The Anatomy Of Melancholy: Episode 2

Non-captioned version is here.

I spoke with a GP once on the subject of depression. He related a story of a patient who approached him asking to be prescribed anti-depressants because, since the death of their mother, they’ve always felt miserable. When asked when this event was the patient explained it had been a full month ago. There followed a discussion about the process of grieving and how, as our book says, we cannot expect to live life ‘in a perpetual tenor of happiness’.

Like that GP, this episode explains the difference between passing and chronic melancholy*. Unlike that GP, his episode continues to describe melancholy is a material substance which the spleen draws from the food we eat. For hundreds of years all physicians would have known that melancholy was one of the four ‘humours’ but now they don’t, they’re not taught that any more.

I find great comfort in hearing this beautiful, elaborate and entirely spurious theory presented with such confidence. It’s possible this comfort comes from a sense of superiority, knowing we know so much more now than they did then, but I suspect, in truth, the comfort lies elsewhere. I think I find reassurance in the promise that the world we are stumbling around in today others will understand more clearly tomorrow.

*Of course it would be wrong to translate the old notion of ‘melancholy’ as contemporary ‘depression’ but it seems safe to regard the latter as a subset of the former.

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