- – By Syed Ehtisham
n the 17th century AD, a wave of depression struck Europe. It seemed to affect especially men of genius-John Bunyan, Thomas Gray, John Donne, and Samuel Johnson in England, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Charles Baudelaire in France, Leo Tolstoy in Russia, Max Weber in Germany and in America William James.
One Dr George Cheyne lamented in 1733, “Frequency and wanton…self-murders…by this distemper” and attributed it to the English climate combined with sedentary life style and urbanization… afflicting such numbers in any known nation”.
Samuel Johnson had it in 1729, at the age of twenty, after being forced to leave Oxford for lack of funds.
The English called it “The English malady” though all of Europe was afflicted. The paradox that “The Enlightenment should be characterized by black gall and melancholy persons, was notable.
Far from being an affliction of the famous, it strikes the poor more and women more commonly than men. World Health Organization estimates that depression is now the fifth largest cause of death and disability, with ischemic heart disease trailing it in the sixth place.
The prevalence can be credibly related to the decline in opportunities for pleasure, such as carnivals. Among the Muslims, the emergence of suicidal bombing, senseless acts of terror such as bomb blasts at girls’ schools and Sufi shrines, could be credibly ascribed to the puritanical self-denial of the Wahhabi creed.
Hippocrates described it in the 5th century AD, Chaucer in the 14th century and late medieval churchmen knew it as Acedia which was regarded as a sin.
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Melancholy did not become fashionable until a full century after Burton (17th century AD) took it up the and it became a subject for satire. Physicians were eager to diagnose melancholy in their better off patients,
The definitions in Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders seem to be fuzzy, but in Burton’s account, melancholy and the modern definition of depression would seem to be the same. William Styron’s 1900 book ‘Darkness Visible’, lists “Self-hatred” as a symptom. 6 Styron also mentions externalization of terror.
Lionel Trilling wrote in 1972, “Historians of European culture are in agreement that in the 16th and 17th centuries AD, something like a mutation in human nature took place”. All people, in all history, have some sense of self hood, but we are talking about an intensification of the universal human capacity to face the world as an autonomous “I” separate from …‘Them’. European nobility had undergone this sort of shift in their transformation from a warrior to a courtier class. In the late 16th and 17th centuries AD, it affected even the artisans, peasants and laborers.
Historians have attributed it to changes occurring in early modern period among the urban bourgeoisie. It was reflected in mirrors, self-portrait, and autobiography. Public spaces that guests may enter were segregated from private quarters. Decorous entertainment-plays and opera replaced promiscuously interactive carnivals.
In medieval culture, you were what you appeared to be, and any attempt to assume another status was prohibited. Laws barred the wealthy commoner from dressing in colors which were deemed appropriate only to nobles. Upward mobility commenced in the late 16th century AD. The merchant could buy an aristocratic title. A system of etiquette was devised in royal courts in how to comport oneself. Books advised on how to choose a socially advantageous wife.
The “Inner” is highly honored in our own culture. Trilling called it “The emergence of modern American and European man and “Of an untrammeled freedom to ask questions and explore, as the historian Yi-Fu Tuan has put it”.
But the price to be paid as Tuan writes is “Isolation, loneliness, loss of innocent pleasure reality has no meaning other than what a person chooses to call it,”. 12 One circumstance indisputably involved in the etiology of depression, is precisely this sense of isolation or as Durkheim calls it; anomie. He further says “Originally society is everything, the individual nothing, but gradually things change”. That ends up in isolation and depression.
What seems to be of most concern is the opinion of others. It would help explain the frequent onset of depression at the time of a perceived or anticipated failure.
Even two hundred years ago, most people would have interpreted feeling of isolation and anxiety through the medium of religion, self as soul, gaze of others as God and melancholy as the fear of eternal damnation. Catholics offered palliatives in the form of rituals; Luther offered an approachable God.
Calvinism (Wahabism, its Islamic equivalent), instead of offering relief imposed a mind-set that if you felt isolated, persecuted and damned, it was because you actually were. Robert Burton singled out religious melancholy, as an especially virulent form of the disease, “The main matter which terrifies is the enormity of their offenses and God’s heavy wrath; they account themselves already damned”.
