How we learned to stop having fun

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In a recent, fascinating piece in the Guardian, acclaimed author Barbara Ehrenreich explores the roots of modern depression, and tracks it very specifically to Europe in the early 17th century. Of course, "melancholy" had been known throughout recorded history -- the Greeks record battling it in pre-Christian times -- but this was something new; a debilitating variant on the blues that had people writing about their feelings and tossing themselves from castle turrets in record numbers. So what happened? Here are some of Ehrenreich's answers:

"Something was happening, from about 1600 on, to make melancholy a major concern of the reading public, and the simplest explanation is that there was more melancholy around to be concerned about. Concomitant with a rise in depression was a decline in traditional Bacchanalian festivities throughout Europe (for which we can, at least in part, blame the Reformation), both of which 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."

More after the jump.

"Historians of European culture are in substantial agreement," Lionel Trilling wrote in 1972, "that in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, something like a mutation in human nature took place." This change has been called the rise of subjectivity or the discovery of the inner self and since it can be assumed that all people, in all historical periods, have some sense of selfhood and capacity for subjective reflection, we are really talking about an intensification, and a fairly drastic one, of the universal human capacity to face the world as an autonomous "I", separate from, and largely distrustful of, "them". The European nobility had already undergone this sort of psychological shift in their transformation from a warrior class to a collection of courtiers, away from directness and spontaneity and toward a new guardedness in relation to others. In the late 16th and 17th centuries, the change becomes far more widespread, affecting even artisans, peasants, and labourers. The new "emphasis on disengagement and selfconsciousness", as Louis Sass puts it, makes the individual potentially more autonomous and critical of existing social arrange-ments, which is all to the good. But it can also transform the individual into a kind of walled fortress, carefully defended from everyone else.

Mirrors in which to examine oneself become popular among those who can afford them, along with self-portraits (Rembrandt painted more than 50 of them) and autobiographies in which to revise and elaborate the image that one has projected to others.

As Tuan writes, "the obverse" of the new sense of personal autonomy is "isolation, loneliness, a sense of disengagement, a loss of natural vitality and of innocent pleasure in the givenness of the world, and a feeling of burden because reality has no meaning other than what a person chooses to impart to it." The flip side of the heroic autonomy that is said to represent one of the great achievements of the early modern and modern eras is radical isolation and, with it, depression and sometimes death.

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."

April 4, 2007 - 10:12am
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