:::this is the way the world ends:::

Depression: or How We Learned to Stop Having Fun.


I read a fascinating article in the Guardian Books section a few days ago and have been trying to find time to share it with you. This is an excerpt from Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book, Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy. I have posted only the skeleton of her thesis. Read the whole excerpt here.

As you know, I am fascinated by the Reformation and it’s fall out. It seems as though it’s effect, or the forces that lead to it, cannot be over estimated. So I’m eating this stuff up.

Beginning in England in the 17th century, the European world was stricken by what looks, in today’s terms, like an epidemic of depression. The disease attacked both young and old, plunging them into months or years of morbid lethargy and relentless terrors, and seemed – perhaps only because they wrote more and had more written about them – to single out men of accomplishment and genius. The puritan writer John Bunyan, the political leader Oliver Cromwell, the poets Thomas Gray and John Donne, and the playwright and essayist Samuel Johnson are among the earliest and best-known victims.

But melancholy did not become a fashionable pose until a full century after Burton took up the subject, and when it did become stylish, we must still wonder: why did this particular stance or attitude become fashionable and not another? An arrogant insouciance might, for example, seem more fitting to an age of imperialism than this wilting, debilitating malady….

Nor can we be content with the claim that the apparent epidemic of melancholy was the cynical invention of the men who profited by writing about it, since some of these were self-identified sufferers themselves. Robert Burton confessed, “I writ of melancholy, by being busy to avoid melancholy.”

And very likely the phenomena of this early “epidemic of depression” and the suppression of communal rituals and festivities are entangled in various ways. It could be, for example, that, as a result of their illness, depressed individuals lost their taste for communal festivities and even came to view them with revulsion. But there are other possibilities. First, that both the rise of depression and the decline of festivities are symptomatic of some deeper, underlying psychological change, which began about 400 years ago and persists, in some form, in our own time. The second, more intriguing possibility is that the disappearance of traditional festivities was itself a factor contributing to depression.

Which is preferable: a courageous, or even merely grasping and competitive, individualism, versus a medieval (or, in the case of non-European cultures, “primitive”) personality so deeply mired in community and ritual that it can barely distinguish a “self”? From the perspective of our own time, the choice, so stated, is obvious. We have known nothing else.

But we cannot grasp the full psychological impact of this “mutation in human nature” in purely secular terms. Four hundred – even 200 – years ago, most people would have interpreted their feelings of isolation and anxiety through the medium of religion, translating self as “soul”; the ever-watchful judgmental gaze of others as “God”; and melancholy as “the gnawing fear of eternal damnation”. Catholicism offered various palliatives to the disturbed and afflicted, in the form of rituals designed to win divine forgiveness or at least diminished disapproval; and even Lutheranism, while rejecting most of the rituals, posited an approachable and ultimately loving God.

Not so with the Calvinist version of Protestantism. Instead of offering relief, Calvinism provided a metaphysical framework for depression: if you felt isolated, persecuted and possibly damned, this was because you actually were.

The immense tragedy for Europeans, and most acutely for the northern Protestants among them, was that the same social forces that disposed them to depression also swept away a traditional cure. They could congratulate themselves for brilliant achievements in the areas of science, exploration and industry, and even convince themselves that they had not, like Faust, had to sell their souls to the devil in exchange for these accomplishments. But with the suppression of festivities that accompanied modern European “progress”, they had done something perhaps far more damaging: they had completed the demonisation of Dionysus begun by Christians centuries ago, and thereby rejected one of the most ancient sources of help – the mind-preserving, life-saving techniques of ecstasy.


  1. Ned

    Good article. I do think sometimes, Calvin is blamed for promoting things he didn’t promote and not given credit for promoting things he did. But perhaps that is another issue altogether.

  2. J.E.

    Yes, could be unintended consequences. Much of human history is.

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