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Book Forum: MOOD DISORDERS   |    
The Nature of Melancholy: From Aristotle to Kristeva
GORDON PARKER, M.D., PH.D., D.SC.
Am J Psychiatry 2002;159:1444-1444. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.159.8.1444
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Sydney, Australia

Edited by Jennifer Radden. New York, Oxford University Press, 2000, 373 pp., $35.00.

Jennifer Radden, a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, has produced an informative anthology capturing nuances of melancholy and melancholia. Part 1 of this book (Aristotle to Freud) has 25 authors, joining (in part 2, After Freud) seven post-Freud writers. In addition to expected contributors, Radden includes literary passages by Goethe, Keats, and Baudelaire, as well as more polemical pieces by Jean Baker Miller and Julia Kristeva.

Such a heterogeneous mix is not unreasonable when "melancholy" (as a temperament style with romantic and creative connotations) was often intertwined with clinical "melancholia." Radden’s inclusion of many artistic depictions underscores that point and distinctly enriches the introduction.

As in any anthology, it is tempting to quibble with the inclusion and exclusion criteria—here the inclusion of some authors whose model of "depression" does not stretch to melancholia and the exclusion of the more contemporary writings of Stanley Jackson and German Berrios. Jackson’s monograph (1) remains a classic, providing a rich historical overview of the same topic.

Both Jackson and Berrios (2) emphasized the long-standing historical description of melancholia (from the time of the Ancients to early in the 20th century) as being as much a movement disorder as a mood disorder—a view recently reargued (3). Radden is critical of any such view, stating that "a disorder increasingly understood in terms of its behavioral manifestations will also serve to ‘silence’ its sufferers" (p. 35). No argument is offered to advance such a perturbing judgment, although Radden declares a preference for "subjective" above behavioral analyses. Her definition of "melancholy" as "both a normal disposition and a sign of mental disturbance…a nebulous mood but also a set of self-accusing beliefs" (p. ix) does not inspire confidence about her preference for subjective analysis.

Other polemical thrusts in her introduction detract and distract. Her imputation that melancholia is overrepresented in women is factually incorrect but provides a springboard for rococo asides such as, "Melancholy, with it loquacious male subject, leaves little room for the mute suffering of women" (pp. 48–49).

Radden’s historical interpretation that melancholy/melancholia was long defined by "states of fear and sadness" (p. 10) risks trivializing the gravid clinical picture of melancholia. Further, it cannot be reconciled with her own primary text pieces. For Burton, the "fear" descriptors focus on psychotic and overvalued ideas. "Sadness" or "sorrow" are limp words for capturing Burton’s descriptions of tortured thinking and "perpetual agony" (p. 144).

Reviewers risk being viewed as prissy when they point out sloppy editorial work. Nevertheless, misspelling the name of the Editor-in-Chief of the American Journal of Psychiatry on the opening page of the introduction heralds a general sloppiness. Together with a minimalist "index," Oxford University Press deserves to swallow some "black bile" and have the shadow of the managing editor fall on the ego of some staffers.

The book is, nevertheless, useful in having the rich pickings of so many seminal writers captured in one volume. The opportunity to reread many classic pieces by, for instance, Burton, Kraepelin, Maudsley, and Freud is welcomed. The long-observed link between mania and melancholic depression provides a good example of how we are condemned to report derivative research if we fail to respect history. Finally, the book reminds us of the rich clinical descriptions provided for so long in the European literature before the global adoption of criteria-based diagnostic systems.

Jackson SW: Melancholia and Depression: From Hippocratic Times to Modern Times. New Haven, Conn, Yale University Press, 1986
 
Berrios GE: Melancholia and depression during the 19th century. Br J Psychiatry  1988; 153:298-304
[PubMed]
[CrossRef]
 
Parker G, Hadzi-Pavlovic D (eds): Melancholia: A Disorder of Movement and Mood. New York, Cambridge University Press, 1996
 
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References

Jackson SW: Melancholia and Depression: From Hippocratic Times to Modern Times. New Haven, Conn, Yale University Press, 1986
 
Berrios GE: Melancholia and depression during the 19th century. Br J Psychiatry  1988; 153:298-304
[PubMed]
[CrossRef]
 
Parker G, Hadzi-Pavlovic D (eds): Melancholia: A Disorder of Movement and Mood. New York, Cambridge University Press, 1996
 
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