Monday, 7 September 2009

After the Death of Carnival and Merrie England: An Epidemic of Melancholy

“Beginning in England in the late seventeenth century, the European world was stricken by what looks, in today's terms, like an epidemic of depression,” writes Barbara.

“In 1733 Dr. George Cheyne lamented 'the late frequency and daily increase of wanton and uncommon self-murders, produced mostly by this distemper,' and speculated that the English climate, combined with sedentary lifestyles and urbanization, 'have brought forth a class of distemper with atrocious and frightful symptoms, scarce known to our ancestors, and never rising to such fatal heights, and afflicting such numbers in any known nation.' … A hundred years later, little had changed: '[Nervous complaints] prevail at the present day', claimed a contemporary, 'to an extent unknown at any former period, or in any other nation.'” p129-130.

“The disease grew increasingly prevalent over the course of the twentieth century, when relatively sound statistics first became available, and this increase cannot be accounted for by a greater willingness on the part of physicians and patients to report it. Rates of schizophrenia, panic disorders, and phobias did not rise at the same time, for example, as they would be expected to if only changes in the reporting of mental illness were at work.” p131.

Barbara cannot ignore the overlapping timing of the suggested beginning of the epidemic of depression, and the end of widespread festivities in Britain, over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. She poses the question:

“Could this apparent decline in the ability to experience pleasure be in any way connected with the decline in opportunities for pleasure, such as carnival and other traditional festivities?” p132

The rest of the chapter is a fascinating exploration of possible answers to this question, concluding:

 “There is no evidence, though, of an innate human need for communal pleasure, which, if thwarted, leads to depression or other mental diseases. Obviously, millions of people forgo such pleasures without developing clinically recognised disorders...” p148
 “There is, however, an abundance of evidence that communal pleasures – ranging from simple festivities to ecstatic rituals – have served, in a variety of cultures, as a way of alleviating and even curing depression.” p150
The immense tragedy for Europeans, I have argued, 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 acommpanied 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, lifesaving techniques of ecstasy.” 

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