Lawlor, Clark. From Melancholia to Prozac: A History of Depression. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. xi + 265 pages. Cloth, $24.99.
As both a sociologist and social worker, this reviewer has read extensively on the role that depression plays in troubled lives. From Melancholia to Prozac, written by English literary scholar Clark Lawlor, offers a unique and insightful journey documenting the human struggle to define and treat depression from ancient Greece to modern times. Lawlor apologizes for the complexity of the work (p. 227), but it is difficult to imagine how anyone could simplify the historical reactions to a malady that continues to defy adequate definition, explanation, or cure.
From Melancholia to Prozac begins with Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), whom Lawlor describes as a tortured soul struggling with "the rule of reason over religious faith" (p 19). Johnson's life embodied the early Enlightenment era, where the pivotal conflict of his day played out literally in body and soul. Next, the book considers an ancient Greek poem written by Apollonius. The poem describes Jason as a tragic character who finds himself shipwrecked. Nymphs are unable to console his despair. "Poor wretch, why so stricken by absolute helplessness?" (p. 23). As we turn the page, we encounter no analysis of the two stories, but find instead a frame with which to read the text. Lawlor argues that there is a recurring theme throughout history between "depression as biologically hardwired or entirely culture bound" (p. 24). He further clarifies that the primary argument of the book is that "melancholy and depression are shaped by their cultural context" (p. 44).
One cultural interpretation that persists throughout much of history is presented in the writings of philosopher Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499). Here, the idea that melancholia affected the upper classes more frequently than the commoner is explained as the burden of genius (p. 52). Melancholia is believed to be an affliction initiated by God as a sign of genius, emotional superiority, and a mark of God's approval. For the upper-class male, melancholia was a status symbol and a confirmation that God had chosen to deliver a malady upon the 'noble' man to teach him how to triumph over evil.
Women, on the other hand, were seen as having an "unruly physiology" best cured with marriage and sex. Without benefit of sex, a buildup of "humors" would occur (p. 31). In 1655, Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of...