Christianity and Islam require that every soul ultimately confront God alone. Calvinist soul wanders forever in solitude. Friends may turn out to be false. Weber calls “The strikingly frequent repetition against any trust, even family deserves no lasting loyalty. In John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian flees his home.
One of Max Weber’s greatest insights was to see the compatibility between Calvinism and Capitalism, “The unprecedented inner loneliness that a competitive sink or swim economy imposed. Just as the soul struggled…the self-toiled and schemed along a parallel trajectory in the material world”. Weber “The most urgent task of Calvinism was the destruction of spontaneous, impulsive enjoyment.
Carnival (in Wahhabism, celebration of the birthday of the prophet of Islam, social gatherings to recite hymns, visiting shrines, asking for God’s favor after prayers and even reciting the Koran as group) was the portal to hell, just as pleasure in any form-sexual, gustatory was the Devil’s snare. The medieval peasant created festivities as an escape from work; the Puritan embraced work as an escape from terror. A late 18th century Scottish medical handbook states, “Many persons of religious turn of mind behave as if they thought it was a crime to be cheerful”.
Weber was raised by a Calvinist mother. In his mid-thirties, at the time of enviable academic success, he experienced a total breakdown. (Imam Ghazali, whose influence on Sunni Muslim thought is regarded as second only to that of the prophet Muhammad himself, also had a breakdown at the height of his academic career. He had to give up teaching for years. He recovered, but went on to condemn ‘Ijtehad’-innovation in matters religious, legitimizing orthodoxy like nobody else had been able to, before or since). 19a.
Durkheim found that Protestants in the 19th century were about twice as likely to commit suicide as Catholics.
Rise of a market based, competitive economy favored a more anxious and isolated kind of person, prone to depression and distrustful of communal pleasures.
The death of carnival contributed directly to the epidemic of depression. The 19th Century French historian Jules Michelet bemoaned a childhood devoid of festivals. 20
Speaking of hysteria, the historians Stallybrass and White note that “Carnival debris spills out of the mouths of these terrified Viennese women in Freud’s studies…”Don’t you hear horses stamping in the circus”. 21 “Freud’s patients …enacting desperate ritual fragments from festive traditions, the self-exclusion from which had been one of the identifying features of their social class”. 22
By abandoning their traditional festivities, people lost a potentially effective cure for depression. Robert Burton “Let them use hunting, sports, merry company a cup of good drink now and then”.
A century later, even Adam smith was advocating festivities as a means of relieving melancholy, “The state by giving liberty, divert the people by painting, music easily dissipate melancholy…”.
Almost two thousand years ago, the Greek musicologist Aristides wrote, “This is the purpose of Bacchic initiation, depressive anxiety be cleared away”.
The Kung people of Kalahari desert use their ecstatic nocturnal dances to treat, “The full range of psychological, emotional and spiritual illnesses”. In Muslim Morocco, rituals involving music, dance and trance are used to cure “Paralysis severe depression and possession,”. In Saudi Arabia men accumulate wives, while women take trips to Europe and America and take off the sack like covering off their body as soon as they land at a foreign airport. In Christian Uganda in the 1990’s, dance rituals were used to rehabilitate children traumatized by the Lord’s Resistance army.
In Italy treatment of Tarantula was more and passionate dancing.
Hecker reports a similar syndrome and cure in 19th century AD Abyssinia, now Ethiopia. Similarly in 2nd century Somalia, a married woman would go into depression, often precipitated by her husband’s intention to take another wife, and a female Shaman would be called.
Religion in service of and as collaborator of colonialism:
16th century AD on, Europeans forcibly imposed their culture and beliefs on the whole world. (Muslims did that from the 7th to 16th century AD). Driven by lack of food, religious intolerance and helped by technological advances, Europe gained supremacy.
A historian of Tahiti described Protestant missionaries as followers of a “Dour and cheerless creed”.
Sometimes European destruction of ‘native’ rites was incidental to their physical destruction. One missionary outpost was abandoned as “Aboriginals becoming extinct in these districts,”. On the whole, though, there was nothing incidental about the European campaign against the communal rituals of colonial people. It was deliberate. Imposition of civilization and Christianity was merely a plausible excuse. The idea was capture of land and resources. The anthropologist Jon P. Kirby “Missionaries in West Africa were too busy suppressing …ritual and beliefs to find out what they meant”. Kirby, “Most missionaries considered colonial administrations as allies in the essential task of destroying existing structures, it was part of socialization, to facilitate acceptance by natives of Europeans as superior, so would submit and work for the latter”.
