In The Nature of Melancholy,
Jennifer Radden collects some of the most important writings on the condition
often referred these days to as "depression" from the last 2500
years. Her own Introduction, "From Melancholic States to Clinical
Depression," is a wonderful history of the ideas including pictorial
representations. In her Preface, she makes clear that melancholy and depression
are not necessary the same thing, and it may not be helpful to think of the
"black bile" as the same thing as what is often described as abnormal
levels of neurotransmitters.
For most readers, including
academics, clinicians and psychiatric researchers, the readings included will
be unfamiliar. It is possible that some will have read the work of the famous
physician Galen from the second century BCE, or something from Robert Burton's The
Anatomy of Melancholy from 1621. It is likely that many will have read
Freud, Seligman and Beck. However, how many have read anything by the monk Cassian
from the fifth century, Avicenna from Persia who lived around the end of the
first millennium, or the English poet, Anne Finch, who wrote her poem "The
Spleen" in 1701? So for those who want to investigate the history of our
concept of depression and relate it to wider medical and cultural themes, this
collection is an excellent resource.
This collection of primary sources
serves as an excellent companion to Stanley Jackson's definitive Melancholia
and Depression: From Hippocratic Times to Modern Times, which provides a
very detailed history of the different theories of depression and melancholy
through the ages. However, Radden's collection has a broader range, including
as it does drawings, paintings, poems, and religious works. One might
profitably read her book in conjunction with Roy Porter's excellent Madness: A
Brief History, which shares the breadth of Radden's vision and fills in
some gaps of the chronology of theories and ideas about madness and melancholy.
The Nature of Melancholy contributes to the medical humanities in
placing modern psychiatry in historical context and helps philosophers and theoretically-inclined
medical historians construct a history of the central concepts of psychiatry.
As our society rushes to embrace a medical model of depression with
ever-increasing enthusiasm, it is work such as this that will help to provide a
perspective from which to assess the wisdom of this trend and how it changes
our understanding of life's troubles.
© 2004 Christian Perring. All
Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities
Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island.
He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main
research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.