Depression has long since been the plague of humanity. Whether it is a biochemical disorder or mourning the loss of a loved one, nearly every human being has experienced the blues. However, depression becomes a problem when it persists past the mourning stage. Many people experience it for seemingly no reason. It is that cold sense of apathy that lurks below the surface, siphoning your emotions and your ability to react to your surroundings. Nothing matters anymore when depression has you in its iron grasp. Eventually, you are reduced to staring listlessly at nothing while the world continues without you; a world that, in your opinion, would perhaps be better off if you did not exist. Such thoughts as those often occupy the mind of a depressed individual, haunting them until they simply cannot bear to live anymore. An American psychiatrist by the name of Hugh Storrow once claimed that depression “...probably causes more human suffering than any other single disease – mental or physical.” (Campbell, page 66) Having personal experience and a family history of depression, I am well acquainted with the topic; however, there were elements unknown to me that I found fascinating, so I took the time to research the subject further.
Hippocrates, known as the “father of medicine,” was the first physician to identify depression as something more than just an emotional state of being. He put forth a conjecture that depression was caused by an excess of black bile, known as “melan chole” in Greek. Up until the twentieth century, depression was referred to as Melancholia. (Campbell, page 67) In the age of Ancient Greece, the treatment for melancholia was to send the patient to hot springs in Italy. Surprisingly, the treatment worked, though scientists discovered it was because the mineral spring was rich in lithium, a metallic element used in contemporary anti-depressants. Many believed that melancholia was repentance for past sins – a form of divine punishment, even. Buddhists believe that finding pleasure in one’s surroundings is the basis for all suffering and that purposeful dysphoria is the first step on the path to salvation. The Kaluli of Papua New Guinea supposed that one must express all of their emotions to achieve inner peace. In turn, the Balinese thought that experiencing emotions at a static rate will lead to a pure and refined internal self. (Kleinman, 1985) Depression is received in various ways across several cultures, but in the western world, it is prevalent in art and literature.
The Elizabethans of England prided themselves on their misery, as they believed melancholia was a disease that could only affect the intelligent and the elite. They empathized with Shakespeare’s tragic hero, the “melancholy Dane” known as Hamlet. (Campbell, page 67) The late 18th century brought forth the German Sturm und Drang movement, which took place in literature and music as a reaction to the Enlightenment. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is considered to be the figure head of Sturm und Drang, famed for his novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, which was widely read across Europe. It was perhaps too seriously received by young romantics, as it caused a string of suicides modelled after Werther’s technique – blowing his brains out with a gun. Sturm und Drang was the forefather of Romanticism, another movement that prized intuition and emotional expression over the strict rationality of the Enlightenment. Poems and novels had a distinctive melancholic tone, as seen in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Stanzas Written in Dejection, Near Naples”: “Alas! I have nor hope nor health,
Nor peace within nor calm around,
Nor that content surpassing wealth”
A century later, in Hungary, the notorious song “Gloomy Sunday” was composed by Rezsoe Seres. It was a melody so filled with despair that it, like The Sorrows of Young Werther, inspired multiple suicides. “The melancholy song written by Mr. Seres, with words by his...
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