to regulate sleep (I LOVE this one.  Turns out one of the best treatments for low energy and apathy is proper sleep.)

    With the 2-3 weeks to take effect on most drugs, and the 2-3 week gradual withdrawal period before changing drugs, it can take a long time.  There’s no human way I could be employed during this process.  That’s why I have to rely on county services.

  • B

     Exactly.  ADHD medications have a similar bad rep.  I do know at least one person who said it made her kid feel like a zombie, but in general ADHD meds DON’T make kids (or adults) into zombies, and the widespread belief that that’s what ADHD meds *do*, full stop, scares away a lot of people that would really benefit from the meds.

  • Geese are foul-tempered bullies, but they look absolutely delicious. I have to get around to trying goose one day.

  •  I found it kind of meh.  Taste is close to chicken but the texture is closer to duck. WHat’s really impressive though is the amount of grease a goose produces. If you roast one in a rack over a normal roasting pan, you will end up with a roasting pan pretty much full to the brim with goose fat.

  • PJ Evans

     The SSRI I’m on has sleep (or at least drowsiness) as one of its side effects. I’m not going to complain.

  • The Guest That Posts

    I had pretty much the same experience as you. When I was prescribed antidepressants, I had a kneejerk reaction against it. I grew up in a society with a strong bias against antidepressants, and my knowledge was very lacking. (As a kid, I was under the impression that antidepressants were basically heroin.) As it turned out, the medication brought me back to the same state I was in before I became depressed.