Europeans tended to equate the ‘Savages’ of the new world with their own lower classes. One of the goals of the crackdown on festivities was to instill work ethic in the lower classes, and use time hitherto wasted on festivities to productive labor. “One of the chief difficulties experienced by employers in Africa is the undisciplined character of the native; Christian teaching can do much to remove this trouble”.
But the parallel between repression of their native lower class, and their colonial subjects went only so far. They regarded the former as fellow Christians, the latter were, “A species of tail-less monkeys” or if human in any sense “nearest of all to Orangutan,”. Georges Cuvier, 19th century AD Swiss comparative anatomist “Negro race…manifestly approaches to the monkey class”. This attitude helped to justify a casual attitude to genocide”. They may have taken a leaf from the book of Arabs who called everyone else ‘ajam’ meaning ‘dumb’.
In Europe, the lower classes could only be disciplined and not be destroyed as the rise of absolutism required soldiers and later industrial capitalism required laborers.
The death toll from four centuries of European imperialism at an estimated fifty million is a much larger percentage of the world’s population, than the twenty or so million toll of the two World Wars in the 20th century AD.
Conversion was only to facilitate submission of the natives. When absolute power was already in hand, many North American slave owners would flog the slaves for attending church services or even for praying in private. The English initially opposed the entry of Christian missionaries, fearing that any challenge to Hinduism would threaten imperial profits.
The degree of concordance between the conquerors who would exploit labor and resources and missionaries, who would destroy their culture, is striking. 40 “Imperialism is a matter of religion…we need Christian imperialism and commercialism, imperial Christianity and an economic religion”.
Slave owners shuddered at the collective strength rituals invoked, and dance was particularly distasteful, because of “Vitality it represented”. John Mackenzie wrote of Southern Africa “Weakening the communistic relations…and letting in the…stimulating breath of individualist competition’.
The African Diaspora to the Americas provides striking cases of such cultural resistance. They did not relinquish their traditions as swiftly and as completely as Europeans desired and created blues, rock n roll, hip-hop and jazz.
Between the 17th and 19th centuries AD, at least ten million Africans were forcibly transported, virtually naked, stripped of all cultural artifacts and kinship connections, thrown together with disparate national groupings; Yoruba, Dahomians, Ibo and others. They were worked ceaselessly, and often forbidden to engage in any ‘heathen’ practices, including dancing. But they, somehow, managed to preserve some of their traditional forms of communal celebrations, and used them as springboards for rebellion against white rule.
Christianity, itself, provided a disguise and a vehicle for ecstatic ritual. Both the secularized tradition of carnival and Africanized version of Christianity: Voodoo, Santeria, Candomble, became sites of black defiance and white repression.
In protestant settings like in Jamaica, and the Southern U.S.A, slaves used Christmas as an opening to establish their own festivity; Jonkonnu, as early as 1688 in Jamaica, with costuming and dancing “Rattles ty’d to their wrists and legs”.
A little over a century late, whites agreed to do the chores of the slaves during the celebrations. During the festivals, as happened between Roman slaves and their masters at the feast of Saturnalia, “The distance between masters and slaves appears to be annihilated”.
In the Catholic milieu, slaves quickly exploited the carnival period extending from Christmas nearly to Ash Wednesday. In Trinidad, it was an occasion for so much uninhibited revelry by the French settlers that from 1800 on, martial law was imposed to contain white mischief. 47 People of color, free or slave were barred from participation.
For slaves who broke the law by wearing a mask, the punishment was one hundred stripes, and if done at night, twice as many. (Wahhabis mete out similar punishment if they find unmarried boys and girls strolling on a street). Trinidadian Blacks exhibited their courage by moving in on the White institutions, finally achieving full participation on the eve of emancipation in 1934. A similar take-over occurred in Brazil in the 1880s, using drums and tambourines. Whites reacted as they did in Europe in response to lower class celebrations, by retreating indoors to their own masked balls and dinner parties.
Syed Ehtisham has published two books, ”A Medical Doctor Examines Life on Three Continents,” and ,”God, Government and Globalization”.