Review ‘From Melancholia to Prozac: A History of Depression’

Clark Lawlor, From Melancholia to Prozac: A History of Depression (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

Review by Angela Woods for the British Society for Literature and Science:

What’s in a word? In his celebrated Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, William Styron protests most vehemently against the vocabulary of twentieth-century psychiatry. For the last eighty years, he writes, the word ‘depression’ ‘has slithered innocuously through the language like a slug, leaving little trace of its intrinsic malevolence and preventing, by its insipidity, a general awareness of the horrible intensity of the disease when out of control.’ ‘Depression,’ for Styron, lacks the ‘magisterial presence’ of the centuries-old melancholia, and its banality and atonality are at odds with ‘the blacker forms of the disorder.’

Are ‘melancholia’ and ‘depression’ historically and culturally specific names for the same experience or set of experiences? Is a history of depression from antiquity to the present day the history of an idea, a signifier, a type of person, a disorder of mood, a disease? What would count as evidence in the writing of such a history, and why?

Continued on the British Society for Literature and Science web site.

About Angela Woods

Professor of Medical Humanities and Director, Institute for Medical Humanities, Durham University
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