Friday, October 7, 2011

The Magic of Melancholy I: The History of Melancholy

An old PanGaia column which I thought some readers might find interesting.


In 2007 total US sales of antidepressant medication totaled $11.9 billion. In the third quarter of 2008 Wyeth Laboratories sold $982 million worth of its popular antidepressant Effexor™. Today antidepressants are prescribed more often than medications used to treat high blood pressure, high cholesterol or asthma. Some say this reflects a growing awareness of depression as a treatable condition, while others point to heavy pharmaceutical marketing aimed at physicians and prospective consumers.

When we aren't medicating our chemical imbalances, we're talking about them. In 1994 Elizabeth Wurtzel's Prozac Nation was one of the year's most popular books: in 2003 Australian psychologist Dorothy Rowe found her way to worldwide bestseller lists with Depression: The Way Out of Your Prison. Among the celebrities who have spoken publicly about their struggles with the disease are Brooke Shields, Jim Carrey, Larry King and Spice Girl Mel C. Depression is not just a major health issue – it's big business.

This is not to trivialize the agony of depression. No one who has ever been bitten by what Winston Churchill (a lifelong sufferer) called "the black dog" would withhold medicine from those in need. Neither would we deny that many people have been helped by modern therapeutic procedures. But in our quest to heal, are we overlooking the very real magical power contained within melancholia?

The History of Melancholy

Following the lead of Hippocrates, the Greco-Roman physician Galen (131-200) believed in a doctrine of "humours" and temperaments. " While a predominance of blood produced a cheerful, energetic "sanguine" person (from the Latin sanguis, blood), a preponderance of black bile (in Greek, melas kholé) produced "fear and depression, discontent with life and hatred of all people."

One might expect the father of modern medicine saw depression as an illness. On the contrary, he (and most of his contemporaries) saw it as a reasonable response to the world. They sought not happiness so much as sophrosyne, self-knowledge which included knowledge of one's shortcomings and limitations. Some writers personified Sophrosyne as a demigoddess, responsible for self-control, restraint, and discretion: the Romans honored her as Continentia and Sobrietas, ruler over continence, moderation, temperance and sobriety. Given human mortality and frailty, excessive good cheer was folly at best and blasphemy at worst.

Centuries later Robert Burton, a 17th-century English vicar, dedicated the greater part of his life to a book entitled The Anatomy of Melancholy. This lengthy tome (over 900 pages in the first edition, with material added to each of the four subsequent editions) was hardly a paean to positive thinking. Burton, who suffered from depression himself, said of the life of mankind:
for a pint of honey thou shalt here likely find a gallon of gall, for a dram of pleasure a pound of pain, for an inch of mirth an ell of moan; as ivy doth an oak, these miseries encompass our life. And it is most absurd and ridiculous for any mortal man to look for a perpetual tenure of happiness in his life. Nothing so prosperous and pleasant, but it hath some bitterness in it, some complaining, some grudging 
Nor is this an exclusively Greek or European phenomenon. Consider the first noble truth of Buddhism – that consciousness interacting with the universe invariably leads to dukkha (suffering, pain, frustration and dissatisfaction). A modern psychiatrist might prescribe medicine for someone who felt that life was hopeless and there was no chance for lasting joy: to a Buddhist, this realization would be the first step toward enlightenment. In Japan Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801) described mono no aware, sometimes translated as “the persistent sadness that inheres in all things,” as an integral part of the Japanese soul.

If you find yourself dealing with persistent sadness and dissatisfaction, you may find it worthwhile to explore those feelings. Instead of meditating on godforms, archetypes, or symbols try concentrating on those "negative" emotions. Don't try to suppress them, or make them go away. Just let yourself feel them. If there are lessons to be learned from them, they will come in due course. For now you are not looking for excuses, reasons, or rationalizations for your emotions. You are simply letting them be. If that process brings tears, let it bring tears: if it brings anger, let it bring anger. But understand that you are not those tears and you are not that anger. Much as ripples come and go on a pond, let those waves go through you and out of you and, in time, fade to nothing.

(If you are a survivor of abuse and/or have a history of self-injury, be VERY careful with this one. Accepting your emotions is one thing: letting them lead you into harm is another).